Category Archives: Documentary

Happy end of the world: Top 15 Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 5, 2017)

https://i2.wp.com/www.japantimes.co.jp/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/f-npt-2-a-20150524.jpg?resize=474%2C324

“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

Sunday marks the 72nd anniversary of mankind’s entry into that “different country”.  So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? Well, we’ve tried to harness the power of the atom for “good”, however, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, that’s not working out so well (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, et al) Also, there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth off its axis, and we have no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state, or the voices in his head (doesn’t really matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred rip. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us above ground and rad-free.

Yes, one can always hope. Yet…this happened earlier this week:

There will be war between the United States and North Korea over the rogue nation’s missile program if it continues to aim intercontinental ballistic missiles at America, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said President Donald Trump has told him.

“He has told me that. I believe him,” the lawmaker said Tuesday on TODAY. “If I were China, I would believe him, too, and do something about it.”

Graham said that Trump won’t allow the regime of Kim Jong Un to have an ICBM with a nuclear weapon capability to “hit America.”

“If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And He has told me that to my face,” Graham said. […]

Graham said military experts are “wrong” that no good options exist.

“There is a military option to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself,” he added.

The senator’s not saying we won’t get our hair mussed, but hey…I feel safe. You?

Every January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives the human race its annual physical, to determine the official time on the Doomsday Clock (with midnight representing Armageddon). This past January, they moved the hands 30 seconds closer:

This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a US presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. […]

It is [now] two and a half minutes to midnight. The board’s decision to move the clock less than a full minute—something it has never before done—reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the US president only a matter of days.

I needn’t remind you that 6 months on, Donald J. Trump continues to be President of the United States. Like the scientists said: The clock ticks. Global danger looms. And the Master of 3am Tweets has those nuclear codes. With that happy thought in mind, here are my picks for the top 15 cautionary films to watch before we all go together (when we go).

https://i0.wp.com/www.tasteofcinema.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/The-Atomic-Cafe.jpg?w=474

The Atomic Café- Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).

In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).

https://i1.wp.com/akirakurosawa.info/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Black-Rain-600x321.jpg?resize=474%2C254

Black Rain– For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or I Live in Fear. Others deal directly with survivors (known in Japan as hibakusha films).

One of the top hibakusha films is this overlooked 1989 drama from Shomei Imamura, a relatively simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially considering the complexities of Japanese society). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.

https://i1.wp.com/www.asset1.net/tv/pictures/show/the-day-after-trinity/The-Day-After-Trinity-03-16x9-1.jpg?w=474

The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that he and his fellow physicists had enabled the military machine to unleash.

Oppenheimer’s journey from “father of the atomic bomb” to anti-nuke activist (and having his life destroyed by the post-war Red hysteria) is a tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

https://i1.wp.com/www.newyorker.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/dr-strangelove-still-580.jpg?w=474

Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to make it all up.

It’s the one about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity and oblivion ensues. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

https://threerowsback.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/fail-safe-2.png?w=474

Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense 1964 thriller from the late great director Sidney Lumet takes a more clinical look at how a wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could ultimately trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians.

Talky and a bit stagey; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful  knack for bringing out the best in his actors. Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda (a commanding performance, literally and figuratively), Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, and Larry Hagman.

There’s no fighting in this war room (aside from one minor scuffle), but lots of suspense. The final scene is chilling and unforgettable.

https://i1.wp.com/stmedia.startribune.com/images/CTYP+I+liveinfear+1955.jpg?w=474

I Live in Fear-This 1955 Akira Kurosawa film is one of the great director’s most overlooked efforts. It’s a melodrama concerning an aging foundry owner (Toshiro Mifune, unrecognizable in Coke-bottle glasses and silver-frosted pomade) who literally “lives in fear” of the H-bomb. Convinced that South America would be the “safest” place on Earth from radioactive fallout, he tries to sway his wife and grown children to pull up stakes and resettle on a farm in Brazil.

His children, who have families of their own and rely on their father’s factory for income, are not so hot on that idea. In fact, they take him to family court and have him declared incompetent. This sends Mifune’s character spiraling into madness. Or are his fears really so “crazy”? It is one of Mifune’s most powerful and moving performances. Kurosawa instills shades of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” into the narrative (a well he drew from again 30 years later, in his 1985 film Ran).

https://i0.wp.com/2.bp.blogspot.com/-KQTGjRykHW8/TzjkltRRLpI/AAAAAAAAAdw/xuxnfHWIvi4/s1600/ladybug2.jpg?w=474

Ladybug, Ladybug– I only recently caught this 1963 sleeper for the first time, when Turner Classic Movies presented their premiere airing several weeks ago (to my knowledge, it has never been available in a home video format), and it really knocked my socks off.  The film marked the second collaboration between husband-and-wife creative team of writer Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife).

Based on an incident that occurred during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the story centers on how students and staff of a rural school react to a Civil Defense alert indicating an imminent nuclear strike. While there are indications that it could be a false alarm, the principal sends the children home early. As teachers and students stroll through the relatively peaceful countryside, fears and anxieties come to the fore. Naturalistic performances bring the film’s cautionary message all too close to home.

https://i1.wp.com/cdn1-www.comingsoon.net/assets/styd/assets/uploads/2015/11/Miracle1.jpg?w=474

Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was Cherry 2000).

https://i1.wp.com/images.moviepostershop.com/one-night-stand-movie-poster-1984-1020195924.jpg?resize=474%2C697

One Night Stand – An early effort from director John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens, etc.). This 1984 sleeper is a worthwhile entry amidst the flurry of nuclear paranoia-themed movies that proliferated throughout the Reagan era.

Four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an otherwise empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In a concerted effort to deflect their collective anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning on from the radio, they find creative ways to keep their spirits up.

The film is uneven at times, but for the most part Duigan capably juggles the busy mashup of romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an eerily affecting scene where the quartet watch Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats hit “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

https://johnkennethmuir.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/specialbulletin2.jpg?w=474

Special Bulletin– This outstanding 1983 made-for-TV movie has been overshadowed by the nuclear nightmare-themed TV movie The Day After, which aired the same year (I’m sure I will be lambasted by some readers for not including the former on this list, but I find it overly melodramatic and vastly overrated). Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Marshall Herskovitz (the same creative team behind thirtysomething), the drama is framed like an actual “live” television broadcast, with local news anchors and reporters interrupting regular programming to cover a breaking story.

A domestic terrorist group has seized a docked tugboat in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. A reporter relays their demand: If every nuclear triggering device stored at the nearby U.S. Naval base isn’t delivered to them by a specified time, they will detonate their own homemade nuclear device (equal in power to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki). The original airing apparently created a panic for some viewers in Charleston (a la Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938). Riveting and chilling. Nominated for 6 Emmys, it took home 4.

https://i2.wp.com/cineplex.media.baselineresearch.com/images/103779/103779_full.jpg?w=474

Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theatres and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberate approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

https://i1.wp.com/www.petertrumbore.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/13-days.jpg?w=474

Thirteen Days– I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 TV film, The Missiles of October would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the scenes between JFK and RFK). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he has a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will).

According to the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

http://i2.wp.com/vulturehound.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/The-War-Game-%C2%A9-1965-BBC1-620x350.jpg?resize=590%2C333

The War Game / Threads– Out of all of the selections on this list, these two British TV productions are the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” films of them all.

Writer-director Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama, The War Game was initially produced for television, but was deemed too shocking and disconcerting for the small screen by the BBC. It was mothballed until picked up for theatrical distribution, which snagged it an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967. Watkins envisions the aftermath of a nuke attack on London, and pulls no punches. Very ahead of its time, and it still packs quite a wallop.

The similar Threads debuted on the BBC in 1984, later airing in the U.S. on TBS. Mick Jackson directs with an uncompromising realism that makes The Day After (the U.S. TV film from the previous year) look like a Teletubbies episode. The story takes a medium sized city (Sheffield) and depicts what would happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike, in graphic detail. It’s stark and affecting.

Both  productions make it clear that, while they are dramatizations, the intent is not to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. The message is simple and direct-nothing good comes out of a nuclear conflict. It’s a living, breathing Hell for all concerned-and anyone “lucky” enough to survive will soon wish they were fucking dead.

https://i0.wp.com/www.dvdizzy.com/images/w/whenthewindblows-05.jpg?w=474

When the Wind Blows– This animated 1986 U.K. film was adapted by director Jimmy Murakami from Raymond Brigg’s eponymous graphic novel. It is a simple yet affecting story about an aging couple (wonderfully voiced by venerable British thespians Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft) who live in a cozy cottage nestled in the bucolic English countryside. Unfortunately, an escalating conflict in another part of the world is about to go global and shatter their quiet lives. Very similar in tone to Testament (another film on this list), in its sense of intimacy amidst slowly unfolding mass horror. Haunting, moving, and beautifully animated, with a combination of traditional cell and stop-motion techniques. The soundtrack features music by David Bowie, Roger Waters, and Squeeze.

Nothing without its meaning: Mali Blues ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 29, 2017)

https://i2.wp.com/www.gebrueder-beetz.de/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/16-06-07_02_MALI-BLUES_Fatoumata-Diawara%C2%A9Phil-Sharp.jpg?w=474

“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”              

-H.L. Mencken

African women live through too much hell and suffering                               We should look again at our ancestral beliefs and assess them               Keep what’s good for us, and reject all that harms us                               African women live through too much hell and suffering                            They cut it…stop female circumcision!                                                           Mother, it hurts so much                                                                                                    It hurts so much

-from “Boloko”, by Fatoumata Diawara

Needless to say, self-taught Mali guitarist-singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara does not make her living churning out moon-June pop tunes. She is a creative artist who is fiercely and fearlessly dedicated to speaking truth to power. That’s the kind of stance that makes you a lightning rod anywhere in the world (especially if you are a woman), but it borders on suicidal in an impoverished West African nation where Islamic militants have declared war on music and musicians. From a 2012 Guardian article by Andy Morgan:

The pickup halted in Kidal, the far-flung Malian desert town that is home to members of the Grammy award-winning band Tinariwen. Seven AK47-toting militiamen got out and marched to the family home of a local musician. He wasn’t home, but the message delivered to his sister was chilling: “If you speak to him, tell him that if he ever shows his face in this town again, we’ll cut off all the fingers he uses to play his guitar with.”

The gang then removed guitars, amplifiers, speakers, microphones and a drum kit from the house, doused them with petrol, and set them ablaze. In northern Mali, religious war has been declared on music.

When a rabble of different Islamist groups took control of the region in April there were fears that its rich culture would suffer. But no one imagined that music would almost cease to exist – not in Mali, a country that has become internationally renowned for its sound.

“Culture is our petrol,” says Toumani Diabaté, the Malian kora player who has collaborated with Damon Albarn and Björk, to name but a few. “Music is our mineral wealth. There isn’t a single major music prize in the world today that hasn’t been won by a Malian artist.”

“Music regulates the life of every Malian,” adds Cheich Tidiane Seck, a prolific Malian musician and producer. “From the cradle to the grave. From ancient times right up to today. A Mali without music? No … I mean … give me another one!”

In his new documentary, Mali Blues, Lutz Gregor follows popular world music artist Fatoumata Diawara as she prepares for her appearance at the 2015 Festival of the Niger. Originally born in Ivory Coast to Malian parents and currently living in France, Diawara has not been back to Mali since she left at age 19. That is why her participation in the festival has profound personal significance; it signals Diawara’s first performance in her home country since achieving international recognition and success.

Several of Diawara’s fellow Malian musicians also appearing at the festival are also profiled, including Taureg guitarist Ahmed Ag Kaedi, rapper Master Soumy, and ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate. As a guitar player, I was particularly taken with Kouyate’s mastery of his instrument…he’s like the Hendrix of the ngoni. I have never seen anyone play an electrified ngoni before; much less with pedal effects (like a wah-wah). To just look at this oddly rectangular, 4-string banjo-like instrument, you’d never imagine one could wriggle such a broad spectrum of power, beauty and spacious tonality out of it.

Beautifully photographed and edited, with no voice-over to take you out of the frame, Gregor’s documentary plays like a meditative narrative film. In the film’s most bittersweet scene, Diawara performs “Boloko” (her song about the draconian practice of female circumcision) for a small audience of women and girls in a Mali village where she spent her formative years. After a moment of silence following the performance, the women begin to ruminate.

“A song is nothing without its meaning,” one woman says to Diawara, continuing, “You are good and courageous.” And, as this extraordinary film illustrates, a culture is nothing without its music…or its poetry, literature, or art for that matter. Those who would destroy it will never hold a candle to the good and courageous.

Incense and liniment: Monterey Pop (****) turns 50

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 1, 2017)

https://i0.wp.com/s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/88/b7/80/88b780330b9f677604bdab7ceae8bbe1.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

Back in my stand-up comedy days, I once had the pleasure of opening for Eric Burdon and Brian Auger in Fairbanks, Alaska (1991…I think). The promoter was kind enough to take me backstage for a brief meet and greet with Mr. Burdon before the gig. Eric immediately struck me as a warm and sincere individual (only rock star I ever met who gave me the sustained two-handed “bro” handshake with full eye contact combo platter).

This makes me sound like a fucking loon, but it felt like I was shaking hands with The Sixties. I remember thinking that sharing a bill with him placed me only one degree of separation from The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, and the other artists he shared the bill with at the legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Okay, I may have been high. But it was enough to make my ganglia twitch. I mean, it blew my mind, man!

The Byrds and the Airplane did fly
Oh, Ravi Shankar’s music made me cry
The Who exploded into fire and light
Hugh Masekela’s music was black as night
The Grateful Dead blew everybody’s mind
Jimi Hendrix, baby, believe me,
set the world on fire, yeah

–from “Monterey”, by Eric Burdon & The Animals

The three day music festival was the brainchild of longtime Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, record producer Lou Adler, and entrepreneur/Delaney and Bonnie manager Alan Pariser (who figured prominently during early planning stages but ceded control to his higher-profile partners Phillips and Adler). With a stage banner that read “love, flowers, and music”, it was (and remains) the embodiment of the counterculture’s ephemeral yet impactful “Summer of Love” in 1967.

That said, while the festival itself generally went as well or perhaps even better than its organizers could have ever hoped, it wasn’t necessarily all peace, love, and good vibrations during the organizational process. As rock journalist Michael Lydon (who covered music for Newsweek, The New York Times, and the Boston Globe from the 60s to the 70s) writes in a contemporaneous piece included in his 2003 anthology, Flashbacks:

The Festival was incorporated with a board of governors that included Donovan, Mick Jagger, Andrew Oldham, Paul Simon, Phillips, Smokey Robinson, Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, and Paul McCartney. “The Festival hopes to create an atmosphere wherein persons in the popular music field from all parts of the world will congregate, perform, and exchange ideas concerning popular music with each other and with the public at large,” said a release. After paying the entertainers’ expenses, the profits from ticket sales (seats ranged from $3.50 to $6.50; admission to the grounds without a seat was $1) were to go to charities and to fund fellowships in the pop field. […]

This vagueness and the high prices engendered charges of commercialism—“Does anybody really know where these L.A. types are at?” asked one San Francisco rock musician. And when the list of performers was released there was more confusion. Where were the Negro stars, the people who began it all, asked some. Where were The Lovin’ Spoonful, the Stones, the Motown groups; does a pop festival mean anything without Dylan, the Stones, and The Beatles? […]

Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy were enthusiastic about the Festival at first, John Phillips said, “then they never answered the phone. Smokey was completely inactive as a director. I think it might be a Jim Crow thing. A lot of people put Lou Rawls down for appearing. ‘You’re going to a Whitey festival, man,’ was the line. There is tension between the white groups who are getting their own ideas and the Negroes who are just repeating theirs. The tension is lessening all the time, but it did crop up here, I am sure.”

As we now know, any “tension” behind the scenes lessened considerably by the time the gates opened to let the crowds (and the sunshine) in, and the rest, as they say, is History.

Luckily, for those of us who were too young and/or blissfully unaware to attend (or not even born yet), the zeitgeist of the event was captured for posterity by music documentary maestro D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back). His film, simply entitled Monterey Pop, originally opened in 1968; and now, to commemorate the festival’s 50th anniversary this month, it is in limited re-release in theaters (featuring a 4K restoration).

Shot in his signature cinema verite style, Pennebaker’s film distills the 3 days of “love, flowers and music” into a concise 78-minute document of the event. Granted, by its very nature such brevity comes with great sacrifice; not all the artists on the festival’s roster are onscreen. In the director’s statement that prefaces the booklet included with Criterion’s 2002 DVD box set The Complete Monterey Pop Festival, Pennebaker writes:

There is never enough time to just put in everything you want. In fact, that’s what film making is about, making the best stuff count for what you leave out.

 And so it is that The Association, Lou Rawls, The Butterfield Blues Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Byrds, The Steve Miller Band, Laura Nyro, The Electric Flag, Moby Grape, Al Kooper, Buffalo Springfield, Johnny Rivers and the Grateful Dead are nowhere to be seen. But the performances that made the final cut are, in a word, amazing.

Introduce yourself to Pennebaker’s film. It will feel like shaking hands with The Sixties.

[“Monterey Pop: the Re-release” is now playing in Seattle and other select cities.]

SIFF 2017: Finding Kukan ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

https://i0.wp.com/4.bp.blogspot.com/-yZ8pBUuEZJc/UZxUrA232MI/AAAAAAAAEJM/5mkz__zedRs/s1600/KukanDuo+-+Copy.jpg?resize=474%2C367&ssl=1

The first documentary to win an Oscar was the 1941 film Kukan: The Battle Cry of China. There are two unfortunate footnotes. 1.) The film, a unique and historically important “front line” document of Japan’s 1937 invasion of China, has since all but vanished from the public eye. 2.) The female producer, Ling-Ai Li, was not credited. With two tantalizing mysteries to solve, film maker Robin Lung had her work cut out for her. The director’s 7-year quest yields two separate yet convergent narratives: a world-wide search for prints of Kukan for possible restoration, and the fascinating life of a previously unsung female film making pioneer. Lung nicely ties the threads together.

SIFF 2017: A Life in Waves ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

https://i2.wp.com/www.onscenes.com/uploads/9/8/6/5/98654918/published/ciani74nyc.jpeg?resize=474%2C356

While her name isn’t a household word, Suzanne Ciani is a musical polymath whose work has been heard by millions…from New Age fans to pinball enthusiasts. Brett Whitcomb’s film is an inspirational portrait of this innovative artist’s 40-year career. An early electronica pioneer, the classically-trained Ciani was in one respect too ahead of her time, because she hit the glass ceiling fairly quickly (the late 60s synth scene was a boy’s club). Undaunted, she reinvented herself as a “sound designer”, making a ton of loot devising ad jingles (and effects, like the Coca-Cola “pop and pour” sound), theme songs, game sound effects, you name it. She kept composing, eventually founding her own New Age record label and becoming a genre star. A fascinating look at a creative genius who’s managed to ride the wave at the crest between art and commerce.

SIFF 2017: Angry Inuk ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

https://i1.wp.com/boxoffice.hotdocs.ca/images/user/hdff_2315/2016/Angry_Inuk_2.jpg?resize=474%2C266

Canadian film maker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril hails from an Inuk community near Baffin Island, where locals rely on traditional subsistence seal hunting; not only to literally put food on the table, but to earn a living from commercial sales of sealskin products. In 2009, the European Union banned commercial trade in all seal products except for those from Indigenous hunts. While that seems a reasonable concession, the director and her fellow Inuk activists feel that the legislators and animal rights groups miss the fact that the ban has all but killed the market for the products-thus putting the Inuk people in dire economic straits. Aranquq-Baril’s documentary is wise, witty and thought-provoking, offering up a unique perspective on this controversial issue.

SIFF 2017: The Force ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

https://pmcvariety.files.wordpress.com/2017/02/the-force-documentary.jpg?w=474&h=377&crop=1

Peter Nicks’ documentary examines the rocky relationship between Oakland’s police department and its communities of color. The force has been under federal oversight since 2002, due to myriad misconduct cases. Nicks utilizes the same cinema verite techniques that made his film The Waiting Room so compelling (my review). It’s like a real-life Joseph Wambaugh novel (The Choirboys comes to mind). The film offers no easy answers-but delivers an intimate, insightful glimpse at both sides.

SIFF 2017: The Farthest ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

https://i0.wp.com/www.diff.ie/content/festival17/The_Farthest_DIFF_7.jpg?resize=474%2C376

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of being plunked in front of the TV, transfixed by the reassuring visage of Walter Cronkite, with the familiar backdrop of the Cape Canaveral launch pad. Remember when NASA spaceflights were an exciting, all-day news event? We seem to have lost that collective feeling of wonder and curiosity about mankind’s plunge into the cosmos (people are too busy looking down at their goddam phones to stargaze anymore). Emer Reynolds’ beautifully made documentary about the twin Voyager space probes rekindles that excitement for any of us who dare to look up. And if the footage of Carl Sagan’s eloquent musings regarding the “pale blue dot” that we call home fails to bring you to tears, then surely you have no soul.

SIFF 2017: Becoming Who I Was ****

By Dennis Hartley

https://i1.wp.com/www.berlinale.de/media/filmstills/2017_2/generation_18/201713084_2_IMG_FIX_700x700.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu. Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness.

SIFF 2017: Bill Frisell: A Portrait ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

https://i2.wp.com/s3.amazonaws.com/fretboard/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/20012807/DSC00153-720x480.jpg?resize=474%2C316&ssl=1

He doesn’t “shred” or do windmills on stage. In fact, he looks more like a college professor who drives a 1972 Volvo than a peer-revered guitar slinger that most people have never heard of. I will confess that even I (an alleged music geek) couldn’t name one Bill Frisell song. Yet, this unassuming Seattle-based virtuoso has 35 solo albums and scores of sessions with more well-known artists to his credit. He’s also tough to nail down; All Music Guide files him under a dozen genres, including Modern Creative, Post-Bop, New Acoustic, World Fusion, and Progressive Folk. Emma Franz’s film, while perhaps just a smidgen overlong for anyone but a super-fan, nicely conveys the joy of creating, and as its title infers-delivers an amiable portrait of an inventive player.