Category Archives: Documentary

Torn, torn, torn – Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 14, 2018)

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punk (noun)

[mass noun] A loud, fast-moving, and aggressive form of rock music, popular in the late 1970s. ‘punk had turned pop music and its attendant culture on its head’

1.1 [count noun] An admirer or player of punk rock, typically characterized by coloured spiked hair and clothing decorated with safety pins or zips. ‘punks fought Teds on the Kings Road on Saturday afternoons’

– from The Oxford Living Dictionary

So what does ‘punk’ really mean? I suppose it depends on who you ask. Tony James of Generation X likened it to “…my childhood, the glorious, very exciting naivete of rock n’ roll.” Kurt Cobain defined it as “…musical freedom. It’s saying, doing and playing what you want.” David Byrne surmised that ‘punk’ was “…defined by an attitude rather than a musical style.” To Lester Bangs, it was “…a fundamental and age-old Utopian dream: that if you give people the license to be as outrageous as they want in absolutely any fashion they can dream up, they’ll be creative about it…and do something good besides.”

Seminal punk provocateur Malcolm McLaren explained it thus (in an interview taken from Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk) … “I was just this strange guy with this mad dream. I was trying to do with the Sex Pistols what I failed at with the New York Dolls. I was taking the nuances of Richard Hell, the faggy [sic] pop side of the New York Dolls, the politics of boredom and mashing it all together to make a statement, maybe the final statement I would ever make. And piss off this rock ‘n’ roll scene.” Well, he certainly succeeded on that last part; but he also shook up the status quo. That said…he didn’t do it alone, despite his braggadocio.

Specifically, it’s possible that Mr. McLaren would have lived a life of quiet desperation sans acclaim or notoriety, had he never crossed paths with a Vivienne Westwood. Their longtime relationship was complicated; briefly romantic and fitfully platonic at best. Ultimately, they settled for pragmatic, as it was their creative partnership that fueled the U.K. punk scene-with McLaren on the music end, and Westwood covering the fashion front. The couple co-founded “SEX” in the mid-70s, the King’s Road boutique where future members of the Sex Pistols famously hung out. This was where Westwood fully realized her knack for couture, putting her on the map as a key architect of punk fashion.

Unfortunately, this fascinating chapter of Westwood’s life is largely glossed over in Lorna Tucker’s slickly produced yet curiously uninspired documentary Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist. Granted, the feisty and still-punky Westwood appears quite reticent to reminisce on-camera about the Sex Pistols era; but frankly, that is why most people would be intrigued to see this film in the first place (that’s my theory…I could be wrong).

Westwood herself is entertaining; as is her current husband/creative partner Andreas (he’s a trip…and so spooky close to Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Bruno” character that I can’t help speculating if he was the inspiration). I did come away admiring Westwood’s dedication to various causes. However, I didn’t feel I learned much about who she really is or what makes her tick (e.g. there is very little regarding her life pre-McLaren). Still, if you’re attracted to the world of overblown couture and underfed models (I’m afraid I am not) then you might find this sketchy hagiography  more engaging.

 

SIFF 2018: Rush Hour ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2018)

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Argentinian director Luciana Kaplan profiles three working class commuters from around the globe-a single Turkish mother in Istanbul, a woman who works as a hairdresser in Mexico City, and a construction foreman in Los Angeles. As disparate as their geographical locations and cultures may be, the three have one immediately apparent thing in common: a time-sucking, soul-crushing daily commute that they must soldier through to put food on the table and a roof over their head. However, as the film unfolds, it reveals commonalities that run deeper than slogging through traffic in an existential malaise; hopes, dreams, aspirations, and shared humanity.

SIFF 2018: A Good Day for Democracy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2018)

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I don’t need to tell you that democracy is a messy business. But when working correctly, it’s a good kind of mess (Mussolini made the trains run on time, but at what price?). Cecilia Bjork’s purely observational peek at “Almedalen Week”, an annual event held on Sweden’s isle of Gotland that corrals politicians, lobbyists, and everyday citizens into a no holds-barred, all-access setting serves as a perfect (albeit messy) microcosm of true democracy in action.

SIFF 2018: Every Act of Life ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2018)

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I’m not really a theater person (some of my best friends are…does that count?), so I confess I’ve only seen one of playwright/librettist Terrence McNally’s works (the movie version of The Ritz-which I love). That said, I found Jeff Kaufman’s doc about the writer and gay activist very enlightening. The film tells his life story, from small-town Texas roots to his inevitable trek to NYC to conquer Broadway. Fascinating archival footage, plus colorful anecdotes from the likes of Nathan Lane (one of McNally’s latter-day acting muses), Rita Moreno, Meryl Streep and Bryan Cranston, all topped off by candid reminiscences from McNally (still going strong at 79).

SIFF 2018: Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2018)

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There’s a wonderful moment of Zen in Stephen Nomura Schible’s documentary where his subject, Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, after much experimentation with various “found” sounds, finally gets the “perfect” tonality for one single note of a work in progress. “It’s strangely bright,” he observes, with the delighted face of a child on Christmas morning, “but also…melancholic.” One could say the same about Schible’s film; it’s strangely bright, but also melancholic. You could also say it is but a series of such Zen moments; a deeply reflective and meditative glimpse at the most intimate workings of the creative process. It’s also a document of Sakamoto’s quiet fortitude, as he returns to the studio after taking a hiatus to engage in anti-nuke activism and to battle his cancer. A truly remarkable film.

SIFF 2018: My Name is Not Rueben Blades ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2018)

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Abner Benaim’s intimate portrait of polymath Rueben Blades is full of surprises. For example, you wouldn’t think an accomplished singer-songwriter-musician, actor, Harvard-educated lawyer, politician and social activist would find time to geek out over his sizable comic book and memorabilia collection. “You’re the first ones to film in here. I don’t let anyone in here,” he tells the filmmakers, leading them into this sanctum sanctorum within his Chelsea, NY apartment, wistfully adding, “You’re the first and the last.” Wistful, perhaps because he is now voluntarily closing a major chapter of his life (touring and performing) to focus his energy into running for President of Panama (as one does). An inspiring film.

SIFF 2018: The People’s Republic of Desire **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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You thought America’s Got Talent was a mind-numbing celebration of mediocrity? Wait ‘til you get a load of China’s “digital celebrity universe”. Equipped with little more than a digital camera, an internet connection, and even less talent, China’s most popular online celebrities gear up for a contest in which whomever successfully begs the most money from their fans wins. A truly bizarre subculture. Fascinating subject, but this documentary becomes an endurance contest for the viewer.

Peace, love and AK-47s: Wild Wild Country (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 24, 2018)

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“If people stand in a circle long enough, they’ll eventually begin to dance.”

– George Carlin

In my 2012 review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, I wrote:

What [Anderson] has crafted is a thought-provoking and original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or an emperor with no clothes. Is it a spiritual need? Is it an emotional need? Or is it a lizard brain response, deep in our DNA?

As Inspector Clouseau once ruminated, “Well you know, there are leaders…and there are followers.” At its most rudimentary level, The Master is a two-character study about a leader and a follower (and metaphorically, all leaders and followers).

You could say the same about the mind-blowing, binge-worthy Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country, which premiered March 16th. On one level, it is a two-character study about a leader and a follower; namely the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his head disciple/chief of staff/lieutenant (take your choice) Ma Anand Sheela. In this case, the one-on-one relationship is not a metaphor; because the India-born philosophy professor-turned-guru did (and still does) have scores of faithful followers from all over the world.

Actually, the Bhagwan is dead, but his legacy lives on. The exact nature of that legacy, however, is still open to debate…depending on whom you talk to. Obviously, those who continue to buy his books (and related “Osho” merch like T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, etc.), attend seminars, join communes, and/or live by his philosophy and consider themselves “Rashneejees” tend to think and speak of him in nothing less than glowing terms. Others, not so much. Both “sides” are given a fairly even shake in the 6-part series.

In the early 80s, fed up with harassment from authorities in his native India (who were readying to drop the hammer on him on suspicions of smuggling and tax fraud), the Bhagwan closed his ashram and, like the persecuted Pilgrims before him, set sail (more likely, booked a flight) for the land of the free. Opting to resettle a bit farther West than Plymouth Rock, he scooped up 100 square miles of cheap range land adjacent to a sleepy cow town in Wasco County, Oregon. Eventually, a veritable New Age city was created.

Who, you may ask, would have a problem with this soft-spoken, beatific gentleman who encouraged people to let go of hang-ups, realize their full potential, be as spontaneous and joyous and free and giving and loving toward one another as humanly possible (i.e. fuck like bunnies) while insisting he himself not be deified in any way, shape, or form?

What do you mean, “What’s the catch?” Must there always be a catch? Why so cynical?

What tipped you off that something may have been amiss…was it his fleet of Rolls-Royces? Was it his affinity for collecting shiny things, like expensive watches and jewelry? Can he be faulted if (as he claimed) his admirers insisted on festooning him with baubles? Oh, I bet I know what it was…it was the henchmen, armed with AK-47s—right?

Here’s a refresher, from a 2017 revision of a piece published in The Oregonian in 2011:

The Rajneeshees had been making headlines in Oregon for four years. Thousands dressed in red, worked without pay and idolized a wispy-haired man who sat silent before them. They had taken over a worn-out cattle ranch to build a religious utopia. They formed a city, and took over another. They bought one Rolls-Royce after another for the guru — 93 in all.

Along the way, they made plenty of enemies, often deliberately. Rajneeshee leaders were less than gracious in demanding government and community favors. Usually tolerant Oregonians pushed back, sometimes in threatening ways. Both sides stewed, often publicly, before matters escalated far beyond verbal taunts and nasty press releases.[…]

Hand-picked teams of Rajneeshees had executed the largest biological terrorism attack in U.S. history, poisoning at least 700 people. They ran the largest illegal wiretapping operation ever uncovered. And their immigration fraud to harbor foreigners remains unrivaled in scope. The revelations brought criminal charges, defections, global manhunts and prison time. […]

It’s long been known they had marked Oregon’s chief federal prosecutor for murder, but now it’s clear the Rajneeshees also stalked the state attorney general, lining him up for death.

They contaminated salad bars at numerous restaurants, but The Oregonian’s examination reveals for the first time that they just as eagerly spread dangerous bacteria at a grocery store, a public building, and a political rally.

To strike at government authority, Rajneeshee leaders considered flying a bomb-laden plane into the county courthouse in The Dalles — 16 years before al-Qaida used planes as weapons.

And power struggles within Rajneeshee leadership spawned plans to murder even some of their own. The guru’s caretaker was to be killed in her bed, spared only by a simple mistake.

Strangely, most of these stunning crimes were in rebellion against that most mundane of government regulations, land-use law. The Rajneeshees turned the yawner of comprehensive plans into a page-turning thriller of brazen crimes.

Meditate on that (om, om, on the range). And that’s just the Cliff’s Notes version. This tale is so multi-layered crazy pants as to boggle the mind. It’s like Dostoevsky meets Carl Hiaasen by way of Thomas McGuane and Ken Kesey…except none of it is made up.

It’s almost shocking that no one thought to tackle this juicy subject as fodder for an epic documentary until now (eat your genteel heart out, Ken Burns). Co-directors Chapman and Maclain Way mix in present-day recollections from various participants with a wealth of archival news footage. Oddly, with its proliferation of jumpy videotape, big hair and skinny ties, the series serves double duty as a wistful wallow in 1980s nostalgia.

Size matters not: Big Sonia (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 10, 2018)

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“I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

— Helen Keller

As a corollary to my review of 12 Years a Slave, I referenced Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust documentary Shoah, making this observation:

[Shoah] is, hands down, the most harrowing, emotionally shattering and profoundly moving film I have ever seen about man’s inhumanity to man. And guess what? In 9 ½ hours, you don’t see one single image or reenactment of the actual horrors. It is people (victims and perpetrators) simply telling their story and collectively creating an oral history. And I was riveted.

There is a scene in Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday’s documentary, Big Sonia, where you witness something just short of a miracle: a group of junior high students sitting in wide-eyed attentiveness; clearly riveted by a personal story emitting not from a cell phone or a laptop, but rather from a diminutive octogenarian woman. By the end of the talk, many of the students are brought to tears (as is the viewer). But this is no pity party; in fact, many of them now seem genuinely inspired to go make a difference in the world.

Her name is Sonia, and her story is much larger and more impactful than her 4 foot, 8-inch frame might suggest. An eighty-something widow, she lives in Kansas City and runs her own business, John’s Tailoring (named after her late husband, who started the modest shop many years ago). Located in an otherwise abandoned mall, the shop nonetheless boasts a sizeable base of dedicated customers, who are really more of an extended family.

You can see what earns the customers’ loyalty; the warm, personable Sonia has an infectious enthusiasm for life. This may seem unremarkable in and of itself; as we’ve all known people who can “light up a room”. But once you learn her history, it’s astounding.

Because you see, Sonia is not only the last proprietress standing in the empty mall, but one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors in Kansas City. No Holocaust survivor’s tale is a happy one, but Sonia’s is particularly harrowing and heartbreaking. During the war, she endured death marches and internment at several concentration camps. When she was 15, she watched helplessly as her mother was herded into the gas chambers. On liberation day, fate dealt her a cruel blow when she was accidentally shot through the chest.

Those experiences would break anyone’s spirit; but Sonia managed to move on with her life, eventually meeting and marrying fellow survivor John. To be sure, Sonia and her husband, who both maintained upbeat attitudes, were still haunted by their horrible wartime experiences (the couple’s now adult children recount how they would sometimes be awakened at night by their late father, who would scream in his sleep). Even after her husband passed away, Sonia refused to give in the dark side; devoting herself to the shop.

Running the shop is only her day job. Not content to rest on her laurels, Sonia devotes much of her spare time to community involvement. Rather than suppressing the darkest days of her life, she speaks about them publicly, and frequently. Her mission, however, is not to bring people down, but to lift them up. In essence, her message is: You think you’ve got insurmountable problems in your life? Look at the hand I was dealt. I have every conceivable right to be bitter, angry, and depressed. Yet I choose to be an optimist.

Even when she is given notice to vacate the mall, her optimism doesn’t falter (no spoilers). And there are other surprises in store as the film makers slowly unpeel the many layers of this remarkable woman’s resolve and the depth of her empathy for others (by the way, co-director Warshawski is Sonia’s granddaughter, but commendably maintains a  sense of intimacy without turning her portrait into a glorified home movie).

Sonia certainly puts me to shame. I’ll be thinking twice before I kvetch about my “issues” from here on in. After seeing this woman in action, one is reminded of Yoda’s line from The Empire Strikes Back: “Judge me by my size, do you?” And, Sonia has a major edge on Yoda…she apparently has a killer-bee homemade gefilte fish recipe. Yummy delish!

Shadowy men on a shadowy planet: Wormwood (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 30, 2017)

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“Sir, I am unaware of any such activity or operation, nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir.” – Captain Willard, from Apocalypse Now

 “Boy…what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?” – Joe Turner, from Three Days of the Condor

“Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” – From Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

When you peruse the history of the CIA (wait a sec…did I just hear a “click” on my phone?), at times it is indistinguishable from a campy 60s TV parody of the agency. Was there really a CIA psychotropic drugs research program called “MK-Ultra” (aka “Project Artichoke” and “Project Bluebird”) or am I conflating it with an episode of “Get Smart”?

Unfortunately, the MK-Ultra program would prove all too real for bacteriologist and former military officer Frank Olson. Olson had served as a captain in the Army’s Chemical Corps in the 1940s, which helped him snag a post-service civilian contract job with the Army’s Biological Warfare Laboratories (based out of Fort Detrick, Maryland).

Eventually Olson was recruited by the CIA to work with the agency’s Technical Services Staff, which led to his acquaintance with some of the architects of the aforementioned MK-Ultra research program. While on a retreat with a group of CIA colleagues in November of 1953, Olson was offered a drink that was spiked with an early form of LSD (unbeknownst to him). Just 10 days later, on the night of November 28th, 1953, Olson fell to his death from the 13th floor of a Manhattan hotel.

The NYPD called it suicide. And that was that. At least…that was the story at the time.

There is a lot more to this tale; specifically regarding what ensued during those critical 10 days between Olson’s LSD dosing at the retreat, and the evening that he died at the hotel.

Uncovering the details behind Olson’s demise has become an obsessive 60+ year quest for his son, Eric Olson. Eric’s relentless pursuit of the truth, a long slow white Bronco chase through the dark labyrinth of America’s clandestine community, makes for a hell of an interesting story in and of itself. This was not lost on documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who delves deep into the mystery with his new Netflix docudrama, Wormwood.

Wormwood is essentially a 4-hour film divided into 6 episodes; with this sprawling running time, Morris has given himself lots of room to “delve”. Now, I feel that it’s my duty to advise you up front that “delving” into a mystery is not necessarily synonymous with “solving” it. So if you go in expecting pat answers, wrapped with a bow, I’m saving you 4 hours of your life now (and you’re welcome). However, if you believe the adage that it is not about the destination, but rather about the journey, feel free to press onward.

Morris has made many compelling documentaries, from his crtically acclaimed 1978 debut Gates of Heaven, to other well-received films like The Thin Blue Line (1988), A Brief History of Time (1991), and The Fog of War (2003).

Interestingly, in this outing Morris eschews his trademark “Inteterrotron”, which gives  a sense that the interviewee is “confiding” directly to the viewer. Instead, Morris plunks himself across a table from his subjects and grills them, like they’ve stumbled into Sam Spade’s office. However, he does reprise his “reality thriller” formula (mixing interviews with speculative reenactments) which he essentially invented with The Thin Blue Line; although it has been so-often imitated that it now seems cliché.

While Morris’ penchant for this Rashomon-style construction in past projects has drawn criticism, it’s a perfect foil for Wormwood; because if there is one central takeaway from the series, it is this: when it comes to plausible deniability, the CIA has 50 shades of nay.

The “official” story as to what happened in that hotel room in September 1953 has been, shall we say, “fluid” over the years (all versions are recounted). Adding to the frustration for Olson’s surviving family members (as Eric Olson points out in the film), under current laws, any citizen may file a lawsuit against the U.S. government for negligence, but never for intent. Oops! Please pardon our negligence, just never mind our culpability.

The question of “culpability” feeds the conspiracy theory elements of the film; which Morris relays via the dramatic reenactments. These segments feature a melancholic Peter Sarsgaard, whose almost spectral characterization of Frank Olson haunts the proceedings like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

This is no accident, as Morris and Eric Olson himself make frequent analogies to Shakespeare’s classic tragedy about a son who investigates the truth behind his father’s suspicious death (hence the title of the film, taken from an aside by Hamlet, who mutters “Wormwood, wormwood” in reaction to the Player Queen’s line in the play-within-the play “None wed the second but who killed the first.”).

The Bard would be hard pressed to cook up a tale as dark, debased and duplicitous. Morris sustains a sense of dread recalling Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and The Conversation. Of course, those were fiction; Olson’s story is not. Shakespeare wrote: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Wormwood not only confirms this, but reminds us why we need folks like Eric Olson and Morris around to cast light into dark corners where the truth lies obscured.