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Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Blackfish Film Poster, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Magnolia Pictures

While Hollywood languishes inside of digitized cliché and regressive idolatry of the almighty dollar, the collective work of internationally-based documentary film makers only seems to improve year after year. Is it access to better and more easily functional technology or access to better and more compelling stories? What we used to revere as The News, is now so manufactured by particular interest groups as to render what passes for information is generally opinion. With the 24-hour news cycle comes a kind of desensitization of the news, or what is happening in the world, so that we as a collective society have relegated to the documentary film genre and to that peculiar brand of filmmaker the truly courageous chase of journalism. The journalism of documentary film is not always objective, as in the case of Sarah Polley’s excellent Stories We Tell (National Film Board of Canada), but it is generally fascinating and full enough of great stories and characters to overcome the slant of unbiased storytelling that is, more and more, the best form of informative media almost anyone currently has access to.

Take The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Final Cut For Real), in which the director offers the hitmen of Indonesian dictator’s Suharto’s death squad a chance to reenact their gruesome murders, in whatever Hollywood genre they wish to use. The film crescendoes to a bloody and violent apex only to grind to a halt as the murderers begin to intimately realize what they have done. This is more than the news could ever be. This is the new post-postmodern reality of melding the fantasical form of fictional film to the everyday make-believe humanity creates to get through the murder of life.

Many other noteworthy films from this year follow the example of Eugene Jarecki’s The House I live In, which give voice to those people who have little to no voice in society. Inequality For All by Jacob Kornbluth, Gideon’s Army by Dawn Porter, A River Changes Course by Kalyanee Mam and The Square from Jehane Noujaim are some of the best among a host of others. Yet the 2013 documentary film which has and will have affected change is Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Magnolia Pictures).

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

2. Tilikum in a scene from BLACKFISH, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

When The Cove premiered at the 2009 Tokyo International Film Festival, the director, Louie Psihoyos, answered questions from the audience after what amounted to one of the only showings of the controversial film in Japan. With the mayor of Taiji, the Japanese IWC Representative, the notorious Private Space all in attendance, Psihoyos spoke about why he had to make this film:

The skeptics wanted to focus on animal rights, but this isn’t just an animal rights issue…It’s a human health issue also. And I wanted everyone in the theater to understand that. It’s a human rights film because people need to know that the levels of mercury is off-the-charts toxic.

The Cove was called the Citizen Cane of environmental documentaries and while it proved to be ground-breaking–in many ways analagous to Kane–in its ability to uncover certain of the monstrosities perpetuated upon the animal kingdom by humans, the film was ultimately unable to create the upwelling of support domestically necessary to bring about swift and sure change in the treatment of cetaceans. People couldn’t relate. Americans don’t eat dolphin, never have. But Seaworld? This is where Blackfish changes everything.

The 83 minute film revolves around Tilikum, a 34-year-old orca, whose story is told from his initial capture in the North Atlantic in 1983 to his first non-ocean home at Sealand of The Pacific, where, in 1991, he was responsible for killing trainer Keltie Byrne. After which he was sold to SeaWorld Orlando, where trainers were kept in the dark about the whale’s involvement in Byrne’s death and permitted to work closely with him. Cowperthwaite gives these trainers voice to share with the audience the incorrect whale facts given to park visitors – from diminished whale lifespans to supposed whale behaviors. Since Blackfish’s production ex-trainer John Hargrove has written Beneath the Surface, an expose on the Seaworld culture.

Several whale attacks are seen and explained, including one involving trainer Ken Peters, who survived the grip of a killer whale who inexplicably refused to release him. Eventually we see the story which got Cowperthwaite off of her couch and talking to people: when veteran killer whale trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was attacked and killed by Tilikum on February 24, 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando.

Seaworld, not mentioning the film itself, took out full-page ads in national newspapers in mid-December 2013 which read “SeaWorld: The Truth Is in Our Parks and People” and summarized the following points:

  • SeaWorld does not capture killer whales in the wild.
  • We do not separate killer whale moms and calves.
  • SeaWorld invests millions of dollars in the care of our killer whales.
  • SeaWorld’s killer whales’ life spans are equivalent with those in the wild.
  • The killer whales in our care benefit those in the wild.
  • SeaWorld is a world leader in animal rescue.

OPS, the Oceanic Preservation Society, led by Louie Psihoyos, has released a letter countering SeaWorld’s facts, entitled, “Marine Mammal Captivity: The Truth Is in the Facts.” The subtitle reads “An Open Letter from the Informed American Public,” which is an important point. 50 years ago when SeaWorld was created, their ethos that “our guests may enter our gates having never given much thought to the remarkable animals in our oceans,” was largely true. Most Americans didn’t know anything about fish, let alone cetaceans and other marine mammals. 30 years ago, even 20 years ago, “when they leave with a greater appreciation for the importance of the sea, educated about the animals that live there and inspired to make a difference, we have done our job,” this statement might have been true to the extent that other than those guided by self-interest and curiosity in the exploration of marine biology, not many people in general give much thought to what lives in the ocean other than the tuna fish sandwich their mom used to make them, but today is another story.

Today we have documentaries like The Cove, Sharkwater, Atlantis, and the work of Jacques Cousteau, who taught that there is as much educational benefit in studying dolphins and whales in captivity as there is in studying humans by observing prisoners in solitary confinement. Today we do not have to rely solely on passionate experts like Cousteau, Cowperthwaite and Psihoyos. Today we have the ability to find out for ourselves what kind of world we live in, and more than ever, choose what kind of world we want to live in. The fact that Blackfish has been aired multiple times on CNN to an audience of more than 20 million, and has become available via iTunes and Netflix, is proof enough that the American public is interested and is becoming educated.

The letter finishes by saying “The truth about SeaWorld is in the facts. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish and our film The Cove give viewers a deep and meaningful connection with the remarkable animals in our oceans. But this is just the beginning of a growing shift in public awareness about the impoverished lives of animals at SeaWorld. As Cowperthwaite says, young people today are becoming the ‘I can’t believe we used to do that’ generation. No amount of advertising will counter the Blackfish Effect. SeaWorld, your job is to now adapt to an informed public.”

Whether we agree that capturing and holding animals in captivity is something we as a society want to continue, a related issue has to be that of the survival of the oceans, acidifying at an alarming rate. The Losing Nemo animated short by, coincidentally enough, The Black Fish, is compelling enough to get you to think that without changing the way we do many things, the only animals that exist will be in tanks and surrounded by cages, ourselves included.

The Prophet Finds an Audience

The Prophet Finds an Audience

The Prophet Finds an AUdience

Searching For Sugarman – Sixto Rodriguez

As far as years in music go, 1970 was a good one: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, and Iggy Pop & The Stooges’s Fun House were all released, as were swan song LPs for The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, and Simon & Garfunkel, while John Lennon and George Harrison launched their solo careers with Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass, respectively. In March of that year, Sussex Records, a label out of Detroit and loosely associated with Motown, released an album called Cold Fact. The cover features a glassy sphere, where, within, sits an ethnic hippie, Indian-style, garbed in sunglasses, hat and a pink tanktop, a gem hanging from his neck, dressed for the part of psychedelic messenger, hailing from the peyote and cactus lands of desert dreams.

The dude is Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American singing in a Dylanesque high baritone the language of the zeitgeist, with songs titled, “Hate Street Dialogue” and “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst.” Consider the prophet-tinged lyrics of The Establishment Blues,” sung with the clipped cadence of Subterranean Homesick Blues:

“Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer smoking causes cancer
This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact.”

pre-Internet days, clues are a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha grind the rumor mills. Click To Tweet

The Prophet Finds an Audience

Though it was peak season in the protest movement—the secret bombings of Cambodia had been leaked and the Kent State shootings occurred just after the album’s release— the album went nowhere. The sales for Cold Fact might have been disappointing, but because of his real-deal talent, a year later Rodriguez managed to produce a second album, Coming From Reality. On the cover, he’s sitting on the stoop of a run-down façade. The hair’s long but the hat and gemstone are gone, the hippie matured into a man. Rodriguez has dropped the Sixto; he’s just Rodriguez now. The music itself is less confrontational, mellower, more orchestral, more soulful. It sounds like a man who’s lost more battles than he’s won but he’s all right after all. As lovely, truthful and painfully human as anything produced at the time, like his preceding LP this second effort sold virtually nothing. You don’t get many chances in the music business. His presence then fades before it’s begun and, more or less, Rodriguez disappears without a trace.

But this is only Act I of the story. Let’s fast-forward all the way to the epilogue: a 2012 documentary called Searching for Sugar Man, which is the subject of this review. The film is the story of what happened to Rodriguez’s music after his ostensible failures. As it turns out, a copy of Cold Fact wound up in Cape Town in 1972. His brilliant haranguing of the social order resonates with young people disenchanted with their conservative government and its program of state-sponsored apartheid. In South Africa, Cold Fact is a phenomenon, the soundtrack for the youth movement, as ubiquitous in the living rooms of Johannesburg student activists as “Street Fighting Man” is for New York City Marxist strategists. As someone in the film bluntly puts it, Sixto is “bigger than Elvis.”

But what of Sixto? In the pre-Internet days, clues are a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha grind the rumor mills. A consensus develops that Rodriguez committed suicide on stage after a bad show— the only difference of opinion is whether he self-immolated or blew his brains out.

In the 1990s, apartheid ends, Sixto’s music is released on compact disc, and a quest begins to solve the mystery of his death once and for all by two of his fans, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, an owner of a popular Cape Town records shop, and Craig Strydom, a musical journalist. They find him via one of his three daughters, shocked to learn that not only is he not dead but that he’s working blue collar jobs in construction and that, moreover, he has absolutely no idea of his fame.

...the empty sound of no hands clapping is quite a calamitous silence to confront once the creative spirit has been put on the line. Click To Tweet

The Prophet Finds an Audience

Sixto Rodriguez – Searching For Sugarman

If you feel I’ve shared too much, then you better avoid the trailer, which neatly summarizes the entire story in two minutes. Needless to say, a happy ending can be a very good thing. How we get there, from Sixto’s debut to his fame in South Africa to the quest to find him to the redemption of his legacy is worth your time not just because it is a well-told story— Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul devoted four years to its creation— but because Sixto is a fantastic musician who somehow missed his moment, who in spite of his genius poet soul, remains completely unpretentious, a genuinely warm, lovely man. Though whatever money he should have made in residuals never reached him, he’s not holding any grudges nor does he regret the seemingly unkind hand fate dealt him, grateful to the end for what he has, content to work with his hands and come home to the same building he’s been living in for forty years, a human embodiment of the serenity prayer. Instead of an aloof pop star’s limousine lifestyle, Sixto spent his life as a community organizer, helping out the less fortunate in the neighborhood and even running for city council (he lost). Rodriguez had never really failed because he hadn’t wagered his soul on his musical career, as he sings on “I’ll Slip Away”, recorded after the dismal reception of “Coming From Reality” and unreleased for many years:

“And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then Ill go mend all my shattered dreams.”

There is many an artist that can relate to Sixto’s story. Whether he or she plays a guitar, paints subway cars, lays another novel in the sock drawer, maxes out the credit cards in order to make a movie only a few hundred people will ever view— the empty sound of no hands clapping is quite a calamitous silence to confront once the creative spirit has been put on the line. No one wants to be Van Gogh. We want to keep our ears and enjoy the appreciative applause that is our due. Just in case we live long enough to be recognized.

Even though it won the Special Jury Prize and Audience Award for best international documentary at Sundance, you’ll have some difficulty finding “Searching for Sugar Man” at your local theater. It’s strictly limited engagements in New York and Los Angeles, and even there, playing in just a handful of theaters. For everyone else, we’re left with Batman, Spiderman, and The Avengers, comic book idols that aren’t telling us a damn thing about how to live gracefully. You’ve got to look hard for real life heroes. You won’t find them soaring or swinging over the Manhattan skyline. But you might hear one singing about the truths of living. You only have to find the music and listen closely.

A Study of American Power

A Study of American Power

“Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”

                                                        — Hassan-i Sabbah

Henry Kissinger called power the ultimate aphrodisiac. We can see how power attracts all sorts of people toward it, but how is it grasped and how is it wielded? Since the end of World War II the United States of America has wielded power in the manner of a clumsy, yet mostly beneficent, oaf, rewarding her allies and punishing, overtly or discreetly, her enemies, mostly economically (Cuba, Indonesia), but also bombastically (Laos, Cambodia, Iraq) as well as covertly (Iran, Latin America). The emergence of the U.S. as the sole dominant world power is an unrivaled precedent in human history overshadowed by the shifting alliances of the European continent for the better part of the last millennium. But different than the British power center which emerged as the dominant force of geo-political influence during the last 500 years, current U.S. hegemony is based upon economics rather than politics. Since the late 40s the U.S. has set the bar for everything from education to manufacturing, establishing an assembly-line economic infrastructure unrivaled in the modern world. The power that came with economic largesse was wielded by men who gradually came to operate within a system that can no longer come to terms with its own eventual demise: the U.S. Congress. Like Narcissus in love with his own reflection, the policy-makers worked mostly under the assumption that American influence was drawn from a never-ending pool of resources, and rather than adapt to changing environments, they not only endanger the authority of the U.S., but threaten the very survival of the modern world as we know it. How did these Politics of Fear come to be? Backed by the BBC, at least one man has been investigating this very subject for years. Through a series of multi-part documentaries employing streamlined techniques of film-making by combining newsreel footage, pop songs and personal interviews, Adam Curtis is using the state’s own propaganda against itself.

David Hume Kennerly-Gerald R. Ford Library

Alan Greenspan, center, was a follower of Ayn Rand, right with her husband, Frank O’Connor. With them in 1974 were Mr. Greenspan’s mother, Rose Goldsmith, and President Gerald R. Ford.

A Study of American Power

In his latest film, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, BBC documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis examines the connections between the “rise of machines and how they made us believe we could create a stable world that would last forever” or so goes the superscripts on the intro. Part one: Love and Power delves into the creepy and mysterious world of Ayn Rand and the Objectivist Skull & Bones-style club called the Collective she surrounded herself with that hard-coded itself into modern day politics, business and culture. Curtis alludes to the point in time when a young economist by the name of Alan Greenspan, a believer of Logical Positivism, met Ayn Rand, and fell in love with her work-in-progress, Atlas Shrugged, which debunks altruism as the guiding light of modern society for a more personal oriented life where people are free from politics to follow their own desires.

Fast forward to the mid-90s where Greenspan–now Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board–advises President Clinton against expensive social reform and instead to cut the growing deficit, which would theoretically decrease interest rates and allow the market to regulate itself. But how could the market regulate itself if it was being controlled by Greenspan’s interest rates, i.e. government intervention in the free market? Not a move Ayn’s John Galt would support, to be sure. As the expected boom came and the market rose the investors hailed it as a never-ending updraft, thanks to the precision risk forecasting of the machines doing the trading. With the banks subsequently hedging against those risks, allowing for unprecedented loans to millions more people, many of whom were clearly not qualified lendees under the previous system, we bear witness to the birth of sub-prime lending. This perceived increase in stability was thought to be a permanent facet of the New Economy, an idea espoused by Silicon Valley magnates and Wall Street executives alike, which said that the potential for growth was unlimited. As a favorite saying of former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

When that high tide of investment that had flowed freely into the economies of the Asian countries western speculators were funneling money into finally ebbed, the tidal wave of growth eventually crested and capsized whatever craft the Koreans, Thai, Malaysians and Indonesians were holding on to for dear life. Enter the IMF and a grand scheme to bailout–not the foundering Asian economies–but rather the investors, who were paid off as soon as the austere loan agreements were begrudgingly signed by the various countries’ naive leaders. This was all taking place around the same time as the Bill Clinton scandal involving a dress, a stain, a cigar and Monica Lewinsky, turning the sitting President into a lame duck, and paving the way for Wall Street financiers to take over the world and the rise of the Neo-Conservative nightmare.

In The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear Adam Curtis examines how the Neo-Conservatives rose to power in the post-Nixon/Kissinger administration of Gerald Ford with Alan Greenspan as the Chairman of the President’s Economic Council of Advisors. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld had been making wild assertions about secret Soviet weapons and their overwhelming desire to use them against the United States (sound familiar?). According to Curtis these accusations were machinated by a team led by Paul Wolfowitz, which had also created a lobby group (with Ronald Reagan as a member) called Committee on the Present Danger in order to produce a number of films, the title one of which was, The Price of Peace & Freedom. Curtis’ look at a Nixon speech to the Senate, after signing SALT I–a nuclear limitation treaty–, in which he and Brezhnev welcomed the détente of the era of peaceful coexistence, by reducing the “levels of fear by reducing the causes of fear”, makes the President appear positively left-wing by comparison to the rising tide of neo-conservatives current fear-mongering.

The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis (HESO Magazine)

Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian political theorist who believed the rise of individualism in post-World War II American culture was destroying the moral fabric of society. His conservative ideas took root in Egypt and inspired many of the most radical Islamists, including Osama bin Laden. He was executed by the Egyptian government in 1966. From the documentary "The Power of Nightmares," by Adam Curtis

Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian author and one of the leading intellectuals of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and ’60s. He was a conservative Islamist who disdained anything that was materialistic and violent, which after spending time in the U.S. during the 1950s he quickly came to associate with anything American. Before he was tortured by Egyptian president Nassar’s CIA-trained henchmen, and eventually executed, he had written over 20 books and, like Leo Strauss, influenced members of the future group of radical Islamists who were to shape the world, one of them being Ayman al-Zawahiri, the founder of Islamic Jihad, and current de facto leader of Al-Qaeda. Here you have the impetus for two of the most influential groups of the last thirty years: the American Neo-Conservatives and the radical Islamists. Curtis maintains that both groups are similar in their origins, in that they grew out of the failure of the liberal dream of a utopian society and that both needed to inflate a myth of a dangerous enemy in order to draw people to support them, be they fellow Neo-cons or radical Islamists. Led by Leo Strauss’ philosophy of failed liberal politics, the Neo-Conservatives main objective was to “perpetuate the myth of America as a unique nation whose destiny was to battle evil in the world” while the Islamists goal was to unite the Muslim world in Jihad against the invading infidels. You can see where this is going.

The chief impetus for both groups turned out to be largely the same: the ends justify the means. More specifically, if your ends are noble, any path you take to reach them is justified. In the case of the Neo-Conservatives, Bush Jr. sums it up, “…Good and evil are present in the world and between the two there can be no compromise.” Whereas al-Zawahiri’s cause reads as defending the Nation of Islam from infidels and those who have been turned against the will of Allah, including Muslims themselves, such as Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Zawahiri’s group in 1981. In an almost identical situation to Qutb’s prison sentence, al-Zawahiri too was tortured, and when he emerged in 1984 was a severely changed man, one who realized that it was not only politicians that were corrupting Islam, but all citizens of the world themselves who allowed the “evil of materialism” to define their lives by their mere inaction. Much like the Straussian Neo-cons plan to target small town Americans with cultural propaganda and fear-mongering, the al-Zawahiri led radical Islamists too would point their aggressions at those innocents in a more direct way: violence.

It Felt Like a Kiss (Adam Curtis, 2009)

It Felt Like a Kiss (Adam Curtis, 2009)

“Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work–whereas economics represents how it actually does work…If you learn how to look at data in the right way, you can explain riddles that otherwise might have seemed impossible.”
Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner (Penguin, 2005)

It Felt Like a Kiss is Adam Curtis’ ode to America, in which he explores the seemingly tenuous connections between Rock Hudson, Doris Day, the C.I.A., the Soviets, Saddam Hussein, and Chimpanzees in “the story of an enchanted world that was built by American power as it became supreme…and how those living in that dream world responded to it.” Using mixed media and highlighted by 60s era Motown hits—including Carol King’s “He Hit Me (& It Felt Like A Kiss)”—the 54 minute film delves into these disparate aspects of 50s Cold War America with a hot and soulful knife through butter. And without Curtis’ usual voice-over narration to guide us. The creeping paranoia that the CIA is conducting an experiment via the BBC Documentarist is overwhelming.

In 2007’s The Trap, Curtis looks at Freedom as the ultimate expression of political power and the nebulous desire of modern politicians to eliminate the old class distinctions and bureaucracies in an attempt to secure individual freedom. This can be widely viewed as the ostensible goal of the Iraq War: the liberation of the citizen and the elimination of tyranny. Yet this assumption has backfired. The Middle East has consistently rejected western style democracy and continues to resist Americanization despite the successes of the Arab Spring. At home, in the dismantling of western citizens’ safeguards, we find that much of the restrictions regulating the financial markets put in place after the Great Depression have been rolled back and that the so-called one percent have benefited more greatly than ever before. Partisan politics are stalling any kind of real progressive movement toward populist reform due to fears of reelection campaigns falling short of today’s requisite finance goals, which turn the people elected to run our country into zombie soundbites beholden to the corporate lobbyists who fund them.

All watched Over By Machines of Love and Grace film still

Film Still from "All watched Over By Machines of Love and Grace" (Adam Curtis, 2011)

One must eventually ask the question: are all of these deadly public gaffes (invading Iraq despite no WMD, elimination of financial regulation ala the Glass–Steagall Act) just a cleverly disguised ruse used to enact an agenda of quantifying, commodifying and consolidating every last resource for the very few who can afford it, while the rest of the world languishes in a suicide pact with itself, fighting for the scraps? Is the ostensible goal of modern society the advancement of knowledge toward an ending of suffering and an equality amongst humanity or merely to accumulate as many multi-colored rectangular pieces of numbered paper as possible? Are the distinctions between the Republicans and Democrats negligible when one considers their joint aims: to maintain control of all resources necessary to perpetuate the status quo of American domination in the world arena? Is it a dream to think that the 20-odd percent of the annual U.S. Budget going to defense spending could be used in a more productive way than funding a big jobs program whose sole goal is destroy…and then rebuild? We would have to figure out a way to detach it from its corollary corporate welfare program, Haliburton, as well as the private security industry that has spawned around it, but is it possible to think we might just stop making bombs someday? Or do we have to wait for the extraterrestrial invasion to come together as a species? Even then the anthem might be heard over the crack of the whips: Sing the song people…A base in every country on every planet and a drone flying overhead…

Is it Barry Goldwater famous utterance that “extremism in defense of liberty is not a vice.” or Daisy, the Lyndon Johnson 1964 presidential ad showing a picture of a small girl holding a flower as a nuclear bomb is detonated, saying you “can’t afford not to elect LBJ,” that inaugurated the politics of fear as a mainstay in American culture? Is fear the only way to use the power bestowed upon political leaders to guide or is there another way? Fareed Zakari notes that the “test for the United States is political — and it rests not just with the United States at large but with Washington in particular. Can Washington adjust and adapt to a world in which others have moved up? Can it respond to shifts in economic requirements and political power?” If the recent failure of the so-called Congressional Super Committee to reach an agreement on cutting government spending (Greenspan’s policies are still in effect then…) without touching the Defense Budget or raising taxes is any indication, then no, it would not seem as if it can adjust and adapt. It will be interesting to see what Curtis can cull from the eons of archive footage for his new work-in-progress entitled Every Day Is Like Sunday about the downfall of the newspaper mogul. I bet Rupert Murdoch won’t be tuning in. But you should.

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

                                                        —Aung San Suu Kyi, “Freedom from Fear”

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Best Documentary Films – 2011

Even as it becomes more mainstream, the lines of modern documentary film are ever blurring. No longer is documenting, “what is real?” the most apt, but rather, how do we instill the viewer with a big enough sense of awe at the world (and universe) around them to get them to become activists themselves? Take the fictionalized, The Tree of Life. Does it matter that it’s not technically a documentary? With his fifth directorial effort Terrence Malick went with Big concepts (Life, The Universe, Everything), big stars (Brad Pitt), and big organic visuals that stun with their naturalistic analogue feel rather than digitally deceptiveness. Despite president of the jury Robert De Niro declaring it difficult to choose a winner,The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival competing against such notables as Pedro Almodóvar’s La Piel Que Habito, and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.

Best Documentary Films – 2011

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Creation of the Universe Film Still from The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Shot in straightforward 35mm, Malick’s Waco, Texas is a visual poem to 60s Americana, depicting a lenitive south where shirtless boys roughhouse and light firecrackers, run chasing the billowing smoke from the DDT truck just around the corner from a rhubarb pie cooling on the window sill. The cinematography (done by visual effects guru Douglas Trumbull) sweeps us through the wistful memory of a slower era using hand-held POV (which tends to exert a certain sentimentality) of naturally lit moments of discovery: bright prisms of sunlight stabbing through stately elm trees on wide avenues without sidewalks, barefoot redhead mother dressed in white gown prancing in slow motion lead us through a fractured five-part journey of the creation of the universe down to the death of Mr. O’Brien’s son and what lies beyond.

Magic Trip (Alison Ellwood, Alex Gibney) looks at the 60s from another perspective. Co-starring the self-dubbed Merry Pranksters, and based as it is on his writings and recordings, is a portrait of the summer of 1964 in the life of Ken Kesey, when he embarked on the fabled road trip in Further, the bus, across America in search of a cool place. This was before the term hippie had come into colloquial use and predates the easy-rider phenomenon. This busful of exuberant youth were on the bus, as it were, ready for anything, fearless and full of enthusiasm for what was to come. Yet instead of waiting for it on Kesey’s Oregon farm, they decided to go and see for themselves. See what? Practically speaking, their goal was the 1964 World Fair in Queens, New York, but when that turned out to be a bust, when Kerouac turned out to be an antisocial drunk, when Ginsberg’s introduction to Timothy Leary’s people at Castalia in Millbrook turned out to be a letdown, what did they turn to? Exactly what was in the Kool-Aid they had been drinking all the way across the face of America: LSD. If taken at face value, the more than 30 hours of archive footage shot by the Pranksters themselves (although sadly the audio was not synced, which is why it has been so long in production), plays as a kind of hippy-dippy day-glo soap opera that doesn’t necessarily end in the happiness that they were seeking, but in the larger context of the sacrifices made by the Pranksters as guinea pigs and by Kesey himself, we see the beginning of the era of the expansion of the mind begin to take shape.

The same time that Kesey was enlightening America, the Beatles were taking over the world. Like Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Beethoven, the persistent popularity of the Beatles thrives today, yet how well do you know the third Beatle, George Harrison? The one that kept John and Paul from killing each other. The one that had a much-talked about love triangle with Eric Clapton. The one that wrote “Here Comes The Sun” and was the impetus behind The Traveling Wilburys. In George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese) we tag along on a journey interspersed with George telling the story of his own spiritual awakening and a treasure chest of new interviews (Paul, Ringo, Yoko) as well as archive material of friends, family and associates of the musician addending the little known story of his life. Great footage of Ravi Shankar and the Maharishi accompanies this two-part HBO film named after his 1973 album Living in the Material World. If only we were all so blessed with such maddening interference in the form of screaming teenagers who indirectly fund the explorations George took across the world in search of the kind of inner peace attainable only by coming to terms with the screaming teenager within.

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Film Still from "American: The Bill Hicks Story" by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas

What George Harrison is to music, Bill Hicks is to comedy. The Georgia native toured the United States parodying, satirizing and openly mocking the wannabe opulence of the coked-out 80s with little success until he was finally “discovered”–as is so often the case with avant garde Americans—in England. Through interviews with his family, friends and other comedians, American: The Bill Hicks Story(Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas), looks at how Hicks’ punk-centric diy ethic went from frenetically straight edge to embody the drunken banality of all he abhorred. Yet through it all he maintained a crystalline gaze into the dark heart of superficial American society: the rampant consumeristic rise of pop culture meant to “keep people stupid and apathetic” while keeping a third eye on the bigger philosophical picture and persuading people to question authority. Visionary. Genius. Outlaw. These are the words that people use to describe his work. And as with too many visionaries, their flame, burning too brightly to begin, flickers out all too soon.

That flickering flame by which our dreams are guided is often locked within the very rock itself. In The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog allows us to peer into the distant past, into a limestone landscape known as Chauvet Cave, which houses the oldest cave paintings known to humanity. Now a tourist spot for hikers and kayakers, the Southern France river valley best known for the Pont-d’Arc—a natural bridge formed by the Ardèche River—once was populated by Cave Lions, Wooly Rhinos, Cave Bears, Wooly Mammoths, Panthers, Neanderthal and yes, homo sapiens during the Upper Paleolithic period some thirty thousand years ago. In order to preserve these fragile representations (peoples’ breath causes mold to form thus degrading the site) the French government allows almost no one inside the 1300 foot cave of calcified bones, glittery stalactites and stalagmites, yet Herzog was given permission to take a very limited crew with hardly any equipment to document the cave paintings. According to scientists studying the cave, no humans ever lived within, using it only for drawings, and perhaps for ritualistic purposes. In a film that transcends the medium—due to the ubiquity of the filmmakers and their equipment in such a limited space—we witness something awe-inspiring which, like walking on the moon, the majority of humans will never get to experience firsthand.

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Clearcut Film Still From "If A Tree Falls" by Marshall Curry

What is awe-inspiring to some is merely toilet paper to others. The tall majesty of a Giant Redwood stretching its ancient limbs toward the puffy clouds floating across the bright blue sky. Now a forest of Aspen, creating an ecosystem of life, an interconnected network communicating across thousands of miles, providing myriad species of flora and fauna—including humans—the fundamental ability to sustain life. Now imagine it all gone, gutted, gored out of the ground for the remarkably short-sighted goal of ephemeral profit. If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation FrontWhat happens when so-called tree-huggers shake off their hippy-dippy tie-dye for a more militant approach to fighting back against the wanton destruction of the forest. Marshall Curry tells the remarkable story of the rise and fall of an ELF cell, by focusing on the transformation and radicalization of one of its members.

Being connected to the world from which we come, rather than manipulating it for profit, is the underlying message of Forks Over Knives. Written, directed and narrated by Lee Fulkerson, himself a subject of study in the controversial 95 minute long exploration into what scientists Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn have discovered through painstaking research: “that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and processed foods.” How will history view us? As the Age of Diabetes? The Age of Heart Disease? Or as the age that had a chance to change repeated bad behavior but did not do so in order for the few to profit from the many? It may be the most important film of the new decade, but who will actually watch it?

The tagline to Transcendent Man by Barry Ptolemy is “Prepare To Evolve” and if futurist Ray Kurzweil has any influence in the matter, we will all live forever. Or at least those that can afford nanobot surgery to repair dysfunctional organs, the hundreds of vitamins taken on a daily basis to sustain human health, and the acceptance of Transhumanism—the mixing of machine and human—into the mainstream. The film follows Kurzweil across the globe as he talks to thousands of people about his book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology and what it means to transcend biology. The post-biological world will solve world hunger, disease, aging and even “cure death”. He doesn’t, however, comment on how to cure all the rich psychopaths that always seem to end up running the world. Maybe in version 2.0.

Best Documentary Films - 2011

American Grindhouse Film Still from "Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS"

John Landis puts it succinctly when he says, “In the terms of the business, a profitable picture is a good picture.” American Grindhouse(Elijah Drenner) focuses on the history of the B-movie, the rise of the exploitation flick, the slasher movie, and pornography to merge with Hollywood film-making to become the epitome of modern American Cinema. The concept of a grindhouse is based upon the hey-day of studio-owned theaters—some running non-stop 24 hours a day—in a big city which would show anything to keep the customers entertained. This predated the current MPAA rating system and other rating laws, and thus gave the public a window to see the societal taboos that they really wanted to watch: sex, violence and antihero on the big screen. Once legally separated from their studio backers, a true free market reigned at the theater , giving rise to a larger independent film movement and helping create the modern American film industry. Talk all you want about what should and should not be filmed, but leave it to film producers to capture the zeitgeist of a pop culture clamoring for (yet another) female jail flick / slasher movie.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Rodman Flender)
It’s a good thing that Conan O’Brien is one of the funniest people on the planet, because he’s kind of a dick. Not a Dick Cheney kind of dick, but the inevitable kind that comes from everyone wanting to meet you all of the time and your show has just been hijacked and you can’t be on TV for one year and you’re a dad and that means you’re tired, and everyone still wants to chat you up—even celebrities (they who should understand)–like you have all the time in the world while putting on a massive mostly-one-man cross-country show. It must be said, this documentary on Conan O’Brien’s comedy tour of the U.S. and Canada after leaving his post at “The Tonight Show” and severing his relationship with NBC, cements O’Brien’s standing as Comedian of the People.

Honorable Mentions go to:

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Film Still from "General Orders No. 9" by Robert Persons

  • Prohibition Ken Burns & Lynn Novick invite you to toast a tipple to the teetotallers while watching the history of how to royally screw anentire country.
  • General Orders No. 9, writer-director Robert Persons cinematographically stunning tale of Man’s interaction with Nature in the Deep South is enigmatically told through experimental usage of poems, music and images.
  • Page One: Inside the New York Times Andrew Rossi is given
  • unprecedented access to the New York Times newsroom, yielding a complex view of the transformation of a media landscape fraught with both peril and opportunity.
  • The Greatest Movie Ever Sold by Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock is a documentary about branding, advertising and product placement that is financed and made possible by brands, advertising and product placement.
  • I Am is a 2011 documentary film written, narrated, and directed by Tom Shadyac. What happens when a director best known for directing Jim Carrey vehicles Ace Venture: Pet Detective and Bruce Almighty has a life-altering bicycle accident and sees the light: a feelgood Choose Life documentary of the year.
  • Life in a Day is a crowd-sourced documentary film comprising a series of video selected from 80,000 clips submitted to YouTube, all taken around the world on July 24, 2010. The 95 minute “film” includes scenes selected from 4,500 hours of footage in 80,000 submissions from 192 nations.
  • Miss Representation from Jennifer Siebel Newsom explores how the media’s misrepresentations of women have led to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.
  • The Captains is a feature length documentary film written and directed by William Shatner in which he, the original Captain Kirk searches out the lives of other captains of the USS Enterprise and interviews them. He’s also got a new album coming out soon.
  • These Amazing Shadows, Paul Mariano Producer / Director Kurt Norton Producer / Director
  • Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel by Alex Stapleton is a documentary on DIY producer/director Roger Corman and his alternative approach to making movies in Hollywood.
Stonehenge Film Still - Chronos (Ron Fricke, 1985)

Chronos Documents the Process of Time (Lapse)

A Ron Fricke presentation of a Les Productions de la Géode production, in association with Magidson Films,
Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater & Science Center. Distributed by Canticle Films (1985) (worldwide) (theatrical), MacGillivray Freeman Films (1985) (USA) (theatrical), Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater & Science Center, The (1985) (USA) (theatrical). Producer: Ron Fricke and Jeffrey Kirsch. Written and Directed by Ron Fricke.

Stonehenge Film Still - Chronos (Ron Fricke, 1985)

Stonehenge Film Still - Chronos (Ron Fricke, 1985)

To say that the genre of documentary film-making known as Non-Verbal has already seen its zenith might cause the casual film-buff to react in several different ways:

“Wait, I didn’t even know that was a genre. What have I missed?” or

“Do those Baader-Meinhoff-inspired proto-internet-porn films of the mid-90s qualify as non-verbal? Because if they do, I didn’t miss anything!” or

“Know this: as long as Ron Fricke continues to draw breath there will crest another Non-Verbal wave on these parched shores, O yes!”

OK, but who is Ron Fricke?

Fricke is the filmmaker perhaps best known for his cinematographic work on Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, (Institute for Regional Education, 1982) the first (and best) of the Qatsi Trilogy directed by Godfrey Reggio, and Baraka, the 1992 non-narrative epic in cinéma vérité. Just as the initial Qatsi film dealt with the theme of “man’s relationship to the eternal,” Baraka too, manages to evoke visceral reactions to a nonexistent storyline by playing on the bigger picture of the similarities humans of all walks of life share rather than what drives them apart.

Chronos (Ron Fricke, 1985)

Chronos (Ron Fricke, 1985)

Some call it poetry, others say tedious, but Baraka cannot be stereotyped as the typical granola fodder for neo-hippie troupe, a new age album of monks chanting the names of Liz Taylor’s husbands, or any of the other self-help metaphysical movements of latter-day western metaphysics. It is much bigger than any labels. Whatever it is, it has its roots in Chronos, one of the first non-narrative time-lapse films, where we see firsthand Fricke’s handiwork with the camera coalesce with his own vision of the world. Filmed in atom-smashingly clear 70mm film format and printed using the IMAX cinematographic process (1.78:1), he and a handful of others revolutionized documentary film-making by creating a film camera which shoots computer-precise, motion controlled time-lapse cinematography, spawning the Non-Verbal genre and inspiring a generation of filmmakers in the process.

Spanning the recent pre-internet and post-internet periods of technological boom, the genre has grown steadily since the mid-80s as the once esoteric world around us is normalized by curious and industrious filmmakers from all over the world, especially the French. Atlantis (1991, Luc Besson) from Luc Besson (The impetus to Le Grand Bleu perhaps), Microcosmos: The grass people (Microcosmos: Le peuple de l’herbe, Miramax, 1996) directed by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou and Winged Migration, (Le Peuple Migrateur Sony Pictures Classics, 2001) from Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats and Jacques Perrin, whose production company, Galatée Films, continues to outpace the rest of the non-verbal pack. HOME, directed by photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand is another example of great documentary film-making, but is narrated (Glenn Close) and has a clear agenda-driven narrative (Climate Change).

Film Still - Chronos (Ron Fricke, 1985)

Film Still - Chronos (Ron Fricke, 1985)

To accomplish their goal of creating compelling still photographs that move, the film-makers must deliberately balance the three elements of film-making: cinematography, editing and music. Soundtracks in all film have a massive impact on the viewer and how the viewer perceives the mise-en-scène (look at Michelangelo Antonioni’s use of silence in the penultimate scene of The Passenger). Yet in Non-Verbal film, the score seems to embody more than mere accompaniment, in that it acts as the concomitant guiding voice, so to speak, blending the sonic and visual elements into a harmonious observable medium. Equal to Fricke’s own ingenuity and expertise with cameras could be composer Michael Stearns, who scored Chronos and Baraka, often using esoteric and homemade instruments, such as the Beam. Called an “instrument of discovery” the Beam has 24 piano strings gauged from 19 to 22, is attached to a 12 foot piece of extruded aluminum with a large electrical pick-up mimicking the setup of an electrical guitar and appears to be played with various metallic vases and pipes. “I chose the beam as one of the unique voices in the score for Cronos because of its deep earthtone qualities…and an instrument that had a large dynamic range that would help propel the soundtrack through the different movements.”

Twenty-six years after Chronos lapsed into existence, word on the street is that Non-Verbal film-making is about to be shaken up once again. The pantomime who would be king, Ron Fricke has scheduled his companion piece to Baraka, Samsara to be released in 2011. Which means New Yorkers, Angelenos and wherever there is a film festival, those people will get to see it, but everyone else in the flow of the world will have to wait until it’s released on disc. Since Bollywood’s film-making revolution has spread west to Nigeria and east to China (the second-largest IMAX film-going community), it might be worthwhile petitioning IMAX for moksha, which is to say, wider release.

Watch Chronos on YouTube
Download Chronos
Non-Verbal Indie Shorts

2010 Documentaries

2010 Documentary Film

2010 Documentaries

A selection of great 2010 Documentaries


As 2010 comes to a close, and a large part of the world is on holiday to celebrate the end of another year, the only thing slowing down should be us, to ask the simplest of questions: What is going on with Reality?

Reality television is more popular than ever. Stand back from Mongolia copying the U.S. copying the U.K. (Insert Country Name‘s Got Talent) and delve into the depths of Talk shows, Dating shows, Cooking Shows, Self-improvement and Makeover, Renovation, Social experiment, Hidden cameras and Hoaxes, Paranormal, YouTube and it quickly becomes apparent that, for good or ill, we are obsessed with documenting our triumphs and (more often) our defeats.

The dominant form of film has become the Documentary. The times that we live in now are so wild and drama-filled that mere fiction and fantasy films cannot compete, thus pushing producers to make them even more far-fetched (as well as pushing our production of animation through the roof). It seems that the more implausible and fantastic the story the screenwriters write (or as often is the case, remake) can not even get into the lobby, let alone get a room in the hotel of people’s desire to go behind the scenes of “what really happened.” Alternatively there is the “Dan Brown Syndrome”, which is if you write something, anything really, that is likely more true than false about Catholicism or the Mona Lisa, the Pope will denounce you and you’ll sell a trillion books. Likewise Salmon Rushdie’s fatwa for The Satanic Verses. There seems to be a genre starting to take form.

Imagine the current Wikileaks saga as a made-for-television miniseries starring David Bowie. Now imagine it as a documentary film. Now a documentary film denounced by the Dalai Lama (though I think he would be for it, but I’m running out of world religious

figures) and, hopefully, you get the picture.

It’s a great thing for the documentary genre and for film in general. The men and women that make these films are generally so involved in the process of doing it, so passionate about what they are, often times, risking their lives capturing, that they will go to far greater lengths than mere studio blockbuster money can provide. These Director / Activists are dedicated to their craft like no other: Adam Curtis, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Stacy Peralta, Louis Psihoyos, Kazuo Hara, Laura Poitras, among countless others. This year was not only no exception, but rather an exceptional year for documentary film.

As War takes up a larger and larger part of our collective consciousness, so too do documentaries about war and all its hellish and absurd injustices make up more and more what we see and are barred from seeing. Awesome in its ability to lay truth bare before the audience, the honest viewer might be more embarrassed about what they don’t know and the blind acceptance of the mainstream media’s account of the state of the world. Nothing does that more than The Tillman Story, Amir Bar-Lev’s (My Kid Could Paint That, Fighter) film of the cover-up of the death of Corporal Patrick Tillman, ex-NFL defensive player, who left millions of dollars worth of contracts on the negotiating table to fight in Afghanistan in the wake of September 11, 2001.

So to does the approach of Restrepo, from War photographer Tim Hetherington, and journalist Sebastian Junger (Perfect Storm, 1997, W.W. Norton), who decided to leave the interviews and political spin for the network journalists to cover. Words pale in comparison to the film shocking you dumb with raw footage of one year in the life of a soldier in Afghanistan.

Armadillo © Lars Skree

Armadillo ©_Lars_Skree


It takes a lot to shock the Danish out of their collected stoicism, but Armadillo (Janus Metz, 2010) might be the film to make even Lars Von Trier blush (unlikely) at perceived controversial behavior of certain Danish soldiers during a shootout with Taliban fighters while stationed at an army base in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. This year’s hard look at the ongoing war in Afghanistan should give heart to those seeking an end to the nine-year campaign (now longer than the Russian occupation): It was three or four years before anyone made a film about Bush Jr.’s war in Iraq, showing a definite impatience with a money and life-sucking foreign policy agenda. Not enough? There’s plenty of discontent elsewhere.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money asks, “What happens when you turn the United States Senate over to market forces?” Captain Jack and the Capitalist revolution. By focusing his keen eye on the megalomaniacal personality of Jack Abramoff, director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi To The Dark Side) has cornered the market on the corporate takeover of America and laid the

groundwork for understanding the reality American politics in the 21st century. All you have to do is get involved. Maybe texting that number at the end of the film is enough?

Where Gibney’s Captain Jack leaves off, Inside Job by Charles Ferguson (No End In Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq) picks up with a scrutinizing eye on the various little reported pieces that led to the ongoing financial crisis. Ferguson was an Internet software entrepreneur before metamorphosing a la Michael Moore from everyday schlub to writer to documentary activist. There is hope stirring.

But don’t get your hopes up too high when you watch Lucy Walker’s Participant Media-driven production of the state of the world of nuclear weapons, Countdown to Zero. Documentary film-making at its sleekest could double as a horror film. It’s certainly not an hour and a half update by Valerie Plame Wilson, Pervez Musharraf, Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Robert McNamara, among others, on how all things nuclear are just peachy. The reality is shocking and not about to go away with President Obama’s nuclear disarmament treaty signed in April.

Waiting for Armageddon © Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, Franco Sacchi

Waiting for Armageddon © Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, Franco Sacchi

Exit Through The Gift Shop © Banksyfilm

Exit Through The Gift Shop © Banksyfilm


Where the rational fears of Countdown to Zero leave off, the hyper-rational fear of those portrayed in Waiting For Armageddon (Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, Franco Sacchi, 2010) happening onto a loose nuke within sight of Jerusalem picks up. Should we worry that there are more than 50,000,000 Evangelical Americans who support an open war with the Islamic world? Depends on who you pray to.

While some of us wait for the rapture, others merely are impatiently tapping their foot for education. In examining the failure of the American Education System to teach our children, Davis Guggenheim’s (An Inconvenient Truth) Waiting for “Superman” illuminates the truth on what can be done to help fix the problem. Someone should give Jack Abramoff a call when he gets out of prison. O, if only education were profitable…

The Fence sounds like an accompaniment to Ben Affleck’s The Town, but the two are worlds apart. In 2006, the U.S. government decided that, instead of investing in education, building a 670 mile fence along its 2000 mile-plus border with Mexico was worth alienating the Latino vote–and the money. Three years and three billion dollars later, Rory Kennedy asks, was it all worth it? The cynical viewer half expects the contractor to hire the illegals he is trying to keep out to get this boondoggle done on time and under budget (a la the Palestinians who work on the West Bank Barrier).

As someone who has been to the West Bank Barrier and left his mark, British artist Banksy knows the value of context. The tagline for his first film Exit Through The Gift Shop, which features a number of prominent graffiti artists, is “this is the inside story of Street Art – a brutal and revealing account of what happens when fame, money and vandalism collide.” The mere fact that Banksy is still going means that something in the world is still right, still working.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child may epitomize the spirit of this selection of documentaries: not War and Peace, but War and Art. Having sat on this footage for many years due to not wanting to have seemed to have “cashed in” on his celebrity and death, Tamra Davis’ film succinctly sums up the beauty of Basquiat’s Samo persona and the ugliness of his brutal addiction. As with most great works of art, it’s not obvious, but it’s there.

William McDonough often asks the question, “When you throw something away, where is away?” It might very well be at the world’s largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. In Waste Land Lucy Walker (yes she of Countdown To Zero was busy last year) follows artist Vik Muniz as he photographs the “catadores”—self-designated pickers of recyclable materials, who turn from artistic subjects into inspiring collaborators, recreating photographic images of themselves out of garbage, proving that where art is concerned, as McDonough suggests, there is no such thing as “away”.

Los Angeles Times Film reviewer Kenneth Turran suggests the Kings of Pastry (“16 chefs. 3 days. 1 chance.”) to cleanse the documentary palate. True Angelenos might prefer a little rock and roll idolatry with their New Year’s wishes. If so you would do well with Tom DiCillo’s When You’re Strange, a very strange look itself at The Doors.

If our constant desire for “reality” programming is any indication, could this year’s films (without even look at the plethora of Nazi documentaries), signal the beginning of The End…?

UPDATE: Steven Soderbergh’s film of Spalding Gray, And Everything is Going Fine is as good as anything Gray himself ever did.

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