Leviathan (2012)

leviathanDirs. Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel, 87 min., Netflix Disc.

For a documentary, you don’t learn all that much about the crew of the commercial fishing vessel profiled in Leviathan or the commercial fishing industry in general. While there are gritty and (sometimes) repulsive images of the detritus fauna leftover from the select bounty of the sea that humans will purchase in their local supermarket, it is neither placed in context by a Godlike voiceover, nor explained through visual imagery.

What we are left with are a series of disjointed scenes from the boat, a boat where apparently no one talks to the cameraman shoving a lens in their face or to each other (except on very rare occasions when there is a problem). While many of the visuals are stunning, just as many are monotonous or indecipherable. My experience watching on a DVD at home may take away some of the majesty of watching an upside-down shot of seagulls in flight lasting fully five minutes, but I can’t imagine it was much more stunning on the big screen.

I’ll put it out there: I don’t need for films to have dialogue or to particularly make sense, but I do need to feel some aesthetic response to what I’m seeing. Those moments that resinated with me from Leviathan involve workers adeptly performing monotonous tasks at breakneck speeds. I can relate to that quite a bit more than most people may ever know. I think the directors were trying to use these long takes to make the viewer empathize with the combination of monotony and freneticism that these workers experience daily, but looking at the thing in this case won’t necessarily build empathy; and if you already sympathize, you only have to look at it for about 60 seconds to fully appreciate it, not ten minutes.

I think it’s easy to see where I’m going here: the film needed to be 50% shorter. The endless dark frames of underwater photography with indecipherable images and unintelligible sound design were tedious. Culled moments, like the sailor slowly falling asleep to some popular reality fishing show (clearly the antithesis of the directors’ artistic vision), if edited properly, could have made this documentary that much more powerful.

Now let me go back on everything I said in the last paragraph.

If the film has a purpose to me, it’s that the human mind is always looking for form, and the extreme close ups and water-obscured lenses rarely give the human mind what it wants, such that when you do see an image, it strikes you in a way that would not be possible if not for the longing for form that preceded it.

The title remains somewhat of an enigma: is it representing man as the biblical beast? Perhaps a clever retort to Hobbes’ book of the same name? The loving dedication to those men and ships lost at sea during the closing credits suggests a more simpatico viewpoint, but the film seems to thrive on its mystique rather than its substance.

AV Club: A-
Dissolve: n/a
RT: 84%
me: C

Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”: Parts 6-9

Dir. Ken Burns, Est. 360 min., on PBS

So last time, I said I would talk about the film’s best and worst aspects.


  • Stirring Letters
  • Letters from persons in the war to their families, especially Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife, are tear wrenching.

  • Fabulous historical details
  • Among my favorite: Abraham Lincoln handing out presidential appointments after the 1860 election and saying there are not enough tits on the pig to feed the piglets

  • The impressive array of photos
  • Whoever did the job of assembling images is to be commended, as there are hundreds, if not thousands, of stunning images compiled in this film.


  • The range of voice actors
  • With the budget of this film, the number of actors included could have potentially been expanded. Morgan Freeman and Garrison Keeler were forced to do triple duty in some episodes.

  • The soundtrack
  • Viewed with intervals between episodes, “Ashokan Farewell,” the title track and outro music, would be charming and unique. Viewed in sequence without breaks, it looses its effect after the sixth time, and becomes annoying after the sixteenth time. A sad truth for a beautiful composition.

  • The Ken Burn’s Effect
  • I know I lauded it in the last review, but it does become a tiresome, predictable strategy, especially in the instances when photographs are reused (in the cases of the major players).

The conclusion was somewhat bittersweet, and from a historical point of view, focused entirely too much on the great men of history and all but forgot the former slaves. The resolution and much of the introductory portions of the episodes focused on reunion filmstrips and newsreels. While this is fascinating video, the question is justifiably raised: where is the discussion of race and the inequities that persist until our present day.

I’ll stand in the camp that this film can’t be all things to all people and shouldn’t try to treat every aspect of the war, but it still has some notable gaps and omissions.

However, I feel that much can be excused by the fact that this film serves as a progenitor of many modern documentary series. A good question is raised as to whether a film of this length should be expected to address all aspects of an issue; I would argue no. The discretion of the filmmaker is to set the scope, but a justification should be present to defend the scope (in my opinion). We are rarely privileged to enjoy such a justification, and this is no exception.

As a historical primer and stirring film, this film has great merit. For those who argue comprehensiveness of large historical film tomes such as this, I think that this serves as a relic of what was once considered the comprehensive treatment of a subject.

Film (or television miniseries in this case) is no longer king for a treatment of such a large topic. For Burns’ upcoming Vietnam war documentary, I hope for much more than a one dimensional approach: utilize the advances in technology to put your message in a more comprehensive domain. Granted this was not possible for this film, but hopefully Burns will advance with the times and deliver his masterpiece in his next work, as this film does not do justice to the potential that he possesses as a filmmaker and “compendiumist” (or whatever word you will use for that function, I couldn’t find a better one at this time of night).


Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”: Parts 1-5

Dir. Ken Burns, Est. 360 min., on PBS

Finding free copies of PBS documentaries, especially the crown jewels of their pledge drive monarchy, is like searching for a needle in a computer virus filled haystack.

Hence, when The Civil War aired in it’s entirety over the last week, I fired up my TiVo and prepared to journey back to the time when documentary filmmaking was not for the masses, but for hypernerds and PBS tote-bag-sporting intellectuals.

Documentaries are as old as film, but we live in an era when documentaries enjoy commercial success on par with other major studio releases [citation needed]. Ken Burns was a rock star in the 1990’s, only he had worse hair and played his shows over several multi-hour parts in the early evening, on public television, with sepia colored photographs and somber piano music.

The Civil War is a daunting proposition to most documentary lovers because of the length and the fact that it was originally conceived of and aired as a television mini-series. The subject matter, as I was discussing with a colleague the other day, is probably easier to swallow than some other Ken Burns fare: Jazz (2001), Baseball (1994), and the almost disturbingly boring sounding The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009).

Before I get down to discussing this film, let me talk a bit about what I like about Ken Burns. The man does not give anything a half-assed treatment. Case in point, The Vietnam War, his next project, is not scheduled for release until 2016. In an age where we are patronized by filmmakers telling us that we will learn what we need to know about any given topic in a lean 100 min. film that glosses over debates with 60 second sound bytes and was conceived of and produced in two years, Burns sets the gold standard for complete coverage of a topic: tell the whole story in the time it takes.

Burns’ style is now iconic: those of you owning a Mac will recognize the Ken Burns effect in Garage Band, where a partial of a photo is shown and the view gradually pans to the center or focal point (imagine looking at someone’s feet in a photo for a hard three seconds, and the view panning upwards to their face and resting for another three seconds). I’d imagine this technique is very useful for creating time for narration voiceover; hence, a short anecdote can be read in total whilst the metaphorical camera pans across the photo.

As a documentary, the film showcases the stunning photographs (and daguerreotypes/other photo precursors) that survived the civil war era largely by luck. After the war was over and the still culturally and racially fractured populace struggled to recover from the collective trauma, many photos were discarded or destroyed out of a desire to forget the war. A famous anecdote recalls finding glass photographic plates as replacement windowpanes in a country greenhouse.

Narration comes from an impressive cast of talented voice actors, including Morgan Freeman (as Frederick Douglass), (begrudgingly) Garrison Keeler, Jeremy Irons, and Sam Waterston (as Abraham Lincoln), who would go on to act in and solidify his role as the quintessential lawyer in the critically acclaimed series I’ll Fly Away.

The film is largely a compilation of quotations from an impressive range of sources with occasional interviews with historians, the most prominent being the authoritative historian on the topic, the late Shelby Foote.

Next time I’ll address some of the film’s greatest moments and a few issues I have.

Copyright Criminals (2009)

Dirs. Benjamin Franzen & Kembrew McLeod, 65 min.

I don’t claim to be a gentleman who knows much about music. In college, I kept my ear to the ground so to speak, did my share of downloading, listened to the local shows on my college radio station, etc. I even made a point of going to shows with bands I had never heard of, purchasing tickets to showcases and actually showing up for the five or six opening acts. I worked long hours affixing barcodes to disintegrating library books at $5.65/hr, but my time was not complete torture as I had my many CD’s that I lugged around all day (bad bad days at work were when I forgot headphones).

Grad school has turned me into an old man recluse who barely has time to watch the odd hockey game on TV whilst simultaneously responding to student emails. As such, I haven’t been to a show in well over two years, and about the closest I get to a showcase is my last.fm account. I wouldn’t even really know who to buy tickets to go see, unless I heard them on Sound Opinions. Likewise, grad school has left me heavily impoverished, and concert tickets no longer cost $14 with $3 beers once you get there. Going to see a band that I marginally like is financially infeasible, and seeing a band that I really want to see is usually out of my price range.

Hence, my relationship with music sadly now involves me sitting at my desk on a Saturday night, writing a blog entry on a film that discusses the legal issues of sampling. F….M….L…..

On a brighter note, Copyright Criminals is an exceptional documentary that actually provides a great deal of information about the origins and legal issues surrounding sampling. However, I highly recommend watching the film, then listening to the interview with Kembrew McLeod on Sound Opinions to get a fuller picture of the issues surrounding sampling and the music industry.

One nagging question that I have always wondered about is how artists can, in good conscience, produce something like “Come With Me” (Puff Daddy, when he was still called that) or “Wild Wild West” (Will Smith). I always assumed that large amounts of cash money payouts combined with Hollywood style hitmaking formulae were the culprit. Turns out that the complicated procedure and large financial obligations associated with clearing samples and avoiding copyright lawsuits have turned musicians into lazy, unimaginative cashgrabbers who latch onto a hook from a popular music hit, then loop it behind their tired ass rhymes. While that doesn’t excuse those songs (nothing can), it does explain a lot about why we don’t see anything inventive done by major label recording artists in the area of samples (e.g. past efforts from Beastie Boys, De la Soul, Greg Gillis, Danger Mouse).

The film itself tries to represent the opposite perspective that artists who sample are stealing from more talented artists, and I’ll give the filmmakers props for trying to show both sides. Sampling is an area where the devil’s advocate seems really out of step with the way art works. While the anti-sampling side ends up looking bad, they are allowed to voice their perspective in a way where they don’t look insane, which is refreshing for a documentary produced in the last decade. You only have to look at Michael Moore to see how documentary filmmakers tend to slam their agenda over the viewers head and use their privileged position as the final editor to make the opposition look like a bunch of fools.


As a side note, I also watched the film Chain Reaction (1996). Even though that film is kind of dated and cheesy, the underlying message of the hyper-commercial nature of capitalism was a decent compliment to Copyright Criminals.

Takin’ you to school! La journée de la jupe (en: Skirt Day) (2008) and Waiting for Superman (2010)

So I have been way too busy these past couple of weeks to write any entries, but I am back on it since it is spring break and I suppose I can spare (waste) an hour or so to write about some films I’ve seen.

La journée de la jupe (en: Skirt Day) (2008)

Dir. Jean-Paul Lilienfield, 87 min., at a free screening, French with English subtitles

Just as a lead in, I was talking tonight about two different types of education films that are common in our society. In category the first, films where a white teacher starts a job at an “inner city” school (with all of the negative connotations that our society associates with that pejorative term) and the white teacher eventually teaches black and Latino troublemakers that life is oh so much sweeter when you embrace white, middle-class value systems–examples: Freedom Writers (2007), Dangerous Minds (1995). In category the second, films where a beleaguered high school teacher takes brutal revenge on the nogoodnik students by transgressing the boundaries of a professional educator, mainly in the form of hitting, intimidating, and even killing the students–examples: One Eight Seven (1997), The Substitute (1996).

Skirt Day is a little from category one and a little from category two, minus the stupidness. In fact, the only comparison between the former films and the later is that Skirt Day highlights how smart films can be that cover the tightly intertwined factors of societal and classroom tensions. Skirt Day, as one of my friends at the screening said, could take place in any country because of the universal nature of the problems that students, teachers, and administrators face: problems of racial tensions, misogyny, classroom and street gang violence, gun control, teacher burnout, administrative unresponsiveness, etc. etc.

Sonia (Isabelle Adjani), an overworked and unappreciated teacher, receives no respect from the foul-mouthed students in her drama class. While students are harassing the poor volunteers who actually try to participate, Sonia notices two students acting suspiciously in the back of the classroom. She approaches them and confiscates Mouss’ (Yann Ebonge) backpack, and in the struggle a handgun falls to the floor, which Sonia picks up. Mouss tries to wrest the gun away, a shot goes off, and Sonia ends up as a hostage taker, simultaneously teaching a class on Molière at gunpoint while negotiating to voice her grievances with the teaching system and the rampant misogyny and violence afforded female teachers and students in her school.

Our guest speaker, a student from France who prepared an excellent discussion session, talked about some of the cultural values and ideas that this film seeks to comment on, including the sensitive nature of immigration, the concentration of poverty in Parisian suburbs, and also some positives about the French education system as well (including their strict adherence to the separation of church and state).

For anyone who is an educator or has volunteered in schools (especially in Chicago), you might be very familiar with some of the challenges and frustrations the anti-hero Sonia faces in this film. There was some commentary on whether the situations portrayed in the film (e.g. vulgar language, classroom violence, screaming arguments between teacher and student) are commonplace or artistic license, amplified to drive home a point. For anyone who has been in CPS and seen not just the triumphs, but also the grinding reality of the daily force-of-will showdowns between students, teachers, and administrators, this film is an education in how public schooling truly is a difficult and consuming endeavor, and how a school environment free of such distractions and dangers is a blessing to those fortunate to experience it, not, as our society sometimes likes to believe, a public guarantee for all. 

Waiting for Superman (2010)

Dir. Davis Guggenheim, 111 min.

In yet another in a string of slick documentaries targeted for moviegoers who feel just enough compulsion to try to learn something, but lacking the fortitude to sit through a documentary film that doesn’t have lots of animation segues, Waiting for Superman will tell you about the problems in our education system.

I’m not going to once again open up the “what makes a documentary film work” can of worms, but this film doesn’t have it. That’s not to say that there is not a lot of great stuff buried in this film.

Here’s what works: interviews with innovative educators who are trying new things like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee. Narratives of students and parents struggling to obtain a good education, in their own words.

Here’s what doesn’t: bossy voiceovers accompanied by what amounts to cutesy educational cartoons, cramming meaningless statistics and visualizations down our throat. Here’s a stat: 60 percent of the time, 100 percent of your audience either isn’t paying attention or knows enough about rudimentary descriptive statistics to know that your stats are garbage filler designed to fog up the mind of the viewer. Just leave the infographics at home please.

Still, the interesting discussion about educational reform, societal factors that impact childhood education (which is everything), and a different take on teachers unions (which is no doubt very unpopular right now) make this film worth seeing. I won’t get into my union opinions, but there are negative sides that deserve exploration, and this film gives a somewhat unbiased platform for those issues.

I meant to write about this film a couple of weeks ago when I saw it, but totally forgot. However, I remember enjoying it quite a bit and thinking that it was worth the spot in my Netflix cue.

That’s all for this week friends.  I will hopefully be writing at least two or three more times this semester, but who can say…

Oscar Nominated Film Roundup (Part One?)

So I am going to try to watch as many Oscar nominated films as possible before the big day two weeks from now. Who knows what the future will bring in terms of my schedule, however, so I may not get to blog about it. If all goes well, I will be able to write at least one more post which will mean I’ve had time to watch at least one or two more films before the big night.

The King’s Speech (2010)

Dir. Tom Hooper, 121 min., in theaters

Hooper is not stranger to period pieces, directing two period television series that involve the personal trials and tribulations of great men and women of history. I was fortunate to catch a bit of Terry Gross’ interview with Tom Hooper and it may have biased my viewing of the film since Colin Firth’s (King George VI, “Bertie”) method approach to embodying the character and speech manner of George VI was fascinating. The big buzz in method acting this year centered around Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Christian Bale in The Fighter, but Firth deserves at least as much if not more credit for his performance in this film.

In a nutshell, George VI (Firth) becomes king of England in the period leading up to WWII after his self-absorbed and definitively un-Royal brother Edward VIII (Guy Pierce) abdicates to marry a divorcee. George’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) arranges the help of a speech therapist, Lionel Louge (Geoffrey Rush) to help remedy George’s debilitating stammer which prevents him from confidently performing his functions as the figurehead of British society.

The film benefits from an inspiring real life story, and the storytelling within the film keeps a brisk pace and lends a dire gravity to what would ordinarily be yet another Oscar-bait, palace intrigue story. Rush was much maligned for chewing up the scenery in this film, but I found his performance to be within the bounds of the character, whose flamboyant therapeutic methods were a perfect match for the actor. Touching moments abounded throughout, and I found myself genuinely in suspense of the outcome and desperately rooting for his success.

An additional bonus was the gorgeous cinematography. Most every shot was a visual treat. This would ordinarily strike me as a film that need not be seen in theaters, but viewing this film at home will not do it justice. In a bit of cinematic irony, we see characters in the film spacing themselves out from microphones only to have the camera bossily push its way into the faces of Firth and Rush. Dividing the screen into thirds, the film presents close ups that juxtapose visually intriguing patterned backdrops with Firth’s (and Rush’s) pained facial expressions.  One of my favorite releases of 2010.


The Social Network (2010)

Dir. David Fincher, 120 min., on DVD

Two things: First, just because it’s about Facebook doesn’t mean it will be interesting or that I’ll care. Second, no one talks like this in real life.

Going from a touching rendition of one man’s brutally difficult struggle to be heard to a Aaron Sorkin script hardly seems fair to this film, but life isn’t usually fair, as the characters of The Social Network find out.

If you have to explain to me why I should believe that the dialogue you’re presenting to me is believable as human intelligible speech then perhaps it needs to be toned down (“Having a conversation with you is exhausting. It’s like dating a stairmaster”–just one instance of many awkwardly explanatory lines).   If Sorkin has tried to prove one thing with his writing, it’s that people hash out ideas in fast-paced, borderline maniacal speech sprints that shove rapid-fire witty retorts down your throat. Putting my dislike of Sorkin’s view of the world aside (if I can), the film still was a disappointment to me, perhaps due to excessive buildup.

The Social Network is less the story of Facebook and more the story of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), and the film really struggles to come to some conclusions about his character. The events that happen throughout the course of the film were mostly window dressing for a character analysis of, as the film’s closing captions tell us, the world’s youngest billionaire. As such, everything has to be extreme: extreme work sessions, extreme Harvard snobbery, extreme coincidences (Zuckerberg happens to move in next door to Sean Parker, Napster creator played well by Justin Timberlake) and, of course, extreme partying (a zip line from the chimney into the pool, really? It’s like a Mountain Dew commercial, a beverage which was product placed right into the movie, EXTREEEEEMMMMEEEEE DUDE!).

In a very non-critical appraisal, I just wasn’t feeling the film. I again admit that I dislike Sorkin’s unique style of writing, but that wasn’t the only thing bothering me. Most of the reviews I read/heard were praising this film for making a deposition interesting, but it just wasn’t. The two depositions could have been struck from the film for all I care, as the storyline proceeded in chronological order anyway and didn’t need any added layers of commentary telling me when to feel what. Why were they included? I guess for more Zuckerberg character development.

Was the timing right for a biopic of Zuckerberg either? Where is this source material coming from? Like the litigators in the film, is someone picking through the Harvard Crimson for this stuff? There were a lot of wasted opportunities for commentary on the ways that Facebook has changed our lives (with the notable exception of a great relationship status message bit). This film was less a study of the triumph of a megalithic social networking site than a character study on why Mark Zuckerberg is an ass (with one lawyer at the end regrettably spelling it all out for us: “You’re not an asshole…you’re just trying to so hard to be one”). I don’t know many billionaires, but I’m guessing that being an ass is par for the course, and I didn’t need a two hour lesson in why that’s the case.


Restrepo (2010)

Dirs. Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger, 93 min. (unofficial), on Netflix Instant

In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes that “a true war story isn’t moral.” Hetherington and Junger’s Restrepo tries to buck that trend by interjecting a lot of sentimentality and positive story trajectories into their film. However, as a documentary, whose to say that isn’t the way the story went?

Firstly, the only way you can really review a film like this and criticize the artistic merits of the film is to first separate the subject from the presentation. There’s no shortage of respect for the sacrifice of armed service members here, which is really the only way you can tell the story. However, along with an accurate representation of modern warfare and the struggles that our soldiers face fighting in Afghanistan, there are some disturbing undertones of how the story is presented.

This film comes off like a gnomon, leaving me with a sense that something more profound is missing from the presentation; perhaps out of respect for the sacrifices made by the soldiers, or perhaps to mitigate the senselessness of war. In either case, the filmmakers do themselves no favors by holding back. Surely the brutality of war is well represented in the film, but the sanctimonious justifications of the soldiers is not, as one would expect, thrown into sharp relief with the hopelessness of their fight. It seems like everything the soldiers in this film built will fall apart, but the film tries to go out on a high note, which I felt was undeserved given the climate surrounding the Afghanistan war this year.

I’m not sure my full attention was arrested by this film either. In terms of subject matter, the film comes off as disorganized and thrown together (dates might have been helpful in laying out the storyline). Perhaps this was a commentary on disorganized nature of human conflict and war.

However, the film ultimately redeems itself in the raw footage that the intrepid filmmakers were able to capture and put together. Funded by Nat Geo, this film (as in all of their projects) has a “being there” quality that makes it worth the experience. As a closing thought, this really is an experiential documentary, focusing on putting you in the shoes of the subjects and leaving the explication of the issues for post-viewing homework.


Countdown to Zero (2010)

Magnolia Films, 91 min., Dir. Lucy Walker
As seen at a free screening

I had some expectations for this film going into it, mainly that shot of people in a park which flashes to white and freezes (which actually happens at some point toward the end of the film), and a lot of clocks counting down to zero, which also actually happens, several times. My expectations didn’t totally match with what the film presented, but that didn’t necessarily make it a bad film.

Much of the emphasis of the film is in explaining how close we are to a nuclear disaster. It draws it’s organization scheme from (some might know) the “sword of Damocles” speech John F. Kennedy made to the United Nations, where he stated nuclear disaster could be caused by “accident, miscalculation, or madness.” This was perhaps not the best way to organize the film, as the discussion seemed less focused in the “madness” section and involved much more complex issues than just crazy people with bombs.

A lot was missing: an in-depth discussion of the history of atomic weapons and why they were created, a history of popular resistance to nuclear proliferation, a close look at the United States’ use of nuclear weapons against the Japanese people in World War II and how the rest of the world reacted to that usage of nuclear weapons, which factors into the history of nuclear weapons. The filmmakers instead chose to focus on the multiplicity of ways that nuclear disasters could occur apart from a nuclear exchange between warring nations, with a special emphasis on the ease of obtaining, smuggling, and incorporating nuclear material into a terrorist weapon.

I started out saying to myself “I knew all that,” but upon reflecting there were some startling facts presented in the film that I didn’t know. The film is mostly interviews with experts (although there are interviews with Jimmy Carter, Robert McNamara, and Michail Gorbachev which either too short or edited down too much). There was also a lot of padding. Examples include staged closed caption television shots (which might look familiar to British viewers), endless shots of a blast radius over different world cities, and equally endless shots of nuclear missiles launching from silos.

In terms of the theoretical side of the film, some of the most interesting theories involved how it’s impossible to predict some situations, and just having nuclear weapons endangers everyone in the world by virtue of randomness; once a weapon is detonated, Pandora’s box is opened and our whole way of life shot to hell. Most people will agree with that line of thought. I also know a few people who maintain that we can’t give up nuclear weapons because we would be powerless against a whole host of threats (failed nuclear nation states, terrorist use of nuclear weapons, etc.). To be clear, I don’t subscribe to that opinion, but I did not see a whole lot in the film that would change the mind of someone who does.

In our typical hour plus discussion following a documentary, my wife and I got to the subject of how this film compares with other documentaries we’ve seen in the last four years or so. I felt like some of the issues raised in the film should feel personal, but the filmmakers did not breach the threshold of actually making the threat real and immediate to individuals in a way like (another Magnolia Pictures Co. film) Food Inc. (2010) does. It all comes back to that tricky issue of individual change that I talked about in other documentary reviews.

I won’t drone on about An Inconvenient Truth because I could sit here all day and proselytize about how it’s the perfect documentary in many ways and how its arguments are crafted elegantly and for maximum effect, but it does have a discernible effect on viewers. The big way it does this is by convincing the viewer that he or she is involved in the problem and can exercise personal power to effect change. It also equates the value of a minor change with having collective power, and those changes are only necessary on inconsequential levels. In other words, for a documentary to be effective (in my opinion) it must convince the viewer that:

  1. a change in behavior is warranted,
  2. the path to change or the actions necessary are clear, and
  3. the change is worthwhile on an individual level (it must be at least worth the individual cost incurred by the change).

All three factors are important. For example, Food Inc. makes the consumer aware that his or her individual decisions are what makes the crooked machine run. Is a change warranted? Yes, people and animals are mistreated and our health suffers as a result of the current system. Is there a clear path to effect the change? Yes, we must consume food products that are produced by a better system, one which treats workers and animals ethically and does not create products that are injurious to our health. Is the change worthwhile on an individual level (i.e. should I change the way I consume food?). No. Organic food products that are ethically manufactured are unaffordable for most people without means.

Now, as the credits role and options are flashed on screen for individual action, I ask you, isn’t there an inherent hypocrisy on the part of the film makers by demonstrating that the path to an individual change of behavior is blocked to the average citizen, but then having an expectation that the viewer will have any interest in statements like “buy food from your local farmer”?

Other films do this to better effect. To once again pull out Inconvenient Truth (for the last time) the path to change is simple and often causes the viewer to incur no cost: throw your can into a recycling bin instead of throwing it away. Hey, I can do that! IC is more concerned with convincing people a change is warranted, but the stakes are so low for many of the changes that I can say “Yo Al Gore, I don’t believe in global warming, but I can throw my Clamato can into a recycling bin because you asked nicely.” And yes, if you don’t believe in global warming, your punishment should be drinking only Clamato, forever.

I won’t put all of my problems with the documentary film explosion onto this film, because it is mostly in the genre of raising awareness of an issue instead of promoting individual changes in behavior (despite the invitation to text “demand zero” to 97999 or whatever that message was at the end of the film). However, I’m inclined to believe that first of all, few members of the audience were in favor of nuclear weapons who attended this screening, despite the fact that the film was free to watch. Secondly, I feel no more engaged with the issue than I have always felt before the film. There was some talk bandied about at the conclusion of the film which stressed how popular support caused reductions in nuclear weapons, but it’s basically saying if there is a revolutionary amount of people who organize, band together, and elect new representatives to government, we can change any policy! Weak.

6/10: If you’re in the mood for a double feature, watch Dr. Strangelove, then watch this film. I think they would pair off nicely.

Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later (2007)

DCTV, approx. 70 min., Dir. Brent Renaud

To believe a desegregated school exists is a myth, at least that is the message behind Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later. And after seeing the film, I have little to disagree with.

First and foremost, the film focuses on socioeconomic privileges and how they play out in our secondary education system. While the filmmakers may have felt that they were beating the viewers over the head with ideas like “how do parents attend PTA meetings when they work two jobs?” or “how is it that the golf team is all white at a school that is predominantly black?” they probably could have made more probing assertions about the nature of segregation at Little Rock Central. It seems an impossible contradiction, but I want documentary films to be both subtle and explicit, objective and inflammatory, which is something I haven’t come to grips with yet as a consumer or critic, I suppose.

Persons in the film seem divorced from the production qualities in their narratives, more so than other films I have seen. There is also a surreal quality of hearing and seeing biased perspectives that are out of touch with reality, a feeling that is brought to a head when a child in one classroom is asked by one of the original students who fought to be integrated to point out the historical irony in her classroom (seated to one side, the black students, and on the other, the white students). As with everything, the rhetorical effects of presentation loom large, but work on a more subtle and basic level in this film.

A positive is born of the passivity demonstrated by the subjects of the film: the opportunity for a viewer to feel the frustration at trying to forcibly integrate two cultures who are the products of their progenitors’ mistrust and economic trajectories. The irony for the viewer is that we can see the sociocultural factors that lead to their opinions, but do nothing to interject. The self-replication of systemic segregation is also demonstrated in the attitudes and opinions of those interviewed.

If you are waiting for overt racism to be revealed in any of the film’s subjects, don’t hold your breath. With every opinion as to why de facto segregation exists (as subjects put it: “two schools inside one school”) the viewer must make a determination as to the extent to which different opinions hold merit; oftentimes I was left with the unsatisfying conclusion that people in the film, even if they are lying, believe their explanations to be true. I once read a phrase that went something like this:

The conscience tells me ‘I did that,’ while the ego says, ‘that is not me, I could not have done that.’ The ego wins.

Self-perception dominates reality, and what is repeated by the film’s subjects (“people tend to associate with people they like regardless of color”) supplants the reality, which is that “the people they like” are most often of similar appearance to themselves.

In any case, the attentive viewer can see that race, class, appearance, and socioeconomic status are inextricably linked in terms of a high school education. You need only travel to any CPS school to experience the same frustration for yourself. The issue left unaddressed in the film (due to scope) is the attempt to fix problems associated with underserved members of our society, and that is an issue which should haunt and influence our decisions for our entire lives.


Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)

Overture Films, 127 min., Dir. Michael Moore

My political views are no mystery to anyone who knows me, and this is supposed to be a blog about film and entertainment, so I will do anyone reading a favor and omit the majority of my stump speech.

I’m no lover of the capitalist economic system because it stresses accumulation over concern for individual happiness and welfare, as Mr. Moore demonstrates in his film.

Moore is reviled on the left and right, and I think he gets a bad rap because of his stupid antics which cater to the type of audience that wouldn’t watch this film in the first place, the people who don’t vote or care at all how civics operate in this country. I’ll now pull a Family Guy style cutaway gag to demonstrate my point. Here’s what you might have witnessed if Moore had called me up prior to filming this movie and you were in the room watching me talk to him:

Hey Michael, how’s it hangin’ bud.

Oh yeah, your new movie.

You say you want to drive an armored car up to a Wall Street bank and ask for the taxpayers’ money back. I’m not so sure about that. It didn’t really work in Roger and Me when you asked the President of GM for an interview and–

oh wait, what’s that–

You’re going to go back to GM to do the same exact thing you did in 1989. Ahh…um…I see. You know what, I’m getting another call.

No, I’ll call you back. Go Michigan! (scene)

Moore’s at his best when he’s explaining to you how everything is Washington is just a cash grab, but a lot of his stunts really wear thin after a while. The films are composed primarily of alternating human interest/soft news pieces, images of important people standing together who shouldn’t be standing together, redacted documents, and dumb antics like those described above.

I’m not a hard sell on his line of thinking, and even I was getting a little tired of having peoples’ personal tragedies paraded around like so much cheap filler. I suppose I weary of Moore hogging the spotlight. He turns all of his films into a documentary about his personal outrage rather than the subjects in the documentary itself. Notice how he not only conducts, but is pictured in all of the interviews; he also assumes this aggravating, child-like inflection in his voiceovers (example: “I asked Mr. Executive for an interview, but he said noooooo. I caaaan’t imagine whiiiee“). Can the fake sarcasm already, sheesh.

The film closes on a revolutionary note, basically inciting people to take action against an unfair system of laws that privileges the wealthy one percent of our population which people fruitlessly try to join. Hey buddy, the financial system isn’t doing me any favors, but what should I do, go smash up an ATM because I have no money? Any freshman in college will tell you that it’s a self-replicating system, and until I’m in a rebellion wearing a red armband and throwing fire bombs at armored cars, I don’t see a whole lot of outlets for my frustrations other than Buy Nothing Day.

I also got the sense that Moore is tired of defending himself against conservative rebuttals because he either just doesn’t care to win over the opposition anymore (that is, he’s just preaching to the choir at this point) or because he sees the intransigence and corruption of government officials as an insurmountable obstacle that needs to be burned down instead of sidestepped.

I could try to salvage some of the facts presented in the film and toss them out here, but the truth is that it’s a challenge to watch a Moore film and separate fact from schmaltz. I’ve seen plenty of documentaries that can offer a more balanced opinion, but mainstream films like this rely on emotionally charged interviews with sobbing women and enraged men to make their points for them. If you’re going to make a film that educates the public on a critical issue (and, yes, the oppression of workers and the willful destruction of the middle class in this country is a critical issue), step up your game from the “Everyday Hero” and “Real American” soft news tripe served up by the 6:00 evening news.

5/10: Hey wealthiest one percent, take a tip from Moore: The time is now to quicken the pace on your pleasure palace construction projects before this whole capitalism thing falls apart!!

Food Inc. (2010)

Food Inc. is probably one of the most highly regarded films that I have watched so far this summer, scoring an impressive 96% on RT and a 90 on Metacritic. I don’t think anyone would disagree with me if I said it takes 100% of it’s cues from An Inconvenient Truth (2006), aggressively forwarding a platform against an unpopular issue at the expense of big business, which never seems to learn that remaining silent on an issue is the worst possible decision.

The approach for all so called documentary films that adopt this rhetorical strategy is the same. You will be bombarded with images of human/animal/nature suffering: this makes you emotionally engaged with the issue (in Food Inc. a particularly disturbing image of yellow chicks being moved through a factory on a conveyor belt, getting their wings mechanically clipped, then being thrown down a metal chute by a worker).

Once you’re emotionally engaged, the film will hit you with some expert opinions that are framed in such a way that they seem irrefutable, or, at the very least, highly disturbing and suspicious: this puts you on the side of the filmmakers since no logically thinking person would hold the opposite opinion.

Along the way, industry will be asked to comment, but will likely refuse. Another possibility: the filmmaker will toss in a “punching bag” or “straw man” who is set up as the figurehead for the opposition only to be immediately knocked down (see Charlton Heston’s interview in Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002)).

The last step is to provide an outlet for the viewers to effect a change by listing steps that you, the consumer, can take to reverse the damage. Food Inc. does this by giving food procurement tips, e.g. “go buy from your local farmer.”

The film exposes a problem with the way food is produced and highlights our collective ignorance of the ingredients in the food we eat. The most salient point is probably that we have been buying food for much cheaper than it should be, and the losers are the undocumented workers who work in the meat assembly lines and factory farms as well as the local growers who are kept in wage slavery by the major corporations that have a stranglehold on food production in our country. I was sickened when someone suggested that immigration officials deport only a quota of unlucky individuals in the shanty town around a food factory since the large food corporation that employs them puts pressure on the government not to deplete their workforce; basically it’s a quid pro quo which allows the government to save face at the expense of the workers they’re deporting. Disgusting.

However, at the same time, I’m angry at films like this for showing me something that I have very little power to change. “Go buy from your local farmer.” What a revelation! Unfortunately, I can’t afford to spend $10/lb. on meat. Tell someone living below the poverty line that they should buy organic, small-farm grown vegetables for twice the price of corporately grown produce. The film addresses these problems, but provides no realistic outlets for change. At least now I can feel terrible every time I go to the grocery store and buy something, which I guess I should have felt for a long time now. It’s doubly bad when I drive there. Thanks a lot.

The film intimates that industry is wrong, but stops short of denouncing capitalism as the beast which created the food corporations. I’ll give the filmmakers credit for even going as far as they did. It’s definitely worth watching if you want to feel bad about eating anything you can buy in your local supermarket, but if you enjoy living in the Matrix, I would recommend avoiding this film.

8/10: Even this review probably contains some corn products

Interesting note: Magnolia Pictures released this film, and is owned in part by Mark Cuban, who also owns the Dallas Mavericks.