Sunday, April 12, 2009

Docs on DVD: A quick round-up of some of the new non-narratives worth watching

Writing about I.O.U.S.A. the other day made me realize how remiss I've been in covering most of the new documentaries that have been released to DVD over the past few months. So, below are ten of the best of these, with a short paragraph on each regarding why you might want to take a good look.

The film critic turning film maker has a long and rather prestigious history -- from the French New Wave through the fellow -- Godfrey Cheshire -- who made one the more interesting of recent docs, MOVING MIDWAY. When Cheshire's family decides to move its home base, a former Southern plantation, to a new location, the filmmaker travels south to document the deed -- and learns a whole lot more than he bargained for. His movie is smart, encompassing and keeps an even keel. Cheshire is even-tempered, too, maybe a little too much so, as we could use a good kick in the pants once in awhile, just to stay alert. America's South has always been good at keeping secrets. Cheshire is to be commended for letting a few of these out of the bag.

Maybe you have to be my age (or a NYC history buff) to get a jones for a movie like TOOTS -- which documents the life and good times of restaurateur "Toots" Shor. Director Kristi Jacobson does a yeoman job of marshaling old photos, clips and interviews to paint a pretty good picture of this fabled guy. Nostalgia buffs will cream, and even those who aren't should still enjoy the trip. Listening to everyone spout about the 40s, 50s and 60s is great fun -- especially when one talking head among the many journalists and athletes on view points out that sports writers and sports stars made approximately the same salary back then - though the latter had celebrity status to keep them warm. Maybe, as our next Depression evolves, we'll see something similar happen to salaries again. (If only!) The "Toots" Ms Jacobson gives us is something less than warts-and-all, though she does manage to indicate a bit about his mob ties and sleazy dealings. The guy's life was a high-rolling, high living, roller-coaster ride, all right, and one that, as presented by the filmmaker, Mr. Shor himself would probably appreciate.

I resisted as long as I could PRAYING WITH LIOR, the documentary by Ilana Trachtman about the Downs' Syndrome son of two rabbis who just loves to daven -- not wanting to give in yet again to another documentary that shows us the triumph of the human spirit. And I did pretty well at the task, too, until maybe midway through, when the themes of family, tradition and the many meanings of love just became too strong to withstand. Despite my reservations about all organized religions, not to mention the suspect wonders of davening, I was moved to tears by Lior's older brother's love and caring, and by his family's struggles to "do the right thing." This young man's bar mitzvah is a truly joyous occasion.

SO MUCH SO FAST details the diagnosing of, decent into and death from Lou Gehrig's disease of a young golden boy, one of several brothers who seem to have it all. We meet their extended families, see the young man marry as his brothers devote more and more of their lives to his cause, even to the point of starting a charity devoted to finding, despite all indications to the contrary, a cure. This is strong, sad stuff, guaranteed to make you grateful for what you have not (yet) suffered. But the documentary, by Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, does more than simply catalog life unto death. It opens up character, motive and responsibility for viewing and discussion. This is a fine and surprising piece of work.

TrustMovies is no fan of the AMA and am not one still, even after viewing Steve Kroschel's very strange and self-fulfilling documentary titled THE BEAUTIFUL TRUTH. This rambling, though not uninteresting, film introduced me to the work of Charlotte Gerson, her late father Max Gerson, and their "cure" for cancer -- which seems to amount to a "don't eat this but do eat that" regimen that comes complete with testimonials from the various "cured." While I am a far too gullible movie-watcher, even I had trouble swallowing all of this group's presentation, which, while it appears to give due diligence to the other side, instead just sloughs off much of that side's criticism. In any case, someone suffering from cancer (or likely to, due to genetics) would be a prime candidate to look into Gerson's theories. I would recommend that s/he watch this film and follow-up with the requisite research -- but with an eye on the potentially hazardous ramifications of this "therapy." I myself have neither the time nor the inclination, but then I am not (yet) a cancer victim.

Anyone looking for the year's most difficult documentary -- appallingly sad and provoking utter fury -- should find it in DEAR ZACHARY: A Letter to a Son About His Father. The movie unspools as a mystery of sorts, though we know some of what happens almost at once. But, oh, what we still have ahead of us to learn. Murders, miscarriages of justice, and a Canada (the country of my Bush-era dreams!) -- or at least a province of that country -- seemingly as stupid and uncaring (or deliberately naive) as any place in the western world combine to make this a movie that will leave you angry beyond all hope. There's too much needless, quick-cut repetition along the way, but, really, there's little the moviemaker Kurt Kuenne can do to tear us away from the film, once he has set upon telling his dreadful story. By its conclusion, shame is almost all that remains.

The Bill Maher and Larry Charles movie RELIGULOUS was the biggest money-earning documentary in a year of wonderful -- but not particularly popular - pieces in this genre. For my money, the movie deserved every bit of its popularity -- and more. Further, the criticism that Maher did not go to the really bright people who believe in god in order to provide a proper counterpart to his religion-bashing is simply bullshit. Really bright people do not believe in god. Sure, you can find plenty of men and women who are terrific in this science or that, who excel in whatever discipline you like. But I am sorry: Really bright people do not put their faith in something for which there is zero proof of existence. This is not a bright thing to do. For all the fun and humor Maher and Charles draw from the film, their impassioned finale makes such good sense that it should at least set a few god-lovin' folk to suspecting that they did not, after all, "teach their children well" (in the welcome words of Crosby Stills & Nash).

Ah, the thrill of an election! FRONTRUNNERS, via Caroline Suh, captures this so very well, and yet the documentary is all about the election of a student body president at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, where the smart kids go. We follow several candidates and their running mates as the election heats up, and not only are the results not quite what we imagine early on, neither are our own reactions to these results -- not to mention the rest of the movie. Any documentary that accomplishes this is worth a watch.

True, they're not really documentaries, but Roberto Rossellini's series of what I'd call narrative documentaries -- they have the form of narrative yet cover their subjects in near-historical documentary style -- occupy an almost unique place in cinema. His History Films, as they're called, may remind older viewers of the television series "You Are There" but handled in a manner much more interesting and highly sophisticated in its simplicity. There's one on Blaise Pascal, another on Cartesius and a longer one on the Medicis -- plus Criterion's release of The Taking of Power by Louis XIV. Each is fascinating from many different angles -- and it is simply amazing how much you can learn from them all.

I'm not sure why I resisted Naomi Wolf for such a long time. Was it the fact that she'd written about "beauty"? Or that she herself was simply too beautiful to be taken seriously? (Now, that's a dumb stance.) Or was I mixing her up for a time with Naomi Klein, an author whom I've long admired? Whatever -- now that I've seen the documentary THE END OF AMERICA based on Wolf's book, I'm in her corner. (The film is a collaboration between Wolf and Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg, Patricia Sunshine and Michelle Ngo.) All of Wolf's points about how, during the Bush administration, our country was being led into fascism are well taken and true. I had come to similar conclusions myself, as had many other Americans. You can quibble with some of her statistics perhaps but not, I think, with any of her major points. She divides her film into (if my memory count is correct) ten segments, each addressing a different way in which the former administration tried to lead us into temptation -- from equating dissent with being a traitor to one's country to blithely approving of torture. We've got a new and better administration now, but this film should be held in trust for a future time when it will be needed once again.

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