Tag: documentary

Back Catalog Review: Jean Vigo’s Documentary Shorts – À propos de Nice and Taris, roi de l’eau


The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all of the films I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films.

I was going to do all of Vigo’s shorts, which would have added Zéro de conduit to this post, but I realized that the Vigo’s first two shorts, À propos de Nice (1930) and Taris, roi de l’eau (1931), were of a different genre than that film, which is a fictional story about life in a boarding school. These two films are documentary shorts, though as I’ll go into a little later, they stretch the boundaries of that genre a little bit. First, a bit of background. À propos de Nice is a city symphony, a subgenre of film that takes a look at the city it is documenting without utilizing a traditional narrative (usually), made famous by Man with a Movie Camera. In this case, Jean Vigo and his photographer, Boris Kaufman, filmed the sights of Nice, France, including beach scenes, sporting activities, a parade, and the working men and women who contrast with the rich leisure-seekers. Meanwhile, Taris, roi de l’eau is a shorter film, commissioned to celebrate the Olympic swimmer Jean Taris’s abilities and prowess. I noticed between these two films with a total runtime of 35 minutes six interesting techniques Vigo used to innovate the documentary form and put his anarchist worldview on film.


Movie Review: Whose Streets? (2017)

Whose Streets 1

Protest poetry is a thing I only recently really paid attention to. That’s on me. But in my studies, I found protest poetry from throughout history to be some of the most directly powerful stuff I read while studying for my Master’s degree. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy” dramatizes the British Army’s response to civilian protesters and acts as a call to action for continued protests in the future. Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” is a rousing poem of courage in the face of sure destruction. Both of these poems (and many others!) have lived long lives, reappearing when new protesters find them and use them as inspiration and rallying cries. “The Mask of Anarchy” became important for the labor protests in American factories at the start of the 20th century, and “If We Must Die” was among the literature available to the prisoners at Attica and likely influenced their rebellion against their harsh imprisonment. Whose Streets?, a documentary about the Ferguson protests sparked by the murder of Michael Brown in the summer of 2014, documents in part how a poem of resistance from the 70s became again relevant in a new context.


Mistaken for Strangers (2014)


I feel like I should start this review off with a disclaimer. The National is probably my favorite band still playing music and their second most recent album, High Violet, placed at number three on my top albums list. So yeah, I was probably already in the bag for this rock doc about their tour playing that album. But rock docs usually aren’t my thing, so it would take a special twist on the old formula for me to really get behind it.Luckily for me, that twist is right there from the beginning. This isn’t just a concert film, it’s a soul-searching movie about growing up in the shadow of a rock star, and about the creative struggles of a guy who’s down more than he’s not. It’s a movie about making itself, and it’s a triumph of the genre.

The National is a band of brothers, as the five main members are comprised of a duo of brother guitarists and a bassist and drummer who just happen to be twins. That leaves singer Matt Berninger as the only guy without a brother in the band. He does have a brother, though, Tom, who seems to have taken up being a younger brother as a full time job. Tom is not a fan of The National, he prefers the metal end of the spectrum and derides the band’s music as coffee house rock. That doesn’t stop him from joining the band on their European tour as a roadie who spends his free time making a documentary about the tour. Early on he tries to get all of the things we expect to be in a tour doc into the film: one on one interviews with all the band members and behind the scenes squabbles, though these are both filtered through his singular lens. See, Tom is a bit focused on his own relationship with his older brother, and the ways that Matt’s fame has twisted their already kind of distant relationship. Most of those interviews with the band members become a kind of therapy session as Tom either asks about times when Matt has been a jerk to them or questions why there isn’t as much crazy drug-fueled parties happening. It seems like Tom forgot which band he was following.


He’s also not a very good roadie, and the film chronicles his misadventures as he loses guests lists and forgets to get water bottles and towels together for the band before a show. This puts his relationship with his brother on even rockier ground. There’s not a whole lot of good times captured on record here as the film dispels the myth of the rock tour with the truth of overwhelming logistics and stress. Tom is unafraid to show us exactly how much he screws up and when he is fired once the group gets to New York it is not so much a surprise as it is inevitable. He’s not cut out to do this kind of thing and his first stop is to return to his parents house and ask them on camera what the difference is between him and his famous brother. He’s trying to figure himself out by contrasting himself against his wildly successful brother. Nobody is going to stand up to that kind of self-scrutiny. As Tom spirals further and further into himself we see him starting to edit the footage he captured throughout the tour. Here is where you’ll either lose patience with the film or get even more engrossed in his struggles with depression and creative consternation. Matt and his wife (who is also credited as an editor on the film) put Tom up in their daughter’s playroom to give him enough space physically and emotionally so he can create the film he needs to create. There are further struggles as Tom realizes exactly what the movie has to be about, and when he changes the post-it notes that serve as an outline of the film from a sprawl of multi-colored near-randomness into on straight line of red notes detailing all of his screw ups we begin to understand exactly how and why this movie is what it is. The film a fantastic work of self-realization which ends with the most euphoric credit card I’ve ever seen. It’s a powerful statement that signals a new phase in this man’s life and is inspiring to anybody who has ever had a creative bone in their body.

A final note on the the music, which, if this were a typical rock doc, would probably take up the majority of the review. The film saves it’s biggest music scene for last, a performance of “Terrible Love” in which Tom is serving a new role in the crew of the band and Matt goes out into the crowd and eventually into the lobby to use its echos as amplifiers of the line, “It takes an ocean not to break.” We’ve seen the ocean at this point in the film, and Tom has not been broken. The National provides the perfect backing to this kind of self-examination as their songs are full of people in similar situations to Tom, trying to find their way in a world that feels indifferent to them. There’s another part in the film where Tom goes into the studio with the band and hears them working on a song from their most recent album, Trouble Will Find Me. It’s a song about the relationship between Tom and Matt called “I Should Live in Salt” which has lines like “Don’t make me read your mind/You should know me better than that” and it’s chorus “I should leave it alone but you’re not right”. Throughout the film we get Tom’s point of view on their brotherly relationship, or lack thereof. In the song we see Matt’s side, his recognition that they aren’t alike and his guilt over leaving Tom behind as he pursued his rock and roll career. It’s the film in four minutes and from the other point of view, and is must listen material for any fan of the movie.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

I’m untouchable now in this country.

Anybody who has spent more than a minute or two on the internet or in front of a TV with the news on in the last few weeks probably knows about the big privacy scandals happening in the US right now. It’s clear we are living in an age of information and right now that information means leaks. This film endeavors to tell the whole story of WikiLeaks, the internet safe haven for people who want to release information that has been hidden from the public. But, similar to how Overnight chronicled how the ego of one man got in the way of his own dreams, the most interesting parts of this documentary are about the men behind the leaks, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.

Roughly half of this two hour and ten minute documentary covers the facts of the creation and media blowup surrounding the controversial whistleblower site WikiLeaks. Most of this story wasn’t new to me as I followed this story semi-closely while it was happening (and it’s not over yet, by the way). The website is the brainchild of hactivist Julian Assange and the film does a fair job of going through all the important things that happened to him and the site as he leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents without much regard for the implications. Through a series of talking heads and some pretty great visualizations of the sharing and disseminating of information over the internet anybody without knowledge of what happened here will get a solid understanding of the events. These parts were a little less interesting to me. It’s just repeating what I already knew. However, a week or so ago I was listening to an NPR interview with the director, Alex Gibney, and he said something which piqued my interest and which he executed quite well. Outside of the facts there are a few big questions that this documentary begins to ask surrounding the men behind the leaks.

Jullian Assange gets as close a look as Gibney can get of him, his history and current actions included. During the NPR interview Gibney talked about how Assange insisted on linking himself as closely as possible with his website and the information it leaked. He has a philosophy in which any secrecy is vilified and all efforts to keep information from the people is the greatest evil. This of course clashes with basically everybody he comes across, from the reporters who are trying to help him while still trying to keep some journalistic integrity to the governments of all sorts of countries whose secrets he is leaking. His black-and-white worldview doesn’t quite make it inside his own mind, it seems. Soon after his biggest leak a scandal breaks out when two women claim that he sexually coerced/raped them. He immediately goes on the offensive and claims that they were honeypots planted by the CIA or the Sweedish government or maybe the Brits or Martians. This is where things get tricky. There are now two large controversies surrounding Assange, a professional one and a personal one. In the former he is on the side of absolute transparency, giving out potentially dangerous data while in the latter he insists on privacy. His business partners try to convince him to separate himself from WikiLeaks so the important work there can continue. He refuses, insisting on conflating the two issues. It’s obvious to him that the timing means the allegations are false and an attempt to discredit him. Of course, this leads to him becoming the story instead of the information contained within the leaks. This gets a lot of people angry at him. It’s these elements that make for a fascinating story and film. I know Benedict Cumberbatch has a film coming out where he plays Assange and it’ll be interesting to see what he does with such an interesting and multi-faceted role.

The other man at the center of the film is the guy who got all the information for the leaks. Bradley Manning was just a normal soldier who had intense personal problems. He felt like he was maybe supposed to be a woman and that seems to have thrown his entire sense of self off kilter. He sees some of the clearly horrific things that he’s been asked to do and feels like he should tell somebody about it. He finds a hacker friend to whom he reveals almost all of his personal life. These internet conversations are transcribed onscreen throughout and it’s sad to watch him slowly deteriorate mentally from the stress of his job and personal life. Ultimately he decides to leak all the information via WikiLeaks, which has promised anonymity. However,  his hacker friend he poured his heart out to, Adrian Lamo, feels like he has to go to somebody and tell them who leaked the information. The relationship between these two men is complex and frames a lot of the questions about the validity of whistleblowing and personal privacy in the film. It’s again a really interesting subject and the story of what happens to Manning is tragic.

Whenever the film goes personal it is instantly a more successful movie dramatically and filmically. The the cold digital print of the conversations between Manning and Lamo are a perfect representation of the solitude they both were facing at the time and have faced since. Which brings up my last point. The movie ends with two screens of text detailing what has happened to Assange and Manning since the cameras stopped rolling. It’s a story that doesn’t have an ending yet, which isn’t very satisfying in a movie sense. It’s an important movie to get some really necessary conversations started but we still don’t know what the ultimate results will be. Heck, this could be seen as last weeks news with all the new information scandals happening right now. Personal privacy is being heavily debated as I type and the stories of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange and Bradley Manning are just a few small pieces of the giant puzzle of personal and governmental privacy in the Information Age. We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks acts as both a primer and character study for those small pieces and is worth a look for both reasons.

The Fog of War

Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he is speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He’s killed people – unnecessarily. His own troops or other troops. Through mistakes, through errors of judgement. A hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand, maybe even a hundred thousand. But he hasn’t destroyed nations. And the conventional wisdom is: don’t make the same mistake twice. Learn from your mistakes. And we all do. Maybe we make the mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five. There’ll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. Make one mistake and you’re going to destroy nations.

Robert McNamara is quite a guy. Errol Morris uses an innovative “Interrotron” camera that basically lets McNamara look into the camera and see Morris’s face using tech similar to a teleprompter. It’s supposed to get a more immediate interview with the subject looking directly into the camera and even arguing with it. It works. McNamara’s clearly a smart guy and his ability to articulate what he went through in his time as Secretary of Defense and his life as a whole is pretty astounding. I have lived around 1/3 as much as McNamara had at this point and I certainly couldn’t talk about that time as well as he does here.

He says his earliest memory is of the end of The Great War. He was two at the time. 80 years later he can still remember seeing the people celebrate atop cars on the street and the sense of an end to all wars. It was the last big war we would ever fight. Of course, maybe he’s fabricating that memory, as 2 is a little young for a memory so vivid to stick, but maybe it’s just part of his being. He’s a man of war, fighting in WWII and acting as the Secretary of Defense for the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam war. He was also a professor at Harvard and the president of Ford Motor Co. for a few weeks. After resigning/getting fired from the Secretary of Defense job he became the president of the World Bank. The doc doesn’t touch on that last part very much, but that’s fine. Morris frames the doc as 11 lessons learned from McNamara’s life about how to fight wars and live effectively. They’re all good lessons, ranging from “Get the data” to “In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.” They’re all good lessons and McNamara expounds on them eloquently.

Morris intersperses archival footage between the interview footage, which works wonderfully. His hand is a little heavy, especially in the use of dominoes falling over a map and numbers taking the place of bombs dropping from the sky during a montage showing the calculations behind war. While these techniques are a little on the nose, I still appreciated them for their audacity. It’s not often a documentary allows for the director to stretch his artistic legs and it makes for a fun watch. That’s not to say this movie bends to Morris’s will. McNamara will often start a segment with a line like “Wait, we have to go back before we can get to that.” He’s always providing context. You can’t talk about Vietnam before you talk about the end of WWII because nuclear war is the (a?) reason why Vietnam was so messed up. He’s also not afraid to talk about what he got wrong. Early on he speaks to how knowing Khrushchev allowed the US to get out of the Cuban Missile Crisis without launching into full out war. At the end he explains that the US just couldn’t get into the minds of the Vietnamese. They didn’t understand why they were fighting or what they were fighting for. It’s maybe the biggest problem with that war and McNamara demonstrates exactly how and why they got into that situation.

The Fog of War is a fascinating document of a fascinating person. It doesn’t gloss over anything. I was afraid it would ignore the criticism he faced later in his 7 year tenure as Secretary of Defense but it gets ample time late in the film. McNamara talks about how all of this is hindsight, even those criticisms are in hindsight, so it’s hard to blame him for what happened. Also interesting is the different relationships he had with the two presidents he served, JFK and LBJ. His analysis of two pictures taken during a meeting of he and LBJ is pretty funny and telling. Each frustrated with the other not paying attention to him. Stubbornness is one of those human emotions that will always make war harder and longer than it needs to be. Just another lesson from the long, strange, complicated life of Robert McNamara.