Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee is a challenge and clearly intends to be just that. His films always contain “extraneous” elements that no Hollywood producer would want: shots of protests, MLK orating, violence in the streets, etc.–all in relation to a story based on The Treasure of Sierra Madre but shifted from white guys seeking gold in Mexico to black guys seeking gold in Vietnam. And the remains of their hero/leader, a too good to be true soldier who was killed in an ill-conceived mission. The Bloods return after all these years to a Vietnam that at first looks like an extension of any other tourist destination but quickly becomes the foil needed to bring out the damage these men have suffered for decades: PTSD in a single word. Especially Paul who remains in a jittery rage, ready to attack anyone, including his son, if they cross him and he is easily crossed.

Paul is the central character and not an appealing one. Lee tests us to like a guy so badly messed up. By the military that used black troops as cannon fodder, by buddies who can’t quite connect with each other, by Vietnamese who harbor hatreds of their own. The last point, like much in the film, stretches credibility. By most accounts modern-day Vietnamese have moved beyond the American War of some 45 years ago. Young men then would be in their sixties now. Young men now would not have been born until 20-30 years after the war, so why do two different young Vietnamese men say people like Paul killed their mother and father? Lee wants the rage to burst out everywhere but turns the Vietnamese into stereotypical bad guys, or the one “loyal” good guy, or the women who were whores and now prosper, etc. It’s a Frenchman who is the most conniving although a band of greedy thugs who covet the gold come a close second. At least they don’t promise one thing and then do another.

My comments are a bit of a jumble because the film is too and although I admired its power and the simmering turmoil inside the men, the film just doesn’t gel. It uses another culture, or distorts another culture, to bring out the issues and defects Lee wants to display in these damaged men, which range from wisdom and altruism, despite their sufferings, to the murderous, mad rage of Paul. He also stretches out the ending by some 15 minutes after it is clear how things end up by tacking on scene after scene as if one more scene will really nail the thematic nail on the head. They just add clutter.

I’m glad I saw it but wish we had a film on that war that gave a more balanced, more insightful portrait of what it was like for the America that resisted it, the soldiers who fought it, and the people whose country endured it.

Theranos and the Big Lie

On Alex Gibney’s The Inventor

From NYT obit, 3/29/2019

“ I try to keep a certain level of quality of my films. I don’t do commercials, I don’t do films pre-prepared by other people, I don’t do star system. So I do my own little thing.”

–Agnes Varda

For someone to provide Errol Morris’ extraordinary footage of Elizabeth Holmes and her Theranos dream of blood-based lab work easily done in every home to Alex Gibney has resulted in the best Errol Morris film Morris never made. This gift to Gibney is not unlike the gift to Werner Herzog of the remarkable footage shot by Timothy Treadwell before he died, attacked by a grizzly bear. Herzog’s Grizzly Man distances itself from the self-serving intentions of Treadwell’s footage to question the very premise Treadwell lived by (namely, that he could live among wild grizzly bears as one of them, protecting them from harm.) It is also reminiscent of the gift of CBS videotapes of the McCarthy/Army hearings in the late 50s I believe that arrived at Emile de Antonio’s studio and became his brilliant Point of Order, a reedited version that exposed Senator Joe McCarthy’s ruthless, senseless, vicious style of personal attack, aimed, of course, of saving us from Communism. Gibney does the same. Morris’ initially prestigious assignment to bring an extra measure of glamor to Holmes and Theranos very well be vanishing from his resume at this very moment. His Theranos footage doesn’t gibe with his reputation for bringing out the self-deceptions his feature doc subjects have grown accustomed to as Gibney makes abundantly clear.

All the lovely portrait footage of Holmes inevitably exposes her as a poseur, intent on selling an unworkable and probably impossible idea to those naive enough to believe all the hype about Silicon Valley’s myths of miracle working. It merits close watching for the warning it issues to beware of snake oil salespeople, whatever their pitch. Hard questions needed asking and not Henry Kissinger, George Schulz, or other Board members, not the venture capitalists, not Walmart, which installed her grossly defective machines, not Errol Morris who took the money and added the charm as biden, asked them. Gibney does and the result is a powerful reminder of the power of power to corrupt.

Agnes Varda

Varda’s passing has been well noted already and I just want to add that her Les Glaneurs, The Gleaners and I, is one of my all-time favorite films. The gathering of left-overs and the parallels with creative endeavor, with bricolage in general and editing as well, resonates through that film beautifully, as do her reflections on mortality. She uses a hand-held digital camera to return to the era of oil painting and original work of art with its unique aura, a very clever way of undermining the magic and miracles wrought by technology which she clearly appreciates but insists on placing in a larger perspective. Varda was an original and she is missed.

3rd Edition is Published

It’s here: The 3rd edition of Introduction to Documentary, first published in 2001.  Lots of updates and photos from new and older films, but the biggest changes is a brand new chapter, “I Want to Make a Documentary: How Do I Get Started?”  It covers key aspects of preproduction from the pov of what funders tend to look for and what a filmmaker needs to convey.

The book size is a bit larger and that makes for a really nice lay out of tables and photos.

The Cover

Modern Wonders and Distant Talks

Do you ever wonder where “here” is when we say an online talk is “here”? I gave a talk in Zuruch at Do It Again, a terrific conference on Reenactment in Documentary and that was “there,” in Zurich, but now it’s “here,” but it didn’t happen “here” and yet it does. Maybe that counts as a reenactment or at least as a repetition, but it’s not purely a repetition since it’s from a singular point of view, not a filmmaker’s, maybe, but the Conference’s, which chose where to place the cameras, what lenses to use, and when to cut, and so on so that this is in a way a reenacting of a talk from a distinct pov, even it is close to the zero degree style made famous by our French theorist friends.

The link to it is here: The website for the conference is http://www.zdok.ch and the direct link to my talk is https://www.zhdk.ch/109306.

You may enjoy the linkage in the talk between thumb sucking and reenactments.

Once There Was Job, Now There Is Jobs

Alex Gibney’s doc on Steve Jobs set a high standard and Danny Boyle’s fictional take, Steve Jobs, is way, way below that mark. The screenplay is idiotic, to use one of the less jargony words in critical parlance: it’s three acts, all the same. 1 and 2 are product launches that fail and 3 is the iMac, Jobs’ first real big success since the Apple II, which he hates, despite the fact that it keeps Apple afloat, apparently because he had little to do with it, not that he has much to do with any other product other than being an abusive perfectionist that everyone tolerates for entirely unclear reasons.
The dialogue is fast, smart and unbelievable. Characters snap at each other as if they just have to wait long enough for the other person to speak before they can race ahead to their next piece of prepared monologue. No one seems to actually listen to anyone. It’s all pre-scripted and scenes are like a run through, which is what the 20 minutues before the launch motif of this baldly 3 act film actually is. Kate Winslett hustles people in and out of Jobs’ Presence, citing how many minutes of the count down to Launch remain, and offering some words of seldom heard wisdom to Jobs. Characters then parade in and have their little confrontations, from a nearly deranged wife and needy daughter whom Jobs treats like dirt he’s never seen before and doesn’t want to see again, to colleagues who all try to get him to see his feet of clay in one way or another, to no avail. Jobs steams ahead on his fully scripted and totally predetermined course. Sorkin could not have written a flatter more annoying character if he were dealing with the Hell’s Angels or ISIS.
Of course there is a hint of redemption at the end: the iMac will be a huge hit, and we all know that success is all that counts. Plus, plus Steve Jobs shows a litttle tenderness to his now teenage daughter, after blowing up that someone else stepped in to pay her tuition to Harvard, as if he never would have failed to do so (despite the fact that he just did exactly that). Many liberties seem to be taken with his personaal life and many dubious parts of his business practices never appear–that’s what’s convenient about the 3 launch structure; Sorkin and Boyle can just throw the same characters in front of him three times and overlook anything they want to overlook. It’s a biopic without the bio; it’s a stage play without the climax; it’s a dog that can go back into the kennel and stay there. Unlike Gibney’s doc and unlike the great granddaddy of the biopic, Citizen Kane, Steve Jobs has no bark, no bite and very little of anything to chew on at all. What price success is as old a question as capitalist greed, if not human nature, but Sorkin and Boyle have nothing new to say, not this time around.

The Film Manifesto

I’ve written a little introduction to the film manifesto as a form that’s been with us from the days of early cinema. Individuals and groups, from the Lars van Trier to the Pope have taken the manifesto road, more or less, to champion their vision for the cinema.

This is the link to the brief introduction and that should also take you to a set of actual manifestos that are drawn from a new book that is an amazing compendium of manifestos from different times, countries, people and sexual/political orientations.

This is an onliine version of material that will also appear, in part, in the next issue of Film Quarterly. It helps inaugurate Film Quarterly’s entry into cyberspace.

http://www.filmquarterly.org/2014/09/manifestos-a-forgotten-history-2/

Documentary Nomads

A fascinating program for documentary filmmakers has emerged in Europe. Called DocNomads it involves stays in three cities over the course of a year: Lisbon, Budapest and Brussels. Students work with resident instructors and master class guests in each location and make films in each city, and sometimes in the countryside as well. The students come from all over Europe and beyond. In Budapest Tamas Almasi heads the program and I recently visited there to offer a week long master class on selected issues and concepts in documentary. I had students from Ecuador, Belarus, Serbia, England, France, Italy, Russia, Hungary, the United States, and ten other countries, if not more. They come with filmmaking skills and an undergrad degree behind them and are ready for the new challenges the course offers. Language is one of them. The course is offered in English but in every location most of the students do not speak the local language. This makes their production work challenging but far from impossible. They are a resourceful, inventive group, among the best I’ve worked with, and the program is a brillaint model for how to think outside the somewhat zenophilic boundaries of much documentary production.

It’s a program that deserves emulation.

Les Blank

Les was a great filmmaker and friend. He will be missed.

I had the honor of hosting his reception of a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Mendocino Film Fest, a little fest up the N. CA coast, and doing a q/a with him.

Having done this with Haskell Wexler the year before and worrying more about getting a word in than getting him to open up, there was just a bit of anxiety with Les who is prone to the laconic but after a clip from The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins and a little appreciation of his subtle, non-verbal thematics, he lit up and talked freely of his wilder days of parties and partying and his film aesthetic of respect, appreciation and open-endedness. It was a great event and one I will cherish now that he is gone.