Ironic Documentaries

I just had an opportunity to teach a summer course to a large group of professors and filmmakers, mainly from Eastern Europe, at the Central European University in Budapest.  You may heard of CEU as the product of George Soros’s investment in promoting democracy in the former Soviet Union after the Berlin Wall fell. CEU had its origins in that gesture and is a very successful graduate level university focused not on technology and science, as so many are, but on the humanities and social sciences as tools that assist in the understanding of others.

The course was on what the impact of documentaries is, how our belief in an underlying reality caught, in some measure, on film has much to do with the impact of most documentaries ,and how mockumentaries that pretend to have such an underpinning pull us up short. The result can be amusement or anger depending on many factors but what these films have in common is their irony. They don’t say what the mean or entirely mean what they say: they wink. And if we have familiarity with the form, we eventually get the wink, understand the irony, and process its effect.  I wanted to stress how conventions often frame the meaning of a message so that the belief in an underlying reality caught on film stems as much from the use of voice-over, interviews, reference to experts, B-roll editing that illustrates claims as if to prove them, and so on, as it does in any absolute form of reliability.  That being so, it is then fairly easy to mimic these conventions to produce irony.  it is less easy to do so skillfully but over the course of our meetings, we were able to explore the implications in a rich and rewarding way.  There’s more to say and that will probably become an article in the near future.



Rebels with a Cause or How to Create the World’s Most Amazing Green Belt

Cities sprawl and drag their inhabitants into the ticky tacky world of suburbia.  The core decays and banality ensues. Then prices draw the young and restless back to the core and a new cycle of gentrification begins.  A familiar tale but not the one told by this astounding film. Rebels is about the creation of vast stretches of preserved shoreline, meadows, fields, and hills in the land to the north of San Francisco, Marin County, and around the perimeter of San Francisco itself.  Many now come to the city and marvel at the splendor of the Presidio and Crissy Field with its spectacular views of the bay and the Golden Gate bridge from ground level.  They come and revel in the beauty of Mt. Tamalpais to the north and the vast stretches of farms and untouched lands surrounding Tamales Bay.  Few realize that this was not the result of enlightened politicians acting to serve the common good but of an intrepid band of ordinary citizens who, over more than 20 years, fought corporations, developers and politicians to save what would have otherwise turned into vast stretches of houses, hotels, conference centers and shopping malls.

Nancy Kelly’s film lets the surviving rebels tell their own story but accompanies it with a treasure trove of archival footage, including Richard Nixon being convinced that there’s more political gain in backing conservation than opposing it.  One of the biggest battles was with ranchers near Tomales Bay who feared government regulation and meddling if their land were turned into a park, not the mention the loss of a way of life.  They favored development that would at least let them cash out at a handsome price.  But a brilliant maneuver saved the day: incorporate the ranches into the area to be preserved but allow the ranchers to continue to use the land for agricultural purposes.  By also forestalling the rise of concessions and hotels, attractions and stores at the periphery of the preserved land, the rebels were able to maintain the fundamentally rural quality of the area and allow farmer, ranchers and visitors to coexist successfully.

A second major challenge was a proposal for the huge city of Marincello, right in the thick of Marin County and just north of the Golden Gate Bridge where breath taking hills and valleys great the modern visitor.  Such a development carried such an aura of inevitiablity in the pro-growth, pro-development oriented 1960s that the corporate giant Gulf + Western bought a major stake in the project. The rebels went to work, arousing wide spread support from the residents of Marin and from key politicians.  After several years G + W threw in the towel and offered to sell the land to the nature conservancy that had been formed for just that sort of purpose.  A similar tale unfolded in the city where citizen leaders fought to establish a string of parks from beaches and former forts along miles of ocean and bay frontage.  With great political support from key figures, they succeeded.

Rebels with a Cause offers a great model of citizen activism.  These rebels clearly relied on vital political allies who took serious risks to back a movement that opposed growth, new businesses and jobs, rural development, and heigthened economic prospertiy at a time when such notions were a virtual mantra for many.  Nancy Kelly captures this effort with clarity and passion.  It stands as a greta model for those who are now rebels in the making.


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.