I remember an internet friend – those kind you know only online, but have never met face to face – writing extensively about Walker. It was intriguing, but far too in depth. I needed a primer. What I needed was a good entry point and guide to Scott Walker.We all have cultural blind spots. Even when I feel confident that I know a little about a lot of things, I come across some topic or subject that I know squat about. Scott Walker is one such thing. I’m partially embarrassed to admit that until recently I knew absolutely nothing of the singer Scott Walker, Okay, I knew this song, but I never knew who sang it.
If the point of a documentary is to share something of the real world then 30th Century Man is a good documentary. It is, however, not a film you have to watch. There are long segments of this film where the visuals serve little purpose or add next to nothing to my understand of the film’s subject. Watching others listen to Walker’s work is an interesting element, but it doesn’t pay off. No matter how famous the listeners are, their reactions to the music are too internal to register on camera. Yet, when Brian Eno quips that today’s musicians are adding nothing to development of modern music he’s right. Especially, when we get to hear Walker’s more recent music. Walker is century’s ahead of the pop musician of today.
Let’s hope that at least one of today’s pop artists progress in the wonderful and weird ways that Scott Walker progressed.
From Less Than Great Heights
I think I’m just disappointed. The image of a man balancing precariously between the towers of the World Trade Center seemed pregnant with such promise. I dreamed of a documentary focused on what drives a man to such daring, deathly lengths. I imagined something akin to The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner or even The Devil at Your Heels. Instead, Man on Wire plays like a deflated heist film.
Philippe Petit‘s tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center may have been the ‘artistic crime of the century’, but there is not enough filmed or photographed evidence. Man On Wire is constructed like a heist film, but there is no tension, we know the outcome and are now forced to hear a rotating cast of individuals share less than rivoting, technical details. Too much of the film balances on overly manufactured interviews and poorly conceived re-enactments. As a whole the film, expresses its story in about six different styles, most of which do not gel with one another. For a story about a man so focused and so determined, the look of Man on Wire is scattershot.
James Marsh tried this mixture of archival and re-enactments in Wisconsin Death Trip . That too was less than successful. So, I should not have really been surprised at these results. I guess I’m more shocked at how many people like this film. Its seems that of those I know, the ones who like it watch documentaries and the ones who don’t like it make them.
Your subject's style may become your own.
Find an interesting subject. Find a camera. Make a documentary. It seems so simple. Then reality sets in.
There is a vast difference between finding something that is fascination and communicating something that hold fascination. One struggle documentary filmmakers quickly realize is that a film must start and stop. Even if a documentary carries no goal driven narrative, the filmmakers must decide how and when to present information, what information need not be shown, and when you’ve satisfied or exhausted our audience.
When the Maysles brothers began filming the lives of the eccentric Beales they encountered a second difficulty of documentary filmmaking. Sometimes your subject dictates your style. From the onset of the film, the Beales invite the Maysles into their home. Even if Albert and David Maysles wanted to make an observational documentary, Edith and Little Edie Beale would not let them. The Beales play for the camera. They refuse to forget about its prescence and they continually address the Maysles.
What I appreciate about Grey Gardens, even if I find it an enchantingly ragged documentary, is how the Maysles negotiate these two issues. The Beales force the Maysles away from the observational mode of filmmaking more prevalent in Salesman. The need for newspaper clippings, still photographs, and self-reflexive moments seem disjointed from the observational mode of filmmaking, but they also express the struggles of documentary filmmakers forced to adapt their style to best suit their subject.
Just as not everyone should or could be able to take on the monastic lifestyle, Into Great Silence may not be a documentary for those seeking answers. Questions of why, how, even what are eschewed in favor or immersion. The life of the Carthusian monk is either a peaceful and spiritual or solitary and hellish. It really depends on the attitude of the viewer. The quiet, ritual-heavy life of these monks has been distilled down to a manageable two-and-a-half hours. Philip Gröning’s camera documents their daily routines with great patience, the kind that comes from not only observing a subject, but living with the subject.
I greatly appreciate the watchful, calm, and touchingly poetic eye that Gröning employs. The film literally transforms itself from a documentation to a practice, one that evokes a meditative and spiritual transformation in the viewer, if that is what they are seeking. Personally, this is just the type of film I seek and adore. It captures the ineffable.
Fighting for better narrative conventions
When We Were Kings is a sloppy documentary. It relies to heavily on the authority of George Plimpton and Norman Mailer to add drama and significance to the Ali / Forman fight. Other times, the film leans heavily on concert footage and musical montages to pad the film. While the original footage, shot in Zaire in 1974 is the most compelling aspect of the picture, the filmmakers stare at Africa with the eyes of tourists.
I recall watching this one in the theaters when it was first released where I was more enamoured with it then I am today. I wish we were allowed to just witness the fight, to hear from those in the footage how important this match was to both men, to Zaire, and to race relations back in the U.S.. Instead, a series of talking heads is constantly popping in to stress these points.
It’s only when the moments of gorgeous, abstracted imagery shot on high contrast film stock appear that I can stop reminiscing about Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula. Cuadecuc, Vampir is an experimental documentary by Pere Portabella, but the experiment quivers between behind the scene glimpses and brilliant bursts of purely artistic imagery. Plodding ambient sounds stretch themselves across the soundtrack, adding little insight into the filmmaker’s intentions. Hopes for more pointed or ponderous consideration about the legend of Dracula and how film has helped to create this mythos never arise. During the film’s final reel a series of well crafted edits begin to comment on the difference between the film’s image and the image of those being filmmed. However, by then it is too late and I am left with a few stunning, but meaningless images and a lingering desire to revisit Franco’s Count Dracula.
It’s the kind of film I wish I had made. It’s the sort of restaurant I’d seek out.
Just try to franchise that!
Like a night of drinking, On the Bowery takes on many moods. While it is easy to laugh along with the drunken antics of the barflies that inhabit the stools and gutters of the Bowery, there comes a time when laughter turns to sadness and empathy. I am more inclined to over look the minor faults of the picture and simply praise the Lionel Rogosin for his open, nonjudgmental depicting of a destructive lifestyle. The weathered and craggy faces of the derelicts that stumble through this picture is as harrowing as it is honest. The authenticity of both the faces and places that fill each frame of this picture are miles apart from Hollywood. No wonder if comes from New York and the mind of a true independent. When Lionel Rogosin shifts the picture from pure documentary into the realm of docudrama through a rather contrived narrative, its easy to groan. He allows a happy ending to gives us an escape route, though I cannot personally believe that our protagonist, were he real, could so easily escape. No, I am sure he’d find his way back to the Bowery and even Rogosin hints at this unforeseen fate.
The Great Adventure toes the line between sentimentality and superb. Not necessarily a nature documentary and not exactly a personal memoir, director Arne Sucksdorff created a hybrid drama that is either a distant cousin or direct influence on the nature documentaries of Walt Disney. The drama in The Great Adventure revolves around the a young boy’s attempt to domisticate a river otter. At first, the wily creature makes an adorable pet, but soon the boy realizes the hard work and responsibility that come with caring for another person. I say person because Sucksdorff treats all the animals in his film like characters. He does not go as far as Disney, completely anthropomorphizing the animals that live in the wooded area around the boy’s farm. Still, the owl, the bobcat, the deer and the family of foxes all play a role, some predator, some prey. Through them all, the young boy learns about life and death. Were it not for the latter, this would be all too sappy, but Sucksdorff does not shy away from the hostile side of nature. Bobcats eat other animals, farmer’s shoot foxes, otters run off to mate. In Sucksdorff’s world these are simple unpleasant truths, that both pain a child and strengthen him. I have to commend Sucksdorff for both his beautiful imagery and for the harsh realities he depicts. The entire film is obviously fabricated, its drama stitched together from a wide array of shots designed to isolate the animals and create tension when juxtaposed with one another. Even if the film is not a direct re-telling, for someone like Suckdorff who grew up around nature and who had a deep kinship with animals the truth comes through not in how he captured or constructed the action in the film, but how his young protagonist relates to the world around him. The questions remains, is this more of a nature documentary or a coming of age drama? I’d have to say it’s more enjoyable and more rewarding if you go with the latter.