original cast album: company (d.a. pennebaker, 1970)

This is the thirty-second film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 32 is called "Documentary Now! Week".

As film enthusiasts, we owe it to ourselves to watch anything that caters to the more niche aspects of our hobby. And Documentary Now! may be the most inside baseball show about movies since The Critic. Helen Mirren hosts this Masterpiece-Theater-in-its-own-right lampoon of some of the most influential documentaries ever made. Its a show made with so much respect and love for its source material while also providing delightful caricatures of said films. In order to get the most of the show, this week's a little bit of a challenge+, as you must check out both a documentary they have parodied and the episode that parodies the film you select.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film parodied in "Documentary Now!" AND the corresponding episode.

This is only my second year doing the Letterboxd Challenge, but I'd have to say this week's category was the most complicated I've seen yet. Not only did I watch a movie, I watched a related televsion show, from a series I admit I'd never heard of, Documentary Now! It's a mockumentary, created by some SNL folks, that takes a real documentary and parodies it. Helen Mirren appears as the Masterpiece-like host. Some of those real docs were hard to find, and I ended up with Original Cast Album: Company almost by default. It's a "direct cinema" film from D.A. Pennebaker, which in itself gives it some interest.

Pennebaker was invited into the session to record the cast album for Company, which had just begun its run. It was intended to be a pilot for a proposed series, but that idea fell apart, leaving just this one example. It's the usual fly-on-the-wall approach, and more interesting if you are familiar with Company (I was not). There were a few familiar names, even to me. Dean Jones, who starred in a zillion Disney movies like That Darn Cat! and The Love Bug, was the male lead and showed off a fine voice. The legendary Elaine Stritch was her inimitable self. Best of all was Beth Howland. At the time, she was known for appearing in stage musicals, and she was the original Amy in Company. But I recognized her for the nine years and 200+ episodes she appeared in the TV show Alice. I don't think I even knew she could sing. Amy, it turns out, gets to be the main singer for "Getting Married Today", which is described by Wikipedia: "With 68 words sung in a total of 11 seconds, "Getting Married Today" was notable for being the most difficult musical song with the fastest verse in history."

As for the Documentary Now! parody ... what's the word, meh. It was close to the original, too close ... the only humor came from making the connections to the original. There was nothing inherent in what they were doing that was funny. It's quite the academic exercise, though.


film fatales #112: town bloody hall (chris hegedus & d.a. pennebaker, 1979)

Town Bloody Hall had an interesting trip from inception to release. D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop) and a small team filmed a panel debate in 1971 featuring four prominent feminists and writer Norman Mailer. Nothing came of the footage, for unknown reasons. Later, Chris Hegedus began working with Pennebaker (they eventually married, a relationship that lasted until his death). Apparently, Hegedus discovered the old footage, the two of them edited it into a workable piece, and Town Bloody Hall was finally released in 1979.

It's hard to evaluate Town Bloody Hall as a movie because you want to take sides among the participants in the debate, and to the extent Pennebaker/Hegedus don't pick sides in an obvious way, they become recorders of the event more than they are film artists. But this is always the case with cinéma vérité (or "direct cinema" or whatever you or the film makers think is going on here ... I tend to use the terms interchangeably, but that's admittedly reductive). It looks like we're getting an unfiltered documentary view, but decisions are being made throughout the process. The film is just under 90 minutes, but more than that was filmed ... how did they decide what to include and what to leave out? I wanted to know about those missing parts. For that matter, the event itself is constructed to leave out certain parts, because several more radical feminists refused to be on the panel. The panel ended up being more middle-of-the-road than was good, although it could be argued that in 1971, even mainstream feminism was seen as radical by many. The balance is tilted towards the radicals, though, because the two most engaging women on the panel (Germaine Greer and Jill Johnston) were also the most radical.

Of course, one problem with anything that includes Norman Mailer is that it always ends up being about Norman Mailer, because that's just how he is. (In The Fight, his book about the Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle", he makes sure to include a scene where he does some road work with Ali ... Norman is where the story is, after all.) Mailer is his usual combative self, which makes for decent theater but which isn't really about the issues. On the other hand, the women participants were also very aware of the performative aspects of the event, especially Johnston, who during her time at the podium is joined by two women ... all three begin to physically demonstrate their attractions, after which Johnston and the others walk off the stage, never to return.

There is another annoying thing about Mailer in this movie. He regularly accuses others of not understanding what he meant when he wrote X or Y or Z. One time, even two times, you can sympathize with his distress. But at some point, you want Mailer to accept that when no one understands what you are writing, perhaps the fault is with the writer.

Town Bloody Hall is a snapshot of a moment, an historical artifact, just plain interesting 50 years later. How much all of that matters to you will explain whether you find Town Bloody Hall interesting or something much more than that.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]


easy riders, raging bulls: how the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll generation saved hollywood (kenneth bowser, 2003)

There isn't a lot to say about this movie, which YouTube thought I'd be interested in. They were right, of course ... I read the book by Peter Biskind long ago, and it covers probably my favorite period in film history, America from Bonnie and Clyde to Jaws. Biskind's book was a fun read, as I recall, although my main memory (uncertain as it is) is that he had the knives out for Pauline Kael.

Funny thing is, I watched the movie only a few days ago, and I already barely remember it any better than I do the book, which was published more than 20 years ago. Yes, it includes a few iconic clips from the movies of the era, one of which gave me fond thoughts of the great film editor Dede Allen. Instead of reading the quotes from interviews, in the movie you get to see the interviewees.

Honestly, you're better served watching a few of the movies highlighted in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Bonnie and Clyde, the first two Godfathers, something from the era by directors such as Peckinpah, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman. Listen to the great podcast series on Polly Platt by the extraordinary Karina Longworth. Note the absence of film makers of color in most accounts of the era. And then, if you're still eager for more, read Biskind's book or watch this movie

Here is the entire film:


the sunshine makers (cosmo feilding-mellen, 2015)

Amanda Feilding, aka Lady Neidpath, is a long-time advocate of drug reform in England. In 2018, Wired said that "If LSD is having its renaissance, Feilding is its Michelangelo." Feilding is now 78 years old, and still on the job.

She is the mother of Cosmo Feilding-Mellen, who directed and co-wrote The Sunshine Makers, about two men who in the 1960s were the creators of Orange Sunshine acid. The film takes you back ... if you lived through those times, you'll suffer a large hit of nostalgia. And I learned a little about those two men, Nicholas Sand and Tim Scully, who are not as famous as Leary and Kesey (not to mention Owsley Stanley, who was so famous, his name was synonymous with high-quality LSD). All of this makes The Sunshine Makers sound right up my alley.

But the movie feels like a missed opportunity. It's hard to know just how much Feilding-Mellen had to work with. He fills his movie with a collage of modern-day interviews, footage from the 60s, and what seems to be home movies that Sand and Scully took. Honestly, it's possible the only "real" thing in the movie is the interviews ... a lot of the scenes of drug busts and the like feel more like the kinds of re-creations you see on reality crime shows than they look like actual footage. To some extent, this fit with what the film is presenting, not a history of the times as much as a look at Sand and Scully. As I say, I learned something about them, and Orange Sunshine was a big deal. But, as someone who not only lived through this time but also lived in the area where much of the story takes place, I think the focus on Orange Sunshine may misrepresent the times. Yes, there was "brand-name" LSD, but by the time I joined the party (which admittedly was in 1969-72, which was just after the heyday of Sunshine), you could get acid that you were told was "Owsley" or "Orange Sunshine", but the actual product, even if it started in those forms, was usually cut with other ingredients, especially speed.

What I really wanted from Orange Sunshine was a sociological look at drug culture in the 60s. But that's not the movie we get. The center of the story is the friendship and partnership of Sand and Scully ... the ambience is secondary. What Feilding-Mellen gives us is not without interest. It just wasn't what I wanted to see.

I kept thinking of Magic Trip, the documentary from Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, who took the endless footage of the Merry Pranksters' famous bus trip to New York and back and somehow gave it some coherence without losing the anarchic spirit of the film the Pranksters shot. Like Feilding-Mellen, they were working with less-than-ideal resources, but they miraculously turned it into a movie that not only told the story of the bus trip but hinted at the larger meaning of the Pranksters. It's far from a perfect movie, but I fear it's what I hoped to get out of The Sunshine Makers. I was probably expecting the wrong thing.

A bit from Magic Trip:


film fatales #105: the invisible frame (cynthia beatt, 2009)

This is the eighteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 18 is called "Contemporary Performers: Tilda Swinton Week".

Some actors are true chameleons, absorbing themselves into whichever role is thrown their way with a very high success rate. And I think its safe to say that one of the best modern examples of this talent is Tilda Swinton. She truly is a pleasure to see very time she shows up on screen, and fits pretty much any mold gracefully. Plus, she's involved in a healthy mix of mainstream pictures and smaller titles, so plenty of options to see her work.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Tilda Swinton.

In 1988, Cynthia Beatt directed a semi-documentary short, Cycling the Frame, that featured Tilda Swinton riding a bicycle around the Berlin Wall. A year later, the Wall came down. Twenty years after that, Beatt and Swinton returned to Berlin and took a similar bike ride, albeit this time traveling on both sides of what used to be the Wall.

Tilda Swinton has such a unique presence that you could imagine watching her in anything, good or bad, and finding it intriguing. But does that extend to a movie that consists of 60 minutes of Tilda riding a bike? Well, it's only 60 minutes. It's unusual, and not clearly a documentary ... Swinton speaks in voice over, but it appears she's reading from a script. I haven't seen Cycling the Frame, and nothing in The Invisible Frame made me want to check out the earlier work. It might have been more interesting if I had a sense for where Swinton was at various times. As it is, I never knew which side of the "Wall" she was at from one scene to the next. So I'm left with an hour of Tilda Swinton riding a bike.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales]


geezer cinema: the social dilemma (jeff orlowski, 2000)

It's odd ... I agree with much of what is in The Social Dilemma, and since it's a documentary with an argument, that agreement is crucial. But the presentation is lacking.

Jeff Orlowski trots out an impressive array of experts who know social media in part because they helped invent social media. They are sufficiently frightened about the negative side of social media that their concerns have an impact on us as we watch. But as the film progressed, I realized what was missing: actual, concrete evidence. There were a lot of anecdotes, there were a lot of connections that didn't always understand that correlation does not imply causation. And all of this was further muddied by an odd device wherein Orlowski occasionally switches to fiction, dramatizing the life of an ordinary family being controlled by an A.I. played by Mad Men's Vincent Kartheiser. It's a bit like those true crime television shows that feature recreations of the crime.

And the attempted connections ring false. We're shown charts demonstrating that non-fatal self harm and suicide have risen drastically in recent years. We see a fictional teenage girl who reacts badly to being made fun of online. We're told that "A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile, more depressed", and "that pattern points to social media". Well, that may be true, but I'm not going to believe it because of a fictional vignette about a disturbed teen, nor am I convinced that self harm and suicide can be blamed on social media simply because all of them became more prominent at the same time.

This is frustrating, because as I said, I tend to agree with their arguments. But tarting things up with recreations isn't the best way to get those arguments across. And while you'd think watching The Social Dilemma would scare us away from our phones and our Facebook and our Instagram, it seems just as likely to do the opposite. I'm reminded of my mother, back when TV was no longer allowed to advertise for cigarettes. The only time cigs were on the screen came during anti-smoking ads. My mom, a serious smoker, once told me that every time one of those ads came on, she reached for her pack of cigarettes, because the commercials reminded her she wanted a smoke.


african-american directors series/film fatales #104: little white lie (lacey schwartz and james adolphus, 2014)

This is the sixteenth "film" I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 16 is called "Black Women Writers/Directors Week".

A serious note to follow:

In the past year in America, racial tensions have reached a boiling point. BIPOC members of our society have suffered from social, political, and countless other forms of strife and injustice due simply to the color of their skin and the deep ceded racist ideals that exist in our society. This, of course, includes the film industry. Stories by black creators often don't get the attention or support that they deserve, especially so for women of color. I know the whole Season Challenge is created for fun, but I think it would behoove all of us to think more about the films we choose to watch and hold on high. With all that being said, let's use this opportunity to take in works by women of color, and to go forward with the idea of supporting their works in the future. Let us hear the voices that have gone criminally unheard and that offer unique experiences and perspectives. And, at the risk of sounding clichè, isn't that what cinema is all about?

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film with a black woman writer and/or director.

The story of Lacey Schwartz encourages disbelief. Because we know from the start that Schwartz is black, we are puzzled that she made it so far into her life thinking she was white. It seems obvious to us. One thing Little White Lie does well is to put us in Lacey's young life, so that we start to understand why the "lie" took hold for so long.

She was raised "white" by two Jewish parents. The family was very much involved in the Jewish tradition, and Lacey had no other signposts to suggest to her that something wasn't as it seemed. Without ever saying anything specific, Little White Lie forces us to confront the constructed nature of "race". In the manner of "if it quacks like a duck, it's a duck", Lacey's parents and extended family all treat her as white and Jewish ... she "quacks" white. If anyone questions the way Lacey looks darker than the rest of her family, reference is made to a Sicilian ancestor.

None of this is possible without the deception of Lacey's mother (and probably father). Mom had an affair with a black man, who turned out to be Lacey's biological father. Mom didn't talk about it, Dad didn't admit he knew. There was nothing to discuss. And there is nothing in the film to suggest Lacey had a bad childhood. It's only later, when she realizes that unbeknownst to Lacey, her life was a "little white lie", that Lacey feels the resentment of someone who has been lied to.

There are a few scenes of Lacey confronting her parents, to find out the truth. There isn't much discussion of whiteness and blackness ... for the most part, it's contextual. One wishes the film was a bit longer, that more time was spent on the transition phase when Lacey realized the truth. But there is no denying that the film is fascinating. And there is a sense that the truth sets Lacey free. By any standard, she has had a good life ... Harvard Law School, a documentary film maker, a husband who is now a representative in the U.S. House, twin children. Her childhood, which was also good, was shadowed by a lie; the resolution of that lie allowed Schwartz to move on.

(List of Film Fatales movies)


film fatales #100 and #101: two documentaries from 2020

Totally Under Control (Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, Suzanne Hillinger, 2020). Alex Gibney has dozens of credits as a director, including Enron, Going Clear, and Magic Trip. For Totally Under Control, an expose of the U.S. inadequate response to COVID-19, he called in two co-directors, because he wanted it to be finished before the 2020 election. Indeed, the film was finished just as Donald Trump tested positive for the virus, which was noted in the credits. The film makers had to deal with making a film during a pandemic, and one of their solutions was a complicated camera setup that allowed for interviews without fear of contagion. Totally Under Control is in the ripped-from-the-headlines school of documentaries, and it is impossible for it to tell the whole story, when that story isn't finished unfolding. Thus, the film, with its detailed timeline of events, will likely be more useful for historians looking to examine the period, than it is for us, who are living through it. Still, the movie is infuriating, as is intended.

Geezer Cinema: My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed, 2020). My Octopus Teacher tells the story of a man, Craig Foster, adrift in his own life who discovers new meaning in the waters off the coast of South Africa. It is a joy to watch, with beautiful underwater cinematography. Often I wondered how certain shots were achieved ... Foster is presented as a loner who swims alone, but clearly someone else has taken at least some of the photography. If you are like me, with limited knowledge of the world beneath the surface, just seeing the various animals is amazing. And I learned that some octopuses (most? all?) are rather small. This threw me off at times, because I assumed the star octopus was as huge as an alien monster, only to realize that it was much smaller than Foster. Foster falls in love with a particular octopus (there's no other way to put it), and in the process, learns about his life (hence, the film's title). Sometimes the film gives the impression that the octopus was only put on earth to illuminate the life of Craig Foster ... he does a lot of ruminating during the movie. But that's a bit unfair. The movie is properly titled "My Octopus Teacher" and not "Craig Foster Learns About Life", and Foster doesn't come across nearly as self-absorbed as I'm describing. In fact, he went on to co-found a project to protect marine life.