film fatales #120: the sit-in: harry belafonte hosts the tonight show (yoruba richen, 2020)

Several times during The Sit-In, we are reminded that the week when Harry Belafonte hosted The Tonight Show was largely buried in the history of television. Yoruba Richen, who directed and co-wrote the documentary, emphasizes this because she believes Belafonte's hosting stint was an important moment in television ... she wants to ensure that it is forgotten no longer. She succeeds ... The Sit-In will be there for anyone who wants to discover (or rediscover) the week that was. It's a noble, even necessary, endeavor.

And Richen does what she can with the existing material. But here she is let down, which is unfortunate for her audience. First, she explains that in the 1960s, networks like NBC regularly recorded over tapes, so that, in the case of Belafonte on The Tonight Show, only segments from two of his five episodes exist today. So a look at the guest lists for his episodes is impressive, but we only get a handful of those guests. The truncated list remains impressive ... The Sit-In features Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who tells a joke!), Bobby Kennedy, Paul Newman, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Nipsey Russell, and others. But a lot of the brief (75 minutes) running time of The Sit-In consists of interviews with people who express surprise that these episodes existed at all. I'm always glad to hear from Questlove and Whoopi Goldberg, but their contributions to The Sit-In are extended beyond usefulness. Understandably, given the absence of much footage from the event, but it becomes a bit repetitious.

Richen does a good job of placing the episodes in the context of 1968, and ultimately, The Sit-In is a helpful, if incomplete, addition to our understanding of our history. It's not a classic, but you take what you can get.


when we were kings (leon gast, 1996)

I decided to revisit this film about the "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire between champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali. It was as engaging as I remembered, although flawed enough to prevent it from being a classic.

I have told the story many times of our experience the night of that big fight. At the time of the match (October, 1974), we lived over Moe's Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, half a block from People's Park. Telegraph Ave. runs for more than 4 miles from Oakland to Berkeley, ending at the UC Berkeley campus ... we lived a few blocks from campus. Haste Street ran north of People's Park. Our apartment was on the Telegraph side, and we spent many an afternoon just taking in the street life from our window (if memory serves, we were on the second floor). The fight ended ... oh, around 9:00 at night our time, give or take. I hadn't found Berkeley to be a big boxing town, but I recall a few car horns being blown as the news of Ali's victory was revealed. We could hear some serious crowd noise, and took to our window to see what was up. To our right, we saw an impromptu parade of people heading towards campus, chanting "A-LI! A-LI!" While our view was blocked by buildings, we could also sense a different impromptu parade of people on Haste Street, heading towards Telegraph, also chanting "A-LI!" Neither group knew about the other, although we had an excellent view from our window. The Haste Street crowd reached Telegraph just as the Telegraph crowd arrived a block from Haste. Upon discovering each other, the chanting, doubled in number of participants and multiplied immensely by the ecstatic recognition of the other group, become wonderfully loud.

I tell this story to help illustrate the way Ali was always more than just a boxer. Among many things, he was a folk hero to many in Berkeley.

When We Were Kings does an excellent job of showing this aspect of Ali. The people of Africa loved him, and he was happy to play that up. He was one of the most famous people in the world, and especially in the U.S., his story was well-known. When We Were Kings is so enamored of Ali that the film borders on hagiography. And it's easy to understand why. While George Foreman eventually became a beloved figure, in 1974 he was a mostly-silent man who let his fists talk for him, while Ali was irrepressible from the first time he came to the public's attention. In short, Ali was the perfect charismatic figure to place at the center of a film. Foreman was not. Given the historical fact that Ali won the fight, and that he was such a great screen presence, it makes perfect sense that When We Were Kings centers on Ali.

There are attempts to place the story in a wider context, mostly provided by interviews conducted in the mid-90s. A good portion of the interviewees are white, and while they have bonafide credentials (Norman Mailer wrote a book about the fight, George Plimpton covered it at the time, Thomas Hauser has written several books on Ali), it feels odd to see these old white guys pontificating about the great hero of African-Americans. Spike Lee is also interviewed, and all of these men have interesting things to say. I just wish there was more Spike and less Norman.

When We Were Kings won the Oscar for Best Feature Documentary (to be honest, I've never seen any of the other nominees).


african-american directors series: summer of soul (ahmir-khalib thompson, 2021)

Summer of Soul is subtitled "(Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)", which carries some irony in this streaming era when the movie was released simultaneously in theaters and on Hulu. But one of the most dumbfounding things about the film is that in effect is wasn't televised, or even shown anywhere at all, for fifty years. Seeing it now, it seems impossible that the footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was buried, while Woodstock, which took place at the same time as the Harlem festival and was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 1970, has been hailed as the chronicle of a generation ever since. Of course, the reason Woodstock triumphed while the "Black Woodstock" went undiscovered is obvious. Only one musical act appeared at both festivals: Sly and the Family Stone.

It's impossible to single out any one moment in Summer of Soul, because it is filled with them. I can't resist listing a few favorites.

There's the 5th Dimension, singing "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In". Thompson shows Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo watching the footage with tears in their eyes, explaining how important it was to play Harlem for the first time. (Rolling Stone had a nice little piece on this.) And there's one festival attendee, talking about how beautiful McCoo was, admitting as if he was realizing it for the first time, "God, she's my first crush." This segment also shows that Thompson, a novice film maker, understands better than most how to integrate interviews with music. It is a pet peeve of mine that movies of musical performances too often truncate those performances, as if there was something more important we should pay attention to, This happens in Summer of Soul, but it's an interesting move by Thompson: the words blend with the songs, make the songs expand, give them context. He never loses a connection with the performances, but he invites the interviewees into those performances. At those times, it seems impossible that Questlove had never directed a movie before.

The gospel section is thrilling. We see the Bay Area's own Edwin Hawkins Singers. We see the Staple Singers. We see Mahalia Jackson. And then, a beautiful moment, set up at the festival by Jesse Jackson, who said "Precious Lord" was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s favorite song. Mahalia Jackson was scheduled to sing it, as she had at King's funeral, and once again, Thompson knows exactly where to put interview material. Mavis Staples says Mahalia was her idol, and then, as if she were narrating what we are seeing, she said Mahalia "leaned over and told me, 'Baby, Halie don't feel too good today. I need you to help me sing this song." Thompson inserts relevant footage of King's last minutes as Jackson speaks, and then Mavis sings. After a verse, Mahalia stands up and takes the microphone, and she sings (the captioning says simply "VOCALIZING"). Mavis steps up, and the emotions as they sing together are overwhelming. Mahalia hands the mic to Mavis (in her interview, Mavis says, "When she gave me that microphone back, I said, 'Oh, she likes what I'm doin'").

Sly and the Family Stone demonstrated not just that they were a pre-eminent band, but that they changed everything. This is more apparent here than in Woodstock, where their monumental appearance is just a great moment among great moments. Thompson once again uses interviews to set the stage for what we are seeing. One man describes his expectations for R&B groups at the time: all men in matching suits. "You're wondering, 'What are they doing with girls in the group? What is white people doing up there? And a white guy is the drummer?' We couldn't get this thing, that the white guy is the drummer. You know, he's not supposed to be able to do that. As soon as everything was kicking, it was on!" A female attendee says, "To see a Black woman playin' a trumpet made me feel great." None of this would matter if Sly and the Family Stone weren't also one of the great bands.

The movie I was most reminded of was Dave Chappelle's Block Party. That movie featured a variety of acts at a neighborhood concert in Brooklyn, and the sense of community is so strong ... at the time, I called it "the feel good movie of the year". The same can be said of Summer of Soul, which brilliantly blends great music and social context in a package that is the best new-to-me movie I've seen this year.


revisiting the 9s: stories we tell (sarah polley, 2012)

[This is the second in a new series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 16 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

The second movie in the series is Stories We Tell, which I last saw (and rated "9") in 2017. At that time, I wrote:

Sarah Polley is up to many things with Stories We Tell, which seems surprising if you just offer a brief description: Polley makes a documentary about her family, using interviews and home movies. Polley turns this seemingly simple exercise into a smart examination of memory, family, and the very act of making a documentary. She is so smooth with her craft that her ambitions never slow the film down, never seem pretentious.

(I notice that back in 2017, Stories We Tell was #185 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. It is currently at #116, which shows how our impressions change over time.)

One way Polley avoids being pretentious is by sneaking her methods into the film. The first time I watched it, I missed Polley's "trick" entirely until the closing credits. It's such an audacious move that everyone who writes about Stories We Tell must apologize for the spoilers they are about to offer, arguing that you can't talk about the movie without talking about the spoilers. This is an example of how extraordinary the movie is, for it's hard to think of a documentary that needs spoiler warnings. It's not a spoiler to say that someone gets killed at Altamont during Gimme Shelter, and while the audience for Stories We Tell might not know specifics about the lives of Polley and her family, you could look at Wikipedia to find out "what happened". The spoiler is in how Polley tells the story. (And this is as good a place as any to mention Michael Munn, the film's editor, who is exemplary in his work here.)

This is crucial. As at least one person asks, why would anyone be interested in the story of our family? The people have led interesting lives, the way all of us lead interesting lives. But Polley doesn't really make us interested in her family as much as she makes us interested in her "smart examination of memory, family, and the very act of making a documentary". There is a meta theme here ... Polley makes a documentary that examines making a documentary. Where someone like Frederick Wiseman essentially hides what he is doing with his fly-on-the-wall documentaries, Polley draws attention to her methods. Which makes the one big secret to her film all the more surprising, because the movie seems transparent, but it wasn't, at least not completely. And Polley doesn't use her "trick" to draw attention to her brilliant film making, she uses it to further emphasize the theme of family memories.

In an interview with Kate Erbland in 2019, Polley admits she is surprised at how resonant Stories We Tell is for so many people. What feels like a smartly planned approach turns out to been have something less controlled:

The fact that anyone saw a cohesive film in there is still amazing to me.... For me, the legacy is that anyone thought it was an actual movie, as opposed to just a complete mess that I never cleaned up.... At no point did I feel like I knew what I was doing when I was making it. It just felt like such a mess, it felt really unpleasant.

Polley accomplishes so much with Stories We Tell that it ends up being a perfect candidate for "Revisiting the 9s". Although as noted, I have never shied away from giving my highest rating to recent documentaries, I held back a bit with Stories We Tell, probably because Polley's accomplishments felt "un-documentary" enough that I treated it like just another great art film. Which it is. It's also a great documentary. It's a great film. I should have given it a "10" from the start.


pink: all i know so far (michael gracey, 2021)

Music documentary that resembles Don't Look Back. A mostly backstage look at a Pink tour that in theory illuminates the star in useful ways. In truth, All I Know So Far is too fond of its subject. We get an inspirational look at a different kind of nuclear family: Pink, husband Carey, and the kids Willow and Jameson. The kids are adorable, Carey is an amazingly patient dad, and Pink clearly loves the heck out of her kids. She explains why it's rare for female artists to tour once they become mothers, and we see her solution: bring the fam with her on tour.

As with similar documentaries, there is too little music for my taste. For most of the running time, we get snippets of songs at best. Which makes sense ... it's not a movie about her music as much as it is a movie about the family. We finally get a couple of nearly completely songs at the end, but I wanted more. Because of this, I don't think All I Know So Far would interest non-fans. Hardcore fans want to see everything about Pink, but the rest of the world probably gets the point after about five minutes.

We see the oldest child, Willow, becoming something of a budding performer herself. Earlier this year, she and Pink released a single, "Cover Me in Sunshine", that was well-received. And this past weekend, as part of the 2021 Billboard Music Awards where she was honored with the Icon Award, Pink performed a brief set of her hits, beginning with "Sunshine", featuring Willow joining Mom in some of Pink's acrobatics:

Here is the trailer:


at berkeley (frederick wiseman, 2013)

I've been a fan of Frederick Wiseman's work for a long time, going all the way back to his debut feature Titicut Follies in the late 60s. I've written about one of his films here once: Welfare. I've looked forward to seeing At Berkeley ever since it was released almost ten years ago, but Wiseman, still with us in his 90s, keeps a close watch on his movies, and they are very hard to find. I finally found At Berkeley on Kanopy, and spent most of a day watching it (it's just over 4 hours long).

The shots of campus and the scenes in classrooms and meetings are almost frightening in their nostalgic pull, I didn't recognize any people except for a brief few seconds of The Hate Man. But after about an hour-and-a-half, we're in a class where Mitch Breitwieser is teaching Thoreau to some students. The sound of his voice took me back in a delightfully pleasant way. I had taken that class, or something close to it, 30+ years ago, and while I was never quite convinced of Thoreau's greatness, Mitch was one of the great professors.
I still remember my first class as an undergraduate ... we were assigned The Great Gatsby (it occurs to me now that I later taught that exact course in 2000), and in my transferred-from-junior-college mind, I assumed this would be easy, because what could be said about Gatsby that was new? After one lecture, if memory serves, Mitch had gotten through a close reading of the first couple of paragraphs, through "Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope". I knew then that there was a lot more to be said about Gatsby, and that Cal was another level from the Peralta Colleges.
 
Outside of a couple of brief sightings (and a segment of a Robert Reich lecture), that was it for people I recognized. I recognized lots of buildings, though. Seeing the faces of the young, idealistic students reminded me of how great it was to be involved with students at that point in their lives. I also started reliving some of my still-existing prejudices. I've always hated Chancellors. Didn't matter who they were, I hated them. Here, it was Robert Birgeneau, who is the closest thing to a central character in the film. He actually comes across as reasonable and pleasant, until late in the film, when protesting students take over the library for a couple of hours. Afterwards, Birgeneau reflects. "I'm gonna sound really old here. Protests I've participated in my life, serious protests, were about the Vietnam War. I got fired from my job for one day at Bell Labs for opposing the anti-ballistic missile system.... We took serious risks, actually, right? ... Now, protests have just become sort of fun out in Sproul Plaza." I traveled back to the times I experienced this kind of paternalistic faux-concern about students, and got pissed off all over again.
 
But is the movie any good? It's too long, sure, but Wiseman does cover a lot of what happens on the Berkeley campus, showing classes in several departments, faculty meetings, and the like. It's overwhelming, as most Wiseman movies are, because he never supplies context ... never tells us where we are, never puts up a subtitle telling us who is speaking. It's the fly-on-the-wall approach. I wished for more focus, but the truth is, I can't think of much I'd cut out ... maybe some of the faculty meetings. At one point, Reich tells his students, "I've spent half my life in the United States government, admin meetings, and the other half, a lot of them in faculty meetings, and I can tell you, faculty meetings go on twice as long. Why? Not because faculties are bad, but people in faculties like to speak. They like to talk. They are used to hearing themselves speak and they're used to watching other people nod in response. And so a faculty meeting is very, very long." If you spent part of your life at UC Berkeley (I was there for more than 15 years as undergrad, grad student, and teacher), you will get something out of the film. I noticed how beautiful the campus is. When I was there, I was always going from one place to another, and never took the time to appreciate that beauty. If you don't have that Berkeley connection, I'd suggest watching a different Wiseman movie. #602 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.
 


returning to the weather underground (sam green and bill siegel, 2002)

I first saw the 2002 documentary The Weather Underground in 2004. At the time, I wrote:

It's a weird time to be watching The Weather Underground, a recent documentary about self-proclaimed Amerikan revolutionaries. It didn't make me want to go out and start a revolution ... But the film did bring to mind some parallels to American life in 2004.

These radicals felt completely alienated from mainstream America, and felt a need to act upon that alienation, in order to end the society they felt was causing such misery across the globe. Whether or not their political analysis was correct, their sense of themselves as separate was shared not just by bomb-throwing radicals but by many of us.

And many of us increasingly feel that way now. George Bush is a divider, not a uniter. And if he gets another four years, some of us are going to feel as alienated from mainstream America as the Weather Underground was in the past.

Well, George Bush did get another four years, and we survived somehow. Then in 2016, we found out there was something worse than Bush the Younger: Donald Trump became president. It's funny, because Trump wasn't quite the warmonger his predecessors had been, and while there has never been a worse president, war was far from the biggest issue.

But in The Weather Underground, various ex-members talked about how their movement petered out when the U.S. finally got out of Vietnam. The war had been the trigger for them, and without it, they were lost, and found themselves questioning what they were doing.

The film is an uneasy look back, using the benefit of hindsight to reject what the Weather Underground was doing. I got the feeling that the film makers wanted that rejection. It is balanced in some ways ... you do hear from members who would "do it again". But you also hear Mark Rudd, who admits to mixed feelings of guilt and shame. And the way Green and Siegel use Todd Gitlin upsets the so-called balance. Gitlin belongs in any study of the Weather Underground ... he had been a president of the Students for a Democratic Society, from which the Weather Underground came, and he is adamant that the Underground was ruinous for the Left. His points are well-taken at first, but he keeps popping up throughout the film, always insisting that the Underground was a bad thing. The way the film is constructed, it's as if Gitlin is called upon whenever the film makers want to take the Underground to task. The result is that the members of the Underground come across as spoiled kids who wouldn't listen to daddy. Which may even be an accurate description, but the use of Gitlin in the film means Green and Siegel side with daddy.

It is entirely possible I bring too much baggage to the film, and I may be unfair to Green and Siegel. Here is Green talking about the film in 2015:


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.