koyaanisqatsi (godfrey reggio, 1982)

I'd say this was a one-of-a-kind documentary, but since it's the first film in a trilogy, I guess that's not true. Koyaanisqatsi washes over you, abetted by the score by Philip Glass, and I imagine a sizable number of its adherents have seen it at least once while stoned. The world of the film represents "life out of balance". I am too much a slave of narrative to truly appreciate a movie like this, which has no dialogue or narration, just visuals and music. Reggio uses time lapse photography extensively here, and some of the effects are admittedly amazing. But it's largely a humorless vision of modern life, and a tough slog even with its short running time. I wouldn't call it slow cinema ... Glass' score is often pulsating, and the time-lapse effects present almost constant motion. But I don't know that Reggio needed 86 minutes to get across whatever point he is making. #448 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

let it be (michael lindsay-hogg, 1970)

It's about expectations. The basic footage for Let It Be was filmed in January of 1969. The film was released in 1970. Between the time it was filmed and the time it was released, the Beatles recorded and released Abbey Road, and then, in April of 1970, announced they were breaking up. The album and film Let It Be came out a month later. Thus, expectations were that the film would document the falling apart of the beloved group. That the film was recorded more than a year before the breakup, that the Beatles, having mostly finished Let It Be, then made Abbey Road, all factors that argued against the resulting film as being the story of a breakup, well, expectations ... all audiences of the film knew was that the band was finished.

Then, 50 years later, Peter Jackson, given access to all of the footage, created a massive 8-hour version, called Get Back. The take on Jackson's take was that it showed the Beatles in a much happier place than the original documentary. Since few people had seen Let It Be over the decades, we took Jackson's word for the positive feels, and indeed, Get Back is much more than a film about a band in crisis.

This inspired Jackson and Michael Lindsay-Hogg to finally re-release Let It Be. As he had with Get Back, Jackson used technology to clean up the audio and video ... it's been more than 50 years since I saw Let It Be on its release, but it's easy to imagine that the film has never looked or sounded better. But where Get Back was a reworking of the footage, the Let It Be re-release is "just" the original film, cleaned up.

But our expectations have changed. Get Back convinced us that the Beatles weren't in such a bad place at that time, and now we go into Let It Be looking, not for signs of a breakup, but for signs of a great band working together. And, of course, it's there. But again, as far as the basics of the film are concerned, nothing has changed. Only our expectations have changed.

Does Let It Be stand up? Sure. There are some great songs, fun moments, and the rooftop concert is iconic. Is it a great film, the way A Hard Day's Night is a great film? Not even close. Lindsay-Hogg takes his fly-on-the-wall techniques to an extreme, never stopping to explain anything. So the film begins with the band rehearsing on a sound stage ... later, the recording switches to Apple headquarters. We now know this is because the sound stage wasn't working for the band, but Lindsay-Hogg doesn't provide us with this context. Similarly, Billy Preston turns up, adding keyboards and spirit to the sessions, but Lindsay-Hogg makes no comment on this important difference in the band and the music. Let It Be without context invites us to insert our expectations into the experience, and so the film seems much different in 2024 than it did in 1970.

chambre 12, hôtel de suède (claude ventura and xavier villetard, 1993)

Quirky documentary made for French TV gives us Claude Ventura, returning to the sites where Godard's Breathless was filmed more than 30 years prior. Ventura wants to understand more about the film, so he rents a room, Chambre 12, at the Hôtel de Suède, where the famous long sequence with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg takes place. The hotel is about to be demolished.

Ventura works like a detective, trying to get at the truth of the making of Breathless (it was never clear to me exactly what co-director Xavier Villetard had to do with all of this). We aren't sure just why this matters to Ventura, but his obsession is clear. Those of us who love Breathless want to learn more about that classic film ... it's why we watch this documentary ... Ventura's personalizing of the process is part of what makes the film quirky. I don't know that it adds much depth for the viewer, and I don't imagine someone unfamiliar with Breathless will find anything of interest here.

Ventura works his way through the past. He interviews as many still-living participants as he can: Belmondo, Raoul Coutard, Claude Chabrol, and others. Twice he calls Godard himself on the phone and tries to get the director to talk about Breathless; twice Godard declines and hangs up the phone. Ventura searches out the film's locations, obviously including the hotel room where he stays. He even travels to Geneva, where Godard spent his formative years. He tracks down an old friend who now owns a bookstore. We learn a bit more about Godard, just as throughout this film, we learn a bit about Godard and a bit about the making of Breathless.

But Chambre 12 doesn't really serve as much of an introduction to Breathless. It's a film about our obsessions with the movies of our past, and I found it intriguing. And of course it's not a traditional documentary, for how could one make anything traditional in relation to Breathless?

african-american directors series: symbiopsychotaxiplasm: take one (willliam greaves, 1968)

This film is as hard to describe as it is to pronounce its title. Letterboxd and the IMDB classify it as a documentary. Writer/director William Greaves produced more than 200 documentaries, and in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm he is the on-screen director and writer of the film, as himself. The actors all appear as themselves ... the only one you might recognize is Susan Anspach, two years before Five Easy Pieces. In the film, Greaves is making a movie with the actors ... the crew also appear in the film, and we see the process of filmmaking. We see the same scene over and over ... it seems to serve as a screen test for the various actors. The best equivalent I can come up with is Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up.

There is no real narrative thrust to the film, and the cinéma vérité appearance adds to the documentary feel. But I don't know ... sometimes it feels about as "real" as Curb Your Enthusiasm. Wikipedia describes it thusly: "Greaves creates a circular meta-documentary about a documentary, a documentary about a documentary and a documentary documenting a documentary about a documentary."

You can't make this stuff up. The IMDB tells us that "William Greaves believed that he had made a masterpiece, and that the only place to première it was the Cannes Film Festival. So he carried the print to France himself, where it was screened for programmers. However, the projectionist made the mistake of showing the reels out of order. The film was turned down. Greaves came home, figured he had made a mistake, and put the film in his closet." It appears to have mostly stayed in that closet until the early 90s, when it was shown once or twice. Steve Buscemi saw it and loved it ... Steven Soderberg soon joined the list of admirers. The film was finally re-released in 2005. It was named to the Slate Black Film Canon, and is #627 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

film fatales #200: bergman island (marie nyreröd, 2006)

A bit of an oddity, and a real pleasure for Bergman fans, Bergman Island is an edit of three television interviews Marie Nyreröd conducted with Ingmar Bergman at his home on the isolated island of Fårö. Bergman was in his 80s, and Nyreröd is a congenial and astute interviewers. The film is good for what it is, as we watch and listen to one of cinema's greats. Nonetheless, it's not overwhelming as a film ... Nyreröd has cut the original three interviews down by approximately half, and while the two walk around the island and inside Bergman's house, essentially this is two talking heads. Interesting because of the subject matter, worth a look, but otherwise nothing special.

film fatales #197: the eternal memory (maite alberdi, 2023)

I kicked off Women's History Month with this Oscar-nominated documentary from Chilean director Maite Alberdi (The Mole Agent), about the impact of Alzheimer’s on Chilean journalist Augusto Góngora, and his wife and caretaker, actress Paulina Urrutia. It's a very intimate look at the couple ... apparently, Alberdi tried to convince Urrutia to make a film, she resisted, but Góngora wanted to proceed, willing to get his story out.

Alberdi chooses a non-chronological approach. We see footage of Góngora and Urrutia, available because they were public figures. There are also home movies (with two kids). Alberdi picks up the story a few years into Góngora's illness, a proverbial fly on the wall with her camera. Both Góngora and Urrutia were used to cameras because of their work, which made the inevitable intrusions more tolerable, and there is little feeling of exploitation.

The movie is both heartbreaking and inspiring. The love the couple has for each other is palpable, and if Alzheimer's has yet to be conquered, the two manage a life together, and interact with the outside world until COVID drives everyone indoors (Alberdi has said that Góngora's health got worse when he couldn't interact socially with others). In the earlier years, Góngora is aware of his situation, even making light of it at one point. This makes his deterioration even sadder, until he's not sure he recognizes his wife.

Alberdi connects this personal story to a social need to work with collective memory. Góngora began his time as a journalist during the Pinochet dictatorship, and he was dedicated to making the truth public whenever possible. As his disease progresses, Góngora's memory of those times fade, but Chileans collectively remember eternally.

film fatales #193: fire of love (sara dosa, 2022)

This is the eighteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 18 is called "Golden Brick Week":

My (Adam Graff’s) favorite podcast about movies is Filmspotting (𝖘𝖊𝖙𝖍𝖊𝖓𝖘𝖙𝖊𝖎𝖓: Me too!). For me, the hosts have the perfect blend of genuine insight in their reviews and top five lists to participatory fun like their Massacre Theater segment where listeners guess movies based on their very bad acting of a scene to their March Madness when listeners spend the month determining things like who the best director working today is or what is the best movie of the 90s. The hosts are affable and thoughtful and stay focused on films throughout the podcast, without sacrificing a personal touch.

One feature of Filmspottting is their annual Golden Brick Award, intended to honor underseen films, which is presented to the best film of the year that is not mainstream, made by a relatively new filmmaker, and that shows a clear directorial vision or artistic ambition. This week, watch a movie that was nominated for a Golden Brick from Filmspotting’s own Letterboxd list and give them a listen if you haven’t already.

Fire of Love is an Oscar-nominated documentary about two French "volcanologists", Katia and Maurice Krafft, and their relationship with each other and with volcanoes. Both are fascinated with the latter ... one could say obsessed ... they make a fine team because they share that fascination. The "love" of the title refers to their love for each other ... the "fire of love" adds volcanoes to the picture. It feels like something Werner Herzog might film, and in fact, Herzog released his own documentary about the Kraffts, The Fire Within, that same year. I haven't seen it, but I have seen other Herzog documentaries, and he usually manages to work himself into the situations he is presenting. Sara Dosa, working with writers Shane Boris, Erin Casper, and Jocelyne Chaput (with Casper and Chaput also serving as editors) artfully hide themselves ... the film is almost entirely archival footage, much taken by the Kraffts, with no after-the-fact interviews. It feels as you are watching as if the Kraffts are the ones who made the movie, and I imagine if they could see it, they'd be pleased (they ended up dying in 1991 during a volcano eruption).

But Fire of Love also features a running narration, read by Miranda July. I found nothing wrong with July's reading, but the narration does tend to impose a direction to what we see. Between that and the editing, you come to understand that despite being at the center of the picture, the Kraffts are not the real authors of this film. Dosa hides herself, but in plain sight.

The Kraffts are very interesting, and their love of their work together helps to overcome the moments (and there are many) when you wonder just what these crazy people are going to do next. Dosa tries hard not to pass judgement on the couple, and mostly succeeds. I found myself wavering at times, but the Kraffts kind of invite that. Also, we get to watch from the comforts of the theater or our living room, while the Kraffts are often right next to the flowing lava. We risk nothing by watching the movie ... the Kraffts risk everything on a regular basis, and are aware of the possibilities. They just can't deny what they see as the beauty of the earth. And their footage offers remarkable evidence that the earth really is alive.

film fatales #190: komeda, komeda... (natasza ziólkowska-kurczuk, 2012)

Documentary made for Polish TV in 2012, about jazz musician Krzysztof Komeda, who composed scores for many films, including several directed by Roman Polanski. Komeda is a worthy subject for a documentary, but this film isn't very captivating. We learn a bit about his life, we learn a bit about his work in jazz, we learn a bit about his composing for film, we learn a bit about Poland at the time ... but we never learn enough about any of those topics to actually illuminate them. Most importantly, we don't hear enough of his film work.

african-american directors series/film fatales #173: reggie (alex stapleton, 2023)

Alex Stapleton pulls off an interesting trick with the documentary Reggie, about the baseball great. On the surface, it seems like a warts-and-all presentation. Reggie says on several occasions that his desire to tell the truth often gets him in trouble, and we are reminded of his conflicts with manager Billy Martin and owners Charlie Finley and George Steinbrenner. But the warts are understandable in the context of the film, which is largely told from Reggie's own point of view. Yes, he had problems with those people, but it was because he told the truth and demanded that he be treated with respect and dignity.

Reggie comes across well throughout the film. He has a lot of important things to say about racism and baseball, and the stories of the experiences he had in the south playing in the minor leagues reminded us of how bad it was back then. (His struggles to be part of ownership reminds us that we still have a long way to go.) It's fun to see him hanging out with his old Oakland teammates, including the late Vida Blue ... he and Dave Stewart exchange memories about when Stew was a youngster growing up in Oakland and Reggie took him under his wing. It's also illuminating to see him talking with fellow legends like Hank Aaron and basketball's Dr. J, sharing as only people who have reached the pinnacle of success can do.

I felt like Reggie would be happy with how the movie turned out.  If someone without a lot of knowledge about Reggie watched this, they'd think he was an OK guy as well as a great baseball player. There's nothing wrong with that. But I felt, without really knowing what they might be, that I was missing other aspects of Reggie as a person and a ballplayer.

film fatales #171: the house is black (forugh farrokhzad, 1963)

The House Is Black is a short (21 minutes) documentary about a leper colony in Iran, considered now to be a central movie in Iranian film history. It is the only film directed by Forugh Farrokhzad, an important poet who died in a car accident when she was only 32. Her approach is unique, including voice-over narration by Farrokhzad of her own poetry, along with other narration taken from the Old Testament and the Koran.

While Farrokhzad and cinematographer Soleyman Minasian do not shy away from the realities of what leprosy does to a body, there is no feel of exploitation. We get an honest look at the disease and its effects, but Farrokhzad insists on our also seeing the essential humanity in the people who appear in the movie. As the first lines of narration say, "There is no shortage of ugliness in the world. If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more."

One wishes that Farrokhzad had lived long enough to give us more films. Over time, The House Is Black has only increased in reputation ... it is #241 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.