geezer cinema/film fatales #95: dick johnson is dead (kirsten johnson, 2020)

Cameraperson consisted of documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson putting together 25 years of leftover footage to create what she called "her memoir". Her innovative sense of what might make a good movie hasn't left her. Dick Johnson Is Dead is a movie about her aging father Richard, who is gradually falling into dementia. She suggests to her dad that they make a movie filled with scenes of him dying in various silly/cinematic ways, and he thinks it's a fine idea. At this early point, he seems fully capable of agreeing to the project.

We see an air conditioner fall on his head. We see him fall down stairs. We see him get stabbed in the neck, as blood spurts onto the street. In each case, we also see how things are done, with a crew and, especially, stunt men on hand. It's hard to explain why this seems so amazing ... it sounds like she's exploiting her father, but he's in on the joke and having a great time. When he finally gets too sick to really offer consent, she quits the fake deaths.

The relationship between father and daughter is both moving and funny, as is the movie as a whole. Johnson the daughter also concocts scenes of her dad rising up to heaven, and even gives us a fake funeral, which is so well done that one of Dick's great friends breaks up in tears as he gives a eulogy. Like Tom Sawyer, Dick gets to watch his own funeral, finally making a triumphant appearance to a standing ovation.

Kirsten Johnson was working as a cinematographer back in 2001, but didn't direct her first theatrical feature until Cameraperson in 2016. With that film, and now Dick Johnson Is Dead, Johnson has shown the ability to put remarkable, idiosyncratic ideas on the screen. Her recent movies are so interesting, you can't help but wonder what she might have come up with in those years she worked solely behind the camera. I found myself thinking about all of the people behind the scenes in movies ... how many of them might be holding onto something as unique as Johnson's films?

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

(Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #92: crip camp (james lebrecht, nicole newnham, 2020)

Crip Camp is a spirit-lifting documentary about disabled people, that takes a few interesting turns while remaining a fairly typical film of its type. It comes from Higher Ground, the production company started by the Obamas, who won an Oscar for their first film, American Factory. That movie was solid, but too set on taking the middle of the road. Crip Camp tells a more radical story, for the better.

The film seems harmlessly positive at first, showing us Camp Jened, near Woodstock both geographically and philosophically, in 1971. Camp Jened was a summer camp for people with disabilities that drew on the loose structure of the hippie community. While pleasant, I didn't see how the film makers would get 106 minutes out of the camp.

But they soon showed their intentions, by telling the stories of some of the camp goers later in their lives. And some of them became activists, and as their stories unfold, Crip Camp moves beyond the centrism of American Factory. The key figure is Judith Heumann, who went on to co-found the Disabled in Action organization. Later she moved to Berkeley and became a leader at the Center for Independent Living (about which more in a bit). In 1977, she led a sit-in which resulted in what later became the Americans with Disabilities Act. She also worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations.

When the film moves to Berkeley, things became quite familiar for my wife and I. The Center for Independent Living has long been a force in Berkeley life ... the first place we lived in Berkeley after we married was only a clock or two from the Center. We can remember the fight to put wheelchair curb ramps at street corners, something you take for granted after all these years. It was good to see the beginnings of those fights. Also, during the footage from the 70s and 80s, we kept recognizing people and places. Irrelevant to the value of the movie, but it made an impact on us.

We also learn near the end that another of the "stars" of the old Camp Jened footage, "Jimmy", was in fact James Lebrecht, the co-director of Crip Camp and the person who came up with the idea for the film.

A movie that simply documented the life at Camp Jened would have been nice, but by using those scenes as a starting point for a continuance of the story was a big improvement.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

film fatales #88: leviathan (lucien castaing-taylor and verena paravel, 2012)

I can imagine this experimental film appealing to some people, so take this with a grain of salt. I did not find it appealing.

The concept is interesting: a documentary on commercial fishing off the coast of New Bedford, where parts of Moby Dick took place. Credit must also be given to the directors for not just taking the easy route of most documentaries. The film eschews things like linear narrative, dialogue or narration, or any contextual moments to help the audience find its bearings. It is perhaps best described as psychedelic, and I wish I'd taken some edibles before watching.

Wikipedia offers some insight into the production. "Over the course of filming Leviathan, Castaing-Taylor got seasick and Paravel went to the emergency room numerous times.... While filming, the director's first camera was lost at sea and they had to resort to their backup cameras, Go-Pros. The images produced by the Go-Pros created afterimages of haunting qualities due to the lack of clarity within the lens. According to Castaing-Taylor, 'It activated the viewer’s imagination much more.'"

It all sounds fascinating, but I barely survived the 87-minute running time. For me, the key was the total lack of context. I was rarely able to figure out such basic things as what am I seeing, or where is this scene, or why is this important. As I say, it may work on some abstract level, but I'm not sure I have 87 minutes of abstract in me at this point in my life.

There was a scene that summarized my reaction, far too easily, in fact. I actually knew what I was seeing for a change. One of the fishermen is sitting at a table in what looks to be an eating area. There is a jar of mayonnaise on the table, and a tin of chewing tobacco, among other things. The fisherman appears to be having a chew ... he occasionally spits into a cup. We hear what sounds like a television show, although we don't see it, and I'm not sure how they had a TV out on the sea. It's a one-take scene, with a stationary camera. It lasts for around 4 1/2 minutes. We watch the man ... we hear the TV ... the man spits ... he stares in the direction of what we assume is the TV ... he spits ... we watch him ... and gradually, after about 4 of those minutes, his eyes gradually close and we realize he is falling asleep. Everybody's a critic.

Some critics didn't fall asleep ... it's #83 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

film fatales #85: cameraperson (kirsten johnson, 2016)

Cameraperson has a fascinating premise. Kirsten Johnson is a cinematographer with more than 50 credits to her name, mostly in documentaries (Citizenfour, The Invisible War, This Film Is Not Yet Rated). Cameraperson is her solo debut as a feature director, and it is quite personal. It begins with the following statement on the screen:

For the past 25 years I've worked as a documentary cinematographer. I originally shot the following footage for other films, but here I ask you to see it as my memoir. These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.

I felt an immediate affinity with this approach ... after all, the motto of this blog filled with my thoughts on movies, television, music, and the like, refers to the entire project as my memoirs. Just for starters, though, Johnson has been a lot more places than I have. The film takes us, among other places, to Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Bosnia as well as Washington D.C., Queens, and Alabama. Most of what we see, obviously, relates to the films she worked on. (The IMDB page lists Jacques Derrida at the top of the cast list, although he appears only briefly; Johnson worked on the film Derrida.) But she also includes footage of her family, in particular her mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer's, and who eventually dies. Johnson is ever-present in the documentary footage ... we can hear her talking behind the camera, but we don't see her face until the end of the movie, when she is talking with her mom. Her presence, combined with the opening quote about memoirs, provide something of a theme for the film.

But Johnson's methods seem to reject structure. Even people who love the film admit it's hard to follow at first, because Johnson moves from one brief clip to another, with title cards telling us where we are. Because the clips are taken out of context (whatever the movie Derrida was like, all we see here is him crossing a street and making a philosophy joke), we're left "wondering still", and because the order in which she shows the clips seems haphazard, it's not easy to understand just what she intends with Cameraperson. By the end of the movie, though, we appreciate the skill she uses in putting together the "story", and while I'm still not sure what her intentions were, it's clear she has them. Cameraperson is not haphazard. #230 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

planet of the humans (jeff gibbs, 2019)

Planet of the Humans has pissed off a lot of people. It's a documentary, made by environmentalists, that takes the movement to task for what is seen as its failures. In "Planet of the Censoring Humans", Matt Taibbi writes, "In Planet of the Humans, [Michael] Moore and Gibbs make a complex argument. In essence, they charge that people have become dependent upon the high-consumption lifestyles made possible by fossil fuels, and that it’s our addiction to that way of life, as much as to fossil fuels themselves, that is driving humanity off a 'cliff.'"

Taibbi's focus is on censorship more than the environment, and it is true that Planet of the Humans has gotten a lot of what amounts to free publicity because of attempts to shut it down. It's not entirely fair to accuse the film makers of milking the controversy ... the film is available for free, it is not as of now a profit-making enterprise ... but Michael Moore's gift for self-promotion is well-known, and it's hard to be sure what he's up to. I imagine he would argue that it's irrelevant, that the only thing that matters is the subject of the film.

Josh Fox is a leader in the attacks on the film. His essay in The Nation, "Meet the New Flack for Oil and Gas: Michael Moore", details many of his complaints.

The discussion surrounding the film is almost entirely about its content ... the form is apparently irrelevant. And I'm succumbing to that problem myself, I admit. The form matters, though, as it always does with films Moore is involved with. Moore creates propaganda, and the criticisms always come from the people he is attacking. What makes Planet of the Humans different is that the people under attack have supported Moore in the past (because they agreed with his propaganda). I, like others, may be making too much of Moore's involvement. I was surprised at how little presence Moore has in the actual film. It's really a Jeff Gibbs movie; he wrote, directed, produced, and is the main character, the way that Moore usually is in his movies. Moore seems to be the public face of the film, because of his notoriety, I suppose, and because of that gift for promotion. The film shares some of Moore's muckraking use of editing to make its points, even when that editing is unfair. Ultimately, it's not a lot different from a typical Michael Moore movie. I like his movies, I'm glad they exist, but I don't trust them, even when I agree with them.

One place where I think the critics are missing the point comes when they accuse the film of pandering to the notion of population control as essential, the criticism being that population control is often related to dark notions of "culling the populace". But the central point of the film isn't that there are too many of us (although that is presented as a problem), it's that we aren't doing enough to change our way of living. The problem isn't too many people, it's too many consumers. The enemy in Planet of the Humans, as in most things Moore is associated with, is capitalism. It's hard to miss this point, but apparently lots of people aren't seeing it. So Gibbs and Moore are seen as "flacks for oil and gas", when the film isn't pro-fossil fuels, it's just a critique of the current environmental movement, which, according to the film, has gotten too cozy with capitalism. It's ironic that the film argues against the movement's capitalist-friendly approach while being accused of promoting fossil fuel usage.

In the end, the criticisms of Planet of the Humans are well-taken. As is usual in his films, Moore (and Gibbs, it's really hard to separate the two) plays cutesy with facts. He is always easy to criticize. As I say, the only difference here is that it's the left doing the criticizing.

Meanwhile, there's an elephant in the room ... well, that's not the right way to say it, it's an elephant that isn't allowed into the room. Nowhere in the film (and nowhere in the critiques) is the question of nuclear power addressed. It's possible that Gibbs/Moore would include nuclear power alongside all of the other hoped-for scientific advances like solar and wind power as misguided attempts to maintain a lifestyle that no longer works. But I have to try and guess that, because nuclear is never brought up. Those of us who think a serious re-examination of nuclear power is long overdue can not be encouraged by this film, or the controversy surrounding it.

Here is an interview with the film makers where they try to address the criticisms:

And here is the movie itself, back on YouTube, at least for now. Watch it yourself, examine it for yourself.

by request/film fatales #81: knock down the house (rachel lears, 2019)

Cori Bush. Paula Jean Swearengin. Amy Vilela. I'm embarrassed to admit I knew nothing about these women before watching Knock Down the House. They all ran for office in the 2018 midterm elections as part of the attempt to make the Democratic Party, and thus the U.S., more progressive. All three women are interesting, and what we learn of their personal stories informs their politics. All three (spoiler alert) lost their elections, which is probably why I hadn't heard of them.

Rachel Lears chose her subjects via a process whereby she worked with progressive organizations to find women like the ones featured in the movie. When she starts, she doesn't know which, if any, will win, but she is there, fly on the wall, giving us an intimate feel for what a grass roots campaign is like.

The problem with Knock Down the House (and, let's face, it's not really a problem), is that none of those women are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Since Ocasio-Cortez wins her election, which we know, and since she has become an instant attraction in Congress and in the country, her part in the film overwhelms the story of the other women. This is no one's fault. I doubt Lears could have predicted what happened.

But AOC (we've had FDR and JFK and LBJ ... they were presidents ... Ocasio-Cortez is a representative in the House, but she's known by her initials just like her predecessors) wins her election where the others don't. This results in an inspirational scene (one of many) that is guaranteed to make you get teary-eyed (I suppose if you are one of those people who hate her, you'd be crying about then as well): when AOC realizes she has won.

We know from her story, which Lears shows us effectively, that she wasn't born to be a politician. But she is so charismatic that she wins you over. And no matter how she was born, she seems like a natural politician in the best possible way. When she thanks the people who helped her achieve victory, it doesn't feel boilerplate, it feels real.

Of course, just as she has quickly become an icon for some, she personifies the enemy for others. But Knock Down the House isn't made for those people.

Bush, Swearengin, and Vilela are also vital progressives with big dreams. Like I say, this is no one's fault. But AOC is a star, and Rachel Lears is a film maker who knows what she's got. So of course she focuses most on Ocasio-Cortez.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

the punk rock movie (don letts, 1978)

There are various versions of this movie, with various titles, of varying quality. The one I just watched was terrible looking, a dub of a dub of a dub, all done on VHS. There is something appropriate about that.

I first saw The Punk Rock Movie so long ago it shows how old I am and how old punk is. It exists as a document of a particular place and time. Don Letts took a Super 8 camera into the maelstrom, and this was the result. Picture's bad, sound's bad, what can I say? I suppose I can't recommend it, even though it is as much a marker of its time as Don't Look Back was of the time before Dylan went electric.

The following people appear in the film: The Sex Pistols, Shane MacGowan, Eater, Slaughter and the Dogs, Generation X, The Slits, The Clash, Subway Sect, Alternative TV, Wayne County & the Electric Chairs, Soo Catwoman, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and X-Ray Spex.

I suppose none of these acts are seen/heard at their best, but Letts' grubby footage feels right. My favorite acts were The Slits, where you get to see what Ari Up was like on stage, and X-Ray Spex when Lora Logic was still on saxophone.

Hey, this movie is right up my alley. I've now seen it twice in 40+ years. But even I know it's mostly crap, so if you have no interest in the early year(s) of British punk, avoid this movie.

by request: echo in the canyon (andrew slater, 2018)

Fiona Apple. The Beach Boys. Beck. Justine Bennett. Jackson Browne. Buffalo Springfield. The Byrds. Jade Castrinos. Eric Clapton. David Crosby. Jakob Dylan. Norah Jones. The Mamas and the Papas. Roger McGuinn. Graham Nash. Fernando Perdomo. Tom Petty. Michelle Phillips. Cat Power. John Sebastian. Regina Spektor. Ringo Starr. Stephen Stills. Matt Tecu. Brian Wilson.

That's an impressive list of artists. If you knew there was a movie featuring these performers in archival footage, with new material (including Tom Petty's last interview), and some younger artists performing songs from the originals in a special concert, and you like most or all of the above, you'd be right in thinking Echo in the Canyon must be a great movie, or at least, enjoyable for fans of mid-60s folk-rock out of LA. And yes, for an hour-and-a-half, it's enjoyable.

But it is also frustrating. As is too often the case in documentaries like this, too many songs are presented piecemeal. I might have preferred a straightforward documentation of the concert ... at least I could appreciate the performances.

The interview segments are of varying interest. Petty's last interview is great, Michelle Phillips is a delight, and David Crosby is helplessly honest (he admits he was kicked out of The Byrds because he was an asshole). Ringo's dry humor is always welcome. But there is also an odd interview interspersed throughout, where Dylan sits around on a couch with Cat Power, Beck, and Regina Spektor, and they stare at old album covers while saying the equivalent of "wow, groovy". All of those people are interesting artists, but here they are mostly dolts. Meanwhile, Dylan is such a low-key interviewer that he disappears, although in fairness that may be one reason the artists felt comfortable during the interviews.

And, as many have pointed out, there is no mention of The Doors, or Joni Mitchell, or Love (although an Arthur Lee song appears on the soundtrack album).

Oddest of all, there are clips from the Jacques Demy film Model Shop, with many of the old-timers talking about how important the movie was in showing what the Canyon was like in those days. They speak as if the film was contemporaneous with the music featured in the film, but the movie came out in 1969, while the music we see was rather specifically from the mid-60s. Buffalo Springfield broke up in 1968, The Mamas and the Papas were about to disband, Pet Sounds was 1966. They might have liked Model Shop, but that movie had nothing to do with the music we are learning about (and the movie featured the music of Spirit, who are nowhere in the film).

There are some solid performances ... big-voiced singer Jade Castrinos' effervescence is contagious. By all means, see the movie if you are a fan of mid-60s LA folk-rock. But despite its pleasures, Echo in the Canyon feels like a missed opportunity.

they shall not grow old (peter jackson, 2018)

Perhaps the most impressive thing Peter Jackson accomplishes in this movie is to make it more than just a stunt. Where often something offbeat seems to exist just to show off, Jackson always had in mind a story about soldiers in World War I. They Shall Not Grow Old isn't there to make us amazed at the technical skill ... Jackson puts that skill to use in telling his story the best way possible.

For those who aren't aware of this film, Jackson used a hundred hours of old black-and-white footage, worked his way through hundreds of hours of interviews with soldiers, cleaned up the footage and then colorized it, and put it all together to give us a World War I we have never seen before.

It works as you would expect. The soldiers are more real to us, the war is more real, everything is more real than in a fictional film with actors. But the experience of watching They Shall Not Grow Old overwhelms your expectations. You know it will work, but you can't really be prepared for how much we are drawn in.

Jackson isn't trying to make a history of the war. He has access to footage of British soldiers, so that's who we see. He gives us the trees in the forest ... the movie is less about World War I, and more about how it felt to the soldiers in that war. You wouldn't come here to learn all about World War I. But Jackson gives us a deeper understanding of the lives of the soldiers who were fighting.

Peter Jackson's career is hard to believe. He started with splatter films. Then came Heavenly Creatures with Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, the screenplay for which was nominated for an Oscar. After that, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They Shall Not Grow Old doesn't seem to fit with any of these, but at this point, it's enough to just accept that Jackson has a lot of films he wants to make.

geezer cinema: what she said: the art of pauline kael (rob garver, 2018)

This may be the ultimate "Steven's Pick" movie. Last summer, I made a small donation to the folks making this movie, which meant my name showed up in the credits, a first. Kael, of course, has been an obsession of mine for close to 50 years. A quote from her sits atop every page of this blog. Rob Garver has been working on this film for several years ... IMDB lists it as a 2018 movie, and that's when it first appeared at festivals. Prior to this, Garver was a director of shorts.

Garver tries to squeeze Kael's entire life into 98 minutes, an effort that is doomed from the start, although he does a pretty good job nonetheless. He hits the high points ... born on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California, attended Cal and settled in at Berkeley, had a daughter, worked at menial jobs because she couldn't make a living as a film critic, ran a theater, did reviews on radio, published a compilation of her work, got noticed, and went to New York.

You don't learn a lot about Pauline Kael the person ... if you do, it's more like my borrowed quote, "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have." Garver walks us through her most famous reviews, and those reviews supply much of the film's narrative. Limelight, Shoeshine, The Sound of Music, Bonnie and Clyde, Citizen Kane, Last Tango in Paris, Nashville, Shoah. Garver isn't a hagiographer ... he mentions some of her low spots in passing. But What She Said is nonetheless a love letter (appropriate that when it finally came to Berkeley, it was Valentine's Day). The very fact of its existence is remarkable: a documentary about a movie critic who has been dead for almost 20 years, who wrote her last review almost 30 years ago.

The movie is probably best appreciated by those of us who have memorized everything she ever wrote. Garver uses clips of Kael, interviews with people who knew her and/or were influenced by her, and voice overs of some famous passages, read by Sarah Jessica Parker. (Parker does fine ... she doesn't try to imitate the sound of Kael, she let's the words do the work, and while at first it was a bit odd hearing Parker, eventually I quit noticing.)

What She Said should be seen by all Kael aficionados. I'm not sure it will connect with others, though.

Here is a brief clip that combines Parker reading, Kael speaking, and Quentin Tarantino being Quentin Tarantino:

And the trailer: