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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
I intended to spend five minutes checking out this movie ... hard to resist what looked to be 130 minutes of naked actors. Mick LaSalle turned up right away as a talking head, discussing pre-Code pictures, and I stuck around a bit more. Next thing I knew, there was only half-an-hour to go, and no reason not to finish.
Skin is more than an easy way for voyeurs to check out nude celebrities. It is actually a decent overview of the topic. It stretches itself a bit thin in the attempt to cover everything from the late-19th century to today, but it might inspire someone to study the subject in a more detailed fashion. (It seems to be impossible to avoid double entendre here.) As far as I could tell, the history is accurate, and I learned a few things.
But ultimately, Skin is pretty much what I expected in the beginning: a chance to show a lot of naked actors. The presence of Mr. Skin (aka Jim McBride) in the credits as an executive producer is telling. The movie doesn't offer much more than the Mr. Skin website, although again, the history is accurate enough. But the history is there to excuse the nudity. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
There is an attempt to address #MeToo that doesn't leer, and that's welcomed. And the list of talking heads goes beyond what you'd expect, not only such stars of film nudity as Linda Blair, Pam Grier, and Malcolm McDowell, but also directors like Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl) and Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Skins ends up being a little better than I expected.
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?
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.
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.