Let’s Get Lost

January 23, 2013

letsgetlostAs sad and romantic as its evocative title, Let’s Get Lost is a documentary about the great jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, whose death in a fall from an Amsterdam hotel window in 1988 was the final step in a lifelong dance of self-destruction. Much of the movie was shot in 1987, when Baker was clearly near the end of his long, painful road.

Let’s Get Lost is no straightforward documentary. Filmmaker Bruce Weber, a longtime fan of Baker, has created a dreamlike, black-and-white collage of interviews, music, old photographs, film clips, and new footage. It tells Baker’s history, but also conjures the feeling of a long, mournful jazz wail.

In the 1950s, young Chet Baker was a great white hope of jazz, a key figure in West Coast cool jazz, a beautiful trumpet player and a wispy, romantic vocalist. He also looked like James Dean, and Hollywood was grooming him for stardom.

He had talent, he had charm, he had…something ineffable. William Claxton, whose famous photographs of Baker in the ’50s are featured prominently in the film, says that photographing Baker gave him his first indication of what photogenic meant.

These early glimpses of the young Baker are interspersed with the wreck Weber interviewed in 1987. Baker, not yet 60, looks like an angel of death, his face heavily lined and toothless, his spirit shredded by constant drug use. Interviews with his wives, girlfriends and children create a portrait of a master manipulator, a totally unreliable friend and father.

Some will see this film and dismiss Baker as a self-destructive jerk. Fine. But that doesn’t explain the music, which is as graceful and fugitive as a trail of smoke. Baker seems to have been a person so racked with pain and hurt that he was simply unable to function in the world, except to express himself through music.

Bruce Weber is a fashion photographer whose Calvin Klein campaign set the tone for advertising in this decade. As a filmmaker, he’s still drunk on images: the story in Baker’s face, the glamour of the jazz set in the 1950s. (This movie is unimaginable in color.) Weber may be mostly concerned with surfaces; he can’t explain Chet Baker. But he can fashion Baker’s dream state, his lost world.

First published in the Herald, April 1989

Slightly surprised this isn’t considered more of a classic documentary, but maybe it doesn’t fit the mold; also, it was out of circulation for a long time. The treatment fits the subject, for sure.


Shoah

December 31, 2012

shoahThe late Simone de Beauvoir, upon seeing Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, remarked that, “Despite all previous knowledge, the ghastly experience remained outside of ourselves. Now, for the first time, we experience it in our heads, hearts, and flesh.”

The ghastly experience is the Holocaust, the systematic destruction of 6 million European Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II. (Shoah is Hebrew for “annihilation.”) The key word in de Beauvoir’s phrase is “flesh.” We may have understood the Holocaust intellectually and emotionally before. But never has it been described as in Shoah, which locates the experience so exactly—in fields, trains, buildings, or flesh.

French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann spent 10 years making Shoah; his film is 9 ½ hours long. The movie contains not a single frame of film ever seen before—not the piles of corpses at concentration camps, not the emaciated survivors, not the speeches by Hitler. It consists entirely of memories—descriptions by camp survivors, Nazi officials, and bystanders.

As these people tell their stories, Lanzmann’s camera often roams across the places where the atrocities happened; especially Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Chelmno—the extermination camps, which existed for the sole purpose of eliminating people, with horrifying efficiency.

Lanzmann sometimes visits the sites with survivors. Here, he reveals his purpose: to construct a film that remembers the Holocaust in concrete detail. He has said, “My aim was to make a topographical, geographic, archaeological work.”

Thus, when he walks through Treblinka (now a brown-green, grassy plain), where thousands of Jews were herded off the trains to the waiting gas chambers, he is inquisitive and exacting: Where were the walls, he asks, where was the ramp? What kind of day was it?

In this way, Lanzmann locks us into the terrible reality of the experience. It is especially hard-hitting because we have just heard the survivors describe the same landscape, in the awful detail of the past.

There are no words to describe the power of these witnesses, except their own. Abraham Bomba survived because of his trade: a barber, he was chosen to cut the victims’ hair immediately before they entered the gas chambers (they were told they were entering a shower for de-lousing). Simon Srebnik was spared because his young singing voice was found pleasing by the Germans; his voice is remembered years later by the local Poles who lived and worked right next to the camps, and who matter-of-factly recall the awful screams that came from inside.

There are the remembrances of Nazi officials (filmed by Lanzmann with a concealed camera in his briefcase), who are bland and unremorseful. In a weird way, some of the most appalling moments in the film come with historian Raul Hilberg’s recounting of the methods of transporting the doomed: on regular German railroads through the bureaucratic channels of the travel department.

The Jews’ confiscated goods were used to pay for their passage to the camps; it was the “self-financing principle,” as Hilberg notes, and they received half-fare prices on the way to their death—the group rate. Rarely has the term “banality of evil” been give such exact incarnation.

From this description, and despite the many examples of courage, it is obvious that Shoah is not an easy film to watch. While previewing it, I sometimes had to look away from the screen, during those unspeakably inhuman passages when you can feel a part of your soul wither. But looking away from the subject is exactly what Lanzmann is trying to fight. He says that if we look away, we forget; and the existence of Shoah makes sure we will not forget.

First published in the Herald, May 1, 1986

The press screening of this movie was like no other: A TV set up in the very old-school lobby of the Harvard Exit theater, and a handful of us sitting there in the afternoon (it must have been two consecutive days—I don’t think they’d do the thing in a single sitting). The film is a remarkable experience, and the longer it goes on the more you realize the brilliance of Lanzmann’s decision to not use archival footage.


That’s Dancing!

December 13, 2012

thatsdancingThat’s Dancing! isn’t much of a movie—but then it doesn’t have to be. It provides plenty of entertainment by helping itself to large portions of other movies, many of which are very good indeed.

It’s the approach taken by the That’s Entertainment! movies (they’ve even kept the exclamation point), but in this case the musical numbers consist only of dancing—no extraneous material. The dance numbers from the history of the movies are introduced and narrated by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ray Bolger, Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Gene Kelly. Kelly also served as executive producer.

Kelly and Jack Haley, Jr. (who also was responsible for the That’s Entertainment! films), start the film—after a gratingly splashy opening number—with a chronological history of dance in film. Early nickel flickers and silent extravaganzas are glimpsed.

Then that mad choreographer-director, Busby Berkeley, is showcased, with wild clips from some of Berkeley’s 1930s Warner Bros. musicals. Some of this stuff, which really makes you wonder what kind of medication Berkeley was taking, is reason enough to stay up for late-night TV and catch these films in their entirety.

Fred Astaire is duly honored, of course, including his solo to the ironic strains of “I Won’t Dance.” We also get to see a dance from The Wizard of Oz that was trimmed from the final release version.

It’s an extension of the Scarecrow’s “If I Only Had a Brain” dance, and it’s perfectly delightful—nothing great, mind you, but with Ray Bolger bouncing between rubbery fence posts and flying over the corn fields, it certainly qualifies as a wonderful almost-lost nugget of Hollywood history.

A section on classical ballet in movies follows, and this is the point at which That’s Dancing! goes astray. A bit too much time is spent paying tribute to classical greats, many of whom had little to do with dance in movies.

This is also the point at which the film abandons its chronological movement, becoming instead a tribute to the key stars of the genre. Thus the movie seems directionless, although it’s hard to care much when the clips are this good.

There’s a sensational duet of one-upmanship by the Nicholas Brothers, from Down Argentine Way; a hilarious bit from It’s Always Fair Weather with Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd hoofing it up with the handicap of a garbage can lid attached to each foot; and the sizzling “Cool” from West Side Story.

The narrators take pains to tell us who the principal dancers are, and even the directors and choreographers. For some reason, and this is unfortunately common in compilation films such as this, there is no written identification of each clip. It’s always nice when a title is flashed at the bottom of the screen when a scene comes on, but maybe they thought it would be too complicated for the audience. Hmm.

First published in the Herald, January 19, 1985

Yes, for some reason this one didn’t catch the giddy magic of the first couple of compilation films under this banner. In the 1970s the first two That’s Entertainment! movies were big box-office hits; but they’re all museum stuff now.


Powaqqatsi

November 7, 2012

On a crisp Colorado night in September of 1982, I was walking along the main street of Telluride, where the annual film festival was in full swing. As I approached the outdoor theater—not a theater, really, just a grassy space with a screen hung across the starry night—I heard some incredible music and stopped to look at the movie being projected there.

What I saw was an amazing, mad rush of images: time-lapse photography of clouds scudding across a city skyline, speeded-up shots of escalators vomiting people through a shopping mall, fast-motion images of cars racing over strips of highway like ripples on a snake’s back.

What I was seeing was Koyaanisqatsi, a remarkable film by a man named Godfrey Reggio. Reggio’s non-narrative movie is composed entirely of arresting images and the rhythmic, trance-inducing music of Philip Glass. Koyaanisqatsi—the title is a Hopi Indian word meaning “Life out of balance”—quickly became many things to many people.

It was a touchstone to other filmmakers, including Francis Coppola, whose Rumble Fish was markedly influenced by it. It was the ultimate MTV movie. It was a head trip. It was a New Age lullaby.

Reggio himself simply went out and made the next installment of what he plans as a trilogy, Powaqqatsi, and it is in the same manner as the first film. But in Powaqqatsi Reggio ranges much farther through the world to find his images.

This time more of the movie focuses on the Third World (filming took place in Kenya, India, Egypt, Nepal, Peru, and elsewhere), and Reggio opts for many slow-motion sequences. The most bravura sequence is the opening, as Reggio surveys the slowed-down, dreamlike efforts of workers to haul stones and mud from a quarry (Glass’s music is particularly forceful here).

Again like the first movie, Reggio uses the progression of images to suggest the soullessness of mechanization, as opposed to the simplicity of primitive life. In the Hopi language, Powaqqatsi translates as the sorcerer who lives by consuming other ways of life. Reggio makes his point, but you have to wonder how aware he is of the irony of using ultra-sophisticated film stock and helicopter shots as he glorifies the peasant grinding corn with a rock. And in some ways, Reggio’s films seem to encourage a mindless sensory experience rather than political awareness.

The interesting thing about Reggio’s two movies is that they are larger experiences than either his social concerns or my critical quibbles. Quite simply, Reggio finds ways of looking at things that no one else has seen in exactly this way before: a pink tree alone in a terraced yellow-and-green flower garden, a man lugging a fish as large as he is to market, a child ferociously driving a horse-drawn cart through a street, a Nepalese house perched on what appears to be the top of the world. The mandate of the artist is to show us things anew; at this, Reggio succeeds.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

This one, which never quite matches its opening, was considered a dropping-off from the K-movie. But it looks good next to Reggio’s 2002 film Naqoyqasti, which crossed the line into hectoring.


Bring on the Night

October 8, 2012

Bring on the Night is, in almost every way, your typical rock documentary. It traces the evolution of a project from beginning to fruition, with heavy emphasis on musical numbers, interspersed with interviews and behind-the-scenes hijinks.

Now, if you’ve seen a few “rockumentaries,” you know that the form itself is intrinsically stupid. The things are usually vanity productions designed to indulge the whims of the stars, who often babble on about their philosophies during the all-too-lengthy breaks between songs.

Bring on the Night falls into most of those traps, but redeems itself in other ways. The good thing is, it’s about Sting, who happens to be one of the most intelligent and thoughtful rock musicians.

The bad thing is, it’s about Sting, who also happens to be one of the most pretentious and least fun-loving rock musicians.

The project here is the new band that Der Stingle assembled for his current “Dreams of the Blue Turtles” album, and some touring he did with the band. The film, Sting explains at a press conference near the beginning, wants to show the creation of a band—unlike other rockumentaries, which sometimes catch bands at their bitter end (as with the Beatles and Let It Be).

The dichotomy between Sting’s intelligence and his pretentiousness makes this process interesting to watch. The musicians Sting has gathered together (in a chateau near Paris) seem deliberately chosen to represent something he’s not—he’s British, they’re American; he’s rock, they’re jazz; he’s white, they’re black.

These jazz musicians are a fun bunch, no question about it, while Sting seems to be straining to join in their groove. But at least he is trying, even so far as joining in on a chorus of “Meet the Flintstones” as kicked off by saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

The outgoing (and supremely talented) Marsalis presents quite a contrast with the rather aloof Sting. While Sting goes on, somewhat pompously, about his search for a new sound, Marsalis describes how he switched from the clarinet to the saxophone because you could get girls with a sax. Marsalis is no less serious a musician, of course, but he seems to have a healthier sense of humor.

Director Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Kipperbang) shows us the birth of the album, in rehearsal sessions at the chateau, and the culmination of the project, in some live gigs in Paris. We also see another kind of birth: a human one, as Sting’s girlfriend Trudie Styler delivers a baby boy on camera.

It’s the music (not the medicine) that sustains the film. The songs take over near the end, and all the forced backstage stuff fades away. Sting is a talented songwriter, and his work is his vindication. The concert’s final song, “Message in a Bottle,” could be a description of the movie itself—a message sense out in the hope that someone will listen. Well, message received—but Sting, next time just sing the songs, don’t talk about them, okay?

First published in the Herald, November 7, 1985

There were quite a few of these back then. And just a year after This Is Spinal Tap, too.


16 Days of Glory

August 6, 2012

One of the surprises among the Oscar nominations was the absence of 16 Days of Glory in the best documentary feature category.

Even among those who hadn’t seen it, the film sounded like a natural choice; after all, the documentary category is usually filled with moves few people have heard of and fewer have seen. 16 Days, on the other hand, was the official record of the ultra-ballyhooed 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Surely that gave it shoo-in status?

Well, ask Cher and Steven Spielberg about shoo-in status. 16 Days of Glory didn’t make it, and now that the film is going into wide release, it’s more obvious why. Competent, well-photographed, and shrewdly constructed, 16 Days is nevertheless a perfectly ordinary sports documentary, no better or worse than the average Super Bowl highlights film.

The segments, focusing on individual performers, are only as beguiling as the particular subjects. There are some interesting omissions: Carl Lewis, for example, and the fall of Mary Decker.

The opening scenes are rather good—the stadium erupting in a mosaic of flags, created by the cards held by spectators, and the torch passing from Jesse Owens’ granddaughter to gold medalist Rafer Johnson, who slaps the steep stairs in front of him as he hikes the last leg to the top.

The first segment is a twist: Dave Moorcroft, British world-record holder in the 5,000 meters, suffers from a chronic pelvic injury that strikes him on the day of the final heat. He gamefully finishes the race, however, in pain and lagging far behind the leaders.

The next segment is a heart-tugger. The Japanese Judo master Yamashita is injured during a semi-final match, and visibly limps from the bout. He can’t rest, however, because all the matches take place on the same day. So we see him dragging his bad leg behind him and, somehow, keeping opponents away from it, until he achieves a stirring victory.

The triumphs are real, and a tribute to the athletes. Producer-director-writer Bud Greenspan can’t resist the temptation to heighten each contest by emphasizing the odds against the athletes who will win.

It’s the oldest sports cliché in the world, of course, much beloved by columnists and broadcasters, and Greenspan is pretty brazen about exploiting it; athletes are portrayed as too old, too slow, or too unheralded to win, but they come through in the final reel.

Greenspan has been careful (except, perhaps, at the grand finale) not to turn the film into a bloody show of nationalism, which is no small feat considering what was done to the Olympics by politicians (of every stripe) eager to cash in on the flag-waving.

Greenspan makes no attempt to make the film into the kind of visual poetry of, for instance, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia of the 1936 games. It’s sheer reportage, with only the occasional stray detail catching the marvelous poetry possible in athletic competition: the reluctance of Rowdy Gaines, expecting the worst, to turn around and look at the results after he has won a gold medal in swimming; the wife of hurdler Edwin Moses doing some hurdling of her own as she jumps onto the track to hug the winner; an unidentified American woman raising her hand to her mouth while on the awards platform, revealing fingernails of wild hue and length.

Two more cavils: not enough women (Joan Benoit and the inevitable Mary Lou Retton are the only women who have segments); and the narration, spoken by Daniel Perry, is exactly the kind of overblown hooey that’s been a sports staple for years. How many times do we need to hear, “The athletes entered the stadium like the gladiators of old,” before it can be retired?

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1986

The slights to Cher and Spielberg were for Mask and The Color Purple. The L.A. Olympics are remembered as Reagan-era patriot games, and indeed everything was wrapped in red, white and blue. You may not recognize some of these names, but most of them were very familiar at the time. Mary Lou Retton was, of course, the Gabby Douglas of those Games, but multiplied by the number of stars in the flag.


Sherman’s March

March 30, 2012

In 1981, a documentary filmmaker named Ross McElwee got some grant money together and set off for his native North Carolina to make a movie about Union general William Tecumseh Sherman’s notoriously bloody march during the Civil War.

Perhaps that documentary will be produced some day, and admired by a few academic types. McElwee didn’t quite make it.

Just as he left for the South, his girlfriend dumped him. McElwee found himself alone and despondent; he started filming his relatives in North Carolina, just for the sake of shooting something. At which point his sister offhandedly suggested that his camera might be a great conversation piece, especially when it came to meeting women.

Sherman’s March is the film that resulted, and it still occasionally and metaphorically refers to the Civil War general. But mostly it’s a document of McElwee’s largely hapless, but eminently human, attempt to find romantic happiness during his odyssey through the South.

The camera is strapped to his shoulder seemingly all the time. In fact, we don’t see much of McElwee himself during the movie. Rather, we watch the parade of life and fascinating women that McElwee meets on his journey.

For a while, the poor guy seems to be on a bad run of luck. He meets Pat, who tantalizes with some amazing “cellulite exercises” and then goes to Atlanta with the vague hope of meeting Burt Reynolds and getting into movies. His camera watches implacably while she begins describing a screenplay she’s devised that sounds increasingly like the looniest ravings you’ve ever heard, all about flying to Venus, being decapitated, “and all they see is my head floating.”

Then there’s the innocuous-seeming woman who takes him for a visit to a bizarre survivalist troupe, who liken their freaky ideas to “Little House on the Prairie.”

As odd as some of the people are along this odyssey, McElwee never smirks or judges. He views them all with the same reserved curiosity. Sometimes this can seem a kind of heartlessness, as when he finally breaks with an ex-girlfriend, and his hand enters the frame to stroke her shoulder lovingly and sympathetically.

But, as troubled as the film is with such things, and with McElwee’s worrying about nuclear threats (the subject of apocalypse is oddly common to the people of the film), Sherman’s March is a weirdly happy experience. The film shows a world that veers and soars and turns back in on itself in crazy, inexplicable ways—found life, organized in a shrewd and suggestive manner.

Documentary really does prove the stranger-than-fiction cliché. How can you explain the mall appearance, during a deadly serious discussion of religion, of a 6-foot Easter Bunny (coincidentally entering the frame just at the mention of the Antichrist)? And, after you’ve watched the hilariously recurrent presence of Burt Reynolds, who accrues an almost supernatural meaning during the movie, you’ll never think of him in quite the same way again.

Over the course of two and a half hours, these events all come together. Sherman’s March is a song of the South that becomes, eventually and perhaps to McElwee’s surprise, a very off-center ode to joy.

First published in the Herald, March 27, 1987

Yeah, I really like this movie. It opened at the Market Theatre in Seattle. Seeing the occasional McElwee movie since then has been like getting a nice long letter from a friend you don’t keep in great touch with but always find really interesting. My stupid crack about a Sherman documentary being admired by a few academic types has been proven wrong endlessly, first by Ken Burns and then by the History Channel.