Imagine: John Lennon

November 24, 2021

Since John Lennon’s death, Yoko Ono has been a very deliberate caretaker of the man’s considerable legacy. Through a series of albums, books, a TV-movie, and even a recent star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Yoko has kept Lennon’s presence felt.

One thing she couldn’t control was the wholly unauthorized biography of Lennon written by Albert Goldman, published a few weeks ago. Goldman, who trashed Elvis Presley in a notorious book earlier this decade, spent more than five years writing his Lives of John Lennon. I haven’t read the book, but Goldman seems to have unearthed many nasty bits, some of which have been denied by the people involved (and many of which had been admitted by Lennon all along).

But the resourceful Yoko has come up with a reply to Goldman, in the form of a feature film. (Everyone denies that the film is a response to Goldman’s book, but the timing is too perfect.) Yoko went to producer David Wolper and director Andrew Solt and turned over more than 100 hours of audio tapes, video, and film, all from John and Yoko’s private collection.

The movie that Wolper and Solt made from the footage (and other available materials) is Imagine: John Lennon. It’s a largely predictable, but unavoidably fascinating film.

Lennon was part of one of the century’s most amazing cultural phenomena, but even if The Beatles had never happened, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Lennon would have been a remarkable man. This film does not attempt to float a halo over his head, although it is highly laudatory. By revealing him in moments of anger, pettiness, and foolishness, the film simply acknowledges Lennon’s complexity; he was a man much greater than the sum of his parts.

There is a healthy does of music, both Beatle and solo, and there are interviews with ex-wife Cynthia and Yoko, and sons Julian and Sean. But the major attraction of the film is the home-movie quality of the newly-seen footage.

Much of it is offhand, showing Lennon noodling around with songs that would eventually become familiar. There are revealing moments of Lennon’s petulance, such as a conversation between John and George Harrison in which they derisively speak of Paul McCartney as “Beatle Ed” before cutting Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?”—a caustic jibe at Paul.

During John and Yoko’s famous bed-in for peace, they are visited by cartoonist Al Capp, who had become a raving reactionary late in life. Capp assails the couple, and openly insults Yoko in racist terms. John really must’ve been into peace, because he would have been perfectly justified in slugging Capp.

And there are eerie passages. At one point John reads a letter from a fan who had consulted a Ouija board and deduced that Lennon would be assassinated. In the movie’s oddest sequence, Lennon talks to a flaky chap who’d been shadowing the star’s estate, and who felt that John was speaking to him through the music. Lennon compassionately brings this poor soul down to earth, then invites him in to breakfast.

Imagine is consistently intriguing (though, as George Harrison said of it, there’s a bit too much Beatles stuff, buoyant as that is). It is not a lofty or great documentary, but there’s enough of value to whet one’s appetite for the other 99 hours.

First published in The Herald, October 1988

We are on the verge of Peter Jackson’s multi-hour revamp of the Let It Be footage, so this seemed worth digging out. “Beatle Ed”—very funny.

Soldier Girls

September 22, 2021

When he made Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick found that actual quotes from military personnel were much funnier and more absurd than anything he could have possibly made up himself; so he often stuck the verbatim dialogue in the mouths of his characters. It’s either comforting or disturbing that things haven’t changed much in almost twenty years; according to a very funny (and sometimes harrowing, and touching) new documentary called Soldier Girls, the Army is still the place to be for such incredible doubletalk as a sergeant’s argument with a young woman who shows reluctance on the firing range: “This gun isn’t going to hurt you! This gun never hurt anybody!”

The movie – directed by Nicholas Broomfield and Joan Churchill – follows a handful of girls going through basic training and watches their responses to the weird other world of Army life (the issue of whether or not their responses are altered by the presence of a camera is very valid – though mostly people behave, sometimes, amazingly, as though they were quite unobserved). It is, among other things, an irresistibly quotable film; one of the most bizarre scenes involves a lecture on the proper reaction to a nuclear attack: When you see the bright light of a nuclear explosion, immediately turn away. Sound advice, I’d say, but don’t turn away from Soldier Girls, which is opening soon at the Harvard Exit. Just remember, you can use your canteen to wash off the radioactive dust.

First published in The Informer, March 1983

This was in the early phases of the careers of Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill, married but now divorced. He has since been a sometimes controversial figure, a sort of documentary Oliver Stone, and puts himself in his movies, which include Kurt & Courtney and Spalding Gray’s Monster in a Box. The serial killer Aileen Wuornos looms in their history, too.


May 26, 2021

Troupers is a documentary chronicle of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, but that brief description may be misleading.

First, the San Francisco Mime Troupe is not a mime troupe in the sense that the players are dressed in white-face, never speak, and strike precious poses. It’s a full-fledged drama company – all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing – which means the film is a lot more varied than the title might suggest.

Also, the label “documentary” is a kiss-of-death word for many people; but, as we are reminded each time a crackerjack documentary comes along, there’s no need for a nonfiction film to be dull or dry.

Troupers, for example, is neither, although it has a few problems, especially in its unabashed admiration for the Troupe. Director-producers Glenn Silber and Claudia Vianello don’t probe much for ambiguities.

But then, the movie is supposed to celebrate, and that it does. The Mime Troupe began in the 1960s as a raucous, free-swinging drama company, putting on free plays in the park that invariably delivered a blatant political message – usually opposing the Vietnam War.

Early black-and-white footage shows the company being arrested, ostensibly for the use of obscene language. Bill Graham, the concert promoter who got his youthful start as business manager for the Troupe, remembers how thrilled he was at the time of the arrests, because the thought of being arrested for something you believed in made the Troupe feel that they were doing something important.

It also got the Troupe a lot of free publicity, which Graham admits was welcome. There’s an old clip of Bob Dylan referring to a concert for the Troupe, to raise funds for legal fees; Graham suggests that this concert was a precursor to the whole hippie movement that would flower in San Francisco during the decade.

According to Troupers, the group was an integral part of the social revolution of the ’60s. The members of that scene, now graying and balding, look back on their rock-the-boat accomplishments with pride.

Troupers doesn’t only deal with the past; it brings the company – collectively owned by the participants – up to date by covering a tour made in 1984. The players mounted a musical called “Steel Town,” a socially conscious piece about unemployment, which they brought to the real steel towns of the Midwest. Consider the notion of a flaky, leftist San Francisco drama group touring small factory towns of the nation’s heartland, and you’ll get a sense of the Mime Troupe’s fearless commitment to their beliefs. You’ve got to give them that much. They put their money where their collective mouth is.

First published in The Herald, 1986

Not sure when this review ran, but the movie played Sundance in ’86 (that’s what IMDb says, although I think the festival may still have been called the U.S. Film Festival at that point). Co-director Silber had been nominated twice for documentary Oscars, for The War at Home and El Salvador: Another Vietnam. Peter Coyote is in this movie; he was a member of the Troupe during his youthful hippie days.


May 19, 2021

Diane Keaton wanted to make a film about what happens after we die. So she gathered a group of people together, interviewed them with questions such as, “Are you afraid to die?”, “Is there love in heaven?”, and “How do you get to hell?”

She intercut their responses with a lot of interesting and pretty “heaven” sequences from old movies. Keaton has a fine eye for such images, as she proved in her lovely picture book of old Hollywood publicity photos, Still Life.

Given all that, why does Heaven, the feature-length documentary that Keaton directed, come off as such a largely unpleasant experience?

Primarily it’s because Keaton insists on manipulating the interviews, both before filming (most of the people chosen are religious/social fringies) and after (she cuts the interviews so they appear jumpy and jagged, and the people foolish).

This seems to spring from the sort of geek-show mentality that David Byrne displayed in surveying American attitudes in his True Stories; that is, condescending to its subject. Keaton has denied this, but her choice of grotesque camera angles and close-ups does create a world of freakdom.

Eventually, some of these characters assert themselves, through the film’s process of returning to them. In and of themselves, the responses are quite intriguing; many people believe in the fleecy movie heaven, epitomized by a bunch of people standing around on the tops of clouds. One guy suggests that the whiteness extends to the food; everyone in heaven eats marshmallows.

One man thinks heaven is “like a bride preparing for a wedding”; another calls it simply “relief from tired tootsies,” referring, I presume, to his feet.

One spaced-out woman reveals that Jesus has returned to Earth already, is living in a Pakistani community in England, and is just waiting for the media to come to him, “and have a press conference with the entire world.”

The movie clips are oddly chosen; the most vivid shots are of horrible suffering and death. The absolutely sadistic recreations of hell in religious films will be recognizable to anyone who went to religious grade school. The opening clip, of ’50s-era heads floating against a starry sky, is an authentic piece of spooky camp.

I’m not sure what there is to learn from this film, except that a lot of people have goofy ideas about eternity—and that according to many, those who have different ideas are going to hell, probably. Keaton’s hip approach can’t illuminate those people, so they remain simply weird.

First published in The Herald, May 8, 1987

The film seems oddly unremembered today, considering its director, unless I was right about it. Surprised I didn’t tie the review together by bringing back David Byrne to cite his “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” The whole thing, if I am remembering correctly, took the wrong lessons from Errol Morris’s films, and exaggerated them. Howard Shore did the music, Frederick Elmes the cinematography. Yes, I went to a religious grade school.


March 26, 2021

Marlene is a documentary about Marlene Dietrich consisting largely of a lengthy interview for which the actress refused to be photographed. This decision is the central reality of the film, and a frustration that drives interviewer/director Maximilian Schell to explosions of pique.

In its own way, Dietrich’s refusal to be photographed is an entirely appropriate gesture. “I’ve been photographed to death,” she says, and she’s right; Dietrich may well have been the most stylishly photographed actress in cinema. Her masklike beauty lent itself to rapturous close-ups that captured and reflected the silvery light of the movies; without, curiously, ever quite seeming to generate that light.

Interestingly enough, it has been suggested that her exotic image – particularly as exuded in the seven films she made with her Svengali director Josef von Sternberg – had little to do with the woman herself. In von Sternberg’s films, she was the cool temptress who drew men to her, only to leave them cut and bleeding from her sharp eyebrows and cheekbones.

Yet in life, she seems to have been a game gal who cheerfully pitched in to the American war effort, viewed her acting as a job, and regarded sex – if she regarded it at all – as an indifferent marital obligation. As we see film clips, performance footage, and newsreel shots, she dismisses the body of her work as rubbish and kitsch.

The von Sternberg films, in particular, she seems to find absurd, almost as though she were afraid of their implications. (She claims never to watch her old movies.) Fascinatingly, she chooses the insane climax of von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress, one of the American cinema’s delirious high points, as her favorite movie scene.

Schell, who starred with her in Judgment in Nuremberg, shows her video clips to jog her memory. But she expresses boredom with this, and insists she is without nostalgia – until the moment she recites a poem she has loved for years. Then, briefly, the façade breaks down.

But not for long, which drives Schell into some irritating hand-wringing (the movie is also about the process of making the film). Dietrich questions his professionalism a couple of times, and it’s hard to disagree with her.

Despite Schell’s self-indulgence, the film is arresting. Dietrich bristles with down-to-earth opinions. On the afterlife: “Horrible. You can’t believe that they all fly around up there?”

All this, without her face. But it may be said that Dietrich’s face takes shape throughout this exploration, as a composite of the film images and gravelly mature voice. Perhaps that voice can give us a truer face, without the distraction of Marlene’s mask.

First published in The Herald, November 1986

I have to guess at the publishing date, but that’s close enough; it opened in Seattle at the Egyptian theater. I don’t know where I come off pontificating in this way about the great Dietrich, but some of it comes from the documentary; I remember that Schell comes across as pretty insufferable. Now go watch The Scarlet Empress.

Roger & Me

February 9, 2021

Roger & Me already qualifies as something of a phenomenon in the movie business. It’s a documentary made by a novice filmmaker who raised money for equipment by holding bingo games. It has been a sellout hit at film festivals and was picked up for distribution by a major studio, Warner Bros., which is giving it an unprecedented wide release for a documentary.

The film has also left a wake of threatened lawsuits. That’s because Roger & Me casts an unflinching eye on the human species, but finds plenty worth flinching at.

Michael Moore, a print journalist, found himself out of work in 1987 and decided to make a movie about his hometown of Flint, Michigan. Flint has been slowly dying under the massive layoffs of General Motors, the corporation that virtually built the city.

The film is an amazing document – angry, outraged, hilarious. Throughout, Moore attempts to make contact with Roger Smith, the chairman of General Motors. This is a shrewd way to give the film a backbone, because of course the shlumpy Moore, an unshapely, disheveled character in oversize parka and trucker’s cap, doesn’t have a chance of getting to the high and mighty Roger Smith.

Along the way, Moore finds absurdity and eccentricity in Flint. He rides along with one local who has a steady job: the guy who forecloses on homeowners. He’s a matter-of-fact fellow, untouched by the tragedy of people losing their homes. Evicting someone on Christmas Eve, he helpfully suggests that the family lay down their Christmas tree on the sidewalk so that it doesn’t blow over in the wind.

Moore finds a string of Stepford people, as well as soullessly bureaucratic GM execs (one protests, “Because a guy is an automobile executive does not make him inhuman”). Flint’s tourism director, a man with a crazed, zombie-like stare, is upbeat about the town’s efforts to attract tourists. For instance, there’s Autoworld, an indoor tourist mecca that features a re-creation of the town’s now-dying main street and an audio-animatronic assembly-line worker singing “Me and My Buddy” to the robot worker who is taking his job.

There are sequences in the film – all real, remember – that strongly suggest we have reached the end of civilization as we know it, such as the party given by Flint’s wealthy upper class where unemployed citizens are hired to stand around as human statues. It is a strange picture of where we are today, and it would be profoundly disturbing were it not for Moore’s all-encompassing sense of humor.

That the film is vastly entertaining is testimony to Moore’s eye for the telling detail, but also to the wonder of sticking a camera into the world and discovering what is there.

First published in The Herald, January 12, 1990

Whatever Michael Moore has become since then – and some of what he has become has been insufferable – let us remember his debut film as a rollicking event. The movie was a turning point in the history of the documentary film, although it’s hard to believe it was over 30 years ago now. Would also like to say that the film’s poster tag line – “The story of a rebel and his mike,” a play on the campaign for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure – is the last time I can remember the shortened spelling of microphone as mike rather than the now-ubiquitous mic. A sore spot for me.

Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam

November 6, 2020

“It was an experience you could never explain in a million words.”

The sentiment is from a soldier writing a letter from Vietnam, and the indescribable experience of the war.

Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam presents the experience as refracted through the words of the soldiers over there, who poured their hearts and minds into their correspondence home. The film contains no new film footage. The images are archival, and much of the newsreel material comes out of a vast and little-seen NBC library.

The letters, actual ones from a cross-section of service people, are read (entirely offscreen) by a remarkable batch of actors that includes Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Kathleen Turner, Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, Robin Williams, and Eric Roberts. The readings share time on the soundtrack with the music of the era.

Thanks to the heavy examination that Vietnam has undergone in the movies and on television in recent years, some of these songs are getting hackneyed and should be retired from service. “Gimme Shelter” and “For What It’s Worth” are in danger of becoming Vietnam clichés. However, the recent prominence of Dan Quayle and his non-Vietnam experience certainly makes “Fortunate Son” seem more pertinent than ever.

There are a few simple-minded moments, such as Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” accompanying footage of the rainy jungle, which rather misses the figurative implications in the song. But for the most part, the songs create a delicate web with the words and the pictures. The closing song is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” which Springsteen donated to the film not long after he spurned Chrysler’s $10 million offer to use the tune in car commercials.

The letters are, it almost goes without saying, utterly heartbreaking. The film advances chronologically, so that in the beginning there is a certain youthful joviality to the letters: “P.S. Send Kool-Aid. The water here tastes like shit!” Things darken quickly, and a terrible sense of sadness hangs over the movie.

Some sequences are simultaneously enthralling and gut-wrenching. A soldier describes a Christmas night when the troops sang “Silent Night” as rockets and mortars were fired off in strange celebration: “I believe few people have seen fireworks like this.”

One of the best marriages of words and music comes with Tim Buckley’s wistful “Once I Was”; the song’s haunting refrain, “Will you ever remember me?”, accompanies not more combat footage but a series of shots of the drawn, lost faces of soldiers at Khe Sanh.

In this simple way, Dear America director Bill Couturie manages to paint a vivid picture of the war. It’s not a deep film, but it is a potent and immediate one.

In a literal way, it allows the men and woman who were there to speak for themselves, and the eloquence they summon under impossible conditions is sometimes startling, such as the well-spoken grunt who reports a recent battle and concludes, “I desired greatly to throw down everything and sob.”

This is a documentary that appeared earlier this year on the HBO cable channel. In an unusual move, it’s also now getting a release in selected American cities; the proceeds will be donated to some Vietnam veterans associations.

First published in The Herald, September 1988

So you see these songs were tired even before Forrest Gump came along. The voice cast for this is staggering, and includes Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger from Platoon, and Martin Sheen from Apocalypse Now. Good Dan Quayle zinger here, if I do say so myself. Director Couturie has done lots of documentaries and directed one fiction feature, Ed, the one with Matt LeBlanc and a baseball-playing chimp. I’d forgotten about the Kool-Aid line, which brings back a specific childhood memory of the war, that of soldiers writing exactly this kind of letter asking for Kool-Aid – but the kind with sugar already in the packet. I recall getting a shiver when I saw the film and heard the same request.