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Blog: Watching Docs

Sundance 2018: Nothin’ but Docs!

Sundance is even better than I anticipated. I watched nine documentaries in three days, met a hero of mine, braved the cold, boxed for photos, and soaked up Main Street life in the snow.

Main Street, a little tomfoolery

I arrived Tuesday excited. Sundance is, after all, atop the pantheon of North American film festivals for documentaries, along with Tribeca, SXSW, Full Frame, New York Film Festival, True/False, and Hot Docs.

For years, I was hoping my first time would be with my own doc. Being invited to a festival with your film is awesome, because you mingle with other filmmakers and share your work with a live audience! When Volcanic Sprint played at the Jackson Hole Film Festival, it was unforgettable! And when Shattered Sky premiered at the DC Environmental Film Fest, it was the culmination of four years of passion, labor, and learning. It was epic.

But before I’m a filmmaker, I’m a huge fan of documentary, and now that I live in Los Angeles, it was just a hop over to Park City, Utah. I snapped up a cheap Jet Blue flight out of Long Beach and took an Uber to my AirBnB near downtown. 

Update: Here’s Sundance winners. Now, loosely in order of how I liked them, what I watched:

Minding the Gap, directed by Bing Lui, was the first film I took in, and my favorite. I like how it evolved from a buddy movie to a mystery to an indictment of toxic masculinity. Structurally, it’s some of the best storytelling I’ve seen. Much more than a skateboarding picture, Minding the Gap has really stuck with me. Just go watch it; I can’t do it justice in words.

America to Me is Steve James’ new 10-part episodic documentary series that was acquired by Starz for $5 million during the festival. In a feat of endurance and patience—which James himself alluded to jokingly, before, during, and after the 6-hour session—we watched the first five episodes. It was stellar, and to be honest I could’ve easily stayed another five hours to watch the final five episodes! Like you’d expect from a James production (he is the director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters), you get strong, authentic characters navigating issues of class and race. It was a huge pleasure to talk with James afterwards. When organizers kicked us out of the theater for the next screening, he invited us all to keep chatting nearby. No trace of self-importance, James took all questions and earnestly answered. Likeable, smart guy. Legendary documentary professional. This is why I love going to festivals.

With a hero of mine, Director Steve James

Shirkers is a one-of-a-kind entertaining documentary by Sandi Tan. It’s quirky first-person filmmaking at its best. In the early 1990s, Tan makes Singapore’s first indie flick, but then her mentor and professor steals the footage. More than 20 years later, she gets her hands on the footage again, which sends her on a journey of memory and belonging. Tan announces herself as a new voice.

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is the story of the global hip hop artist. It pieces together raw home movies revealing the vulnerable, ernest activist behind the famous star. I definitely would’ve liked to see more about how she became such an accomplished writer, beat-maker, and dancer, but that’s a credit to Director Steven Loveridge’s storytelling. The artist comes off as a very likable, normal person, with a big heart and a legitimate desire to help her people. I read in Billboard that M.I.A. wasn’t sure she liked the movie. Well, I like her a lot more now that I’ve seen it.

Kailash won the Sundance grand jury prize, but it wasn’t even in my top three. The issue it highlights is important (child slavery), and the film was very well done, particularly for a first-time filmmaker. But it’s hard to elevate hagiography, particularly when most of it is in the past tense. This was a solid and motivating film, but you sort of knew where it was going.

Hal celebrates the under-appreciated 1970s director Hal Ashby, who made 7 films in 9 years, including the enduring Harold and Maude, Being There, Shampoo, and others. I really enjoyed this one.

Sundance featured a slew of documentaries. They seemed to fall into three categories. First, personal stories with strong points of view: Minding the Gap and Shirkers. Second, famous people doing big things: Kailash and Hal. Third, legendary filmmakers coming back to Sundance: America to Me.

I watched nine in three days, and was in hog heaven. I’m a little ashamed that every doc in this blog I gave four out of four stars! Hey, I’m not a critic: I’m a lover of documentaries!

See you next year!

Hamming it up with Michael Aisner, eating some Olomomo nuts between films …

Why Philip Glass’ Soundtrack Undermines Brett Morgen’s Jane

Philip Glass fans, apologies in advance, but his score just ruined a movie that could’ve been great.

Arriving at the Palm Springs Film Fest on Friday, I was eager to watch Jane, director Brett Morgen’s new biopic on the legendary primatologist and conservationist. It promised new insights into her revolutionary work in 1960s Gombe, Tanzania through 100 hours of newly rediscovered Super-8 footage (misplaced for a half-century in some dusty Nat Geo closet?!) And not just any footage—stuff shot by Ms. Goodall’s former husband, the renowned wildlife cinematographer Hugo van Lawick.

Here’s the trailer:

Morgen does an incredible job with what I imagine was exceedingly difficult footage. Super 8 doesn’t have an audio track, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the picture. Every whisper of wind; every action by every chimp—from David Graybeard to Flint—seems natural and keeps you in the moment. Kudos to the entire sound department!

The director really draws out Ms. Goodall, who is a tough interview. I know, because I’ve worked with her several times (I write about the experience here and here).

Morgen’s stylistic decision to light Ms. Goodall’s interview to match the film’s passage of time is incredibly daring. It reveals an intense preparation: he knows where in the film he’ll use her answers before he poses the questions! When you watch the film, the interview space is bright early in the film, but dark toward the end. Wow!

And the visual effects that jazz up Ms. Goodall’s journals are astonishingly well done. The animations—staccato visions of her research—suggest persistence and knowledge accumulating. During these montage segments, Glass’ music works well, because it propels the the animations forward. It’s not competing with human reflection or emotion. Great FX job by Stefan Nadelman!

Going in, I was keen to hear the Glass score. I’ve been a big fan of his since Errol Morris’ 2003 The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. In fact, that soundtrack was one of my inspirations for the music in my 2012 film Shattered Sky, composed by the talented Steve Steckler.

But a big difference is that The Fog of War is more cerebral, a film of ideas. The disjointed visuals really benefit from the cohesiveness of a dominant soundtrack.

Alternatively, Jane has a strong protagonist who is in the frame driving the action. She’s on an unforgettable quest. Van Lawick’s cinematography transports you to the pinprick of emotion. All of this creates a strong sense of character, time, and place—the foundation of a potentially powerful documentary.

So when the score kicks into high gear barely 10 minutes in—before Ms. Goodall really achieves anything—it doesn’t work.

It is premature. Rigidly metronomic, an orchestra of strings plopped down right there in the middle of the forest in 1960’s Tanzania, the music highjacks the story.

Glass’ score, for me, is excessively masculine, and relentlessly propulsive. Does The Fog of War music fit Robert McNamara? Yes. But that’s because he’s a hard-charging, ambitious business executive and Secretary of Defense. He’s caught in a political machine and the music’s repetitive structure mimics McNamara’s foolhardy forward-press during the Vietnam War.

But Jane couldn’t be more different. Admittedly, Ms. Goodall is an icon, and maybe that’s why National Geographic drew Glass into the project. One icon to shed light on another.

But this film chronicles Ms. Goodall’s first days, when she is an unknown. She is brave yet vulnerable, and she’s afraid her approach will not work.

Glass’ music belies that uncertainty. The music’s early peak precedes Ms. Goodall’s success, which feels manipulative. The confident fullness of the orchestration seems inconsistent with her solitary project during these early stages. And the surety of the repetitive structure betrays her slow progress.

Morgen is one of the best documentary storytellers out there working today. I just wish he would’ve let Ms. Goodall, the chimpanzees, and the Tanzanian landscape sustain the story. It would’ve been a better movie for it.

Note by Note — Great doc

Yesterday, I watched a doc while riding my bike trainer inside. As both a piano player and a filmmaker, I have to admit that “Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037” is the kind of doc I wish I’d made myself!

It’s been sitting in my Netflix queue for a few years. Why did I wait? The film traces the year-long “birth” of a concert Steinway through a long line of skilled craftsmen who follow incredibly precise methods until the piano is complete.

The film, by Ben Niles, makes a strong case for the tradition of hand-made pianos. The sound is better, has more character, more soul. It’s a temptation to modernize some of the process, says one guy. Most piano manufacturers have.

One thread follows an elite French pianist selecting the appropriate grand for a big concert he’s doing in Manhattan. He plays piano after piano after piano like a kid in a candy store (really, Steinway’s basement), but none are up to snuff. Soon, his protestations are annoying. But the nerdy, passionate delight he takes in describing infinitesimally subtle details of tone, feel, and dynamics . . . you forgive him. He is deep in his art, at the pinnacle of his craft.

By contrast, one segment shows a teenage boy piano shopping with his Orthodox family. Back home playing the piano for the first time, the boy’s grandparents begin to cry. It’s a poignant scene: even the amateur interpretations of this young man can transport people. Music is a mainline to emotion, memory, and perhaps liberation.

Shattered Sky on Hulu, iTunes & Amazon!

I’m thrilled that Shattered Sky is newly available to watch on Hulu! If you have Hulu, it’s free. Just click here. Let me know what you think! The film is also available for purchase or rental on iTunes and Amazon. And if you need a social-issue break from video games, check it out on Playstation!

Thanks to the big Facebook community for spreading the word. December was the best month for downloads yet. Thanks!

Shattered Sky tells the story of how America led to solve the biggest environmental crisis the world had ever seen. It challenges us all to do the same on climate change today. If you want, pass it on — tell a friend or two about my movie — hopefully more of us can have a can-do spirit about solving climate change.

Hulu Plus: $7.99, and a World of Docs

Everybody knows Hulu’s popular shows: much of the best that networks and cable have on offer. For the price of a burger per month, I could settle down this winter to catch up on 152 episodes of Family Guy, 212 episodes of Dancing with the Stars, or 152 episodes of The Office.

And since my Blu-Ray player has the Hulu Plus app, I’m not watching this on my computer. I’m sitting on my couch, watching the big-screen TV, eating popcorn . . .

But today I discovered Hulu’s world of documentaries . . . I was excited to see something like 400 docs in the list.

Classics like Grey Gardens, Harlan County USA, and Hoop Dreams.

Recent award-winners like The Corporation, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Super Size Me.

Films made by friends of mine, like Bedford: The Town They Left Behind, and Trembling Before G-d.

And LOTS of films that I’ve been meaning to see: Beer Wars, God Grew Tired of Us, and The End of Poverty. And more and more and more.

So if Netflix is $10/month and Hulu+ is $8/month, why am I still paying $125/month for cable?

Jackson Hole Film Fest Rocks!


I have to admit that this film festival is killer! Not only did the programmers get some amazing films here, but all the organizers are relentlessly nice, and have created a very low-key atmosphere for us to just hang out and meet each other. In between watching amazing documentaries like “Class C” and “Man on Wire,” I hobnobbed with a lot of very inspiring people — including a sizable DC contingent. Here, from left, are Virginia Williams, producer of Frontrunner; Karim Chrobog, director of War Child; Brian Liu, director of Disarm (which won its category in the 2006 Jackson Hole Film Fest); and yours truly. Cool festival.

“Jesus Camp” Rocks

So I watched Jesus Camp tonight. Pretty amazing documentary. It is strongest when it simply allows the children to live and voice their beliefs, and their parents and mentors to preach to them. It is perhaps weakest when it tries to weave in a parallel story of a talk-show host and the theme about Supreme Court Justice Alito. But this is solid filmmaking. Great job.

Goldman Environmental Prize

I went to the ceremony and reception for the world’s most lucrative prize for environmental activism tonight at the National Geographic Society. The Goldman Environmental Prize gave $125k to each of six impressive eco-organizers from six continents. The videos were well done (I think produced by the Mill Valley Cooperative – great job!). The recipients all transcended ecological activism, having all advanced various aspects of social inclusion, indigenous rights, and sustainable land (and sea) planning. It was good to see old friend Dave Rothschild there, who organized the event. Oh, and the free food and drink was a good thing.

Shut Up and Sing

I went to see Shut Up & Sing by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple tonight at a slam-packed Avalon Theater. The film was entertaining. Most impressive was the lead singer, Natalie Maines. I couldn’t have named one Dixie Chicks song earlier today, but this lead singer is a force of nature. In a good way. The film could have been better had the filmmaker been permitted more access or perhaps had the main characters been more forthcoming or less guarded; also, the decision to wrap production a few months before the Dixie Chicks won a bunch of Grammy’s probably sold the film short. Nonetheless, very good film. My favorite moment of the entire evening was more symbolic of Kopple’s iconic stature among American documentarians. During the Q&A, a woman asked Ms. Kopple about a character in her 1976 classic, Harlan County USA. Tonight, more than a generation removed, in front of hundreds of film lovers — some born since the film was made — Kopple answered.

PS. Go to the The Avalon Theatre. It rocks.

Documentary’s Modernist Standard-Bearers

Today, I went to the exhibit “Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It’s open until July 29, so hurry and check it out. So many recognizable artists and architects appeared, it was like a roll call for early century iconoclasm and influence; I learned a lot. The exhibit launched with the nascent ideals of Utopia, innovations of Cubism, and radical concepts of Futurism (Giacomo Balla is my favorite). I first learned about the Futurists went I went to London’s Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in 1998 shortly after it opened. Today, I was again intrigued by their efforts to devise a comprehensive theory, juevenile antics, and ill-advised ties with fascism.

In the Corcoran’s “Promoting Modernism” and “Performing Modernism” rooms, I saw film clips from some of the big names in early cinema: Walther Ruttman’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1924), Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924), and Joris Ivens’ Philips Radio (1931). Ruttman’s ode to Berlin is urban and upbeat. It established the benchmark for all documentaries about cities to come. In the “Aetheticized Machine and Transportation” room, film clips included Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927); Abel Gance’s La Roue (1923); and Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) . A few years ago, I rented this one and watched it three times in a week. Vertov’s film did more for point-of-view in documentary filmmaking than any work that generation. It was good to see it included, among the architecture, industrial design, and plastic arts.

Above the entrway to the exhibit is a quote by Corbusier : “A great epoch has begun: there exists a new spirit.” If that’s the core of Modernism, then we’re still smack dab in the middle of a Modernistic age.

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