Blog: Watching Docs

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.

Why is Africa Singing Scotland’s Praises?

I was in a color-correction session today for my first documentary feature, Volcanic Sprint, about Africa’s most grueling mountain race. And I noticed something. Before the race begins, the “Queen of the Mountain,” who is the defending female champion, is at risk of being disqualified. Amid rumors of a conspiracy, the Mayor of Buea speaks up: “Her supporters may interpret it as a kind of injustice done to her.” His words are calculated, yet visceral, and it’s clear he’s a fan as well. The scene helps establish the Queen as more than a sports star. An entire town is leaning on her. Then I noticed the Mayor’s baseball cap, which read: “Bank of Scotland.”

Why Scotland in Africa? Forest Whitaker truly deserved his Oscar for The Last King of Scotland, a rough-hewn, focused story infused with documentary style. It is more enduring than the entertaining Blood Diamond. But why did Whitaker’s character, dictator Idi Amin grant himself the title “King of Scotland?” I thought I knew part of the answer. Colonized by the Brits, Uganda and Scotland share a common history. Then I encountered My Brutal Muse, a fascinating article by novelist Giles Foden who wrote the book upon which the movie was based. Foden called the mental roots of Amin’s behavior, “the psychological byproduct of his Oedipal relationship with the former colonial power.” When the Brits turned their backs on Amin, he “could sing Scotland’s praises and support its self-determination, while hating and hoping to split the UK.” So in quirky, and sometimes entertaining fashion, Amin was simply following the old adage of realpolitik: “My Enemy’s Enemy is My Friend” (which also happens to be the name of a forthcoming documentary film by the The Last King of Scotland’s director, Kevin MacDonald.

Now, back to Volcanic Sprint and the Mayor of Buea (located in the Southwest Province of Cameroon, also colonized by the British.) His “Bank of Scotland” hat. Was it an accident of overlapping cultures or political commentary? Or simply a stylish protection from the equatorial sun? I think not: in singing Scotland’s praises, one African mayor is doing more than just associating himself with a prosperous foreign bank. After a fashion, like Whitaker’s Amin, he’s invoking the swagger of Braveheart.

Convenient Proof

What better time to inaugurate this commentary at the crossroads of documentary film and international relations than the day after the Oscars. And finally a documentary that moved people as much or more than the feature category. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, directed by Davis Guggenheim, won best doc feature: a great follow-up for this third-highest grossing documentary of all time. Even the Washington Post got in the act, spreading the love the “Goracle’s” way! And why not? After a bitter 2000, Gore could’ve gone a lot of directions. He took the high road. And at least in Washington DC where I live, the film’s message has become doctrine. Nobody’s disputing it. I just hope the film’s success helps pave the way for increasing American leadership in innovative climate policy. There’s a lot of great programs out there. We need to get moving on a number of them. And as for Al Gore: thanks, man, for sticking with it. We Americans love second acts.