Catching up on recent true-falsey docs in prep for True/False. To be fair, nothing here can be proven false, but with all the identity-hiding, illegal activity, perspective-switching and popular suspicion that the whole thing might be a put-on, it totally counts.

First half follows obsessive videographer Thierry who becomes fascinated with street artists (including Shepard Fairey, who I just saw in The Color of Noise) and starts following them around, recording their work, claiming to be assembling a documentary about the scene. Thierry finally meets his legendary hero Banksy, gains his confidence and documents some of his projects. Then after Thierry’s idea of a street art documentary is revealed to be very different from everyone else’s, Banksy takes over the footage and turns the camera back on Thierry, who rebrands himself Mr. Brainwash, launching his own art career with an overly ambitious solo exhibit.

Too bad Inside Job won the oscar, because I would’ve liked to see Banksy’s acceptance speech.

Low-key, heartfelt story of Brooklyn gentrification ruining family and friendships. This appeared in theaters the same week Neil’s The Brooklyn Wars shipped. Ira Sachs and/or Magnolia Pictures are clearly trying to capitalize on Neil’s movement.

Jake moves into the neighborhood, Tony shows him around, and they become close friends. Jake’s parents are professionals: actor Greg Kinnear and doctor Jennifer Ehle, and have inherited the building where Tony’s mom (Paulina García, Chilean star of Gloria) runs a dress shop. Kinnear’s sister’s part of the inheritance depends on him raising the rent to market levels and forcing the shop out, and the kids are caught in the family crossfire.

B. Ebiri in Vulture:

Jake’s family isn’t exactly rolling in money; dad’s experimental, off-Broadway productions of The Seagull and whatnot don’t pay the bills. This isn’t an entitled family. They are, in their own way, victims of the same forces transforming Leonor’s neighborhood, just a little further up the chain. And for her part, Leonor isn’t above playing a little dirty. “I was more his family than you were,” she tells Jake’s dad, a little too bluntly suggesting that grandpa cared for her more than he did for his own family. Is it the truth, or is that her desperation speaking? Does it matter?

Ehle was my favorite part of Contagion but she’s not given enough room to be delightful here. Fortunately, García is just terrific. Found out from a Brooklyn magazine article: that’s the young actor who played Tony’s real accent – may he never lose it.

Sachs:

I always thought one of them as my Robert Bresson actor, and the other as my Martin Scorsese actor, and I really worked with those ideas in mind. With Theo the job was to let what emerges from the inside appear, to keep him very still. And with Michael it was to let him go free, the improvisational elements are much more within his character in a kind of Joe Pesci kind of way.

J. Romney:

A single cut towards the end shows us that something critical has happened, and that a moment has passed. In an obvious way, the film is about friendship and those certain intense spells in childhood that never quite last; the final scenes, unglossed by any unnecessary narrative commentary, make a poignantly eloquent coda … There’s a certain no-big-deal quality to Little Men and to Sachs’s intentions which is immensely appealing.

Watching shorts from the Flicker Alley blu-ray, part three.

Abstronic (1952 Bute & Nemeth)

Animation based around electronic imagery from oscilloscopes, set to two catchy tunes. What the future looks like.


Bells of Atlantis (1952 Ian Hugo)

Very abstract imagery. You can often tell he’s filming real objects (woman in hammock) but it’s been blue-filtered and overlaid with patterns to appear underwater. Pulsing and whooping electronic sounds by the Barron couple, visual effects by Len Lye and narration by Anaïs Nin – it’s a pretty cool movie, not a favorite, but made by remarkable collaborators.


Eaux d’artifice (1953 Kenneth Anger)

Seen this before. The imagery is supposed to be erotic but I always end up pondering fountain design and mechanics.


Evolution (1954 Jim Davis)

Wild, almost organic light patterns
Cellophane reflections give an electric glow.
Shifting light blobs that look like colored liquid being pressed under glass.


Gyromorphosis (1954 Hy Hirsh)

Hirsh filmed segments of a sculpture with colored lights and overlaid them spiraling around and inside each other. The result is spindly bits, lines and grids and spokes, all spinning in air like the visual representation of an Autechre song (it’s actually accompanied by some light chiming jazz).


Hurry, Hurry! (1957 Marie Menken)

Wriggling sperms behind a sheet of flames, set to battlefield sound effects covered in horrific scratching. Not nearly as much fun as her similarly-titled Go! Go! Go!. The liners say Menken was “physically imposing” and her relationship with her poet husband inspired Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which sounds just awful. Don’t I have a documentary about her somewhere?


NY, NY (1957 Francis Thompson)

Kaleidoscope-refracted fly-eyed process shots of NYC, with synched Disneyish orchestral music by Gene Forrell. An absolute stunner – maybe the best find of this collection. Film Quarterly reveals that Thompson worked on perfecting it for a decade, screening it at MOMA to “a thunderous ovation” in 1952, but still reworking it for five more years.


Castro Street (1966 Bruce Baillie)

Similar to the last film in a way: abstract-ish view of a city that ends up involving construction workers and transportation. Great sound layering on this one. I guess from watching Baillie’s Here I Am and Valentin de las Sierras I assumed he was less avant-garde and more a documentarian of the underclass.

Sitney:

Baillie occasionally uses slightly distorted images of the trains and the railroad yard with prismatic colors around the border of distinct shapes. He also uses images which were recorded by an improperly threaded camera so that they appear to jump or waver up and down on the screen.

Lucy Fischer, from an astounding 9-page analysis in Film Quarterly:

Castro Street is, above all else, a film of hyperbolic superimposition; from beginning to end it creates a uniform texture of densely enmeshed imagery … Rather than create a sense of superimposed images in dialectical conflict, Baillie works against this to create a sense of coherent union … As Baillie has phrased it in relation to Quick Billy, his matting strategy is one of overlaying imagery so that it “looks like it was all invented or occurring at the same moment.”


9 Variations on a Dance Theme (1966 Hilary Harris)

Dancer in a bare room does a short routine, then again from a different angle. When he starts with the extreme closeups, editing between angles and camera movements to match the dancer’s motions it gets really great. The liners: “informed by his notions of kinesthetics, in which images are structured around movement with the camera in constant motion.”

E. Callenbach in Film Quarterly:

The dancing is cool and straight, by a girl who wears long woolies and never bats an eye; she is not being Modern and not trying to express her soul, but doing a curious ritual action with its own internal logic and rhythm. Watching her is like watching a musician play; it has an immense technical interest as well as the delights of motion.

Watching shorts from the Flicker Alley blu-ray, part two.

Tarantella (1940 Bute & Nemeth)

Abstract designs move in time to music, a la An Optical Poem and some of the Len Lye films. Bold and colorful.

Lewis Jacobs in Film Quarterly:

At first glance, the Bute-Nemeth pictures seemed like an echo of the former German pioneer, Oscar Fischinger, one of the first to experiment with the problems of abstract motion and sound. Actually, they were variations on Fischinger’s method, but less rigid in their patterns and choice of objects, tactile in their forms; more sensuous in their use of light and color rhythms, more concerned with the problems of depth, more concerned with music complimenting rather than corresponding to the visuals … Fischinger worked with two-dimensional animated drawings; Bute and Nemeth used any three-dimensional substance at hand: ping-pong balls, paper cutouts, sculptured models, cellophane, rhinestones, buttons, all the odds and ends picked up at the five and ten cent store. Fischinger used flat lighting on flat surfaces; Bute and Nemeth employed ingenious lighting and camera effects by shooting through long-focus lenses, prisms, distorting mirrors, ice cubes, etc.


Pursuit of Happiness (1940 Rudy Burckhardt)

These NYC mini-docs keep getting better. This one is mostly focused on people and advertisements. Towards the end, Rudy goes nuts in the editing, rotating and slowing and superimposing and splitting images. “Intentionally silent,” which I cannot abide, so I played some Cyro Baptista.


1941 (1941 Francis Lee)

Flowing paint and broken glass, an abstract visual response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor made just before the filmmaker went to war.


Meshes of the Afternoon (1943 Maya Deren)

This is the best. Cocteau-like death-dream narrative from every perspective, with doubling, mirror-faces, slo-mo – all the effects used to great poetic purpose. Wrote (a bit) more here.

Deren:

This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.


Meditation on Violence (1948 Maya Deren)

A man practicing wutang and shaolin moves to flute music. Drums are added, and completely take over the soundtrack as the man warps to an outdoor setting with a sword and costume. A few token slo-mo and freeze shots then he’s back indoors. Apparently it’s much more complex than it looks and Deren had theories and charts to explain what she was doing, but Sitney calls it “a film overloaded by its philosophical burden.”


In the Street (1948 James Agee, et al)

Documentary of kids of all ages hanging out and playing in the street. Builds to a climax with a war of boys fighting with stockings filled with gravel, then chills out again, then a montage of close-ups. Costumes are involved, and rambly piano music accompanies.


Four in the Afternoon (1951 James Broughton)

Four vignettes set to Broughton poems. 1. Jump-roping woman imagines possible suitors. 2. Gardening man imagines finding a date. 3. Prancing woman in garden is pursued by even prancier man. 4. Sad man in rocking chair dreams of ballerinas past. This one has some nice reverse-action.

Sitney:

For each of the four film poems there is a distinctive cinematic trope; with Game Little Gladys it is stop-motion manifestation and disappearance of possible lovers; in the case of The Gardener’s Son it is a composition-in-depth with the boy in the foreground and the woman he desires in the background … The final section, The Aging Balletomane, may be the finest … Reverse motion is the trope of this episode.

That Flicker Alley blu-ray set I threatened to buy at the beginning of the year, well I bought it. And besides being full of interesting avant-garde films beautifully preserved in high-def, it’s really well sequenced and presented. Gonna have to break this into a few screenings and posts since I’m taking so many screenshots.


Manhatta (1921 Sheeler & Strand)

City photography, mostly seaside and rooftop, floats by, with intertitles from a Whitman poem. Impossible to know how this looked in 1921 since by now I’ve seen hours and days of NYC photography. Buildings and ships still look like buildings and ships, so I was mostly interested in the few shots of people and traffic. Strand later photographed Redes and codirected Native Land.

Lewis Jacobs, writing in Film Quarterly in late 1947:

In technique the film was simple and direct, avoiding all the so-called “tricks” of photography and setting. In a sense it was the forerunner of the documentary school which rose in the United States in the middle 1930’s … The picture’s emphasis upon visual pattern within the real world was an innovation for the times.


Anemic Cinema (1926 Marcel Duchamp)

Alternates geometric spirals with word spirals (jokey French puns, I think). Peaceful. His buddy Man Ray helped out, and some prankster named Gustavo contributed a drone soundtrack.

In Visionary Film, Sitney calls it one of the “two fundamental works of the graphic cinema from the 1920s made without animation,” along with Ballet Mechanique.

Kristin Thompson:

Duchamp’s purpose was presumably to create an artwork with minimal means, including quasi-found objects, the disks he had made for another purpose. His idea is clearly reflected in the title, Anémic cinéma, which suggests a weakness or thinness of means. “Anémic” is also an anagram for “cinéma.”


Life and Death of 9413 (1927 Florey & Vorkapich)

Still one of my favorite shorts ever. I love that Florey & Vorkapich were already this cynical about Hollywood in the silent era – especially great is the “babababa” mouth-flapping in place of speech. Would be a good short to run before The Last Command.


Skyscraper Symphony (1929 Robert Florey)

New York buildings, photographed straight ahead and jutting out in all directions, making this an appropriate follow-up to the city documentary Manhatta and the expressionist angles of 9413. Donald Sosin contributes a very nice piano score. Florey directed a Marx Brothers movie the same year.


Mechanical Principles (1930 Ralph Steiner)

Pistons, meshing gears and other mechanics, beginning slow and simple and getting into crazier and faster gizmos. Really cool.


A Bronx Morning (1931 Jay Leyda)

More New York scenes, this one more social than the structural interests of the others. Leyda had documentary cinematography and editing pretty well figured out by age 20, worked with Steiner, later with Eisenstein and went on to write film histories.

How much does expert ladies hair bobbing cost to-day?


Lot in Sodom (1933 Watson & Webber)

Leagues beyond the previous films in visual poetry. Bodies collide in slow motion, mirrored and refracted. Eventually a plot takes shape when an angel appears to woolen-bearded Lot and tells him to get out of town before it’s destroyed by a rain of fire (there’s some other stuff I didn’t catch, not being familiar with the bible story). Like I wrote for the same directors’ Fall of the House of Usher, “I still don’t know exactly what happened, but boy was it awesome.”

Jacobs called it “the most distinguished experimental sound film of the period.”

Lot in Sodom used a technique similar to that of The Fall of the House of Usher, but far more skillfully and resourcefully. It drew upon all the means of camera, lenses, multiple exposure, distortions, dissolves, and editing to achieve a beauty of mobile images, of
dazzling light and shade, of melting rhythms, with an intensity of feeling that approached poetry. Its brilliant array of diaphanous shots and scenes … were so smoothly synthesized on the screen that the elements of each composition seemed to melt and flow into one another with extraordinary iridescence.


Poem 8 (1933 Emlen Etting)

Visual poetry with no narrative – the first time that had been done, according to Etting, who is wrong (Man Ray, Hans Richter, Ballet Mechanique). Rough on the technical side, but it works for me. Dig the first-person camera sipping a cocktail and making out with an undressing woman. I didn’t feel the new piano score by Rodney Sauer was appropriately poetic.


An Optical Poem (1938 Oskar Fischinger)

Floating shapes appear and move in sync with a Liszt song. Since it’s made with paper cutouts in stop-motion (which must have been aggravating) you can their shadows upon each other.


Thimble Theater (1938 Joseph Cornell)

Cornell and his posthumous editor Lawrence Jordan throw together a bunch of things and run circus music under them all. Too many kids in a paper flower… what looks like a Melies movie… a cartoon printed inverse and upside down… mountain goats… a man vs. kangaroo fight in slow-motion. Before Spike & Mike or Everything Is Terrible or Star Spangled to Death, Cornell was the original curator of clip shows of wonderous things.

Exciting to get to see this in theaters… glad I held off on watching the DVD for so long. I’m always afraid Akerman’s movies will put me to sleep at home, probably unfounded since I found D’Est mesmerizing. This one is similarly anthropological, showing New York in its specific era, making me wonder if the movie feels more special as a time capsule with each passing year. Akerman had moved to the States for a couple years and her mom wasn’t taking the separation well, writing constant letters, mostly to ask why Chantal hadn’t sent more of her own letters. So Chantal reads the letters from her mom aloud rapidly over her long-take images and sounds from the city, often letting the spoken correspondences get drowned out by traffic and train noise. In practice, it’s more interesting than it sounds.

M. Orange:

The keenest signifier of Akerman’s pervading sense of rootlessness, of unbelonging — a reaction, perhaps, to the threat of confinement of any kind — would also be her truest anchor in the world: her mother, Natalia … Speaking in I Don’t Belong Anywhere, a documentary profile shot shortly before her 2015 death, Akerman wonders if “throw[ing] Jeanne Dielman in her [mother’s] face was very generous of me,” describing the film as “a kind of mirror that wasn’t necessarily something [women of that generation] appreciated seeing.” In the same documentary, Akerman says it was only with News From Home that she realized her mother formed the center of all of her work. At the time of these interviews, Akerman was completing work on No Home Movie, a meditation on her elderly mother’s decline and impending death. It would be her final film.

Six years in the life of Yonkers NY, surrounding the building of court-ordered low-income housing for black/hispanic residents in the white parts of town. Lots of scenes in city council meetings and offices, places which don’t necessarily make for great TV viewing, and of course the local bars where David Simon characters always meet to make the real decisions.

The less-engaging side of the series is about local politics with Nick (Oscar “Llewyn Davis” Isaac, who had an epic 2015) as our protagonist. He’s the title hero, though his investment in desegregating Yonkers seems a far distant second to his self-centered political aspirations, which take off when he becomes an unlikely young mayor, swept into office (replacing Jim Belushi) to fight the desegregation, but finding himself having to defend it. Sure, Nick has morals, but his “doing the right thing” is meant to keep the city from going bankrupt from federal fines, not to bravely and singlehandedly defeat racism. And though he turned out to be the mayor the town needed at that particular time, he’s quickly run out of office by arrogant bastard Alfred Molina, and Nick’s political dreams turn to despair, feeling that he’d won a great victory, but a victory the angry residents would never recognize.

The rest of the show follows prospective residents of the new townhomes, detailing their individual lives and travails. Among the indifferentiated mob of white residents who show up to town hall meetings screaming about their property values is Mary (Catherine Keener), who’s representative of the gradual acceptance of the new housing. When the houses finally go up and families move in, Mary is coerced (by Clarke Peters, Det. Lester Freamon) to join a committee to meet with the residents and help them adjust – and help their bitter white neighbors adjust as well.

Mary before/after:

“We’re not prejudiced. Anyone is welcome to live in my neighborhood if they have the money.”

Most of the future residents we follow are women in trouble. Doreen (Natalie Paul)’s man is a drug dealer with asthma – and we know what happens to movie characters with asthma, so soon she’s a single mom, hooked on the crack. Norma (LaTanya “wife of Samuel L.” Jackson) was a nurse until she loses her sight due to diabetes, is helped out by her son Brother Mouzone. Carmen (Ilfenesh Hadera, currently on the Paul Giamatti show Billions) is from Dominican Republic, tries going back there but can’t make ends meet in either country. Billie (Dominique Fishback, soon appearing with D’Angelo Barksdale in another period New York David Simon miniseries, The Deuce) gets pregnant (a bunch of times) by petty criminal (later major criminal) John (Jeff Lima of Half Nelson), who spends half the show in prison.

Meanwhile, Nick will do anything to get back into office, including getting his wife (Carla Quevedo) fired and turning on his oldest council friend Winona Ryder. But he’s not exactly beloved around Yonkers, having sided with the federal enemy. The quiet unsung heroes here are the smart federal specialists (housing experts Peter Riegert and Clarke Peters, and judge Bob Balaban) manipulating a belligerent town towards social change.

Molina don’t give a shit:

Some awful hair and suits, gradually getting more tolerable as the horrors of the 1980’s fade away. Lots of Bruce Springsteen and a good Steve Earle tune used as theme song. Sadly, only one use of the word “mook”. Movies often start at the end (I have a starts-at-the-end tag on the blog), but this one repeats its suicidal-Nick-in-the-cemetery finale at the beginning AND in the middle.

Mostly this got deservedly great reviews, though the Haggis-haters at Slant tore it apart (I’ll agree with the line “Keener dons ridiculous old-lady drag”). Presumably they didn’t tear up, as I did, at the final episode: the joy and terror felt by the new residents about their neighborhood, Nick’s strangled cry for help before heading to the cemetery, the horrified look Winona Ryder gives Nick’s widow at the funeral, and the thaw in hostilities between new neighbors represented by Poodle Lady (played by the director’s ex-wife).

Poodle Lady:

Last film watched in 2015, and it’s a good one. Impossibly gorgeous and perfectly-lit Saoirse Ronan is in every scene, which should be enough of a recommendation, but it’s also a good story – a small-scale immigrant drama and minor love triangle given epic scale through grand filmmaking.

Eilis (which looks like Ellis, as in the island, now that I see it written) is sent abroad to New York by beneveolent priest Jim Broadbent, leaving her mother and sister Rose behind in Ireland. After a rough ship ride she settles in at her department store job with Parker Posey doppelganger Jessica Paré and a boarding house run by Julie Walters with other girls (incl. Arrow star Emily Rickards) who are looking for men and enjoying the night life. Quiet Eilis manages to attract a serious guy – an Italian plumber named Tony (Emory Cohen of Afterschool) with big dreams of a family housing business. After her sister’s sudden death she returns to Ireland to see her mom and friends, starts hanging out with Domhnall Gleeson, locally considered a major catch. Will she abandon her Tony and her golden dreams of America to stay comfortably at home with Gleeson? No!

Novel by Colm Tóibín, adapted by Nick Hornby, directed by Crowley (Boy A, Closed Circuit). Up for three oscars, but not everyone loved it.

M. D’Angelo:

… feels weirdly sanitized, like somebody’s pseudo-nostalgic conception of the ’50s based on movies from that era. (Compare and contrast with Carol, which admittedly inhabits a different milieu but is unmistakably grounded in lived experience.)

Katy’s pick for post-Thanksgiving viewing was much more successful than my vote for Looney Tunes. In any year that I hadn’t watched Damsels In Distress, this would obviously be the funniest and most charming Greta Gerwig movie. It’s still funnier and more charming than Frances Ha (which was pretty damned charming).

Lola “sister of Jemima” Kirke (the trailer-park neighbor who robs Rosamund in Gone Girl) is an aspiring writer who can’t get into her campus literary society and can’t get a boy in her class (Matthew Shear of Baumbach’s While We’re Young) to go out with her. Lola meets vibrant Gerwig (their parents were gonna get married, then they don’t) and starts mining Gerwig’s life for story ideas on the sly. Great second half as the three of them and the boy’s jealous girlfriend (Jasmine Jones) crash the Connecticut* house of Gerwig’s rich ex (Michael Chernus, of this year’s People Places Things) and his wife (Heather Lind of Demolition and Boardwalk Empire) to beg funding for the restaurant Gerwig wants to open.

Great dialogue in the movie overall, and Baumbach is good at coordinating all these characters into a sustained screwball sequence. He loves Gerwig’s energy and idealism, but he can’t keep from knocking her characters down a few pegs at the end of his movies, so she is punished for having no business sense and letting other people steal her ideas, but at least she seems to stay friends with Lola.

* wikipedia: “The philosopher Stanley Cavell has noted that many classic screwball comedies turn on an interlude in the state of Connecticut (Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve, The Awful Truth).”

V. Rizov:

Driver’s amateur documentarian in While We’re Young may be a jerk, but pretty much everyone around him (save poor Ben Stiller) concedes the end results are worth it. Inversely, in Mistress America, Tracy is climactically shamed for the diagnostic cruelty of her fictionalized portrait of Brooke, but she remains secure in the value of the work. Both films articulate multiple tangled perspectives on the rightness or wrongness of unkind fictionalization, and both effectively end by throwing their hands up and walking away from the question without resolution. This is self-critique, but it shies away from concluding that the ends don’t justify the means: the films themselves negate that conclusion.