Tag Archives: documentary

Films as Urban Preservation

Perusing through the Melbourne Curious blog alerted me to the fact that Australian Screen have some amazing historical footage of my home city, Melbourne, available for viewing and download. It got me thinking again about the role that films play in preserving a record of our built environment.

Before I expand on those thoughts, here’s a sample of the stuff they have. There’s extracts from Marvellous Melbourne: Queen City of the South, a film from 1910 by Charles Cozens Spencer. It gives a great sense of the feel of Melbourne’s streets at that time.

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Guided MIFFile

(Can I pass off my appalling MIFF puns as a tribute to the bad puns of old cartoon titles? No? Oh.)

Well, I’ve finished MIFF with three films back-to-back this afternoon; all good (or at least enjoyable), thankfully. I also saw two on Friday. So I might as well wrap them up briefly while the thoughts are fresh.

Persepolis (Marjana Satrapi, 2007)

I’ll do a fuller review of this in the next week or so (hopefully), so more on this later. But suffice to say it’s brilliant, and you absolutely should see it when it comes out.

Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007)

I didn’t dislike this to the same extent Mark Lavercombe at Hoopla did, but it was disappointing. Sharing more than a little in common with Herzog’s earlier science-fiction / documentary / head-scratcher The Wild Blue Yonder (which I covered at a previous MIFF, see here), it sees Herzog travel to Antarctica to talk to various research scientists. Herzog is, of course, an eccentric of long standing, and sometimes (most recently in Grizzly Man) his off-kilter perspective can be strangely brilliant. Here, though, he generally comes across as foolish. He has some interesting interview subjects, and certainly gets some great footage in the scenes of diving under ice (it’s here the film resembles Wild Blue Yonder – it may even reuse some of the same footage). But he consistently seems the least intelligent person in the room: his narration ruminates on humanity’s relationship with the environment, but his interview subjects are vastly more informed than he is on the topic. Funny, often beautiful, and Herzog is never a waste of time; but there’s a sense that Herzog is resting on his laurels as one of the great documentarians, rather than really chasing down a great story as he did back in Grizzly Man.

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The Real Warren Perso

Not Quite Hollywood (Mark Hartley, 2008)

Mark Hartley’s documentary on “Ozploitation” – Australian exploitation movies of the 70s and early 80s – should find an enthusiastic audience. It is great fun, largely because it reproduces all the best moments form a body of work that is probably more a lot more enjoyable to reminisce about, and see highlights from, than it is to actually sit through in its entirety. After briefly setting the historical context, it starts with what I think are the best remembered sub-genre, the “ocker” and sex comedies from the 1970s (Stork, Alvin Purple, the Barry McKenzie films, and so on), and then works through horror films and action films (the films’ structure gives the impression that the filmmakers had an eye on being able to break the film up into separate episodes of a TV show). So we get basically all the sauciest and funniest moments from the sex comedies, followed by the most outrageous scenes from the horrors, and the best stunts from the action films. As a highlights package, it’s fabulous, and Hartley intersperses interviews with many key participants (plus Quentin Tarantino representing the fan’s perspective as only he can).

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Skipping Town

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Marina Zenovich, 2008)

The entry in the Melbourne International Film Festival program for Marina Zenovich’s documentary about the trial of Roman Polanksi for unlawful sex with a thirteen year old girl film poses the question: “Was Polanski guilty, or was it the case of a trial judge seeking personal notoriety?” It’s an idiotic question: of course Polanski was guilty. He plead guilty at the time, has always admitted to having sex with the girl, and there is no suggestion otherwise in the documentary.

This basic fact hangs uneasily over the whole film, and despite it being quite sympathetic to Polanski, there’s little doubt that he wouldn’t relish the case being thrust back into the public eye: I can’t think of anyone else who has been rehabilitated into public life like Polanski has been after such a crime. And while the documentary is entertaining and interesting for its full length, I felt uncomfortable in its first half at the apparent implication that Polanski had in some ways been a victim of the trial process. In the early stretches, Polanski’s difficulties seemed merely to be the expected firestorm of publicity and the obvious problems that would accompany being charged with a serious crime, and I was having trouble making sense of the allusions to Polanksi’s apparently unjust treatment.

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Remember MIFF? (MIFF Report, Part II)

Apologies for the delays in getting further posts on the Melbourne International Film Festival up. There was always going to be limited opportunity to post during the festival, since so many of the films I was seeing were in the last few days, but things were made worse by difficulties at my day job which caused a few planned films on my schedule to bite the dust. Hopefully my previous plugs for Paul Martin’s Melbourne Film Blog led anybody who was hankering for day-by-day coverage there; the boys over at Hoopla also managed to cover a reasonable number of films. One of the films I missed (El Topo) remains very much on my list to cover on the site.

What I did see was generally pretty good, and I had a better time of it than last year. So here are some quick thoughts on what I did end up seeing.

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MIFF Busting

The Melbourne International Film Festival starts next week. I’m hoping I’ll have a better experience than last year, where the films I caught were a fairly mixed bag, and the film I enjoyed the most was a fairly unexceptional kung fu flick. (See here and here for my comments at the time). Things are already looking up this year: the experience of working out what I could see has been made much easier by the festival organisers finally listing session times in the main part of the program, with the description of the films.

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Quest for Truth

The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988)

I mean, The Thin Blue Line is very influenced by noir. It is, in its essence, a noir-like story… if you asked me, “What are the main ingredients of noir?”, I’d say that it’s not the moody lighting, it’s not the canted Dutch angles. To me it’s the feeling of inexorability, almost the form of Greek tragedy, the feeling that things inexorably move towards some disaster without the ability of anyone involved to change the outcome, to do otherwise.

Errol Morris, interviewed by Tom Ryan for Senses of Cinema

Errol Morris stumbled into the subject of his best documentary, The Thin Blue Line. In 1985 he was researching a documentary about Dr James Grigson, a psychiatrist notorious for giving testimony in court cases that led to death sentences for the accused. The research included speaking to those who had been the subject of Grigson’s testimony, and one of the prisoners he spoke to was Randall Adams, then into his seventh year of imprisonment after being sentenced to death for the 1976 shooting of police officer Robert Wood in Dallas. Adams’ death sentence had by that time been commuted, but he was still in jail and protesting his innocence. Morris started looking into the case and quickly became convinced that Adams was indeed innocent. More than that, it became very clear who had killed Robert Wood. Morris abandoned his original project and turned his efforts to building the case for Adams’ innocence. The resulting film was The Thin Blue Line, still the definitive example of an investigative documentary. The film would be important if only for its impact on that case. Yet it’s much more interesting than a simple exploration of a particular crime and its consequences; it is a triumph of execution that has been enormously influential on both documentaries and fiction films since.

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Next Week, Charles M. Schulz vs Joseph McCarthy in “Good Night and Good Grief”

George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck is now wrapping up its run in Australian cinemas: I saw it weeks ago, but didn’t write a review partly because I was busy with other things, and partly because I was a bit underwhelmed by it. After the rapturous reception it has been greeted with (notably the 5-star reviews of David Stratton and Margaret Pomerantz) I expected a lot more. There are a lot of good things about it – notably David Strathairn’s wonderful performance as Edward R. Murrow, and George Clooney’s direction – but it struck me as terribly written. The screenplay seems almost to deliberately downplay drama: there was never a feeling of just how all-encompassing the fear of McCarthy must have been, and Strathairn’s Murrow seemed to outplay McCarthy at every turn. The first serious consequences for Murrow and his colleagues don’t happen until the very end of the film.

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Interview: Jonathan Nossiter, Mondovino

When you consider the passion, seriousness, and self-importance with which many indulge their passion for wine, the controversy surrounding Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary Mondovino is perhaps not surprising. The film is a survey of the international wine industry that suggests that as the industry is being globalised, wine culture is being homogenised. It points to the disproportionate influence wielded by certain figures (notably American wine critic Robert Parker) who serve as literal tastemakers, leading to the development of a global wine style at the expense of localised wine cultures.

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War on Terroir

Mondovino (Jonathan Nossiter, 2004)

Whenever a controversial documentary rolls around, we discover just how naïve the attitude of many commentators to documentary is. As part of the process of rebuttal of any politically challenging film, critics from the right tend to peddle a false view of what documentaries are about (and this is just about always done from the right, for despite the prevailing political tendencies of the day, the widely distributed political documentaries are still generally from the left). Documentaries have to be objective, they argue: they have to put both sides of the story. I lost count of the number of times I saw people seriously argue the absurd proposition that Fahrenheit 9/11 wasn’t even properly considered a documentary because it was so focussed on arguing a particular point of view. Which is, of course, rubbish. Documentary makers have every right to argue a particular proposition, rather than somehow presenting an all-encompassing “balanced” or “objective” overview. Indeed, if we argue that they don’t have such a right, we strip documentaries of much of their point. This doesn’t mean that we have to just accept a poorly justified argument without complaint, or that we can’t engage with and criticise the argument that a documentary puts. I’m just saying that we need to move straight into that discussion, rather than attacking documentaries as propaganda simply because the filmmaker argues a single point of view. Does every film really need to be its own rebuttal?

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