Day 27: NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Robert Flaherty, USA/France, 1922)

A great humanist classic—I can think of few other films that so directly appeals to the viewer to enter into a thoughtful and respectful engagement with a foreign culture and generate what feels like a genuine connection to an unknown “Other”—even as the ethnographic form inherently creates representational and ethical dilemmas. To be fair, Flaherty, an explorer and prospector-turned-filmmaker, made his film before “documentary” was distinguished from any other type of filmmaking practice, and the fact that elements that are passed off as reality are in fact staged and/or scripted wouldn’t have given him or original audiences pause in the way it does for us today. Some of these fabrications are relatively benign, such as Nanook’s feigned amazement over banal Western objects or the depiction of him using traditional hunting weapons instead of his gun, while others are more disquieting, such as the fact that Nanook’s “wives” were apparently nothing of the sort, but Flaherty’s own common-law wives(!). But then there is the film itself, which all these years later still manages to slice through all surrounding discourse with a startling immediacy and vitality—as is often noted, Nanook (real name: Allakariallak) is in every sense of the term a true movie star, exhibiting a charisma and photographic magnetism that would make many a manicured Hollywood star green with envy; Andrew Sarris declares the scene when he pops his head out of a just-constructed igloo and smiles directly at the camera as nothing less than “one of the most beautiful moments in the history of the cinema.”

The film follows Nanook and his (purported) family as they navigate the desolate expanses of the arctic tundra of northernmost Quebec, always, it seems, just on the knife-edge of starvation and at the mercy of the sub-zero temperatures—as we watch them fish, hunt for walrus and polar bears, travel in sleds drawn by packs of Huskies, and construct canoes out of seal hides what becomes so clear is how every aspect of their existence requires the greatest effort, often repeated daily without any reprieve. But the clear hardships are balanced by depictions of humor, and Flaherty has a lovely, understated way of staging sequences that unexpectedly turn into sight gags. The film that kept coming to mind was Patricio Guzmán’s recent documentary The Pearl Button (also, happily, currently available on Fandor and which I highly recommend), which is partly devoted to capturing the memories of the several remaining indigenous people of South America’s Patagonia region, a culture which now only exists in a small number of photographs and recollections that are quickly fading; if Nanook of the North fails as a factual document of Allakariallak’s lived life, it at least tangibly captures an evocation of a people group and a heritage that had already been permanently altered and about to be displaced. Such documentation, even in this compromised state, thus contains an aura of preciousness. But overall a tremendous achievement, and a work of great visual accomplishment made despite some of the most punishing circumstances imaginable and working with the most primitive of film technology. I was expecting an Important Film, more historically interesting than compelling: how very wrong I was.

[Watch Nanook of the North on Fandor here.]



Day 9: MEET MARLON BRANDO (Albert Maysles & David Maysles, USA, 1966)

A fascinating look into the chirpy artificiality of “candid” celebrity encounters: we watch as Brando bridles under the expectation to don a smile and purr innocuous platitudes into the Maysles’s watchful camera. At times his actions might be interpreted as unnecessarily antagonistic—“have you actually seen it??” he pointedly queries anyone who begins gushing about the “terrific” film he is supposed to promote, which ended up being a major flop—but there are obviously more intricate dynamics at play here as well. Brando displays a great knack for pivoting conversations away from himself at a moment’s notice through witty adlibbing, often asking the interviewer a direct question about her/himself. A certain tension and nervous energy is generated as each of the various interviewers manage these maneuvers, and while some simply counter with tight-smiled deflections (“oh, but really Mr. Brando, our viewers would just love to hear your thoughts!”), just as many take the bait and enter into the riskier zone of genuine exchange—or at least a closer approximation to it. The highlights of the film tend to be anytime Brando successfully derails a reporter’s agenda: one discusses his hobby of playing classical guitar, one woman’s face lights up after Brando compliments her sonorous speaking voice, and another young woman suddenly finds herself being cross-examined when it’s revealed she’s a former Miss USA, and they begin discussing her specialty topic of juvenile education. But even these moments are complicated, as nearly all interactions with women immediately turn into flirtatious exchanges which read today as casual sexual harassment, adding an additional layer of uneasiness to the interactions (even—or especially—when with the women appear flattered by the sudden turn of events). Brando’s eagerness to take on and hold forth with great eloquence on controversial social issues—racism, and most particularly the plight of Native Americans—might also be read as part of the source of the great actor’s impatience with superficial chitchat. Marlon Brando playing “Marlon Brando” as performance art, and it’s a rather impressive performance indeed.

[Watch Meet Marlon Brando on Fandor here.]



(Serge Bromberg & Ruxandra Medrea, France, 2009)

A documentary resurrecting an abandoned film project by Henri-Georges Clouzot, originally envisioned as a stylistic tour-de-force to catapult the “French Hitchcock” back to the forefront of 1960’s French cinema which was then in the throes of all things Nouvelle vague. During his frequent bouts of insomnia Clouzot formulated a story that charts a man’s descent into hallucinatory paranoia over his beautiful wife’s perceived infidelity; the sad irony is that the process of undertaking such an ambitious film ultimately led the director down a similar path, and, already prone to depression, he collapsed on set and filming never resumed. Bromberg and Medrea’s film thus navigates two linked trajectories, reconstructing the unfinished film through surviving footage and script reenactments while simultaneously piecing together the filmmaking process through interviews with original participants as well as the numerous visual experiments that took place before shooting began. To my mind, the footage that Clouzot actually managed to capture is mesmerizing: an extended scene involving Romy Schneider crisscrossing a lake on water skis while in the distance her husband (Serge Reggiani) madly sprints the walled circumference of the lake is a thrilling orchestration of physical space and oppositional movement, but admittedly the real showstoppers are the endless “screen tests” that were undertaken, encompassing everything from costume and makeup evaluations (that blue lipstick!), color checks, lingering closeups of faces and body parts, and an impressive amount of psychedelic optical experiments. But as tantalizing as all this visual material is, the inevitable question must be asked: are all of these image fragments and individual sequences more impressive on their own than they ever could have been when contextualized into an overall narrative structure? The answer, in the end, seems to be an implicit yes, the surviving artifacts evoking a magnificence that reality could not possibly have managed to ever live up to.

[Watch Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno on Fandor here.]


costa-gravas clouzot l'enfer inferno

romy schneider clouzot l'enfer inferno

romy schneider jean-claude bercq clouzot l'enfer inferno

serge reggiani clouzot l'enfer inferno

dany carrel clouzot l'enfer inferno

berenice bejo clouzot l'enfer inferno



Day 6: FATA MORGANA (Werner Herzog, Germany, 1971)

Yesterday was Herzog’s 74th birthday so it seemed only appropriate to commemorate by picking a selection from his vast body of work. This is, by nearly all accounts, something of an outlier in a filmography that already likes to keep to the peripheries, a pseudo-documentary/speculative essay film that in typical Herzogian fashion whirls about in unexpected and often perplexing directions. For me the central conceit of the “fata morgana”—a specific type of mirage where edifices seem to emerge upon the horizon—immediately became crucial in keeping me engaged: if moment-to-moment I couldn’t quite string together what was going on, I nevertheless found myself entranced by the idiosyncratic manner in which images, sounds, songs, and ideas are compressed into beguiling if elusive configurations. I’m admittedly not much of a partisan of this much-loved filmmaker, and not quite willing to attribute the profundity I’ve seen attributed to this particular experiment either, but it’s undeniably the product of a singular creative vision. If I’m being honest, I most appreciated the opportunity to hear the great Lotte Eisner’s grave, gravelly voice.

[Watch Fata Morgana on Fandor here.]


Vivian Maier photographer Expressions self portrait banner

Day 3: VIVIAN MAIER PHOTOGRAPHER (Tom Palazzolo, USA, 2012)

No, not the feature-length documentary released to wide acclaim several years ago—this is a brief, twelve-minute film told from the perspective of Maier herself, allowing her to explain why she opted not to circulate her work and instead maintain a life of relative obscurity. “Who am I?” the voiceover gruffly begins. “Why should I tell you? When I was alive I didn’t want people to know about me—that was my business.” I appreciate this dual approach, which allows one to admire Maier’s striking images and appreciate that they have finally been brought to the attention of the world, while at the same time insisting that that a creator should be able to maintain some degree of agency over her own story and oeuvre. As told from this perspective—written by Palazzolo and Jack Helbig, and voiced by Judith Hoppe—Maier slowly opens up and relates the details of her life, her years as a nanny and lifelong interest in photography, before concluding, at the end, “nothing is meant to last.” But then, even she must concede the exceptionality of her particular situation and wryly admit “the funny thing is, at the end there was just another beginning.”

[Watch Vivian Maier Photographer at Fandor here.]

new york city nostalgia

new york in the 50s banner

In his capsule review for The New York Times Stephen Holden calls New York in the 50’s (Blankenbaker, USA, 2000) a “documentary scrapbook,” and that’s a neat way of summing up both the appeal and the limitations of this brief, CliffsNotes-like introduction to the New York City/Greenwich Village arts and culture scene during the 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Writer Dan Wakefield is extended screenplay credit, and the film is based on his book by the same name, though it’s unclear how much of the film is actually based on the book (which I have not read, but is characterized as a memoir featuring firsthand accounts from others).  Wakefield is the most regular interviewee among what seem to be a bevy of his personal friends and acquaintances who end up serving as a collection of chatty talking heads, including but not limited to Joan Didion (who, unsurprisingly, provides several of the film’s sharpest and most memorable anecdotes), Gay Talese, John Gregory Dunne, Robert Redford, David Amram, Bruce Jay Friedman, and a number of others, all whose testimony and remembrances more or less comprise the bulk of the running time as well as provide the chief pleasures of the film.  Because there’s scant else to it, and the distinct lack of archival footage makes New York in the 50’s come off as a nostalgia act simply coasting on the strength of the interview footage.  Quite honestly, it feels and plays like a program that one would expect to find broadcast on PBS as filler for a slow weekend afternoon.  It’s fine for what it is, I suppose, but it’s basically a rather forgettable treatment of a memorable topic.

portrait of the artist and her family

Several minutes into Alice Neel (USA, 2007), director Andrew Neel makes his connection to his subject explicit: he is in fact the grandson of the celebrated American portraitist.  The possible implications of a family member being the main presence behind the camera immediately begin to present themselves: Neel will undoubtedly enjoy access and intimacy into the life of his subject–indeed, his father, uncle and other relatives serve as the film’s main sources of information and there’s lot of home video footage and family photos–but to what extent can such a cinematic portrait be trusted?  Will it become some kind of laudatory, familial propaganda?  Or will it become too introverted, too in-crowd, possibly even an exercise in navel-gazing?

Neel confronts these issues head on, and actually goes so far as to implicitly structure his entire film around these issues, so much so that it would be more precise to regard Alice Neel as a portrait of the Neel family, and an examination of how a life–particularly an unconventional one–is not autonomous, but reverberates in countless ways throughout the lives of others.  On the one hand Alice Neel commemorates the great accomplishments of the eponymous artist; on the other it traces at what personal costs those same accomplishments entailed.  We become acquainted with the headstrong young woman who eschewed traditional gender roles to devote her life to art and who defied the post-War ascension of Abstract expressionism and continued her exploration of figural painting and portraiture.  As is noted in the film, this essentially amounted to “career suicide,” as her work systematically ignored until “rediscovered” by the feminist movement of the 1960’s and 70’s and rightly proclaimed as a pioneering feminist icon, which in turn flowered into a flurry of late-life fame (including several major retrospectives, honorary doctorates, college lecture tours, initiation into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, memorable appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, etc, etc) before she passed away in 1984.  But we also get to know the woman who ceded complete custody of her first daughter to her first husband’s affluent Cuban family, and who could be justly accused of devoting more attention to her art than to her family’s financial or emotional stability.  A complicated portrait of a complex woman and an equally complex family situation quickly emerges.

Documentaries of these types tend to give in to the impulse to be nostalgia acts about bygone eras, and so it is a bit shocking when Alice’s son Richard looks directly into the camera and bluntly states “I don’t like bohemian culture, frankly; I think a lot of innocent people are hurt by it.  I think I was hurt by it,” and admissions revealed in the film make clear this was not intended as some kind of a rhetorical statement.  Another sequence turns tense when a conversation between Neel and his father, Alice’s other son, begin to argue over certain painful questions; the camera is averted but the audio is covertly allowed to continue rolling, and the ensuing exchange is as poignant as it is revealing.  In other words, what initially seems like Neel’s tremendous advantage in making this film suddenly threatens to become a huge liability as his proximity to the subjects threatens to derail–or at least overshadow–the life and the art the film is ostensibly supposed to be about.

Which it never quite does.  Even if Alice’s sons chose to become a lawyer and a doctor (the exact antithesis of their bohemian upbringing), both remain emphatic about the importance of their mother’s art, and understand that it was only possible through the life decisions that she ultimately did make, even if it hurt them (and others).  And the footage that is included, both personal home videos and material from Michel Auder’s earlier documentary Portrait of Alice Neel–reveals a warm and smiling woman quick to laugh, and one with an impeccable eye capable of seeing art in everything, whether it the face of a famous celebrity she is painting or a violent cacophony of fluttering pigeons outside her apartment window.  The film concludes with a nice crescendo because, happily, Alice’s life did in fact follow that trajectory, her work receiving the much-delayed accolades while she could still enjoy them.  Come for the art–for it is, indeed, breathtaking and often quite haunting–and stay for a fascinating film.

all that jazz

I tend to find documentaries play better for me in an intimate home video setting as opposed to the more grandiose theatrical experience, and so despite considering myself a fan, it was with trepidation that I wandered into the uninspiredly titled Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (2008). O’Day, who until her passing last year was widely considered the last great female jazz vocalist who could be mentioned in the same breath as Holiday, Fitzgerald and Vaughn, led the type of life one can easily imagine being made into a biopic that wins actresses Academy Awards—there is enough heroin, failed marriages, memorable music and Esther Blodgett-esque comebacks to supply material for a dozen industrious screenwriters. But always cutting through the stock-documentary checklist of events-to-cover is O’Day herself. A startling firecracker of a woman, one moment she’s the hard-boiled, sharp-featured stock blonde of a 40’s noir, the next she’s a folksy Barbara Jean (of Nashville fame) good-naturedly burbling away at god knows what.

The film is worth watching for the skewering of even her most wrenching memories with sly humor, but of primary importance: that voice! At first careening through the quarter note vocal pyrotechnics of a song like “Tea for Two” with dazzling ease, later there’s the ravaged voice that hints at countless personal stories and long private histories contained within each uttered word. And O’Day’s story ends up being inspirational, almost despite itself, as here is a woman who beat the odds and continued to do the thing she loved most until she almost literally dropped dead. Indestructible! was the title of her last album, released just three years ago—and it serves as a remarkable summation of O’Day herself (pity it wasn’t used as the title for the film itself).

Intrigued by the clip shown and O’Day’s pronouncement that the glowing notices she subsequently received in The New York Times was “the highlight of [her] life,” I tracked down Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1960) and was more or less unprepared for the sheer greatness I beheld. O’Day wasn’t kidding when she emphasized that everyone was there at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958: Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk, Mahalia Jackson, Big Maybelle, Chico Hamilton and countless others not actually shown in the film—that these performances were captured at all for posterity is impressive enough, but then, what performances!

Interspersed between O’Day’s expert deconstruction of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and Louis Armstrong’s onstage banter and Big Maybelle’s earthy growl is footage that turns the cameras upon the assembled crowds with fascinating results—several times a barely-glimpsed attendee makes as indelible impression as the performers themselves.  This allows for unexpected sociological observation: the pre-Civil Rights crowd wasn’t neatly segregated as I had expected—young blacks down from Harlem sat interspersed with the Newport white elite in their expensive suits and pearls (sometimes reality can be so much more complex than the tidy demarcations made in history textbooks).

And then there’s Mahalia Jackson, who performs three songs to close out the film. Unassumingly radiant, watching her thunder through “Didn’t it Rain,” occasionally slapping together her hands for emphasis, is as euphoric an experience as anything I can imagine; then, at the close and the crowd roars and she bashfully keeps averting her eyes from the audience before murmuring “how you make me feel like a star!”—well, that’s just transcendence itself.