Archive for the Documentary Category

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Posted in Biography, Crime, Documentary with tags on July 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz photo starrating-4stars.jpgBrian Knappenberger directs this fascinating documentary about Aaron Swartz, a computer programming prodigy turned internet activist. A hacker not out for personal gain but rather to promote free access to information. The Internet’s Own Boy is a sympathetic portrait. The narrative is fashioned as the loss of a great mind as a consequence of the U.S. government’s overzealous pursuit of a transgressor. A persecution that was disproportional to the seriousness of his actual crime. JSTOR (short for Journal Storage) is a digital library featuring back issues of academic journals. Aaron was guilty of bulk-downloading a substantial portion of JSTOR’s records using the MIT computer network. Most of the data was available via a paid subscription. Some of the older data was obtainable by anyone for no charge. As the trial approached, Aaron was facing multiple felony charges that could have put him in federal prison. As the case mounted against him, he faced a sentence of up to 35 years in jail and a $1 million fine, if convicted.

The Internet’s Own Boy does a great job at presenting a potentially confusing topic in a straightforward and level headed manner. First the account lays out the case for the truly brilliant mind this young man possessed. In family videos we see him as a child reading at an ability far beyond his years. At 12 he created The Info Network, a user-generated encyclopedia not unlike Wikipedia. In his teens he was instrumental in the creation of the RSS feed, the public domain watchdog group Creative Commons, and the formation of the social news site Reddit. The documentary makes the argument that he was a key player in the defeat of The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Opponents warned that the proposed legislation’s reach extended much further than mere copyright law. The federal government could block whole internet domains if they saw fit. This, they argued, would ultimately threaten first amendment rights on the Internet. You will marvel at his extraordinarily gifted mind.

Then the chronicle goes into the details of his crime. Swartz wasn’t interested in leaking classified documents. He was for the uninhibited dissemination of knowledge that could benefit people. The story acknowledges that infiltrating JSTOR’s database wasn’t completely legal. What he planned to do with his massive procurement of 5 million articles is not specifically known. Yet his misdeed ended there. It’s alleged by the prosecution that he intended to release the downloads to the public on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. Even his friends and colleagues accept that this wasn’t such a far-fetched supposition. One only need read his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” to know his opinion toward free and open information.

Aaron Swartz stood for a free and democratic Internet. He was guilty of downloading 5 million scholarly texts from the JSTOR database. However since this material wasn’t of a sensitive nature, nor did he plan to financially gain from the acquisition, the infraction seems negligible at best.  Unfortunately none of the antagonists agreed to appear on camera.  If there’s a villain here it’s the U.S. attorney’s office and specially the chief prosecutor in the case, Stephen Heymann. He doesn’t fare too well at all. His absence doesn’t help him, but it’s hard to say whether it would have served him if he had showed up to defend his questionable motives.  Even hallowed university MIT comes under fire for its failure to speak up in Aaron’s defense despite their supposed commitment to open access.  The end result is a one-sided but emotionally compelling view. It will make you angry but it will also make you profoundly sad. You will mourn this young man who, in the aftermath of the events detailed here, ultimately took his own life.

Life Itself

Posted in Biography, Documentary with tags on July 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Life Itself photo starrating-4stars.jpgMy introduction to Roger Ebert (and to film criticism in general) began at a very young age. I used to watch Sneak Previews on channel 9 which was the public television station in the San Francisco Bay area. He, a writer with the Chicago Sun-Times, would co-host along with Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune. As far as I was concerned you couldn’t mention one without the other. They critiqued enough movies that kids could enjoy to maintain my interest. However most were pictures I was either too young for or had no interest in seeing at that age. It was my dad who initially watched the show and he like me enjoyed the back and forth when they would disagree, even more than the actual review. They spoke intelligently about movies but at a level where I could still understand.

Life Itself is based on Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name. It’s presented somewhat in chronological order but not always. Sections of his life that pertain to the Siskel & Ebert stuff or his wife Chaz have a constant presence. We’re reminded of what chapter is being addressed in the lower left hand comer. The numbers jump around as the document picks and chooses vignettes that seem most relevant to tell a story. As it charts his career, it touches upon the high points of his days at the University of Illinois as an influential reporter for the Daily Illini on through his job as critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. His rivalry with fellow Chicagoan Gene Siskel, their eventual show and the lasting impact that it had, are important milestones.

The best documentaries don’t take sides but rather present its subject for the audience to come to a conclusion. Director Steve James, who also helmed the highly acclaimed Hoop Dreams, doesn’t hide the fact that is clearly a fan.  Roger Ebert enthusiastically promoted his work as well. Life Itself unfolds like a celebratory memoir of a great man who revolutionized film criticism with a more populist approach. It treats Roger Ebert like the be-all, end-all authority giving Ebert a lot of credit for starting what groundbreaking reviewers such as Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris were doing long before him. To be fair, the director does namecheck them.

Occasionally director Steve James allows a little grit. Critic Richard Corliss was particularly disapproving of Ebert’s quick “fast-food” style approach to reviews on TV. His scathing 1990 Film Comment article, “All Thumbs” is mentioned. Ebert could be a bit snippy and egotistical too. His trashing of the movie Three Amigos on The Tonight Show as the movie’s star Chevy Chase sat right behind him is pretty awkward. It reveals Ebert’s prickly personality much better than any wordy description ever could.  The best moments come from the footage of him and Gene Siskel recording their TV program. A series of recorded promos which expose the two bickering like children, provides a candid window into the man. Excerpted footage where they vehemently disagreed in their assessments is provided. The clips highlight their appeal and why no one has ever been able to replicate their chemistry since. Talking head interviews are also particularly enlightening. Gene Siskel’s wife recalls some private anecdotes. How he stole her cab while she was 8 months pregnant sticks out. Film greats Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog wax poetically on the influence he had on their careers.

Life Itself features Ebert’s love of movies just as much as his love for Chaz Ebert his wife, whom he married at the age of 50 in 1992. Their relationship forms a major part of the narrative in the third act. The film is a life lived and it is at various times informative, fascinating and yes sentimental. It would almost have to be. In early 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer which was successfully removed in February of that year. 4 years later he had surgery to remove cancerous tissue near his right jaw. The results of which altered his life to where he ate and drink through a tube. At times the unblinking gaze of the camera on his appearance is difficult to watch. Unable to speak, he communicated via text-to-speech computer software. There’s an undeniable sadness that must permeate the proceedings. Chaz has a perspective that humanizes a man with an outsized ego. Chaz and Roger’s love for each other is profoundly touching. Their devotion is just as important a component as his thoughts and feelings about film. These scenes contrast with his often cantankerous relationship with his famous cohort Gene Siskel. Although those displays are where the documentary soars, the final act provides a poignant coda on the life of a man who left an indelible legacy on film criticism.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Posted in Documentary, Science Fiction with tags on April 2, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Jodorowsky's Dune photo starrating-4stars.jpgJodorowsky’s Dune is a fascinating documentary because it posits “what could have been?” Chilean born director Alejandro Jodorowsky is known for his avant garde films. El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) in particular were mainstays of the 1970s midnight movie circuit in the United States. Neither gained widespread distribution, but both became classics of underground cinema. Then in 1975, the cult director optioned the rights to Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune. He then proceeded to amass an impressive assemblage of talent: artists H. R. Giger and Jean Giraud for character and set design, Dan O’Bannon for special effects, Pink Floyd for music, and a cast that would include David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí. The group became what he refers to as his “spiritual warriors” – people with whom the director felt a kinship in manifesting what was to be his masterpiece. Douglas Trumbull, in contrast, was considered for special effects first. The director’s personality didn’t gel with the talent behind 2001: A Space Odyssey and he was not hired.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a engrossing document because it provides the history behind a bizarre movie that never came to fruition. In his fertile and uninhibited imagination, the production becomes sort of a no-holds-barred, anything is possible fantasy with limitless possibilities. Whether an unproven director could have successfully produced an opus of this magnitude is unclear. The undertaking soon ran out of funds. Jodorsoksky burned through more than $2 million of producer Michel Seydoux’s money and hadn’t yet shot a single frame. They appealed for more cash. Apparently the studio was not convinced and shut down the project before it had the opportunity to continue.

Jodorowsky’s Dune makes an entertaining case that this is the greatest sci-fi film never made. The massive Dune storyboard book circulated through various studios in Hollywood as the proposal sought financing partners. The blueprints contain attributes which correlate to visual aspects in Star Wars, Alien, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Masters of the Universe, The Matrix and others. Alejandro Jodorowsky is an intriguing personality and it’s fun hearing him reminisce about something in which he is still so passionate. He was able to charm a lot of people into initially believing in him. As charismatic as he is, I am certain the man is also stark raving mad. There’s no way the final product could have possibly lived up to the potential that this feature suggests. However, that doesn’t lessen the impact of this captivating document on filmmaking. Ultimately Dune would reach the screen in David Lynch’s infamous 1984 adaptation. Jodorowsky’s reluctance to see someone else’s vision of a project he was so close to, is understandable. Even his climatic recounting of that story is worth the price of admission.

Tim’s Vermeer

Posted in Documentary with tags on March 16, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Tim's Vermeer photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Tim of the title is Tim Jenison a digital video visionary who founded NewTek Inc. in 1985. Vermeer is of course, Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch painter known for his domestic interior scenes of women mostly. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is perhaps his most celebrated piece. This essentially documents the video software entrepreneur’s desire to explore how Vermeer was able to achieve such photorealistic treatments in the 17th-century. The attention to detail in Vermeer’s work is indeed extraordinary. Furthermore, evidence shows that Vermeer didn’t even bother with preparatory sketches. In 2001, artist David Hockey proposed the idea that some virtuosos relied on optical devices to compose their paintings. His hypothesis was that Vermeer used the camera obscura, a darkened room with an aperture fitted with a lens through which light could enter to form an outside image on the opposite wall inside.

Tim’s Vermeer is not only a document of Vermeer, but also of Tim Jenison a man driven by an obsession. How could Vermeer, a man with apparently no formal training, achieve his creations? The question puzzles Jenison who has no academic foundation either. He hypothesizes that Vermeer utilized a dental sized mirror apparatus in addition to the camera obscura to create his works of art. He then proceeds to reconstruct the actual room depicted in Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” building a chair, harpsichord, stained glass windows, and floor tile.  He even gets his own daughter to stand in for the female subject.

This is the study of how a non-artist could construct a masterpiece. For most of the film we watch as Tim attempts to copy the painting. His pursuit occurs over several months. Only a very rich man with deep pockets could possibly endeavor such a colossal undertaking of time and money. At times the experiment is almost like watching paint dry, and the chronicle even acknowledges this.  Yet the results are astonishing nevertheless.  One might suggest that his findings negate Vermeer’s accomplishments. I found quite the opposite. Assuming this is how Vermeer worked, it re-enforces how difficult it was to create his compositions. Tim’s Vermeer is something I’d recommend to anyone with an appreciation for Baroque painting. It probably plays more like a special on public television than as a theatrical movie, but as far as this art history buff is concerned, I was transfixed.

Note: Tim’s Vermeer made the 2014 Documentary Feature shortlist of 15 films, but it did not secure an Oscar nomination.

Cutie and the Boxer

Posted in Biography, Documentary, History with tags on January 29, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Cutie and the Boxer photo starrating-3stars.jpg“The Boxer” is 80 year old Neo-Dadaist artist Ushio Shinohara. “Cutie” is his long suffering wife Noriko Shinohara. The two live and work in New York City and have ever since they originally met in back in 1973. Both were transplants from Japan. Back then he was 41. She was 19. He was a painter and sculptor – a rising star in the art world. She was a student. They got married and she not only became his wife but his de facto assistant as well. For you see, she put her own vocation on hold so she could support her husband’s career.

Ushio is still producing art. While he struggles to affirm his legacy, Noriko is finally getting some deserved recognition. We see him creating his paintings by punching the canvas with boxing gloves dipped in paint. He also creates “junk art” sculptures composed of found objects with garishly colored paint. Motorcycles are a common theme. Her work consists of a progression of whimsical drawings depicting her own life with Ushio entitled ‘Cutie and Bullie’. Light animation has these figures parallel their real life counterparts at appropriate times throughout the documentary. Her voice representing a quietly fuming display of resentment.

Cutie and the Boxer is not so much a story about artists but rather people in a 40 year relationship. The couple is a most curious pair. Ushio is small but physically scrappy. Although his work has been displayed at high profile museum exhibitions, his creations haven’t seen a great deal of monetary success. We see the two converse in a cluttered apartment in Brooklyn, surrounded by sculptures, scattered materials and cats. Their marriage comes across like a series of “what-coulda-beens”, “if-onlys” and “I -wish-I hads”. In speaking with the camera, Noriko detail a singular existence obsessively focused on her husband’s art career. She admits it has had an effect on their now 39 year old son. Alex is also a struggling artist and clearly uncomfortable on screen. His uncharacteristic upbringing hampered by his father’s alcoholism which now seems to afflict him.

Cutie and the Boxer is mildly interesting, but it’s a depressing watch. There isn’t a lot of insight, but there is nuance. The director’s POV sides with Noriko for having set aside her own ambitions to take care of essentially two children, her son and husband. Ushio is seemingly oblivious or perhaps indifferent to his wife’s regrets. Her own artistic pursuits only now receiving some attention. Together the couple exhibit a competitive alliance regarding their individual careers. Because of all this, the production has an air sadness to it. Yet it’s a relationship that has endured for quixotic reasons, but there is hope here. Ushio inquires of Noriko, if Cutie hates Bullie. “Ah, Cutie loves Bullie so much,” she responds.

The Act Of Killing

Posted in Crime, Documentary, History with tags on January 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Act of Killing photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Act of Killing is hard to watch, espeically when you know the history behind it. By the early 1960s President Sukarno’s support and protection of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was to the objection of the army and Islamic groups. In 1965, a group calling itself the September 30th Movement tried to overthrow the government. The attempted coup d’état was countered by Suharto-led troops and was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party. This led to the destruction of PKI and Sukarno’s replacement by Suharto himself. Suharto’s anti-Communist stance won him the economic and diplomatic support of the West during the Cold War. However what wasn’t widely reported was the subsequent suppression.

Estimates vary, but in the weeks following the coup from 1965 and on through 1966, somewhere between 500,000 to 3 million alleged communists were murdered. The victims, which included ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, were basically anybody the government decided they didn’t like. They were simply labeled a communist to make the carnage more acceptable. That’s the history behind this chronicle, but it’s not the focus. No this presents the boasting of the actual thugs who were directly responsible for the massacre of millions of souls by their own hands. These self styled gangsters point out that the word ‘gangster’ means free men. Free to rape torture and murder in the name of suppressing communism.

The Act of Killing is a documentary based on over five years of filming. Petty thugs Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry were scalping movie tickets before they were promoted to leading the most notorious death squad in North Sumatra. One of director Joshua Oppenheimer’s conceits is that he has those responsible reenact their killings utilizing a variety of different film genres: western, gangster, musical. Herman Koto is another hooligan that is heavily featured in these replications. Hefty in size, he repeatedly performs in drag wearing a tight satin gown. Other more serious large scale productions take place on the very same killing fields where the bloodshed occurred. These include small children and extras ostensibly descendants related to those murdered. The concept is shocking enough and the resulting display is even more surreal.

These aren’t even the most successful parts of The Act of Killing. There are moments here that will leave you absolutely dumfounded. I’m struck by a scene where Anwar Congo demonstrates how he strangled his victims with wire to avoid spilling too much blood. As he watches it back on a TV monitor, he complains that he shouldn’t have worn white pants during their reenactment. In another scene he instructs his grandsons to apologize to some baby ducks they accidentally hurt while handling. Later Congo wraps a wire around his own neck and asks Koto to tug on it in order to mimic what he did. “Josh, is that how my victims felt?” Congo asks the filmmaker. (long pause) “Well I’d say they felt much worse because while you were pretending, they knew they were going to die.” By the end, Congo gets the dry heaves as he is supposedly coming to terms with what he did. I didn’t buy the sincerity of that gesture for a second, but it still doesn’t make his “performance” any less telling.

The Banality of evil is a term coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt meaning that evil occurs when ordinary people are put into corrupt situations that encourage their conformity. The phrase was used after he witnessed the trial of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann who seemed to him as the most mundane individual whose heinous deeds were orders dictated by the state. That idea floats throughout this documentary particularly when Congo happily speaks as if he is a hero because his behavior was backed by the government.

The Act of Killing is one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. I suppose there are at least two responses one could greet Joshua Oppenheimer’s examination into the mind of these killers.

•    Reaction #1 These people are monsters and director Joshua Oppenheimer is unfortunately giving them indefensible attention.

•    Reaction #2 The only way to have the murderers open up like this is to make them believe that they are being celebrated. In this manner, the director allows the death squad to expose themselves for what they truly are.

I’ve had time to reflect and I’ve come to the conclusion that I side more with reaction #2. At times the documentary can be a bit obtuse as it’s not always clear where Oppenheimer is going. But ultimately what comes through is that this shines a light on a pernicious evil that has gone unaddressed for far too long. It refuses to look away and while providing a voice for the murderers, it indirectly provides a voice for the incredible number of people whose lives were ended. Not only were these perpetrators of mass violence never prosecuted for their crimes, but many Indonesians view them as heroes today. Conversely this also shows that many citizens continue to live in abject fear of them as well. This chapter of Indonesian history has been mostly shielded from public view. It’s good this document exists. I’m glad that I saw it. Now I never want to see it again.

Blackfish

Posted in Documentary with tags on November 12, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Blackfish photo starrating-4stars.jpgBlackfish is a documentary about Tilikum, a male orca held at SeaWorld in Orlando. Orcas, or killer whales, are the largest of the dolphins and one of the world’s most powerful predators. This chronicle details the history of this particular killer whale. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite analyzes the contributing factors that have led to three deaths. Two trainers and a SeaWorld visitor have been casualties during his 30 odd years in captivity. In fact the death one of their coaches is how this record starts.

Blackfish does a brilliant job at charting the life of Tilikum. He was captured in Berufjörður off the east coast of Iceland on November 9, 1983 at two years of age, along with two other orcas. His “career” began at a now-defunct Canadian theme park called Sealand of the Pacific. Archival footage supports how he was attacked by two older females in the tank. After causing the death of one of his trainers there, Tilikum was transferred to Sea World Orlando in 1992. The film makes a strong argument that the trauma and anxieties to which he was subjected to there, remained with him. However the sermonizing is minimal and what comes next is haunting.

Like any documentary, Blackfish should be taken with a grain of salt. It would’ve been nice if a representative from SeaWorld had agreed to an on-camera interview. Instead we’re given re-printed testimony from SeaWorld officials in previous court cases which went to trail. Perhaps their refusal to participate says something. To this day, Tilikum continues to perform at SeaWorld Orlando, following a year-long hiatus after the death of experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Cowperthwaite suggests that Tilikum’s continued current use is business related. He is the most successful sire in captivity, with 21 offspring, 11 of which are still alive.

At the very least, this scathing attack on SeaWorld will question your decision to support this amusement park with a visit. Her research is impeccable. In the account she makes a very powerful case that killer whales should not be kept in captivity at all . That their confinement is to the detriment of both the animal as well as humans involved. The cruel conditions they’re kept in is a contributing factor. She lambastes the practice of separating wild whale pups from their mothers. The accompanying footage replete with piercing sounds of a wailing mother is heartbreaking. More than a dozen testimonies from trainers, employees and experts discuss the inner workings of these parks. Many of it from former employees at the actual Sea World park where Tilikum now resides. It’s clear that many guides have been misled by SeaWorld officials on the dangers posed by these 5-ton beasts. Blackfish is more than mere entertainment. It’s necessary viewing and one of the most important documentaries of the year.

The first time I watched Blackfish was on Novmeber 12, 2013, when it was released to DVD and Blu-ray. Therefore my review has been post-dated despite the fact that my review was written on January 16, 2014.

20 Feet From Stardom

Posted in Documentary, History, Music with tags on July 24, 2013 by Mark Hobin

20 Feet from Stardom photo starrating-4stars.jpgEver want to know more about the people who sing backup vocals on your favorite hit songs? No? Well to be quite honest, neither did I. Or so I thought.  That’s the beauty of this documentary. 20 Feet From Stardom takes a subject of vague interest and makes it captivating. On display are the contributors that rarely get mentioned, save for the microscopic print of the liner notes on an album. It’s a fascinating watch. 20 Feet From Stardom doesn’t purport to tell the story of all supplementary vocalists. What it does do is delve into a sampling of the prolific talent that has been harmonizing on songs you’ve loved for years but never knew who sang those secondary parts.

I suppose in some way this presentation speaks for all backup singers as it tells these stories, but it specifically recounts the detailed histories of Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Táta Vega. Every tale is unique with a distinct take and their own remarkable window into the world of popular music. The rationale for why these performers never became household names are multilayered and vary. For some perhaps racism and/or sexism. In others maybe just dumb luck. A simple lack of a desire to seize the spotlight is even suggested. In the case of Darlene Love, there was the megalomaniacal (albeit gifted) Phil Spector to contend with. Only one ego in the room please. Her drama is especially heartbreaking in the sense she sang on some of the most beloved songs without nary a credit. She along with Fanita James and Jean King, were founding members of The Blossoms. The trio sang backup on Sinatra’s “That’s Life”, Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash”, the holiday classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and countless others. They notably recorded the #1 hit song “He’s a Rebel” but Spector released that single under The Crystals, a completely different group, so Love and her fellow Blossoms never got the recognition or the stardom they deserved. Yet Love’s story inspires happiness nonetheless. They became first call, A-list session singers, highly in demand. Their voices are still infectious today. They are permitted to sing here and their talent speaks volumes that words cannot.

I always instinctively assume that the background vocals belong to the group/entourage associated with the artist on the single. But in many instances they are hired guns that come in, lay down their vocal tracks and then move on to the next gig. Director Morgan Neville’s document gently suggests various reasons for their lack of fame but allows the viewer to arrive at their own conclusions. In the meantime we’re treated to some of the best music of the 20th century. These vocalists have worked with the likes of Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Luther Vandross, Sting, Ike and Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Bette Midler. Many of these legends appear singing the praises of these unheralded talents. By and large, the chronicle is an uplifting tribute. There’s something exhilarating in seeing these artists get their due. It’s amazing how pervasive their contributions are to pop culture. For example the Waters Family were featured on “Thriller”, “The Circle of Life” and even recorded dino-bird sounds for Avatar.  There are at least half a dozen sagas here that command your attention. Each performer could highlight their own movie. Perhaps none more so than that of Darlene Love. Her story is one of frustration, perseverance and ultimately joy. That’s the ultimate message of this wonderful film.

Samsara

Posted in Documentary with tags on September 11, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketSamsara is a wonder to behold. The Sanskrit word means “continuous flow”, the repeating cycle of birth, life, death and reincarnation. This non-verbal documentary was filmed over four years in 25 countries around the world across 5 continents by director/cinematographer Ron Fricke. Baraka was Fricke‘s 1992 experimental cinema that covered much of the same territory. Now 20 years later we get this sequel of sorts. The granddaddy of this genre is Koyaanisqatsi (1983) on which Fricke was the cinematographer. Like that picture, time-lapse photography is frequently used to depict a heightened reality of a world we see every day. Scenes quickly unfold before our eyes in a stunning document of events that often take much longer. This is the music video as anthropology. Cultural revelations designed to shock and awe. The images will provoke laughter, tears, disgust and joy. All of this is underscored by a soundtrack featuring ambient music by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, and Marcello De Francisci.

There is no narrative but there is a point. Samsara is celebration of the environment filtered through an anti-urbanization milieu. Mechanized society is bad. Nature and indigenous cultures are good. Of course what you actually take away from this documentary depends on what you bring to it. The spectacle is ripe for free association by the viewer. Without any narration or story, we are compelled to fill in the blanks and make our own inferences as to how these images relate. No two people are going to have the same experience watching this film. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a tone poem.

At times the exhibition begs for an explanation. Witness men in orange jumpsuits dancing choreography in utter precision to techno music. The production is better than a halftime show, more precise than a Broadway musical. Their exuberance is captivating and their spirit is contagious. The fact that these are prisoners at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines prompts the question: what is going on here? We are never given an answer (or even where this was photographed) it’s simply on to the next display.

The documentary works best when the spectator doesn’t feel as if they’re being manipulated. Hundreds of plucked live chickens being vacuumed up by a thresher like machine is an indelible image that’s hard to shake. It’s an obvious scolding to non vegetarians. “How dare you eat meat! This travesty is your fault.” If it’s possible to gild the lily in a negative way, the filmmakers succeed. We’re presented 3 gargantuan Americans stuffing their faces at a fast food restaurant immediately after. Also for your reflection, are women wearing burqas standing in front an underwear ad of male models in Dubai mall . Their juxtaposition manipulated to highlight the obvious double standard is mildly exploitative. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is contrasted with the Palace of Versailles. And then there’s the random insert of a French performance artist as businessman dressed in suit and tie that aggressively rubs clay and paint all over his face. It doesn’t even fit within the context of the picture. I guess he was showing us what a nervous breakdown looks like. Awkward.

The document thrives when it celebrates our world without judgment. A Symphonic poem, the breathtaking images literally hypnotize the viewer into a trance inducing state. From, religious place of worship like pagodas in Burma and the vaulted ceilings of the Vatican to Muslims circling the Grand Mosque at Mecca. Gorgeous vistas of the sandstone arches of Utah’s Monument Valley to half dome Yosemite Valley. Even the urban cityscapes of Shanghai and Dubai: archive a poetic beauty amongst all the natural wonders. A cityscape at night shows cars zipping along the highway in multicolored electronic glow. Like glowing electronic arteries, the modernity is hypnotic on the big screen. It’s the visual manifestation of a dream and occasionally a nightmare. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Samsara would take a lifetime to read.

Searching for Sugar Man

Posted in Biography, Documentary, Music with tags on August 26, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Note: Because I don’t want to lessen this documentary’s impact, this is spoiler free. As a result, my analysis isn’t as specific as I would like it to be. However what my review lacks in detail you will gain in enjoyment when you watch the film. And I beseech you, please watch this film. It should be noted these surprises can easily be discovered by casual research regarding the subject. Therefore avoid all articles (except this one of course).

PhotobucketTwo aficionados endeavor to discover what became of their favorite recording artist. Rodriguez was an American singer-songwriter from Detroit who released two albums: “Cold Fact” in 1970 and “Coming from Reality” in 1971. Both flopped in the U.S. Maybe it was the songs’ highly politicized message, the pervasive drug references, a failure of marketing or perhaps something else altogether. Why Rodriguez never connected with the American public is a question one may ask any entertainer of undeniable ability. His fate is not unlike the thousands of other talents who never make it. Except this tale is notably different. “Cold Fact” found its way into Cape Town, South Africa where it was warmly accepted by progressive Afrikaners rebelling against the government. Bootleg copies were made and spread rapidly amongst white South Africans who embraced his music as a soundtrack for the anti-apartheid movement. Yet these fans knew little about their idol’s life. One rumor claimed that he’d ended it by committing suicide on stage by setting himself ablaze.

The film’s narrative focuses more on the quest of two South African fans to make sense of what happened to this musical icon rather than in shedding light on the man himself. The search was spearheaded by an indie record store owner named Stephen Segerman and an investigative journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom back in the late 90s. Along the way we‘re treated to a generous helping of Rodriguez’ work. It becomes a saga of how a performer’s legacy can touch the lives of their listeners in ways they may never know. Rodriguez’ blend of folk and funk with a side of country seemed to fit perfectly within the psychedelic landscape of the early 70s. Bob Dylan is an obvious influence. If you enjoy his style of music, this soundtrack is a must.

Searching for Sugar Man presents an inspiring tale of one Sixto Diaz Rodriguez. He remains an enigmatic mystery even by the end of the feature. His face constantly shrouded by large sunglasses and a mane of black hair. It spoils nothing to say the two fans featured do ultimately uncover the truth. As promised, the unexpected developments will not be revealed here. The documentary can be seen as a meditation on the unpredictable tastes of the masses. Why musicians can sell millions of records in one country and be virtually ignored in another. Rodriguez story is a fascinating one. This is a movie for anyone who has ever toiled in obscurity doing something they loved without recognition or success. An uplifting docudrama that celebrates the joy of a human life.

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