Archive for the ‘Biodoc’ Category


24 Jun

Maudie—directed by Aisling Walsh. Biopic. 1 hour 55 minutes. Color 2017.
The Story: A crippled girl as the housemaid of a bad-tempered fisherman becomes a renowned painter.

Ethan Hawke is an actor less interesting than the vehicles in which he appears. His intelligence in choosing those vehicles has kept him before the public far longer than his talent warrants, but, God bless him, it has also brought those vehicles before a public that without him would never see them.

This is no small credit in his favor. So is the fact that he has kept his movie star figure. And he seems to have all his hair. Good.

My difficulty with him lies partly in the smug conformation of his mouth. And partly that he employs his mouth like a footman opening the front door as though he were lord of the manor. He uses it to semaphore thought, attitude, emotion, which tumult is always a sign of bad acting.

In this piece he uses his mouth to retain a vantage point of gruffness which is with us through thirty years of story. This is the Harrison Ford/Woody Harrelson School Of Acting. One never gets behind the gesticulation of the mouth. Yet here he is, holding the fort for an actor better than he, in this case Sally Hawkins.

Sally Hawkins plays Maudie Lewis, a young woman dismissed for a physical deformity, since her feet don’t work as others’ feet do and she has a cruel arthritis. She becomes the housekeeper of his tiny house, and, in time, despite his abuse of her, she become a renowned painter.

She’s an odd duck, and, while Hawkins overplays her, as a written character Maudie is impudent and fun, which saves her. Hawkins performance of her is also saved by the same thing that somewhat sinks her performance, Hawkins’ mastery of detail. This excess of detail is designed to pull in pathos, which is unwanted as a narrative fuel in this material, because the film is not about their relationship or about her so much as it is about how art, in this case painting, takes over the lives of everyone connected with it.

It is a rare movie for this reason. Most movies about painters have to do with the inadequately understood greatness of an artist. Fiddlesticks! It is not the painter that is of importance, it is the paintings, and these do not require a dramatic film of any sort.

The drama inheres in the fallacy that the big mean husband is in control, as he claims, over the poor trembling wife. He demands absolute leadership as the owner and head of the house and the male and healthy. And it looks like the weak cripple female must succumb and follow and abide.

But the drama behind this display of violence and subjection to it lies another drama, which is not stated even once but which subconsciously claims our interest, and that is the drama not of “Who leads?” but of “What leads?”

This being a movie of a certain length, mustn’t the woman lead in the final reel? Mustn’t the poor-put-upon cripple have her day? Mustn’t the underdog rise triumphant?

It’s a natural assumption, one born out of the convention in many movies. We expect it. We wish for it. But what lies behind this surface drama is the truth, not that love prevails between these two backward misfits, which it does, but rather that the love that prevails is Maud’s love, not of him, but of her soul’s relation to painting, that is to say of work, that is to say of her sacred calling.

This is the drama that unfolds like an unanticipated flower. Its theme is never stated. And this tacit suspense is what grips the audience as they await for what they do not know. For what really leads is Maud’s campaign to paint. That’s what leads and that’s what follows, all the way through. The battle in the film is not the battle for love, but for leadership, not of male over female power, nor of the power of one character over another, health over disability. The husband thinks he’s fighting Maud, but he’s not. Maud is not fighting him. She’s fighting to paint, but never tells. So he is outflanked.

This leader-theme seems to emerge unwittingly under the director Aisling Walsh’s hands. She tells Maud Lewis’s story well: the house is convincing, the landscape is convincing, the other actors are convincing, the story is convincing, and Ethan Hawke himself has passages in which he too is beautifully convincing. There is not a moment in which one’s attention is not held. We enter a small world from which emerges a large and radiant beauty.

The signal error of the film is that we never see Maud Lewis’s paintings plain. The color pallet of the film is muted. But the color pallet of the actual Maud Lewis paintings was brash, bright, and gay. Her pictures should have been brought forward at the end, boldly once, so we could see them in their vigor, vividness, and truth. What an unexpected, indeed astounding contrast they would have made to the dull brutality she endured and the dire pressures of her relation with her husband.

Still, the film’s value transcends its defects by miles. Those defects stand out in this review, but they do not stand out when you see the picture. Instead you rejoice in what is there, just as Maud did in her paintings when she made them.



02 Oct

Hal—directed by Amy Scott. Biodoc. 90 minutes. Color 2018.
The Story: Film director Hal Ashby’s renegade work prospered in the ‘70s, and how that came to pass and what Ashby was like remain key to indie production and the culture of film as we now know it.
He is not a particularly inviting figure surrounded as he is by the walls of an impenetrable cloud of pot and a vast beard.

But certain of his films remain marvelous. And the marvel of the man himself is made plain by the stories of accomplished actors and professionals whose performances still come to life before us.

Some of his work never did hold water—Harold and Maud and Being There—but The Last Detail, Shampoo, and Coming Home are vivid and valid as the day they were made.

Ashby did not fit into the Hollywood mold because no one worked so hard at his craft as he did or cared about it more.

And we hear his qualifications from every side: Roseanne Arquette, Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern, John Voight, Lee Grant, Jeff and Beau Bridges, Lou Gossett, Dustin Hoffman. They all say not just how wonderful as a director he was but how wonderful he was as an individual to make a workplace heaven to be in. Cinemaphotographer Haskell Wexler, a difficult party if ever there was one, says the same, and so does director Norman Jewison.

Well, here’s a secret worth knowing for us all.

How did he do it? Probably because he loved all aspects of movie-making.

Except for the suits in the front office. Here he seemed to have behaved like a hippie fool—writing them rude letters, stamping his foot, and being puerile. He might have taken a tip from George Stevens and simply walked away from them and thus gotten to do what he wanted from the beginning.

After his successful decade, we hear about his last six films, all failures, although I still want to see them.

What became of Hal Ashby personally? I don’t know. Oh, he died of pancreatic cancer aged 59, but that’s not what I mean. Perhaps what happened to him was that he was a drug addict and that is why his work after Being There was unsuccessful. I don’t really know.

What I do know is that certain of his pictures have stayed in my heart, and I wanted to do what I could to find as much as I could about the human who arranged that for me all those years ago.

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Posted in Biodoc, DOCUMENTARY


Three Intimate Strangers

14 Jul

Three Intimate Strangers – directed by Tim Wardle. Documentary. 96 minutes Color 2018.
The Story: At nineteen, three young men discover they were separated at birth as identical triplets and, in the years since that reunion, also learn the odd circumstances of their separation.
Once united, the boys immediately fall all over one another like puppies, and the ebullience of their meeting leads them to appearances in newspapers and magazines and on TV. They become celebrities. They are given a free pass. They have a grand old time as energetic, good-looking, young males painting the town red. Before long, they marry and go into business together.

Then the story behind their separation starts to stir. One suspicious oddity after another rises to the surface. They appear to have been the subjects of an unwise and foolish scientific experiment.

Unwise because no imagination was given to the traumatic effect of thoughtlessly wrenching apart three identical infants who had lain together in the same crib for six months.

Foolish because the separation was planned in order to compare three different child-rearing styles in a nature-versus-nurture experiment.

Nature-versus-nurture is a shallow ground for research, or even speculation, because, from the start, it overlooks the determining and more interesting factors of the boys’ inherent individuality. The young men gleefully recount that they smoke the same cigarettes, all wrestled in high school, and prefer somewhat older women. But the traits that make them similar soon appear as circumstantial. They were actually quite different.

Rather than exploring those differences, Three Intimate Strangers becomes dire and sinister in the forcing of their story in the direction of their victimhood only. The word “intimate” fades. Instead the documentary starts to level blame.

Rewarding as that is, I wished to know about their lives separate from their being triplets and about the lives of their children. What is these men’s current happiness? What are their callings? Where are they today in relation to one another? But the film sticks to its guns in a way that make one realize that they really are guns, pointed and firing all in one direction.

Of course, the real difficulty for the film is that we, its audience, have no other way to grasp these identical triplets save looking at them as physically identical. Three humans looking the same prejudices us. It blinds us to anything but the sight of three walking mirrors. That’s natural. What’s initially astonishing dominates. But looking alike, acting similarly, and talking the same way is trivial. Although we ourselves don’t realize it, we become immediately bogusly scientific. “Inside, they are also the same.”

Wrong conclusion.

Wrong pronoun.

Because they look identical and because the young men are beguiling, it’s hard not to be lured into and to remain inside of cheap speculation about them – them – not as individuals but as freaks, that is to say, always as triplets.

But the real reason God made triplets is to show that everyone has a distinct soul.

Still, the film remains fascinating and unexpected at every corner. You wake up the next day and think of its unfinished mood, its grievance. Three Intimate Strangers sticks to your ribs, but it’s not quite digestible. Nonetheless, without being satisfying, it is remarkable in letting one meet these three delightful individuals, and also the people, intelligent and varied and vivid, who are engaged with their upbringing, their case, and their individual stories.

Three Intimate Strangers was heavily advertised in my city, and, as soon as I heard of it, I wanted to go. For, when I was a kid, something about identical twins used to snare and frighten me. Was there someone on earth exactly like me? I used to wish there were. But it was a wish born of a desire for retribution and vanished with time. Besides, my doppelganger might have proved to be as flawed as I am myself.

So I went to Three Intimate Strangers – as to visit an old friend – a ghost of myself whom, still and all, I had never yet met.

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Posted in Biodoc, DOCUMENTARY


I Am Not Your Negro

18 Feb

I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck. BioDoc. 93 minutes B & W & Color 2107.


The Story:  A record of the teachings of a black writer of mid-20th Century.


I Am Not Your Negro is to be hit by a stone wall.

Not to hit a stone wall — but to be hit by one.

The title tells it all. Rude, offensively defensive, blaming, dismissive, off-putting, denunciatory. Thus James Baldwin.

A personality ingratiating nothing.

Odd for a preacher. For, from age 14 to 17 James Baldwin was a boy preacher in his father’s church in Harlem. Preachers are usually outgoing, giving, capacious in their embrace. I can’t imagine how James Baldwin could have succeeded if this is the way he spoke.

Unlike William Buckley Junior whom, in his mental and verbal dexterity he so resembles, he speaks so fast that he runs his words together that your ears must be swift as deer’s to catch them.

“I don’t give a shit about you or what you think,” is his stance, his affect, and his message, as with Buckley. And it lodges in the title of this well organized and presented documentary of him.

“I don’t give a shit about you” tells you that things have come to such a pass between black and white populations – or rather, in modern American society, its values, practices, finances, and laws – that all America is worth is The Finger. He will deign to give utterance upon these matters, if pressed.

I lived near Harlem during the years Baldwin returned to America to research and write of the Black movement. But I was drawn to not one single leader of it. I didn’t like Martin Luther King Junior’s face, style, churchy rhetoric. I was largely ignorant of the program of The Black Panthers – partly because of the name, which was threatening to me. And Malcolm X’s name frightened me, too; so did the way he dressed and the demonic mask of him in photographs.

My strong prejudice in favor of Black folks was established in childhood, and my work on behalf of Black folks did not take the form of political or group protest. So it would be disingenuous of me to claim I needed a banner to follow. Malcom X, time proved, was the most attractive to me of these idealist-activists, but I only learned that after his assassination by reading about him. While he lived I feared him. As to James Baldwin, I read his novel Giovanni’s Room which I felt was so badly written, I didn’t feel like reading any more. I still don’t.

I do not like James Baldwin and I do not take American society at his measure. But what this documentary offers to me is the brilliant slap in the face of Baldwin’s highly sensitized emotional instrument. The terrible truth of what he says may apply to him only. Even so, it counts. I sat in an audience of Berkeley liberals; they applauded afterwards. Baldwin would have smirked in their faces at this. Applause settles nothing, dismisses everything.

What this documentary offers me is an ongoing screed. One which settles nothing, dismisses nothing. One which is curse and blessing in one. One which keeps afloat the shipwreck of injustice. One which rails at us and will not shut up because it is so indifferent to what our response is that it presents the negative situation as a permanent heroic statue in the public park of our lives. Liberal good will and applause do not make James Baldwin go away.

Death did not make James Baldwin go away. Here’s evidence. Here’s the situation.

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Posted in Biodoc, POLITICAL


Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

14 Dec

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – directed by Alison Klayman. Biodoc. 91 minutes Color 2012.


The Story: A world famous artist also works on human rights in his native China, much to the chagrin of the government and for the love of the Chinese people.


I have recently and for the first time seen Gandhi, and in doings so was reminded of Ai Weiwei whose calm and whose shrewdness match Gandhi’s in so many ways.

Weiwei’s artwork is striking and different and rich. Much of it, because of its vast size, is executed by assistants. Gandhi sat and spun cloth.

These men’s utterance is simple, authentic, and direct. Their moves are crafty and bold. For instance, after being released from arrest Weiwei is not allowed to speak to the press or give interviews. What does he do? On the way into his home, he speaks to the reporters. All he says is, “The terms of my parole forbid me from giving interviews,” but look how many times he says it. Of course, he says it to every reporter who says anything to him. But what a proclamation against gagging, what a fire alarm against loss of free speech! And consider how thoroughly it was televised when it happened. Of course, within a few weeks he is talking out again.

I can’t recommend this documentary more firmly, not just because of his art and his work, but because we experience him as a personality, persistent, simple, true. How rare! What a privilege to visit with him here.




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