Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Documentary December Quick Picks and Pans


Night and Fog Poster

Night and Fog (1956) 10 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, French filmmaker Alain Resnais revisited the grounds of the infamous concentration camp. The bucolic, tranquil surroundings (filmed in color), belie the fact that this was once the backdrop for some of the greatest atrocities perpetrated in the 20th century. The buildings are dilapidated and covered in overgrown foliage, but the stories remain, like a wound that refuses to heal. Through archival footage and stills, Resnais illustrates through visuals and narration (written by concentration camp survivor Jean Cayrol) how the Nazis set out to systematically extinguish the people they deemed undesirable. The film’s scant 30-minute length tells a sobering, heart-wrenching true-life horror story that no imaginary tale could ever match. It’s a difficult, but all-too-necessary watch, filled with imagery that will remain burned into my cerebral cortex forever. 

Rating: *****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Paris is Burning_Poster1a

Paris is Burning (1990) Director Jennie Livingston’s film about the drag pageant scene in 1980s New York is joyous and depressing in equal parts. Amidst poverty, abuse, and bigotry, there’s one place where the African American and Latino LGBTQ+ community can live out their fantasies. We meet the members of several “houses,” getting acquainted with their differing styles and philosophies. Despite the myriad conflicts and personal tragedies, the overarching message is a positive one, depicting people embracing their true selves. While it’s a snapshot of a different era, the issues and themes are still just as salient now. Although fashions change, hate and discrimination, unfortunately, never seem to go out of style. In an era of increasing divisiveness and diminishing compassion, this should be required viewing for high school students (and anyone who wants to expand their consciousness). 

Rating: ****½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD


Anvil! The Story of Anvil Poster

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008) Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner (no relation to that Rob Reiner) started a heavy metal band as teenagers and toured with some of the biggest names in the business in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Fame, however, has always eluded them. Now in their early fifties, they’re desperately trying to gather the cash necessary to produce another album, and hopefully another shot at the big time. Their disastrous European tour and squabbles in the recording studio beg inevitable comparisons to This is Spinal Tap, but their story rises above mere self-parody. Above all else it’s about persistence in the face of numerous setbacks and personal hardship; sticking with their childhood dreams, when common sense dictates they should have quit long ago. Director Sacha Gervasi hits all the right buttons in this surprisingly nuanced, sympathetic profile. While it might not make you a fan of their music, it’ll make you a believer in never abandoning your ideals. 

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD


The Howlin' Wolf Story Poster

The Howlin’ Wolf Story: The Secret History of Rock ‘n Roll (2003) This low-key, informative documentary covers the life and career of blues legend Chester Burnett, best known as “Howlin’ Wolf,” told through interviews with the people who knew him best. The film chronicles his humble childhood beginnings in the South, followed by his rise to fame in Chicago. One thing that sets this documentary apart from many others is that it doesn’t just play snippets of his music, but complete songs, allowing his work to speak for itself. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime (Freevee)

Sickies Making Films Poster

Sickies Making Films (2018) This film’s eye-catching title comes from a quote by Mary Avara, who led the locally appointed Maryland State Board of Censors (the last state in the U.S. to have such a committee). We hear recollections from scholars and filmmakers (including Baltimore-based filmmaker John Waters) about some of the struggles with the board’s decisions, many of which were often arbitrary. It’s a fascinating examination of artistic expression versus artistic hindrance.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Kanopy


Lucha Mexico Poster

Lucha Mexico (2016) Documentarians Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz follow the colorful world of Lucha Libre, the professional wrestling circuit in Mexico. We learn the good, the bad, and the ugly about the wrestling scene, through interviews with some of the heavy hitters, including Shocker (aka: 1000% Guapo), Blue Demon Jr., and Sexy Star. It’s a profession that many pursue, but few succeed, exacting a tremendous mental and physical toll. If you thought everything in the ring was fake, this might change your mind. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD, Tubi and Kino Cult 


Diving Into the Unknown Poster

Diving into the Unknown (2016) Director Juan Reina provides an exclusive glimpse into a hidden part of our world that most of us will probably never see. We meet a Finnish group of divers who participate in one of the most hazardous sports on the planet: exploring underwater caverns. After a tragic incident in Norway that left two of their friends dead, the remaining team of divers embark on a perilous (and illegal) mission to recover the bodies. Diving Into the Unknown benefits from some claustrophobic cinematography, giving us a taste of what it must be like to enter these dark, foreboding, underwater crevices. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Tubi

Filmed in Supermarionation Poster

Filmed in Supermarionation (2014) Lady Penelope and her faithful butler Parker host an affectionate look at Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s puppetry process, dubbed “Supermarionation.” From the late ‘50s to the late ‘60s, their television shows (including Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet), became a ubiquitous fixture on British television, featuring increasingly innovative and elaborate effects. Gerry and Sylvia (along with several of the cast and crew members who collaborated with them) share their memories about the numerous challenges of their productions. As an officially sanctioned documentary, Filmed in Supermarionation glosses over some of the behind-the-scenes drama, but it’s an amusing, informative tour for casual and die-hard fans alike. 

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Tubi

Heavy Petting Poster

Heavy Petting (1989) Obie Benz and Joshua Waletzky piece together attitudes and recollections about sex from children of the ‘50s. David Byrne, Sandra Bernhard, Abbie Hoffman, and others recollect their early (and frequently awkward) sexual experiences, contrasting the “wholesome” Hollywood image of the era. Interspersed between the interviews are clips from several vintage instructional films that reinforce the push-pull between antiquated morality and the exploration of sexual boundaries. 

Rating: ***½. Available on Amazon Prime 


Project Grizzly Poster

Project Grizzly (1996) This is the story of one-of-a-kind Canadian eccentric Troy Hurtubise,* on a quest to build the perfect grizzly-proof suit. At great personal expense (and physical risk), he puts the latest iteration, the “Ursus Mark VI,” through its paces. Sporting a stylized mullet, red beret, and buckskin jacket, the fast-talking Hurtubise comes across as something between a shyster and a shaman. If you crossed a goofy inventor with a would-be commando, and a used car salesman, you might get something like him. Whether he succeeds or fails is less relevant than getting the chance to spend 90 minutes with this one-of-a-kind crackpot. 

* Not-So-Fun-Fact: Hurtubise survived the death-defying exploits with various versions of the Ursus suit (including a confrontation with a grizzly in 2001), only to meet his demise in a car crash in 2018. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Burden of Dreams


Burden of Dreams Poster

(1982) Directed by Les Blank; Written by Michael Goodwin (Narration); Narrated by Candace Laughlin; Starring: Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Mick Jagger; Available on DVD 

Rating: ****½ 


Werner Herzog

“When I came back to Germany, and I had to hold all the investors together, they said to me, ‘Well, how can you continue? Do you have the strength or the will or the enthusiasm?’ And I said, ‘How can you ask this question? If I abandoned this project, I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project.’” – Werner Herzog (on continuing with the film after production came to a halt) 

There are times when the story behind the film eclipses the film itself. Les Blank’s remarkable documentary Burden of Dreams is such an example. Much more than a “making of” feature, Burden of Dreams chronicles the arduous journey that Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) took, from pre-production to shooting. It’s a tale of obsession, hubris and persistence, as Herzog faces every imaginable conflict along the way: man against the elements, man against man, and man against himself

Mick Jagger and Jason Robards

Fitzcarraldo was plagued with problems from the start, with the filmmaker setting up camp in the wrong place at the wrong time, amidst a tribal land dispute in Peru. Tensions reached a critical point, due to mistrust by the indigenous population of Aguaruna people, which fueled baseless rumors of atrocities committed by Herzog and crew. Fearing for their safety if they remained in the region, the team of filmmakers were forced to flee, and their camp was burned to the ground by the tribe. But the problems didn’t end there. Production eventually resumed in another Peruvian location, with Jason Robards* in the title role of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (aka: “Fitzcarraldo”), and Mick Jagger as his sidekick Wilbur. With 40 percent of shooting completed, Robards contracted amoebic dysentery, again, forcing everything to a screeching halt. Jagger, due to other professional obligations (i.e., The “Tattoo You” album and tour), left the project. Herzog and crew returned to the Amazon for another attempt to film his story, now with Klaus Kinski*/**/*** in the lead (his fourth collaboration with Herzog). 

* Fun Fact #1: At one point, Herzog considered Jack Nicholson for the main character, but considered other options after 20th Century Fox made too many demands (including shooting in a studio and using a model for Fitzcarraldo’s ship). 

** Fun Fact #2: According to the film’s editor, Maureen Gosling, the ever-mercurial, self-centered Kinski, became jealous over the attention given to his co-star, José Lewgoy, and sequestered himself in his hut. 

*** Fun Fact #3: As a last resort, Herzog considered casting himself as Fitzcarraldo.


Herzog and Ship

A new camp was constructed when production eventually resumed two years later in northeastern Peru. Members of the Machiguenga and Ashaninka (or Campa) tribes provided labor, while many served as extras. Filming in a remote jungle location, far from the vestiges of urban life, presented many logistical challenges. Supplies were flown in by small airplanes, and on-site medics provided first aid – a necessity when two indigenous extras were hit by arrows fired by members of a rival tribe. By far, however, the biggest hurdle was Herzog’s insistence on pulling a real steamship up a mountain (which Herzog asserted was the central metaphor of his film).* Two vintage turn-of-the-century ships stood in for the SS Molly Aida – one would endure the treacherous Amazonian rapids, while the other was slated to be dragged uphill. Convinced that the attempt to drag a 100-plus-ton ship up a mountain would end in tragedy, the Brazilian engineer left the project, and was subsequently replaced by a Peruvian engineer (Mini spoiler: Thankfully, the feat was accomplished without serious injury or loss of life). 

* Fun Fact #4: Herzog wanted audiences to be able to “trust their eyes again,” rather than be fooled by effects trickery.

Worker with Travolta Shirt

Unlike the film’s colorful subject, Herzog (who often placed himself front-and-center in his own documentaries), Les Blank chose a more unobtrusive style, preferring to stay out of the frame. Suiting his more introverted nature, Blank tried to keep interference to a minimum, allowing the behind-the-scenes drama to unfold, rather than forcing conflict. According to Herzog, Blank seemed to intuitively recognize when a significant, filmable moment would emerge.

Woman with Knife

Considering the mental and physical toll on Fitzcarraldo’s cast and crew, one might wonder if any movie is worth the strife. Seven people died during the production, although none of those deaths (including a plane crash and a drowning) were directly related to filming. As three months turned into six months, spirits soured among the indigenous laborers and cast members,* many of whom were away from their families, and unfamiliar with living in such close quarters over a protracted amount of time. All the while, living conditions, with regard to food and sanitation continued to erode. In a 2005 interview Herzog lamented being vilified by some human rights groups and critics for exploiting the indigenous people.** He attested that he paid three times the going rate for indigenous workers in Peru (which was undoubtedly a pittance, compared to workers performing the same jobs in the U.S. and Europe). In the end, it’s open to debate whether he provided gainful employment or just wanted to benefit from cheap labor. 

* Fun Fact #5: As most of the indigenous extras/workers were male, the filmmakers hired female prostitutes to (ahem) elevate the morale in the camp. 

** Fun Fact #6: To Herzog’s credit, he was instrumental in helping the Machiguengas secure a land title.

Ship Pulled Up a Mountain

Werner Herzog’s excellent 1999 documentary My Best Fiend (which incorporated some footage from Burden of Dreams), covered his often tumultuous professional relationship with actor Klaus Kinski, and clearly paints the director as a victim. Blank took a more balanced approach, with Herzog’s endeavors as the central focus, but there are many other factors at play. Burden of Dreams at once paints a nuanced portrait of a filmmaker bordering on megalomania and a man going to great lengths to realize his vision (much like the character, Fitzcarraldo). Whether you consider Herzog schlepping a ship up a mountain an engineering marvel or folly, it crystallizes the Sisyphean struggle that most creative people face to some extent. Similarly, negotiating the Amazonian rapids (the “Pongo de los Muertos”), symbolizes an uncompromising artist navigating his way through a world of meddling studio executives, Hollywood sycophants and diminished expectations. Herzog asserts that we need to embrace our dreams to make ourselves whole. Without them, we are merely shadows of ourselves.


Sources for this article: Criterion DVD commentary by Les Blank, Maureen Gosling and Werner Herzog; “Dreams and Burdens,” 2005 interview with Werner Herzog 


Sunday, December 4, 2022

The Third Man

The Third Man Poster

(1949) Directed by Carol Reed; Screenplay by Graham Greene; Based on a novella by Graham Greene; Starring: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Paul Hörbiger, Ernst Deutsch, Erich Ponto; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ***** 

“Carol Reed is the kind of director who’ll use any ideas – anything that’s going. I had notions for the dialogue, and Carol liked them. Except for my rather minor contribution, the story, of course, was by the matchless Graham Greene. And the basic idea – though he took no credit for it – was Alex Korda’s.” – Orson Welles (excerpted from This Is Orson Welles, by Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich)

Harry Lime

Not every monster has sharp teeth and claws, or glowing red eyes, yet they’re monsters all the same. The Third Man features a monster of a different sort – Harry Lime. As portrayed by the incomparable Orson Welles, man and monster are inseparable. While Lime doesn’t even make his appearance until an hour into the film, his presence is felt throughout. As preparation for his novella and subsequent screenplay adaptation, Graham Greene visited Vienna for a first-hand view of the city’s people, culture and nightclubs. Director Carol Reed shot the film mainly on location,*/** except for a sewer set*** that was built in Shepperton Studios. 

* Fun Fact #1: Shooting was divided into three units, day, night and sewer, which ran nearly 24 hours a day, six days a week. Reed insisted on directing all three, and would spend Sundays catching up on sleep. His secret? Benzedrine. Maybe it’s just me, but wouldn’t “Carol Reed on Speed” make a terrific band name?   

** Fun Fact #2: James Bond fans, take note: Bernard Lee (Q) co-stars as Sergeant Paine, and Assistant Director Guy Hamilton went on to direct several films featuring Agent 007. 

*** Fun Fact #3: Welles was reputedly so disgusted after a day of shooting in Vienna’s sewers, that he refused to return to the damp (and rank-smelling) location, necessitating the construction of an elaborate set in England.  

Holly Martins

Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten),* an American writer of pulp novels, arrives amidst the ruins and rubble of postwar Vienna (a city under the shared jurisdiction of American, British, French and Russian troops) to meet his friend, Harry Lime, who promised him a job. Unfortunately for the penniless Martins, he’s arrived a day too late, as he learns that Lime was killed in a freak pedestrian accident – Or was he? Plagued by doubt, and fueled by Lime’s evasive friends and business associates, he sets out to find the truth. One palpable link is Lime’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who seems to know more than she’s telling. The more he learns about Lime’s shady dealings (thanks to the unflappable Major Calloway, who oversees the British sector of the city), the less allegiance he feels toward his old chum. As the weight of his conscience bears down, Matins is faced with the unenviable task of helping to turn in his best friend to the authorities. 

* Fun Fact #4: Reed reportedly wanted James Stewart to play the role of Holly Martins.


Harry Lime

Although The Third Man is arguably Joseph Cotten’s movie, it’s impossible to downplay Orson Welles’ significance in the film. Outside of the role of Charles Foster Kane, Harry Lime is among Welles’ most memorable performances. When Lime finally appears in the film, what an entrance it is, as he emerges from the shadows, with a roguish gleam in his eye, grinning like a cat who devoured a canary. Behind that amiable façade, however, is an amoral, calculating profiteer who ghoulishly preys on the city’s most vulnerable residents (dealing in diluted penicillin). When Martins confronts Lime about the ramifications of his business dealings, Lime (in the film’s most chilling speech) glibly defends his actions. From their vantage point atop the city’s giant Ferris wheel,* Lime casually gestures toward the people below, wandering the amusement park’s macadam. To him, they’re insignificant “dots,” who signify money and nothing else. It’s only fitting that he trades his lofty position for the sewers **/*** in the film’s climactic chase scene, emblematic of the depths that he’s sunk. 

* Fun Fact #5: The historic 212-foot Wiener Reisenrad Ferris wheel was built in 1897, and refurbished in 1947. The enduring Vienna landmark is still operating today.  

** Fun Fact #6: One of the most popular (and unlikely) tourist attractions in Vienna is the guided tour of the sewers, appropriately called, “The Third ManTour.”  

*** Fun Fact #7: In the famous shot of Lime’s fingers poking out of the sewer grate, the writhing digits belonged to director Reed, not Welles.

Anna and Holly

Anton Karas’ infectious zither score is arguably just as iconic as Welles’ famous entrance. Discovered in a Vienna heuriger (wine tavern),* the diminutive musician and his instrument captivated Carol Reed. Despite studio objections, the director insisted on ditching the conventional symphonic score, in favor of Karas’ music. The results bring an immediacy to the story, evoking aural imagery of old, pre-war Vienna. At the same time, the score, alternately mournful and joyous, captures the flavor of a present-day city divided physically, ideologically and morally. 

* Fun Fact #8: The formerly unknown zither artist rose to the top of the charts in the U.K. and U.S. with his “The Third Man Theme.” He used some of his newfound riches to open up his own wine tavern, appropriately named Zum Dritten Mann (aka: “The Third Man.”).

Major Calloway and Holly Martins

Ambivalence is a driving theme that runs throughout The Third Man. Not only Lime, but all the principal characters operate in shades of gray, tipping the balance between selfishness and altruism. The people of postwar Vienna act out of desperation and necessity, with many residents resorting to all sorts of schemes and petty larceny to get by. Lime’s friends embody this prevailing cynicism, with no one’s motives entirely pure. It’s easier to look away than get involved. But some crimes are far from victimless. Martins is presented with a grim reminder of the stakes he’s playing by initially defending Lime. En route to the airport, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) takes him on a detour to visit a ward full of children dying from meningitis – collateral damage from Harry Lime’s scheme. In this heart-wrenching scene, the children are never seen, but their pain and suffering are felt through the dour expressions of Martins and Calloway. A pile of discarded teddy bears drives the message home.

Harry Lime, on the run

So, who is Harry Lime? He’s a profiteer – no, an entrepreneur. He’s a loyal friend – no, your worst enemy. He has all the answers – no, he has none of them. He’s cold-hearted – no, he’s a realist. But let’s not belabor the point. Above all, he’s a charmer. The thing that makes him so appalling is that he’s so appealing. His friends and acquaintances are ready to accept whatever he says as fact. His casual air of authority provides no time to question the veracity of his claims. Perhaps the most monstrous thing about him is that he makes it too easy to see a little bit of ourselves, at our darkest. While you won’t likely find The Third Man on any lists of monster movies, perhaps it should be.


Sources for this article: Who Was the Third Man? (2000 documentary), “Insider Information,” Criterion DVD supplement; This Is Orson Welles, by Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich (1992); The Amusement Park, by Stephen M. Silverman (2019)