A month ago, Dennis Lim had a piece in the New York Times on the emergence of films "that could be said to blur or thwart or simply ignore the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, staking out instead a productive liminal zone in between." A day after Casey Affleck fessed up to the NYT's Michael Cieply — his I'm Still Here (roundup) is a performance piece, he now says, an exercise in "gonzo-filmmaking," which is to say, Joaquin Phoenix was just pretending to lose it for a year — a batch of films opens in theaters that probe more interesting corners of that "liminal zone." Also in this roundup: your straightforward docs.
"Vividly capturing a vanished New York milieu and a persistent human phenomenon, Lionel Rogosin's landmark, independently produced On the Bowery retains its 'semi-documentary' qualifier on mostly academic terms," writes Bill Weber in Slant. "If other films shot on location with nonprofessional actors meet the standard of soulful nonfiction, few have approached On the Bowery's achievement: empathy without sentimentality, craft without contrivance, and an unflinching eye that sees individuals striving for dignity to neutralize everyday pain. Beyond mere grit, it catches the joys and camaraderie of a skid-row drinking life as well as the daily bitterness, betrayals, and humiliations."
"A vérité version of The Iceman Cometh's barrelhouse swoon, On the Bowery is a tumbler-shot of Walker Evans blues," writes Michael Atkinson in the Voice. "Often, Rogosin approaches the queasy compromises of Frederick Wiseman's insane asylum doc, Titicut Follies — these howling alkies can hardly be held responsible for themselves — but there's no arguing with the film's veracity or commitment. Film Forum is also showing a new, orthodox making-of doc directed by Rogosin's son, Michael, which answers many questions despite the fact that most of Bowery's participants, cast, and crew, are long dead from drink."
"What may be most remarkable about Rogosin is how so many currents of the cinema in his time seem to intersect through his small body of work," notes Nick Pinkerton in Reverse Shot. "[H]e looked back to De Sica and Rossellini; he was friendly with a young Cassavetes, who would remain a fervent admirer; Lindsay Anderson, holding forth on the germination of the British Free Cinema, would recall Rogosin arriving in London in 1955 with On the Bowery, and securing him a National Film Theatre showing that won the picture distribution. His sophmore effort, Come Back, Africa, shot on the sly in Johannesberg, came from a collaboration with black Sophiatown literary lights Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane of Drum magazine; the result crystallizes a short-lived Renaissance and is a cherished relic of African intellectual culture. Rogosin was also owner of Greenwich Village's 200-seat Bleecker Street Cinema, purchased in 1962 with his considerable personal fortune, so goes the story, as a showcase for Come Back, Africa when no other New York cinema was receptive to screening it on his terms."
More from Steven Boone (Capital New York), David Fear (Time Out New York), Darrell Hartman (Artforum) and Michael Joshua Rowin (L). Rob Hollander, cofounder of the Lower East Side History Project, and Michael Rogosin are guests on the Leonard Lopate Show.
"In The Anchorage, which plays for a week at Anthology Film Archives," writes the L's Mark Asch, "Ulla Edström — mother of the photographer Anders Edström, who codirected with CW Winter — plays a middle-aged woman much like herself; we spend three late-autumn days not so much watching as falling into the rhythm of her life on an island off Sweden's Baltic coast."
It's another "hybrid of nonfiction observation and narrative filmmaking (both terms being applied very, very loosely)," notes Time Out New York's David Fear. "Audiences with infinite patience and no need for linear storytelling do get an intimate tour of The Anchorage's picturesque island off the coast of Stockholm, its landscapes lensed with loving appreciation. Past that, the experience of sitting through Ulla's daily routines yields little more than a travelogue and a vaguely contemplative vibe."
The Voice's J Hoberman argues that it "uses a narrative structure introduced to more powerful effect 35 years ago in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman," but Ricky D'Ambrose, writing in Slant, finds that "one often feels that Winter and Edström's lingering images, and their conspicuous interest in what lays beyond the foreground, are also partial responses to Akerman's own influences, notably the Michael Snow of Wavelength and Back and Forth. Characters in The Anchorage (and there are few of them) are wont to wander in and out of frames, a choice that suggests something more pertinent, more interesting, and perhaps more meaningful at the far end of the action."
More from Mike Hale (NYT), Daniel Kasman (The Daily Notebook), Michael Joshua Rowin (Artforum) and James van Maanen.
"From the 'truth is stranger than fiction' file comes Catfish, a documentary about three New York artists (Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, and Schulman's brother Nev) who learn that the family of fans they've been talking to online may not be who they say they are," begins Noel Murray at the AV Club. The story that unfolds is "absolutely riveting, and even nerve-wracking as Joost and the Schulmans get progressively closer to learning more about their 'friends.' What they find is partly what viewers will expect, but partly not, and it's to the movie's credit that its protagonists don't just debunk and run; they stick around long enough to learn more about what's really going on, and why."
In the Voice, Karina Longworth notes that when Catfish premiered at Sundance, "a certain segment of the audience — hip to the current trend in quasi-nonfiction (see: Exit Through the Gift Shop, I'm Still Here), wise to the ways of the Web, and wary of being conned — wasn't buying the festival and the filmmakers' assurances that this was not a work of fiction. After the first screening, documentary superstar Morgan Spurlock allegedly approached a member of Team Catfish and said, "That is the best fake documentary I've ever seen.'" But "Catfish's directors, their main subject, and others close to the film insist that nothing in the final cut was fabricated, staged, or re-created.... One of those filmmaker friends was Andrew Jarecki, director of Capturing the Friedmans — another controversial documentary sensation that started as one type of film and became another. 'I think the percentage of people that really believe you could make this up is pretty small,' says Jarecki, who started working with Henry and Rel in post-production and is credited as an executive producer on the film. 'Once you meet the boys, you realize that this is not Banksy — these boys are not the kind of guys that want to make some kind of PR sensation or trick the public.' My experience talking to 'the boys' fits with Jarecki's description."
"Catfish was built to charm, not indict, and on that front it makes for a diverting seriocomic wade into the pitfalls of Internet-based immediacy, and by extension, the manipulative mysteries of documentary assemblage," writes Robert Abele in the Los Angeles Times. "Whether you consider Nev a grinning magician's assistant or a smiling romantic, Schulman and Joost show an admirable respect for the power of willful enchantment, be it wrought from an identikit-friendly cyberspace made to buttress lonely souls, or cinematic tools that have come to the aid of crafty storytellers for a lot longer."
More from Marjorie Baumgarten (Austin Chronicle), Richard Brody (New Yorker, more), David Edelstein (NPR), Nick Pinkerton (LA Weekly), Nick Schager, Andrew Schenker (Slant), AO Scott (NYT), Dana Stevens (Slate), Henry Stewart (L), Keith Uhlich (TONY) and James van Maanen. Interviews with the Schulmans: Kimberley Jones (Austin Chronicle) and Rebecca Milzoff (New York).
"In her feature debut, director Amy French gives a unique twist to a classic tale of a naïve entertainer's rocketing stardom and crass exploitation," writes Kevin Thomas in the LAT. El Súperstar: The Unlikely Rise of Juan Francés, "a loose-jointed mockumentary that is an amusing collaboration between French and her brother Spencer John French, draws upon their childhood in Beverly Hills, where their Mexican nanny had a large part in their upbringing."
For Chuck Bowen, writing in Slant, "El Súperstar is almost entirely unremarkable, but it has been made with an affection that is occasionally touching. Lupe Ontiveros and Danny Trejo, in particular, have an easy, believable chemistry that warms the film; and the Frenches have the good taste not to fuss over it, essentially congratulating themselves for their 'humanity' the way any number of fashionably feel-bad hard-knock minority movies tend to. El Súperstar is a bad movie you're sorta compelled to root for."
"A sweet antidote for the austerity blues, Kings of Pastry trots behind several finalists in the end stages of a quintessentially French competition — a contest to select an aristocracy among caterers to the discriminating sweet tooth." Ella Taylor for NPR: "[T]his contented little trifle of a film focuses on Chicago-based pastry chef and teacher Jacquy Pfeiffer as he returns to his native Alsace to practice the baking and presentation of a wedding cake (and related pastries) to a panel of judges. They will decide how many competitors will score the coveted red, white and blue collars awarded to des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France — the MOFs, or the Best Craftsmen of France."
"Best known for crafting current-events docs such as The War Room (1993), directors Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker certainly ferret out the story's political stratagems and military precision," writes Lisa Rosman in Time Out New York. "We see the participants plot, scrutinize timepieces, wield heavy artillery (like blowtorches) and mutter with a brittle camaraderie. But despite the colorful, epic dessert sculptures on display, the film isn't much to look at."
For Joseph Jon Lanthier, writing in Slant, "what defines Kings of Pastry most indelibly is its quietness. This aesthetic at first seems counter-intuitive for a film about patisserie, an art synonymous with the indulgence of guilty pleasures and the comfort of fattening stimuli." But "the philosophy of French pastry is antithetical to that of the American all-you-can-eat buffet: The goal is momentary sensual transcendence rather than arrogant surfeit, an end that, while more rewarding, requires an effortful flourish of puissance from both baker and ingester."
More from Melissa Anderson (Voice), Mike Hale (New York Times), Benjamin Mercer (L) and Nathan Rabin (AV Club). Interviews with Hegedus and Pennebaker: Steve Dollar (GreenCine Daily), Kristin Hohenadel (NYT), Melissa Silvestri (Filmmaker), Eric Hynes (Reverse Shot, video), Leonard Lopate (audio) and ST VanAirsdale (Movieline). At New York's Film Forum through September 28.
"It's rather astounding that Brad Beesley's documentary Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, at a lean, mean 90 minutes, manages to be about so much," writes John Sylva in the L Magazine. "Aside from its chronicling one of only two remaining US prison rodeos (yes, that's something), the film is a commentary on the treatment of incarcerated women in the state of Oklahoma, an inquiry into the fairness of long-term imprisonment for crimes committed years ago, and an expose on the damage done to children whose parents have forever devastated their families."
"Beesley's engaging doc is a far cry from his winsomely weird portrait of the Flaming Lips, The Fearless Freaks, and his equally bizarre but utterly unforgettable Okie Noodling," writes Marc Savlov in the Austin Chronicle (where Richard Whittaker interviews the director). "Sweethearts is more conventional a documentary in every regard, and at times it feels like a reality television pilot awaiting a weekly audience. That's not necessarily Beesley's fault, though; the possibly calculated subversion of classic 'documentary filmmaking' by 'reality television' has been going on at least since Cops hit the street (recall the Belgian faux-documentary Man Bites Dog?), and these days you're far more likely to find that Orson Welles' F for Fake-ry is more the order of the day than actual, Maysles- or Pennebaker-style, fly-on-the-wall cinema verité."
More from Michael Atkinson (Voice) and Paul Schrodt (Slant). At the IFC Center.
Rob Nelson in the Voice on GasLand: "With its jolting images of flammable tap water and chemically burned pets, New York theater-director-turned-documentarian Josh Fox's Sundance-feted shocker makes an irrefutable case against US corporate 'fracking' — the Haliburton-hatched scheme of natural gas drilling in and around the nation's shale basins." More from Joseph Jon Lanthier (Slant). At the IFC Center.
"A singular harmonic convergence is recounted in Music Makes a City, Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler’s enlightening documentary about how Louisville, KY, became a locus for contemporary music in the mid-20th century," writes Andy Webster in the NYT. "In striking synchronicity, a mayor, a conductor and a robust postwar generation of composers intersected to make the city a hub for visionary composition." More from Nick Schager (Voice). At New York's Quad Cinema.
"While the Red Campaign to fight AIDS in Africa may be all the rage with celebrities, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Susan Koch has chosen to train her lens on the unglamorous American city that has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in this country, one higher than that of many African nations," writes Lauren Wissot in Slant. "Her documentary The Other City is a fascinating and damning glimpse inside a parallel universe that exists right in the heart of our nation's capital, and a battle cry from the urban poor of Washington, DC." More from Michelle Orange in the Voice.
"Dr D Rutledge Taylor is serious about rehabilitating the reputation of the pesticide DDT so that it can be used more widely in the developing world to battle malaria," writes Neil Genzlinger in the New York Times. "But in 3 Billion and Counting, a documentary he has made on the subject, he undercuts his cause by adopting what seems like a disingenuous naïveté early in the film: he and his producer, Helene Udy, try to give the impression that they had never even heard of malaria until the day before yesterday. By the time they switch to no-nonsense advocacy, you’re unclear as to their credibility." At the Quad.
"In her personal diary/documentary Picture Me, supermodel Sara Ziff connects four years of footage shot by her boyfriend and co-director Ole Schell to explore this complex relationship between subject and viewer," writes Glenn Heath, Jr in Slant. "Unfortunately, neither Ziff nor Schell have the sort of knack for cinematic structure, pacing, or editing to handle the potentially weighty material, and their handheld exposé on the moral contradictions of a booming industry turns into a juvenile therapy session for a young woman in crisis."
In Antwerp, Belgium, "Extra City presents the early works of German experimental filmmaker and artist Heinz Emigholz. His work transcends institutional and artistic boundaries and disciplines. While today he is internationally acclaimed for his films portraying buildings by architects such as Adolf Loos, Rudolph Schindler and Bruce Goff, Emigholz played a decisive role in the international experimental film movement of the 1970s. The exhibition The Formative Years presents eight of Emigholz's films in a unique single installation conceived by the artist." Through October 31.
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