Showing posts with label docs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label docs. Show all posts

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Doc Watch: Salesman (1968)

Salesman (1968) is one of those films that got referenced a bit in texts I had back in film school, and has certainly endured, but not with the same level of notoriety as the Maysles Bros. most famous film, Grey Gardens.  But, dang, if this isn't a pretty amazing bit of film.

A documentary following a team of door-to-door Bible salesmen working first in New England and then in Florida, it feels like the predecessor to not only reality TV shows covering people at work (and I don't mean "unscripted" shows, but the more documentary approach that seems to have fallen by the wayside) but also to the world of films like Glengarry Glen Ross, complete with the archetypes that would fill that movie and others like it.

You can't figure why some guys can close a sale and some guys can't, and you're always asking people who don't have money to hand over what they've got for something that's a luxury item, or at least maybe not a practical necessity.  In this movie we're seeing Bibles going for $30 - $50 in 1968, when the customers on camera are obviously doing the math regarding what the impact of the expense will have on the weekly budget.  They aren't in the homes of high-rollers, they're in middle to lower middle-class homes of working people of the era.

The salesmen are selling the book of faith, but the religion is the sale.  The supervisors expect sales slips, they don't want any backtalk, and they gladly point out how they've cleared out a few people for their attitude alone.  At night in depressing motor-lodge rooms, the salesmen come back to drink and smoke and sort out what's happening - they require the faithful as a customer base, and they know what buttons to push, but they're not selling with the zeal of evangelists - they're looking to see what it will take to put you into a new Bible today.

The movie is a fascinating record of a particular time and place and what people were like.  But it remains relevant as the pressure to produce, to deliver of anyone who ever had a job, and you see how different personalities approach the same problem with varying results - but there's no real clarity to why "The Bull" succeeds where "The Badger" can't get a break.  The desire to get ahead and to dream of doing well gives way to worrying about survival in a world where success or failure are mercurial even to the people in the thick of things.  

It's powerful stuff, and neither begins nor ends neatly.  I can't really recommend the movie enough.  Give a chance if you have the opportunity.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Doc Watch: Wonder Women! on PBS

On Monday, I watched the documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines on the PBS series Independent Lens.

If you were expecting a documentary about the importance of Wonder Woman to 20th and 21st Century females as a symbol of power for women, you were in the right place.

You can watch the whole thing online at the moment.  Here you go.

For those of us who are already fans of the character, it's a nice tribute to the character, a nice consideration of the influence of the character across the 20th century, but the doc was also a bit frustrating.

The documentary was a good starter kit for someone to consider pop culture touchstones as gateway drugs for empowerment for women and a place to start the discussion of media portrayals of women.  But, if you know your Wonder Woman (and I only kind of feel like I've scracthed the surface of the character), the film followed the prescribed narrative checklist of players and topics you'd get in talking about Wonder Woman's history if you were to talk on the subject for more than five minutes.

We got:
  • William Moulton Marston's creation of a lie-detector and his hang-ups on bondage scenarios are touched upon
  • Glora Steinem talks the first cover of Ms.
  • Lynda Carter gets interviewed (and is still just as stunning)
  • various academics are interviewed who talk about what it means to have a strong female character at the start of World War II
  • Wonder Woman's second tier place in comics after WWII

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Doc Watch: Winnebago Man (2009)

This is sort of the second movie I've watched in recent months about a filmmaker tracking down the subject of a failed project that has found a second life as a bit of a laugh for a winky, nichey audience of jerks exactly like myself.  As someone who grew up on MST3K and still has no problem watching Frankenstein Island and laughing himself silly, I try not to think too hard about the people behind the camera for whom producing, say, The Curse of Bigfoot, was their life's dream.

I worked in video production for a few years in and out of school.  It's hard, tedious work and I don't miss it (sorry, Paul and Juan).  Circa 1989, a man named Jack Rebney was working as writer and star on an industrial film for Winnebago sales associates, and the blue-tinted outtakes from the shoot captured his endless stream of profanity and frustration.

Confession time:  I am all puppy dog tails and whatever here, but I have a short temper and am known to curse like a sailor, especially when frustrated over a long period of time trying to make the same task work.  Jack, I feel ya.

Austin filmmaker Ben Steinbauer was obsessed with the VHS dup he had, and then the YouTube meme that stemmed from the VHS tapes.

Here you go.  NSFW.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Movie Watch Checkbox: Shup Up and Play the Hits (2012)

I'll be brief.

I attended the screening for LCD Soundsystem's farewell concert film Shut Up and Play the Hits, and while the film delivered and will be lovely on your home entertainment system, the crowd at the Alamo South Lamar and the odd decision to let the audience act like obnoxious hipsters at a club inanely chatting throughout the film was a major @#$%ing letdown.

They've already received my pissy email.  And responded.  Apparently they were having a terrible night with that crowd, too.

There's not much to say about a concert film, and you're either a fan of LCD Soundsystem or you're not, so there's that.  There are two framing pieces.  1)  A crew follows Murphy around on the day after the concert, the day after he's put his band to rest.  2)  Chuck Klosterman interviews James Murphy, and it's a pretty solid, getting under the skin Chuck Klosterman sort of conversation.

The focus is entirely on Murphy, which does feel odd as, whether he wrote all the parts or not, he did tour with the rest of these people.  But perhaps that wasn't what they wanted to focus on.  Nobody gets a sub-titled explanation of who they are.  You either know who Arcade Fire is when they show up, or you don't.  I didn't recognize some people the film seemed to think I would, and Matt mentioned to me that Johnny Marr was in the film when we walked out.  Who knew?

Anyway, mostly I'm going to miss LCD Soundsystem and any future albums they might have created.  Oh, well.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Movie Watch 2012 - Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians

A recent episode of NPR radio documentary program This American Life featured bits of the story from the 2011 movie in telling its own version of the story of a gang of card counting Christians, Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians.  It's currently streaming on Netflix, so you can check it out for yourselves.

The doc follows a group of young people, mostly under 30 I'd guess, who are a wide variety of youth ministers, parishioners, pastors of small congregations and then just friends and hangers-on who follow a few leaders in the group into the wacky world of card counting in order to try to beat the house at casinos all over the country.  They form a small business which actually raises investment capital from folks they know and within the group, and then redistributes the winnings back out among the investors, the management and the gamblers.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: Best Worst Movie (2009)

After a steady diet of terrible flicks over the past two decades, something I had somehow come to enjoy in my teen years, seeking out bad movies is something I'm now limiting in my intake as I realized a man can only watch R.O.T.O.R. so many times, and there's actually stuff you can enjoy because its actually worth watching.  But for a long, long time I felt like I was fairly well in tune with what we all considered the worst of the worst.

And yet, somehow, I'd missed the phenomenon of Troll 2.

Of course, I was also living in Phoenix when The Alamo figured out how to turn genre-film and midnight screening material into part of their bread and butter, getting people excited about movies that they had never seen, or getting them to pay good money to see movies they'd seen for a far more modest cost on late-night HBO a decade before.

The first time I ever heard the words "Troll 2" was, curiously, at an improv show performance where one of the actresses mistakenly believed that repeatedly making callbacks to a movie few people have not seen nor remember was comedic gold.  I swear she dropped the movie's name four times, hoping for a laugh.  She was greeted with stony silence, but the fact that she kept going back to the well made me realize "oh, this is one of those things today's hipster kids are into.  I get it.  But, seriously, naming something funny when you aren't doesn't draw a laugh.  STOP IT NOW.".

Best Worst Movie (2009) tracks the circa 2006 fad (I'll go ahead and call it that) of being really into Troll 2 from the perspective of the folks who participated in the creation of the movie, including the stars, writer, director, extras and, of course, some of the folks making midnight screenings happen.

The film's former wanna-be child star, Michael Stephenson, actually does an amazing job directing the documentary, collecting all the folks from the film together, getting them to talk honestly both about the film, where they are now, and how they related to the film then and now.  A lot of the questions I had left over at the end of Rock-afire Explosion are nowhere to be found in this film.  I mean, sure, you can still have some questions, but those might be of a nature that you can sort out for yourself.  Basically, the film doesn't raise more questions than it answers, and its pretty honest about what's going on.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: The Rock-afire Explosion (2008)

My experience working at Chuck E. Cheese Pizza is fairly well documented, and so I am unsurprised that I might have a pre-disposition for an interest in the backstory and current state of part of the weird world of Pizza Parlors that double as Robot Music Shows.

The 2008 documentary, The Rock-afire Explosion (available on Netflix Streaming) seeks to uncover, really, one man's ongoing love of the robot band that made his childhood magical and the engineer who created the Rock-afire animatronic band and performances that made the Showbiz Pizza chain possible.

Honestly, it's maybe a little messed up.

see the face of your Mayan Apocalypse and behold your DOOM

I cannot begin to guess the original intentions of the filmmakers as they set out to begin interviewing private Rock-afire Explosion band owner Chris Thrash (I imagine they thought just getting Thrash and his band was plenty for a short film), but the final product is a mostly-feature-length, warm-hearted look at a man and his quirky dream.  One assumes that through Thrash the filmmakers got in touch with Aaron Fechter, the creator of the band, and an interesting guy himself.

Flechter seems a bit one part Willy Wonka/ one part Ahab, a guy who struck it big with an idea when he was very young, and who built a company that he very much cared about.  The failure of the overall Showbiz Pizza company and the fate that shook out for the animatronics group he owned is still very clearly present for the man, and there's something a bit tragic about the guy when you see what he's kept from the old days (and it certainly makes you wonder about his business acumen).

Friday, May 18, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: Being Elmo - A Puppeteer's Journey (2011)

On CarlaB's recommendation, Jamie and I watched Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (2011), an award-winning documentary about Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind ubiquitous kiddie icon, Elmo, the red muppet with the laugh of a madman.

I don't really know what to say about the doc.  Its already won a truckload of awards, and I would argue that its a pretty darn good movie and absolutely worth seeing.  A sort of "for the whole family" type of film, and one that I would show any kid with a creative bent.

Clash's journey from lower-class America to the most famous name in showbiz you've never heard of is absolutely remarkable, as a kid pursues his passion and turns it into something loved by kids around the world. In some ways, however, its a story of a guy who sets our to fulfill his dreams, and, indeed, he does, with a minimum of challenge.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope

I have never been to Comic-Con International in San Diego.  I am on record as finding the much smaller Cons I've attended here in Austin and one in Phoenix sort of depressing, expensive and uncomfortable.  So, selling me on the ideal that Comic-Con is a sort of geek-topia where nobody need feel out of place as they pursue their passions doesn't necessarily sing.

This evening we checked out the latest Morgan Spurlock documentary, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope.  As suggested by the grating title, the movie seems done by folks with a cursory knowledge of the sci-fi, gamer and comic geek culture, and outsider looking in and starting to understand the contours enough to know "oh, Star Wars isn't just called Star Wars?  Weird!" but not enough to realize everyone in the Cantina has a name and homeworld the Star Wars geeks will know.  

The doc is relentlessly pro-ComicCon, told from an outsiders enthusiastic perspective, perhaps not entirely seeming to know what its doing sometimes right up to and including the "let's switch to comics panels between scenes" thing you've seen in a few other comics-related films, not the least of which was last year's HBO doc on real-life superheroes (who went to ComicCon.  Awk-ward).

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: Trek Nation (2010)

At this point I think there are as many documentaries about Star Trek as there are Star Trek movies.

I'll be honest with you, I have very warm childhood memories of Trek, and I like the movies, but I am not a Trekker, I'm a bit more of a Trekkie.  I rarely get to watch reruns of either the original series or Next Generation.  I never watched much Voyager, DS9, Enterprise or the short-lived Animated Series.

I have, I suppose, muted enthusiasm for certain brands of Trek, especially those that weren't overseen by Gene Roddenberry.

Trek Nation (2010) isn't actually about the fandom of Star Trek, but the relationship between Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and his son, Rod Roddenberry, and Rod's discovery, as an adult, of the impact his father had on the world.

Sure, the Sci-Fi conventions are all there.  The geeks in their Klingon suits get coverage, a few of the aging stars of the franchise get some camera time and interview terrifically well, but far fewer of them than you'd expect.  But  to ask Shatner to reminisce about who Gene Roddenberry was isn't really the focus.  You do get just an astounding amount of behind the scenes footage, archival stuff, candid stuff...  its impressive what they dug up.

The interview subjects also include series writers like DC Fontana (turns out DC is a lady.  I did not know, but very in keeping with Trek, I think), George Lucas and Stan Lee talking about the impact of Trek and a bit of why it worked, and what that might have said about Roddenberry the Sr.  Also included are writers and producers from the later series, leading right up to JJ Abrams talking Trek with the son of Roddenberry.

That Rod Roddenberry so clearly did not know the man with whom he lived until his father died in 1991 is in every bit of the movie, and even if it can tilt toward familiar hagiography at times, its through the eyes of the grown man both thrilled and injured to see his father's legacy and he becomes a part of it.

I do wish they'd dug a bit deeper, perhaps.  There are some ellipses that could have used a full stop when it comes to how and why the Roddenberry men weren't close, but it doesn't feel incomplete.

I caught this as a two-hour broadcast on the Science Channel, just FYI.  I wasn't sure if it counted as a movie of 2012, but I'm counting it.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: Transcendent Man (2009)

I really wish I had seen this movie when it came out, but it was just recommended to me by Co-Worker Ladd this morning.

As much as I like a good, Thunderdomish Dystopian look at the future, from a technology and academic standpoint, I fall much more in the camp of pointing at the shinier spacecraft and rocket pack visions of the future.  Prepping for a time of Robot Shock Troopers tends to make you start stocking ammunition and buying property in Queen Creek, Arizona, and I'm just not ready to cut the sleeves off all my camo jackets yet, and I look terrible in a crazy-man beard.

In fact, I like my job partially because its all about the future where we get flying cars and can download dissertations directly into our noggins.  Digital libraries!  Hoorary!

It seems that technologist and futurist Ray Kurzweil showed up as SXSWi 2012, and Co-Worker Ladd (yes, his name is Ladd) managed to see him speak.  Kurzweil is one of those names I've heard on and off for two decades, not quite the way you hear of Tim Berners-Lee, but he pops up on BoingBoing and is a name that technology hipsters tend to throw around.

Frankly, I should pay a lot more attention to these sorts of figures, because Kurzweil's personal innovations are incredible, even if that's not really the topic of the documentary, Transcendent Man (2009).  Instead, the doc follows Kurzweil as he moves around the planet as a bit of a Conference Personality, but as he also meets with figures from Colin Powell to William Shatner to an arena full of Church of Christ Conference attendees discussing the concept of The Singularity.*

As we all know, technology is advancing from all angles in ways predicted clumsily by Moore's Law.  What Kurzweil is looking at and discussing is that its not just processing power, but other technologies, falling into three areas of interest:  Genetics (bioinformatics), Nantotechnology and Robotics (or AI).  The Singularity is a point at which those things hit a point on the graph where the nature of humanity will be forced to change by the technologies so profoundly that it will rewrite our definitions of everything from technology to humanity to consciousness.

Basically, we're in a mad race to see if we create a race of super artificial intelligences, if we can rewrite our DNA to beat disease and aging while recreating the human body, or if nanotechnology will be merging us into machines while it has the ability to connect us to the super robot brains while rewriting our bodies into all looking like Fabio in 1994.  Or will we upload our consciousness to Facebook?

Here's the thing:  I think I know just enough about technology and SCIENCE to know I don't know anything, but I also tend to think that Kurzweil, while maybe jumping the gun on the timing, is probably right.

I intended to watch part of the show this evening and then return to it, but instead I watched the entire thing, slack jawed and in awe.  The movie manages to find genius after genius, players at the tops of their fields who all have different reasons to agree or disagree with Kurzweil in whole or in part, and its an absolutely gripping 80 minutes or so.  Especially as the director humanizes and builds a portrait of Kurzweil (a seemingly approachable gentleman, certainly) and digs into the basis for his quest and to see what drives him.

There are a tremendous number of questions occurring in the film, the sorts of things that have the longterm effects of global change, all without the pressure cooker or drive of a Manhattan Project.  Its happening now, and the minds pushing toward the future seem aware of the pitfalls and risks of the world they're creating, and seem to be sure that somebody else is going to deny the dinosaurs their Lysine.  Its absolutely riveting stuff.  And, again, this is a documentary.

The crowd that drifts into this blog is pretty smart and tech savvy, and I'd love to see what you guys have to say, if you've seen it or you get a chance to stream it from Netflix.

Highly, highly recommended.

*see my hilariously uninformed argument with my brother about the concept at his blog post from about a year ago.