How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?

This is the story of an architect—which I suppose requires me to reference Martin Mull’s quote, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”

No, it’s not really relevant, since there’s no dancing in this movie, but I bet you didn’t know Martin Mull said that.
So, Norman Foster is the guy who builds these sorts of buildings: Click. Swoopy, glassy, bright, sci-fi-ish looking buildings. Recently, for example, he built the Peking airport for the Olympics.
This is a nice, short movie, that mostly curbs the documentarian’s urge to use as much of the dozens of hours of footage he shoots as he can.
The movie veers briefly into politics. Not in a polemic way, but more of a reflective look at Mr. Foster’s world view. Which is surprisingly fascist. Communist. Whatever word the kids are using these days to describe a totalitarian world view.
I shouldn’t say that: It wasn’t all that surprising, on reflection, nor is it necessarily all that statist. Architects basically do with people what computer programmers do with bits, but people are very unruly. And freedom is often ugly and inefficient. So Foster’s pining about certain kinds of control is predictably about aesthetics.
I think architects are all trying to play SimCity.
Anyway, fun movie. Perhaps not as interesting as Sydney Pollack’s Gehry, but maybe Foster’s buildings don’t leak as much.

Gas-s-s-s-s-Land

Oil companies have been buying up the drilling rights to properties all over the country. What could be better than waking up to a big check (offer) in your mailbox? It’s like you got rich for just being lucky enough to be on a natural gas deposit.

Or, to quote a common meme these days, “What could possibly go wrong?”
This is the question asked by Josh Fox, after the Fox family manse receives such an offer.
You already know this isn’t going to turn out well, right?
Josh decides to investigate, grabs a video camera, and an enlists the help of a pal (?) with a camera and they run around the country investigating “fracking”, the process of—well, hell, you can read about it on Wiki, if you want, but suffice to say, it’s a practice of extracting natural gas (something America has in abundance).
Now, a simple truth is this: Just like oil wells, mines, or any other excavation activity, bad things are going to happen. A cold analysis of the situation would be to examine the amount of gas extracted relative to the damage caused in the process, thus allowing us to decide for ourselves whether the risk was worth the cost.
But I suppose that’d make a dull movie.
Fox runs around to farmhouse after farmhouse where the fracking seems to have caused serious problems. A propos of the situation in the Gulf, natural gas seems to also be capable of gushing out of control.
The effect of this is to make the air smell bad, causing rivers to bubble with toxicity, and (as Fox demonstrates repeatedly), makes tap water flammable.
Yes, apparently, on a farm, when your water turns bad, your first instinct is to try to light it on fire. They do this so many times in so many places in this movie, you worry about someone actually blowing up their whole damn farm.
It’s a pretty decent (if one-sided) trip over all, with Fox ultimately drawing pictures of the entire northeastern area of the country being poisoned, the entire west being wrecked with wells, and stretches like someone’s dad being exposed to the toxic water and being dead inside of 2 years from pancreatic cancer. (Patrick Swayze didn’t even make it two years, I don’t think. Pancreatic cancer is a bitch.)
About a third of the movie is borderline unwatchable in the literal sense because the hand-held cam is so shaky as to deliver no meaningful picture. The music is, well, homemade. The maker, hopelessly naive about the topic of energy. At one point, Halliburton’s name shows up, as if that explains something. At one point, Fox plays the banjo in front of a plant while wearing a gas mask.
Powerful? Or just silly?
Whichever, it all ends up being sort of endearing. This is something we should know about. One would think that the drilling companies would plan for these contingencies and have settlements ready for the landowners, though I suspect the landowners sign those away with the mineral rights. I also suspect that, soon, every problem people have becomes associated with these wells.
Nonetheless, it’s just as certain that the various corporations involved stonewall at least some of the time and have a lot of political clout.
Overall, then, this is one of those awareness raising deals. I’d recommend it even if you have to squint through parts and cover your ears through others.
The Boy and the Old Man both enjoyed it as well.

The Art of the Steal

There’s a documentary running around the art houses these days that’s better than most of the movies that are playing. It’s called The Art of the Steal, and it’s the fascinating story of the Barnes Foundation, which is a little place outside of Philadelphia that contains one of the most astounding collections of art in the world.

And 85 years ago, while Albert C. Barnes (who had amassed a fortune by inventing Argyrol) was busily collecting this art, he got a showing in Philadelphia. And the elites of the Philadelphia social circle trashed his art, and him for thinking it was worth collecting.
Flash forward a couple of decades, and all of a sudden, the art critics have caught up with Barnes, and all those Rembrandts, Matisses, Picassos, etc., are worthwhile. But Barnes has sworn they’ll never get their hands on his art again.
At the forefront of the bad blood was Philadelphia Inquirer owner Moses Amnenberg who was no less forgiving of Barnes’ snub than Barnes was of what he received. Moses passed on the feud to his son Walter, and the 90 year drama looks like it’s about to come to a close.
This is one of those documentaries that has a very clear agenda from the start. What Barnes did was to set up a special environment for his art. He placed art from different cultures and different time periods but which dealt with similar subject matters in the same room, for example, which makes for some interesting contrasts. He also limited access to this art to, for lack of a better word, people he liked.
In other words, an art critic had a much smaller chance of getting to see this art than a plumber. Well, as long as that plumber had impressed upon Barnes a genuine interest.
While this appeals to me in a rather perverse way, I can’t help but feel that the more people who get to see these works of art, the better. The filmmakers clearly feel differently and give lots of air time to people who object to the commoditization of art.
However I feel about it, however, the point that should never be glossed over in a civilized society is that Barnes felt the way he felt and put down in writing how he felt and set up a legal contract to protect his interests. So while I think that Barnes particular arrangement of art is interesting but not sacrosanct, it’s so painfully clear that the moneyed interests of Philadelphia have their own agenda that was above the law, the whole matter is a disgrace.
I mean, it’s really that simple: the man left instructions on how the art was to be taken care of. Forces worked to thwart those instructions. Barnes’ big mistake was not leaving enough money to take care of the art in the upcoming decades. Although, he actually did – he simply couldn’t foresee the level of incompetence among those who followed.
Once the documentary reached the point where the art collection was jeopardized, I found myself repeatedly asking myself — because I try not to talk to other people in the movies — why not just sell one of these truly priceless paintings some of which were valued at a half $1 billion? I mean, the trust specified that the art was not to be sold or rented or otherwise broken up but of all the elements of the trust that were corrupted over time, one tiny sale could have prevented all of that.
What it comes down to, of course, is Big Charity. we tend to feel like charity by virtue of its mere name must be a good thing. But in the United States, “charitable organization” is it more of a tax designation than anything else. The movie kind of flounders when it comes to discussing how the Barnes collection was critical to the charitable status of the Pew Foundation, but one thing is certain: a lot of people were highly interested in ignoring the wishes of the man who was smart enough to put this art collection together, and for them a mere legal contract was no barrier.
All in all, a very good movie, and better than most of the ones that we’ve seen lately: it had interesting characters, intrigue, suspense, dramatic irony, a nice pace and it was enlightening to boot.
I, the boy, and the old man all enjoyed this film.

A Man Named Pearl

The documentary-as-hagiography without a political end is a neglected genre.

I say this non-facetiously. A lot of people have done really cool things, and we don’t really need to know about the not cool things they’ve done. We’ve all done those, for the most part, and it tends to trivialize the really good things.

Just an opinion, of course. Some of us do seem to enjoy a good wallow. And it’s hard to imagine some documentaries, like Crumbor Bukowski – Born Into Thiswithout considerable examination of these men’s flaws.

But it’s nice to have a movie that’s along the lines of “Here’s a cool dude and here’s the cool stuff he’s done.” Exempli gratia, A Man Named Pearl. The only remote negativity is the ghost of racism, which is ameliorated by the fact that his current best friend is a white 40-something female museum curator.

Pearl Fryer bought a house nearly 25 years ago in Bishopville in South Carolina, not welcome in certain areas because, apparently, he wouldn’t keep his yard up. So, the marginally educated, 3 decade veteran of a can company bought his house elsewhere (with 3 acres of land! we who live in L.A. salute you!) and embarked on a horticultural journey which may ultimately have the effect of revitalizing his somewhat backward hometown.

First, he had no training, apart from a four-minute how-to on “bonsai”. Second, he builds his garden entirely with cast-offs from the local nursery. Third, he has plants thriving in his yard that really shouldn’t be. Fourth, he uses a hand chainsaw, which is totally inappropriate.

Most importantly, however, Pearl worked weekends–and nights, using a big lamp–for decades and turned his yard into a masterpiece.

And there’s your story.

It’s simple. It’s got lots of great pictures of sculpted bushes and trees, and Pearl Fryer working on them. It’s got his church group, a museum curator, the manager of the local Waffle House, and lots of kids talking about the inspiration the old guy gives them.

There’s a nice message about race relations, God, and the value of hard work–and the value of hard work doing something you love.

I confess, about 20 minutes in, I thought, “Oh, my God! It’s a real live magic negro!” But in that thought, I realize the problem with that stock character: Fryer isn’t magical, he just works his ass off. He’s not a saint, he’s just a really good role model. He’s actually a living example of why that stereotype is offensive.

It’s a nice, hopeful movie with nice, hopeful people in it. It’s about ten minutes too long. Even at that, it’s hard to object too strongly.

And if the people of Bishopville work half as hard as Fryer does, they’re going to be all right.

Refuseniks

So, The Boy and I ended up doing a double-feature last week of two movies that weren’t going to be around after the Friday turnover. The first movie we saw was the documentary on Soviet Jews who were denied egress to Israel. The “Refuseniks”.

This is a classic case of a documentary with really outstanding material in an unfocused presentation.

The basic premise is solid: Jews–highly discriminated against in the Workers’ Paradise–tried to get out of the USSR and to Israel after WWII. As soon as you applied to leave, however, you were fired from your job. At the same time, you were not necessarily allowed to leave.

Both the anti-semitism and the “refusenik” stuff was largely ignored by the western Jewish establishment until some desperate Jews attempted unsuccessfully to hijack a plane, even though a grass roots movement had been brewing for years.

The main-ish focus of this movie is on a couple who were 17 years “Refuseniks” and how they finally got free.

I wish I could tell you more about this couple but we didn’t really learn that much about them. I don’t know how they survived those 17 years. Apparently some lower level work was available, but I don’t know if that’s how they did it, or if they had benefactors of some sort, or what.

There were all kinds of interesting bits of data in this, but nothing too cohesive. (Other than “Life in the USSR was bad, mm-kay?”) They particular dropped the ball when discussing why the American Jewish community–the establishment, not the grass-roots–was so unwilling to do or say anything. It took a hijacking to get their attention.

The guy representing the community made a really stupid, self-serving statement that it was because the Soviet Jews, by risking their lives, had proven they were really serious about getting out, and that up till then they couldn’t do it alone. “Yes, we were just waiting here, silently, almost as if in complete approval, until we couldn’t pretend it wasn’t happening any more.”

My wild-ass guess would be that Jews in this country have always been fairly positive toward socialism in its various forms, and that that particular intellectual vanity trumped their concern for fellow Jews. But that’s just my WAG. We never get told.

The movie suffers at a result. Despite all the historical highs and lows it touches on, there’s never any real focus to the two hours, and it gets a little hard to sit through after about 90 minutes. Worth watching, but maybe worth breaking up in to several viewing periods.

Rockin’ Past The Graveyard

I would have predicted that Young At Heart would be the big indie movie this summer. Old people singing edgy rock songs? How can that not be fun?

But I’m told that the buzz around The Visitor is better. For whatever “buzz” we have, The Boy and I liked this one better. A lot.

This documentary concerns chorus director Bob Cilman’s group of septuagenarians and octogenarians (and a couple of nonagenarians!) singing The Ramones, Sonic Youth, The Zombies, etc., as they prepare for a new season–only seven weeks away.

All right, you smart ass punk kids who are thinking, “Well, that’s the music of their youth, right?” Go to your rooms. Actually, these guys were well into their 30s when their oldest song (“She’s Not There”) was a hit.

The group rehearses three times a week and various members are given solos and duets and marvelously large font lyric sheets that they still need to use giant magnifying glasses to read. This works for a couple of reasons. First, Cilman takes it seriously: He pushes the boundaries. For example, he chooses Schizophrenic by Sonic Youth, which is not exactly a crowd-pleasing anthem, and the old folks don’t get it. Meanwhile, the Pointer Sisters funk classic “Yes We Can Can”, is just challenging to get two dozen old folks to sing all 71 of the “cans” right. And then there’s just the matter of some things being hard for your leads to get, as with the two lead singers having trouble with “I Feel Good”.

There’s a real sense of suspense here, as you the old folks work and struggle to get things right. But that’s the other thing that makes it work: These senior citizens are pros. What they lack in skill, or what age has dulled, they make up for in dedication. Cilman takes it seriously and treats them with respect–which is to say that he sometimes busts their chops for not getting things right. (Now, in the world of choral directors, he’s pretty mild but he’s not toothless, and some of the stuff he does may shock those of you who’re not familiar with the world of choral directors and conductors.)

I’m not giving away anything by telling you that they do own the music by the end. (If they didn’t, this would suck as a viewing experience.) But the suspense is still there as changes are made and they own the music in a surprising way.

It’s reminiscent of the Langley Schools Music Project in that it’s not necessarily the most homogeneous of choirs, smoothed down to peanut-butter commercial perfection. There are even a few moments where you can actually get the chills, such as when Fred Knittle sings in the final concert. This guy’s got a marvelous voice, even hooked up to an oxygen tank. For most you might say they sound good for their age–which actually is pretty usual for a choir–but Fred (and some others) have voices that are just plain good, no qualifications.

Mixed in with the documentary are a few low budget music videos which are quite cool (though some don’t think they belong in a documentary). But I thought these were good chances to hear songs all the way through, with a little studio production and without interruption. They do “I Wanna Be Sedated”, “Road To Nowhere” and “Golden Years”.

Now, I’ve often noted that, in any given family-dysfunction film, if there’s an old person, the old person will die by the end of the movie. (Most conspicuously in recent films like Little Miss Sunshine and The Man In The Chair.) But here we have over two-dozen people averaging 80 years of age, and we follow them over a three month period. Actuarially speaking, I think about half could be expected to die.

But where I tend to roll my eyes when I see the old person in the family-dysfunction film, in this movie, you’re practically holding your breath, crossing your fingers and hoping everyone makes it to the big show. This is a potential spoiler, so skip down to the next paragraph if you want to be pristine: Not everyone does make it, and a big part of the final act of the movie is how the group handles the losses. Some people find this sad, but I say it’s going out in style. Sad, to me, is dying because you have nothing to do.

Anyway, you’ll notice that I linked to the originals of the songs instead of the Young @ Heart versions. I would consider it a bigger spoiler to see the musical numbers outside of the documentary than it is to know the fate of each choir member. But they’re available on YouTube, or a lot of them are.

I’ve heard conflicting stories about a soundtrack. There isn’t one yet, and perhaps may never be because they couldn’t afford to license all the songs. (I don’t know how the Langley School Project got away with it.)

In any event, the movie is touching, funny, not mawkish, engrossing and heart-warming. Is the whole thing a little “gimmicky”? Yeah, maybe, but it works, for all the reasons mentioned above. Seeing old people sing edgy rock songs is a good hook, but if they didn’t do a good job, audiences would turn away.

But in a lot of ways, the songs take on new meaning being sung by these folks. And it’s a meaning worth hearing.

The Rape of Europa

In the third film of our documentary-thon, we saw The Rape of Europa, a feature based on Lynn Nicholas’ book of the same name.

I heard a sentiment expressed recently–not about this movie, which is a fairly obscure little film, but about another WWII-based feature–which went something like, “There were other wars, you know!” From the clichéd use of Nazis in computer and video games, to the post Saving Private Ryan deluge of WWII movies, TV series, documentaries, museum shows, art exhibits and strained analogies to current social and political events, it can certainly seem like we’re inundated with WWII over any other event in history.

I’ve heard this same sentiment expressed several times over the past 30 years. I’ve never had any response for it.

The Rape of Europa covers a facet of WWII I’ve never seen treated in detail, unless you count Kelly’s Heroes, to wit, the Nazi raids of art treasures from all over Europe.

The film starts with Hitler’s rejection from art school and proceeds quickly to his rise to power and the attendant expurgation of the entartete Kunst (degenerate art), followed by his grand plans to create a super-museum of all the great artwork of Europe, accumulating as he invaded each country.

But it’s not that simple, of course. There was the systematic stripping of Jews of artwork and–just in case you thought the Nazis weren’t bad enough–their religious symbols (torahs, menorahs, and so on). There was the defensive moves by the Russians and French to protect their artwork, both of whom were used to evacuating art work after a century of industrial-era European warfare.

Then there were the Poles, whose Royal Castle was completely obliterated as punishment for their resistance, the Italians, whose reward for allying with the Nazis was the Nazis destroying their cities as they retreated from the American advance. And, of course, the Americans, a handful of “monument men” trying to convince a bunch of grunts that they should risk further bloodshed to save a monastery or a bridge.

It’s all told with stock footage and still photos, narrated by Joan Allen, and punctuated with interviews of a few surviving children whose family’s artwork was confiscated, monument men, museum curators and the like. Despite this, the drama is all there. Stories of heroism and sacrifice abound here as they do in all tales of WWII. The efforts to restore and return artwork continue to this day, though it is somewhat like unscrambling an egg.

There is a little bit at the end that tells the story of a German official whose job it is to try to reunite all the stolen Jewish artifacts with any surviving community members or their ancestors. It’s probably a powerful story unto itself, and it does remind you that you’ve spent the past 90 minutes focused on the harm done to inanimate things–however culturally important. Unfortunately, it feels a little tacked on to the rest of the movie.

Despite this, it’s fascinating story, and I’m glad it’s finally being told.

Even if there ARE other wars.

In The Shadow of the Moon

The next documentary I saw after the highly engaging and amusing King of Kong was In The Shadow of the Moon. If the former was about a handful of guys obsessing over a trivial accomplishment (about as trivial an accomplishment possible while still being noteworthy, if that makes sense), this film is about a handful of guys downplaying what are arguably the greatest adventures that homo sapiens ever undertook.

This documentary simply interviews the surviving astronauts about the Apollo program, providing enough backdrop so that someone fairly ignorant of the times can grasp the magnitude of what was done, and some idea of why. The conspicuously absent Neil Armstrong in a strange way typifies the low-key attitude of the astronauts. Some call him a recluse but as is pointed out in the film, he apparently leads a public life in his current hometown of Lebanon, Ohio. He’s just not in to the whole celebrity thing, God bless him.

NASA has fallen into a certain degree of disrepute of late–they are, of course, a government bureaucracy, and those don’t get better over time–but it’s helpful to note that they accomplished the impossible: They put men on the moon and got them off alive again. Using computers less powerful than the one in your TV remote.

For me, it’s the “getting them off again alive” that’s the most impressive. It’s one thing to drop a can with a couple of guys in it onto a rock a few hundred thousand miles away. It’s another thing for that can to land safely on a less-than-paved surface. And I can almost get behind the conspiracy theories, when you tell me that teeny-tiny lifted back off and met up with another teeny-tiny can that was orbiting around at hundreds of miles per hour.

And they talk less trash than Billy Mitchell. Far from thinking they were hot stuff, they tended to just view each other as regular guys. In part, this would have to be because they were all top-tier, so it had to be hard to impress each other. (Though Armstrong managed, at one point, by following up morning of near-death catastrophe with an afternoon of paperwork.) In part, though, I suspect it was due to a respect for the forces they were dealing with, all of which cast the human body into its frighteningly frail perspective.

As a result, I wasn’t surprised that the film ended with them talking philosophy, God and religion. They confronted more space in those few hours than most of us can even conceive. (I recall stories of early European settlers looking out across the Great Plains and vomiting upon seeing so much empty space. Yeah, multiply that by a thousand, and then square it since the space extends in almost every way you can look.)

Only the very end of the film, during the credits, do they talk about the whole conspiracy theory angle, but unfortunately no clip of Buzz Aldrin socking a guy.

If King of Kong is an example of engaging storytelling on a minor topic, this movie is an example of spare storytelling on a huge topic. Next, I’ll look at a documentary that combines some engaging storytelling with a completely different sort of huge topic.

The Kings of Two Worlds

Two documentaries recently released demonstrate what I consider to be good movie-making while using two different and honest approaches to their subject matters. What’s interesting also, is that they’re at completely different ends of the spectrum in terms of, let’s call it “social relevance”.

Or not.
Relevance!

First up is The King of Kong, Seth Gordon’s look into a world most of us couldn’t care less about: World champion retro-gamers. I mean, seriously, I can sort of see the interest in modern games like Unreal Tournament, which have a sort of football-esque feel and head-to-head action. These have the potential to be really fascinating live. Well, maybe.

But 1980s-era quarter munchers? Pac-Man? Centipede? Donkey Kong? I just don’t see it. In fact, Donkey Kong pretty much put an end to my time in arcades. In order to get good at these old games, you had to memorize patterns. That strikes me as one of the biggest waste of time and energy imaginable: Memorizing an arbitrarily constructed and delicate pattern for the purpose of getting good at a video game. I mean, seriously, it’s harder than learning Latin, without the attendant utility and respect-mixed-with-fear you get from knowing Latin.

Carpe calossum!
I swear to Google: This is the first picture that comes up on a “Latin Scholar” search. A Latin tutor, apparently. Tell me that doesn’t make you fear and respect her!

The beauty of this documentary, though, is that you do end up caring. Though a fair number of statements by the competitors were laugh-out-loud funny, especially when applied with just the tiniest bit of perspective, you have to give these guys their props. They’re not really wasting any more time than the average TV watcher (or moviegoer, hey) and in that time they’ve become the best at what they’re doing.

And there are a lot of poseurs, as well. People who would pretend to the crown of video game mastery, and a lot of them–no matter how hard they work at it–will never touch the hem of our two heroes, Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe.

Doesn't exactly scream self-confidence, but look at the gleam in his eye.
The underdog challenger.

The movie takes the (always dramatically fruitful) angle of the underdog challenger (Wiebe) looking to dethrone longtime champ (Mitchell). The two are polar opposites as far as their social personalities. Mitchell is a smooth-talking high-powered businessman type who wears a pony tail (yes!) and could easily be selling real estate or doing the motivational lecture circuit, and who views himself as a winner.

Wiebe, by contrast, is a sort of lovable loser, a nearly great athlete (whose big shot was blown by his father), musician (he looks good playing the drums, but I couldn’t tell you if that was good drumming, and his piano playing–well, it reminds me of mine), artist, out-of-work aerospace engineer, whose life is full of near misses, but who uses his mastery of Donkey Kong to make a name for himself.

We’re treated to the cardboard table that is retro-game-score-record keeping, an organization that looks like it’s run on quarters and out of trailer parks and pre-fab homes, but which prides itself on its integrity. And we have the shunned would-be retro-gamer going by the name of “Mr Awesome” who claims they’ve shut him out.

Or pro wrestler.
Mitchel would also be a good candidate for “cult leader”.

Mitchell repeatedly gets favorable treatment from the record keepers, which tweaks our sense of fairness, and he ducks out in a chance to go head-to-head with Wiebe, who fails to beat the high score live, just a couple of blocks from Mitchell’s home and restaurant.

Of course, at the level of DK they’re playing, sheer randomity is as big a factor as anything as to who gets the higher score. While either of them can routinely break the long-standing 650K score, neither can guarantee what will happen after that, leading to a lot of taped scores. And Mitchell gets the chance to point out that he’s simply not prepared–out of training!–to go head-to-head with Wiebe at that point.

Nonetheless, reconciliations are made, and people mostly come across looking like real people, in all their flawed glory. Wiebe gets his place at the table for a while, then Mitchell comes back, and so on.

Wiebe’s personal story has a happy ending as well, as he finds his niche as a school science teacher, and brings his considerable focus to bear on making science interesting for kids.

Contrast with In The Shadow of the Moon.

No joke.
This picture from 2010 showing the struggle continued years after the events depicted in this film.

2016: Updated with formatting and pictures. At the time of this update, director Seth Gordon is slated to helm the Baywatch movie. No joke.