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When Artists Invade the Internet

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As I have HBO free for the time being, I’ve been indulging in their documentary offerings. And there’s a lot of them. I’ve watched most of this summer’s offerings and a few that have been rerun from last year/earlier this year, and I’ll take a swing at short-reviewing them. They are behind a cut, not because of spoilers (this is non-fiction; either we already know the end, or it isn’t over) but for length.



Gasland – Most recent viewing. This one investigates hydraulic fracturing (aka ‘fracking’), a dubious method of obtaining natural gas that among other things is destroying the water supply all over the US. But who cares if there’s money to be made? Filmmaker Josh Fox purports to not be a filmmaker (his camera work would seem to bear him out on that point) and the narrative is somewhat less than linear. But Fox makes his point, and you’ll likely be throwing something at the television well before the film is over. It’s hard to watch between the meandering story and the jiggling camera work (and while Fox’s habit of handing the camera to the nearest person so they can film him can be charming, usually the nearest person is even worse at handling a camera.) And if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.


Mann v Ford - And if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention. Oh wait, this isn’t the same film. Except in a lot of ways, it is. The environmental poisoning is long over in this story, but 40 years later the water is still bad. Ford dumped paint sludge in the woods of a poor section of town and now the town ‘has no old people’. No one lives past 60 here; 30 residents died while the film was being made. This film was made by pros, and except for a detour into the life of an attorney, the story is linear and follows a timeline. Short version: American business becomes great using the usual methods – greed and racism. If your TV survives Gasland, it might not survive Mann.


Hot Coffee – the last straw for your TV’s survival. A very professionally done, easy to follow and many aspects shown tale of the US legal system when it comes to civil torts, it starts with, yes, the McDonald’s hot coffee story. Whatever you’ve heard about this story…it isn’t the real story. You’ve heard what corporate PR flacks wanted you to hear. Now hear from the people involved. And don’t eat or drink during this segment; the victim’s burns are horrific and they don’t shy away from showing them. The filmmakers go on to demonstrate how corporations used this case to turn public opinion away from the judicial system and plaintiffs; force ‘arbitration’ onto many regular folks, especially employees and bank customers; and what happens to judges when they don’t play the corporate game. Trust me, you’ll be infuriated. Just don’t overlook that you’ve seen a first rate piece of documentary filmmaking in the process.


Wishful Drinking – After all this anger, we need a laugh. I’m not sure how Wishful Drinking was classified as a ‘documentary’ but that’s where HBO put it. I’d call it comedy, myself. Carrie Fisher (yes, that Carrie Fisher) holds forth hilariously on growing up Hollywood, the good and bad of pills and marrying a great songwriter, and how George Lucas owns her ‘heavenly lagoon’. Don’t ask. Watch. Beverage warnings of a completely different kind.


Love Crimes of Kabul – I thought this one would tick me off. After all, Muslims imprisoning women for having sex? Press buttons much? But as it turns out, the Kabul women’s prison isn’t that a bad place to live; in fact, it’s much better than the living conditions most of the women had before they went to prison. And the ‘women’ whose stories we follow are really ‘girls’ – teenagers –two of whom are there at least in part because they’re not too bright. The third story, I’m having a tough time sorting out who may or may not have done what with whom and why. But the other two subjects were hormonal teenagers who got together with other hormonal teenagers and did what comes naturally. And none of them were punished nearly as severely as they could have been, and the boys were also punished for their roles in it. I kept waiting to be outraged. I’m not.


The Curious Case of Curt Flood – This one is narrated by Liev Schreiber. I completely failed to recognize his voice. Other than that, very professional and straightforward film which leaves you to ask and answer your own questions about a guy who was straightforward to his own detriment. Flood, of course, challenged baseball’s reserve clause and anti-trust status and lost at the Supreme Court level, barely. A few years later, a pair of white players would try the same thing and succeed. One could say Flood moved the courts closer to their eventual decision; or one could say his case failed because he was black. The answer is probably both. Flood objected to the reserve clause because he found it akin to slavery and a civil rights issue, and was willing to risk his career for it. He did lose his career, but not because of the suit; the Senators signed him to a huge contract anyway. Flood lost his career because he was an alcoholic, a circumstance not helped by the anti-trust fight. For the record, I think he belongs in the Hall of Fame. Watch and see what you think.


Magic v Bird – Again Liev Schreiber and again I didn’t recognize him. Recorded this one for Mom, who has always adored both players. I’ve never been a basketball fan and so I watched for the story of the men, not the players. Unfortunately for me, the movie was more about the sport than about Magic and Bird. Nothing wrong with it in terms of technique or narrative though, and if you are a basketball fan, a must-see.


The Promise – If you’re a fan of Bruce Springsteen – and if you’ve been reading my blog, you know I am – you will love this documentary. If you don’t like Bruce, you’ll hate it. It’s that simple. It was particularly poignant to watch this now that Clarence Clemons has passed (Danny Federici passed shortly after the present-day filming and he didn’t look well). For those unfamiliar, after ‘Born to Run’ Springsteen took an unusually long time to craft the followup record, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, and in fact there were so many songs left over from that album, he gave several away, pushed several onto his next album and left a bunch sitting on the shelf until ‘The Promise’ was released last year. The film chronicles what Bruce and the band were doing during that time, in great detail (and with a remarkable amount of footage from 77-78 included.) It’s a fan’s dream.


Citizen USA –  It sounded like a great idea – travelling to citizenship ceremonies in every state to record immigrants gaining citizenship. Sometimes it is a great idea. But most states are only represented by ‘Welcome To (state)’ signs. A lot of the camerawork is dubious, very shaky and occasionally unfocussed. And the editing is really hectic, as segments end and begin abruptly and the cuts don’t always make sense. The immigrants are the stars here, they could have been showcased better.


Triangle – You know those sort-of documentaries/biographies they run on basic cable where they only have five photos of something so they keep showing them over and over? Yep. Same few photos repeatedly. And as the Triangle Fire happened in 1911, they’re not very good photos either. The Triangle Fire is a fascinating and important piece of American history, but maybe this one’s better told in writing, where a paucity of visual images isn’t an issue. If you haven’t read about this, do so. But watching this won’t tell you anything you didn’t get in a book.


There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane – Two years ago, a woman driving on the wrong side of the highway killed eight people, herself included. Confession – I was one of those people who spent the first week after the accident obsessed with wondering what happened. The filmmakers never stopped being obsessed, and spent the last two years trying to piece together what happened. The story is almost entirely that of the Schulers, who will soon appear in the dictionary of psychiatric disorders under ‘denial’. This is what I disliked about the film – the three men in the other car get very short shrift, and they were the innocent victims. The children who died don’t get much more time, and other than being in the same car, they too were innocents. For that matter, I really feel for the witnesses, who are feeling various amounts of guilt and stress because they feel they could have done more to stop the accident. (The segment on the bystanders first on the scene who are devastated because they were unable to save the children is particularly brutal.) But the guilty party and her loser of a husband get laser lens attention. Pfft. Other than that disparity, the film deftly chronicles a complete reconstruction of the accident, the day prior to the accident, and how a refusal to accept the obvious can further destroy a family that already was destroyed. Very intriguing stuff.