30th Century Man (2006)

I remember an internet friend – those kind you know only online, but have never met face to face – writing extensively about Walker. It was intriguing, but far too in depth. I needed a primer. What I needed was a good entry point and guide to Scott Walker.We all have cultural blind spots. Even when I feel confident that I know a little about a lot of things, I come across some topic or subject that I know squat about. Scott Walker is one such thing. I’m partially embarrassed to admit that until recently I knew absolutely nothing of the singer Scott Walker, Okay, I knew this song, but I never knew who sang it.

If the point of a documentary is to share something of the real world then 30th Century Man is a good documentary.  It is, however, not a film you have to watch. There are long segments of this film where the visuals serve little purpose or add next to nothing to my understand of the film’s subject. Watching others listen to Walker’s work is an interesting element, but it doesn’t pay off. No matter how famous the listeners are, their reactions to the music are too internal to register on camera. Yet, when Brian Eno quips that today’s musicians are adding nothing to development of modern music he’s right. Especially, when we get to hear Walker’s more recent music. Walker is century’s ahead of the pop musician of today.

Let’s hope that at least one of today’s pop artists progress in the wonderful and weird ways that Scott Walker progressed.


Fog City Mavericks (2007)

Fog City Mavericks is a fluff piece and a real waste of time. Admittedly, I watched this documentary with the hope that some screen time would be spent profiling John Korty. Perhaps, some discussion of his early independent films would have been nice, maybe a few clips from The Crazy Quilt, Riverrun, Funnyman. Korty really gets no screen time at all and like so many of the voices in this piece he is really only there via some connection to Lucas or Coppola.

Some of the Filmmakers of San Francisco

After watching this film I suppose we are to think that maverick now means someone who evades the Hollywood system only to create a Hollywood-like system. Yes, Coppola, Lucas, the folks at Pixar, they have all contributed a lot to cinema, but even Fog City Mavericks stresses that they are Hollywood outside of Hollywood. The film also tries to create a cosmic bound between Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Eadweard Muybridge by highlighting that all three of them took a fateful turn towards filmmaking after a life threatening accident/illness. You hear that kids? Skip film school, get polio or wrap your car around a tree.

Their’s is a story that has been written numerous times in the trades, in fanzines, and in the mainstream press. It’s the unlikely story of the little man doing things his way and coming out on top. It’s an American tale dreamt by individuals and cities. If Fog City Mavericks has any real agenda it is to perpetuate that old myth and a similar one about how a town can become the new movie mecca. This week I just saw an article about Pittsburgh being the Hollywood of the East. Every city dreams of being that next big movie town. San Francisco comes close, because it has working filmmakers living there and producing films there, but do we need another Hollywood?

Why couldn’t more time have been spent on some of San Francisco’s real movie mavericks, other than the scant few seconds given up to John Korty and Bruce Conner? What of all the other mavericks hidden in the Fog City?

Dirt (1979)

Dirt I cannot believe that this picture ever played in a movie theater. Dirt feels like something you’d find on television on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of August during a baseball game that is waiting out a rain delay. Yet, there is a theatrical poster for this film and I must assume someone thought people were going to go to the cinema to see 90 minutes of off-roading narrated by a horny old drunk traveling in his RV looking for the next off-road race.

But just who the hell is this loveable inebriated coot? The credits list Clarke Gordon as the narrator, but during the film someone calls our tour guide “Fred”. I must admit I had to look up just who Clarke Gordon was and what connections he has to racing. It turns out he’s an actor with a long record of westerns to his name. Here, he plays a roving narrator, traveling across North America introducing the audience to a variety of different motor-sports. When he’s not filling us in on the details of each race he’s cracking a cold beer and ogling girls.

The film serves as little more than an extended montage of action photography soaked in a heavy 70’s aesthetic. Think lots and lots of lens flares!


70's Flare

I have to chuckle at how easy these 70’s sports documentaries must have been too produce. Only about 10% of the film (or less) has diagetic sound. The narration provides the minimal amount of information needed. There’s little to no story. Wall-to-wall music pushed the film forward.

Songs like “Swamp-buggy boogie” provide a chuckle, but by the hour mark the hokey music and the replaceable shot after shot of racing motor-vehicles is enough to turn off all but the most hardcore gear-heads. In short, the whole picture feels like the Wide World of Backwood Sports. Perhaps, if Clarke Gordon (or who ever the hell he is) were more prevolent throughout the picture Dirt could have held my attention. His horny roving eyes and colorful commentary compare with classic WGN broadcasts of Cubs games, where every commercial break was preceded by shots of bikini-clad bleacher bums.

If the narrator and our tour guide on screen is Clarke Gordon its quite humorous to find that he would later play a character simply known as The Drunk in the Chuck Norris action flick The Octagon , which just happened to be directed by Eric Karson, who also directed Dirt.

If you don’t believe me that this guy is perfect in the role of a lecherous drunk, watch these scenes from Dirt.

Lonely Boy (1962)

lonely boy

Musically, I could not care less about Paul Anka. As a documentary, I find Lonely Boy endlessly fascinating.

Lonely Boy is one of the earliest celebrity documentaries. It predates Don’t Look Now and hints to the endless celebrity reality shows cranked out by today’s cable channels. This short film is part teen idol expose, part promotional film designed to introduce the star to a larger audience, and part experiment in various observational and cinema vérité techniques.

Throughout the picture Paul Anka and his manager attempt to present Paul as both a normal young man looking for that one special girl and a highly manufactured musical commodity making bold moves to break into newer markets. The subjects of the film have a clear agenda for the piece, continue feeding Paul’s teenage female audience the image and sound that drives them wild, while showing those in the music industry that Paul can appeal to a more sophisticated, older crowd; the kind that frequent upscale night clubs. Directors Koenig & Kroitor capture all of this, but they capture something deeper.

A good percentage of the film is presented as fly-on-the-wall observation. We see Paul sing. We see him, in only his underwear, rushing to get dressed before taking the stage. We see him on the Atlantic City boardwalk signing autographs and giving girls kisses on their cheeks. Then there are isolated moments with either Anka or his manager, direct interviews telling the audience just how Anka has risen to fame, while all the while making it seems like he’s just an ordinary kid with big dreams, a solid work ethic, and some raw talent. In a word, he’s wholesome. Then, midway through the documentary the film changes from being about Paul’s rise and his adoring teenie-bopper fan-base to an artist in transformation.

Performing for the first time at the illustrious Copacabana night club Anka must not only win over an older clientele, but also the nightclub’s owner. The filmmakers capture a strange, almost foreign, ritual as young Anka presents gifts to the older club owner. A piece of jewelry to match the owner’s pinky ring and a blown up photograph of Anka for the club’s office are as much symbols of gratitude as they are offerings. This owner is a king-maker who can make or break Anka’s career. As the ritual unfolds before the camera kisses the owner on the cheek. However, the camera misses the kiss and from behind the camera we hear Koenig or Korinor ask Anka and the owner to re-do the kiss. Both subjects laugh and agree to do it again. It’s such a transformative moment for the film, showing new sides to both Anka and the club owner as they drop their pretenses and joke for the camera, as well as showing the makers’ abilities to manipulate a situation.

It would be naive to think whole film is without manipulation, either by the filmmaker or its subjects, one always knows a hand or force is guiding the process. Still, a stark contrast is struck when we see this hand at play. For, there is no technical reason why the filmmakers had to leave in the first, failed, attempt at a kiss. Its inclusion does show a change in behavior in the subjects. At the same time it is a moment of manipulation in a scene about manipulation. After the incident in the nightclub, the question of just how constructed the entire piece is becomes magnified. When the film closes with an unknown passenger in Anka’s car saying he’s unsure why he’s on the road with Anka and that he should be back home with his wife and kid, Paul Anka responds to the man by saying that the guy is not fooling anyone and that he knows exactly why he’s on the road with Paul. The unspoken answers is – because he is part of the business team. Paul is this man’s job and this is how he makes a living to support his family. At the same time, the mention of a family, a wife and child, comes right after we’ve heard Paul singing his hit “Lonely Boy” – a syrupy lament about Paul’s inability to find the right girl. The stranger’s line suddenly echoes Paul’s lyrics. Two seemingly unconnected elements get spliced together to equal the summation of Paul Anka, a manufactured lonely boy singing about his search for the woman who will complete his life, but really he’s just trying to make it big in show business.


Tomorrow’s Saturday (1962)

Tomorrow’s Saturday cheer-up. Michael Grigsby‘s Free Cinema documentary makes exquisite use of sound to connect a loose pastiche of images depicting the weekend activities of an English town. Starting in a factory and ending after a night in the pub, the film wanders from children at play, to a busy marketplace, to a soccer match. Everything is leisurely captured in black and white, with a wide range of grays. Routinely, the audio precedes the images we are about to see. This technique creates a curiosity for what lies around the corner.

Even when the source of a sound is reveled the film’s lack of fully synchronous sound keeps the viewer from a full entrance into the lives of the townfolk being documented. The noise of a factory or the boisterous singing in a pub forever keeps us from evesdropping on the whispered words shared between co-workers and friends. Upon our final arrival at the futbol match we are left outside the field’s stone walls. The sounds of the match spill outward to the crowds filing inside. These moments of great noise give way to quiet, contemplative shots of lone figures traversing the landscape. A compelling tension is born of the intimacy of the imagery and the spatial boundaries of the audio.

Tomorrow's Saturday 1

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City of Gold (1957)

City of Gold is the story of Dawon City, a remote Klondike mining community that boomed during the gold rush. Smooth camera movements retrace photographs of Dawson City at its prime, while the film’s narrator, Pierre Berton, retells stories passed down from his father, just one of the many men who trekked to Dawson in search of fortune. The film is book-eneded with bucolic images of children at play, old men on porches, and dilapidated structures filmed in present day (1957) Dawson City.  The film sets up a contrast between the calm, empty present and the wild, adventurous, bustling past.

While certainly not as colorful as Deadwood, this sentimental documentary impresses me with its ability to pluck beauty from the banal and to mix emotions with history. It’s quite easy to see how this film would inspire Ken Burns. Burns cites this film, by the Canadian team of Wolf Koenig and Colin Low, as the film that inspired him to dramatize history by adding movement to still photos. Breathing life back into dead matter is not easy, but people like Koenig, Low and Burns make it look easy. I’m growing  to appreciate their ability.

Soul Power (2008)

I once read a quote attributed to Yoko Ono. In short it said that if you filmed something, anything, even the banal or mundane and then buried the film for 50 years it would be important. I like this idea of film as a time capsule and I’d love to know where I buried this quote from Yoko Ono.

Soul Power is a time capsule film. Shot in 1974, footage of a legendary, but now forgotten, soul concert in Zaire finally gets assembled and released in 2008.Time has done wonders for the film. More time could be spent placing the concert in context and stressing the relevancy and politics behind the concert, much like this film’s sister picture When We Were Kings does for the boxing match that took place in Zaire along with this concert. However, to suddenly interject modern interviews into this footage might diffuse the beauty and energy from what is on display. What the film lacks in a strong narrative it makes up lyrical beauty. The grainy 16mm film soaked with color and the fragmented editing play out like a dream or memory.