Last week, I spent two and a half very pleasant days at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual meeting of intellectual leaders from around the planet, with a focus this year on China. I moderated two panels, one on telling stories through film, another on re-imagining public space. I wrote up a few thoughts I brought home from my time there at the Post’s The Style Blog.
Category Archives: Documentary
Catching up on a few recent Washington Post stories. Last Sunday I wrote about a new exhibition of art from Lebanon, art which is sadly but understandably preoccupied with war, sectarian division and the political future of one of the world’s most beautiful and volatile countries. I also took on a new documentary about I.M. Pei and the museum he designed for Islamic Art in Qatar. It may be his late great masterpiece. But how can a respectable film festival screen a film that was commissioned by the subject of the film? If I’m interested in one thing when writing about documentary, it’s the contract of trust–or lack of one–between film makers and the public.
For a few months shy of a year, I called Detroit home in 1995. I loved the city and the people I met there. I loved its architecture and its sadness, its empty streets and surreal highways. It was an endless phantasmagoria, and I barely scratched the surface of its richness. Detroit is the jumping off point for a PBS documentary, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, that looks into the public transit mess that afflicts so much of the United States. I reviewed the film in today’s Post.
WETA will premiere a new documentary about the great, but often neglected architect Benjamin Latrobe, tomorrow evening. I wrote about Latrobe’s masterpiece, the Baltimore Basilica, after it was renovated in 2006. The film is a good primer on what the producers call “America’s First Architect.”
The title, which I don’t much like, strikes me as one of those clever mixing of ideas and media that doesn’t yield anything meaningful. But the film Visual Acoustics is great fun for people who love architecture, especially those who already know the huge role that photographer Julius Shulman played in promoting the mid-century modern architecture that defined an era and an ethos. I reviewed it in Friday’s Post.
For years I reserved a special animus against the Flipper show, the dolphin drama that had a popular run in the 1960s. It wasn’t the cute cetaceans, it was the show’s title, which is also a nickname anyone named Philip must resist, at home and abroad, until you pass out of the age when adorable diminutives seem to apply. A new film, The Cove, features Ric O’Barry, the dolphin trainer turned activist, whose dolphins we remember from the Flipper show. He now works against the capture of dolphins (for aquariums and live dolphin shows) and the far more disturbing practice of dolphin slaughter in places such as Taiji, Japan. The film follows the efforts of O’Barry and a film production crew (led by National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos) to film the grisly proceedings in Taiji. This is one of those rare documentaries that aims for the pacing and entertainment drive of a feature film, and yet still manages to pack in a lot of basic information and argument. As I say in my review, it’s tendentious and by no means objective, and it may elevate dolphin consciousness a bit higher than science is quite ready to accept (surely someone is smarter than he…). But it makes its arguments openly and honestly.
*Genuine lyric from Flipper theme song.
One of the worst things about mainstream journalism is the herd mentality. Sad to see it affecting the documentary world, too. Here we have a new film about Herb and Dorothy Vogel, the adorable, thoroughly middle-class couple who began collecting serious art in the 1960s. Persistence and charm paid off, and over the decades they amassed an astonishingly rich trove of now-invaluable art. But their story has been told, in newspapers, magazines, and on television. If you tell it again, tell it better. Don’t just retell it, with the usual clichés. This one, sadly, is just for bird lovers.
I may be very late to this, but I’ll share anway. One little discovery during my preparation for the SILVERDOCS film criticism panel last week is this dead-on parody of the Ken Burns documentary style, by comic John Hodgman. Enjoy Hobo Matters, which proves that with a guitar, one grainy black-and-white photograph and some purple prose, you don’t need a huge budget to make a documentary. Truth is optional.