Tag Archives: documentary

Hobo Matters

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.

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I’ll be moderating a panel about documentary film criticism on Friday at the Silverdocs Festival. Participants include David Edelstein, film critic for New York Magazine and NPR’s Fresh Air, Thom Powers, documentary programmer at the Toronto Film Festival, Lisa Schwarzbaum film critic for Entertainment Weekly and Amy Taubin, film critic and contributing editor for British Sight & Sound and American Film Comment. It’s an hour-long panel at 5:30 p.m., June 19 in the Discovery HD Theater.

 The critical issues peculiar to documentary fascinate me. On Tuesday I wrote a quick review of the new film Convention which premieres tonight (Wednesday, June 17) at Silverdocs. Perhaps because I was thinking about issues related to this panel, I was particularly struck by the chance documentary makers take when choosing a subject. It’s a huge investment of time and resources to cover an event such as last year’s Democratic National Convention in Denver. And what if you don’t get particularly interesting material? Do you just walk away? Or make something of what you have?

 Newspapers are very pragmatic about this sort of thing, though the stakes get higher the more they have invested in a story. If you spend a day following a profile subject and you come up with nothing, there’s pressure to pull the plug. Editors ask: What’s new here? One of the reasons we considered reviewing Convention was the hope that the filmmaker’s might have discovered some little tidbit of newsiness the general media missed. And it’s a hard sell, with this kind of documentary, to review it without that nugget of interest. You have to make the case that the film is worthwhile as film. In the daily crush of movie coverage, it’s not always easy to do that for documentaries.

 Call it the romance of content, and it’s a romance that confuses audiences as much as critics. How to distinguish a documentary with an important and compelling subject from a well-made, path-breaking documentary (that may or may not have a sexy topic)? Should the rules be different for a documentary about someone suffering from cancer and a fictional film about the same subject? If you lament the clichés of the former, you may seem callous to the suffering of the cancer patient who has offered up his or her privacy to the filmmaker. I reviewed IOUSA—a documentary about our national fiscal irresponsibility—a while back and found the mechanics and methods of the film rather wanting. Many people read my review as proof that I’m not interested in the powerful concerns raised by our ballooning national debt. It’s a problem that has dogged the way we think about photography: A photograph of something beautiful isn’t necessarily a beautiful photograph.

 I expect that we will spend some time discussing the parlous state of contemporary criticism and the future of it, too. Thom Powers wrote an insightful piece back in November asking the question: Where are the great documentary critics? Given the richness of the form, the flowering of creativity, the sheer number of new documentaries, how can we encourage more and better critical writing? The problem is made more pressing by the rapid decline in the traditional media—a decline which may, paradoxically, make the documentary world all the richer, and more essential, as fewer stories are covered in the old places. What are the possibilities for a new web-based criticism? I was about to say I’m skeptical, then I remembered I’m now writing a blog.

 This, and much more. If you can’t make it Friday (and even if you can) feel free to post ideas and questions for the panel here. And I’ll do my best to include them in Friday’s discussion.

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Put Locke to Work

I received a brief email from a reader who took issue (I think) with my review of the Academy Award nominated “The Garden,” appearing in today’s “Post.” I framed this documentary, about the contest over a 14-acre community garden in South Central Los Angeles, in terms of John Locke’s theory of property.

“Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature has provided and left it in, he has mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature has placed it in, it has by this labor something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men.”

Mix your labor with the earth, and that patch of earth is yours. It’s an enticing theory, especially if you live in a country such as the U. S. which retains a vigorous cultural memory of the frontier. Yes, of course the frontier wasn’t empty, and there were plenty of native people mixing labor with it before the Europeans arrived with their more heavy-handed mixing. But that doesn’t mean that the idea of owning something simply through its improvement and its upkeep doesn’t have powerful resonance. And it’s that power that makes the gardeners in “The Garden,” mostly poor Hispanic residents, sympathetic figures despite the deeply complex question of who actually owns the land they’re tilling.

My email interlocutor asked what seemed at first like a non sequitur: What do you have to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? In general, I find it best not to introduce flash-point issues such as Middle East conflict into reviews of community gardening movies. But the writer has a point. And it’s an all the more salient point given that I reviewed “Lemon Tree”—a drama based on a real life story about a Palestinian woman who loses her family’s lemon grove when the Israeli minister of defense moves in next door–a week earlier. If I was going to bring up Locke, perhaps that was the time.

Locke’s theory of property was probably never meant to leave the rarefied confines of the State of the Nature, that all-purpose intellectual breeding ground located somewhere between the North Pole and the Land of the Purple Ponies. But it remains an emotional idea, a feeling about ownership and rights more than an argument. It is curious how powerful the feeling is, especially given what I wrote about Peter Brown’s lecture a few days ago. Paradise is pre-work, pre-tilling, pre-mixing your labor with the land. Locke’s ideal shows how far we’ve come since the Loss of Eden. Both movies dip into paradise imagery: the Lemon Grove and the South Central Garden are clearly meant to be Edenic patches in a hostile, ugly world. But their ownership, their connection to the people who have made them into a little bit of paradise, is all through that very post-lapsarian idea of work.

That said, I’m still not likely to gratuitously raise the Israel-Palestine conflict in any movie review that isn’t explicitly about the Israel-Palestine conflict. There’s no margin in it.

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