Sunday, February 19, 2012

Documentary Channel: "War Photographer"

As part of their "Weekend with Oscar"programming from February 23-26, Documentary Channel will show War Photographer, a brilliant film about the work of photographer James Nachtwey.

Directed by Christian Frei, this 2001 film (it was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary Feature) was partially inspired by a quote from famed combat photographer Robert Capa, who said that "if your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough." Both Nachtwey and Frei subscribe to that theory as we see in the scenes of human loss amidst the tragedies of war. Frei's camera is often literally over the shoulder of Nachtwey (it is close enough for us to see the readout on his camera as to shutter speed and ISO), as when he is photographing a grieving mother who is crying for the loss of one of her sons. At first, we the audience almost feel like voyeurs; should we really be watching this up close? Shouldn't this woman have the right to feel her terrible loss in privacy, without both a still cameraman and a movie maker filming her agony?

That was a bit of a problem for me, but later on Nachtwey explains his technique, saying that it is all about complicity. "A stranger with a camera gives them (those who are caught in war's crossfire) a voice in the outside world." Nachtwey explains that if it were a random act of violence during normal times, taking images of the suffering would be unthinkable, but that "these photos are OK during war."

Given that remark, it is clear that Nachtwey believes he is performing an important, indeed critical role. One look at his finest work is evidence of that, especially the photos of the undernourished in Africa. Most of us have seen similar photos in the past, but few have the heart-wrenching nature of an adult man who look as though he barely has any strength, crawling on all fours. You see this photo and you want to look away; given this personal reaction, clearly the photographer has performed his job brilliantly.

Frei interviews several magazine editors who have worked with Nachtwey for years; their comments on the man and his work are major strengths of this film. Hans-Herman Klare, editor of Stern magazine in Germany, talks of Nachtwey as being "a remakably uncynical person." He looks at this man's photos, declaring that these images are "beyond my understanding." The shocking photos from Rwanda inspire Klare to say that the refugees are "taking the express elevator to hell." Christine Breustedt, editor-in-chief of GEO Saisson magazine in Hamburg, remarks that Nachtwey has "a library of suffering in his head."

The filmmaker lets Nachtwey share his thoughts; at one point in the film, he says that he looks on his photos "as a form of communication." Thinking about the public reaction to the real life horrors of his images, the photographer is critical of how is work is viewed. "Society has become more obsessed with celebrity and entertainment and fashion. Advertisers don't want their products displayed next to human tragedy." Nachtwey said this a decade ago; one wonders how he would feel about this today!

While Nachtwey is first and foremost a photographer who puts himself in harm's way on the front lines of combat, he does shoot images of the impoverished as well. One of the most moving sequences in the film is when Frei follows Nachtwey in Indonesia, as he takes photos of a poor family who literally lives on the gravel between train tracks; express trains pass by only a foot or so from their "home." The father of one family has only one arm and one leg and we see him enduring his everyday life, such as taking his children to a nearby river to bathe or standing on his one crutch in traffic begging for any money he can get for food. This man never complains and Nachtwey captures him in the most effective way he can with his camera - as well as his years of experience. This sequence is not only a tribute to what Nachtwey does, it's also a testament to the inner strength of the human spirit.

There have been a number of political documentaries made over the past decade in which the filmmakers (on both sides of the ideological fence) have taken clips and assembled them to fit their argument. These works may be cleverly made, but they often lack honesty. War Photographer on the other hand takes a simple and clear path by showing us visions of the madness in our world, as captured by one of this generation's finest photographers. This is a powerful and stirring documentary that is a masterwork.

War Photographer will be shown on Documentary Channel on February 23 at 8:00 PM EST.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Documentary Channel: "Weekend with Oscar"

From February 23-26, Documentary Channel will be hosting its "Weekend with Oscar,", four days in which the network will focus on excellence in documentary film as recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There will be 10 interviews with this year's Oscar nominees; also 20 documentaries that won or were nominated for an Academy Award (both feature and short subject) will be shown.

The topics of these films range from a 1967 film made to celebrate Canada's centennial to a look at a basketball legend dealing with his sons to an offbeat glimpse of the National Spelling Bee. Most of the films however share a theme of war, especially the reality of soldiers dealing with their post-combat lives.

Here are capsule reviews of several films that will be shown from the 23rd to the 26th:

Hardwood - This 40-minute film was directed by Hubert Davis, son of former Harlem Globetrotter Mel Davis. The elder Davis fell in love with a white woman, a taboo relationship in the 1960s and fathered a son with her; he went on however to marry a black woman and fathered a son (Hubert) with her. The film deals honestly with Davis' failures as a father and as the film ends, we see him begin the healing process. While the ending is a bit pat, this is a very watchable film that does explore the differences between the two sons, especially in their physical appearance. And there are some fun clips of the Globetrotters at work at their most engaging. (Shown on 2/26 at 10:00 PM EST)

Helicopter Canada- The title tells it all with this film, produced as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of Canada. Given the beauty of this country, one would expect some mesmerizing images here, but you really don't get your money's worth. One sequence shot from above has workers stringing telephone wire across a forested landscape. You watch this and wonder how this has anything to do with the spirit of Canada. The folksy narration doesn't help either. This is quite a disappointment. (Shown 2/23 at 4:00 PM)

The Story of the Weeping Camel - This feature length film is a charming and highly entertaining tale of a family of goat and sheep herders in the Gobi desert of Mongolia and their existence. We see how dependent they are on camels for transportation and so when one female camel abandons her newborn white colt, the family knows they must do whatever they can to remedy the situation, even going so far as to hire a traditional musician in a distant town to soothe the camel with his playing. Much of this film has no dialogue, as we watch this family deal with its everyday realities, from taking baths to preparing meals and even heading to a town to buy batteries for a radio. A wonderful human story that shows us how these people in a faraway land have the same wants, desires and emotions as all of us. (Shown on 2/23 at 6:00 PM).

Seeds of Destiny - Oscar winner for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1946, this is a shameless look at the atrocities of the Second World War, especially as it affected young children. The filmmakers took Nazi propaganda film and used it against the Germans here, which is fine, but they also show image after image of very young children who were maimed during the war. While the desired effect is to be heartbreaking, the result is that of individuals trying to make the American audience feel guilty enough about their success in contrast to the terrible situation of the inured youth. Apparently it worked, as more than $200,000,000 was raised for relief efforts as a result of this film. A fascinating film, if only for the aspect of seeing how far someone will go to tug at one's heartstrings. (Shown 2/25 at 10:00 PM)

Spellbound - The title is the most clever thing about this feature length documentary that deals with the 1999 National Spelling Bee. One would think this would be a pretty easy documentary to make- just interview some of the contestants along with their parents and then show the competition. That's exactly what director Jeffrey Blitz does and the results are modestly entertaining. Unfortunately as the field of 247 finalists get whittled down to a precious few, Blitz fails to take advantage of the situation, as there's no sense of tension here. Worse yet is an unbelievably annoying musical score by Daniel Hulsizer that basically drains the story of any humanity. His down-home, folksy musical drivel, most often performed by harmonica, xylophone and guitar is meant to be cute (I guess), but it is totally out of balance with the visuals, draws attention to itself and quite simply, is just awful musically speaking. This music clearly ruins the film, not that there was much substance here anyway. There are a few good moments as we see the confused look on some of the contestants' faces as they hear the words they are asked to spell, but this isn't enough to recommend this simplistic film. (Shown 2/26 at 8:00 PM)

Interviews with MyLai Veterans - Winner of the 1970 Documentary Short Subject Oscar, this 22-minute film contains interviews with five soldiers who were part of the combat team at the MyLai massacre in 1968 in which American troops murdered several hundred Vietnamese, most of whom were unarmed. The inerviews, conducted by Richard Hammer and photographed by Richard Pierce and the great Haskell Wexler (the film was directed and produced by Joseph Strick) are simple and to the point as the soldiers are asked about their experiences and emotions of that day. Some express remorse, others merely tell the tale in a matter-of-fact manner, while others point out the actions of fellow soldiers who seemed to show no regrets about this event. One soldier tells his frustration at the everyday aspect of the war; "Wherever we went, we sort of bred the enemy. He just came out of nowhere." Another soldier at the end of this film says, "I guess you could say it was senseless." When there is a story this horrific, often the best approach to telling it is to simply let things play out, as there is no need to further sensationalize the tale; the makers of this film accomplished this brilliantly. (Shown 2/23 at 10:00 PM)

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Forgotten Gem from John Huston

We Were Strangers (1949) is a beautifully crafted film from John Huston that shows the director at his most passionate and urgent, as he gives us a world in which the little man, the everyday man who suffers at the hands of a corrupt leader, must fight this injustice for the good of his countrymen as well as his own soul.

The film is set in Cuba of 1933 where real-life President Machado leads a government that "made a mockery of human rights" as we are told in the opening titles. The people had suffered under this leadership for seven years and a few small cliques are starting to form on the streets; their aim to take back the rights they have been stripped of. Huston includes a quote from Thomas Jefferson; "Resistance to tyrants in obedience to God." We have no doubt where the director stands on this matter.

To combat the unrest among the people, a politician loyal to the president urges the Senate to pass a bill that will make assembly of four or more people in public an act of treason against the government. The head of the Senate asks the elected officials to vote; one by one they stand in support of this legislation. Huston gives us closeups of a few senators who clearly oppose this, but as they realize that their true feelings will lead to the ruin of their career (or worse), they too stand in support of the bill, which is passed unanimously.

We then see a car with four people maneuver through the streets of Havana; this group is distributing leaflets reading "Viva Cuba Libre." A few members of the public pick up these papers and as they read them, the police arrest them as they carry out enactment of the new law.

The police follow the car and are able to shoot the driver; he is left for dead by the others who must save their own skin. They meet with China Valdes (Jennifer Jones), a bank employee who is the brother of Manolo, one of this group. They discuss strategy and soon afterwards as they make their way through Havana, a policeman named Ariete (Pedro Armendariz) shoots and kills Manolo in clear daylight. China sees this from a short distance away; she knows that Ariete is the murderer, but he does not know that she saw him perform the killing.

The following day, China attends a pre-arranged meeting with Tony Fenner (John Garfield), an American businessman who is in Cuba ostensibly to find talent for entertainment revues, but is, in reality, there to fight for the people of Cuba. Funded by money from ex-Cubans living in the United States, Fenner has a plan to win back the freedom of the populace. He will dig a tunnel under the main cemetery and explode a bomb just underneath the crypt of the Contreras family, a member of whom is a popular politician supporting the government. Fenner's plan is to assassinate him and detonate the bomb at the funeral when the president and other heads of state are present.

Photographed in shadowy black and white by Russell Metty (a great cinematographer who would go on to film Orson Welles' Touch of Evil  in 1958 in similar starkness), the film does a nice job of portraying the dark grittiness of the everyday people as opposed to the brightly lit, well-dressed world of the government officials. It's a nice touch to have the people who have been wronged literally doing their fighting underground, while the police wander the streets above.

An intriguing theme in this film is the question of how these men must live with their decision after they are told by one of the ringleaders that innocent citizens may be killed as a result of their deeds. "Should we, who are trying to free Cuba become murderers too?" asks one of the conspirators. Each man wrestles with his conscience, ultimately convincing themselves that they are serving a greater good. It's complexities such as this that lets the viewer relate to these troubled individuals.

As with many Huston films, plans go awry, as the digging leads to a figurative dead end, through no fault of these men. They will now have to come up with another plan to take back the government, an approach that will put both Fenner and Valdes directly in harm's way.

Huston's direction is urgent, yet he does not rush things here; instead he takes his time explaining the caper. There are many closeups which are appropriate here, both in terms of physical space in the frame (digging a tunnel under the cemetery), as well as emotional satisfaction, as we see the faces of the individuals who tell their stories of how they have been wronged by the government. The closeups of Fenner are especially meaningful; we rarely see his eyes and often half of his face is covered in darkness. Given that Fenner has a vital secret to share about his role in this mission, this sense of mystery is a perfect visual metaphor.

Huston co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Viertel, who adapted the novel Rough Sketch by Robert Sylvester. The dialogue is smart and efficient as much of it is expository, as we learn of the various plans suggested by both Fenner's team as well as by Ariete. However, there are a few speeches in which the revolutionaries speak of heroism in the face of oppression that are a bit overwritten. Toward the end, one of the men who has been digging the tunnel says "It seems as we were the only six people alive," a passage that clearly draws attention to itself. Thankfully, lines such as this are kept to a minimum.

Huston delivered a heartfelt film with We Were Strangers that paralleled his world view of resisting fascism and demagoguery. Though it's easy to see why a dark, noirish-film about a fight for freedom in Cuba would not be a box-office success only a few short years after the end of the Second World War - and at the same time the HUAC hearings were beginning in Washington, D.C. - it is a shame that this film has largely been forgotten. While it may not reach quite the brilliance of his best works, such as Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Fat City (1972) or Wise Blood (1979), this is an excellent work that ranks near the top of his portfolio, one that argues that all of us, no matter what side we are on, are flawed to some extent. Our hope is that we recognize those failings and can work toward a common goal for the good of our fellow man.

P.S. There are reports that Lee Harvey Oswald watched this film in the months leading up to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. One can certainly understand why Oswald would be enamored of this project; of course, there is the plot to kill a president but there are also images of pamphlets very similar to the Fair Play for Cuba leaflets that Oswald distributed in the streets of New Orleans just a few months earlier. This certainly makes for an interesting, somewhat eerie footnote to this work.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

"Chinatown" - A guest post

Over at the excellent blog, Film Noir Blonde, my friend Jacqueline recently asked me if she could contribute to my Roman Polanski blogathon with a post of her own. Although this was held last April, I agreed to her request, as I throughly enjoy her writing and the work she is doing highlighting film noir.

So here is her review of the great Chinatown from 1974...

A nervous femme fatale with a slight stutter. A stocky PI with a hot temper and a bandage plastered on his face.  Perhaps not the most promising characters at first glance; in fact they are among noir's finest. Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson deliver knockout performances in 1974's "Chinatown," a neo-noir that ranks as one of the greatest films ever made.

Continue reading at Film Noir Blonde...

Friday, February 3, 2012

Great Movie Quotes - Part Six

It's time again for the latest installment - part six - in my collection of Great Movie Quotes. You know, not the "Here's looking at you, kid" type of quote, but ones that are perfect for the moment in the movie and deserve to be better known.

So without further ado...

"You always look for leaders, strong men without any faults. They're aren't any." - Zapata (Marlon Brando) - Viva Zapata! (1952)

"The world belongs to meat eaters and if you get to take it raw, take it raw."  - Ben Quick (Paul Newman) to Clara Varner (Joanne Woodward) - The Long Hot Summer (1958)

"Did you realize that people are the only animals that make love face to face?" - Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster) - The Professionals (1966)

"We got a dollar ninety-eight and you're laughing." - Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) to Bonnie Parker- Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

"The smell of the flowers only made me sicker. The headaches got worse. I think I've got stomach cancer. But I shouldn't complain - you're only as happy as you feel." - Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) Taxi Driver (1976)

"You see, in a world where elephants are pursued by flying men, people are just going to naturally want to get high." - John Converse (Michael Moriarity) - voice over narration in Who'll Stop the Rain (1978)

"You never had a camera in my head." - Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) - The Truman Show (1998)

"I'm not sure you can get AIDS by burning down your house, but I get your point." - Senator Jay Bulworth (Warren Beatty) - Bulworth (1998)

"Obsession is a young man's game." - Cutter (Michael Caine) - The Prestige (2006)

"It's just money. It's made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it, so we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat." - John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) to Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) -Margin Call (2011)