Category Archives: documentary

Apollo 11 (2019)

Director: Todd Douglas Miller

I couldn’t let Gibson’s gorefest be the only film I watched in 2019, and I thought it was high time I actually watched something new, given that I haven’t watched any new films since 2016, hence tonight’s viewing. Of course, tonight’s film was actually shot entirely in 1969, so… so much for “new”? Whatever.

Anyway, Todd Miller had apparently just finished making a film on Apollo 17 when someone suggested he tackle 11 as well, and while preparing it a bunch of never-used 65mm film footage was unearthed. Alongside the normal 16 and 35 film plus video, this gives an added sense of awe to an otherwise fairly straightforward film. Don’t know why but the launchpad footage in particular and the shots of the many and varied spectators watching (and recording—the only difference between these people and our generation, clearly, is that they used actual cameras, both film and still) the event put me in mind of Koyaanisqatsi for some reason.

I say straightforward because that’s what it is; Miller opted for the Senna approach of sticking only to the original video and audio and not adding new interviews or narration; all he adds is some diagram animation and captions (which I only wish he’d made a bit larger; they weren’t easily read on the TV screen). It doesn’t really need anything else, though, does it? There’s other documentaries about the space program that do that; I like Miller’s decision to just let the original footage tell the story and watch it unfold without comment. And at 93 minutes it’s finely proportioned and never dull.

And OH how good is that original footage? Scrubbed up beautifully (the video footage from the Apollo cabin and the closed-circuit TV cameras around the launch site looks genuinely remarkable for its age, quite apart from being impressive that it exists at all), the whole film looks amazing, glad I got it on blu-ray. The film might be fairly and straightforward with what it does, but there’s also something thrilling and moving about it as the flight moves through its various stages, from leaving the Earth to landing on the Moon to the lunar module rejoining the command module and the final splashdown.

And also terribly saddening in a way. Cos with hindsight we know now that, in many respects the whole Apollo program was a bit of a Cold War stunt by the Americans to finally actually beat the Soviets at something in space, though obviously that doesn’t take away from the American achievement (the joy at mission control was well-earned). And I grew up in the 80s when there was still some excitement about that… I mean, yeah, there was also the very real threat of nuclear annihilation before we got back into space, but there was also the feeling that we would actually do so nonetheless. We had probes going to the outer planets, and if we hadn’t returned to the Moon since 1972, not to worry. We’d be back there soon enough. There was a vision there.

Not any more. I mean, even at the time there was criticism (not unjustified) that the money spent on the Moon mission could’ve been better spent improving conditions on Earth, but there was still the sense that the knowledge we would gain from the mission was important however much it cost, that the science was worth it in and of itself and would, you know, actually make humanity better. Not any more. In just half a century we’ve slumped into an age where science doesn’t matter to people any more, blowing up the Middle East is more important than anything, and shit like the flat Earth has staged a comeback. However much it may have been driven by political ambition in real terms, there was still a vision to the space race and a sense that it would take us somewhere. I haven’t felt that for a long time, it’s not like people—at least not the ones in a positiont to do anything useful—even seem to care about making this world better instead. Enjoy this film if you watch it too. It’s good to remember that at least at some point this sort of thing mattered.

This is Not a Film (2011)

“Directors”: Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb

Which kind of begs the question “well what the hell IS it, then?” One thing I’m fairly sure it’s not, at least not entirely, is a documentary, at least in a conventional sense; apparently it was filmed over a number of days rather than actually being the “day in the life” it purports to be, for one thing. So what is it? Well, basically, it’s a filmmaker making a film he’s not supposed to be making… Jafar Panahi is now one of the most famous cases (outside of Soviet-era eastern European cinema) of a government (Iran) cracking down on one of its national artists; in 2010, after years of run-ins with Iranian censors, he was not only sentenced to six years in jail but also banned from making films for 20 years. In the meantime, he’s under house arrest, which is how we first meet him, and I have to be honest and say house arrest for Panahi frankly looks… not uncomfortable (I mean, I don’t have a wall-mounted flat-screen TV). But, obviously, it’s still a narrow and limited world for him. So what’s a filmmaker to do when he can’t make films? Make a non-film…?

There’s a key moment early in the film where Panahi watches a scene from one of his earlier films, Mirror, in which the child actress ostensibly has a bit of a freakout and refuses to act any more, whereupon that film suddenly turns “real”. Which I gather it wasn’t, but anyway it opens up the question of how much of This is Not a Film can necessarily be called real. Cos there’s an undeniable air of artifice to proceedings, which the film partly acknowledges when Panahi declares his unhappiness with the shots of his daily routine at the start of it. But what about after that? How much of the film becomes “real” once co-director Mirtahmasb joins Panahi? Well, one thing at least: Mirtahmasb jokes at one point about falling foul of the authorities himself, which would in fact happen to him a few months later on another production… and there’s one hilarious bit where Panahi’s neighbour asks him to babysit their dog for an hour or so and the dog goes into a clearly unscriped rage at being on camera… A certain portion is taken up by a real film that isn’t, Panahi describing the script of another film he was banned from making, but it’s hard to tell if even this is 100% authentic or contrived to enhance the point about censorship.

It’s the last scene, however, when Mirtahmasb is leaving and the garbage collector comes in to collect Panahi’s waste, and the latter decides to follow him down in the lift. Something about this seems so natural, partly because most of it plays out in one extremely long uncut shot, that it’s hard to believe it’s not an actual moment of reality… at least until it gets to the bit where the young man encounters the aforementioned dog, and something about that felt just a little too neat. Maybe it was, maybe not. On the whole, a strange and not entirely satisfying experience that I clearly don’t know how to fully process, though one helped by its brief runtime…

Weiner (2016)

Directors: Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg

As the quote from Marshall McLuhan at the head of the film notes, “the name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers”, and if there’s one thing worse than being a politician caught sending dick pics to women, it’s presumably being caught sending dick pics to women who’s been blessed with the surname Weiner. Poor Anthony Weiner, reduced to a human punchline, and a joke that he evidently still doesn’t get himself. The back story is dealt with in a handy opening montage contrasting him as a rising and somewhat ferocious star for the Democrats with his abrupt fall from grace thanks to that crotch shot, before getting down to the brass tacks of him trying to make a comeback as mayor of New York. Which he obviously does under a considerable shadow, although as a politician (if perhaps less so as a person) he seems to have been quite popular… and I daresay he may well have been a contender if only his dick hadn’t got in the way again (minus underpants this time).

Weiner makes for kind of difficult viewing, cos Weiner is so open to allowing some really uncomfortable moments to be caught by the camera (there’s only a few moments where he asks the crew to stop shooting), and “the dumb thing” as he calls it obviously makes him a target for quite an amount of nastiness. What stops this from being merely a blackly amusing cautionary tale is the way in which Weiner’s indiscretions, as he fully admits, also exposed the rest of his team to hurt, particularly his wife Huma Abedin, one of Hillary Clinton’s top advisers. She is a large part of why Weiner may be a joke but he’s not one that you can laugh at too easily (even if, by the end of proceedings, he can kind of make light of it himself). A couple of further developments have, of course, made watching the film now just that bit more uncomfortable; firstly, Weiner’s claim that the filmmakers used footage of Abedin without her permission (even though her absence from the film would’ve left a notable void in it, she provides considerable emotional gravity) and secondly, the news just the other day that Weiner got caught letting his dick do the thinking for him AGAIN and Abedin has finally walked out on him. If nothing else, I suppose that all the voices in the film criticising her for standing by her man will be happy, though no doubt they’ll still tut-tut her for having taken so long to do so… as for “Carlos Danger”, well, if the film makes you wonder often how Weiner can live with the cameras being on him in some awfully personal and embarrassing moments, the aftermath just makes you wonder what it’ll take for him to finally learn from experience.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011)

Director: Alex Stapleton

SBS has been doing a string of schlock-cinema docos on Thursdays this month, and tonight’s was this survey of the work of a man who is actually kind of hurt by being called a “schlockmeister”, and says as much in a vintage interview with Tom Snyder near the end of the film. And yet, well, you can hardly blame people for calling him that, can you, I mean, just look at that filmography, and then look at some of the monsters in those films… can a large part of Corman’s oeuvre not be fairly described as “schlock”? Therein, of course, lies the problem, cos the doco also acknowledges that other, equally undeniable aspect of Corman’s career, where he clearly craved some sort of respect and had ambitions towards higher things, as manifested in things like The Intruder (infamously and allegedly the only film he ever lost money on) and the way he distributed films by Bergman, Kurosawa, Truffaut and the like in the 70s. As someone notes in the film, Corman in the flesh doesn’t seem like the sort of person who would make Corman’s films… Alex Stapleton has fashioned a pleasing overview of Corman’s career, fitting in probably about as much detail as could comfortably go into a 90-minute film, although I fear it does kind of imply that Corman fell into obscurity and out of the business in the 80s; the B-movie industry clearly was affected by the rise of the summer blockbuster in the 70s, and Corman did wind up selling New Worlds in 1983, but a quick squiz at his IMDB entry does show that more than half of his 400-odd producer credits post-date that time and that he’s never really stopped. As for him being an obscure figure, well, someone else wonders in the film why Corman himself never attained the mainstream success so many of his cast and crew would attain… and yet would mainstream success not have meant some degree of compromise? He’s quite appalled in that Tom Snyder clip by the idea of a film costing $40m, not even so much because he could make 20-30 films for that amount but because of how that $40m could’ve been used to actually improve people’s lives. I rather doubt Corman would’ve got on well in that sort of industry. The people these days who are into the sort of thing he did and does are not exactly a majority of film lovers, but among that crowd he’s always been a major figure. I suspect he’d be happier with that.

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)

Director: Mark Hartley

If nothing else, I now know why there were two Lambada movies back in the day, a mystery that hasn’t exactly taxed my imagination for a quarter of a century has now been solved… Anyway, this is Mark Hartley’s most recent venture into feature-length film documentary, this time narrowing his focus down from aspects of national industries to the adventures of a single company, Cannon Films. I was a bit apprehensive of this, cos when it comes to the crunch an awful lot of their product basically seems to have been dogshit. Was there going to be much of interest to this story? Well, yes, vastly more so than I’d thought there would be, and much of that interest lies in the frankly peculiar double act—cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus—that drove the studio; basically, the film charts (in initially somewhat breathless fashion) their rise through the Israeli film industry (which, in the 60s and 70s, seems to have mostly consisted of just them), then their move to Hollywood, where they bought a struggling business called Cannon (the pre-GoGo period of which is unfortunately only minimally dealt with), then their astounding rise and equally astounding collapse, ending in the cousins splitting and producing those rival Lambada films. And yeah, it’s pretty unabashed about how much of Cannon’s output was rubbish with barely any redeeming features, but the overall portrait is more complex… basically, the “bad news Jews” were guys who loved films but lacked the care or discipline to make them, you know, good, and yet, even though they were oddly old-school exploitation hucksters, they had aspirations to be an even more old-school “proper” studio, and a desire to be respected that saw them make films by John Cassavetes, Franco Zeffirelli (who called GoGo the best producers he ever worked with) and, most amazingly, Jean-Luc Godard. As someone says at one point in the film, if Cannon’s “prestige” products had come from anyone but them, those films would’ve been far better regarded, but the Cannon logo was like the kiss of death. There’s something weirdly admirable about Cannon’s rise and just as weirdly tragic about its fall, and Hartley charts this fascinating story well. However, amidst the many talking heads, there are two significant absences, i.e. Golan and Globus themselves… but their absence is explained in a brilliant end credit, which notes they declined to be interviewed and instead announced their own Cannon Films doco, which beat this one into release by some months. Golan died only a week after the first showing of Hartley’s film, and I daresay he wouldn’t have complained too much about that…

American Grindhouse (2010)

Director: Elijah Drenner

For some reason I’m greatly amused by the way this film about American exploitation cinema, or at any rate the DVD packaging of same, actually kind of operates the other way round from exploitation by not advertising any of its unexpectedly plentiful bonus features… including material shot a decade earlier for the original production, which was a documentary solely about Jack Hill, the man Tarantino called “the Howard Hawks of exploitation filmmaking”.  Along the way, though, as Drenner and his crew accrued more interview footage, this was revised over the years into a general history of grindhouse, which I picked for tonight’s viewing cos it’s cult/expoitation/grindhouse challenge time at the ICM forum and I really should make an effort to actually take part, so hopefully this will inspire me some. Drenner’s particular approach is, I think, a good one, in that he looks beyond just the usual 60s/70s timeframe and considers how the exploiters of that period actually emerged from the exploiters of preceding decades (tracing exploitation as a tendency all the way back to Edison), looking at the tension that existed since the 30s between mainstream Hollywood and its less reputable counterpart and how the former’s gradual co-opting of the latter’s subject matter and techniques during the 70s eventually left it with nowhere to go. It’s a bit whistle-stop, in that it’s only 80 minutes long and it’s got to cover quite a lot of ground, with some of its individual topics really being worthy of feature-length expansion (and some of them having indeed been treated at such length), meaning it’s ultimately most useful as an introductory text for viewers not really familiar with the idea of exploitation film, let alone the films themselves, and I think it kind of skates over certain things it could’ve done more with (one limitation is there in the title, i.e. it’s specifically “American grindhouse”, with no real consideration of how foreign productions in that vein, especially the Italian giallo, played together with the American ones). Still, on that basic introductory text level, I suppose it generally does a decent job. Perfectly pleasant viewing.

20,000 Days on Earth (2014)

Directors: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard

I’m filing this under both documentary and drama because I’m not really sure how else to do so. “Dramatised documentary” is probably the best description for it, but that opens up a range of questions that the film invites us to ask pretty much from the get go. Primarily, and most obviously, how much of the film actually IS “documentary”? To what extent is it actually a drama posing as documentary? How far is a documentary still a “documentary” if parts of it at least are staged in some way (and can documentary even avoid at least some degree of contrivance)? That’s a question Werner Herzog’s documentary career has kind of been built on, and we’ve been asking it at least since Nanook of the North, and it hangs over this film… Anyway, our subject is one Nicholas Edward Cave, you may know those bands he’s fronted over the last four decades; I’m admittedly not a mega-fan of Nick—I know, I’m a bad goth—and I wasn’t particularly enamoured of Push the Sky Away, the album he and the Bad Seeds are working on in the course of this film (though the songs sound better in the film somehow than I remember them doing on record). That said, Forsyth and Pollard’s handling of their subject is interesting whatever you make of Nick himself; much of the film is in the form of conversations between him and various people—a psychotherapist, actor Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue, former Seed Blixa Bargeld (who’s… filled out a bit since he was in the band), current Seed Warren Ellis, and a group of archivists—which sounds like death but our directors manage to make it anything but, and of course that whole issue of “real vs staged” helps maintain interest (e.g. there’s photographic evidence of Tracy Pew beating up some German guy pissing on him on-stage, but what about the equally marvellous story of Nick’s teenage transvestism? Did that really happen?). Cave says a couple of things about living for performance and the desire to transform himself into something he wasn’t, and those two statements kind of underpin the whole film and leave us to question the “Nick Cave” we see throughout it; if there’s no definite answer by the end, the journey is still a fun one. Plus Warren Ellis plays a Microkorg at several points, and that always wins me over to an artist…

Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (2010)

Directors: Frank Henenlotter, Jimmy Maslon

There are some outstanding comments uttered in the delightful course of this film, one in particular pertaining to Lewis’ 1967 opus A Taste of Blood, where he says he had trouble with his cameraman because the latter “wanted to make a good movie”. If that doesn’t sum up Lewis’ whole filmmaking career, I don’t know what does. It’s quite appropriate that Something Weird should produce a doco about the man who gave them their name; the good people at SWV have an obvious affection for him and his films, and that’s communicated perfectly in the documentary. Henenlotter & Maslon survey Lewis’ whole career, more or less, with interviews with Lewis himself and a remarkable number of his collaborators, a generous selection of clips from the majority of his films (including one that was never actually finished; there’s even more in the copious deleted scenes on the DVD), though obviously it leans most heavily on Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs!; along the way, not only do you get a very neat potted history of one of the more peculiar careers in film history (this is a man who got Colonel Sanders—yes, THAT one—to appear in one of his films), you get a fascinating insight into a kind of underground cinema that doesn’t really exist any more—not least because it was cinema, it showed on big screens rather than going straight to video like it would a couple of decades later—it was peculiar to a time when Hollywood had yet to latch onto sex and/or violence as money spinners in the way exploitation filmmakers like Lewis did. The documentary is also fairly blunt about its subject’s artistic shortcomings (there is a glorious moment in one of the deleted scenes where Henenlotter holds up a poster for a double bill of The Gruesome Twosome and Something Weird which proudly calls the latter “god awful”), but Lewis himself has never had any illusions about his own work; the films have no pretensions to anything and neither does their creator, and I think that’s why there’s something likeable about him even when you consider how much money-grasping and cynicism really underlies his work. There’s something kind of charming about the cheapness of these films and sometimes the inventiveness that resulted therefrom that almost redeems them. Almost. Terrific viewing.

Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008)

Director: Mark Hartley

Reaching for the comfort food again. This is such a joy, it was when I first saw it at the preview theatrette under the State Theatre in 2008, it was again tonight after I’d rummaged through a pile of DVDs to find it, the opportunity to hate-watch those unspeakable bores Phillip Adams (who still won’t admit The Naked Bunyip was, in its own way, just as exploitative as any of the later genre films he hates) and Bob Ellis (hey Bob! Any more guesses as to when the Abbott government will collapse?) is always good, and the sheer enthusiasm of the film for its subject—the wacky world of Australian genre filmmaking in the 1970s and 1980s—is completely winning. Particularly Quentin Tarantino; I know some people were a bit grumpy at having this American tell us how great our popular cinema back then was (though I gather his participation was kind of a necessary condition for getting the film funded and made at all), but his pleasure at these films is so explosive and genuine that it feels churlish to complain about his presence. And to be sure not everyone in the doco is equally enthusiastic about their participation in the sometimes shabbier end of the Australian film industry revival (I’ve been kind of hard about some of the fruits of same myself in the past); the somewhat cavalier attitudes evinced in the making of a number of the films under discussion—particularly when it came to the safety of stuntmen and actors—can’t always be regarded as admirable as such, so some of the mixed feelings are perfectly understandable. Yet sometimes all you can do is admire the sheer nerve and gall on display; it stuns me that Grant Page in particular is not only still alive but actually having something of a late-career renaissance in the 21st century. Not Quite Hollywood is pretty damn good as an actual piece of filmmaking in its own right, sharply edited and stylish, and a terrific primer on a side of the industry I daresay most of our guardians of film-cultural taste still wish had never happened…

Alternative 3 (1977)

Director: Christopher Miles

It’s fascinating how people get taken in by hoaxes, particularly obvious ones, and even more particularly admitted ones. Nearly four decades after the fact, for example, people are still falling for Alternative 3; a Google search demonstrates as much in seconds. Rewatching it tonight myself, I find myself asking a number of questions about the thing, especially this: just how were people expected to receive it in 1977? I mean, I know how they did—either by not sticking around for the credits containing the actors’ names and panicking about it being real, or by reading the credits and berating ITV for perpetrating this irresponsible nightmare vision—but how were they meant to? The film’s own avowed copyright date is “April 1st 1977”, and I suspect it might’ve been more of a dead giveaway had it actually aired on that date… which it didn’t, since Anglia (the studio behind it) couldn’t actually get a slot for it on ITV that day and it actually aired nearly three months later. But would it have seemed more obviously fake or not?

For that matter, why am I even asking how “obvious” the fakery is? Is it only “obvious” because I already know it’s a hoax? Do the people in it only seem like they’re acting because I know they’re actors? If someone just sat me down with it and said “here, watch this” and I’d never heard of A3 before, how would it strike me? Compare it to Propaganda, which I didn’t know was a hoax when I watched it but I still felt there was something weird and wrong about it. Similarly, back in the early 90s I remember a program called The Einstein Code, which revolved around Einstein having developed a sort of “bad luck bomb”, it just got more and more preposterous, I got more and more “what the fuck is this shit”… and then I saw the “April Fools Production” credit at the end and I howled.

And this is why I wonder how people were supposed to respond to Alternative 3. Was it supposed to seem, you know, “wrong” to them in the way Propaganda and The Einstein Code did; were people supposed to look at this bizarre story of human colonies on the Moon and on Mars in the event of some terminal environmental catastrophe here on Earth and think “hang on, this doesn’t sound right” and wonder why some of the people in the film looked oddly like people they might’ve seen in other films of TV shows… cos what makes me ask is, in fact, the framework in which it’s presented, i.e. as an episode in a series called Science Report. Did such a series actually exist? I can’t actually find any reference to it online except in relation to A3; IMDB only lists A3 itself as an individual “TV movie” and has no entry for a series called Science Report that I can find. SO… if this series didn’t exist, were people surprised to see it on TV? If it did, were people surprised to find it had a bunch of reporters and other staff they wouldn’t have seen before? Did A3 seem, you know, “unlike” the other episodes? How “acted” does it really seem to other people? These are things I don’t know, and that’s part of what makes A3 so hard to actually appraise… the other part being, of course, that the story behind the hoax is the story, the hoaxed thing itself is in some ways just a prop…