Thursday, August 23, 2007


I’ve been watching Christine Amanpour’s documentary GOD’S WARRIORS on CNN (a three part series that looks at Jewish extremists, Islamic extremists, and Christian extremists) the past three nights which got me thinking about documentaries.

Meanwhile, Ray DiPalma suggested I do a list of documentaries, and sent one of his own to me, Doug Lang, and Tom Evans, who all in turn made ones of our own, and a lively e-mail discussion of documentaries ensued.

So there was no way I wouldn’t fall asleep last night making an alphabet list of my favorite documentaries, as I could recall them (with the help of those lists and e mails in my memory):

ATOMIC CAFÉ, THE (great half-campy ‘50s collage) and AMERICAN DREAM (great “recent”—’80?—labor documentary)
BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE and BROOKLYN DODGERS: THE GHOSTS OF FLATBUSH (both of these films are heartbreaking to me)
CRUMB and CHARLIE MINGUS: THE TRIUMPH OF THE UNDERDOG (two uncompromising looks at two uncompromising geniuses)
DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS (the favorite documentary, most days, of me and both my sons, about the origins of modern skateboarding in Santa Monica, where my older boy went to middle and high school and surfed and skateboarded, and where my little one was born and lived briefly on the street used in the first slalom style skateboarding of the 1970s shown in the film, it’s incredibly well done and in your face and possibly the only documentary to have footage of, and interviews with the still living creators of, an “art” form as it was being born! You have to see it!) and DON’T LOOK BACK (the first documentary on Dylan, that caught him in at least one scene being the not-so-nice guy I encountered in the Village before he was famous, but whose musical geniuss I eventually acknowledged, admired, and was inspired by and still am)
GOD’S WARRIORS and GIMME SHELTER (the death of the spirit of “the Summer of Love” came in December 1969 at Altamont Speedway where Mick Jagger’s deal with the devil was paid for—uh, maybe that’s too harsh, but it didn’t seem like it at the time)
HUBERT SELBY JR.: IT/LL BE BETTER TOMORROW (too many celebs and talking heads that didn’t really know him that well, but several who did and share great takes on him and his work, but more important, are the precious sequences of Selby reading his work—including in a weekly reading series I co-ran in L. A. (uncredited) that he religiously read at every week along with other regulars—and being interviewed or just doing his laundry, it captures what made him so unique, and—full disclosure—I’m in it for a few seconds) HAIL! HAIL! ROCK’N’ROLL (the Chuck Berry documentary Keith Richards thankfully got made)
JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY (a great black and white look at some real people in the 1950s, as well as some great music, including that amazing solo by Anita O’Day I mentioned on a very early post about her passing) and JAZZ (the Ken Burns documentary that’s mostly great, with a few exceptions, including leaving out the young Bing Crosby who even Louis Armstrong admitted had a clear impact on early jazz)
KIDS ARE ALRIGHT, THE (The Who documentary)
LIFE OF JACKIE ROBINSON, THE (this came out when I was a kid and Robinson was still playing for the Dodgers; I was so impressed with his dignity and heroic perseverance in the face of the widespread and often legal racism of those times, it changed my life, literally, headed me in a direction there was no turning back from (I wrote about that in the poem “Sports Heroes, Cops, and Lace” in CANT BE WRONG) and LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, MR. LEONARD COHEN (a 1965 black and white documentary about Cohen when he was still just a poet, that also changed my life: it helped me make the decision to stop playing music professionally and concentrate totally on my own poetry!)
MONTEREY POP (like I said in a previous post, full of mostly terrific music and a great take on the real “Summer of Love”) and MAN IN THE WOODS: THE ART OF RUDY BURCKHARDT (great documentary on a friend and great photographer and filmmaker, directed by poet Vincent Katz and Vivien Bittencourt)
NO DIRECTION HOME (I wasn’t entirely crazy about Scorcese’s take on what made Dylan tick in his heyday, e.g. there wasn’t much focus on the effect certain drugs had on him although watching the footage from the period it was clear how great a role those drugs played in his development, or lack of it)
OCTOBER/TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD (Russian Revolution, obviously)
PARIS IS BURNING (an amazing take On African-American men who dress up as women and “vogue” at their annual ball in runway competitions, etc.—it inspired the Madonna song and craze, but the real thing is so much more poignant and, well, real)
ROGER & ME (what can I say, I love Moore’s movies)
SORROW AND THE PITY, THE (in my opinion this black and white documentary about participants in World War Two by Max Ophuls is the greatest documentary ever made, but then I saw it on the big screen when it first came out, and I was born at the beginning of that war and had two older brothers in the service during it) and SEVEN UP! (a black and white documentary by Michael Apted that began the series which follows the lives of a group of British school kids, checking in every seven years—SEVEN AND SEVEN, 21 UP, 28 UP, etc.—to see what effect class and family background has on the ways their lives unfold; the series is like an unending film, as close to watching your own kids grow up as any work of art has ever been, and as such it is often uncomfortable to watch, but also fascinating and, I find, more rewarding than any other film I can think of in the long run, these people have become an integral part of my own life through this amazing ongoing lifelong documentary), SAY AMEN, SOMEBODY (great Gospel documentary) and SICKO
THELONIOUS MONK: STRAIGHT NO CHASER (as close as we’ll ever get to the real Monk, outside his music, and in my estimation he is the singular most original genius of jazz music), TO LIVE AND DIE IN MADRID (I’m pretty sure that was the name of a black and white documentary I saw in the 1960s about the Spanish Civil War that had a great impact on me, especially the scenes, real footage, of huge crowds of citizens of Madrid greeting the Loyalists with their closed-fist salute at the beginning of the film, and at the end—as Franco’s forces march into the city—similar crowds of citizens lining the streets to greet the Facists with their stiff-armed, hand-extended, palm-down salute, it made me wonder how many of these people were the same ones) and THIS IS ELVIS (a mixed bag but worth it for the early Elvis footage, as well as the sad late stuff)
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO KEROUAC? (a documentary by the poet Lewis MacAdams about the man), WHEN WE WERE KINGS (great documentary on Muhammed Ali when he was becoming the most famous man in the world) and WOODSTOCK
Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (about the channel I, and most people working in Hollywood, watched to see movies before videos and hundreds of cable channels became common)


richard lopez said...

just caught the last part of amanpour's reportage about evangelical christians in the u.s. the last part about ron luce's youth movement 'battlecry' is scary strange. why does it always come to fears about human sexuality? what is it about sex that makes us humans both desire it completely and also fear that great desire sometimes at the same time.

on another note, are there documenataries about poets? the only one i can think of is barbet shroeder's _bukowski tapes_ which i think was like a 4 hr documentary made for french tv. oh and ron mann's _poetry in motion_. are there any more than those?

Anonymous said...

Lal--Some documentaries to add to your list: "Night and Fog," and "Shoah," two films on the camps and the Holocaust; "Salesman," a sad story of a not so successful Bible salesman; "Meat," a study of the brutal working conditions in a slaughterhouse; and "Titticut Follies," a scary look at a Massachusetts state mental hospital.
Bob Berner

Phillipa said...

"The War on Democracy", a John Pilger documentary.


Doodle said...

How about The Last Waltz? Or is a concert movie not a documentary? And I agree with anonymous about Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog). And did you mention The Thin Blue Line?


Lally said...

Wow, a lot of great stuff there, and most of it I would agree with. I never saw THE THIN BLUE LINE, I think because there's so many cops in my family I was feeling my old proprietary arrogance again when that came out, but since I've given that up in my old age, I think I could see it now and appreciate it. As for docs about poets, there's many, I have one on my list, the Leanord Cohen one, made when he was only known as a poet and if I remember correctly it opens, or maybe it closes, or maybe both, with him giving a reading, and there's also Bob Holman's The United States of Poetry and an educational TV series from the early '60s I forgot to put on the list that did fifteen minute black and white profiles of several poets inlcuding Gary Snyder, Frank O'Hara and Charles Olsen.

Tom said...

How about Genghis Blues, Rivers and Tides, New York Doll, The Gleaners and I, Deliver Us From Evil, The Weather Underground?

Tom King

douglang said...

An excellent list, Michael, with some wonderful additions in the comments, including yours. I am in particularly enthusiastic support of Bob Berner's recommendation of Frederick Wiseman's films. He's made so many great docs: Meat, Salesman and Titticut Folies among them.

Also, in terms of poetry docs, there was Ron Mann's Poetry in Motion, which was uneven, but with some great bits -- Kenward Elmslie being the standout for me. The film was somewhat impaired by the smug, drunken presence of Charles Bukowski (and I like Bukowski), who was really fucking annoying.


douglang said...

PS I loved Genghis Blues.

Anonymous said...

Harlan County USA
The World at War, PBS

Lally said...

Great additions everybody. Most of them I've seen and could have included. As for that Poetry in Motion doc., I avoid seeing it because a reading I did at CBGB in which I silenced the rowdiest crowd I ever encountered with my rapid fire version of "My Life" (interrupted only once at the very beginning which I answered to with: "This is MY life motherfucker, not yours"), a crowd that had thrown bottles and shit at musical acts before I went on (it was a benefit for St. Mark's after it partially burned down sometime in the late '70s), I was sitting back down at the table I was at with Gisnberg and Waldman and other readers who had not gotten the response I got, a full minute or more before the crowd finally erupted in a long standing O and all that. Mann had me sign papers giving him the rights to my part of the reading, he had filmed all of it, but then, at the last minute, the way he told me, I was cut for "technical reasons" but I suspected in my then paranoia that is was the influence of someone whose ego I'd stepped on or had simply hurt with my arrogance and competitiveness back then. Long comment to say, I never watched the film, but I should and will some day.

Anonymous said...

any new thoughts on God's Warrior's Michael?

tore's tour said...

hai!hail!rock'n roll.

Lally said...

I love Christine Amanpour. Her courage and her straightforward reporting have always impressed me, and the way she brings a particular feminine edge to that always entices me. I think GOD'S WARRIORS exemplified many of her best traits. Though I was unable to watch the segments on Islamic and Christian extemists in their entirety, because of other distractions, my feeling is that in allowing the people she interviewed and/or filmed to speak and act for themselves, they usually convicted themselves of that dangerous extremism. But in some cases more historical background and "facts on the ground" reminders would have helped. In an even fewer cases, but too many for an airtight argument, there was little background explanation at all and the supporters of whichever extremist position could easily point to those bits as proof that they're right in their distortions of reality or twisting of spiritual texts or dogma to support their point of view. Just one instance was the young woman at the end of the Christian extremists segment, she was singing to herself over and over as she left a young Chritians "Battlecry" rally when Amanpour stopped her to ask why she was in what many reasonable people would consider an almost trancelike, or hypnotised, state. The young woman began crying in trying to explain the way she had felt Jesus enter her heart etc. Having had many a spiritual experience myself over the years, I understand her emotional effusion about feeling freed from the bonds of whatever had been bothering her before this rally and interpreting that as a kind of born again experience, and I see nothing wrong with it, however, it was clear to me and I would guess most left leaning intellectuals that Amanpour was feeling some sense of sympathy for this girl who from that perspective looked like she had been taken advantage of in some way, her emotional vulnerability preyed upon by the leader of Battlecry and his frighteningly demogogic preaching that at times seemed more like screaming ala Hitler's famous mass audience speeches and whose rally looked a little too much like a Hitler youth rally. I doubt any young person could make those connections or even see the danger in them. What I'd like to see is a serious theatrical documentary film made about religious extremisim of all kinds, narrated by recognizable religious leaders who themselves ackowledge the danger in their own faith's extremists. That's long overdue in my opinion.

Lally said...

PS: Torre, I wasn't sure if you were just reaffirming my choice of HAIL! HAIL! ROCK'N'ROLL or thought I'd left it off. But either way: Hail! Hail! Rock'n'roll!

Anonymous said...

Thank You for the 'Warrior" insights. It's just a little hard for me to see the two words put together in the same title - the 'GW" that is. Mmmm, makes me curious about how Mr. Bush sees himself?
Ever think about the titles of movies or documentaries that 'should' be made or that are overdue?
Your blog sight brings thought provoking pleasure and surprise!

Lally said...

Thanks. I also wanted to mention Spike Lee's HBO documentary on the aftermath of Katrina WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE. I thought there were a few slow moments and redundancies, but otherwise, it is heartbreakingly truthful about all the problems that contributed and continue to contribute to one of the most shameful moments in our history, in terms of the failures of our political leaders, federal and local. I would love to see Lee edit that series into a two hour theatrical documentary film. It would be an instant classic.