How does the strongest boy in America transition from a Judo-loving war hero and murderer into a successful health food restaurateur only to become a cult-controlling mystic guru to rich Los Angeles hippies? The answer rests within the gripping tale of the Source Family, a bizarre cult that began in Los Angeles in 1970 and ended five years later in Hawaii. Led by Father Yod, aka Jim Baker, the Eastern religion-inspired group was comprised of mostly young, doped up kids from Los Angeles who were drawn to Baker’s charms and cosmic cool. Not as well-known as Charles Manson or Jim Jones, Baker’s journey from overseeing a popular vegetarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip to leading an almost too good to be true cliché of a group of mentally controlled automatons is a fascinating and faaaaaaar out trip of a documentary that highlights the dangers of group-think.
Albert Maysles, the trailblazing documentary filmmaker passed away a few months ago but his unique cinematic and narrative vision, innovative editing practices and observational attentiveness are still available to enjoy through the viewing of some of his most important works, including: Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter, Salesman, LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (coming soon!), and Primary.
This an electrifying documentary released in 2013 that avoids the stylistic structures and editing of many of today’s nonfiction features. In fact, the film is entirely culled from archival news footage and from videotaped meetings led by city leaders and officials in the wake of the tragic events that took place on May 13th, 1985. Let the Fire Burn is a gripping and tense work of filmmaking that addresses subjects like police brutality, political corruption, institutional racism, freedom of speech, the limits of ‘religious’ freedom, and the right of groups to live outside of established social norms and values. Nuanced and thoughtful, the director never leads viewers down a path toward rigid conclusions or moral judgments but rather presents the social and historical complexities as they played out on local television.
We own a comprehensive reference book called 1001 Movies You Must See before You Die. I’ve used it on several occasions to select titles for the collection. I am pleased to report that the library owns many of these classic films. I thought I would share a film from each decade, highlighted by the editors of the book. There are many films that we simply cannot add to the collection because they are not available or out of print.
Intolerance (1916)—D.W. Griffith’s attempt to counter the negative reception of his previous film The Birth of a Nation
Metropolis (1927)—Widely considered by critics as the first, science fiction epic, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was far ahead of its time, incorporating elements of sex, violence and special effects into the plot structure. It so confused audiences with its various allusions, subtext and allegories that it bombed at the box office.
The 39 Steps (1935)—Before making films that unnerved American audiences in the 1950’s and 60’s, British director Alfred Hitchcock made this high octane film that employs the trope of the character who unwittingly sees something they’re not supposed to see and who then becomes entangled in a mystery (that always involves a chase) that endangers their life.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)—Slapstick and romance never worked so well in this star power-driven farce that features Cary Grant, James Stewart and Katharine Hepburn.
Umberto D (1952)—Made during the peak of Italian Neorealism’s influence, Vittorio De Sica’s heartbreaking tale of the daily struggles of an elderly man and his pet dog will undoubtedly produce a tear or two.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)—One of the great film adaptations of a stage play, Mike Nichols’ film was successful in due part to having a real life married couple playing the lead characters. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor give electrifying performances in this dialogue-heavy portrait of marital gamesmanship.
Killer of Sheep (1977)—Considered by many critics an essential piece of American independent movie-making, Killer of Sheep was Charles Burnett’s first feature and his most critically praised. Subtle yet moving, the film established itself as one of the first films to depict African Americans as ordinary subjects going about their everyday lives, burdened yet dynamic, imbued with dignity and agency.
My Left Foot (1989)—The first of three Oscars for actor Daniel Day-Lewis who gives a fantastic performance in this portrait of one man’s extraordinary spirit in the face of physical limitations and social prejudice.
Goodfellas (1990)—With all due respect to The Godfather trilogy, this is the greatest mob film and arguably Martin Scorsese’s best work.
Russian Ark (2001)—The film that ultimately achieved the technical feat that Hitchcock once sought to accomplish (cameras ran out of film after 10 minutes in the late 40’s)—a film shot in one continuous take without a single cut.
This amazing PBS documentary won more than 25 awards; I’m not surprised. Bayard Rustin was a strong civil rights organizer, peace activist, openly gay man. He lived with pride, refusing to kowtow to those who said he should hide his sexual orientation on behalf of his antiracism organizing. The principles for which he stood are as vital today as they were during his lifetime.
The movie shows several clips of Rustin addressing a crowd. He was powerful and persuasive, whether speaking to Congress, other organizers or young people. I especially enjoyed a scene where Rustin was visiting children overseas. He interacted with them in a joyful, respectful way, teaching them to sing a song. Though they didn’t speak his language and he didn’t speak theirs, they connected, and the kids responded to his kindness and enthusiasm.
The film includes interviews with many people who knew Rustin personally and/or professionally. One of his colleagues on the organizing committee of the famous 1963 March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom, current Congresswoman Eleanore Holmes Norton, talked about how politicians and the news media discouraged the organizers from trying to create the march. Yet they didn’t realize that it just couldn’t fail, with an organizer like Bayard Rustin behind it. “They didn’t know what I knew, and that was that the best organizer on the planet was organizing this one!”
In August, 1963, Ms. Norton volunteered to stay in the March on Washington office till the eleventh hour, answering last-minute phone calls, which meant she had to fly on a plane to the March. “… And If I live to be 500, I will never forget what I saw….” The film then cut to a birds-eye view of the National Mall from above, completely filled with thousands of people marching peacefully.
There are many moving scenes in this film about Bayard Rustin and his influence on social justice across the years. I wrote this above, and I’ll write it again: The principles for which he stood are as vital today as they were during his lifetime.
Civil War enthusiasts will be sorely disappointed if they watch the brilliant film Sherman’s March believing that the critically acclaimed, National Film Registry inclusion is about the 19th century war and the union general’s destructive rampage of the South. Ross McElwee’s autobiographical documentaries are poignant, self-deprecating and honest examinations of his life, notably his sometimes troubled relationship with family members, women and the South (he was born in Charlotte, NC). Noted for the humor and candor that he brings to his one-man, low production films about his angst-filled life, McElwee’s significant works are collected in The Ross McElwee DVD Collection. These are personal works that meditate on existential and universal themes: death, birth, love and family.
We are always pleased at KPL to include in our collections the work of local authors and artists. A recent addition is Becoming Made: The Artist and a Japanese Woodblock Print, a documentary film by local artist—and now filmmaker—Mary Brodbeck. This short but jam-packed film follows the creation of a Japanese woodblock print from start to finish, complete with information about the technique, its history, and Brodbeck’s personal journey toward working in this medium. We learn from Brodbeck’s own Japanese teacher; we are enlightened by interviews with other woodblock artists; we are even inspired by the lyrical thoughts of poet/philosopher Mark Nepo on the idea of slowing down…something that clearly became part of the artistic process for Brodbeck in mastering this technique. And the inspiration she takes from her own personal experiences living near the Great Lakes makes her work particularly appealing to those of us who share that love.
Becoming Made has had several public screenings in Kalamazoo recently. If you had the opportunity to see it already, I encourage you to check out a copy at KPL and watch it again. You’re bound to catch something you didn’t see or hear the first time.
And if you haven’t seen it yet but you have even a passing interest in art, filmmaking, and/or personal transformation and spirituality, I promise there’s something in this film for you.
March was a decent month for film viewing as I've finally gotten around to seeing some high quality documentaries like The Pleasures of Being Out of Step. Here are some other highlights for your consideration.
10. Fox Catcher
9. Top Five
8. Force Majeure
7. Boy Meets Girl
6. The Overnighters
5. Life Itself
4. Days of Being Wild
3. The Internet's Own Boy
2. The Soft Skin
1. A Summer's Tale (Eric Rohmer may not be as well known as his French New Wave compatriots Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut but this late film (1996), finally released in the United States, proved his knack for chatty characters on scenic locales could still elicit charming insights about youthful romance and relationships thirty years after his peak.
The Oscar-nominated documentary The Overnighters is a deeply entralling work that focuses its sympathetic lens upon one pastor’s complicated mission to serve the needy and “broken” men of a small North Dakota boom town. Confronted with both his zealous need to serve as a Christian and a church and community increasingly frustrated and suspicious of his motivations, Pastor Jay Reinke is forced to engage the truths of his own brokenness and hypocrisy. What appears at first as an examination of the personal and social costs of the fracking industry’s impact upon Williston, North Dakota, evolves into a provocative essay on the thorny relationships between Reinke, the community, his family, and the men he seeks to serve. This is one of the best documentaries of the year and one that plumbs the tragic intricacies of American society’s two most hegemonic forces—capitalism and religion with empathy and nuance.