In part one of my series on unique and important documentaries, I wrote about The Act of Killing, a film that tackled the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s, the perpetrators of which are still in power to this day, never having faced consequences for their heinous crimes. This month, I want to discuss a revelatory true-crime docuseries, the subject of which has also eluded any kind of adequate punishment.
A lot of attention was paid this year to HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst—in no small part due to the arrest of the titular subject one day before the final episode was broadcast. If you’re unfamiliar with Durst, he is the wealthy and eccentric black sheep of a New York real estate dynasty who has been suspected of three murders: his wife who has been missing since 1982; a longtime friend who may or may not have assisted him in the disappearance of his wife; and an elderly neighbor whom Durst dismembered while on the lam in Galveston, Texas, where he was hiding out dressed as a woman. Durst himself approached director Andrew Jarecki about doing an interview; Jarecki had previously made a fictionalized version of Durst’s story in the film All Good Things, which starred Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst. Durst believed Jarecki could be the right guy to help clear his name. Needless to say, Durst’s lawyers weren’t thrilled with the idea of putting a camera on him—and for good reason.
The six-part series is a well-researched and finely-crafted true-crime documentary, but what makes The Jinx so unique is Durst himself: the man is a blinking, jittery study in sociopathy. In interviews, his face is a map of deceit and misdirection; and when confronted with damning evidence in the final episode, Durst exhibits a strange, uncontrollable burping—a physiological manifestation of guilt not dissimilar from the violent retching seen by the mass murderer at the center of The Act of Killing. The real coup de grâce against Durst comes, however, a few moments later, when he visits a restroom unaware that his microphone is still hot. I’ll leave you to discover his final solitary confessional for yourself, but I can assure you, there’s never been a moment like it on film before.
After watching the illuminating and highly entertaining documentary Magician: the astonishing life and work of Orson Welles, a film timely released to celebrate the centennial birth of the incomparable genius behind the 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane, I thought it compulsory to sing the praises of Kane’s 1943 follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons—just one of many of Welles’ films shrouded in controversy and legend. After the success of Kane, Welles decided again to focus on a rise and fall motif, this time concentrating on the decline of an entire Midwestern family’s fortune and standing as pride, generational conflict and ideological stasis erodes family unity. It’s a great film as it stands but there are many Welles purists who would argue that the “real” work has yet to be seen. After completing a rough cut of the film, Welles departed to Brazil in order to work on a wartime film called It’s All True. While overseas, RKO Radio Pictures (the studio) took over production of the film, including re-cutting the original and shooting additional scenes against the protestation of Welles. It has been argued that the Welles cut differs dramatically with the studio version, including the ending of the film and overall tone.
Queen Elizabeth II is currently Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. She was crowned Queen Elizabeth II at the age of 25, on June 2, 1953, a year after the death of her father King George VI. Her father was nicknamed Bertie by his family. Bertie was a shy man and he had a lifelong speech impediment: he stuttered. He didn’t like public speaking. Bertie was the second eldest child of George V. Bertie wore leg braces as a result of being knock-kneed. He was left handed, but he was forced to write with his right hand. Bertie’s older brother was much more suited for being king, he was elegant, self-assured, and confident. He became King Edward VIII. Unfortunately, he became involved in scandal and abdicated the throne. Now, Bertie was next in line and he became the King of England. It was a time of new radio technology which meant that the king had to speak into a huge microphone which broadcast to millions of listeners, it was also the dawn of World War II.
For years prior to taking the throne Bertie had had several different speech therapists who attempted working with him to overcome his stammer, but they didn’t accomplish the goal. Bertie’s wife, The Duchess, truly wanted to help her husband overcome his stuttering. She enlisted the help of Lionel Logue, an unorthodox Australian speech therapist who worked with King George VI. The two worked diligently together for years on voice exercises, breathing from the diaphragm, and repeating tongue twisters over and over! Logue actually taught voice to actors. He was with the King when he publicly addressed millions via radio broadcast. Logue was like a really good director in a play, he was not forceful, he was a friend. The Duchess attended the King’s speech therapy appointments so that she could keep the voice exercises going while they traveled away from Logue and London, wherever the King delivered public speeches. Bertie began to overcome his stammer. He had confidence in himself.
The King Speaks: The True Story Behind the Film (DVD 941.084 K544) is a 50 minute documentary that contains actual footage from King George VI of England’s historic speeches. This documentary ought to be paired with the dramatic DVD movie titled: The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth as King George VI, Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Duchess. The King’s Speech is an excellent dramatic portrayal of Bertie’s and Logue’s professional relationship and lifelong friendship.
What ultimately makes the Academy Award-winning documentary film Citizen Four so refreshing and such a fascinating piece of cinema is that the film’s subject was essentially filmed in real time over the course of several days, when Edward Snowden was holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room after leaking classified NSA documents to several journalists and news outlets. This element of being a fly on the wall provides a unique viewer experience, giving the audience unfiltered access to Snowden’s emotional state and personal motivations as he watches his entire life unravel. I’m not sure the film will induce viewers to reevaluate their views about whether or not Snowden should be considered a whistle-blowing hero or a national traitor but as a piece of cinema, it is an absorbing work with all of the elements of a tense John Le Carre thriller that perfectly captures a historical moment. Snowden certainly comes off as a sensible everyman who deeply cares about the public’s interest and right to know about the NSA spying program rather than as an angry ideologue or megalomaniac looking for notoriety. A not to be missed film for fans of documentaries and for those interested in the debate between individual privacy rights and national security.
We are living in a golden age of documentary filmmaking. Just in the last couple of years alone, I’ve seen several nonfiction works that have transcended what the medium has heretofore accomplished. I intend to highlight some of these films over my next several recommendations.
The first of the films I want to promote, The Act of Killing, was a contender* for Best Documentary Feature at last year’s Academy Awards. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and executive produced by two of the greatest documentarians of all time, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, Killing examines the Indonesian killings of the mid-1960s through the eyes of several of the perpetrators. A handful of these mass murderers are invited by the filmmakers to recreate and film scenes about their experiences during the genocide. Disturbing and harrowing, Killing asks these decidedly evil humans—who have never faced any punishment for their crimes against humanity—to put themselves in the shoes of the hundreds of thousands of victims who suffered and died at their very hands. By the end, guilt will manifest itself in a very real, physiological way. The Act of Killing is not easy to watch, but it is an important and unique film—there has undoubtedly never been a film like it before**.
*Tragically, The Act of Killing did not win the Best Documentary Oscar that year; the winner instead was the very nice and not-at-all challenging film 20 Feet from Stardom, a film about back-up singers. Sometimes the Academy gets it wrong.
**But now this unique film has a critically-acclaimed companion piece, The Look of Silence, which examines the Indonesian genocide from the perspective of the victims. As of this writing, Silence is now in theaters and is playing at our very own Alamo Drafthouse Kalamazoo. Please watch and support these very important movies.
Teenage is not a conventional documentary film that attempts to provide a historical summary of the development of the idea of the “teenager” and its formation as an in-between stage between childhood and adulthood. Rather, it’s a film based upon the book of the same title by punk enthusiast, author Jon Savage. Conceived as an expressionist tone poem that ruminates on various teen movements, fads and stylistic trends during the years 1875-1945, Teenage stitches together voiced over diary entries culled from the United States, England and Germany. Rare archival footage is combined with stylized reenactments to give the film a dreamy, high fashion gloss. From the dance hall floors covered with swinging Jitterbugs to cropped haired Flappers expressing their new found freedom to consume and rebel in equal amounts to the misguided Nazi Youth and their antithesis the doomed Swing Kids, adolescence is shown as a transitory moment of excess, innocence lost and exuberance before the reckoning of adult complexities and truths kick in.
Just kidding, some of you have likely seen a few of these little treasures buried deep within our movie collection.
Eternity and a Day--A work of mesmerizing poetry about a dying man's struggle to reconcile his past while befriending a young boy living precariously on the streets of Greece.
The Actuality Dramas of Allan King--A weirdly affecting assortment of "reality-based" documentaries that touch on subjects like marriage, end of life care and a 1970's counter-culture commune in Canada.
Like Father Like Son--A film that asks the question, what would you do if your biological son had been switched at birth with another child from a family with lesser means? Gut gripping stuff.
The American Friend--Most know of Wim Wenders through his classic film Wings of Desire but there's a lot to like about this German/English language adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith story that stars Bruno Ganz and the always unhinged Dennis Hopper.
George Washington--A classic "indie" film set in the south that seems to be under-appreciated and unknown. It's a quirky coming of age drama that takes place in North Carolina over a single summer. A group of young kids are confronted with tough choices as they attempt to grapple with a secret.
It's another installment of Liked That, Try This, where we match movies with similar styles, themes, or intersecting approaches to movie-making. Here goes...
Liked The Royal Tenenbaums try Fanny and Alexander
Liked Late Spring try Yi Yi
Liked Savages try You Can Count on Me
Liked Summer with Monika try A Summer's Tale
Liked To Kill A Mocking Bird try The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
Liked Double Indemnity try The Killers
Liked The Third Man try Odd Man Out
Coming of Age--
Liked Boyhood try King of the Hill
Liked Fish Tank try L'enfance Nue
Liked Ratcatcher try The Long Day Closes
Liked Interstellar try Solaris
Fans of soccer/football will definitely want to check out the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Soccer Stories, a fascinating collection of eight short films detailing the rich history of the sport. The most notable of the films is titled Hillsborough, an investigation behind the the tragic death of over 90 people during a match in a British stadium. Not only does the film shine a light on the likely causes of the disaster but it also exposes the callous cover-up and myth-making led by the local police, tabloid media and political elites, all of whom placed the blame for the catastrophe on the fans.
The Tour de France is off and running and if you’re a bicycling enthusiast you’ll you want to check out our collection of documentaries, including:
The Armstrong Lie
Slaying the Badger
Yell for Cadel
Hell on Wheels
Bicycle Dreams: The Race Across America
Vive le Tour
For book readers, check out these titles