Before falling into obscurity, the slice of life documentary Cousin Jules was well-received by critics in the early 1970's. Restored and released again, this wonderful film takes viewers into a world that to contemporary eyes appears primitive and exotic in view of our high-speed, high- tech, consumer society. Back in the 1960’s, those who lived off of the land in provincial France led slow, ordinary lives connected to the earth and to long-established practices. They made their own tools, harvested their own food and wine, ground their own coffee without electricity, accessed water from a well, and in general, lived off the land with a kind of raw independence and austerity that is almost unheard of in today’s postmodern society, one defined by ease, speed and consumerism. The film features Jules, a blacksmith who is short on conversation but whose mundane tasks are mesmerizing as they are without pretense or excess. The viewer is taken inside the routine rituals of everyday life, slowly, tenderly and without artifice or without a structured plot and yet the film feels fresh, a kind of poetic meditation on the nobility of craftsmanship and the humdrum ways of life that have been largely automated.
70 years ago today, one of World War II's most significant battles was D-Day, the day in which thousands of Allied soldiers crossed the English Channel to invade German occupied France. There's certainly no shortage of informational resources on this topic but if you're a WWII buff or simply want to know more about this imporant day in the fight against Nazi Germany, check out The War by Americana documentarian Ken Burns. This is my favorite work of Burns and his most emotionally dramatic. Soldiers who were there, storming the beaches of Normandy, recount with unfiltered descriptions, the horrors, heroism, and blunders that they experienced on that fateful day and in doing so, provide an unromanticized version of their sacrifice. It's Burn's most stirring documentary and one that is required viewing for those interested in World War II. For those who want their history fictionalized, KPL owns many feature films set during wartime, including Saving Private Ryan, Life Is Beautiful, Schindler's List, The Big Red One, Force 10 from Navarone, The Thin Red Line, The English Patient, The Winds of War, In Darkness, Ivan's Childhood, The Cranes are Flying, and Flags of Our Fathers.
Shola Lynch, a documentary filmmaker who has garnered much critical acclaim for her incisive and salient films, is one director whose films are invaluable, particularly for people like me who didn't live through the turbulent times they speak of. Lynch is interested in participatory democracy and how people, especially people who have been historically denied a voice (and a vote), forge new ways and means of being heard. As the director of Chisholm ’72 and Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, Lynch shares with audiences the stories of the titular African American women, both activists and leaders in political and social justice movements in the late 1960s to 70s.
Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed
Shirley Chisholm was our nation’s first Black congresswoman, and her gutsy run for president several years later was another first in U.S. History; she was working under the belief that people would vote with their conscience, rather than cynically voting for “the man most likely…” Lynch portrays the complicated political forces involved that make for a gripping story.
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners
Dr. Angela Davis sought social justice, not by running for elected office (that would transpire years later) but initially by teaching and working directly with local activists. The events that transpire thereafter are so incredible and outrageous that I cannot retell them with any justice here - Lynch has already done that.
Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed
It’s no secret that the craft beer movement is burgeoning in Michigan—with Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo taking first and second place respectively in the annual Beer City USA poll last year, it’s clear that Michiganders love their craft brews. If you’re interested in finding out more about craft brewing in Michigan, check out The Michigan Beer Film. It focuses mainly on Southwest Michigan, following Greenbush Brewing Company as it rapidly expands and crediting Bell’s for founding the craft beer scene in Michigan. It takes a brief tour of the U.P. and a stop at Short’s Brewing Company, along with a look at a brewing upstart in Detroit. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of brewing around the state, but it is nice to see what’s going on in our area of Michigan, and it’s particularly good to see an industry that’s growing in Michigan. So grab an Oberon and watch The Michigan Beer Film!
Michigan Beer Movie
In case you needed one last, post-Oscars list to use for upcoming checkout's. According to a survey of the editors and contributors of Film Comment magazine, these are the Top 20 films of 2013. Some have been released on DVD and others have yet to hit the shelves.
- Inside Llewyn Davis
- 12 Years a Slave
- Before Midnight
- The Act of Killing
- A Touch of Sin
- Computer Chess
- Frances Ha
- Upstream Color
- Museum Hours
- Blue Is the Warmest Color
- Spring Breakers
- Like Someone in Love
- Stories We Tell
- American Hustle
- The Grandmaster
About twenty years ago, I stumbled on a documentary called Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. It told the story of the investigation into the murder of three eight year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas and the subsequent conviction of three teenagers, casting doubt on whether the teenagers were guilty of murder or just guilty of wearing black, listening to heavy metal music, and enjoying horror films.
Over the years, the documentary filmmakers who made the original Paradise Lost have produced two other films: Paradise Lost: Revelations and Paradise Lost: Purgatory. These documentaries and other information about the case convinced some high profile people like: Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp, and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson to lobby for the release of these teenagers.
After a bizarre plea deal, they were released on August 19, 2011 after serving over eighteen years for crimes they possibly didn’t commit.
Now, Damien Echols, who was on death row for those eighteen years, tells his story in Life After Death. Watch the documentaries and read his book and decide who you believe.
Paradise Lost: Purgatory
Last month marked the 80th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, so if you're going to be stuck inside during these cold and snowy days, you may as well cozy up with a hot toddy and watch Ken Burns' documentary series describing the passage, enforcement, and repeal of Prohibition in the United States. When I watched the series last month I wasn't sure how much I'd learn, since this era was covered in my American history classes and has been heavily mined by pop culture, but I found all five-and-a-half hours engaging. I especially enjoyed the first episode, which outlines the factors leading to the passage of the 18th Amendment, including immigration and the introduction of the federal income tax.
The library has several copies of the DVD, but it's also available to check out anytime with Hoopla, the library's source for instant streaming videos, music, and audiobooks.
If you're interested in fictional depictions of Prohibition, check out the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing, the television series Boardwalk Empire, or Woody Allen's comedic take Bullets Over Broadway.
As rabid a film watcher as I am, time restrictions will forever thwart my capacity to plow through KPL’s stellar movie collection but here is an abbreviated list of some of my favorite films from KPL’s collection, watched over the past year. While we add new releases each week, don’t forget about the diversified depth of our collection. We can’t purchase every movie that is requested or inquired about but we can work toward the goal of having most titles for most of our patrons, most of the time.
Upstream Color: With the exception of the increasingly abstract, fragmented and non-linear narratives of Terrence Malick, there have been few notable American films over the past decade or so that have attempted to remake the kind of Eurocentric, anti-classical/realist/romantic films of the 1960’s and 70’s (think: Godard, Bresson, Tarr, Tarkovsky, Resnais, Warhol, Antonioni). With Upstream Color, a sort of Hiroshima Mon Amour for our contemporary times, one hopes that young filmmakers will continue to take the value of abstraction seriously, reimagining it in new and thoughtful ways.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch: A film that came out (pun intended) way ahead of its time. It’s kind of an absurdist musical that is in-your-face bonkers, but bonkers in the most vital, transgressive and beautifully rebellious way. A postmodern Hair.
Young Adult: Charlize Theron gives a great performance as an unraveled mess of a person that attempts to transition from a life of boredom and narcissism toward a more complete, self-aware state where the adjective ‘young’ can finally wither away.
Sullivan’s Travels: I checked this film out because the great American director Preston Sturges’ name kept popping up in literature on director/writer Wes Anderson (a favorite of mine). This well-written and acted screwball comedy hits the mark and lives up to its acclaim as one of the 1940’s best films.
My Dinner with Andre: A film like few others--this conventions-busting mixture of fiction and nonfiction, storytelling and improvised riffing will either bore you into slumber or thrill you with its originality. We almost forget, due to the strong writing, that the great French autuer Louis Malle was its director.
Insignificance: I’m still not sure I ‘get’ this peculiar film but it was certainly compelling, the way in which a film can unfold as both an irritant and a puzzling enigma.
Hiroshima Mon Amour: Before I saw this Alain Resnais masterpiece about memory, love and loss, I considered Harold and Maude my favorite film. Now it’s number two.
12 Angry Men: Watch this fictional, court room drama and then the documentary The Central Park Five. The very notion of facts, evidence, justice and human objectivity are brilliantly rendered as a hollow collection of outdated concepts with tragic application.
Hunger: Not to be mistaken with Steve McQueen’s first film about the imprisonment of IRA soldiers of the same name but rather the nimble and haunting adaptation of the classic, existential novella by Danish writer Knut Hamsun.
Summer with Monika: Arguably, my favorite film of Bergman’s but nowhere near his best. That distinction belongs to his magnum opus Scenes from a Marriage, a film that should only be approached by the single and the happily married couple.
Rules of the Game: My goal for movie watching this year was to view a handful of those classics considered important to the historical development of the art form according to the Sight and Sound Magazine’s list of 250 Greatest Films; a list created every ten years by an esteemed cadre of critics. Renoir’s masterpiece (rated at No. 4) is there for a reason and its influence can be seen in almost every film made since 1939 that skewers the vacuity of the rich and clueless.
La Jetee/Sans Soleil: Made by maverick film essayist Chris Marker, these two films are quite distinct from one another in both content and style. Both represent the best in avant-garde, envelope-pushing cinema that emerged parallel with the various manifestations of the European New Wave movement.
Picnic at Hanging Rock: This 70’s cult classic by Peter Weir still holds up as a truly original film that tackles the subject of loss, regret and repressed longing, all of which are tied to a mystery that leaves an Australian women’s school in shock and confusion.
Other notable films: L’ Avventura, Stroszek, Bringing Up Baby, Amarcord, The Killing, Neighboring Sounds, Damnation, The Lives of Others, Magnificent Ambersons, Harvey, Pat and Mike, The Third Man, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Searchers, Elevator to the Gallows, As I Lay Dying, Cleo from 5 to 7, Frances Ha, The Silence, Winter Light, Cries and Whispers, Blast of Silence, Through a Glass Darkly, Argo, Shallow Grave, Band of Outsiders, Fanny and Alexander, Mud, Harry and Tonto, Chasing Ice, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Legendary White Stallions. If you like looking as talented gorgeous horses then give this DVD a perusal. This is a DVD about the legendary Lipizzaners. It talks about their training and their breeding and shows them in action and in the country side. Some of these quotes will give you a feel for the DVD. The Director of the Spanish Riding School says “Classic Horse riding is pure Beauty and Harmony” The Rider is the artist and the Horse is the medium” Now, while I agree with his statement and love seeing these horses, I thought that he, the Director of the Spanish Riding School looked like Prince Charles. Ok, back to serious, this is an informative and also beautiful DVD of the Lipizzaners. They are the horses of legends. Another quote “It’s Teamwork, it is as if there was a gossamer thread between the riders and the horses mind.” This is a visually powerful and educational DVD of a legendary horse. It is a wondrous photography of the Lipizzaners. Check it out, give it a watch and be enthralled and educated.
Legendary White Stallions
There are many times in life when we take an action that cannot be undone, and in so doing, head down one fork in the road, never to possibly return to the other path again. I was struck, watching Chely Wright, Wish Me Away, how real that is when someone comes out. Ms. Wright, popular country music singer-songwriter, CMA winner, was raised in a conservative God-fearing home and community. As a young girl, she knew she wanted to be a country music star and she determined to work heart and soul to reach that goal. At the same time, she recognized her crushes on girls and prayed that God would help her somehow overcome her feelings, that God wouldn’t let her be gay.
The documentary incorporates interviews with primary people in Wright’s life (family members, other creative collaborators, people from her hometown,) heart-wrenching homemade videos created by Wright during some of her most despairing moments, plus footage of Wright meeting with her spiritual advisor and, later, her publicist.
Wright’s coming-out process was exquisitely choreographed. The release of her autobiographical book, Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer, this movie and numerous public interviews (with Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O’Donnell and others) were all scheduled to happen one real close together, for maximum exposure. In one interview, Rosie O’Donnell bluntly states: “You’re out, honey….You’re out all day. You’re out forever!”
Chely Wright, Wish Me Away