Saturday, 9 December 2017


Perhaps it's some kind of mental/optical illusion, but it does seem that there are more and more documentary films being made and released in recent years than say ten years ago. Of course these have always existed from quasi-documentaries like Robert Flaherty's  "Nanook of the North" back in 1921 to rather less 'staged' ones in the intervening years. There were always the masters of the medium like the Maysles Brothers, Errol Morris, and Frederick Wiseman plus numerous serious one-offs, but they never seemed dominant cinema players -- and I'm still not convinced that many cinema-goers visit their local theatre to view the latest offerings. Yet they seem to abound.

As proof of the pudding, Film Four has run a 'documentary season' over the last five nights (late evening of course) showcasing the 'best' of current docs. I've yet to view "All This Panic" (2016) or "Precinct Seven Five" from the same year, but can and will give you my verdicts on the first three:

First up was "20 Feet from Stardom" (2013) which of course won an Oscar for best feature-length documentary. This was a not-too uplifting look at the unsung (no pun intended) heroines of pop music the mainly black backing singers who made so many hits from the 60s forward so memorable. Their musical talents were evident and we can sing along with their choruses without having any idea who these splendid anonymous ladies were. Names like Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, and Merry Clayton mean little to most of us and these fine singers almost never broke through to mainstream recognition, despite their excellent voices and their valiant attempts. It is for this reason that I used the term 'not-too uplifting' above. Yet there were numerous talking heads like Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen telling us that these singers made a major contribution to the development of pop. Interesting viewing but not a real winner unless one is fascinated by popular music of the second half of the twentieth century.

The second offering required the patience of a saint to sit through: "No Home Movie" (2015) by the late Belgian director Chantal Akerman. She burst into the art-house scene in 1975 with "Jeanne Dielman...". I must confess that I've seen few of her (very long) movies and am no expert on her passions, but I do know that she often referenced her mother, a Holocaust survivor. This documentary was her last film and lets us see her mother for the first time as she potters about her Brussels apartment -- on her own or reminiscing with Chantal or her other daughter. Talking about watching paint dry! The old gal seemed chipper enough, but how to explain the five-minute opening shot of a tree blowing in the wind (her mother's resilience?) or the occasional long-shots of arid desert landscapes. Her mother's health deteriorated sharply during the making of the film; shortly after her death (not on screen) Akerman committed suicide, making the doc's title ironically prescient.

I was rather more taken with "Uncle Howard" (2016) with its focus on my own passion: movies. The 'Howard' in question was Howard Brookner who was part of the New York hippie scene of the late 70s and 80s and who died of AIDs in 1989 aged only 34. This documentary is an attempt on the part of his nephew Aaron, who adored his uncle but who was only 7 years old when he died, to honour his memory and his era. Howard spent five years making a documentary about William Burroughs which was well-received on its eventual release but which has subsequently disappeared from view, assisted by the now well-known directors Jim Jarmusch as his sound recorder and Tom Dicillo as his cinematographer. He only made one Hollywood movie "Bloodhounds of Broadway" which he did not live to see released. This compendium of four interlinked Damon Runyan stories, starring the likes of Matt Dillon, Madonna, Rutger Hauer, and Randy Quaid is not a particularly great flick but it makes one stop to wonder what Howard and so many more of his lost AIDs generation might have gone on to accomplish had federal funding to find a cure been more readily available.    
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