Amazing Grace: Everything and Desire for More

Amazing Grace was a labor of love that Sydney Pollack was never able to pull off alive. He was always too busy according to IMDB, to finish syncing voice to video. Instead, before he died of cancer, he handed off the project to Alan Elliott (whose IMDB bio does not glean much info, besides a personal blog link to a spooky place that hasn’t been touched since the early aughts). Sure, Alan has done a lot of composing, but this is his first directorial production.

My guess is he’s a man of few words. The only narrative contained were the four to five captions that started the film. Perfection for a music purist, a mindset of, “Just let the girl (and marvelous choir and studio band) sing and play”. Raw footage without ‘story interruptus’ allows the audience the vicarious awe and joy as the church onlookers dance, cry and shout out passionate spiritual yelps.

Yet, I was still hungry for story….what was happening behind the scenes? What was Aretha like as a woman? Why didn’t she want this made until after she passed away?

Story implied in the footage was that her dad was adoring and proud, and I loved the paternal moment where he wiped her adorable 29 year old face of sweat as she began another feverish number.

Maybe it’s that I’m/we’re so use to knowing every intimate detail (and then some) these days of documentary subjects that I felt like I was missing something. Perhaps what I really miss are days like these in 1971 when things were simpler and people were afforded privacy. No one in Aretha’s audience was caught looking zombie like into phones or surreptitiously trying to capture an image on such nuisance contraptions.

So really, Amazing Grace was everything you’d want it to be. And in the words of philosopher Slavoj Zizek, perhaps it’s time for us to stop trying to be progressive to the point of ruination and actually reach back to what worked in the past. I loved the 70’s. And moreover, I also loved Aretha, too.

Making of Montgomery Clift: A Timely and Worthy Mission

With a busy life, I was able to score two Sarasota Film Fest Tickets.

My first film was a new documentary by Rob Clift, Montgomery Clift’s nephew, Making of Montgomery Clift .

First and foremost, bless Rob Clift for caring enough about his Uncle’s reputation (and indirectly his Dad who ripped Clift’s biographer for warping his life story) to try to establish facts. My friend Barry Rothman, author of Mary Ann or Ginger?, a film aficionado, basically told me the side of the story he (and most of the general public) was fed.

Unfortunately, Barry did not see the film and now I must burst his bubble, taking the torch of Rob Clift in informing him that Montgomery was not losing his mind during Judgment at Nuremberg, but tormented with rewriting the script (proof shown in this documentary) to make his role more believable. In fact, Montgomery did this with almost every script, carving it into his own language. Thus, he was not only an accomplished actor, but a script doctor as well.

He was also NOT miserable after his car accident and actually thought his refurbished face had more character for acting.

Probably addicted to pain killers and quite the drinker, he did die very young from a heart attack. But women and men alike who loved him, knew him to be engaged with life.

In this post fact world, where the loudest and most repetitive propagandist voices are the ones given credibility, Rob Clift stands up to try to set the record straight. May we all be blessed with such a noble relative. Or how about this goldenish rule, unless you know what you are saying or writing is absolutely factual about another person’s life, shut the heck up.

And one nostalgic post script: I was tickled pink to see the man who played Jimmy Olsen (Jack Larson) in Super Man interviewed. Who knew he was still alive?

The Invisibles: Better Title, A New Term Perhaps: Tenacitators

Tenacitators might be a strange term, but something about the title The Invisibles makes this film sound like a new Marvel movie or animated deal. And when I think of the four principle characters, real humans who survived hiding during Hitler’s last desperate days, invisible is the furthest word from my mind, rather they are tenacious people who just kept moving until rescue finally came via the Russian and American troops.

In this post Oscar movie drought, how did director Claus Rafle know that I was fatigued with both historical reenactment films and also straight documentaries? Yet here was his film, miraculously braiding the two genres into a moving piece about, can I use my new word? The Tenacitators. Ok, does the tator suffix make it sound too tater totty? (yet another new phrase)

In all seriousness, The Invisibles made a poignant case for those brave enough to resist the Nazis; in one case a brave man typing up letters to send business mail in rallying people to rise up at the risk of his and his family’s life. In the most moving case of the movie, a man thanks the woman who saved him by hiding him and thus forsaking herself.

Claus Rafle is co-credited with Alejandro Lopez for the screenplay which also included well edited stock film footage of bombed out Germany. So perfectly woven, I was never confused going between the three threads: doc, film and real film. The four actors: Max Mauff, Alice Dwyer, Ruby O. Fee and Aaron Altaras, while not ‘big stars’, were serious and believable.

Looking back, the film was strongest in these candid interviews of the two women and two men who lived to tell. Each beautiful in their own right, not preaching or whining, but simply grateful for the literal ‘it takes a village’ salvation. Reading Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles the same day as seeing The Invisibles, I couldn’t help but notice a similar theme in that our ‘family’ ends up being those who care for us daily. Fleeting relationships or those we are lucky enough to see endure are equally important in keeping us alive and well.

Maria “Solo Me So” Callous (Pun intended) vs. Freddie Mercury

It’s all in the ear of the beholder of course, but one of the reasons I cared so much about Bohemian Rhapsody (thank you Golden Globes by getting that right!) was the purity (and full length songs) of original Queen music. The benefit that Bohemian Rhapsody had besides my halcyon high school and college memories forever linked with Freddie’s voice, was that it also told the poignant story of Freddie’s life in full.

In a documentary such as Maria by Callas however, I would have loved more narrative, rather than operetta after operetta. True, I had Habanera in my head all the next day (and liked it!), but that would have sufficed for the sake of more of her life story.

After reading more about Callas after the fact (I was trying to save any surprises to my own ignorance aka Three Identical Strangers for the doc viewing), I wish the documentary had addressed her supposed feud with a fellow opera singer, dating Warren Beatty or Omar Sharif, her childhood (IMDB reports she was in a 22 day coma after being hit by a car), etc.

Instead, the movie either cheats, or is too lazy, relying on three old interviews where Maria speaks of her tough upbringing and destiny to be a singer, with obvious regrets about being childless.

Like Freddie Mercury who I fully realize died of AIDS complications, you have to wonder if regret, loneliness or a broken heart may have contributed to his and Maria’s early demise. I’m certainly not the first to mention this theory, but true genius (Mercury, Callas in singing, Philip Seymour Hoffman in acting, David Foster Wallace in writing just to name a few) often comes at great cost. No matter what, I do believe this doc could have been much more moving had emphasis been placed on story over song.

What Gilda Radner and Anthony Bourdain suddenly have in common

I recently saw Love, Gilda with a new funny friend, so I was grateful that the cancer and death piece of the new doc Love Gilda (directed by Lisa Dapolito) was as brief as it could possibly be. Yet the doc was also too safe, not wanting to hurt Gilda’s mom perhaps if she’s still alive(I researched and came up with nothing, there goes my budding (sarcasm) private detective practice).

Clearly, for reasons I will not give (no spoilers, remember?), her mother was not up for any parent of the year award.

I really enjoyed the old SNL footage, especially those including Bill Murray as I lusted for him in my youth. I also learned some things about Gilda (easily found on her Wiki so NOT a spoiler) that she dated many men (nothing wrong with that, as I clear my throat in solidarity) and was even married to G.E. Smith famed guitarist from the SNL band. I also appreciated as with most comics, there dark side, apart of which spurs them to the therapeutic ‘make a joke out of it’ response.

The commonality I see between Anthony and Gilda now, isn’t so much about them as individuals, though, now that I consider it, they both had depressive tendencies. But more so the lack of verve in Gilda’s doc and Anthony’s last episode set in Spain which aired on CNN last Sunday.

The first of the last of Bourdain’s episodes was set in Africa with W. Kamau Bell as his sidekcik. this one still held the beauty of what former seasons had been known, poignancy, intellect, humor. This last one seemed to be cobbled together, inserted seemingly haphazardly was the Spanish chef’s salute to now deceased Anthony. I get not wanting to end the show on the doner note, but the alternative, some weird bonfire scene with random (I assume Spanish) woman dancing like whirling dervishes. This show was not indicative of the talent of his staff. So I invoke Fred Willard from A Mighty Wind…’what happened?’

I consider this last season to be the closest thing to a funeral dirge I’m going to get. Let it not be akin to having store bought cake at a Moose Club. And truth be told, Gilda deserves more fanfare and emotional heights than this doc. No offense to anyone involved, just my opinion.

Three of Me-Oh: Yikes! Three Identical Strangers

After getting hit up for conversation with two chatty women at the pool this morning before I’ve even had coffee (both lovely ladies), I suddenly thought, ‘if I found out I was one of a set of triplets, I might not like it!’. Lord! But as a documentary, Three Identical Strangers was a 9 and three-quarters of perfection.

This time I really, really can’t say much as to not to spoil your experience, but I beg you to NOT look up any information about this and and to see the film as Madonna, I mean like a virgin, as I did.

I’ll tell you why it’s great; suspense. From the histrionic New York Times reporter to the laconic father to the fantastic background Hitchcockian string music, this documentary was masterful. And having had a crush on Phil Donahue back in the day, I loved seeing clips from his supreme pre-Oprah audience q & a talk show format.

My only tiny complaint, and this happens often with docs (even the recent RBG) is when as filler, they repeat clips. If I heard once, I heard it twice and fitting to this topic, thrice, that the triplets all smoked the same cigarettes and liked older women…ok, ok, got it the first time.

This might be the first big time flash for British director, Tim Wardle, but surely it won’t be his last. I see from his IMDB page that he currently has a documentary series called Flatback Empire about the company IKEA. Surely there can’t be much suspense there, though wait a minute, unless he documents a couple killing each other after a fight as to how to put together a coffee table…come to think of it, this doc may have legs!

The Truth Will Set You Free: Whitney

Leave it to a brilliant Scot, Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) to do a top quality documentary on Whitney Houston. While you may think you know everything you could possibly know or suspect, this doc has a dramatic arc to which I (a huge Whitney fan) was riveted. Macdonald names names and pulls no punches. I do believe even Whitney would be sighing relief at the truth coming out.

Suffice to say, she was not so much an ignorant drug addict and neglectful mother, but a person broken spiritually by abuse.

Does she have culpability in her own demise? Absolutely. However, her parents are just as much to blame. Whitney was better made than the award winning doc on Amy Winehouse. Macdonald was neat and tight in detail, yet thorough in its history telling.

Despite the following distractions, can I just say that while Mr. Rogers can not be beat for his outpouring of love, Whitney the documentary slays Mr. R in that it has much more revealing details than the Won’t You Be My Neighbor including never before seen footage of many of Whitney’s performances including highlights and low lights. I learned a LOT I didn’t know that I won’t spoil. Let’s just say that you wonder whether the root of Whitney’s trouble (and of many people I know personally) doesn’t deserve center stage in research and development of cures/counseling techniques and places designed to help folks heal.

Here’s a news flash for folks approaching a movie theater:
A movie theater is NOT:

a parade. I sat in the front row on purpose, yet out of the corner of my eye I mush have seen at least 10 people walking up an down the stairs. Perhaps they were breaking in a Fitbit, but sit the hell down. Follow my lead, as I think I probably acquired a bladder infection having to urinate after the 35 minutes of previews, but toughed it out not to miss a second of Whitney, the tremendous documentary by .

a chat room. Why can’t you shut the hell up for 120 minutes. Consider it vocal rest. Who would want to utter a sound as Whitney Houston belts her her iconic National Anthem? Apparently the idiots behind me who also had to recline or decline their chairs at least 5 times during the film adding the nails on chalk board flatulence sound they make, leather hitting leather.

a fashion walkway. Some dame had to come in 20 minutes late and instead of ducking under the Disney World maze of walkway to the front row, paraded by us two and half times before landing like a lab trying to find a comfy position on the mantle rug.

Mr. Rogers was a Wonder, But If We Take It Down a Notch We Can All Be Him

Won’t You Be My Neighbor is just what you would expect it to be, which is great for the collective us who all need optimism and love at this point in history. And Won’t You Be My Neighbor the documentary is also a worthy film in that it holds a few surprising insider tidbits.

Director Morgan Neville of 20 Feet From Stardom fame does a great job of weaving show clips, interviews with Mrs. Rogers and former cast members. In looking at Neville’s IMDB page, I wonder why I never heard of Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal and plan to seek that out at Selby Library.

My only quibble with the documentary was the lack of comment on cast member Betty Aberlin who according to IMDB formed a friendship with Kevin Smith and acted in the movies Dogma and Red State. At the risk of sounding like Seinfeld, what’s the deal with not appearing in the doc?

And while Mr. Rogers’ loving nature may seem like a marvel, I’d like to challenge any future protesters on either side of the insipid political strife to literally help a neighbor (meaning impoverished, abused, elderly) in the real time rather than just waste it with bilious talk and sign posts. We can all be Mr. Rogers when you really think about it.

Let This Be a Lesson: RBG

Wow, was I ignorant about Ruth Bader-Ginsburg! Here I’ve been working at BookStoreOne in Sarasota, and in my defense, with a constant stream of books going by me on a daily basis…here was The Notorious RBG book, the RBG workout book (my interior though being, ‘does this get shelved in Humor or Health and Fitness?, There is No Truth Without Ruth, etc.

And I just thought, ok, she’s an impressive ageing Supreme Court judge who misspoke and revealed her opinion about our current President. But after seeing the documentary RBG (BIG THANKS to my friend Carrie who treated me last night at Burns Court Cinema!) I now know how INCREDIBLY impressive her life has really been. One of the first women at Harvard Law School, had children while going to law school, had children while going to law school AND a husband going through cancer treatments. Championed equal rights for women AND men! Battled two types of cancer and decided after the first illness to get fit! Isn’t a braggart and never yells! I mean, this lady rocks!

Now that’s not to say that the doc was perfect by any stretch. Oft times too kitschy, and the old timey stock footage was somewhat lazy, and when I saw CNN produced the doc, I wasn’t surprised. But I so appreciated learning about her that all is forgiven (Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, God bless you). If the vehicle necessary to ‘get me there’ is a somewhat clunky one, so be it. Totally worth seeing and perfect for any Grandma or Grandpa who needs inspiration.

Giant Post Script: And boy do I covet her marriage to a funny guy!

Ode to Grandma and Photographer Sebastiano Salgado

Today is my Grandmother’s 95th birthday. It’s also the day I finished Wim Wenders 2014 Oscar nominated documentary and free Selby Library loaner “The Salt of the Earth”.

What could these two things possibly have in common?

First, my grandmother, Florence Baker, has endured countless deaths and tragedies. From her parents passing, to four siblings, to her husband and her 50 year old son, she has endured. She’s lived in Sarasota since Old 301 was a dirt road to the present where there is barely room for a sidewalk between condos. A mind bending life for anyone.

Similarly, the photographer, on which “The Salt of the Earth” was based, weathered existing among, and taking photos of, dying populations, from the Ethiopian famine to the Rwandan genocide. He also wrestled with his son’s Down Syndrome to the disintegration of his Dad’s ranch. Brazilian photographer, Sebastiano Salgado has also survived.

Not only has this unlikely pair lived to tell, so to speak; they are joyous.

My Grandmother has never giggled more in her life. She laughs at the strife of Pence’s book and its liberal rebuke; she shakes her head at my father who thinks he remembers better than she does.

Salgado found his renaissance in the replanting of trees on the barren Brazilian farm he inherited from his father; in essence turning away from the pessimism of human death to the wondrous birth and survival of nature.

Perhaps the key to life is to focus on joy and to turn our attention to where happiness and re-birth occur.

Both Grandma and Sabastiano would agree, it’s high time to stop the whining nonsense. Look around and take time to appreciate your blessings.