Ross’s Way

Photographic Memory is another masterpiece of autobiography (I have also seen Sherman’s March and Bright Leaves) by documentarian Ross McElwee. This time, McElwee is having trouble relating to his teenage son, Adrian, who is bright, creative, and rebellious. To help appreciate his son’s view of the world, the filmmaker decides to reconnect with his own 24-year-old self, who spent several months in a Brittany town. He has a box of photographs that he can hardly remember taking, and memories of a couple of people: Maurice, a wedding photographer who employed him as an assistant, and Maud, a woman he met in an open-air food market. Can he find them again? McElwee heads back to France, 38 years later.

Thus the film: scenes with his son (and clips of film taken by his son), interspersed with scenes of his trip to France in search of his own youth. Memories return: When he finds the room that used to be the photographer’s darkroom, McElwee remembers the smell of the processing chemicals and the sound of Maurice’s Herbie Mann records.

As to whether he found Maurice and Maud–I won’t spoil.

The joy in a McElwee film is the narration. His voiceover, spoken gently with the faintest trace of a North Carolina accent, is as artfully crafted as a Spalding Gray monologue. If they gave a screenplay award for documentaries….

Photographic Memory (reviews)
Directed by Ross McElwee
Written by Ross McElwee and Marie-Emmanuelle Hartness
Running time: 87 minutes
DVD release date: February 12, 2013

The Disappointed

The People vs. George Lucas is a light, entertaining survey of the grievances of obsessive Star Wars fans, a colorful lot. The complaints cover three topics: Lucas’s 1997 “special edition” of the 1977 film and his seeming desire to obliterate the original version; the poor quality of the prequel trilogy; and the fiasco of the 1978 televised “Star Wars Holiday Special.”

The first topic is the weightiest. Star Wars was a huge cultural phenomenon, and “the people” have a pretty good moral claim to the original edition. A few details of Lucas’s revision, such as the confrontation between Han Solo and a bounty hunter, are ham-handed attempts to rewrite the story. But beyond this, Lucas has been tolerant, even encouraging of fan fiction and other infringements on his creative product. (Will Disney be so easygoing?) And it’s odd to hear “original version” defenders refer to the first film as Episode Four or A New Hope.

On the prequels: There is some attempt to justify them as seeming bad because they were written for children (which the original Star Wars fans no longer are). I’m with the Lucas critics on this one; they’re not very good films.

The third topic seems thrown into the documentary as filler, a sort of “so’s your face” when there’s nothing else to say.

The People vs. George Lucas (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Alexandre O. Philippe
Running time: 92 minutes
DVD release date: October 25, 2011

Disruptors

WikiLeaks is one of those topics that send people into red-faced fury. On one side are those who find the website ruinously destructive, and mutter about smart-bombing anyone associated with the organization. On the other side are those who insist that the site and its founder, Julian Assange, must never be criticized.

I doubt either set of partisans is pleased with Alex Gibney’s even-handed documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. Gibney pulls together generous helpings of information about Assange, his website, and Bradley Manning, the site’s most notorious leaker/whistleblower. To be sure, the stew may be overspiced: Gibney gives plenty of coverage to the red-faced ranters on both sides. But Gibney never lets the story go slack, and he refuses to stack the deck, so that temperate viewers can still disagree as to whether the WikiLeaks mission poisons the Well of Civilization or refreshes the Tree of Liberty.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (reviews)
Directed and written by Alex Gibney
Running time: 129 minutes
DVD release date: September 10, 2013

A Girl Can Dream

Turn Me On, Dammit! introduces us to Alma (Helene Bergsholm), who is 15–just three months shy of 16. She lives in a small Norwegian town, which she and her classmates loathe. (The Pavlovian one-finger salute the kids give the city-limits sign is a running gag in the film.) But the focus of her life is sex: She fantasizes about it, she masturbates with the aid of a phone sex line, and she yearns for a particular boy at school. But when she tells her friends that said boy has exposed himself to her, she is the one who becomes an object of ridicule and a pariah. Only one friend, Saralou (Malin Bjørhovde, who resembles a young Janeane Garofalo), sort of sticks by her.

This sort of material could be raunchy and traumatizing, but the film is actually a fairly gentle comedy, really quite charming–and made, by the way, with mostly nonprofessional actors. Alma is a plucky (sorry for the pun) girl, and she outlasts her bit of notoriety with no great harm done.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (reviews)
Directed and written by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, based on a novel by Olaug Nilssen
Language: Norwegian, with a little English
Running time: 72 minutes
DVD release date: October 16, 2012

The Artist in His Studio

The documentary Gerhard Richter Painting offers some consolation to those of us who don’t always “get” art. Working on a painting, the artist pauses, looks at his work, and wonders if he has just done something terrible. Likewise, an assistant describes looking at a painting and thinking it horrible, and then as days pass finding that the horrible sensation fades away, and the work starts to feel ok. Never again will I feel like a dope because I can’t instantly size up a work of art.

The film shows the German artist, now in his 80’s, creating a couple of abstract paintings. The canvases are large, maybe ten by six feet, and Richter first uses wide brushes (five inches or so across) to apply primary colors–yellow, red, blue, white, and black. He then uses a set of squeegees, from a foot wide to the width of the canvas, to apply additional paint, remove paint, or just generally smear the colors. It’s a multi-day process, and Richter doesn’t start out knowing what the final picture will look like.

Richter is also seen helping to plan exhibits of his works at major galleries, using scale models of the museums to help decide where individual paintings will be placed. He also spends time sorting through photographs from his life growing up in East Germany and from his adulthood there and in the West, to which he escaped as a political refugee in the 1960’s.

This documentary will not appeal to all–at times we are literally watching paint dry–but to the patient viewer it offers some rewarding insight into the artistic process.

Gerhard Richter Painting (reviews)
Directed and written by Corinna Belz
Languages: German and English
Running time: 97 minutes
DVD release date: September 25, 2012

Leads

Alan Partridge takes the popular BBC television character through his paces in a feature film-sized story. Partridge (Steve Coogan) is a midmorning DJ at a town radio station which has just been taken over by a big corporation. Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney), the nighttime DJ, is sacked in a decision that Partridge may have helped along. In retaliation, Farrell takes the station hostage and enlists Partridge as his negotiator, not knowing of Partridge’s role in his dismissal.

Not having seen the TV series, I can only assume that the character from the show is what we see here: a clever blowhard with a knack for saying or doing the exact wrong thing; a man, when made the center of attention, whose ego will blow up like an inflatable life raft. Some may find this character intolerable, but I am willing to indulge: The man means well, at least in those fugitive moments when he isn’t utterly absorbed in himself.

But the main reason for loving the film is Steve Coogan, who is on camera for almost the entire picture. He’s a great comic actor and improvisor. The comedy here is snappy and cringey, but not gross. There is a gag involving Partridge and a septic tank that would be disgusting in most films nowadays; here, it’s almost … antiseptic.

Alan Partridge (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Declan Lowney
Written by Neal Gibbons, Rob Gibbons, Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci, and Peter Baynham
Running time: 90 minutes
DVD release date: June 10, 2014

* * *

Juliette Binoche is the lead of Elles, but her performance, fine as it is, doesn’t quite put the film over the top. She plays Anne, a journalist working on a story for Elle magazine about students who finance their education with earnings from prostitution. Anne is quite taken with the pretty, confident young women, and increasingly suffers from the dull routine of her own life. The story wraps around a day Anne spends preparing a dinner to which her husband’s boss and boss’s wife are invited. The film concludes with that feast, where frustrations come to a head.

The whole thing is just a bit insipid, and I found my mind wandering to another movie about a discontented housewife that ends with a feast. Say! A remake of Montenegro with Juliette Binoche in the lead–that might be just the thing!

The Inevitable Victory of Love and Loving

Sometimes a straightforward story, with clear-cut heroes and villains, is just the right thing. There are setbacks in The Loving Story, a documentary about the court decision that overturned America’s anti-miscegenation laws; but even if we didn’t know any history, we couldn’t imagine any outcome other than the triumph of decency over blunt bigotry.

Richard Loving, a crew-cut white man, not much inclined to conversation, and Mildred Jeter, a polite woman of mixed black and American Indian heritage, lived in rural Caroline County, Virginia. They fell in love, and in 1958 they were married in the District of Columbia. Upon returning home, they were arrested by the sheriff and charged with the felony of interracial marriage. They were sentenced to a year in prison, but the sentence was suspended for 25 years provided they leave the state. After several frustrating years living in Washington, they wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy about their situation; he referred them to the ACLU, where attorneys agreed to appeal their case. In April 1967 the case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, and on June 12 the Court ruled unanimously that race-based restrictions on marriage were unconstitutional.

The documentary follows the Ken Burns model, with chronological storytelling and crisp section cards to keep the viewer on track. There was plenty of archival footage to draw upon–the case made national news when the couple were first arrested. The soundtrack relies a bit too heavily on mood-setting music; I could have done without the banjos underscoring an early man-on-the-street news interview. But the true good fortune of the filmmakers is the couple at the center of the story. The Lovings had just enough steel in them to continue to oppose this bad law, while at the same time they gently showed how much they belonged together, still holding hands after several years of marriage. No one else could have made Virginia’s law look more absurd.

The Loving Story (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Nancy Buirski
Written by Nancy Buirski and Susie Ruth Powell
Running time: 77 minutes
DVD release date: May 21, 2013