Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Documentary: Quick Picks

Here are some quick documentary picks. 

The Parking Lot Movie (Meghan Eckman, USA, 2010, 70 minutes) 
Netflix: Over the course of three years, filmmaker Meghan Eckman tracked the comings and goings of a solitary parking lot in Charlottesville, Va., chronicling the lives of the attendants who were working there. This inspiring documentary is the result. Hanging tough as they navigate the range of human emotion -- from hope to frustration, from a sense of limitless possibilities to stagnation -- the film's subjects embody the pursuit of the American Dream. Netflix link.

I'm not sure how the word got out about this film, but it has been ranking high on InstantWatcher and the other day two different friends mentioned to me that they had come upon it and started watching it and thought it was great.  It is indeed a great short feature that transforms what would seem to be one of the most mundane jobs available into a meditation on the nature of work and its relationship to self-understanding.

Be Here to Love Me: A Film about Townes Van Zant (Margaret Brown, USA, 2004, 100 minutes)
Hulu: Perhaps one of the most underrated songwriters of the last century, Be Here To Love Me chronicles the fascinating and often turbulent life of Townes Van Zandt with a simple unpredictability that mimics the way the artist lived his short life. Directed by Margaret Brown, this haunting and lyrical film combines emotional interviews with Van Zandt’s immediate family and such luminaries as Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and Guy Clark with rare footage of Van Zandt at home and on the stage. Hulu link.

I can't explain why, but Pancho and Lefty is a song that makes me cry (or at least tear up) every time I hear it.  At first I was familiar only with the Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard cover of the song, but one day I heard another version on the radio.  This voice was not a conventional "good singing voice," but I still found myself tearing up and ended up even more moved than I had in the past. I learned that the voice was the songwriter, Townes Van Zant, and Pancho and Lefty is just one of many great songs in his songwriting career.  I've heard a number of other versions (including Emmylou Harris's great cover) but now I primarily associate the song with the quiet sadness of Van Zant's voice.  This beautiful film portrait conveys the late Van Zant's quiet sadness very effectively with quite a bit of archival footage (more than I had expected).  You finish the film with a better understanding of why he was considered a "songwriter's songwriter."

It Came from Kuchar (Jennifer M. Kroot, USA, 2009, 86 minutes) 
Netflix: Director Jennifer M. Kroot examines the works of filmmaking twins Mike Kuchar and George Kuchar and explores the undeniable influence they've had on independent directors such as Atom Egoyan, John Waters and Buck Henry. Known for creating eccentric, no-budget films like The Thief and the Stripper, Hold Me While I'm Naked and The Secret of Wendel Samson, these movie maverick siblings are true pioneers of underground cinema. Netflix link.

At the risk of hyperbole, George Kuchar changed my life when he visited the UW-Madison campus my freshman year in 1989; meeting him and watching his films opened me up to the world of experimental and underground filmmaking.  I can't claim that this film will change your life, but it will give you an insight to the creative minds of George and Mike Kuchar.  If you want to follow up with George's films and videos, you can go to the UbuWeb film page.  The Ubu streams are of varying (and unauthorized) quality, but Hold me While I'm Naked remains one of my favorites.

Sherman's March (Ross McElwee, USA, 1986, 157 minutes) 
Netflix: Filmmaker Ross McElwee grew up in the South and always marveled at how the folks there were affected by Union general William Tecumseh Sherman's legacy. Aiming to delve deeper into the region's interest, McElwee revisits the path of the general's march that took down the Confederacy. But the tone of his documentary changes when he learns his girlfriend has left him, causing him to second-guess himself with each woman he meets during the shoot. Netflix link.

Long before so-called reality television and You Tube turned the confessional into a cliche, Ross McElwee explored the limits of the personal film diary with films like Sherman's March.  Now that we can all shoot HD footage with our cell phones, it might seem a bit quaint to watch a film in which the protagonist is lugging around a 16mm camera and sound equipment to shoot interviews with the women in his life.  But this film still provides a vibrant model for how to transform personal experience into and insightful documentary.  Netflix Watch Instantly also streams three other McElwee films: Time Indefinite (1994), Six O'Clock News (1996), and Bright Leaves (2003).

I look forward to reading your responses in the comments section.  --JLK

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