Second week of confinement, already. The situation as a friend tells me, feels surreal. Here we are working a long day at home as we often do, which feels completely normal. Then we sign off our virtual world and the real world punches us in the face with enormous figures for casualties, reports on overcrowded emergency services in hospitals, elderly people dying in scores in underfunded homes, and an extended quarantine (if this means ‘forty days’, that’s what we should be ready for, if not longer). The novelty in relation to last week is that it seems now unlikely that schools, from kindergarten to universities, will reopen. And for the record, yes, I think it was absolutely wrong to allow the feminist demonstrations of last 8 March, and any other mass event. But, then, the world looked very different. Only the day before, I had lunch with my friends and though I avoided the demonstrations, I spent a cheerful Sunday morning enjoying an exhibition of William Klein’s photography. Those were happy times.
As announced, here is a second list of great documentaries, from 1966 to 1996. Again, most of these films can be found online one way or another. As you may imagine, the difficulty is that documentary films have proliferated in recent decades for the very simple reason that equipment has become cheaper and, thus, more generally available. Anyone can now make a documentary film with a smartphone and basic editing tools, though the real boom started in the 1980s when video was introduced. We tend to forget that in earlier periods image and sound were recorded separately, which required at least two persons carrying rather heavy equipment to shoot film. Of course, modern documentaries can be as sophisticated as the budget allows it (just think of David Attenborough’s astonishing nature series for the BBC, any of them!) but they are always on the whole much cheaper to make than fiction movies. Beyond this, documentary films seem to have taken a major leap in abundance and cinematic prestige in the 1990s, which is why my selection for that decade may seem quite poor. I also grant that international representation is here limited.
1967 Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061589/ This is the documentary where you see a young Dylan holding a series of cardboard notices which he drops one by one as the lyrics in song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” progress. Pennebaker followed the singer-composer during his first major tour in the UK to offer a candid portrait. If you’re a fan, this will make you happy; if you’re not, you will also feel happy: the film confirms that Dylan was, at least at that point, a pretentious egomaniac.
1967 Titicut Follies, Frederick Wiseman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062374/ Wiseman has 47 credits as director to his name and is a major institution in the field of American documentary. Funnily, he has won no Oscars except an honorary award (2017). Titicut Follies, his first film, is quite uncomfortable to watch: it asks you to consider what life is like inside a rather improvable mental health institution. Curiously, Wiseman made next High School (1968) perhaps because he found that institution another type of madhouse.
1969 Salesman, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064921/ The Maysles brothers, kings of the uncomfortable documentary above Wiseman, team up with Zwerin to follow four rather obnoxious luxury Bibles salesmen as they play all their tricks to convince poor Catholic families to buy their products. The filmmakers pass no judgement, but audiences squirm.
1969 Le chagrin et la pitié / The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophüls, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066904/ French ‘chagrin’ does mean sorrow or grief, but ‘chagrin’ also exists in English as a synonym for ‘mortification’. This is what French audiences were asked to endure for more than four hours, as Ophüls narrates the collaboration of the Vichy Regime with the Nazi occupiers in the extermination of the French Jews.
1970 Woodstock, Michael Wadleigh, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066580/ A three-hour long documentary summarizing the three-day epic concert that defined the hippy era. This is a must-see for anyone interested in both aspects: the music and the youth culture of the time, at its happiest.
1970 Gimme Shelter, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065780/ The Rolling Stones missed Woodstock and they decided to offer instead a free concert on a California highway. What followed was major chaos, including the murder of a man right before the stage where the Stones were trying to restrain the anarchic crowd. The Maysles brothers and Zwerin were there to document the sorry mess.
1973-74 The World at War (mini-series), Jeremy Isaacs (producer), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071075/ I’m breaking my own rules here by including a series, but the 26 episodes of Isaacs’ production are simply astounding. I did see the whole series as a little girl on Spanish TV’s second channel, then called UHF, which says much for what public television used to be like.
1974 Hearts and Minds, Peter Davies, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071604/ This American documentaries tries hard to offer a balanced view of the Vietnam conflict, asking all sides for their view. Made in the later stages of the war, the film offers now in hindsight a very complete reflection on the reasons why the United States lost that war. General Westmoreland, head of the US forces, has the gall to say that Vietnamese people do not value life ‘as we do’.
1975 Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073076/ Talk about discomfort… The Maysles brothers and their co-directors document the life of elderly Edith Bouvier Beale and her middle-aged daughter Little Edie in their derelict mansion. Mother and daughter seem a duo out of a Tennessee Williams play but they happened to be Jackie Kennedy’s aunt and cousin. It’s hard to say which aspect of this documentary is more exploitative. Perhaps watch instead the perfect parody in the series Documentary Now!, Sandy Passage (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4943628/ )
1976 Harlan County U.S.A., Barbara Kopple, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074605/ American Factory, 2020’s Oscar award winner, is heavily indebted to Kopple’s pro-union activism in this film. She documents the miners’ strike against the Eastover Mining Company in Harlan County, Kentucky, in June 1973, a conflict of remarkable virulence in which the bosses did not hesitate to use hired guns against the workers.
1978 The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077838/ The Band were a Canadian-American rock ensemble of great fame during their first period (1968-1977), though I confess that I only learned they existed because of Scorsese’s film. He documents, with taste and beautiful unaffectedness, what was supposed to be their last concert. They returned for a second period of lesser fame in 1983.
1982 Sans soleil, Chris Marker, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084628/ Marker is known for his avant-garde short film La Jetée (1962), which inspired Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995). In Sans soleil he follows a woman’s journey beginning in Japan, offering a sort of personal travelogue filmed in Marker’s unique poetical style.
1982 Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085809/ Reggio’s film (followed in 1988 by Powaqqatsi) is a plotless documentary that asks the viewer to enjoy a collections of beautifully photographed scenes showing how everything in the world is interrelated. Others have followed a similar path but this was the pioneer. A real beauty.
1984 Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088178/ Demme won an Oscar in 1991 for The Silence of the Lambs but he appears to have had a far more joyful time filming a concert of The Talking Heads, led by the volatile David Byrne, at a time when the band were at their best. The minimalist style works surprisingly well and it’s just great fun to watch.
1985 Shoah, Claude Lanzmann, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090015/ Even though it is nine and a half hours long, Lanzmann’s very personal account of the traces left by the Holocaust in Europe is not a series. It is an indispensable work but at the same time a problematic one. Lanzmann has too much visibility and his confrontational style is at points awkward. Enjoy, if you have the patience.
1988 Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, Barbet Schroeder, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095341/ In contrast to Shoah, the four and a half hours Schroeder takes to tell the story of Nazi executioner Barbie are fully justified. This is a tale of horror that shows not only, as Ophüls denounced, the connivance of the French authorities with the Nazis but also, as Schroeder adds, how easy it was for these criminals to escape the law for decades.
1989 Roger & Me, Michael Moore, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098213/ The Roger of the title is Roger B. Smith, the CEO of General Motors who closed down the plant employing thousands of workers in Flint, Michigan –Moore’s hometown. Throughout the film Moore chases Smith, hoping to understand the massive downsizing but, as you may imagine, the executive does his best to avoid him.
1989 The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096257/ The thin red line were the soldiers that, according to Rudyard Kipling, saved the nation from disaster. Unformed in blue, not red, policemen fail to bring order and safety in Morris’s classic documentary about the miscarriages of justice. The gradual unveiling of the truth has been copied by countless true crime documentaries.
1990 Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100332/ This film is not at all about the fall of Paris to the Nazi invaders during WWII as one might assume, but about the non-white drag scene in 1980s New York. Livingston films the low-income men doing their best to enjoy themselves in this competitive culture, also closely associated with voguing (which Madonna vampirized for one of her hits).
1991 Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper,
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0102015/ Eleanor Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s wife, provided the footage on which Hearts of Darkness is based. The film documents the disastrous shooting of Apocalypse Now! in the Philippines (standing in for Vietnam). Coppola’s film was an uncredited adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, hence the documentary’s title.
1993 The War Room, D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108515/ This documentary connects with Primary (1960) and Street Fight (2005) as great examples of the behind-the-scenes non-fiction film about political campaigns. Here the focus falls on spin doctors James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, organizers of Clinton’s first Presidential campaign (who is not at all the star here).
1994 Crumb, Terry Zwigoff, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109508/ American cartoonist Robert Crumb is presented here in all his glory (or lack of it) in the context of his disastrous family life. This the kind of film that justifies why an American male genius can also be an utterly unlikeable personality and that never gets made about a woman (who are not really geniuses, are we?)
1994 Hoop Dreams, Steve James, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110057/ James follows the lives of African-American teenagers William Gates and Arthur Agee for five years, while they struggle to transform their passion for basketball into a ticket out of the Chicago ghettos where they live. The film documents with surprising intimacy the lives of the boys and of their families, offering a sad, stirring description of the difficulties they face. James’s portrait of American high school and university basketball as the key to the NBA’s American dream is not overtly critical but any spectator can see that the road ahead for William and Arthur is a very steep climb.
1995 The Celluloid Closet, by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112651/ Based on Vitto Russo’s book, The Celluloid Closet proves what you suspected: even under the restrictive Hays Code, Hollywood managed to insert in their film plenty of allusions to male and female homosexuality. These become apparent if you only know where to look, which is what Russo did. Epstein and Friedman added interviews with actors who had played key parts in this hidden history.
1996, When We Were Kings, Leion Gast, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118147/ I don’t enjoy boxing at all but this is an excellent insight into the top level of this so-called sport. Gast’s film narrates ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ as the fight between young champion George Foreman and the quite old challenger Muhammad Ali (the former Cassius Clay) was known. This took place in 1974, not in the USA but in Zaire, under the auspices of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
Enjoy!!! Stay home, keep safe.
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