Tag Archives: Documentaries

Dog Days (2013)

Dog Days

Directed by Laura Waters Hinson and Kasey Kirby, U.S., 2013

By D.G. McCabe

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the DC premiere of Dog Days.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the subject of the film is the world of sidewalk vending in Washington, DC.   The story begins with Coite, a young entrepreneur with a good idea – work with local sidewalk vendors to vary their menus.

On first glance, this may seem easy – after all, who doesn’t like variety in their menu?  There are many obstacles to this idea coming to fruition, however.  There is the byzantine commissary/depot structure that sidewalk vendors have to work with, an endless moratorium on new permits, and competition from both a powerful restaurant lobby and the new food truck craze.

What I liked most about the film is how well it handles all sides of its subject matter.  Like any documentary, the film spends a lot of time with its two main subjects: Coite and his first customer, sidewalk vendor Siyone (who has quite a remarkable story). In addition, the directors also took the time to interview other sidewalk vendors, food truck operators, restaurant industry lobbyists, and depot operators to paint a complete picture of the world they are showing the viewer.

There is no voiceover or narration, and the audience is left to draw their own conclusions from the footage being shown.  No documentary is completely objective (despite the dreams of Dziga Vertov), but I always appreciate it when a documentary respects its audience’s intelligence enough not to spoon feed its ideas to them.

The problem I have with most contemporary documentaries is that they tend to use manipulative techniques in an attempt to convince the audience of a certain point of view.  The films of many pop-documentarians are more Battleship Potemkin than Cinéma Vérité these days, and the entire genre has suffered for this.   Thankfully, there are still documentaries out there like Dog Days.

You might like Dog Days if: You like intelligently presented documentaries that use specific examples to explore broader themes about modern American life.

You might not like Dog Days if: You are a District of Columbia legislator – in that you will leave the theater realizing that there is no real justification for a 16 year moratorium on sidewalk vending licenses and being a legislator, you are not used to being told what you don’t want to hear.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Dog Days (2013) – DC Premiere Information

By D.G. McCabe

We take this break from our Oscar 2014 preview week for a minute to announce that a friend of Grandcanyonscope, Kasey Kirby, and his co-producer/director, Laura Waters Hinson, have recently completed their latest documentary project.  For our DC audience, the film is having it’s Washington, DC premiere at the E Street Cinema next week, Thursday, March 6th.

Dog Days is the story of two DC hot dog vendors and their journey of keeping small businesses running in a city with an inefficient government, an ultra competitive “gourmet” food truck craze, and powerful restaurant and dining interests standing in the way of their success.  For a review from someone who’s seen the film already check out a review at Film Racket.  You can also visit the film’s official website for more information.

If my brief summary and the linked review make you interested, there are still some tickets left for the premiere, which can be purchased at the E Street Cinema’s website.

Now back to our regularly scheduled Oscar 2014 preview week programming.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Oscar Preview 2014 – Documenataries


By Katy Cummings

Since Dan asked me to do a guest spot in honor of the Oscar season, I thought I’d take a crack at the two documentary categories.  I’ve tried to pick my favorite as well as the one I think will win (for the Oscar pools).  Enjoy!

First up, the Feature Length Docs:

The Act of Killing:  This has to be one of the most unusual documentaries ever made.  Men who had been members of Indonesian death squads in the 1960s (who are now in high positions of power in the government), reenact their war crimes as sources of pride.  It was very hard to watch.  I wish the director had provided a little more context (for us ignorant Americans who knew nothing about the conflict), and also provided a little more narrative structure. It was innovative but ultimately not compelling enough for a win.

Cutie and the Boxer:
   This one was my personal favorite.  The tale of Japanese artist Noriko Shinohara  and his (I would argue) equally talented, long suffering wife Ushio had a lot to say about love, resentment, sacrifices, and self respect without ever getting preachy or grandiose. I would love for it to win, but I think it may be too small scale to get the Academy’s attention.

Dirty Wars:  My least favorite of the feature lengths, this is what happens when a great topic gets in the hands of a terrible filmmaker.  This story follows the investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill as he uncovers information about drone strikes and America’s secret wars.  I could not stand Scahill’s overwrought and self-important narration.  Brace yourself for clichéd lines like “I knew investigating this story would put my life at risk, but I had to go deeper.” I will be actively angry if the Academy chooses this, but I think it may be too political for their taste anyway.

20 Feet from Stardom:
  This was another great one and the documentary I’ll be betting takes home the gold.  20 Feet shines a spotlight on the women who have supported some of the greatest music groups of the last 60 years.  This is another movie, like Cutie, that allows personal stories to say a lot about large topics like music history, race, gender, and stardom.  Makes you think and feel all at the same time.

The Square:     I thought I would get around to watching this one this week, but unfortunately I have not L  I hear that it’s a really great from-the-ground perspective on the Egyptian revolution. I will definitely be watching it when I can, but I’m still putting my money on 20 Feet for the win.

And now, the Best Documentary Shorts:

CaveDigger:    Go see this movie right now. Seriously, here’s the link to it: http://vimeo.com/ondemand/9849.  This movie rocked my socks.  It’s about a man pursuing what he loves (art and digging caves) in the face of almost universal indifference and misunderstanding. His work is spellbinding and beautiful and I hope he makes a million bajillion dollars because of this movie. It’s not An Important Topic so I don’t know if it will win, but I’m picking it anyway because gosh darnit, it should.

Facing Fear: As much as I just ranted about CaveDigger (have you watched it yet??), this movie was pretty amazing too, and may have a slight edge for the win.  It tells the tale of a reformed NeoNazi who randomly meets a gay man whom he beat almost to death years earlier.  An incredible story about what it means to forgive others and to forgive yourself.

Karama Has No Walls:  This movie was basically raw footage from the ground during the Yemeni uprising in 2011.  I wish I could say I liked it better, but frankly the pacing was slow and it was kind of like watching a 40 minute long YouTube video shot on a hand-held cameraphone. Not my favorite.

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life: I wanted to love this movie; I certainly loved the subject, 110 year old Alice, who at the time of filming was the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor (sadly, Alice passed away last Sunday). She was a remarkable woman with an amazing reserve of optimism and perseverance (she still played the piano every day!!).  I wish the documentary had let her story stand on its own more, instead of relying on heavy-handed narration.  Still, it was a pretty good one, and I recommend watching it if you can to check out Alice’s amazing perspective on life.

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall:  This movie made me want to commit suicide.  I guess I should say more about it.  It tells the story of a prison that runs a hospice for its oldest inmates primarily by using other inmates as volunteers.  We spend 40 minutes watching an old man die, with an extended shot of his corpse in a body bag at the end for good measure.  I could have skipped this one.  I don’t think it’s a winner.

That’s it.  Happy Oscar watching, everybody!

(c) 2014 Katy Cummings

The Beatles in the Movies

By D.G. McCabe

The rock and roll movie’s origin story can be summarized as thus: a bunch of record executives figured out that they could make a lot of money putting Elvis in B-Movies.  When the Beatles became ultra-mega-huge in the early sixties, the got roped into the same thing, but instead of a series of largely forgettable beach movies, the Beatles produced one classic (A Hard Day’s Night (1964)), two incredibly bizarre works (Help! (1965)) and Magical Mystery Tour (1967)), numerous music videos, and one fantastic documentary (The Beatles Anthology (1995)).

The Classic (A Hard Day’s Night)

A Hard Day’s Night is not merely a vehicle for the ridiculous obsession that was Beatlemania, it was a view from inside the bubble of it.  There is no goofy plot, no tacked-on love story, just the band getting ready for a show and the hoops they have to jump through just to get from the train station to showtime.  Somewhere, the film becomes less about the Beatles and more about obsessive youth culture.  For a good essay, check on the write up on the Criterion Collection’s website.  And yes, the fact that this movie and not, say, Elvis’ Blue Hawaii (1961) is the subject of a Criterion essay speaks to its status as a cinematic classic rather than a cheesy byproduct of the early days of Rock and Roll.

The Weird Stuff (Help! and Magical Mystery Tour)

In the Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr reminisce about how high they were when they filmed Help!.  Let’s just say that the Beatles are fighting a satan-worshipping cult, there is random skiing, and beach scenes straight our of Thunderball (1965).  It’s like witnessing a bizarre netherworld where James Bond has been replaced by four stoned musicians.

Magical Mystery Tour was shot without a script and makes absolutely no sense.  It was probably the Beatles’ only real disaster critically, although it did spawn a fantastic album. The entire movie takes place on a bus and the Beatles are singing magicians – sound fun?

Music Videos

Interestingly enough, the Beatles can be credited with helping invent the music video, which would of course gain cultural prominence in the 1980’s before becoming a cultural afterthought in the 2000’s.  According to the Anthology documentary, the Beatles basically got sick of making public appearances, so instead they made crazy music videos for songs like “I am the Walrus” and “Something” and shipped them around the world to various music shows.  Everyone else, even the Rolling Stones, still had to show up.

The Beatles Anthology

In the early 1990’s, the surviving members of the band put together the Beatles Anthology project, which included an fantastic eight episode BBC documentary of the same name, narrated by all four members of the band and various important partners (Brian Epstein and John Lennon’s portions were done with archived interview clips).  While the Beatles aren’t too critical about themselves and there is no mention of anything that happened after the band broke up, it is an interesting, and important, piece of history.

So Where Are the Concert Videos?

We know that the Beatles were masters in the studio, as we have twelve of the most popular and influential albums in the history of popular music to demonstrate.  The question remains, however – were the Beatles any good as a live band?

We know that The Who, The Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, Phish, and others were or are great live performers, as we have decades of tours, live albums, and concert videos to support.  Whether the Beatles were a great live band is shrouded in myth, legend, and insufficiently advanced technology.

The Beatles started out as a garage band called “The Quarrymen” in 1957.  Between 1957-1962 they played mainly small venues, seedy bars, and strip clubs around Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany.  By 1961, they had basically become the house band of The Cavern Club.  Between 1962 and 1966 they played hundreds of concerts worldwide before they decided to stop playing live and focus exclusively on their studio output.

Despite this output, there is relatively little evidence of the Beatles playing in concert compared to most popular rock bands. There is plenty of evidence of them playing “live” on television shows, which, as the Beatles Anthology attests to, they were very good at.  The Anthology also contains a long segment on the Beatles legendary Shea Stadium Concert and various other concert clips, but the acoustics at Shea and the screaming teenage girls at the other concerts make it impossible to determine if they are actually playing a good concert.  Ringo Starr sums this up best in the Anthology when he says that one of the reasons the Beatles stopped touring was because people came to “see them” and not to “hear them.”  Or more accurately, teenage girls came to shriek at them until they passed out.

Of course people who were around when the Beatles were a touring band tell stories about what a great show they put on, and the clips in the Anthology series seem to back that up. If only we had modern concert recording equipment in the early 1960’s to document the rise of a certain garage band from Liverpool.  We don’t, so they mythology of the band’s live show will continue to live on as open to interpretation.  Isn’t that more interesting than knowing for sure anyway?

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe

Snap Reviews – Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 and Cabaret

By D.G. McCabe

I saw a couple of movies this past week, but neither is worthy of a full write-up.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (2008)

What do you get when you combine three of America’s greatest obsessions (college, football, and 1960’s social change)?  Let’s find out.

In 1968, the annual Yale-Harvard football game ended in a 29-29 tie.  Forty years later, documentarian Kevin Rafferty (best known for “The Atomic Cafe” (1982) and “Radio Bikini” (1988))  interviewed the men who played in that game (including actor Tommy Lee Jones) to talk about their time in college.  The interviews are inter-cut with broadcast footage of the game itself.

Now, most people who went to college love talking about it, even four decades later, and the conversations turn to interesting topics (the genesis of the comic Doonesbury, sit-in protests at Harvard, and Al Gore’s musical prowess on the touch-tone phone).  It isn’t the most thrilling film ever conceived, but it’s an interesting piece of social history especially if you like college football and you don’t know how a team could “win” a tie game.

You might like Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 if: You like to learn about the history of college football, especially Ivy League college football.

You might not like Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 if: You could care less about college football and have no interest in hearing middle-age men reminisce about it.

Cabaret (1972)

Caution – some films bear limited resemblance to their source material.  Obviously Bob Fosse thought that you – the film audience – are dumber than the theater audience.  While I could be forgiven for not necessarily expecting more from the man who invented “jazz hands,” I do expect that the so-called “academy” of motion picture arts and sciences would recognize the director of the greatest American film over the creator of a watered down stage show (Fosse beat out Francis Ford Coppolla for Best Director in 1972).

Cabaret the musical is the first hand account of Clifford Bradshaw, a young writer making his way through Berlin.  He meets an unstable singer at the seedy Kit Kat Klub who he eventually falls in love with.  The story is one of increasing tension and external, unspoken terror, highlighted by the increasingly fascist songs being played at the Kit Kat Klub.  This is accentuated by the set used in the stage play, since no matter where the action takes us, we are never far from the club or what it represents – the rise of Nazi Germany.

The film is much different and does not do justice to the musical’s enclosed, suffocating environs.  A tacked-on subplot doesn’t really work and the open spaces detract from the story’s dark undertones.  While Liza Minnelli and the rest of the cast provide yeoman’s performances, the film feels like a disjointed and watered down shadow of the intense stage play.

You might like Cabaret if: You can’t get enough of 1970’s Hollywood musicals or Liza Minnelli.

You might not like Cabaret if: You are expecting the film to capture the tension, suffocation, and symbolism of the stage show.

(c) 2013 D.G.McCabe

Robert J. Flaherty and Dziga Vertov – The Rise of the Documentary

Robert J. Flaherty has often been called “the father of the documentary.”  Indeed his “Nanook of the North” (1922) is the first full length film that we would recognize today as a documentary.  Flaherty’s tale of an Inuit hunter whom he calls “Nanook” (that was not his real name), was presented to audiences as a window into the day to day lives of the Inuit people during the early 20th Century.

While the resulting film greatly impacted the history of the motion picture, Flaherty’s work contained various elements of fiction.  Many of the Inuit in his film were carefully cast by Flaherty (for example, Nanook’s “wives” were actually Flaherty’s girlfriends), and many of the scenes were carefully staged by Flaherty.  For instance, the Inuit of the time used rifles, but Flaherty insisted that they use spears like their ancestors did.

Flaherty’s staging of large portions of his first film can be excused to a certain extent.  What he was attempting had not been done before and he was largely making it up as he went along.  The casting and staging didn’t end with his first film, however, as many of his later films (Moana (1926), Man of Aran (1934), Louisiana Story (1948)) also contain scripted elements.

Despite the fictionalized elements of his films, Flaherty is still often referred to as “the father of the documentary.”  What he is, however, is the father of a certain kind of documentary, one in which a filmmaker uses carefully chosen subject and re-enactments in order to tell a story or make an argument.  Most political editorial documentaries, such as the films of Michael Moore, and non-fiction cable television programming can be traced back to Flaherty’s work.  But what of the filmmakers of the “cinema verite” documentary – the field in which the camera captures only reality and the filmmaker entirely separates himself from that reality?  Who can their films be traced back to?

The answer I believe is the work of Dziga Vertov, most notably 1929’s “Man with a Movie Camera.”  In the introduction to “Man with a Movie Camera,” Vertov describes his work as an experiment to separate the elements of theater and literature from the artform of film.  Instead of using a script and actors, he filmed “a day in the life of a Russian city” over three years in three different cities.  The result is innovative if only for its shot selection, but I would take that a step further.

Man with a Movie Camera has a single subject, a day in the life of a Russian city, but no story about the people of urban Russia and no particular argument for the audience.  Vertov addresses this subject through the eyes of his camera alone, using editing techniques and various shots to bring the viewer into the bustling life of urban Russia in the late 1920’s.  What the viewer sees is the truth of the city through Vertov’s camera, and they are free to draw their own ideas from what they are seeing.  Vertov, however, has no agenda except to present what he sees and convey to the audience how it feels to see what he sees through shot selection and editing.

Should the documentary filmmaker manipulate his subjects to make his point or tell his story?  Or does she stay entirely apart from her subject and allow the language of film alone (shot selection, editing, etc.) to convey what she is experiencing to the audience?  Both forms of documentary have value.  There are some true stories that would be impossible to tell without some form of reenactment.  Likewise, if a documentarian wants to present an argument, he or she has to film his or her documentary in the most persuasive way possible.  But if the documentarian’s goal is not to tell a story or persuade, but to find truth, it would follow that he or she would have a closer muse in Vertov than Flaherty.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe