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Apr 4

movie log: The Trials of Ted Haggard (2009)

Posted on Saturday, April 4, 2009 in movies

Viewed March 14, 2009: The Trials of Ted Haggard – a made-for-HBO documentary directed by Alexandra Pelosi.

Ted Haggard is the founder of the New Life Church in Colorado; director Pelosi had met him while making previous documentaries and had grown to like him. After Haggard had fallen from grace (he had admitted to a homosexual encounter in which there were drug-related overtones) and had been kicked out of the church that he founded, Pelosi ran into him again. Evidently she palled around with him for a while and, being a filmmaker, pretty much always had a camera trained on him. After some time she had enough decent material to make this documentary. One story says that she used that obnoxious old “it’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission” canard – and she may have said that, but from what I’ve read she actually showed the film to the Haggards and they OK’d it.

The film follows Haggard as he lives his life of banishment, moving himself and his family from one temporary living space to another, seeking work, trying (and evidently failing) his hand as a door-to-door insurance salesperson, going to school with hopes of becoming a counselor, all the while hoping for and looking forward to the time when he can move back to his big house in Colorado and perhaps find favor again with his church. This is the backdrop for the running reflections that he has on his life in conversation with Pelosi.

There is irony a-plenty – not just for Haggard, but for the viewer and perhaps even for Pelosi. Haggard comes across as a really likeable guy, honestly struggling to find answers in his life (some might say honestly struggling to be wrong). He’s so likeable that one looks for ways to rationalize his past hypocritical teachings against homosexuality. I think in anyone’s world there are things you can believe and do only in private- in his world you would be an outcast not to speak out against them. (Just to be clear: this is the sort of rationalization I’m referring to.) One hears him saying how much he personally gained from psychological counseling, which is why he talks of pursuing it, and yet he continues to pour over the Bible to find comfort (one sequence has him walking in the desert with his Bible – I suppose Pelosi couldn’t resist throwing that in.) When asked if he still finds meaning in the Bible, he says yes: but that the meaning is very different if you’re on top of the world than it is when you’re at the bottom.

A very watchable documentary, showing the human side of a guy that it’s easy to dislike from a distance but harder to up close. People are funny like that.

Mar 3

movie log: Right America: Feeling Wronged (2009)

Posted on Tuesday, March 3, 2009 in movies

Viewed February 22, 2009: Right America: Feeling Wronged – Some Voices from the Campaign Trail, a made-for-HBO documentary directed by Alexandra Pelosi.

This is one of a number of exposés of right-wing subjects by Alexandra Pelosi (daughter of Nancy Pelosi, current Speaker of the House of Representatives). An earlier documentary, Friends of God…, was entertaining and illuminating to the max, and I’m looking forward to seeing her The Trials of Ted Haggard soon. In this film, she travels around some conservative areas in the US to get man-on-the-street style interviews with people who voted for McCain in the recent presidential election, in order to get their reaction to their candidate’s loss. Those she gets, or at least the ones she shows, range from idiotic to moronic, passing through outright racist.

I have mixed reactions to this film. On one side, one just sits there jaw-droppingly dumbfounded at the things people are saying to the camera. Many of the old canards are paraded out: Obama will take the oath of office on the Koran, his middle name is Hussein, he refuses to take the Pledge of Allegiance, a black person (and worse words are used) should never be President, and more. Perhaps worse, many people are completely unable to produce an argument behind their position at all, and often not even a sentence. There are a few people who make reasoned statements, but the memory of them is blotted out by most of the others. On the other side, one wonders if Pelosi is simply setting up her ducks and shooting them down: I suspect (in fact, am pretty sure) you can find lots of ignorant and hateful people on any side – people who have political alignments they can’t justify and beliefs they can’t explain – and indeed get-out-the-vote drives sometimes seemed aimed at hustling them up. One thing you have to give her: she certainly plumbed the depths on the side she was going after. This may not be exactly educational, but it sure is watchable. It brings to mind that Churchill quote that’s you see behind every position these days, that “the biggest argument against democracy is a five minute discussion with the average voter.” And having cited it, I too can feel all superior.

Jan 25

movie log: Manhatta (1921)

Posted on Sunday, January 25, 2009 in movies

Viewed January 19, 2009: Manhatta directed and photographed by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand.

Seen on TCM (the source of many a great old movie viewing), this is a short film of about 10 minutes. Well-known still photographers of the day Strand and Sheeler (also a painter) created this sequence of scenes around Manhattan, meant to depict a day in order. Most scenes are sort of a still life in motion, fixed on a subject while things happen around it. In one you look through columns in the foreground with small and distant people moving in the background, in another you see massive ships nearly motionless with whisps of steam and smoke moving gracefully above. The film is interesting not only for its artistic presentation but simply for a look back in time. Title cards contain parts of Walt Whitman’s poem “Mannahatta” – appropriate as Whitman was known, e.g. in Leaves of Grass, to sometimes speak as if he were addressing readers in future times.

Nice short film. I watched it twice.

Jan 20

movie log: Athens, Ga. – Inside/Out (1987)

Posted on Tuesday, January 20, 2009 in movies

Viewed 3 days ago, January 17 2009: Athens, Ga. – Inside/Out, a documentary directed by Tony Gayton.

Explores the issue of why the town of Athens, Georgia seems to be a fertile ground for musicians and other artists, at least from a 1987 vantage point. There are appearances by and interviews with many various local musicians and artists, including some representation by the two best-known musical products of that area, those being R.E.M. and the B-52s. Unfortunately the documentary failed (for me) to clearly define its premise, let alone examine it. While it was entertaining enough, and it was fun to see the activity in and around this town and listen to first person accounts from career artists (and hopefuls), I didn’t come out feeling very educated about the topic. Part of this, I think, was the failure of the documentary to identify its subjects. I often had no idea who was on the screen, as they were rarely or sporadically identified, and even when identified there wasn’t a lot of information about who they were or what their role was in the community. One of the main figures in the documentary was someone who we eventually found was called “Orf” – but other than seeing that he had a pretty high opinion of himself, who he was or why we should be hearing from him was never revealed. There was also an ongoing time warp: it seemed that footage was from different years or different eras (e.g., in some scenes members of the B-52s talking about their current fame and looking back to Athens, while in other scenes we see Peter Buck of R.E.M. hanging out on a sidewalk and reflecting on the niceties of not being well known), but I could never be sure, as the paucity of information applied here. It was almost an “if you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you” approach.

As I say, though, there was plenty of fascinating material. Some readings by a fellow named John Seawright who had a deep Johnny Cash -like voice and looked a bit like Buddy Ebsen or Michael Nesmith appealed to me. (Sadly, a web search indicates that he died some years ago.) Towards the end there were interviews with some ex-members of group “Pylon” (who were mentioned with reverence throughout the film up to this point). We learn that the group broke up when their agent tried to book them on a tour with U2; it seemed they really didn’t want to be bothered. Now, or rather when interviewed, they were working fairly menial jobs and apparently seemed to barely remember being in a band, nor did they want to return to it.

On a meta level, I had problems with the DVD. The 2.1 track played just fine, but the 5.1 track was noisy. There was also a commentary track that was added some years after the documentary was mde, but this was also too noisy to bear. A shame, as it might have exposed some of the things that flew over my head.

I did find this film entertaining, which almost goes without saying; I rarely see a documentary about (and featuring) real music and art that I don’t find appealing. I only wish it had been more informative, as with similar-themed documentaries (i.e., about music in a particular city) such as Made in Sheffield or even with documentaries about specific groups, e.g. Edgeplay (about The Runaways) etc, etc, where you can learn a great deal even if you come in fairly ignorant about the subject. This one may have been intended more for insiders than for outsiders, which is fine – that’s just a matter of defining the intended audience.

Jan 16

movie log: Sputnik Mania (2007)

Posted on Friday, January 16, 2009 in movies

Viewed 5 days ago, January 11 2009: Sputnik Mania directed by David Hoffman and narrated by Liev Schreiber.

(A new blog and already I’m 5 days behind. This is, though, the only pending movie log entry. I waffled for a while about whether or not it fits my criteria for logging as a movie. But it does, so here it is.)

This is a documentary about how the US reacted to the USSR’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in October of 1957, and about the early days of the space race. It had been 50 years between that launch and the release of this movie, and many people have forgotten (or never knew) what the climate was like and to what degree the entry into space was seen as a military threat or opportunity. The documentary focuses on the culture and times, on the atomic weapons race, on each country’s view of and fear of the other – on those elements of circumstance as much as it does on the mere facts of launching satellites into space.

It’s hard to connect with what a shock the Sputnik launch was to people in the US at the time. To ordinary citizens who arrogantly believed that only the US was truly capable of making great advances and that the Soviets couldn’t even build a decent refrigerator, USSR being in space rudely revealed a different reality. Mentioned are the amateur rocket clubs that sprung up around the country (Homer Hickam, author of “Rocket Boys” — which coincidentally I read not too long ago — had a brief appearance) and the push for more and better science education. To the military, the initial space launch and those that followed were more sinister: to be able to put a heavy satellite into orbit was blatant proof of the current ability to launch a nuclear missile strike to any target on Earth. It also implied a future ability to put arms into orbit, stockpiling them until they could be hurled downwards.

A lot of interesting tidbits are to be found in this film. Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita and now a naturalized US citizen, remembered a joke about the USSR’s advice to its citizens. In one analog to the US’s “duck and cover” instructions, soviet people were told to tamp down the radioactive dust and then remain covered. The joke was that if you see a bright light, you should cover yourself up and crawl very slowly to the graveyard.

Interesting if you like this sort of thing (goes without saying, no?).

Jan 9

movie log: Running the Sahara (2008)

Posted on Friday, January 9, 2009 in movies

Seen last night: Running the Sahara, a documentary directed by James Moll and narrated by Matt Damon (who is also listed as executive producer).

This follows three men – Kevin Lin from Taiwan, Ray Zahab from Canada, and Charlie Engle from the USA – (plus their support team) as the three set out to run across the Sahara. This run is to start at the Atlantic Ocean in Senegal and end at the Red Sea near Cairo. The progress is given in terms of kilometers, miles, and number of marathon equivalents – about 4300, 6920, and 164 respectively. It’s fascinating to watch as they start out in good cheer and with high undaunted expectations, and see where and how they end up. One almost feels drained at the end. Since the documentary can only devote less than one minute, on average, to each marathon unit, it’s hard (uh, impossible) to extrapolate the actual experience from the viewing experience. Indeed, at the end one of the runners reflected on how even then he could not grasp it: how this emphasized to him how one can only really absorb bits of a grand experience as it is happening, and never the entire thing afterwards.

It’s interesting to see how the people change as the run progresses, particularly as they near the end. The three runners lose almost all of their bodily reserves; small and large injuries are everpresent. Pretty much all of the good cheer and bantering has vanished, mostly replaced by dogged persistence. From time to time there is bickering and recrimination, and it’s tempting to think of this or that person as being kind of a jerk. And then I think about what I’m like after being with somebody for only 24 hours, and suddenly they seem like saints.

While the film promotes the cause of providing water to Africans, the subject matter is more about the run than being a social or political commentary. Yet there are elements of both as they thrust themselves into the path. At one point they come across a 7-year old boy who has simply been left alone by himself in the desert while his father goes on a 2-day search for water. The boy is obviously frightened (of his situation and of the strangers); they visit with him for a time and move along. At another point they see a well-digging project, a very deep well being dug by hand by one person at a time, lowered to the bottom via rope. One of the runners wants to see what it’s like, and does.

This film has been playing on Showtime HD, which is where I saw it. As of this writing there’s a website about the run at www.runningthesahara.com .

Well worth the viewing time, especially if you’re a documentary hound as I like to believe I am. As a point of trivia, there are a lot of co-executive producer credits; a pair that jumps out at me is Nomar and Mia Hamm Garciaparra.