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Posts Tagged ‘Documentaries’

Agnès Varda – “From Here to There”

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

Agnès Varda walking down the street with Chris Marker, behind his signature “cat symbol.”

Agnès Varda has a relatively new documentary out – it was actually completed in 2011, and shot over several years before that – which in five roughly hour long parts examines the creative process inherent in her own work, and the work of her friends and colleagues, which is at once playful, experimental, deeply personal, and imbued with the joy of life and creating art for the sake of art.

Though, as she points out, now that he is older, everywhere she goes people give her medals and retrospective screenings, Varda is still very much alive as a filmmaker and video artist, and one is struck not only be her relaxed and assured embrace of video technology, but also her multifaceted persona as an artist: a still photographer, environmental creator, sculptor, filmmaker, painter – you name it.

Many of her friends are colleagues with whom she has been working since the 1950s, and now are extremely successful artists in a variety of mediums, but Varda seems not at all affected by her hard-won fame and the new – and richly deserved – level of respect her work is now experiencing. While contemporaries such as Jean-Luc Godard, wildly prolific in the 1960s, but merely a shadow of his former self now – as he himself put it in an interview, “I’m on my last legs” – seem to drift off into the past, Varda keeps looking forward to future, and finding endless possibilities and new directions in her work.

As Fernando F. Croce wrote in Film Comment in 2014, “early in the marvelously fluid, five-part cine-essay Agnès Varda: From Here to There, the eponymous veteran auteur briefly pauses to ponder the difference between cinema and photography. Legendary French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson is Varda’s subject in this mini-digression, yet her comments on stillness and movement as captured through a camera lens clearly apply to her own art, particularly in light of her eccentric and deeply personal recent documentaries.

Like The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), this miniseries (shot for French television roughly over the course of one year) envisions a form of portraiture that is forever on the move, its brisk, airy images darting and rippling like the frank, fearless filmmaker’s memories and emotions.

That feeling of emotional mobility is something Varda has always shared with her late husband, the great director Jacques Demy, whose benevolent specter is never far. Visiting Brazil—in the first of the various global travels she documents in Here and There—Varda shares some of the home movies Demy shot in the country many years earlier. (‘Jacques was known for his tracking shots, but here his camera stood still,’ she muses over the grainy, flickering footage.)

While in Demy’s hometown of Nantes for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his feature debut Lola, Varda captures the aged Anouk Aimée abstractedly repeating a coquettish gesture from the young heroine she once portrayed. That tinge of continuity is further enforced in a heartening moment when Demy’s poetic manifesto on why he films is recited by his son Mathieu over a montage of pictures depicting his cinema as well as his family life.

Agnes Varda From Here to There

Indeed, renewal and continuity are recurring themes. Each of the segments is prefaced with glimpses of Varda’s backyard, where wild foliage has sprouted on previously bare trees. It’s a spiritual metaphor that, like the key image of mirrors on a beach, would feel heavy-handed if it weren’t worn in such a fleet and open-hearted manner, its transparency an integral part of the film’s dizzying array of friends and events. Now in her mid-eighties, the director savors playfully childlike artifice.

In The Beaches of Agnès, sand is poured in a Parisian street as clerks in a mock-office lounge in bathing suits, and former child actors from Varda’s neorealist early effort La Pointe Courte (1955) enact one of their scenes as old men. From Here to There doesn’t have as many tableaux, but it retains that same impish, analog spirit as she makes her way across the continents, omnivorously searching for ‘fragments, moments, people.’” The series is now available on DVD, or for the moment on Amazon streaming; you should take the time to see it if you possibly can.

Varda’s work should be an inspiration to us all; this is simply essential viewing.

Louis Augustine Aimé Le Prince – The First Filmmaker

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

Here’s a new documentary out on Louis Augustine Aimé Le Prince - the very, very first filmmaker.

As the site for the film on Vimeo notes, during “October 1888 Louis Le Prince produced the world’s first films in Leeds, England. These were shot on cameras patented in both America and the UK. Once he had perfected his projection machine Le Prince arranged to demonstrate his discovery to the American public and thus the world.

On 16th September 1890, just days before he was due to sail to New York Louis Augustine Aimé Le Prince stepped onto the Dijon to Paris train and was never seen again. No body was ever found so legally no one could fight the Le Prince claim that he invented a camera that recorded the very first moving image.

As a result, several years later, Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers were to claim to the glory and the prize of being acknowledged as the first people to pioneer film. Louis Le Prince was never added to history books. But for one lone voice, who worked with him, Le Prince’s name and his pioneering work was forgotten.

The First Film is David Nicholas Wilkinson’s decades long quest to prove to the world that a Frenchman Louis Le Prince made the first films in 1888 and that the birthplace of motion pictures was not America nor France but in fact the city of Leeds in the county of Yorkshire, England.”

Le Prince’s story has long been one of the great mysteries of the cinema, and the subject of a book and a documentary by Christopher Rawlence, The Missing Reel. However, in the ensuing years, a great deal of new material has come to light, and The First Film takes full advantage of these discoveries, to demonstrate convincingly – though many have argued this for years, myself among them – that Le Prince is the true pioneer of the motion picture medium.

This is a fascinating documentary of a tragically forgotten pioneer – absolutely essential viewing.

Werner Herzog Explores The Internet in “Lo and Behold”

Saturday, August 20th, 2016

Werner Herzog – who doesn’t own a cellphone – is tackling the history and mystery of the Internet.

As Hayley Tsukayama writes in The Washington Post, “filmmaker Warner Herzog didn’t make his first phone call until he was 17, and still doesn’t ever use a cellphone. That may make him seem like an odd guide to take a hyper-connected society through an examination of how the Internet has affected society.

But, in truth, it makes him an almost ideal observer — one of the few who can step back with some impartiality — to look at the effect this technology has had on the world. Released Friday, Herzog’s new film, Lo and Behold, looks at development of the Internet — something Herzog calls as ‘momentous as the introduction of electricity into our civilization.’

He spoke with The Washington Post last month ahead of the film’s debut; Magnolia Pictures provided me with a copy of the film ahead of its release. Here are a few snippets from our discussion of the film, which strings together vignettes examining the good and bad of the Internet. On his own tech use:

Werner Herzog: I have to say, right away, that I hardly ever use the Internet.

Hayley Tsukayama: Really?

WH: I do have a laptop and I do emails. Sometimes I do Skyping with family. But I don’t use a cellphone.

HT: Not at all?

WH: No.

HT: Why don’t you use a cellphone?

WH: For cultural reasons. I’m not nostalgic, but I like to maintain contact, like, with you, directly sitting across a table.  I’m not delegating my examination of the world to, let’s say, applications. I like not being available all of the time.

And, at the same time, I like knowing that no hacker or no hostile government could track me down. Now I’m sitting in this hotel in this room for how long. And they would know with whom I’m speaking and how many minutes. Nobody knows where I’m sitting, with the exception of you.

HT: That’s somewhat dark. One thing I liked about the film was that it shifted often between looking at the dark side and the benefits of the Internet. It doesn’t draw its own conclusion — why did you do it that way?

WH: It would be a silly approach to say the Internet is bad or the Internet is good. It would be too shallow. It is too complex. And besides, it’s a very American obsession to see movies that way — it makes sense in westerns, which have to do with a definition of basic justice, of good and bad.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

Andy Warhol at Work in The Factory, 1965

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

This is the best footage I’ve ever seen of Warhol at work in The Silver Factory, E. 47th Street, NYC 1965.

UPDATE: Just turn off the right or left channel on your computer’s sound output, and the echo vanishes.

There’s just ONE track staggered on the left & right with a slight delay.

Just play ONE TRACK – left or right – and the sound is clear.

There is a fair amount of footage of Warhol taking during the mid 1960s, his most productive and influential period as an artist, where he created the signature works for which he would become internationally known. Marie Menken did some great stop motion footage of Warhol making his “Flower” paintings, and independent filmmaker Bruce Torbet did a short film – “Andy Warhol – Superartist,” which used some sync sound to capture one day in the artist’s life, but this footage from the Canadian Broadcasting System for a 1965 documentary is the most authentic sync sound documentation of Warhol’s non-stop work methods during this era.

As the CBC’s site says of this footage, “spend a day with artist Andy Warhol at his studio and you might watch him make a screen print of an electric chair or observe him stretching a canvas onto a frame. You might even end up in front of his Bolex as the subject of one of his screen tests, as Village Voice art critic Andrew Sarris does in this item for CBC’s Show on Shows. In this 1965 interview with Warhol and his agent, Ivan Karp, Warhol shares his thoughts on TV (it would be better if it was short bits of soap opera between many commercials), the subjects of his art (Jackie Kennedy, Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor), and his experiments in film.”

In this raw footage, complete with clapper boards for later editing, you see Warhol and his assistant Gerard Malanga knocking out one silkscreen after another – here, a series of electric chair silkscreen prints – with almost complete indifference to Andrew Sarris, the famed film critic for the Village Voice, who lobs questions at Warhol which he answers with just a few enigmatic words, or passes off to art dealer Ivan Karp, who earnestly explains the “pop” aesthetic for Sarris, and for an implied television audience which at the time had no idea what “pop art” was.

As the footage continues, Warhol shoots a brief, 100′ screen test of Sarris, instructing him simply not to talk, with Malanga’s assistance in checking the exposure and focus – the only footage that I’ve seen in sync sound which documents an actual “screen test” – running roughly 2.47 minutes- shot with a Bolex with an electric motor, so the entire film is completed in one take. Warhol would soon expand this by the use of an Auricon camera, which could shoot 1200′ – or roughly 35 minutes – in one burst to create such films as Vinyl and My Hustler (both 1965).

The CBC has done something with the sound here which is rather annoying; adding a echo effect which makes the dialogue somewhat hard to understand, and distracts from the immediacy of the moment, but there’s nothing I can do about that. Also, it’s interesting to see how methodical and mechanical Warhol is as he creates one work of art after another, and how Malanga, normally a very loquacious person, says nothing as Andy directs the creation of both the screen test and the series of screen prints – it’s a Factory, all right, and this is just another typical work day. You also get a real sense of Warhol’s somewhat puckish sense of humor, in addition to his rather imperious control over what’s happening – he’s definitely a force to be reckoned with.

A fascinating document – runs about 10 minutes – really worth watching.

Claus Drexel’s On The Edge of the World (2013)

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Claus Drexel’s documentary about the homeless of Paris is a shattering experience.

In 1995, I directed a feature film outside of Paris called Squatters, for which Claus Drexel was the cinematographer, and did an excellent job. Over the years, be became a director in his own right, with such successful films as Affaire de famille (2008). We lost touch, but then a few weeks ago, he sent me an e-mail about his newest project, On the Edge of the World (Au Bord Du Monde), in which Drexel and a small camera crew followed a group of homeless Parisians through the streets of the city as they struggled to survive in an increasingly hostile, mercantile world.

On The Edge of The World has been screened at Cannes, won the Best Feature Film Award at Tuebingen, the FIPRESCI Critic’s award at Thessaloniki, and was a nominee for the prestigious Prix Louis-Delluc. Claus offered to send me a DVD, with excellent English subtitles. It arrived, I popped it in the player, and was blown away. Here’s yet another gorgeous film which has been festival hit which isn’t getting the attention it deserves, but I came across an excellent interview with Claus conducted by Vanessa McMahon on the genesis of the film, and here are some extracts:

“Vanessa McMahon: When did you decide to make a film about the homeless of Paris? How long did it take?

Claus Drexel: I wanted to make this film for a long time, but never really decided to move on it. My idea was to give these people, that we see everywhere but never hear, the possibility to talk to us. Then one day, I pitched the idea to my producer friend Florent Lacaze. He loved the project and urged me to do the film as soon as possible. So we set up our team (1 cinematographer, 1 sound engineer and myself), made a few camera, lens and microphone tests and started right away. The shoot lasted more or less one year.

Vanessa McMahon: How did you find your characters? Was it hard to get your cast to decide to be filmed?

Claus Drexel: The first two months we walked through Paris and talked with many homeless people. Maybe one hundred. Then I decided to focus on the dozen that are in the film, as I was deeply moved by their incredible loneliness. I first expected that most of them would not accept to appear in a film. But I was totally surprised by how warmly we were welcomed. I then understood that our society always thinks about material solutions for these people, but what they need most, his human relationships and consideration.

Vanessa McMahon: Would you say that Paris is one of the worst places in the world to be homeless? Why?

Claus Drexel: It certainly is the most striking, because of the incredible splendor of the city. On the other hand, as it is a big city, there are many humanitarian associations out there. You don’t starve in a city like Paris.

Vanessa McMahon: The film is shot beautifully. Can you talk about the aesthetics of the shoot?

Claus Drexel: I wanted to emphasize the incredible contrast between the situation of these people and the splendor of Paris. As in a painting, I also believe that there is a deep resonance between the inner beauty of these people and the magnificent backdrop.

Vanessa McMahon: Most people think that France has a good social system (compared to poorer countries), so why are there so many homeless people?

Claus Drexel: Maybe the French social system has reached its limits too, regarding the ongoing crisis. On the other hand, it is important to understand that many of these people have much deeper problems than just economical ones. Even if you’d provide them with a home, they’d come back on the streets sooner or later. It’s hard to understand, but we must accept that and have consideration for them, even if they remain a total mystery to us.

Vanessa McMahon: Do you think that being homeless is it at times a conscious decision for people or a matter of poverty? Or both?

Claus Drexel: Living on the streets is so tough, that no one would go for it conscientiously. Even if some people say so, I believe it’s one last expression of pride: if you say that you chose this situation, it sounds as if you still have a control over your life. But I think that they just can’t do otherwise. When people tell me that they can’t understand why the homeless just don’t make the effort to find a job and move on, I answer them asking why – if themselves, they’d like to have more money – they just don’t make the effort to run as fast as Usain Bolt, who is obviously very rich. We all have our limitations and deserve equal recognition as human beings, regardless of what we are able to do and what not.

Vanessa McMahon: What do you think about the rise of poverty happening in the world today, and with that the rise in homelessness?

Claus Drexel: I sincerely believe that money is the worst invention of mankind. Its main purpose is to enable some to have much more than they need, inevitably taking it away from others, who consequently have less than they need. And it gets worse and worse. If money didn’t exist, no one would pile up tons and tons of potatoes in his garden that he wouldn’t be able to eat, leaving the others starving. And we should not forget that some of the greatest works of art, like the incredible cave-paintings in Lascaux and elsewhere, prove us that homo sapiens were able to achieve extraordinary tasks before money existed.

Vanessa McMahon: Do you think this material digital age has created a greater divide between those who have and those have not? And do you think that those having a hard time making money are those who are having a difficult time changing as rapidly with modern times?

Claus Drexel: I personally don’t think that what the digital age offers is a great enrichment. I have much more consideration for a little drawing made by the hand of Man, than for a telephone with a fruit printed on the backside. But what frightens me, is the ability of the industry to impose this change onto us: if you don’t follow, you drown. In India, for example, welfare money is now wired on people’s cell phones. If you don’t own one, you get no money. So, yes, it definitely creates a greater divide.

Vanessa McMahon: Will you continue to make documentaries? If so, what will you work on next?

Claus Drexel: Coming more from the fiction world, I loved making a documentary. In fact, what I loved most, was meeting different people. I certainly want to make another documentary one day, but I’ll have to find the right subject first. In the foreseeable future, I only work on fiction projects.

Vanessa McMahon: How did it feel to be an award winner at TIFF? How was the reaction to your film?

Claus Drexel: Receiving the international critics award was a fantastic surprise. I’m very grateful to the jury members, who told me very nice things about the film in private, after the ceremony. On the other hand, a competition is always like a lottery. You’re lucky, if most of the jury members are responsive to the kind of films you make. It doesn’t mean that the awarded film is ‘better’ than the others.”

Here’s hoping this will come out on DVD in the States; it’s an unforgettable film.

Denis Côté’s Joy of Man’s Desiring (Que ta joie demeure)

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

Denis Côté’s Joy of Man’s Desiring is an absolutely brilliant film about the modern day workplace.

I am indebted to the writer and critic Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for bringing Côté’s work to my attention; in our digital age, films such as these don’t get the distribution they deserve, almost never play in theaters, and are in general confined to the festival circuit throughout the world. But thankfully, Joy of Man’s Desiring has just become available in the United States as a digital download on Vimeo, and this absolutely superb film, running just 79 minutes, is one of the most impressive achievements of the cinema in 2014.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above, and then either view or download the entire film for a modest fee after that – a price that is an absolute bargain for such a mesmerizing, transcendent piece of work. This is the sort of filmmaking that needs to supported on an everyday basis, as an antidote to the non-stop explosions and commercial blandness of mainstream cinema; Côté’s films, part fiction, part documentary, create an unsettling vision of the world that his uniquely his own.

This is what Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin were shooting for with films like British Sounds, in which their Dziga Vertov collective hoped to find common ground with workers, including a memorable tracking shot in an auto assembly plant with a soundtrack of unceasing noise, generated by the manufacturing equipment itself. But Côté’s film goes far beyond Godard and Gorin’s work – and is certainly far less didactic – to give a sort of infernal life to the machines that control women and men on the factory floor, adeptly blending staged vignettes of industrial impersonalization with documentary sequences that chronicle the repetitive tedium of jobs that require labor, and no thought whatsoever – jobs that most people work at for their entire lives, jobs which eventually destroy them and use them up, much like the machines they are forced to operate.

Côté is an extremely prolific filmmaker working out of Quebec, whose many films, including Vic + Flo Saw A Bear, Bestiaire, and Curling offer a disquieting, almost trance-like meditative vision of the modern world, and the alienation and distance that accompanies it. As the presskit for the film notes, “Joy of Man’s Desiring is an open-ended exploration of the energies and rituals of various workplaces. From one worker to another and one machine to the next; hands, faces, breaks, toil: what kind of absurdist, abstract dialogue can be started between human beings and their need to work? What is the value of the time we spend multiplying and repeating the same motions that ultimately lead to a rest – a state of repose whose quality defies definition?”

As Côté himself says of Joy of Man’s Desiring, “there’s no doubt this is the kind of film-essay in the same lineage as my smaller-scale films, which look for the unfindable (Carcasses, Bestiaire) and question language. I take a great deal of pleasure in making films that don’t easily reveal themselves either to me or the viewer. They need to be out there for a long time, they need to get around. We have to put words to these sound-and-image experiments. I hope viewers won’t go crazy; I hope they’ll watch work in action, thought in action, research in action. There’s a little humor, a hypnotic element, some distancing moments, but there is no real issue or end to the film either. I enjoy watching a film get to a moment when I know I am in the process of watching a film. Maybe I don’t understand it, but I turn it over and look at every side to see how we did it; I think about it, let it exist.”

As Stephen Dalton noted in The Hollywood Reporter when the film premiered at The Berlin Film Festival on February 7, 2014, “Quebecois director Denis Côté won a Silver Bear in last year’s Berlinale for his offbeat comic thriller Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, but the formal rigor on display here feels more akin to the director’s unorthodox animal-watching documentary Bestiaire, a left-field Sundance and Berlin favourite in 2012 . . . The film’s non-fiction segments are lightly peppered with dramatic vignettes and poetic touches, including a stern opening monologue delivered straight to camera by an unnamed woman (Emilie Sigouin). ‘Be polite, respectful, honest,’ she warns the viewer, ‘or I’ll destroy you.’ . . .

Moving between different industrial spaces, Côté’s method mostly consists of artfully composed static shots and slow zooms into heavy machinery. These scenes have a stark, vaguely menacing beauty. They are intercut with still-life studies of machinists and carpenters, laundry workers and food packagers. Some are caught in fragmentary conversation, others in sullen and wordless poses. Joy of Man’s Desiring constantly hints at interesting themes – like the psychology of manual labor in a mechanized age, or the broad cultural mix of Francophone immigrants among Quebecois factory workers” but, as Dalton notes, leaves these issues largely unresolved, as they are in real life.

This is thoughtful, crisp filmmaking, which takes genuine risks and at the same time is easily accessible to the average viewer – the film’s running time flies by in what seems to be an instant. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is preparing a major piece on Côté’s work as a whole, and I look forward to it with great anticipation – there hasn’t been nearly enough written about him, and most critics really don’t understand what he’s trying to do, though it seems clear to me. Côté’s cinema is as strong, as compassionate, and as effortlessly masterful as the films of Robert Bresson, and as meditative and humanistic as the films of the great Yasujirō Ozu, who viewed the world, and the human condition, with an equally clear and direct gaze.

Joy of Man’s Desiring, is, in short, one of the most impressive and effective cinematic essays I’ve recently seen on the connection between humans and machines, labor and capital, and the gap between our dreams and what we actually accomplish. See it as soon as you can. It is a stunning piece of work.

View the trailer for this film by clicking here, and then, by all means, see the film itself.

Spies of Mississippi: Filmmaker Dawn Porter

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Last night, I saw Spies of Mississippi, an amazing documentary on the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.

Spies of Mississippi covers ground that’s been mined before, but Porter has done something new here, uncovering the amazing story of  “the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission’s [MSSC] efforts to preserve segregation during the 1950s and ‘60s — when its network of informants spied on over 87,000 Americans — as it covered up violence and murder in order to preserve the status quo.” Clocking in at just an hour, Porter’s documentary is much more than a succession of talking heads; it’s a gripping, compact, and absolutely riveting mix of raw footage from the period, much of it never before seen, recently declassified documents from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission showing just how rampant racism was in the state, and interviews with the people who lived through the period, and know better than anyone else the reality of the situation. In an interview you can read by clicking here, or on the image above, Porter opens up about the making of Spies of Mississippi. As she told Craig Phillips,

“before I heard this story I thought I knew a lot about the era. That’s what is so wonderful about history — if we look, there are more things to find. Many people know about the FBI’s efforts to undermine the civil rights leaders, but very few people knew of the network established by Mississippi state government. And that’s what really attracted me to this story; this is not a story of a few rogue racist individuals, it’s state government, using taxpayer dollars to deny rights to a group of people based on race. I think it’s a remarkable story about abuse of power and how secrecy is not always a friend to democracy.

I was surprised by so many things, but clearly one of the most shocking was the information about the black informants.  The idea that African Americans would spy for white supremacists probably should not shock me, but it did. Second, I feel like this fills in a piece of the puzzle regarding the tragic deaths of the young civil rights workers [James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael 'Mickey' Schwerner].  They didn’t have an accidental run in with the racist police or the Klan, they were tracked using information from spies.

I was shocked to learn that the State of Mississippi, not just the FBI, used spies to try and intimidate and stop integration. When I learned that some of them were black I wanted to know what would motivate people. Digging into the story, it makes sense that there were complicated feelings in the African American community about the marchers and civil rights activity. There was a lot of fear.”

This is the kind of work we need much more of on television, and the sort of hard-edged and innovative reporting that only PBS seems to offer. In addition, it’s also superbly confident filmmaking, thrilling in its mastery of the medium, and the work of a master filmmaker.

Just minutes after I saw this documentary, I ordered the DVD. This is brilliant, important work.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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