Monday, February 21, 2011


i have a draft on Herzog that will remain unfinished for a bit, but having just finished BROTHER'S KEEPER i wanted to revisit the basic idea - i think Herzog is cruel*.  a while back i happened to pair GRIZZLY MAN and THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL (i don't recall the level of consciousness about it).  it occurred to me that PARROTS had many elements that might attract Herzog - likewise here, with KEEPER - but it seems also obvious that if he had worked either of these projects, he would have belittled the subjects, as he does with Treadwell.  both films would have been turned from beautiful portraits ethically told to quirky canvases for Herzog to pontificate about this or that, co-centering himself with the ostensible subjects.  it is somewhat shocking to me that Michael Moore is jeered with slurs of being self-congratulatory and self-aggrandizing while Herzog is not. i guess we must wait for Herzog to get fat or politically leftist

* i've been called out on twitter by Robert Greene, via his prewarcinema handle, that Herzog is not cruel, not a 'humanist' film-maker, and follows different interests.  perhaps my calling Herzog out as cruel is sensational, but as above, i am suggesting that he is not interested in making the types of films - à la PARROTS or KEEPER - that are loving and humane. that if we put our Herzog filters on the stories and characters of these two films it is not difficult to imagine VERY different outcomes.  clearly Herzog is after something different, that is my point.  the question becomes what then is he after and what value does it have? my current short answer is that his project is largely narcissistic and that the moments of curiosity he displays don't get us very far - certainly not as far as he, and many of his adoring fans, might suggest.  (keeping in mind that the stakes are low for this critique :)

Friday, February 4, 2011

FAMILY AFFAIR: or, Oprah's Family Affair?

I just caught FAMILY AFFAIR at the Siskel last night, with about 12 other people, on the second night of its two-night engagement. Granted, it was cold and a day-or-so after Chicago's (over-hyped) Snowpocalypse, also it screened in Siskel's late slot, 8:15.

The film is about...The film's plot tracks the brother-filmmaker, Chico Colvard, talking to his three older sisters (whose names I forget and are conspicuously absent from the film's website) about their youths defined by years (16 to 9, depending on the sister) of rape and physical abuse by their father.  More importantly, the film tries to examine how it is that all three sisters continue to have a relationship/contact with the the father that terrorized them.

There were a few stretches of film where I wondered why the material was left in, it just wasn't working for the film he seemed to be trying to make.  During the credit-roll, I noticed the OWN tag from Oprah.  I felt some of my questions were answered.  With Oprah's book club, there was the sense that Chosen Books were middling; that Serious Authors would snub the stigma of being attached to such a Tastemaker.  With FAMILY AFFAIR, there is a sense that a good film might lurk somewhere in what is presented - and the film is fine - but what we get is a fairly milquetoast (yes, even with this plot-line) presentation of material.  This is not to say something more sensational is what I was looking for, I was looking for something good, even grand.

Why such high expectations, you ask.  Of course, thank you for asking.  The film had a pull-quote from the Boston Globe:
One of the most psychologically complex movies ever made about either racial identity or abuse of any kind.
Needless to say, the film does nothing to approach such a claim.  It turns out the review is from Wesley Morris, protected by a pay-wall, though in his capsule reviews for Boston's Independent Film Festival he adds the film is a "nearly perfect documentary" and is "provocative and shocking in the way that a piece of nonfiction ought to be."  Again, the film I saw does not resonate with what Morris here reports, though we get a sense of how he judges exceptional documentary - not a rubric I'd subscribe to.  Which brings us back to Oprah.  If you know Oprah as little as I do, you probably still understand how the brief description above has Oprah written all over it - which is not necessarily bad, but probably is easy.

On a shortlist of traits my partner would attribute to me, fretting would be one, so take this all with a grain of salt.  Is it too early to worry about possible negative impacts Oprah's doc initiative will have on documentaries?  Though I know these reviews were from well before OWN picked-up FAMILY AFFAIR, is it too fretful to worry that some reviewers might begin to write excessively praising reviews of certain docs merely because of some perceived benefit of stroking Oprah's projects?  Is it too fretful to worry that otherwise good documentarians will begin contracting work with OWN and then creating the milquetoast offerings many of us fear OWN will likely support?  Is it too fretful to worry that an already limited amount of screens for documentary will become increasingly booked with OWN offerings?  (Though connected to the Oprah machinery, Siskel or FAMILY AFFAIR didn't seem to benefit from increased attendance - will this be the case in the future?)  Certainly the industry-as-a-whole will benefit from the influx of money for new jobs and projects.  And perhaps Oprah's new LA location offers Karina Longworth an additional solution for her LA indie-troubles.  But I still fret.  What will happen to documentary? What will people think of documentary now?

And yes, I'll admit that my frets are typically just that.