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social justice warrior | by maryann johanson

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Spellbound, OT: our town, Capturing the Friedmans, Horns and Halos, Winged Migration (review)

Keepin’ It Real

Can it be a coincidence that as the “news” gets more fictional and “reality” TV can’t get any more fake, documentaries are experiencing something of a renaissance? Not that there haven’t always been nonfiction films well worth seeing — but the batch of worthy docs this summer seem to be doing terrific business and garnering terrific (and well-deserved) word of mouth, as if we’re all hungering for something real, and this is the only place we’re finding it.

Spellbound
Surely a film as simple and as pure as Spellbound wouldn’t be quite as refreshing and almost startling as it is if we were more used to seeing true stories related to us in this kind of direct, straightforward, unembellished manner. There are no embedded reporters at the spelling bee pretending they’re part of the story themselves; there are no flashy graphics or rousing theme music to tell us how we’re supposed to feel. Nope: Jeffrey Blitz just followed eight kids from the regional level — yes, there are regional spelling bees — on up to the World Series of words, the National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C.

There’s a rich, privileged kid from Connecticut, who rides horses and has an au pair; and a stunningly optimistic girl from a poor DC neighborhood where the school has regular bomb scares. There’re the children of immigrants from Mexico and India, and kids from small Midwestern towns who’ve never been away from home. There’re kids who are so superintelligent that their big brains make them a little odd, and kids for whom the attention to detail and prodigious memory required to win a National Spelling Bee is probably the result of a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome (a relative of autism). Blitz gives us portraits of smart, driven kids, which in itself would be commendable, with positive portrayals of kids who wouldn’t be embarrassed to be called nerds such a rarity, but what he ends up with in aggregate is an illuminating look at one cross-section of American kid-dom today: whether they’re from the city or the country, whether Mom and Dad have foreign accents or don’t, these are kids who have a lot of support from their communities and, especially, from their parents.

As obvious a thing as this might be to anyone looking to raise a happy, intelligent child — and ironically amusing as it is to see kids receiving “congradul tions” on their status as “chapm”s on misspelled hometown signs — it’s not a sexy enough concept to get a lot of play in pop culture. Hell, this is a movie about a bunch of kids spelling really big, long, mysterious words — it was never intended to be sexy. But through the heartbreak and the terror and the elation we share with these pretty amazing kids, it’s the one uncomplicated and invigorating message that shines through: family matters.

OT: our town
The importance of community on kids is the thrust of Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s deeply affecting OT: our town: in this case, the community at large of Compton, California, and the community of teens at Dominguez High School. The school didn’t have a theater and hadn’t mounted a play in 20 years when English teacher Catherine Borek decided, in 2000, to stage a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town with her students. With no money and a cast of skeptical teenagers, Borek pulled it off, smashingly so, and showed Compton that a classic play about a small 19th-century New England town could be highly relevant to their lives and their city and their time. And Hamilton show us that the easily spouted and just as quickly forgotten rhetoric about the universality of the human condition is, whaddaya know, actually true.

Because the concept is so often reduced to political posturing — and because any look the wider world gets of places like Compton is so often negative — there’s a briskly energizing aspect to OT. The kids are genuine: whether they’re fresh and funny, depressed and morose, or smart and self-confident, they’re instantly recognizable to anyone who was a teenager anywhere, particularly, and achingly so, to anyone who didn’t quite fit in in the high school world of football and proms. The kids here are the square pegs, the creative oddballs, the wonderfully weird, and it’s a delight to watch them blossom as they come together in an effort none of them had any idea they needed, or wanted, or could succeed at.

With his rough-and-ready, newsy style, Hamilton, who also worked without a crew or a budget, doesn’t merely avoid stereotypes — he smashes them with abandon just by demonstrating that Compton is a community like any other, of hopes and dreams and lives well lived, that its image of a place overrun by crime and despair perhaps does more damage than Compton’s actual problems themselves. The very obviousness, in retrospect, of the lesson the kids of Dominguez learn — art really is for everyone — and the reminder that Hamilton offers us — folks is folks — imparts the film, ironically, with so much of its power. It’s good news, the kind that never makes the papers, and if we get so very choked up by the triumph of Borek’s production and the pride her students take in it, well, it’s own fault for not having already recognized the ordinary optimism and the self-reliance of these kids and this community.

Capturing the Friedmans
The peculiar closeness of family isn’t always a source of strength, and the obligations and demands of community aren’t always a force for good, as Andrew Jarecki explores in the shocking and heartbreaking Capturing the Friedmans, a portrait of a family falling apart, squeezed dry from without and within.

That Arnold Friedman, a highly praised schoolteacher and computer instructor, had a predilection for child porn isn’t in dispute — he was caught redhanded in the late 80s in a sting operation by cops in affluent Great Neck, Long Island, where he lived with his wife, Elaine, and their three sons. It’s what else he did with his sexual tendencies, Jarecki argues, that’s open to contention. Did Friedman (and his son Jesse) actually subject his students to horrible sexual abuse, or did the cops and the prosecutors foster an environment where the unintentional invention of abuse allegations was inevitable?

But this isn’t a newsmagazine story, not a talking-head he-said/they-said that raises questions without answering them and leaves the issue just as messy as it was before. Not that the issues are ignored, and as we watch we cannot help but struggle with our own conflicting instincts — the refusal to accept that someone could so grievously harm a child, the desire to see someone who does so severely punished — but all the facts and implications on display come filtered through the eyes of the family that fell apart and the community that helped it happen, justifiably or not. Some former students deny any abuse; others tell terrifying tales; though there was no physical evidence to support what may have been inadvertent confabulations (in the midst of 80s hysteria over satanic cults sexually abusing kids) by kids encouraged by horrified sex-crimes experts, a new kind of community grew up around the families of Great Neck, lighting their torches and getting ready to march on the monster. Arnold is now dead, but the film isn’t about him — it’s about Elaine, bitter with her husband, angry at what he definitely did and but naively excusing it, furious at what he might have done. It’s about her sons David and Jesse, lost and confused. It’s about the third son, Seth, who won’t even appear on camera — in its own way, his is the most profound statement of all of the effect Arnold’s failings had on his family.

But all that is only in the footage Jarecki shot himself. Much of the film consists of Arnold’s home movies — “he liked pictures,” Elaine says, coming across as unwittingly ironic — revealing the family in happier times, and, as things began to unravel, the video diary David began in 1988, as his father was being prosecuted, and audio recordings Jesse made of screaming arguments amongst all the Friedmans. The bizarreness of seeing a family sitting around the seder table on video, talking about how to refute charges of child abuse, is exceeded only by the extraordinary and uncomfortable intimacy of seeing a family’s hidden shame laid so bare. Surely it’s embarrassing for the Friedmans; for the rest of us, it’s a perversely fascinating and unprecedented look inside one family under just about the greatest stress imaginable.

Horns and Halos
An acute demonstration of the failure today of traditional media to give us a story in its entirety can be found in Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley’s furious Horns and Halos. Following the torturous road to publication for the book Fortunate Son, the controversial biography of George W. Bush originally intended for release while he was still a presidential candidate, the film rails against the sorry state of public discourse. Is an independently verifiable truth any less true if it’s uttered by someone of less than stellar reputation? And if the mainstream press won’t cover these truths, is there no longer any room for alternative voices who either aren’t squeaky clean or are unable or unwilling to play the political game of pretending to be so?

A 1972 cocaine arrest. An avoidance of Vietnam, of any genuine military service at all, via a cakewalk National Guard enlistment from which he nevertheless went AWOL anyway. Author J.H. Hatfield admits here that he was naive enough to have believed that the value of the information he was revealing about Bush Junior in Fortunate Son was important enough to trump his own past as a convicted felon, for, okay, conspiracy to commit murder. Sure, there is evidence to support Hatfield’s allegations about Bush, but you just want to close your eyes and sigh and say “Sweet Jesus,” mostly because you can’t believe that no one else has run with Hatfield’s story. St. Martin’s Press, which had been very excited about publishing the book, dropped it unceremoniously in 1999 when pressure was exerted by the Bush family, the Chicago Tribune reported, after the news of Hatfield’s past broke. In yet another disgusting abrogation of journalistic responsibility, Hatfield became the story and Bush got yet another free pass. Shouldn’t it have been the other way around? As Hatfield says here: “I’m not running for president.”

The book was picked up by publisher Sander Hicks, whose defiant, “left-of-center punk-rock” Soft Skull Press operated out of a basement apartment in New York City where Hicks was the super. Hicks is a personality, no doubt, and he labels Hatfield “somewhat delusion, somewhat egotistical.” And yet Galinsky and Hawley never depict them — as the mainstream media did, as documented here — as kooks or as a joke but instead as the heroes they are. Political leanings aside, ya gotta admit that this kind of tenacity in the pursuit of bringing important information into the public consciousness is what participatory democracy and freedom of the press is all about.

Winged Migration
And then, after all this heaviness, cheer yourself up with Winged Migration, one of the most beautiful and stirring adventures in the natural world that I’ve ever seen on film. It’s birds like you’ve never seen them before… and by this I don’t mean “Birds like you’ve never seen them before!!!” I mean experiencing this film is like an introduction to something you had no idea existed. In the same way that, if you say some ordinary word — like “ball” or “house” or “cat” — over and over a thousand times, it starts to sound weird and alien and new and its meaning becomes divorced from the actual sound of the word, by the end of this visual cascade of birds in flight, birds in flight have become works of nature’s art.

Directors Jacques Cluzaud and Michel Debats put us right in the air with the birds for vantage points that let us see — okay — birds as we’ve never seen them before. The sorta funny-looking creatures we observe on the ground waddling around become, in flight, sleek and majestic and beautiful and, corny as it sounds, noble. Jacques Perrin’s solemn narration helps create that feeling, sure, but a lot of it is down to the facts flashed at us in captions: this gull migrates 1500 miles ever year, that crane travels 2600 miles; one bird flies the entire breadth of the planet, 12,500 miles from pole to pole. These creatures follow ancient paths twice a year — south in the winter, north in the summer — with no maps, no freeways, no rest areas over the oceans, except, as in one oddly touching instance here, two birds take refuge on a French military ship, lumber around the deck to check it out, and, deciding it’s safe, immediately crumble into exhausted sleep.

You want real? It doesn’t get any more real, or any more marvelous, than that.

[reader comments on this review]

Spellbound
viewed at home on a small screen
rated G
official site | IMDB

OT: our town
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
not rated
IMDB

Capturing the Friedmans
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated
official site | IMDB

Horns and Halos
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated
official site | IMDB

Winged Migration
viewed at a public multiplex screening
rated G
official site | IMDB


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