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.
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
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-
Capturing the Friedmans
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/
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
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-
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.
OT: our town