Dallas — Back in the day when people watched VHS cassettes, we would go to Blockbuster or some other video store and wander among the shelves trying to decide what would be acceptable to everyone in your group to watch. This could take a while, and was always subject to negotiation. As a filmmaker, it was sad but instructive to watch people make decisions for what to watch and see how people made choices. Thankfully the days of Big Blue are gone—mostly because they were too stubborn to see the future was streaming. So now we can either see what is on video on demand or go to Netflix or Amazon Prime to go through those same discussions on what to see. But there is still that anxiety that there is something really great out there—but I have no idea what.
This month I will share with you some things I have been watching online. If you are interested in documentary films please check out my podcast, The Fog of Truth, in which we review a film that is available online.
So let’s start with docs and doc series.
Errol Morris has been playing with the line between doc and cinematic recreations for years but in his Netflix series Wormwood he goes all out, moving the needle further to the fictional moments than the documentary ones. Indeed, this almost plays out like Reds, Warren Beatty’s fiction film about John Reed that is mixed with stylized, talking-head, doc-style interviews with people who knew him.
And speaking of stylized interviews, in this series we actually get to see Errol ask the questions—something that has not happened in his other films (occasionally we would hear the audio from a question but not see him). In the interview parts of this film we have more camera angles on the subject than I have ever seen in a documentary.
The series is inventive and fascinating but perhaps a bit long, and my take is that Morris is stronger at the documentary segments than the narrative ones. But it is still worth seeing.
I have heard about Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press for quite a while; I have missed it at a few festivals because I heard it was about the Gawker vs. Hulk Hogan trial. I don’t think I have ever been to the Gawker website and Hulk Hogan is of no interest to me, so I thought I had no interest in seeing it. Boy, was I wrong. This film by Brian Knappenberger shows us the struggle to keep press freedom alive when moneyed interests are trying to take them down.
The problem was not that Hulk Hogan wanted to stop the video of him from being exposed, it was that Peter Thiel, the billionaire who is mocked as the epitome of Silicon Valley craziness on the HBO show Silicon Valley, funded the court case against Gawker because they said some things about him he did not like. So, he destroyed it. The film goes on to show how Sheldon Adelson secretly purchased the Las Vegas Review Journal to stop its publishers from printing stories about him. Watching this I kept thinking about where we would be right now without the reporting from the New York Times and the Washington Post. Clearly, we need an active press to keep the powerful in check.
Alex Gibney, who has been on a tear, producing over 70 docs since coming on the scene with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room in 2005, has a new series on Netflix called Dirty Money, about money and politics. He directs the first episode about the VW diesel mess and we see him driving his VW diesel in the film, which goes into detail about how it happened and what it really means.
The last doc in the series is the must-see film. It is called Confidence Man, and it is a doc that goes into detail about the businesses of Donald Trump. Much of what is here you might have heard before, but this film puts it all together, including an interview with the folks who designed the sets of The Apprentice, in which they talk about making the sets look royal. I was particularly interested in hearing that one set was modeled after the famous Howard Beale scene in the film Network. Given what is going on with him as leader of the free world, it is interesting to see how he got to this place.
Speaking of place, if you have been thinking about New York you can take a nostalgic look at the Big Apple though three shows that showcase different decades of NYC life. Start with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime, showing the world of the Jewish Upper West Side in the 1950s. Follow that with Good Girls Revolt, which is also on Amazon. This series really shows what NY 1960’s life was like in the early days of the feminist movement. While the show had its fans, it was not renewed by Amazon boss Roy Price, who later got booted for sexual harassment. Maybe this will get a new life and a new season. To finish your NY trip you can watch The Deuce on HBO about the insanity of 42nd street. While the series has many elements and themes of a David Simon show, it plays darker.
Let me turn to another place to watch video: The New York Times. The Gray Lady has been ahead of the curve for thinking about how to push new technology in what a paper can be. While the Washington Post has some of the early great uses of video for a newspaper, the New York Times has redefined what is doable. Its Op-Docs section matches the idea of an editorial with a documentary short film. This year they have three shorts that were nominated for an Academy Award and three that showed at Sundance. Here is one of these.
My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes is a personal video essay about family and abuse, using animated objects and VHS tape to tell the story, and there is nothing pornographic in it. On the other hand, Ten Meter Tower gives us a glimpse the very human moments of the battle between fear of jumping on a very high diving board and the social pressure to do it. This film is less processed and more observational and insightful, while letting the viewer experience this dilemma.
There is a whole channel devoted to After Weinstein videos, the most compelling of which is Moira Donegan’s Spreadsheet, an “act of Real Solidarity” in which, in a simple interview setting, we see the brave and terrified Donegan talk about how creating this list affected her. Indeed, this is what a modern newspaper should be doing. Another series is called Conception: Six Stories of Motherhood, which combines animation and other techniques to touch many views on becoming a mother and what that means today.
The Times has also pioneered bringing Virtual Reality to the masses, even sending Google cardboard viewers to its subscribers. Some of these are just giving you a sense of being some place interesting and others can take you into a war zone. You can watch these from your phone without any headgear.
Now the Times is bringing us Augmented Reality, which I have think will be bigger than VR, In AR they can bring images into your space. This is in its early stages, but is worth looking into.
Have a good month and explore cinema.
» Bart Weiss is an award-winning independent film and video producer, director, editor, and educator who has lived in Dallas since 1981. Mr. Weiss has taught film and video production at Texas A&M’s Visualization Lab, Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Austin and Arlington, Dallas Community College District and West Virginia State College. He currently serves as President of the Board of Directors of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, serves on the Board of Directors of the University Film and Video Association, is a past Vice President of the Texas Association of Film and Tape Professionals, founder and past president of the West Virginia Filmmakers’ Guild, and co-founder of VideoFest and the Video Association of Dallas. He has been a video columnist for The Dallas Morning News, The Dallas Times Herald, United Features Syndicate and KERA 90.1 FM Radio in Dallas. Mr. Weiss received an MFA in Film Directing from Columbia University in 1978 and a B.A. from Temple University in 1975. Bart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
» Film Notes with Bart Weiss runs on the first Monday of the month. (We moved it back a bit for this month, since Weiss was busy with VideoFest on the first weekend of November.)
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