Dallas — I thoroughly enjoy cinema that uses archival film and it is a rare teat to have two films out now that are entirely made up of archival media: They Shall Not Grow Old and Apollo 11, both of which are extradentary and entertaining.
Archival work lets us see the past as the shapers of cinema defined it, but with a modernist editorial perspective. What did these folks see? What was their assignment (newsreel or news film or promotion or just home movies)? These films are not just a document of their time but of the people who pressed the on button. What was their world view? What were they looking at, gazing at, obsessing over?
There are films that use snippets of archival media to make a case, like how different groups are portrayed in media. They are great, but there is something special about the full archival experience. Like the Oscar-nominated short from Marshall Curry, Night in the Garden, or Our New President (note this link is for the short; it is also feature). The latter film has nothing but footage from Russian TV for the U.S., and Russian YouTube videos about Donald Trump.
Part of my fascination with this comes from my Club VJ days, and part from my love of editing. But I can’t remember a time when there were two films simultaneously in theaters that were made up of archival footage.
The first of these two films is They Shall Not Grow Old, which takes old footage from WWI and creates a vibrant film that looks like it is a recreation, but it is all archival film. Peter Jackson is obsessed with WWI, in a good way. He used all the tools of modern digital effects not to create something out of nothing, but to transform footage that was over-or under-exposed into great-looking footage. He fixed the frame rate (this was all shot at hand-cranked and widely different speeds, but all were adjusted to seem real). The footage was colorized in minute detail. The folks who did it looked at the slight differences between the color in uniforms that the divisions in the film would have worn. Jackson had lip readers look at the footage to figure out what they were saying and got people from the part of England that they would have been in to dub their voices.
This is truly history coming alive.
When you see the film, please stay for the 30-minute documentary about the making of it (this is just a sample).
The second is Apollo 11. This film by Todd Douglass Miller uses recently discovered 70mm film to tell the story of the first moon landing 50 years ago. This film played at Sundance and SXSW (more on SX in a bit). If you do not know anything about the moon landing, your heart would still be pounding, wondering if any and all this this can really happen. The diversity of footage—from people coming to watch, to the set-up, to all the moving shots in mission control, to the footage from the moon, to everything else—keep you on the edge of your seat. It seems like such a long shot that any and all of this should actually work. But, spoiler alert, it does work and indeed we did go to the moon. The soundtrack has no narration but new voiceovers from the period. It would have been easy to have narration telling us where we were and what the stakes were, but we see that.
There is a sequence early on that is not a big deal but shows the language of the film. When they introduce the astronauts, instead of the VO and lower third graphic title they show a succession of stills, with music underneath. It’s a sketch of who they were—no more than was necessary.
The music by Mike Morton uses only instruments or synthesizers that were available in 1969, something that means more, I think, to them than to us, but it is a nice touch.
Both of these are must-sees and currently in theaters—don’t wait for them to appear on streaming services.
We are entering the big film festival season. With Chris Vognar gone at the Dallas Morning News, and the Big Screen Podcast gone from KERA/Art&Seek, there aren't many places left to find out what is happening at local festivals, so I will catch you up as best I can.
In January there was the Sundance Film Festival, and SXSW has wrapped. I saw lots of really good films, although not as many as I would have liked to. I know people who wanted to see Jordan Peele’s US and waited two hours and still did not get in.
Here in Dallas we have the Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF), running April 11-18, and in Denton there is Thin Line Film Fest, currently running through April 14. After that is EarthX Fest (April 25-28) and USA Film Festival (April 24-28), followed by the DFW South Asian Film Festival and others.
Let’s focus on films that I saw at SXSW that will make an appearance in North Texas.
DIFF (Dallas International Film Festival ) and Thin Line will be showing Building the American Dream, a film that partially takes place in Dallas. Director Chelsea Hernandez follows some of the people who work construction. Some have their wages stolen, some suffer from heat stroke because they don’t get breaks. We find out about workers who die on the job. Since many are undocumented, the construction companies are getting away with it. The film includes a scene in the Dallas City Hall when these workers are trying to get an ordinance that requires a 10-minute break. We see the debate play out, as some awful things are said. While it passes, sadly, our mayor did not vote for it. This is a good film and it will make you pay attention as you see all this construction around you. This film also has some effectively used drone shots.
DIFF will also show JR “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius, a doc about the wonderful crazy cult, or anti-cult, or anti-religious cult that was started here in Dallas and run by Doug Smith, a.k.a. Ivan Stang. Funny and fun, if you remember anything about “Slack” and Bob, you need to be there.
Another one that will be big is Running with Beto, which will be on HBO. Director David Modigliani got incredible access to tell this story. The night of the Texas senate race that Beto O’Rourke lost to Ted Cruz, Modigliani follows the O’Rourke family back home and watches them face the reality. Even more compelling is the next morning, watching him make breakfast and dealing with the loss. It also follows three workers in different parts of the state who are real characters. This is an interesting time to watch this film, just as Beto has entered into the 2020 presidential marathon.
Both EarthX and Thin Line are showing The River and the Wall, which had its premiere at SXSW. This film makes us feel the ecological and political issues of a potential border wall in a beautiful way. The travel film follows five people as they bike, boat and horseback ride the Rio Grande from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico. With images that are fitting of a National Geographic film, we see how in several areas, the wall will affect wildlife and nature on both sides.
» Film Notes with Bart Weiss now runs on the second Thursday of the month.
PREVIOUSLY IN FILM NOTES
(if a month is not listed, there was not a column that month)
- April: Film Notes 1.1
- May: Film Notes 1.2
- June: Film Notes 1.3
- August: Film Notes 1.4
- September: Film Notes 1.5
- October: Film Notes 1.6
- November: Film Notes 1.7
- Bart Weiss's thoughts on film in 2017