Tag: documentary watch project

Part of my ongoing monthly post series about documentary films I’m watching.

September 25 through October 3 is the Jackson Hole Wild Festival, a bi-annual conference and showcase of wildlife and science films from big-name (ahem…National Geographic) and independent filmmakers. I bought a 5-punch pass for the event, and so far I’ve seen two films, screened at the JH Center for the Arts. Each day has a theme – Big Cats, Oceans, Explore Africa, etc – reminding me that this is a biologically diverse planet with lots to document.

Thin Ice     My first film of the festival. Introduced by a Subaru ad announcing an initiative to reduce all waste to zero in three national parks – Denali, Yosemite, and Grand Teton. And an announcement that Shell had stopped drilling in the Arctic – holy wow. As for the documentary, I really enjoyed it. How do you say you enjoyed a film about Climate Change? I think because it was about the quest to understand the science. I loved the section on how to drill for an ice core more than a mile deep/long, then use sophisticated equipment to melt the ice millimeter by millimeter and measure dust particulates (like carbon) and air bubbles to get data to establish a record of the earth’s climate going back hundreds of thousands of years. I’m currently reading Tim Flannery’s book The Weather Makers, and coincidentally, I came home after seeing Thin Ice to read Chapter 16, which is all about the climate modeling discussed in the film. It’s fascinating stuff, and the film really shows you the human beings – oceanographers, atmospheric physicists, biologists – who are painstakingly conducting experiments, doing research, testing hypotheses and scrutinizing predictions.

Tiger, Tiger    I wanted to see this film because I am obsessed with apex predators and utterly beautiful places I will probably never visit.  This is a documentary about an incredible man – Dr. Alan Rabinowitz of the nonprofit Panthera – and his love for the majestic Bengal tiger, denizen of the Indian and Bangladeshi coastal mangrove forest known as the Sundarbans. It’s also a film about the people who live in the jungle with these tigers – who revere the tigers, fear them, protect them, and are all too often killed by them. There’s so much here to take in and consider, I wish someone I know would see this film so we could talk about it.

800px-Plos_wilsonFor folks who love documentaries, it’s a great time to be plugged into the interwebs – so many films only a click away. It doesn’t take the place of human interaction though, and I wanted to add that the highlight of my week was seeing sociobiologist and ant expert E. O. Wilson on Monday night. He was interviewed informally by Kirk Johnson, and the whole evening was simply delightful. Wilson is 86 years old and still as witty, compassionate and wise as ever. Leave it to a Jackson Hole audience to ask him hilarious questions; Wilson’s off-the-cuff replies dished it right back (my paraphrased Q&A notes follow).

Q: If you could, would you send us all back to the Paleolithic?

EOW: Do you want to be a big, slimy-skinned, slobbering Labyrinthodont?

Q: If every ant species united against humanity, would they wipe us out?

EOW: Ha, no.

Q: Have you ever eaten a chocolate covered ant?

EOW:  Yes – they’ve got a nice tang to them – that formic acid.

Q: Will insects be a major food source for humans in the future?

EOW: God, I hope not.

Q: What’s your favorite band?

EOW: I’m not much into rock music, but I’ve been listening to the Grateful Dead lately.


“Bengal Tiger in Water (13290323163)” by MJ Boswell from Annapolis, Md, USA – Bengal Tiger in Water. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons  

“Plos wilson” by Jim Harrison – PLoS. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons 

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Usually for my documentary watch project I choose flicks based on social, environmental or artistic impact. This time I just reeeaally wanted to see Room 237. Well, I guess this 2013 film falls in the artistic impact category. It’s basically an hour and half or so of commentary on Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, interspersed with clips, stills, and frame by frame analysis. It was directed by Rodney Ascher, whose upcoming documentary The Nightmare actually interests me more than Room 237, because it’s about sleep paralysis and I’m obsessed with (and often plagued by) that phenomenon.

After two decades of consideration, I’ve decided that The Shining is not only my favorite Stephen King book, but the best he’s written. It works on so many levels – as a terrifying ghost story, a powerful character study of a family destroyed by alcoholism, and a chilling portrait of an innocent boy’s supernatural powers. But – that’s the novel. Stanley Kubrick’s film version is quite different. Usually no matter what, a book is better than its film adaptation. The Shining works for me as movie and novel – I think of them as separate entities. The book haunted me, most particularly because of young Danny’s precognitive visions – so frustratingly muddled and misunderstood because of his age and his inexperience. The movie frightened me – I mean eeeggghhhh – the creepy woman in the tub!!

I’m not a big Kubrick fan, but I don’t think anybody else could have filmed The Shining (or 2001: A Space Odyssey, for that matter) quite so…unnervingly. Seeing The Shining dissected in this documentary confirmed that – for a horror movie junkie like me – it’s always fun to watch slow-mo clips and look (okay, sometimes dig) for symbolism and subliminal images. There’s lots of excited jabbering about the designs in the hotel carpets, numerology digressions (42!!), and some intriguing maps of the (sometimes physically impossible) hotel set.  I kind of agree that a major underlying theme in Kubrick’s film is that of genocide – particularly of Native Americans and Jews, with the main character serving as the archetype of white male insanity and weakness/dominance. In the novel, I felt much more sympathy for Jack Torrance as a human being – abusive and abused, used up and washed out, redeemed in the end. In the movie, we’ve got Jack Nicholson and his crazyballs acting, which in part makes the film so different from the book. There’s a great clip in Room 237 of Nicholson getting into character for the infamous “Heeeeere’s Johnny!!” scene – he’s rampaging around the set grunting and practice-swinging his axe, almost knocking down one of the crew.

I do think that some of the commentators (I don’t know who any of them are and I’m not really interested in knowing – we never see them, we only hear them) went WAY overboard with some pretty laughable semiotics, attributing too much to what I think were simple continuity errors (sure, Kubrick = Genius but that chair wasn’t in the second shot because somebody forgot to put it back, period). I had a good time jumping off the deep end (a poster of a downhill skier somehow looks like a minotaur….i.e. from the hedge maze…okaayyyy); and then I had a good laugh at the wacko discussion of how Kubrick helped fake the Apollo moon landing footage. Whatever!

I enjoyed Room 237 mainly because it’s brimming with examples of patterns and creative symbolism, and pattern recognition is hardwired into my human brain – whether it’s beneficial (survival, creativity) or silly-but-striking (conspiracy theories, superstition – like my fascination with sleep paralysis, known cross-culturally by many names, such as The Old Hag). A nifty illustration of pattern recognition is this clip from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, showing the relationship between the Heike crab, Samurai warriors, and artificial selection – and also a fun opportunity to hear Sagan pronounce the word humans…yooouuumans. Oh, Carl.


“Stanley in Snow” by Sgerbic – Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons  

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For July’s 2015 Document Watch Project pick, I took a friend’s suggestion and watched a Rockumentary! Yes, I’m fully aware that Nina Simone doesn’t fit into the “rock music” genre. Nina does rock, though. Confession: Growing up, I had virtually nobody to school me in the ways of cool music. I had to get there on my own through roundabout channels. The first time I heard Nina Simone was when I saw the movie Point of No Return with Bridget Fonda in 1993. Thus began my infinite love for Nina Simone’s voice and my fascination with assassin films.

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 8.22.36 AMThe first Nina Simone album I bought was At the Village Gate. I have no idea why I didn’t grab one of the many greatest hits collections (I think I’ve said before I’m no purist) but I’m so glad I picked a live one. Hearing Nina perform live – even if it’s a recording on a CD – is life-altering. There’s no holding her back – blues, jazz, folk, hymns, Bee Gees covers – she can do anything, and she does it her way.


Sometimes I sound like gravel, and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.  – Nina Simone

So, going into this “Netflix Original” film, I knew a bit about the life of Nina Simone, aka Eunice Waymon, but nowhere near enough. I knew she played piano from a very early age, a performer at the get-go. I knew she went to Juilliard, aligned with the Black Power movement, and ended up living in France for the last part of her life. Everything else about her came to me through her songs.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is a biographical documentary jampacked with photos, videos (that clip of Simone performing for a young Hugh Hefner and his bunnies at the Playboy Mansion – whoa), music – of course music – and even her diary excerpts. Interviews with Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly (herself an executive producer of the film) and guitarist and friend Al Schackman provide emotional, revealing truths. The arc of her story – from small town North Carolina to Atlantic City to Newport to Carnegie Hall to the Liberian coast – is spellbinding, not to mention her life’s intertwining with the Civil Rights movement, her abusive marriage to ex-cop turned manager Andy Stroud, and her struggle with bipolar disorder. It’s not fair that Miss Simone is no longer here to speak for herself – though yes, she does, through her music – but Liz Garbus’ documentary does an outstanding job of bringing Simone’s many interviews and journal writing to the forefront.

How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?  – Nina Simone

Because Nina had a lot to say – she was ferocious; whether striding across a stage inciting riotous revolution or calmly sitting at her piano singing about love. I know that’s why I’m drawn to her – that fire of creativity in the heart of her that burned through the delicate veil between dazzling genius and self-destructive madness. It’s tempting to write that Nina’s talent was otherworldly, but I’m more compelled to say that her music is the best of our world.


La chanteuse américaine Nina Simone en concert à Morlaix (Bretagne, France) en mai 1982. “Nina Simone14” by Roland Godefroy – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

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Let me be honest from the start. I am geopolitically ignorant. I avoid the news as much as possible because it provokes within me overwhelming bouts of anxiety, depression, and helplessness. When I do connect to mainstream journalism, it’s through the BBC News app on my iPad, and even then I usually focus on the Science and Environment sections. A week ago if you’d asked me about someone named Mubarak, I would have said, “I have no idea who that is.” Maybe that makes me the worst person to review a documentary about the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Maybe it makes me the ideal audience.

Having watched The Square, I’m still no expert on Egypt, revolutions, or humanity, but I suppose the only thing to do is keep learning. I can only offer my tiny, individual observations in this moment, knowing everyone else has their own as well. I think it would behoove anyone to see this documentary. Chronicling the uprising against the Mubarak regime that began in January of 2011, the film subsequently follows a diverse group of Egyptian revolutionaries over the course of several years’ turmoil. The interviews are intensely personal and heartfelt, and the footage is raw and realtime. This isn’t a sixty second soundbite on CNN or FoxNews. It felt like history recorded by those living it, not propaganda, not history written by the victors. Watching The Square – almost two hours in length – merits time and attention.

I first read about this film while doing a general Google search for documentaries to watch and review for my blog. I found this listicle and lo, The Square is actually available on Netflix – in fact, it’s a Netflix production and a 2013 Academy Award nominee.

The Square was directed by a woman – Egyptian-American Jehane Noujaim – which pretty much locked me into choosing it as my May documentary watch project.  I appreciated the film’s inclusion of female activists (Ragia Omran, Aida El Kashef) in a largely male-dominated political arena. I also checked out Noujaim’s TED talk, and you can see that here – an emotional plea for peace through art. I’ve often heard people complain that musicians and artists shouldn’t make political statements – that they have no place doing that and should only “entertain.” I couldn’t disagree more. I don’t want to live in that world. I need music, art – and that includes street art – literature, dance – and films like this – to inform me, to inspire me. So I can keep striving to cultivate peace myself.

Tahrir Square February 10, 2011 By Jonathan Rashad (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 

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I will never forget the first time I saw the Milky Way: camping in a field on a friend’s North Georgia farm during my senior year of high school. I knew then for certain what I had begun to suspect for quite some time – as an adult, I would do everything I could to avoid living where light pollution blots out the stars. I’ve done pretty well – since college, I have lived in Arizona, Montana and Wyoming, including two National Parks – as far from big cities as possible. For many years I lived in Tucson, one of the best “dark skies” cities in the U.S., and now I’m back in Wyoming, that lightless black velvet void on any satellite photo of the Earth at night. Stars abound in the Wyoming skies.

The City Dark is a film about stargazing, but it’s also about what we, as human beings, might be missing when we can’t see the stars. When our perpetually bright metropolitan lights deny us the wonder of physically seeing and comprehending that there aren’t just a few scattered constellations and pinpricks up there, but billions. This film is about the nonhuman realm, too – sea turtles, migrating birds, fireflies. Endless electric light doesn’t simply blot out the heavens, it may be affecting bodies and brains in calculable, physical ways.

Not everyone has the opportunity to move to the country, of this I’m well aware, and so is The City Dark. It’s actually true that some people like living in big cities – what? Director Ian Cheney relates several stories about growing up in rural Maine and moving to the city. We gravitate toward light – its vibrancy, its safety. But why can’t we design more efficient lighting that serves all our needs? We can.

I loved this documentary. Loved it. It’s the pacing – languorous, nostalgic, heartfelt. Ian Cheney’s calm, almost tender, narration. The soundtrack by The Fishermen Three & Ben Fries – ethereal, dreamy, electrofolk. Sharon Shattuck’s animation and the cinematography by Cheney and Taylor Gentry. The seamless blend of astronomy, interviews, biology, poetic observations, even poignant humor. (Also: Neil deGrasse Tyson!  Ann Druyan!)

I watched a documentary about the Hubble space telescope the other night. Lots of drama about 1990’s scientists and astronauts heroically fixing a problem with the telescope’s mirror so that we might peer deep into the universe and thus, our own origins. I walked out into the starry night and thought about how seeing the Milky Way isn’t really about “seeing it” but realizing that our planet, our solar system is in it, not the center but a wee small part, spinning with the hundred billion other galaxies in the observable universe. When I wish upon a star, I wish that everyone has the opportunity to experience that more than once. Start with The City Dark.


“United States at night” by NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC – http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/NPP/news/earth-at-night.html.

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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Science documentaries are my favorites. They’re the most difficult to watch, and I usually have to digest them in small chunks, but I love ’em.

Particle Fever is a 2013 documentary that follows a handful of the many physicists and smart folk working on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN from 2007 to 2012, when their work culminated in the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. Maybe you’re thinking a movie about physicists couldn’t get more boring, but not true! There’s a reason this film’s got “fever” in the title. It’s refreshing to see scientists as real people – excitable, fallible, harried, rumpled, laughing.

So what are these hefty brains – 10,000 of them from all over the world – doing with the biggest machine humanity’s ever built? Well they’re trying to find the answers to the megaquestions, like the origin of our universe. I say our universe, because there’s a possibility this isn’t the only one. The multiverse theory versus the supersymmetry theory. I’m not fully comprehending any of it, but it ain’t make believe. And it’s oh so fascinating; especially the sequences that delve deep into the physics. The film’s director Mark Levinson, sound editor for the film The English Patient and a Ph.D. in particle physics, doesn’t gloss over difficult concepts – the science is illustrated and explained visually and delightfully by the brilliant and personable David Kaplan, Savas Dimopoulos, Nima Arkani-Hamed and Monica Dunford.

What is a Large Hadron Collider? It’s a particle accelerator – a 27-kilometer ring of powerful magnets built deep underground in Geneva – construction began in the late 1980’s, when I was far more interested in Kiefer Sutherland than Physics. To me the LHC looks like a fancy electronic pipeline with a lot of wires and shiny bits but costs several billion dollars and has to be maintained with liquid helium at temperatures colder than space. Colder than space!! It’s designed so that two opposite beams of protons can be fired around the ring at almost the speed of light (almost the speed of light!!) – so fast that the protons collide. The goal is to convert that high energy collision into particles with really heavy mass – the kind of particles that aren’t normally detectable. Then the four detectors around the ring can record the results, and the science teams can measure and analyze the huge amounts of data and debris, because at the subatomic level this is how it’s done. It’s a way to recreate the conditions present just after the Big Bang, in order to study the laws of nature.

But mostly, when the first beam was fired in 2008, they were looking for the Higgs boson particle. “The Higgs” is named after Peter Higgs, one of the physicists who first theorized its existence in the 1960’s, and in the words of David Kaplan “it is weird and we do not understand it.” Ha! Maybe it’s the lynchpin of the universe.  Maybe not. But, that’s the point. I thought my favorite part of the documentary would be the moment when the LHC “works” for the first time: the scientists and technicians gathered in the control room erupting into joyous applause, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony roaring as rivers of data flood the supercomputers and images stream across the viewscreens like fireworks. But no, I was rocked by the more formal (though no less thrilling) announcement, four years later, that two of the four experiment teams – ATLAS and CMS – both measured a Higgs boson particle, and it’s mass is neither 115 GeV, like the supersymmetry theory proposed, nor is it 140 GeV, as predicted by the multiverse theory. It’s about 125. Right in the middle. Dude. Chills. Where do we go now?

Why do we need a Large Hadron Collider, especially when it costs sooooo much money? I understand the stance that this is a waste of funds that could be used for other humanitarian/environmental/insert-your-crusade-here purposes. Sometimes I agree. Mostly I don’t. For one, there are great benefits from the work that’s being done at CERN. For another – are you kidding? I want to know where I come from. I want theories and ideas and questions and then I want to test them and test them and test them until there’s no doubt about the answers. Let’s knock some atoms around and get to the heart of things, the dark matter of things. I have particle fever.


“CMS Higgs-event” by Lucas Taylor – http://cdsweb.cern.ch/record/628469. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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Nobody told me February has only 28 days, so uh…that’s why this blog post is a little late.  I did watch Twenty Feet From Stardom (my February choice in my planned 12-Month Documentary Watch Project) last night, which has to count for something.  And I’m still thinking about it this morning.   That’s definitely a sign that a film has affected me.

I feel like everyone but me has seen Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet From Stardom and I’m late to the party, so for those of you who watched it when it came out in 2014 and cheered when it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary – I think we both know where I’m going with this.  This what?  I hesitate to call this a review (or to call any of my Documentary Watch Project posts “reviews”) – so call it an After-Party.

Quite simply, this is a documentary about backup singers.  And of course, it is so much more than that.  It’s a fiery, tearful, rollicking portrayal of a gifted group of artists – mostly women – who have given their lives to music.

I keep imagining that one day I’ll have to convince someone (a friend who avoids documentaries, an acquaintance who’s “not really into music that much,” someone who’s just too busy) to watch this film.  I’ll start with the music.  How pretty much everything good in the worlds of Pop, R&B, Blues, and Rock and Roll is rooted in the power and glory of gospel.  I’ll say, if you love the girl groups of the sixties and Ray Charles and The Rolling Stones and Talking Heads, then you should see this film.  And then I’ll realize that’s not what I meant to say at all.  What I want to say is, if you’ve ever listened to a song that moved you like being lightning-struck, chances are it’s because of the background vocalists, and here, go watch their stories, watch them sing their hearts out because they deserve your full attention.

I’m talking about:

Merry Clayton telling the story of how, hair in curlers in the middle of the night, she recorded her shattering howl of an aria that made the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” the timeless song it is.  How, in her own words, she sang the crap out of “Sweet Home Alabama,” and then went on to record Neil Young’s “Southern Man” with bluesy, life or death gusto.

The Waters Family, sitting around a kitchen table singing an impromptu, a cappella rendition of “Up Where We Belong” and blowing the roof off the house.

Darlene Love talking about how she’s actually the signature vocalist for not just one but two songs that were attributed to The Crystals (“He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure The Boy I Love”).

Lisa Fischer, whose voice surely is powerful enough to be heard in Interstellar space.

You’ve never heard of any of these singers?  I hadn’t either, but we’ve all heard them.  In the background.  What a joy that this film grabbed ahold of the spotlight and aimed it away from the foreground, if only for a while.

Twenty Feet From Stardom is a celebration of music, but of course like any industry it’s about work and survival.  The struggle for fame, and failure despite extraordinary talent.  Claudia Lennear, who performed with practically everybody and danced like nobody’s business right next to Tina Turner for years, is now a Spanish teacher (and yes, who’s to say that’s not as, or more, meaningful).  Darlene Love was finally inducted into the Music Hall of Fame in 2011, but so many of the background singers portrayed here have dreams of making it big by going out on their own.  There are the solo albums with rave reviews and little commercial success.  I have to say I admired Lisa Fischer so much because she can blend her voice into a backup group as is necessary, but still assert her own musical identity.  And, if there’s just a hint of melancholy about her, she carries on.

I think that’s the most difficult part of being an artist, and it’s my takeaway from this film.  So many of us who want to do art – be it music, writing, painting, photography, sculpture, dance – so many of us are never going to “make it.”  We will have day jobs in the background for all our lives.  But we keep going, because it’s worth it.

In Twenty Feet From Stardom, there’s a moment I almost missed, when the singer Táta Vega says, softly and humbly, I just loved music is all.  It’s all I wanted to do.

Read other Posts in my 2015 Documentary Watch Project

Stage photo from Unsplash

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And so begins my 2015 Documentary Watch Project.  I’m always interested in documentary films but never seem to get around to actually watching them (because I’m doing really important stuff like…ahem…watching Grimm and Arrow).  My goal is to view at least one documentary a month, which is nothing…but a start.

Chasing Ice is my January Pick.  It’s languished in my Netflix queue because of my fear that it might be emotionally devastating.  But I’m interested in climate change and I appreciate the merger of science and art.  James Balog is a photographer I’ve long admired and who is perhaps the most well-known animal photographer working today.  In Chasing Ice, we get to know him on a very personal level, accompanying him and his team on an Arctic journey of several years, photographing and recording the retreat of some of the biggest glaciers in the world.  When I make this statement about the retreat of the glaciers, it’s not propaganda or a political agenda.  It is a fact, and you can see it for yourself in Balog’s stunning time-lapse films.  Literally watch miles of the Columbia Glacier – a river of ice at least 126,000 years old – disappear before your eyes, and gape as an iceberg larger than Manhattan breaks off the Ilulissat glacier in Greenland and crashes into the sea.  Stay for the science and the photographs, and then do your own research – by which I don’t mean your news source (or mine).

Balog and his team – the Extreme Ice Survey (which in the documentary seems to be two incredibly resilient assistant photographers, but is for sure a much bigger posse) – travel to Alaska, Montana, Iceland, and Greenland to set up cameras in prime locations to record images of glaciers and calving sea ice.  From 2006 to 2009 they helicoptered, ice climbed, sled dogged and trekked their way into these unbelievably remote (and fricking cold) locations to place their cameras (and by “place their cameras” I mean anchor those bastards to rock ledges well enough to withstand everything Mother Nature might hurl…failing spectacularly quite often…we get to see Balog cry on camera at least once).  The result is both Art – the photographs are breathtaking (and they are portraits, really – of our Earth itself) – and Evidence.  Or a warning?

Just watch the documentary to see magnificent ice and our loss of it.  Ice – what Balog calls a “limitless universe of forms.”  So gorgeous, so massive, so deceptively permanent.  I’ll say that I didn’t need a soundtrack of elegaic piano music to help me realize that this is a planet we live on, and we are part of it – this incredible blue and green ecosystem, this sphere spinning in the universe.  The planet changes itself, but we also change it by what we do.  How utterly foolish for us to believe otherwise.  Whatever your reaction to the words “climate change” or “global warming” might be, this is a film that should be seen.  I’m glad I finally got around to it.

I’ve got a few ideas for my February documentary pick, but I’m absolutely open to suggestions.  Please send me your thoughts in the comments!

Read other Posts in my 2015 Documentary Watch Project

Photo from Unsplash

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