The Way We Get By

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The Way We Get By
Directed by: Aron Gaudet
Written by: Aron Gaudet

The Way We Get By is a fantastic documentary by writer/director Aron Gaudet. It is about three older people and what they’ve gone through in the last five years as the self-appointed welcoming committee for American troops as they return to native soil. The film is predominately set in the Bangor Airport in Bangor, Maine, and the homes of the welcomers.

The Way We Get By is a short documentary that was made for the long-running PBS television series P.O.V. It’s a film about nothing, and yet, everything. By that I mean that the stories don’t seem to be as heavily influenced by the director as other documentaries might be. And the many themes that come across in the film (loss, loneliness, family, spirit, etc.) are universal themes.

The style presented in the documentary keeps these stories fresh and interesting. There’s an amazing rhythm from story to story that keeps it going. One style in particular reminded me of David Lynch’s on-going Interview Project, which centers around individual stories. The similarity lies in the edit, where the interviewee’s audio track is dubbed over a different shot, trying to capture the right emotion for what is being said.

Each person in The Way We Get By is a dear soul, and I instantly connected with William, Joan, and Gerald on an emotional level. There’s so much pathos here. Heck, the preview itself had me tearing up. I found one line from Gerald to be especially poignant. When asked why he was doing what he was doing, he replied, “Be nice to somebody and that makes you feel nicer. That’s the only way you can deal with it.”

I loved seeing the different attitudes and opinions of the greeters as well. I love how these people, even the ones who don’t support the war, are there to support the troops regardless of their stance. That in mind, I wouldn’t call The Way We Get By an anti-war film. Rather, I think anti-loss would be a more fitting term.

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Nashville Film Festival Report, Day 2

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Day 2 of the Nashville Film Festival started with the 1:00 showing of a documentary called Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary. The overall format of the film was interviews with a host of documentarians around the world broken up by clips from their films. I appreciated the range of talking heads, as there were many faces that I didn’t recognize. After the film was over, I came away with two cemented ideas: Errol Morris continues to fascinate me (Especially with his interviewing device showcased in Fog of War), and I appreciate Werner Herzog more and more…but trust him less. He blurs the line between fact and fiction too much for my tastes. His point that all film in a sense is fictionalized, but I don’t think that should stop filmmakers from trying to portray truth in the films. This is a discussion that I would have liked to see more interaction with between the interviewed.

Mothers and Daughters

After a quick lunch, I watched Mothers & Daughters at 3:15. This film followed the mother/daughter relationships between several characters, overlapping in some areas. Overall it came across as being overly dramatic in several scenes, but there were a few gem moments that really touched me. The older woman (pictured above)  in the film was fantastic. The emotionality of the character was portrayed with such subtelty.

Gonzo

I admit that William Shatner was one of the selling points of the festival for me. I’d read a little about the William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet here and there, but wasn’t quite sure what it was about until watching it at the festival. In short, it’s a documentary that tells the story behind choreographer Margo Sappington’s ballet Common People. The performance fuses the ballet with Has Been, a recent album by William Shatner and Ben Folds. The documentary, which works more as a DVD special feature than a feature-length film, tells the story through interviews with the artists involved in both productions, which is a great story to tell. It also features footage from the ballet, which was riveting to say the least. I would have loved to see it performed live. After returning from Nashville, I purchased a copy of Has Been, which is quite a treat.

The Class

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Starting with teachers at a high school in Paris introducing themselves before the school year begins, director Laurent Cantet sets the mood and setting for the rest of the film. The Class rarely steps outside of the building, showing us what happens within the confines of the classroom.

The Class, based on François Bégaudeau’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, is about Bégaudeau (played by himself in the film) teaching French to a culturally diverse class in a Paris high school. It deals with important issues that pertain to teaching and interacting with people coming from different cultures and backgrounds. In several scenes Bégaudeau has to explain what certain words and idioms that he uses mean because the students aren’t familiar with them.

Stylistically, The Class falls into the cinéma vérité camp, adopting a distinctive documentary feel. The majority of the film takes place within the classroom, and is intimately filmed. It’s as if the camera is hovering around the classroom capturing spontaneous moments as they happen. Aside from meetings with the student boards and parents, there isn’t much background for the students given; what you see is what you get. There are a lot of close-ups in the film, reminding me of the style of director John Cassavetes.

Staying during the closing credits, I had a short conversation with an older couple that were seated a few rows in front of me about the film. The husband is a teacher, and they were wondering what my take on the film was, and more importantly, Bégaudeau’s teaching method. We talked about the cultural problems that he had to deal with and how he genuinely wanted his students to succeed.

That said, however, I appreciate how the filmmakers didn’t make Bégaudeau out to be the perfect teacher. For example, he’s been teaching there for four years and should have more control over his classroom; the students run the class more than they should. The moments when he does connect with the students, however, are beautiful. I think he would be more at home in an organic setting rather than the traditional one that he’s currently in.

In some ways The Class can be compared to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Both films deal with a culture clash that takes place in an environment where people are forced into contact with each other. The Class succeeds in showing us what can happen when various cultures come together under the same roof. It raises a lot of questions about education, culture, and communication, leaving the viewer to struggle with the answers as the credits roll.

Academy Awards Predictions: Part 1

The following are my tentative predictions for the 2009 Academy Awards.

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Best Picture
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
*I’m being pretty risky with my picks this year, with the Slumdog train constantly picking up momentum, but this was such an incredible film. And winning would help make up for Zodiac not receiving one nomination last year.

Best Director
David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
*Even if Slumdog manages to take best picture over Button, Fincher still deserves the best director award. (Did I mention that Zodiac didn’t receive on enomination last year?)

Best Screenplay (Adapted)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Eric Roth)
*From what I’ve heard (Planning on reading the short story soon), Roth’s adaptation took the story to a whole nother level. It definitely has it’s Forrest Gump influences, but it’s still a great story.

Best Screenplay (Original)
In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)
*There’s a lot of good competition this year, so it’s a hard call to make. Relative newcomer McDonagh wrote a mighty fine script. The underdog award goes to him.

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Best Actor
Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)
*Just watch The Wrestler, already.

Best Actress
Kate Winslet (The Reader)
*I admit that I haven’t seen The Reader yet, but I plan doing so before the ceremony. Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep also have a decent chance here as well.

Best Supporting Actor
Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
*Especially in a year where there isn’t much competition in the supporting actor award (Why is Josh Brolin in there?), this is a lock.

Best Supporting Actress
Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)
*Again, haven’t seen it, but it should be coming in via NetFlix today. I wouldn’t mind seeing Amy Adams or Marisa Tomei taking the award, either.

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Best Animated Feature
WALL-E
*Grade A work from Pixar, from start to finish.

Best Documentary Feature
Man on Wire
*Totally took my breath away; kicking myself that I didn’t see this in the theater when I had the chance. It is nice to see Herzog nominated as well, though it’s not one of his best films. I still have to see the other three nominations.

Best Foreign Language Feature
Waltz With Bashir
*I’m picking this solely on the buzz. I haven’t seen any of the films in this category yet.

I’ll continue with the technical awards at a later date…

Gates of Heaven

Gates of Heaven
Directed By: Errol Morris
Rating:

Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven (1978) is a fascinating documentary. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from it, and it certainly kept my interest throughout. It’s more laid-back and objective than other documentaries that I have seen. There’s one scene in particular where a woman is talking about her life. The scene goes on for a while, and is seemingly irrelevant to the film. Looking back after seeing the film, however, it’s obvious to me that it was that scene that Morris used to transition into different themes and feelings in the film.

It’s interesting how the film starts with one story and ends with a completely different story as well. These two stories share many similarities and, at the same time, are very different. They’re not necessarily opposing views, but the different parties definitely go about doing the same thing different ways. The first pet cemetery, for example, is run by a man who is very much emotionally invested in the practice for various reasons. Conversely, people who are seemingly more pragmatic in nature run the second pet cemetery.

Gates of Heaven starts off with the story of a man, Floyd McClure, whose goal in life is to start and run a pet cemetery. Because of various problems that come up, McClure’s cemetery fails. The story then shifts and follows another pet cemetery, run by John Harberts, which is far more successful.

From what I’ve learned of documentary films, so far I would say that Gates of Haven is a good representation of a non-fictional documentary with some elements of cinéma-vérité as well. The filmmakers aren’t shown, yet it’s clear that they’ve been working. It’s also very real in the way the subjects don’t seem forced at all. It looks and sounds very natural and real, which is what I love the most about this film.

As I said earlier, there are clearly two different stories, but they share similarities. The way that these two stories are put together bookends the film nicely. Floyd’s pet cemetery was born and died in a sense, while the other is still in operation to this day.

At its core I would say that Gates of Heaven is about mortality, both with animals and, to a lesser extent, humankind as well. The woman I referred to earlier is an example of how widespread this theme is, having some prevalent things to say in regards to that particular subject.

Along those same lines, the question was raised at the end of the film about whether or not animals have souls, which is a fascinating subject to think about. Earlier on in the film, one couple talked about their dog and how, while not being able to communicate with them verbally, was seemingly expressive and cognizant of its surroundings. The man told a story of a previous Christmas in which their dog found and opened its presents all on its own. Is this a case of an animal having human-like qualities or smelling a dog treat? It’s something to think about at least. Near the end of the film, one woman said this about her dog:

There’s your dog. Your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it? There’s your spirit. There it is. [. . .] I think I’m right. In fact, I almost know I’m right. I haven’t thought about the idea that animals do in fact have souls very much before now. But in my mind that was one of the best cases that I’ve heard for it yet.

The people interviewed throughout the film were interesting to listen to and were very real, which is a credit to Errol Morris. It was great to see so many differing perspectives represented in the film. I especially liked the early interviews with Floyd McClure and the guy from the rendering facility. They’re both two entirely different people. Floyd is clearly a more sensitive person, especially when it comes to harming animals, while the other guy just doesn’t seem to get why people would care about animals that much. It’s a baffling concept to him. It was also cool how, at times, it almost seemed like they were talking together.

One interview, later on in the film, that I really enjoyed watching was the one with the older couple who have just lost their dog, York. They’re so eloquent in their simplicity. They cared about their pet deeply and, at the same time, aren’t focused on themselves. When talking about how York died, the woman says:

I’m telling you, if I never tell anything else again, please watch your dogs for heartworm. It’s carried by mosquitoes just like malaria. And you don’t know.

I also really enjoyed thinking about their relationship, and wonder if their dog’s death actually ended up strengthening it. The woman goes on to talk about her belief that they will see their dog in the afterlife: “Well I think we’ll all be together again. I think we’re going to live pretty much just like we do here”, to which the man responds, “She’s got me believing that now, I never believed in it before.” It’s nice to see how a tragic event like has the potential to do so much good for those involved. We can learn a lot from this couple…or at least hypothesize about them.

The actually filming of Gates of Heaven was quite good. For the most part it was very objective, not detracting from what the subjects had to say. As I mentioned before, I was amazed at how long the camera stayed on certain people. Some of what they were saying seemed unneeded, but there are so many gems to be found as well. Cutting it up and butchering it would have been a travesty in my opinion. On that same note, I don’t remember the camera ever moving when people were being interviewed; it was always static, which adds to the sense of objectiveness, which I think was a great choice on Morris’ part. The camera does move when illustrating what someone is talking about; a diagram of the pet cemetery, for example, and when scenes are shown that accentuate what’s going on. I also really liked how the pictures of certain pets were shown. They were usually in the center of a section of grass. Not only does it have an aesthetic quality to it, but if the pictures were shown by themselves it would have looked impersonal. And for the most part the film editing, done by Errol Morris himself, was noticeable, but not in a distracting way. It does feel odd to me, however, when documentarians cut back to a previous interview later on in their films. I understand why this is done, and I would probably end up doing the same thing myself if I were working on the project, but it just doesn’t seem right in a continuity sort of way. Everything else is progressive, but the actual interviews aren’t.

The production of Gates of Haven worked well. It was shot in color, which looked great. While I love a good B&W film, I don’t think that Gates of Heaven would have fared well in that medium; the grass needs to be green in this film. It was also shot in full screen as well. I also liked the locations that were used throughout the film. The latter interviews with Phil Harberts (the communications major in the family) when he’s shown in his office really help to describe his character. At one point he even talks about what his office means to him, with all of the awards and things that are there. He’s clearly proud of their accomplishments.

Aside from a few studio shots that were used for illustration purposes, everything seemed to be shot on location. There were some interviews done indoors, like the one I just mentioned, but they were the real deal, not in studio settings. The lighting seemed to be pretty natural, especially in the outdoors scenes.

There really wasn’t much music in the film, except for what Dan Harberts played, which sounded quite natural and belonged there. I think that the lack of music in Gates of Heaven greatly enhances the film. Rather than ramping up the emotional level with music, Morris has instead chosen to leave well enough alone and let the audience see what the subject is feeling and come to their own conclusions. While I do love a good film score, it just wouldn’t have been the same film with one.

The sound was also used well. There’s one scene in particular where I noticed it. Near the beginning of the film, a newspaper article is shown which reads, “They’re digging up dead pets, old griefs on Peninsula”. It’s a still image with no sound. It then cuts to the jarring sound of machinery digging up the graves. What a powerful jump.

I really liked Gates of Heaven, so I’ll be giving it a definite “A” grade. It’s fascinating documentary that focuses on something that I wouldn’t have bothered learning about otherwise. At the same time, Morris deals with many different themes and is very objective about the whole process; we’re given more questions than answers in this film.

On a more interesting note, I read that Gates of Heaven was the result of a bet between German director Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. Herzog bet that if Morris directed a documentary about pet cemeteries that he would eat his own shoe. He did, and the event is documented in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, directed by Les Blank.

(Written for my documentary of film class)

American Teen Comment

Last month I reviewed American Teen (Nanette Burstein) I also briefly wrote about the film in a research paper about documentaries:

[. . .] the high school students are fully aware that they are being documented. I’m not saying that their personal stories, which they are very open about in the film, aren’t true. It just seems that in some cases, like in the more informal group scenes, that it serves more as a self-fulfilling prophecy than capturing real life.

When I was cleaning off my desk today, I found the latest issue of Paste Magazine. Skimming to their film reviews, I noticed one about American Teen, written by There’s one paragraph in particular that caught my eye: [Bold added for emphasis]

It would be natural to immediately wonder whether some moments were staged—does every sullen teen look forlornly off a bridge or sit solemnly on a playground swing?—or whether Burstein asked asked the kids to pause breakups and arguments until her crew could get there to film them. I have no idea whether any such orchestrating occurred, but just a few scenes into the film, the thought no longer bothered me. The kids, who at first seemed so aware of the cameras, and maybe even emboldened by them, soon appeared to forget all about them—a skill perhaps acquired by a generation raised on reality television and somehow accustomed, or welcoming, to cameras in their faces.

You can read the rest of her review HERE. This begs the question: Is media awareness beneficial for documentaries or is it more of a detriment? I’ll leave that for you to chew on.

American Teen


American Teen
Directed By: Nanette Burstein
Rating:

American Teen, the latest documentary from Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Pictures / On the Ropes) is equally fascinating and moving. It follows the senior year of four High School students in Warsaw, Indiana. Burstein and her crew chronicle the lives of the students closely, capturing rare moments of beauty, truth, and doubt.

Although I really liked the film, it took me a while to get into it. It starts on their first day of school, and when we’re first introduced to the main subjects, they seem cliché. You have the basketball jock (Colin Clemens), the popular girl (Megan Krizmanich), the artistic, liberal girl (Hannah Bailey), and the self-professed nerd (Jake Tusing). I’m watching a documentary about High School and they’re focusing on stereotypical teens? Great. After a while, however, I realized that there’s so much more to these people than meets the eye.

Along those lines, I was interested in Colin Clemens’ story, especially with regards to his father. His father is very up-front about the fact that he can’t afford to put Colin through college after he graduates from High School. He basically says that he has two options. The first is to get a scholarship from basketball, and the second is to join the Army. You’d expect Colin’s father to be overbearing, pushing Colin to do well in basketball, but he isn’t. I was impressed with the love he showed throughout the film. It was very uplifting and genuine.

As a documentary, it is indeed quite an impressive undertaking. I heard that they ended up filming over 1,000 hours of footage over a 10-month period of time. Nanette Burstein said in an interview that they had other subjects, but due to different problems, etc. they ended up with only four. I think it worked out well in the end. I’m not sure if I could have handled watching a documentary involving that many people. I felt like I knew each person individually by the end of the film and felt sorry to see them go.

At times it seemed like Burstein was waiting for the fantastic to occur, to be ready to capture it on film. When those moments do come, they really are awesome and penetrating. There are moments when I felt embarrassed, as if I were reading a friend’s diary or personal letter. In those moments, the façade is pulled back and you see glimpses of real people in real life situations.  Those moments helped quell my questions about how aware they are of the cameras recording their every move. I’m sure some of what was on-screen was a show, but underneath it all they seem very honest and open.

The film is largely made up of filmed instances in their lives, b-roll of their surroundings, and interviews with each individual. Sometimes scenes of computer animation, which I didn’t think worked, would accompany these interviews. I thought that they successfully helped to convey visually what each person was talking about, but it really took me out of the experience of watching a film.

This film reminded me of “7-Up”, an on-going series by Michael Apted. Starting in 1964, they documented the lives of seven-year-old British students from differing backgrounds and asked them what they thought about government, their future, etc. They have continued to get together with the same subjects every seven years. The last segment, 49-Up, was release in 2005. Both “7-Up” and American Teen show us different economic perspectives and backgrounds.

American Teen is a great fly-on-the-wall experience. Looking at the different lives of these students I see parts of myself in each one of them. There’s a lot to learn from observing others; the decisions they make and the ones they don’t.

I hope Nanette Burstein takes note of Michael Apted and decides to do a follow-up to American Teen several years from now. That would be fascinating.

(American Teen will be released in theaters on July 25 in the United States)