Some 10 days following their first-run engagement of Boxing Gym, the latest, brilliant cinema vérité study of process and motion from the American godfather of the style, Frederick Wiseman, IFC Center sets itself as the host of the inaugural edition of DOC NYC, a festival dedicated to the form which taps directly into the primal urge at the spinal base of cinema: to watch. But unlike the indefatigable oeuvre of Mr. Wiseman, there was little available, from the eight films that I previewed out of the 40 works on hand, that sincerely explored that urge. Rather, the glut of the works available were those indebted to the more modern tendencies of the form, that of the political, the nostalgic and, at best, the truly peculiar.
This is to say that DOC NYC is less a primer for how the documentary form has come along in the century or so it took to get from the Lumiere brothers’ L’arrivée d’un Train à La Ciotat to Michael Moore’s morbidly wrong-headed Fahrenheit 9/11 than it is a survey of what has been popularized by the genre. Seeing as it was negligibly absent from the lineup of this year’s New York Film Festival, something like I Wish I Knew, the latest hybrid film from Jia Zhang-ke, would have made a provocative and fascinating statement on how the rules that once dictated the documentary form have been reappraised over the decades. But the festival, which counts Mr. Moore and Barbara Kopple among its board of advisors, has begun with baby steps, sticking with those films that purport to depict reality with what has been decided to be a sufficient aggregate of purity.
If there was, however, one film that looked ahead and contemplated the ideas inherent in depiction, it came, as one might have guessed, from the inimitable Werner Herzog, whose entire career has amounted to a query on the contrast between what’s real and what’s “real.” The latest in a line of stupendous nature-based conundrums from the German eccentric, Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams spends the larger portion of its 95 minutes inside the Chauvet caves of southern France which contain the earliest cave drawings and art known to man, dated over 32,000 years ago. Rediscovery is a pervasive theme: Herzog films the insides of the caves, the scientists and anthropologists who study inside it and the regions outside using 3D technology, whose reinvigorated popularity has become, depending on who you talk to, either a nuisance or a galvanic tool. The effect is beguilingly academic, at times, and completely fascinating from start to finish, contrasting the movement and depth of the 3D image with the earliest known artistic representations of movement, sound and emotion. Have we come any further in the passing millennia? Mr. Herzog keeps quiet, remaining focused on his subject and its inherent mysteries.
One of the final mysteries Herzog evokes is what, if anything, albino alligators, who populate a neighboring arboretum, dream of. This particular question remains without an answer as well while the dreams of a more popular species, that of humans, is given a heavily nostalgic once-over in Josef Birdman Astor’s Lost Bohemia, a short, unimaginative look at the imaginative creatures that inhabited and, as of earlier this year, were kicked out of the studio apartments above New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Astor, who lived in one of these studios as a photographer with legends like Bill Cunningham and more obscure legends like Editta Sherman, the so-called Dame of Carnegie Hall, interviews his neighbors and follows the legal battle that ensues when the inhabitants are evicted and the studios are set to become office space. Populated by images of past residents (Marlon Brando, Paddy Chayefsky, Marilyn Monroe and Isadora Duncan among others), Lost Bohemia crudely romanticizes New York eccentrics without a modicum of balance or, for that matter, an awareness of the economic and social turns that have left this as the best and in some cases only living situation for artists.
A similar, though far less earnest and strained, nostalgia is rooted in the community of Meredith, NY in Laura Israel’s Windfall, a timely, interesting but ultimately perfunctory look at the pros and cons of wind power technology. Once a great farming community, Meredith has now become a quiet place for artists, small tradespeople and the few farmers who have won out to live and raise their children. This peace, however, becomes threatened when companies begin peddling the promises of wind power and start signing deals with residents to build humongous (over 400 feet tall) wind towers around their property. Nicely shot by Brian Jackson, Windfall slowly develops into a study of small-town government and the often unsung hurdles of energy alternatives, which anchors a national debate in nuanced, humanistic detail. And yet, I can’t help but wish that it had focused far more on the processes and the people that make Meredith run than it does on the national debate and the nuisances of wind power (loud noise, shadow flickering). As informative and heartfelt as it is in spurts, Windfall ends up looking, sounding, and communicating to the audience in ways not unlike a well-crafted PSA.
What Israel does correctly is communicate her thoughts on a cause by detailing how that cause figures into a singular paradigm of communal thinking; her only major failing is that she becomes too obsessed with the technical details of the science which could never be fully discussed in a film that clocks in at 83 minutes. The experience of living with the technology and its effects on the community becomes dulled, as does the film itself. In contrast, Janus Metz’s riveting Armadillo was about as experiential as modern documentaries get. Something of a companion piece to Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo, Metz’s film falls into the bedlam of southern Afghanistan with a platoon of Danish troops, also known as hussars and members of the ISAF. The expected staples of modern warfare are all there (the chug of heavy metal, the open camaraderie, the emotional yearning for family and women, and the tragedy of fallen friends), but, in its second half, Armadillo begins to confront ideas concerning ethical procedure (namely rules of engagement) when soldiers gun down Taliban fighters in a small ditch during a skirmish.
Armadillo is, essentially, another war documentary, but the small ways in which it is different from Restrepo and its ilk are just as important as its attempts to give the audience an idea of the psychological bombardment inherent in warfare. Along with its study on the rules of engagement, it also gives the audience an idea of the globalized effort to end the Iraq Occupation, a harsh rebuke to those who trumpet the bravery of American troops and push isolationist agendas at the same time. If only Mother of Rock: Lillian Roxon, Paul Clarke’s enjoyable but terribly unfocused look at one of the founding ladies of modern music criticism, had worked similar nuance and ethical quandaries into its trip through the rock and art scenes of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Clarke gets some great anecdotes about Roxon’s days at Max’s Kansas City, the infamous NYC rock club, with Andy Warhol from talking heads (Iggy Pop, Lisa Robinson, Alice Cooper, and Rob Milliken included), but it is ultimately Roxon who is lost in the tide of romanticized remembrances of drugs, alcohol, promiscuous sex and sudden death in dingy, pre-Giuliani New York that Clarke finds far more interesting than the eponymous heroine of his film. The result is that Roxon, a completely unique talent, becomes just another brilliant loner who died before her time—in this case, from an unexpected asthma attack.
Clarke’s inability to focus completely on Roxon and diversion of more attention to the art and music scene of the 1960s in New York, a totem of thoughtless nostalgia that had been tired out before the millennium rang in, suggests that the director was quite simply outmatched by his subject. A more even pairing could be found in Tabloid, the latest, expectedly strange entry from Errol Morris who, along with Herzog, is honored with a miniscule, four-film retrospective during DOC NYC. The title of Morris’s latest, a solid recovery from the middling Standard Operating Procedure, refers to another form of questionable depiction, that of the pair of U.K. scandal sheets that turned the story of Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming who was arrested for allegedly kidnapping and raping her former fiancé, Kirk Anderson, while Mr. Anderson was serving as a Mormon missionary in southeast England, into a national dialectic.
McKinney, whose interview with Morris takes up the greatest portion of Tabloid’s tight 83 minutes, takes her rightful place amongst Morris’s stable of great American oddities, including Fred Leuchter, Stephen Hawking and Floyd “Mac” McClure. Depicted by one paper, the Daily Mirror, as a sex-hungry maven with a beauty queen demeanor and another as a misrepresented innocent being skewered by the hellhounds of media, McKinney remains, to this day, resolute in her belief that Anderson was a victim of Mormon hypnosis and brainwashing when he reported the kidnapping. The author of an unfinished memoir (“A Very Special Love Story”) and the recipient of a pack of cloned pitbulls from South Korea, McKinney herself, as with many of Morris’s subjects, is another form of depiction, as unsteady, delusional and prone to omissions in her recounting of the events as any sleazy rag could ever be.
The great difference between Tabloid and Standard Operating Procedure stands as what often constitutes the difference between great art and everything else. No, Tabloid is not a great film, but it’s a very personal one, intimate even, and it remains dedicated, above all else, to its subject. For many films at DOC NYC—indeed, most documentaries that are released every year—the problem arises when the filmmakers don’t know where to focus, are too overwhelmed by political and social ramifications to see the real subject and become more interested in crafting a message. Such thinking suggests that most subjects deal in absolutes, which leads to boring, mediocre work; the political overwhelming the artistic rather than the artistic informing the political. What makes Herzog and Morris legends and what makes younger filmmakers like Metz so promising is that they seem indifferent to completion, in direct opposition to absolutes and happiest in arguments that are still punctuated with a question mark rather than a period.
DOC NYC runs from November 3 – 9. For more information, click here.