Ed Pincus was one of the founders of the MIT Film Section, a training ground for future documentary filmmakers like Ross McElwee. Pincus produced a body of work that straddles the line between the purported objectivity of Direct Cinema, a movement he helped pioneer with early works like the Black Natchez, and the more self-reflecting style known as personal documentary. As its name suggests, Diaries: 1971-1976 belongs in the latter category, an intimate epic that examines the inextricable Gordian knot of personal and political commitment by turning the camera eye on friends and family. Bookended by intimations of mortality, the deaths of a relative and close friend, Diaries spends most of its three-hour-plus run time charting the shifting sexual climate of the 1970s, delving into experiments in lifestyle choices ranging from nudism to open marriage. Frequent exchanges between Pincus and wife Jane, a member of the feminist collective responsible for the manifesto Our Bodies, Ourselves, consider the consequences of their decisions not only on their own relationship, but also on their two young children. Diaries also records, albeit in a distanced, Brechtian fashion, the last gasps of anti-war protest and the disintegration of the counterculture, at least the Cambridge variety. For a stretch late in the film, Diaries achieves a gritty kind of New Hollywood vibe as Pincus and a fellow filmmaker range around the desert Southwest, the documentary equivalent of Easy Rider. As a time capsule, Diaries is invaluable, but Pincus’s decision to work against narrative cohesion by cutting away from conversations at key moments, and otherwise hashing up individual segments, renders the film chaotic and disjointed, sapping it of the cumulative impact found in documentaries like Allan King’s A Married Couple, let alone the massive slab of social experimentation then going on over at PBS called An American Family.
Ron Fricke’s Samsara is another visually stunning, globe-trotting “think piece” from the director of Baraka. Once again Fricke’s focus is on transcendence and temporality, using time-lapse photography and immersive 70mm cinematography to explore manifestations of religiosity: a Buddhist mandala painted in sand, the soaring interiors of a Gothic cathedral, Islamic pilgrims circumnavigating the Qaaba in Mecca. Like Koyaanisqatsi, on which Fricke served as director of photography, Samsara gets a lot of mileage out of juxtaposing the splendor of natural landscapes with the hurly-burly of human activity: Luminous cityscapes and vast factory spaces where uniformed workers assemble electronics and household goods segue into massive food-processing facilities and munitions manufacturers. Fricke takes his only serious missteps in these latter segments, concluding sequences with too-obvious visual punchlines (overweight customers cramming fast food into their gullets, a disfigured veteran standing against the endless white crosses at Arlington) that knock the viewer out of the film’s captivating rhythms by clobbering them over the head with Morgan Spurlock-style cheap shots. Luckily, these infractions aren’t egregious enough to capsize the film, which rights itself soon enough and moves along to the spectacle of animatronic doppelgangers and Thai “ladyboys,” before circling back around to its own beginning, fittingly enough, since samsara is a Sanskrit term that denotes the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
Reportero is a sturdily built investigation into the perils of investigative journalism that focuses on Zeta, a weekly magazine based in Tijuana, Mexico. Director Bernardo Ruiz does an excellent job laying out the publication’s turbulent history: how its redoubtable publisher, J. J. Blancornelas, overcame obstacles ranging from difficulties in securing reliable printing facilities to multiple assassination attempts (failed and successful) against Zeta’s staff and reporters; the terrible price paid for exposing political corruption; and the stranglehold of narcotraffickers. Along the way, I was frequently reminded of the title of a documentary about the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini: Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die. In that sense, Ruiz’s film is an almost archetypal story about speaking truth to power. What Reportero does best is to flesh that story out with names, faces, and histories.
David A. Siegel is a billionaire, president, and CEO of Westgate Resorts, one of the biggest timeshare companies on the planet. Siegel is in the process of constructing the largest single-family home in the country: a 90,000-square-foot mansion humbly patterned after the palace of Versailles. Jacqueline Siegel is his trophy wife, a former Mrs. Florida and mother to six of his children. From its opening scene, a lavish beauty-pageant photo-op along the Siegel home’s grand staircase, The Queen of Versailles clearly registers its subjects’ greed and exhibitionism, but is their subsequent chastened honesty ever anything but a subset of the latter? David gives interviews seated on a gilded throne, a bust of Napoleon visible in the background, in which he claims to have been singlehandedly responsible for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential victory through somewhat extralegal means. Jackie has a penchant for enhanced cleavage-revealing ensembles and shopping sprees that require a caravan of SUVs to carry home all the swag. Despite our national fascination with “lifestyle porn,” exemplified by Real Housewives (or pretty much anything broadcast on E! and Bravo), these are not people we are immediately inclined to empathize with. Then the 2008 financial crisis hits hard, precipitated by precisely the sort of subprime mortgage bonanza peddled by Westgate’s timeshare hucksters, and Lauren Greenfield’s film evolves from an ode to entitled obliviousness to a surprisingly evenhanded character study, tracing the fault lines that develop within the Siegel family. Give Greenfield credit: She allows audiences room to empathize with the Siegels’ humanity while never stooping to pity them, an extremely fine line on which to balance a film. The Queen of Versailles is at its best when Greenfield delineates the push-pull between revelation and effacement: detailing the pep talks Siegel’s son and second-in-command gives the Westgate sales staff (all about dangling the illusion of affluence in front of blue collar noses), catching the Siegel family in candid moments that contrast vividly with interview segments where they’re more obviously in control, and, in a scene that literalizes the metaphor of effacement quite nicely, following Jackie into a makeover session complete with facial peel and Botox injections.
Detropia plays out like the desolate inner-city endgame to Roger & Me’s suburban-entropy scenario, only executed with more poise and visual flair than Michael Moore could ever hope to muster. Moody lowlight cinematography and stropped-razor editing limns the city of Detroit on the verge of collapse, as it slowly disintegrates into isolated pockets of humanity lost at sea amid vast tracts of untenanted real estate. Narrative vignettes revolve around a demographic cross-section of urban survivors: a young woman blogger who assumes the role of inner-city archeologist, exploring and cataloguing the ruins; the head of the local auto workers’ union, leading the fight against lower wages and fewer hours, until the manufacturer decides it’s easier to simply shut down the facility; a bar owner whose establishment is close by the defunct plant, his tour of a “green” auto expo the comic highlight of the film; young white artistes flocking to the derelict downtown, keen on the prospect of low rents and abundant elbow room. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady possess the good sense to let the segments speak for themselves, eschewing both alarmist Chicken Little antics and showy self-aggrandizement in the face of human suffering. As with the best documentaries, Detropia lacks the effrontery to suggest easy solutions, content instead to frame the necessary questions.