Ross McElwee’s latest rumination, Photographic Memory, spreads itself far too thin to say anything very profound about either photography or memory, apart from a brief (and admittedly intriguing) disquisition on photographic “decontextualization,” the process whereby time strips away the circumstances surrounding the taking of a photograph until only the mute fact of its actual content remains. Oh, and there’s a shameless plug for French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. A big part of the reason for the film’s meagerness, over and above the incessant flow of self-indulgent palaver, stems from McElwee’s maladroit juggling of multiple storylines, any one of which, had it been explored with sufficient alacrity, might have yielded something more substantial: There’s his troubled relationship with son Adrian, seen in clips from earlier films as an adorable youngster, now in his late teens, surly and unmanageable; the year he spent in Brittany, right out of college, working as a photographer’s assistant, framed as a quest to find his mentor’s current whereabouts; and (a McElwee specialty) plenty of time spent pining after the possibilities represented by a lost love.
“Nobody joins a cult,” claims one of the survivors in Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple, Stanley Nelson’s assured handling of the Guyana tragedy that resulted in over 900 deaths. People join a community of likeminded individuals because it welcomes and accepts them. That’s an entirely necessary realization if you want to understand the draw of the Peoples Temple. For a time, Jim Jones’s progressive, even utopian vision of racial equality seemed like a viable alternative. The unanswered (ultimately unanswerable) question has to do with the darker forces lurking beneath Jones’s benevolent façade. Was the madness there from the start, only waiting to metastasize? Or did it steadily creep in over the years of (at least perceived) persecution? We’ll never know, and the survivors can only testify to their part in the unfolding nightmare. That testimony is easily Jonestown’s greatest asset. Intended for broadcast as part of PBS’s American Experience, Nelson and editor Lewis Erskine use that series’s prescribed format—alternating between archival footage and talking head interviews without the orientation of voiceover narration) to shape the material in ways that are empathetic and emotionally wrought, yet never exploitative.
From 1963 to 1977, Bob Fass hosted Radio Unnameable, an influential freeform radio program on NYC’s listener-supported WBAI. Fass cultivated a freewheeling, anything-goes atmosphere—playing two songs at the same time, opening phone lines to multiple callers, and letting them hash out their differences. The program also fostered the popularity of in-studio guests, a who’s who of the folk rock and counterculture scene, stopping by to chew the fat and perform their new songs. As the ’60s progressed, Fass aligned himself more and more with the protest movement; consequently, Radio Unnameable served as an on-air command center for countless Yippie-led demonstrations and be-ins. For Radio Unnameable, directors Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson obtained intimate access to Fass’s archives. As a result, the film is richly detailed, even though these riches are often merely glimpsed in passing. Of course, when faced with hundreds of hours of grade-a material, issues of structure and inclusion are bound to arise. Still, I can’t shake the notion that Radio Unnameable would’ve benefitted considerably if only Lovelace and Wolfson had stuck with that material, digging in deeper and broader, rather than padding the film with bootless discursions about kooky contemporary listeners and other distractions.
Several years ago, Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten made Bananas!*, a documentary about the plight of Nicaraguan fruit workers sterilized by exposure to pesticides. That film quickly ran afoul of Dole’s legal machinery, which went to extraordinary lengths to put the kibosh on it, a process Gertten lays bare in his reflexive follow-up Big Boys Gone Bananas!* Given the nature of the material, it’s hardly surprising that Gertten places himself at the center of the juridical maelstrom, a move that hardly ever comes across as self-serving. The doc provides a surfeit of details exposing corporate chicanery via PR misdirection and legal scare tactics. These elements comprise the film’s strong suit and justify its validity as documentary. The problem lies elsewhere. Framing his story as an unambiguous David-versus-Goliath struggle, Gertten has the pesky habit of preaching to the choir. “Boycott Dole!” stands ready as the knee-jerk response. Nor does the trouble reside entirely in the film’s reception: Tone and tectonics encourage such hasty and uncritical corporate-bashing. Ultimately, I think it’s a moot point whether or not these sentiments are deserved; the issue remains that this variety of faux-populism seems better suited to the soapbox than the silver screen.
In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Volker Sattel’s Under Control takes on an eerily prescient quality. Constructed as a guided tour through Germany and Austria’s dilapidated nuclear power plants, the doc earns its comparisons to Kubrick by viewing these institutions with a jaundiced eye toward outmoded safety precautions, and utilizing a series of leisurely tracking shots to traverse—and render even more alienating—their space-age topographies. Sattel’s filmmaking style also resembles Frederick Wiseman’s explorations of the interplay between environment and process: Under Control thus bears comparison with a film like Missile. Later stops on the tour include IAEA headquarters in Vienna, where administrators lament the Agency’s limited capacity to level sanctions of any merit, and deep-earth storage facilities for nuclear waste with half lives in the millions of years. Along the way, Sattel peppers the film with images of abandoned facilities, power plants in the process of being demolished, even one that’s been converted into the unlikeliest of amusement parks. By the time Under Control loops back around to a now-deserted simulation room, as its control panels light up and warning klaxons go off, you’ll be speculating as to just how ironically the film’s title ought to be taken.
The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival ran from April 12—15. For more information, click here.