Doc Talk is a biweekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This week we highlight the best films from the DOC NYC festival.
On the heels of Hurricane Sandy and a subsequent winter storm, the third annual DOC NYC documentary festival has been going on as scheduled this week, without a hitch as far as I know. This is my first year unable to physically attend, as I have moved out of New York, but I managed to see some of the program and picked out a couple highlights involving cinema that I think our readers should see when they get the chance.
The first is called Radioman, which doesn’t sound like it’s about the movies but is in fact about a formerly homeless man named Craig Castaldo (aka “Radioman,” because he always wears a boom box around his neck), who is known throughout the film industry as a regular and popular screen extra. In the documentary, we follow him to numerous movie and TV location shoots, including sets for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Something Borrowed and Tower Heist, as well as on a trip to Hollywood for the Oscars. He interacts with celebrities everywhere, and George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Johnny Depp, Tilda Swinton, Sting, Robin Williams and many others are formally interviewed about the guy.
I really think this documentary has some cult potential in spite of -- or perhaps helped by -- its very low quality. Understandably, a lot of the footage is handheld home video style, some shot by Radioman on set, but the sit-down interviews have remarkably poor sound. There isn’t much to the narrative, and I can definitely accept criticisms about its length and overall pointlessness. But part of me is convinced that Radioman is really a mockumentary in which the eponymous character is actually Robin Williams (and maybe sometimes Robert De Niro) in costume. The resemblance is just too uncanny at times to ignore, and the guy’s rapport with movie stars is just too easy to believe. Even if it is all true, I was utterly fascinated by this cross between Bill Cunningham New York, Exit Through the Gift Shop and the TV show Extras.
The next film is Persistence of Vision, which does sound like it’s about the movies, though it sounds like something more directed at the science of cinema. Instead it’s about animation legend Richard Williams, who won two Oscars for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Before and after that gig, though, he worked for decades on a labor of love called The Thief and the Cobbler, a feature-length film based on the Near East folklore character Nasreddin. Ultimately, the project was taken away from Williams by a completion bond company, reworked as a cheap musical and sold as an Aladdin knockoff -- ironic since, as the film implies, Disney stole much of its film’s designs from Williams’s well-known project.
Like Radioman, the technical quality here isn’t much, but the interviews are more than serviceable. With Williams refusing to participate (or ever talk about the film since it was taken from him), the story comes from the mouths of his collaborators, and they provide plenty of details on the good and bad of working on this would-be masterpiece over many years. Williams does appear through a great amount of archive material, which is mixed with a treasure trove of making-of scenes and footage of the original film and clips of the final product (originally released by Miramax as Arabian Knight). Because it takes place over the same period, it’s a good complement to The Pixar Story and Waking Sleeping Beauty, but it’s also very depressingly reminiscent of Lost in La Mancha, the documentary of Terry Gilliam’s unfinished film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
The final film is The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the sequel to The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. In the earlier documentary, the brilliant philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek looked at -- and placed himself into -- classic film scenes from a psychoanalytical perspective. Here, the focus is on ideology, but he again employs a number of film scenes -- and again places himself into them -- to illustrate his theories about human beliefs and behavior. He and director Sophie Fiennes (sister of actors Ralph and Joseph) also mix in news and archival footage of such real stories as the 2011 London riots, the lead-up to the Iraq War and the historical adoption of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony/”Ode to Joy” as an anthem representing groups of every ideology, left to right.
I would already figure these documentaries to be of interest to movie geeks because of a lot of the film scenes chosen -- Ideology features parts of They Live, Taxi Driver, The Dark Knight, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, Jaws and Titanic. On the last, he argues that the iceberg averted an even bigger disaster, which would have been the continued relationship between Jack and Rose once the boat docked in New York. With people going crazy this year for Room 237, I think Ideology could be of similar interest. It deals with more films, including other Kubrick works, and the analyses are a lot smarter and more substantial and timely. Zizek is not always the easiest person to understand, either through his speech or his ideas, but he’s never a bore.
The Law in These Parts (Ra’anan Alexandrowicz) - Opens today at Film Forum in NYC - This Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner is a bit of a hard sell, a talky examination of Israel’s court system for Palestinians in the West Bank and the legal history of the occupation, featuring interviews with the retired old men who wrote the laws. Though aesthetically austere, the film is quite inventive in its use of rear-projected archival material, played in forward and reverse motion. Still, as interesting as the subject matter and visual approach are, and as much as the filmmaker tries to simplify for a layman audience (he is also trying to understand it better), it really is a tough, complicated work to get through. In my Sundance review, however, I express why it’s worth the effort:
it’s not that accessible for anyone with little interest or familiarity with the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But it so perfectly comes together in the end as a rare human rights issue film that’s cerebral rather than emotional in its approach. Alexandrowicz acknowledges and admits to the usual faults of cinema, that he’ll end this film and go on to another, that we’ll go back to everyday life when the credits are over, but that the true person of interest in this cause doc will remain unjustly imprisoned. [...] At times I wanted to laugh at the abstract absurdity of what the film was unraveling before me, but it’s not really a humorous matter at all.
The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield) - Now available on DVD, Blu-ray and Amazon Instant Video - One of my favorite docs of the year, and definitely the biggest surprise for me. And I found a lot more to it in a second viewing. In my True/False dispatch, I initially called the film, which follows one of the richest families in America before and after the financial crisis, “an outrageous, despicable, guiltily hilarious and appropriately superficial good time.” I also noted that I despised the entire clan and found it “occasionally exaggerated, exploitative and contemptuous.” Later, I saw more of its universal identification, how it’s really about all of us. From my intro to an interview with Greenfield for the Documentary Channel Blog:
Here is a documentary that looks like it caters to both the superficial Real Housewives audience and also the 99-percenters looking for a takedown of the uber-rich, and really it is an exceptional, allegorical character study focused on the issue of Americans overreaching for the Dream through an extreme example of a family affected by the financial crisis.