As a woman who understudied for Ethel Merman, Elaine Stritch is perfectly well-seasoned in how to be a charming sort of bitch. In fact, she may be the only living famous person able to carry off this persona. In Chiemi Karasawa's first directorial effort, Stritch is given the love letter she's long deserved, even if she does act a bit snide at times. And, to give you some idea of the emotions Stritch inspires in people, one of her AA comrades shown in the documentary appraises, "She is a Molotov cocktail of madness, sanity and genius." Promotional poster for Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

Documenting her cameo appearances on 30 Rock and her Singin' Sondheim...One Song at a Time tour of major cities, Shoot Me is an eye-opening account of how to live your life fabulously during your golden years. Stritch herself quotes Bette Davis in saying, "Old age isn't for sissies." Indeed Stritch makes it look easy with her "one drink a day" policy, that is, until her diabetes catch up to her and land her in the hospital for a few days.

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Equal parts candor and vulnerability, Stritch talks freely about her struggle with alcohol addiction and the daily temptation it gives her. The bittersweet part is, it's her one simple pleasure. When asking herself the question of what she would most want if stranded on a desert island, she states, "An open bar."

Performing Sondheim classics for her show at the Carlyle

It isn't all grim, though. Another key part of the documentary shows Stritch choosing the room and decor she wants for her own dedicated studio at the Stella Adler Theater, where she once attended. She also talks lustily about some of her former flames, including Ben Gazzara and what she hoped would be Rock Hudson (though she probably only later realized that any attraction he had for her was likely due to her fag hag tendencies).

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Stritch's brushes with death throughout the film manage to keep her largely unfazed as she uses her humor as the ultimate defense against the reaper. By the end, however, she's decided that it may very well be New York City that's been the cause of her perilous health all these (65) years. And so, she departs for her sleepy hometown state of Michigan, leaving the city somehow less vibrant without her.

 

 

 

It's arguable that to be born in the ghetto is to be damned to a life of mischief and crime. Lofty Nathan's first documentary, 12 O'Clock Boys, explores how much one's interests are affected by his environment. Following a 13-year-old named Pug, Nathan shows us a world that Baltimore outsiders are unaccustomed to seeing. Promotional poster for 12 O'Clock Boys

On Baltimore's Westside, the 12 O'Clock Boys have established their domain. While all of them are decidedly young, the factions of prepubescent aspirants run together in packs. Nathan, who first discovered his subject while attending the Maryland Institute College of Art, takes a hands-off approach to documenting Pug's involvement in the gang, asking him no more than a few questions at the end of the film. Perhaps the laissez-faire vibe is intentional on Nathan's part, serving to mirror the indifference of the 12 O'Clock Boys to everything except the glory of riding.

Pug, the central subject of Nathan's documentary

As noted by one of the interviewees of 12 O'Clock Boys, "You'll learn the right way to do all the wrong shit in Baltimore City. You'll get a PhD in it." With this in mind, watching Pug interact with his family is telling of his motivations in wanting to escape to a life spent risking arrest for the thrill of hitting the 12 o'clock point on his bike--that instant where the front of it is completely aligned with the back wheel's ground point. In his mind, there is no greater achievement--every authority figure has set him up to think that way. Granted, there is one mention about the importance of school, but it's fleeting and instantly dismissed by Pug, who seems to know underneath it all that his opportunities are few and far between.

Hitting the 12 o'clock mark on their bikes earned the gang their name

Tracing Pug's progress as a wannabe 12 O'Clock Boy for three years, we see the shift in him from semi-sweet to completely hardened. The concluding scene shows him detachedly eating chicken and talking about his plans to steal his bike back from someone who swiped it. His focus on this goal comes across as rote, rather than passionate--as though his bike is all he really has now (it's almost De Sica-esque).

Jillian Schlesinger's debut documentary, Maidentrip, is not your standard, typical fare when it comes to subject or style. Following the incredible journey of Holland-based Laura Dekker, just fourteen years old at the start of the film, Maidentrip is an exploration of independence and a life lived outside the norm. Promo for Maidentrip

Dekker's unusual desire to travel the world at such an early age stemmed not only from a somewhat psychologically fraught childhood (her parents divorced and her father was often prone to mood swings), but also an innately independent and curious nature. Her goal to become the youngest person ever to sail around the world by herself was the subject of much debate in the Dutch media, leading to a larger argument about how much one's government should be able to intervene in a minor's life.

Tranquil seas for the moment

The controversy caused by her announcement prompted the Dutch court system to obtrude, initially blocking her plans after a ruling that made the Council for Child Care her joint custodian. Ultimately, Dekker got her wish, beginning her expedition in the summer of 2010. Her combined precociousness and confidence only become more evident as the documentary goes on. Filmed in part by Dekker during the portions that take place on her boat and by Schlesinger and cinematographer Hillary Spera when Dekker finds her way to dry land, Maidentrip shows us the juxtaposition of a life at sea and one among civilization.

Mapping the waters

Her sense of wanderlust is elucidated in statements like, "Freedom is not being attached to anything." In fact, her ire for what is deemed by the Dutch specifically and society in general as convention is apparent throughout the documentary. Declaring her lack of interest in returning to Holland and an absence of affinity with her countrymen, Dekker finds a greater pull toward the place of her birth, New Zealand, and eventually sails there after landing in St. Maarten to complete her trip across the globe.

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What one takes away from Maidentrip is that it is possible to create your own path (literally and metaphorically), even in spite of those who will tell you it can never be done. Dekker's courageousness--or what others call recklessness--is a reminder to those older than her to seize their whims and desires when they feel like it, even if it means stepping far outside of one's comfort zone.

 

Everyone knows Bettie Page for her, shall we say, aesthetic. But very few seem to associate her with having any sort of substance behind her physicality. In Mark Mori's documentary, Bettie Page Reveals All, we're given a more cerebral insight into her life story--and, of course, a visual one as well. Unlike anyone before or since (except Madonna), Page had this way of enjoying her own sexuality that didn't make her come across as an object the way, say, Marilyn Monroe does. Narrated by Ms. Page herself (who died in 2008, four years before the film came out), the documentary is a much needed glimpse into the myth of this infamous pinup. Promotional poster for Bettie Page Reveals All

With a lothario/pervert of a father, Walter Page, it makes sense that Bettie would turn to the pinup life. The early trauma of being molested by her father was compounded by her mother, Edna Page, admitting to not wanting to have her. In spite of these setbacks in her formative years, Page maintained a positive attitude and excelled in school. Just a few GPA points shy of being the valedictorian of her high school, Page was the salutatorian at her graduation ceremony. It would be the first of many in Bettie's life of dichotomous perceptions.

Assets.

After completing a degree at George Peabody College with the intention of teaching, Page decided to try her hand at acting. Although she had married her high school sweetheart (the first in a long series of failed marriages), Page's husband had been drafted into the Navy. Thus, she was free to go to San Francisco without much protestation from anyone. Once she had bummed around that town without any success, Page headed to the next logical progression: New York City. Here, she dealt with another scarring experience after being abducted by a group of men and forced to give fellatio to each of them. In spite of this emotional strain, she continued to work as a secretary until a police officer named Jerry Tibbs noticed her at Coney Island and offered to create a modeling portfolio for her. It seemed that Page's own bisected nature attracted others like her--how else could one explain a police officer with an erotic photography side hobby?

January 1955's Playboy centerfold

Page quickly gained fame in the pinup circuit, and became known for being easy to work with. Her ease and comfortableness in front of the camera was evident in every sex-soaked photograph. Her meteoric rise continued when she began to do more bondage/S&M-oriented work. As Page narrates this portion of her life, she is unapologetic about this particular part of her career, asserting that, as long as what you do doesn't hurt anybody else, you should feel free to do what makes you happy. At the height of her popularity, Page left New York. The year was 1957.

Whip it.

It was at this point in Page's life that she took a more spiritual turn, seeking meaning and solace through religion. She also got married again in 1958 to a man named Armond Walterson (perhaps subconsciously drawn to someone whose last name contained the first name of her father). After her divorce from Walterson, she married her first husband again and then went on to marry Harry Lear. Her desperate search for true love was manifest in these rampant divorces and in her devotion to Christianity (she worked for Billy Graham at one point).

White and black, representing good and evil

Page's struggle with her identity ultimately resulted in a nervous breakdown, and she was admitted to a mental facility in San Bernardino. She had previously stated that she often heard voices in her head, one of them being the devil's, and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She was institutionalized until 1992. In the documentary, Page's current image is never shown. The most recent photo we are given a glimpse of his her mug shot from the early 70s when signs of her insanity first surfaced. Her final quote in the film is: "I would like people to remember me how I was in the photos." As the stuff of legend, Page's mystery throughout her later years is part of her business acumen, knowing full well that people would prefer to remember her as she was at her physical peak.

 

"How would you describe yourself?" asks David Lynch to Harry Dean Stanton. Stanton responds, "There is no self." This is just one of many poignant isms uttered by the great actor in Sophie Huber's documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. Easily one of the most prolific character actors, it took many decades for Stanton to gain his due accolades--this documentary being apart of that process. Talking head moment from Partly Fiction

As Stanton's friends (though mostly acquaintances, since he seems to let very few people into his life) respond to his presence in a positive and reverent way, it is clear that Stanton is humbly unaware of his effect on people. As Huber's first film, she takes on a challenging and impenetrable subject. His replies to her gentle probing are cryptic, rarely revealing of any true insight into his character.

The Stanton mystique.

Indeed the brevity of the film, at one hour and sixteen minutes, speaks volumes on Stanton's parsimoniousness with words. It's almost as though he chose to make acting a career so as to never have to actually speak his own dialogue. However, those he has worked with in the industry have plenty to say about him, including playwright/screenwriter Sam Shepard, who wrote one of Stanton's most memorable roles as Travis Henderson in Paris, Texas. Shepard was, in fact, the one who suggested that Stanton play the lead to director Wim Wenders--in spite of Stanton always playing a supporting actor up until that point.

Still from Paris, Texas

Among other co-stars enamored of Stanton's acting ability is Kris Kristofferson, who notes to Stanton, "I think your heart is really into music more than anything else." This observation is affirmed not only by Stanton's constant (often impromptu) singing throughout the documentary, but also in his relationships with people like Debbie Harry.

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We learn briefly of Stanton's tumultuous childhood, living among parents who loathed each other and ultimately divorced. His small town existence in Kentucky led him to join the navy and eventually find his way toward the pull of Los Angeles. While we glean kernels of background information, the documentary leaves us with nothing truly concrete about Stanton's essence--save for the notion that he is an amalgam of every surly, sagacious character he's ever played.

Even if you've never seen a John Waters movie, you're probably faintly aware of Divine. Her larger than life persona began on a small scale as Harris Glenn Milstead, a bullied overweight boy living in Baltimore. But before being declared by People as "The Drag Queen of the Century" (much to RuPaul's chagrin), Divine was subverting the concept of both conventional drag and film. With John Waters as his guru, Glenn was dubbed Divine, and never looked back afterward. I Am Divine shows us how drag was forever capsized by the weighty force of this divine presence. The most iconic incarnation of Divine

As Waters has stated many times, him and his gaggle of Baltimore misfits (who called themselves the Dreamlanders) never set out trying to change how audiences--and the film industry--perceived the moviegoing experience; they were simply doing their best to stay out of trouble as much as possible. In Waters' novel, Role Models, he even speculates as to whether or not he and his crew might have turned out like the Manson family if it weren't for their cinematic outlet. And, of course, without such a passion for experimentation, the character of Divine may never have been birthed.

Pre-Divine

In addition to standing for bad taste and all things trashily camp, Divine was an emblem of excess and decadence. It was in everything she did--from her weight to her spending habits. Filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz, who has made documentaries about other gay icons like Vito Russo, interviews those closest to Divine with the purpose of illuminating what a life force the performer was. And, in many ways, I Am Divine is meant to show the bittersweetness of Divine's success, which seemed to come too late.

Divine channels Cyndi Lauper during her stint as a musical artist

Reaching the pinnacle of her career prosperity the year she would die from a heart attack, 1988, Divine received rave reviews for her performance as Edna Turnblad, the mother of a rebellious daughter named Tracy (Ricki Lake). It was also around this time that producers and agents were finally taking Divine seriously as an actor, not just a drag performer. In fact, the morning of Divine's death, she was slated to appear on the set of Married With Children for a recurring male role. All those years of exaggerating the absurd and saying fuck you/fuck off to anyone who would listen had at last paid off on a commercial level.

With Ricki Lake in Hairspray

Waters lovingly and lamentingly notes, "Divine stood for all outsiders. He stood for anybody that didn't fit in, that exaggerated what everybody hated, turned it into a style and won." Even when she was at her most despised (Pink Flamingos), Divine exhibited a sense of tenacity and immunity to persecution that was almost more inspiring than the diabolical arch of her eyebrows. More than anything, I Am Divine is an homage and a eulogy for a performer who altered the course of drag, film and, in the end, is always going to be pigeonholed as the first and last person to eat dog shit on camera.

Apart from Dick Cheney, the only politician creepier and more unreadable is Donald Rumsfeld. And the only documentarian more unsuited to make a movie about him than Michael Moore is Errol Morris. Rumsfeld's strange willingness to walk onto the set of his own character assassination is just one of the many fascinating elements of The Unknown Known. Eerily building up to the date of September 11, Rumsfeld's memo in late July states he would hate to find the country in another Pearl Harbor situation. While Rumsfeld iterates that he was not "prescient" of the impending Twin Towers explosion, Morris subtly builds on the strangeness--and seeming randomness--of this man's politics. Promotional poster for The Unknown Known

Among some of Rumsfeld's more disturbing political philosophies are: "Belief in the inevitability of conflict can become one of its main causes" and "If you wish for peace, prepare for war." His vacant simper appears often after he knows he's uttered something bordering on the absurd--meaning you'll see quite a bit of simpering throughout the documentary. Beginning from his political infancy working for Richard Nixon, Morris digs up tapes of H.R. Haldeman, Henry Kissinger and Nixon discussing Rumsfeld's dubious future within the administration. Whether or not Rumsfeld's coup of a maneuver in excusing himself from the country just in time to evade any implications in Watergate is, as usual, arbitrary.

The infamous grin.

In discussing the influential men he's been able to work with Rumsfeld mentions his time working as Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford, and later, under George W. Bush. With some reluctance and tongue in cheek diplomacy, Rumsfeld notes, "George W. Bush was his own man." After being ousted in the 1980s by the advent of the Reagan Administration, Rumsfeld served as the CEO of G.D. Searle & Company. It wasn't until he was plucked back up from obscurity by Dick Cheney (who Rumsfeld had done a solid for by getting him appointed to replace him as head of the Economic Stabilization Program while working for Ford) that Rumsfeld started making a splash again.

Billionaire boys club.

As a key instigator of the Iraq War that began in 2003, Rumsfeld became illustrious for his double talk in supporting arguments for U.S. military involvement. One such statement crops up numerous times in the documentary, hence where the title comes from. On defense decisions, Rumsfeld declares, "There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not."

Cheney and Rumsfeld, a decades long love story

As Morris and Rumsfeld grow more engaged in the discussion of how the Iraq War and subsequent prisoner/detainee treatment escalated, Rumsfeld becomes unwittingly honest about his views on governing. Just as George W. Bush once made the horrifying statement about how much easier it would be to act as a dictator, so, too does Rumsfeld state the similarly alarming desire: "It would be so much easier if you could treat people--all of them--as prisoners of war." It is around this point that he also denies maltreatment of anyone at Guantanamo Bay (this is when Morris cuts to documents containing reports on the playing of Christina Aguilera music as part of torture tactics). And all of this is made a little more sinister by the constant presence of Danny Elfman music.

Pleased to meet you, Mr. Hussein

In spite of the film being essentially one long interview with Rumsfeld--which means the somewhat uncomfortable task of staring into his eyes for an hour and fortyish minutes--it is fascinating to watch a man so clearly guilty of wrongdoing genuinely believe that everything he did was right. Even during that period when mostly he was just looking up words in the dictionary. In fact, he even recorded himself saying, "I wanna make a list of things I've done for the Pentagon, including getting rid of words." How can you reason with a man who views such a thing as a crowning accomplishment? Morris must have had a similar epiphany as he concludes his interview with the question, "Why are you doing this? Why are you talking to me?" Rumsfeld responds, "That is a vicious question...I'll be darned if I know."

It takes courage to say the things you want to say. But it takes even more courage to say it when you're a woman. For Kathleen Hanna, the mission to say exactly what she thinks and feels at any given moment has been a lifelong one. She has offered a voice for so many women over the span of decades--women who only dream of possessing her bravado and frankness. And so, it seems more than timely that Sini Anderson's documentary about the roller coaster journey (both public and personal) of feminist/punk singer/zine writer/riot grrrl pioneer should make its grand entrance into worthy cinemas across the nation. Promotional poster for The Punk Singer

Filmed over the course of three years from 2010 to 2013, The Punk Singer unfolds with methodical thoroughness. This is due in part to Kathleen Hanna's intense candor for the entirety of the documentary and her willing involvement in the project. Starting at the beginning, or rather, detailing certain origin stories since, as Hanna so succinctly puts it, "Things never really begin at the beginning," we see how Bikini Kill was ultimately formed. Begat in Olympia, Washington after creating a feminist zine of the same name, Bikini Kill also consisted of Kathi Wilcox, Toby Vail and Billy Karren. The quartet started a swift underground revolution with their provocative performances and incendiary lyrics. After gaining ground and generally growing bored with the scene in Olympia, the band moved to the other Washington, where they felt their political sentiments would be better suited.

DIY

Before the band moved, however, Kathleen had the chance to help create another iconic moment in music history through her friendship with Kurt Cobain. After the two spent a day and night together drinking, Hanna wrote "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the wall, prompting the title of a song that would influence the imminent shift in music culture. After that, Hanna swore off drinking for six years. The notoriety of Bikini Kill only increased after their move. After the release of their second album, Pussy Whipped, the riot grrrl movement had taken full effect. Hanna and her fellow bandmates promoted a media blackout spurred by the frequent misrepresentation of their cause and their personal lives. One article, in fact, alleged that Hanna had been raped by her father, which was the true cause of her anti-man vitriol. The blind assumptions on the part of the media only further fueled Hanna's fire to be as expressive and blunt as possible.

Once a punk, always a punk.

The mid-90s proved a tumultuous time for Hanna--and not just because Courtney Love clocked her in the face at Lollapalooza in 1995. It was also a time when Bikini Kill was going through some unremediable growing pains. Sensing the impending demise of her band, Hanna retreated briefly (to her bedroom) to record the lo-fi record Julie Ruin. Released in 1998 (a year after Bikini Kill broke up), the album was evocative of the loneliness and moroseness that often transpires within the confines of a girl's bedroom--which was just the vibe she was aiming for. Paired with the electronica trend popular at the time, Julie Ruin was an unprecedented style and approach for Hanna that would ultimately lead to the formation of Le Tigre, arguably more successful than Bikini Kill, at least by commercial standards.

Singing for the ills of all womankind.

Hanna's achievement of that rare form of musical prosperity--having two bands that were both incredible--was marred in the mid-00s by a mysterious health problem that wasn't properly diagnosed until 2010. Once she discovered she had late stage Lyme disease, Hanna was struck with the revelation that she might never be able to sing or perform again. Her husband, Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, helped her get through the grueling treatments, while the writing of new music for her third band, The Julie Ruin, gave her hope for the future. And, like any strong-willed feminist, Hanna has come out of the other side swinging.

...if they want to be.

Her determination and drive to improve how women are perceived, to let the world know that it's only the beginning of what we're fighting for proves that feminism is not a lost cause. One of her final utterances in the documentary relates to the epiphany: "I just think that there's this certain assumption that when a man tells the truth it's the truth. And when, as a woman, I go to tell the truth, I feel like I have to negotiate the way I'll be perceived. Like I feel like there's always the suspicion around a woman's truth--the idea that you're exaggerating." Together, women can work to change that, one riot grrrl at a time.

The department store is a decidedly American entity. Nowhere else in the world has the art of peddling so much shit in one single structure been as artfully mastered. Bergdorf Goodman is a rare exception in the generally déclassé nature of department stores. Priding itself on selling only the finest (read: most expensive) of goods and setting their prices and standards so high, Bergdorf’s has developed something of a reputation for exclusivity and elitism. And it is this reputation, presented in Matthew Miele’s documentary Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s that forms much of the basis for materialism in our society. Although the focus of the film is somewhat "scattered," ranging from the early history of the retailer to the Anna Wintour-like power of Fashion Director Linda Fargo, what shines through in it most is the emphasis on status and wealth in New York City and throughout the Western world. The Bergdorf Goodman philosophy.

Interviewing iconic designers and influential tastemakers associated with the store, Miele ends up drawing out some of the most materialistic statements from people like John Demsey, the president of Estee Lauder, who asserts, "Bergdorf Goodman is part of the aspirational dream of people all over the world." Throwing in other heavy-hitters in the world of fashion—including the always captivating Iris Apfel, who just shows up and ends up being the most interesting person in the room—for good measure, the entire purpose of the documentary seems to be a promotion of how great you can be if you have the money and the stature.

Iris Apfel, Fashion Legend.

Overt in its espousal of buying as a way to prove what your worth both to yourself and others, one of the most disturbing observations comes from film producer Jean Doumanian, who uses the example:

"If a young girl is going to college, she can't wait to become a lawyer or get a full-time job so she can buy that pair of shoes she's been looking at. Everybody wants to better themselves, so they aspire and I think that's why stores like this are necessary...to make people want to aspire to bigger and better things. You need this for the American dream. For people to actually reach it, they have to see it."

And apparently how they see it is through tangible, ludicrously priced material. While, yes, Bergdorf’s has always been known for quality, is anything quality enough to warrant price tags that are, at best, in the three or four figure range? All it serves to do is ostracize, and make those who can’t afford this so-called aspiration feel utterly inadequate and defeated.

Another interviewee.

At the same time, Bergdorf’s has vaguely offset its polarizing price points with the discovery of much beloved designers like Michael Kors (who might be the most overrated designer of the current fashion epoch). Before Linda Fargo took over as Fashion Director, there was the equally as revered Dawn Mello, who happened to see Kors dressing his own store window across the street from Bergdorf’s. She promptly asked him to bring his line over to Bergdorf's to show to the buyers, and the rest took care of itself.

The Fendi Sisters.

Another telling sign of the somewhat sickening wealth that comes with the ability to shop at Bergdorf’s is the documentary’s acknowledgement of the economy-altering Bernie Madoff scandal. In the wake of the financial crisis, Bergdorf’s suffered immensely from their clientele’s losses—proving, once again, that “poor people money” counts when times get rough. Kate Betts, a contributing editor for TIME, likened the event in terms of fashion:

"When you think about hemlines and the whole relationship between hemlines and the financial world, they always said, 'You follow hemlines and you follow the market: They went up and down with the markets. So, in the 60s, obviously, when the boom happened hemlines went up. In the 70s, with the recession, they came crashing down."

Promotional poster for Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's

Another interviewee made the faint connection between being rich and living in New York City as he stated, "When you look around the world, what seems to have happened is that a smaller and smaller number of cities have become more and more important in terms of the movement of where the very wealthy members of the international society live." It's an alarming and obvious fact to bring up, making one wonder if Bergdorf’s could thrive in any other city  outside of New York (apart from London). Further commentary by Stephanie Clifford, a retail reporter for The New York Times, offered, "[Retail] is a direct window into the American consumer. You see all these economic reports about how consumers are feeling and how they're saving, and in the retail world it reflects precisely what they're feeling and how they're saving and what they're buying." Bergdorf's customers probably feel like dollar bills are pennies.

Karl beneath the hashtag #GetScattered actually makes all the sense in the world.

Incidentally, in spite of how wealthy you have to be to shop at the establishment, associates who work on commission are rewarded handsomely (top sales associates can make up to $500,000 a year) for enduring what are presumably some difficult personalities. So, I suppose, in this sense, there does exist some sense of egalitarianism within the Bergdorf’s social strata. And then there is the perk of the Holly Golightly-esque parties. Continuing the motif of excess, the final portion of the film puts a spotlight on Bergdorf’s knack for throwing lavish fêtes. Whether it’s Fashion’s Night Out or Fashion Week, no expense is spared. For about six minutes, we’re shown a montage of decadence with a song playing in the background that repeats “Barbra Streisand” throughout (a name that is already overly bandied because her first TV performance was filmed there in 1965, in which she ironically sang several songs under the title “Poverty Medley”).

Alternate promotional poster

Culminating with the final result of the windows dressed in the theme of Carnival of the Animals for Christmas, it's clear that we're supposed to feel some sort of sentimentality and connection to the glamor of the aesthetics presented. It's supposed to make us want to strive, to become a part of a higher tier in the class structure. But it kind of just makes you want to go to the Gap and buy sweatpants out of protest. This isn’t to say that luxury should be done away with or those who enjoy it should be punished. But it is indicative of how materialism is the barometer for success in America in particular and throughout the world as a whole. Perhaps it’s time for a new, more realistic gauge.

The obsession with meaning and interpretation in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is enough to make Stephen King hate the auteur even more for stealing the thunder from his book. In Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237, the director steps back and lets fans and enthusiasts of The Shining lay out their detailed gleanings from one of the most iconic films in American cinema. The result is often disturbing and, at times eerily convincing because of how vehement the commentators are—proving, once again, that all you need is confidence to scare people into believing you. Promotional poster for Room 237

The primary theories set forth in terms of the true underlying theme of Kubrick’s illustrious film are: 1) It’s about the broken promises toward and treatment of Native Americans, 2) It’s about the Holocaust and 3) It’s about Kubrick’s involvement in the fake filming of the Apollo 11 moon landing. All of these postulations are fairly disparate, but each of them shares the common motif of a cover-up—trying to forget or ignore what really happened. While none of the interviewees, like Geoffrey Cocks (a college professor partial to the Holocaust theory) and Bill Blakemore (an ABC news correspondent partial to the Native American genocide theory), are ever actually shown on camera (the crux of the documentary is the use of scenes from various Kubrick movies), the certainty in each of their voices ends up making the arguments more believable than they would sound if we actually saw them onscreen.

Alternate promotional poster for Room 237

Discussing with exacting detail the most incredible minutiae of the visuals in The Shining, including everything from the layout of the Overlook Hotel and how Ullman’s office had an “impossible window” to the presence of Snow White’s Dopey on Danny’s door, Room 237 toes the line between being intense and farcical. Noticing subtleties like the fact that Jack is reading an issue of Playgirl as he waits for Ullman to give him a tour of the hotel, these callouts often seem more like Kubrick’s practical joke on viewers than symbolism that conveys any significant meaning.

http://youtu.be/rHE5YUNkssQ

As the most conspiracy-related theory, the moon landing segment of the documentary is what perhaps stands out with marked bombast. According to one theorist, Room 237 was changed from Room 217 (as it is named in the novel) because Kubrick was told by the Mount Hood hotel to alter it so that future guests wouldn’t be averse to staying in the room. The twist, of course, is that there is no Room 217 in the Timberline Lodge (the real name of the hotel). Thus, the true motive for Kubrick changing it is to make reference to the fact that it’s 237,000 miles from Earth to the moon.

http://youtu.be/excskT6ix_g

However, some of these passionate assertions are questionable in that, as one interviewee admits, they’re “grasping at straws.” For example, a speculator noted that Kubrick’s desire to throw the movie back in King’s face is blatant in changing the color of Jack’s Volkswagen to yellow instead of red. However, a red VW does appear in one scene, in which Dick Hallorann passes a wrecked red Volkswagen--evidence that the commentator states is proof of Kubrick's sadism toward King in that this is the original color of the vehicle in the book. Said “symbolism” is just one among many of the ardent interpretations garnered from seemingly arbitrary moments in The Shining.

http://youtu.be/rOxukprEwjg

No matter what analysis of the film the viewer buys into most, I suppose what’s most remarkable about Room 237 is comprehending that Kubrick was great enough—and one of the most adept creators of semiotics in film—to evoke this many reactions and versions of understanding. As Kubrick once said, “I have found it always the best policy to allow the film to speak for itself.” In this case, it might be speaking a little too much.

 

He was the man who wrote one mind-blowing, generation-defining first novel and essentially vanished. Whether the obsession with J.D. Salinger was driven solely by his elusiveness or the lust to see more of his work may never be tangible. Shane Salerno's probing (though, at times, bloviating) documentary, Salinger, does its best to demystify the man and the myth, but really only serves to strip Salinger of a fair amount of his dignity. Promotional poster for Salinger

Two days after J.D. Salinger's death on January 27, 2010, the release of Salinger was announced on film site Deadline.com. Somewhat blatant in capitalizing on the rejuvenated interest in Salinger, the documentary had been kept secret during its five years of production (Salerno probably knowing full well that Salinger would never have agreed to its release). Harvey Weinstein quickly acquired the rights for distribution and the publicity surrounding the film soared. The comprehensiveness of the documentary cannot be denied, as 150 subjects--including personalities as disparate as Gore Vidal, Martin Sheen and Joyce Maynard--were interviewed. Unseen archival footage and photos of Salinger during and after World War II also proved enticing to devout fans.

Photograph of Salinger writing The Catcher in the Rye during WWII.

What comes across most in the film is Salinger's dedication to writing. His belief that a work should speak for itself instead of having to, in addition, give people morsels of information about one's personal life shines through in every interview with his acquaintances and associates. The attention paid to lesser talked about details of his life, like the adaptation of his short story, "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" into the schmaltzy Samuel Goldwyn-backed My Foolish Heart, as well as his relationship with Oona O'Neill (daughter of the famed playwright Eugene O'Neill), is also one of the most valuable facets of Salinger.

A foolish rejection letter.

Interviews with Salinger's former flames, like Jean Miller--the woman who purportedly inspired "For Esme--With Love and Squalor"--are by far the most interesting portions of Salerno's opus. But it doesn't get truly sordid until Joyce Maynard speaks on her time with the recluse. As was his usual wont, Salinger pursued the object of his affection through correspondence. After seeing Maynard grace the cover of The New York Times Magazine, Salinger wrote to her cautioning against the dangers of early and instant success. She dropped out of Yale to live with him in Cornish, New Hampshire shortly after. Long after things had fallen apart between them, Maynard returned to Cornish (around the time she was writing her tell-all about him) to ask, "What purpose did I serve in your life?" This, apparently prompted a tirade from the author in which he seethed, among other things, that she didn't deserve to know the answer to that question and then concluded with,  "You know what your problem is? You love the world."

The original--maybe better and bolder--title for The Catcher in the Rye.

Apart from Salinger's relationships and marriages, one of which resulted in two children with Claire Douglas, the main emphasis of the film is his maniacal behavior with regard to writing. Spurred by the torment of a post-war existence, it is revealed that many of Salinger's later works (slated to be released between 2015 and 2020) take place during World War II--an era of his life he clearly never quite got over. But the fact that his first day in combat was on D-Day and that he was carrying the initial pages of the manuscript for The Catcher in the Rye, in essence, sums up his life: Fighting a war he didn't really want to for the benefit of his writing.

http://youtu.be/_oUHn0lZFy8

While the meticulousness of Salerno's effort is remarkable, there is something altogether passionless about the documentary. And maybe that's the result that comes with a subject that's so far removed from his documenters. Plus, one has to wonder: Would Salinger have enjoyed this documentary? Absolutely not (especially since the final scene features Coldplay's "Strawberry Swing" playing in the background).

The orca: A creature of majesty, of inexplicable emotion. That is, until you lock them up in a virtual bathtub for decades all for the sole purpose of entertaining trashy families. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s highly moving—and effectively convincing—documentary, Blackfish, showcases a history of violence among killer whales held in captivity, with specific reference to the practices at SeaWorld. Promotional poster for Blackfish

Beginning with the tragic death of renowned SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in February of 2010, the documentary then goes back to the beginning of one of the first known incidents of whale capturing 39 years prior. OSHA expert Dave Duffus, well-versed in the initial capture of Tilikum--a 12,000 pound male orca--at two years old in 1983, unfurls the information about the build-up to Tilikum’s aggravated state like the pages of a mystery novel.

http://youtu.be/fLOeH-Oq_1Y

After being captured by Canadian outfit Sealand (not affiliated with SeaWorld), Tilikum was often abused by other female whales that shared the tank with him. Being bullied by other whales, many of the interviewees argue, is just one of the elements that led to Tilikum’s first attack in February of 1991 (eerily, almost twenty years to the day of Brancheau’s death). One of the trainers, Keltie Byrne, fell into the tank. Because Sealand trainers never actually entered the water with the whales, the reaction was instant antagonism—especially on the part of Tilikum. Two witnesses who were there on the day of the tragedy stated that the report that later came out was simply that Byrne drowned, when, in fact, it was Tilikum that caused her to.

Tilikum in captivity.

In spite of how the incident was spun, Sealand still ended up selling Tilikum to SeaWorld in 1992. The park closed the same year without the draw of Tilikum to lure people in, and a general ineptitude among those who ran the facility. The fact that Tilikum had set the precedent for violent behavior didn’t seem to faze anyone at SeaWorld, and, unfortunately, most of the trainers were blissfully unaware of his past. This lack of information on the part of trainers like Kim Ashdown, Ken Balcomb and Samantha Berg—all of whom were interviewed for the film—only scratched the surface of some of the lies they were peddled.

http://youtu.be/SfAMnLKmX94

Among other twisted truths, trainers and park attendees alike were told that it’s 1) Normal for whales to have a collapsed dorsal fin and 2) That whales live longer in captivity (the average life span of a whale at SeaWorld is mid-30s), though whales in their natural environment have the same lifespan as humans—particularly male orcas. Their need to be a part of a social structure is inherent to their happiness and emotional well-being. Although they have the company of other whales at SeaWorld, it isn’t the same as being with their own family from their own part of the world.

As it should be.

In the wake of (pun intended) Brancheau’s death, OSHA sued SeaWorld for endangering the employees, demanding that they be kept out of the water with a protective barrier between trainers and whales. OSHA won the battle, but SeaWorld has since appealed. The final scenes of the film show Tilikum floating lifelessly by himself in what basically amounts to an isolation tank. He is still used in shows as part of the finale. It is the bittersweet conclusion that pulls at what’s left of your heartstrings after they’ve been tugged at so vigorously throughout Blackfish.

 

 

 

The concept of having an extramarital affair is not really all that scandalous or novel anymore. In many instances, in fact, it's expected to occur in the precursor to a divorce. However, when you add in the story of an adulterous wife (instead of the archetypal cheating husband) set within the landscape of Canada in the 1970s, the shockingness of it starts to augment again. What is more, when the memoir format is allowed to be told through the lens of a documentary--and told through the perspectives of each party involved--the ignominy factor is bound to increase. In Sarah Polley's (a famed Canadian actress--you might even recognize her as Ramona from Ramona) autobiographical Stories We Tell, she approaches the great mystery of her family--the question of who her real father is--like a miner of emotions. Promotional poster for Stories We Tell

Sarah's mother, Diane Polley, a theater actress with an extremely open, affectionate personality, is known as the first woman in Canada to lose custody of her children in a divorce. Because Diane committed adultery with Sarah's "father," British-born actor Michael Polley, the court opted to award complete custody to the father of her two children--Sarah's half brothers. In her second marriage, Diane initially seemed to be much happier. In spite of their vastly different personalities, Michael and Diane complemented one another, and ultimately had two children before Sarah was born in 1979. The structure of the film is perhaps one of the most interesting elements to note, centering around Michael's narration as told from the pages of his own journals. Noted by everyone in the family for being an incredible writer, Michael's lack of ambition when it came to pursuing this talent was one of the many things that began to irk Diane.

Turning the camera around

While Diane was eager to be in the spotlight, Michael was content to perform solely for those in his family. As she watched him become more satisfied with remaining in the background, Diane's acrimony further builded. To compound the staleness of their marriage, Michael wasn't, shall we say, putting out as often as Diane would have liked. This was, invariably, the catalyst that led to her infidelity while acting in a play in Montreal called, contrastingly, Toronto. It is at this juncture that the documentary shifts to the solving of a puzzle: The long-standing joke of who Sarah's real father is. The potential options are Diane's co-stars in the play, Geoffrey Bowes, Harry Gulkin (a successful Canadian producer) and Tom Butler. Though at first Sarah is certain Geoffrey has to be her father because of their red haired resemblance, he assures her that he and her mother were simply friends (though the humorous tag in the credits confirms otherwise). This leads Sarah to Harry, who, in truth, just wants to talk to him to find out if he knew anything about the man her mother might have been having an affair with. When he confesses that he assumed she wanted to meet with him because she knew he was her biological father, Sarah is completely floored.

http://youtu.be/ytq4VZ2Nyxg

With this new information, it is as though all the pieces in Sarah's life are finally starting to fit together. It also forces her to acknowledge her mother's duplicitousness in keeping such a significant secret for so long. The affair between Diane and Harry went on for two years, with only a handful of Diane's friends aware of what was taking place. As most of Sarah's siblings seem to agree, the true love of Diane's life was Michael, but he couldn't give her the love she needed or deserved from him. Such a sobering revelation is just one in a slew of profound themes that Stories We Tell explores. Not only a probing look at how each person's memory of specific events is disparate from another's, it also distinguishes that no story can fully be told without everyone's perspective (Diane, the center of the entire tale, died in 1990).

http://youtu.be/cpiO1HCK2e0

It's difficult to say whether Sarah Polley will be able to top herself after creating such a poignant and meaningful film. Granted, she's proven herself before with her prior writer-director efforts, including Away From Her and Take This Waltz, but there is something so singular and unprecedented about Stories We Tell that it will certainly prove challenging to upstage with whatever Polley's next project may be. Then again, to borrow the Margaret Atwood quote from the film, “When you are in the middle of a story, it isn't a story... It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all.” And Polley's story is still very much in the middle.

Ed Koch became mayor of New York City at a time when no one wanted to touch it (except, of course, Mario Cuomo). It was at a time when Times Square was at the height of porn palace saturation, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and no one had any solutions to make the mounting problems subside. Enter Bronx-born Koch: Tough-talking, unapologetic and ready to take the action necessary to get New York back on its feet. In Neil Barsky's first feature film, Koch, the complexities of Koch's often pugnacious personality are explored. Ed Koch went through the wringer with the media many times during his three terms as mayor.

Barsky takes the time to probe all aspects of Koch’s life, though the primary aspect that took up that life was politics. With an extensive political background that was fortified during his time as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Koch initially ran for mayor in 1973 but received little support. It wasn’t until the crises of 1977 that Koch was taken seriously as a candidate. His platform of restoring “law and order” proved highly effective after the infamous blackout that occurred on July 13th, 1977, which resulted in near anarchy in the wake of looting and violence. As the election drew nearer, Koch’s only real competition was Cuomo, whose team was believed to come up with the smear campaign slogan: “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” The first in a series of allusions to Koch’s sexuality that would be made throughout his political career, Koch responded by pairing up with the first Jewish beauty queen to be crowned Miss America, Bess Myerson. Although the two were seen everywhere together, it was always purely platonic. Barsky, in his examination of Koch’s sexuality, notes, “What was interesting to me wasn’t that he was gay or straight; what was interesting to me was that he was alone.”

Koch in upstate New York while running for governor in 1982.

Barsky even takes the time to question Koch personally on the matter in the documentary, to which Koch responds, “It’s none of your fucking business.” Though in the past Koch has stated he was a heterosexual, the speculations never subsided—particularly due to his tenuous rapport with the gay and lesbian community, which bolstered claims that he was trying to distance himself from homosexuals merely because he was one. In fact, most of Koch’s issues and sources of contention often tended to be with minority groups, including black people. When one of the interviewees of the documentary is asked if Koch was a racist, he responds, “Koch is worse than a racist, he’s an opportunist.” His tumultuous relationship with the black community intensified in 1980 when he shut down Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital, a facility that was created exclusively to treat black patients and employ black medical care workers. His open contempt for Jesse Jackson during the 1988 presidential election added to voters’ belief that he was a racist, not to mention the killing of a black teen, Yusuf K. Hawkins, in Bay Ridge by a group of white kids. Koch’s unsympathetic response prompted further ire from the public during a final term that was already fraught with scandal—including the suicide of Queens borough president Donald Manes, large scale political corruption and kickback schemes involving political appointments.

Promotional poster for Koch

With so much controversy surrounding the outspoken mayor, it seemed inevitable that he would lose his fourth attempt at running for mayor in 1989. Ousted by the first black mayor, David Dinkins, Koch’s response was to quip, “The people have spoken…and they must be punished.” Such simultaneous levity and vitriol is what frequently made Koch misunderstood and got him into trouble. Regardless of his tempestuous rapport with the people of New York, it can never be said that Koch did not love his city and the population that made it what it is. A case in point is the notorious transit strike of 1980. The standoff between Mayor Koch and the MTA lasted from April 1st to April 11th in which time Koch would not back down on the salary raise increase he had proposed to the contracted workers. In the nearly two weeks that public transportation was shut down, Koch became well-acquainted with the denizens of New York as they walked or biked the Brooklyn Bridge to get to the city. It also gave him ample opportunity to ask his most famous question, “How’m I doing?”

http://youtu.be/aRbFbuQj05E

Although Koch may have been usurped as mayor, it didn’t keep him from remaining at the forefront of politics. Until his very recent death (February 1, 2013), Koch was a vocal public figure, who even dared to cross party lines for some of his endorsements, including his support for Mayor Bloomberg. A scene in the documentary in which Koch visits his tombstone seems especially macabre when viewing the film now. But Koch’s acknowledgement of his imminent death is in keeping with the blunt and honest nature of his New Yorker’s personality. He also had no problem expressing, "I don't want to leave Manhattan, even when I'm gone. This is my home. The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me." Fear not, Ed, for you’ll always be present in this city of synchronized hopes and dashed dreams.

http://youtu.be/61Z_FdbU9Tg

Barsky manages to prove that he is a worthy documentarian with the potential to branch out into narrative film. His knack for pairing just the right music with certain scenes is a strong indication of that fact (e.g. Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York”). Concluding the film with the unveiling of the sign for the newly renamed Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, Koch graciously accepts the honor by quoting the following line from The Great Gatsby: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.” There is perhaps no greater honor to have one’s named associated with such a symbol.

 

Even if you don't live in Brooklyn, you've probably somehow heard about Williamsburg. Paraded on every show from 2 Broke Girls to, ahem, Girls (yes, two very divergent titles), there's no escaping this extremely overexposed neighborhood. So what's one more tale about this pocket of Brooklyn that can't seem to take its head out of its own ass? The difference in Gut Renovation is that, instead of perpetuating overexposure, it exposes Williamsburg as it once was and what a fraud it has become. A harrowing look at the gradual then sudden surge of condominiums that sprung up in Williamsburg starting in 2005, the film intermingles images of a map being marked up to indicate how many new developments have been added to this incredibly small patch of an area. As a unique authority on the changes that occurred there, Friedrich began documenting the construction and gentrification that took place in the once working class neighborhood from the outset. Using the method of title cards to convey important information--as well as her own personal feelings of rage on the eradication of Williamsburg as she once knew it--Gut Renovation forces its audience to truly take in the facts presented to them. And the fact is, Williamsburg will never again be accessible to anyone but the affluent and morally bankrupt. But at least those who destroyed it did it for a lovely view of the Manhattan skyline. Promotional poster for Gut Renovation.

For those who witnessed the barrage of condos cropping up along the waterfront and elsewhere, it seemed as though something might be done to stop it, but, the truth was, zoning committees and local government had already preordained Williamsburg's demise long ago. For where there's waterfront property and "cheap" buildings to be bought, a money-hungry developer is there to hone in on the profits. But even as wealthier denizens were buying up property at a staggering rate (often without even seeing what the apartment actually looked like), there was still the "hipster" crowd allegedly bringing an artistic element. But said hipsters were generally of a wealthy background. And while they may have had artistic pursuits, it's difficult to feel that inspired or focused when you're receiving a steady flow of income from your parents that can keep you at the bar for most of the night. Although Friedrich makes no mention of the influx of the hipster crowd, her camera says it all. As she films the various passersby on different blocks in Williamsburg, it's easy to see that everyone seems to share a similar, deliberately disheveled aesthetic.

Graffiti response to more condos.

Perhaps the best part about Gut Renovation is Friedrich's openness about her biased opinion--because, any way you slice it, how can what's happened to Williamsburg really be defended? There are those who will say that the additions of condos and chains like Duane Reade and the inevitable Urban Outfitters are signs of progress. But those are the people who have profited from the swift and abrupt changes that have forced decades-long residents to leave the area. Friedrich, who admits to having a comfortable job as a professor during the course of the film, says that even she couldn't pay some of the asking prices for the more "affordable" condos. She even endures the nauseating research process of going to each of the numerous condos (with names like Ikon, The Williamsburg and The Edge). What Friedrich discovered was that most of the condos look as homogenous on the inside as they do on the outside and that one bedrooms generally start at $880,000. Welcome to Condoburg indeed.

Now finance types do. And those with strollers and designer dogs.

"Picasso was the last great artist. The rest of these so-called artists should eat shit and move on." So goes the final line of of Su Friedrich's Gut Renovation, in which she reads from a list of online comments in response to a blog that posted a picture of this tag she put up on the wall. That's it, that's the end. She doesn't try to defend the importance of artists or their contribution to a community. Because, at this juncture, there's no point. What happened in Williamsburg is a tragedy that can't be remedied. But at least, with this film, it's been given a loving eulogy.

http://youtu.be/GLb27gbPD1Q

“Goddamned Rolling Stones” - Stephen King, 11/22/63

I just returned from the U.S. premiere of Crossfire Hurricane, the newest and perhaps best documentary about the Rolling Stones to date. Held at the world famous Ziegfeld Theatre, where the red carpet was in full sway, the Stones themselves were in attendance. For a moment, at least.

Their obligatory red carpet appearance undoubtedly saw the same journalistic questions they've been asked during their fifty years-long existence in the pop culture lexicon. They also helped introduce the film alongside director Brett Morgen, punctuated by much deserved standing ovations. Their words were brief, and then they were out. As they proceeded out of the enormous, velvety theatre, all I could think of were the final words spoken by the titular character of Pee Wee's Big Adventure: “I don't need to see it, Dottie. I lived it.”

Damn, did they ever. Crossfire Hurricane covers just about everything pertinent to their first two decades: the tremendous live energy, the friendships, the drugs, the riots, the reckless passion, the successes, the departures, the drugs, the drugs, etc. Every Behind the Music-ready cliché seems fresh and new and is beautifully told in great detail, which is fitting, seeing how these one-time brash anti-Beatles have become as glorified and iconic as a country's flag or a crucifix. The editing, done by tag-team Stuart Levy and Conor O'Neill, is as loose, fast, and flowing as the band's glory years. It's a funny, eye-opening, entertaining story that abolishes the cynical view that death and failure are what make musicians important and worthy of idolism. The world loves survivors. The Rolling Stones are survivors.

It's only fitting that Brett Morgen, the man that brought famed movie producer/pussy wolf Robert Evans' entertaining autobiography The Kid Stays in the Picture to cinematic life, documented the Stones' infancy. He knows how to present every seedy, lurid element of a person's life without demonizing or exploiting his subject. He does not betray the legacy. He breathes life into it; with the help of rare, never-before-seen footage and fresh revealing sound interviews Morgen displays the vulnerable side to rock's greatest bad boys. The Stones admit the fright of chaotic live shows (the apocalyptic Altamont concert, covered at harrowing length in Gimme Shelter, is among the haunting footage), the pressures of extroversion, and the confrontation of mortality (founding member Brian Jones drowned in 1969).

But it's not all drab and dull. Through their low points they've found success in the accrual of Ronnie Wood, their comeback after coming clean, the poignancy of their material in the face of death, not to mention their indelible charm. There were also a lot of naked women. Now that they are older, they can safely admit that it's hard to stay young, and since they have nothing left to prove, they can boast honesty and sincerity in their anecdotes. Over eighty hours of interviews were recorded, and not once did they pull a Bob Dylan and defy the questions, no matter how difficult. The music is nothing without the story, and the fans are grateful the Stones themselves are around to tell it.

Crossfire Hurricane premieres on HBO on Thursday, November 15th at 9pm. Don't miss it. I mean it.

In order to become a music legend, you, at the very least, have to be known. Thanks to Malik Bendjelloul's debut feature documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, the solution to the problem of 1970s songwriter/musician Rodriguez's obscurity has been found. At the beginning of the film, as far as the audience knows, Rodriguez was the victim of an onstage suicide, ending his misery in the midst of being unappreciated and unknown. Bendjelloul then segues into the folklore surrounding Rodriguez among the residents of Detroit, the city he inhabited and often made reference to in his songs (e.g. on the track "Inner City Blues" when he mentions Dearborn, an allusion that led to journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom and Cape Town record store owner Stephen "Sugarman" Segerman to track Rodriguez down in Detroit).

Rodriguez's genesis as a musician started, appropriately, at a dive bar called The Sewer. After playing a number of shows huddled shyly in the corner with his back turned to the other patrons, his eloquence and innovative musical stylings soon garnered the attention of Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey, who happily produced the album when Rodriguez landed a record deal with Sussex (run by the former head of Motown Records, Clarence Avant).

His 1970 debut, Cold Fact, featured the signature song the film is named for, "Sugar Man." Comparisons to Bob Dylan and the typical folk sound of the time did nothing to elevate Rodriguez to fame or recognition. When Clarence Avant (the most caricature-like figure in the film/alleged to have squirreled away any earnings Rodriguez made from South African record sales) is questioned by Bendjelloul in the documentary as to why he felt Rodriguez never gained the attention of an American audience, Avant asserts that it was because of Rodriguez's heritage.

Regardless of any prejudice that may have existed at the time, Rodriguez's talent could not remain entirely unnoticed. The legend of his eventual superstar status in South Africa states that a teenage girl brought the Cold Fact album over from the United States when she went to visit her boyfriend. Their friends started making copies of the record and soon everyone in Cape Town seemed to know all of the lyrics to Rodriguez's songs. "Anti-Establishment" was the track that especially resonated with a population subjected to the discrimination of apartheid, ultimately becoming one of many Rodriguez songs that were banned by the government (his albums were deliberately scratched to be prevented from being played on the radio).

His forbidden nature, however, only served to shed more appeal. Surpassing the album sales of The Rolling Stones in South Africa, Rodriguez continued to exist in contented abstruseness as a construction worker in Detroit until the mid-1990s. His unawareness of such immense success is just one of the ways in which Searching for Sugar Man expresses how grateful we should be for what we have, namely living in an age where information runs as freely as beer into Homer Simpson's mouth. Conversely, the finding of Rodriguez in a pre-internet age unfolds with the mystery of a thriller.

http://youtu.be/KKXewWDh1og

As more is discovered about this truly incredible, modest musician, the real meaning and theme of the story comes to fruition, a quote that Rodriguez himself crafted: "Hate is too strong of an emotion to waste on someone you don't like."

"No regrets, just love." That concise statement from "Teenage Dream," one of Katy Perry's five number one singles from the 2010 album of the same name, sums up the nature of Katy Perry: Part of Me. Documenting her 2011 California Dreams Tour, Perry reveals some of the most intimate emotional moments of her relationship and divorce from Russell Brand, as well as her devotion and affection for a group of fans that whole-heartedly support what she dubs her "weirdness" (though her style is easily accepted in rave and Japanese culture). http://youtu.be/K16NvLCk2CY

Interweaving scenes from the past and present (including footage of Perry's video diary from when she was 17 and 18 years old), Part of Me is an examination of something that seems almost a foreign concept in terms of modern fame: Struggling to achieve one's place in the spotlight. Perry's erratic rise to the top is told with seamless grace by directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz.

Perry’s beginnings as a musician were fueled by her Christian background, prompting her to release a gospel album in her teen years. The footage of her from this era is a sharp departure from her current image, to say the least. Although the common misconception about Perry is that her parents disowned her once she moved to Los Angeles, Part of Me dispels that myth by including interviews with both of her (colorfully offbeat) parents. And then there’s also the cameo by her grandmother, who is undoubtedly the best member of the family.

Once Perry, made her way to L.A. (by way of Santa Barbara, so not really a huge leap—geographically speaking), her horizons--both musical and otherwise--started to expand. Citing Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill album as the first non-Christian themed music she ever heard, Perry’s style in her early career mirrored that same sort of angsty vibe. One song in particular, called “The Box,” caught the attention of an executive at Columbia Records, courtesy of her producer, Glen Ballard (yes, the very same man responsible for producing Jagged Little Pill). Making her mark on the L.A. club scene, both as an artist and an aesthetic trailblazer, Perry’s label was trying to mold her into the most current likeness of an angry--but cute--pop star, mainly Avril Lavigne or Ashlee Simpson. Ultimately, Perry went over to Capitol Records after a former publicist at Columbia who started working at Capitol recommended her.

When Perry was finally allowed to do it her way with the album One of the Boys, the success she attained was inevitable. What Part of Me glosses over, however, is Perry’s first single, “Ur So Gay,” instead citing “I Kissed A Girl” as her initial exposure to radio listeners. While “Ur So Gay” wasn’t as popular, it gained greater fame after a Ryan Seacrest interview with Madonna in which she named it as one of her favorite songs of the moment.

Part of Me, which Perry herself stated was influenced by Madonna’s 1991 documentary, Truth or Dare, then goes on to blend the highlights of Perry’s California Dreams Tour with the backstage highs and lows of a grueling schedule that took her around the world for an entire year. How much of the film is a contrivance to make Perry appear a bit too sugary sweet (the comments about and footage of Russell Brand places him completely at fault for the demise of their relationship) and how much of it is the real thing is difficult to say. And, in this respect, that is what makes Part of Me so enthralling to watch (a statement that is clearly not reflected by the box office revenues in the U.S.).

 

"If it's a funeral, let's have the best funeral ever." And so they did. On April 2, 2011, New York's beloved LCD Soundsystem played their last show at Madison Square Garden in support of their last album, This Is Happening (a title that drove home the point that, yes, this band will no longer make music anymore). For those who have made an attempt to see the best rock music documentary of the summer (though I will unabashedly tell you that Katy Perry: Part of Me ranks second--but then, those are really the only two rock documentaries to choose from anyway), it seems a near impossible feat, playing at limited theaters with even more limited dates. But, as someone who caught sight of this unicorn, I must tell you that you should make every effort to see it for yourself.

Filmed over the span of forty-eight hours, Shut Up and Play the Hits alternates between the quiet moments leading up to and after the show and the raucous, visceral, extremely loud songs that LCD Soundsystem played for their epic thee hour and forty-one minute set. That's right, almost a full four hours of dancing, laughing, crying Bushwick/Greenpoint/Williamsburg denizens soaking up as much as they could of James Murphy, Nancy Whang, Tyler Pope, David Scott Stone, Matt Thornley, Gavin Russom, Al Doyle, J.D. Mark, Phil Skarich and Phil Mossman. Shit, that's a lot of band members to visually take in. And though Murphy wrote most of the instrumentals himself, boyfriend knows the value of onstage assistance.

As Murphy goes through the process of metaphorically closing his account, he goes on an interview for The Colbert Report where Stephen Colbert questions what Murphy will do with his free time now that he's retired. Murphy shrugs, "I like to make coffee." And, in truth, he does (which is why it wasn't surprising that, back in January, reports of Murphy's upcoming espresso line began to surface). But for someone who created iconoclastic songs like "Losing My Edge," "North American Scum," "Get Innocuous!," "You Wanted A Hit," "Pow Pow" and "Drunk Girls," it seems difficult to believe that Murphy could be completely content with a life without LCD Soundsystem.

In fact, this is a main point of discussion throughout the film as Murphy is interviewed by a cult figure in his own right, Chuck Klosterman (putting lesbian haircuts everywhere to shame). Klosterman pointedly notes that most musicians are remembered for their successes, but defined by their one failure. When Klosterman inquires what Murphy will look back on and view as LCD Soundsystem's failure, he only has to waffle for a second before saying, "Stopping."

This admission of fear and regret is tempered by Murphy's assertion that he knows it's the right thing to do based on the future he has in mind (including having children). He notes that he got famous at 38, blinked, and was 41. He continues, "Two more blinks and I'll be 50." Murphy's introspective state when talking to Klosterman also revealed that he was unsure if he could adjust to full-fledged fame (which would have invariably occurred if the band had kept going). He professes a love of being able to walk the streets (Havemeyer Street) and ride the subway (J Train by the Marcy Stop, specifically by Checkers--which, on a different note is better than most other fast food, burgerwise) with the promise of being generally anonymous.

http://youtu.be/_FAUyrFWDvw

But with that tradeoff comes the loss of something that Murphy finds himself unexpectedly mourning throughout the film, breaking down in tears at one point in front of a row of guitars. The fans' reactions at the end of the final performance were equally as heart-wrenching, concluding with one fan in particular who stood in melancholic awe at an empty stage. LCD Soundsystem's absence from the music industry, however, does not mean that any other band will ever be able to compare to them or the music they created that re-shaped the dance and electronic genre for the twenty-first century. Not only that, but what other band would 1) Meet for a simple celebration at Marlow and Sons after playing to a crowd of approximately 15,000 people and 2) Play a Soft Cell song that isn't "Tainted Love" or Sex Dwarf" in the closing credits ("Say Hello Wave Goodbye" is much more appropriate)?

 

 

Pandrogyny. That is the real subject of Marie Losier's documentary about eccentric couple Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye Breyer. What is pandrogyny, you (presumably) ask? Well, I suppose you might say it's androgyny meets total obsession with another person. Although The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye covers the highlights of Genesis P-Orridge's career as the trailblazer of industrial music via the formation of Throbbing Gristle, followed by the more ethereal project, Psychic TV (which P-Orridge started with Peter Christopherson in 1982), the film is really a testament to one of the rarest, most all-consuming loves to hit the screen in decades.

If imitation is, in fact, the sincerest form of flattery, then Genesis P-Orridge flattered Lady Jaye more than any human being possibly could have. Believing that the purest manifestation of love is to become quite literally the same person, P-Orridge underwent major reconstructive surgery that included both breast implants and facial alterations to mirror Lady Jaye as closely as possible.

With the occasional random smattering of avant-garde imagery (P-Orridge making over the top expressions as bird sounds play at the beginning of the film, for instance), Losier approaches the story of P-Orridge and Lady Jaye with a uniqueness that could only suit this particular couple. P-Orridge's reminiscences about meeting Lady Jaye for the first time are incredibly heartfelt, in spite of the fact that their initial meeting place was in a dominatrix dungeon (Lady Jaye paid for most of her luxuries that way during the 80s while living in Alphabet City). The genderless guru also finds time to reflect on the profundity of an early record s/he put out with the disclaimer: "We have nothing to say, but we're saying it anyway."

This tongue in cheek warning, however, does not mirror the message of The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, a documentary that seems to impress upon its viewer an unlikely dichotomy when it comes to relationships: One can be both self-obsessed and obsessed with another--the catch being that you are basically the same person. The idea of modifying their bodies was ultimately a substitute for having a child in that the two of them were essentially creating another person by melding into one: A hybrid of themselves called Breyer P-Orridge.

One of Lady Jaye's most vehement wishes for what has been dubbed the Pandrogyne Project was to be remembered as "one of history's great love stories." While, at this moment in time, their love story might be underrated and viewed as a novelty rather than genuine, I think time will favor their romance rather well. After all, what other couple has sacrificed its bodies so freely in the name of love?