Keep Going. Keep Shooting. Keep Quiet: The Action is Often Not the Action

January 11, 2012

In years of watching documentaries, especially vérité or quasi-vérité, there have probably been hundreds of moments in which – after the supposed “action” is complete — a filmmaker lingers and keeps the camera running.

I was just watching Herzog’s Grizzly Man yet again and saw a wonderful example. Without ruining the story of this extraordinary film, I can tell you that a fairly conventional interview with a character ends on an emotional note and – rather than end it “logically” or power down the camera out of some felt respect for the subject – Herzog keeps filming. Slowly the subject realizes the emotional implications of her words and the events she was describing. She says nothing but — in her silence, in her coming apart — reveals everything.

My point?

The action often takes place after the action. The main event is often not the main event.  The inner-life, the human steam animating the action,  is often only revealed in subtle glances and facial tics after all the talk is over.

Herzog never seems to forget this. And the Maysles Brothers, in Salesman, elevate the lingering lens to high art.

Keep the camera running.  Stay quiet. Allow the rich texture of inner emotional lives to trump “action.”


My Ten Favorite Films: A Revised List

November 16, 2009

Every time I talk about top 10 lists,  I always start with the  disclaimer that I know  how pointless they are.

And then I ask myself:  OK, if they are  so pointless, why do I have so much fun reading them and doing  them and sharing them?

No good answer, In fact, making lists is far from the only pointless thing I do.

Today, I am adding some new films and slightly changing the order.   It is not a 10 best list.  It is a list of my ten favorites. A  list of 10 best films  would be beyond nervy given how many films have a legitimate claim to inclusion.

But it seems perfectly fair to make a list of ten favorites since they are, in fact,  only my favorites.

My favorites have stayed the same for over a year.  But for the last few months I have been mulling over “No Country for Old Men”  and “The Lives of Others.” (Now I can really hear you saying: This guy need a life! Who has time to mull anything over?)

Seriously, I want to make some changes to my list.  But according to ground rules that some friends of mine and I set up many years ago in a UCLA dorm room, I have to remove one film for each one I add.  I posted my last 10 favorite about a year ago. Here is my new one along with a list of contenders.

Comments welcome. Lists welcome. Ridicule welcome.

My Ten Favorite Films as of November 15, 2009

1. Dekalog

2. Godfather 1/Godfather 2

3.  Salesman

4. The Lives of Others

5. Amarcord

6.  Goodfellas

7  No Country for Old Men

8  Fargo

9. Rear Window

10 Night and Fog

__________________________________

Other Contenders (not in order)

Midnight Cowboy

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Au Revoir les Enfants

Shop on Main Street  (1965)

It’s a Wonderful Life

Jeux interdits

Come and See

Smile

Atlantic City

Three Kings

Das Boot

The General

Paris, Texas

Shoah

Invaders from Mars

Strangers on a Train

The Graduate

The French Connection

Double Indemnity

Les Enfants du Paradis

Les Diaboliques

Psycho

Le Salaire de la peur

Sunset Boulevard

The Exiles

The Last Laugh

Hotel Terminus

Happiness

The Third Man

M

The Marriage of Maria Braun


My Ten Favorite Films

June 23, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

Ten best lists of films are dumb. They force dumb choices and add almost nothing to serious discussion and criticism.

 

Big deal.

 

 

 

  

I love them. I love reading them. I love making them. And here is how I go about it.

 

 

 

At any given time I always have a list of contenders. If a film has any claim whatsoever on ever making it into my top ten, it goes on the list. Then, one by one, I cross out films until there are only ten left. These are the films that I most enjoyed watching, not those that I would necessarily rank as the highest expressions of the craft. Having said that, it is almost certainly the case that my contenders are overwhelmingly well crafted. But to make my top 10, I have to viscerally and emotionally love the experience of watching the film.

 

 

 

Important: “Love” does not mean that I found the experience pleasant, just that I reveled in the pleasure of watching a story told with narrative skill and total command of the formal elements of film.

 

The best example of a film that embodies all these confusing criteria is my favorite of them all, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Dekalog.”  I suppose you could say I enjoyed watching it, but if you have seen it you will understand why “enjoy” is perhaps not quite the most apt word for the experience. What, after all, do you say about a film in which one of the very best of the  sections (#1  I Am the Lord Your God) was so emotionally shattering that I have only watched it once and almost certainly will never be able to watch it again?

 

 

 

So here is the list as of today. If a film has a number, it made the top ten. The reasons why a film didn’t make the top ten are varied and, most often, beyond rational explanation. My choices are infinitely more visceral than cerebral.

 

By the way, I have a separate documentary list, which I will post soon. Salesman, although a documentary,  is a work of such poignancy and genius that it would make any list I create. 

 

I very much hope you might post your ten best lists and describe your agreements and your quarrels with mine. Perhaps you think that either an omission or inclusion of mine is unforgivable.

 

Let me know.

 

 

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

 

1. Dekalog (1989) 

 

Au Revoir les Enfants

 

Shop on Main Street  (1965)

 

10. Midnight Cowboy

 

It’s a Wonderful Life

 

3. Jeux interdits

 

Smile

 

Atlantic City

 

Fargo

 

Das Boot

 

The General

 

The Swimmer  

 

7. Goodfellas

 

Paris, Texas

 

8. Rear Window

 

Shoah

 

Invaders from Mars

 

4. Salesman

 

Strangers on a Train

 

The Graduate

 

French Connection

 

2. Godfather 1/Godfather 2

 

9. Double Indemnity

 

Les Enfants du Paradis

 

Les Diaboliques

 

Psycho

 

Le Salaire de la peur


Hotel Terminus

 

5. Amarcord

 

6. Night and Fog

 

Happiness

 

The Third Man

 

M

 

The Marriage of Maria Braun

  

 

 

 


The Night in 1968 I Was Born: Public Broadcast Laboratory’s “Birth and Death”

June 22, 2008

My lifetime of interest in documentary film began sometime during the week of December 4, 1968.

I was 17 years old. The $12.5 million Ford Foundation experiment in public television and precursor to PBS, the Public Broadcast Laboratory, was starting its second and final season with a two hour cinema verite film by Arthur Barron and Gene Marner, “Birth and Death.” The concept was to follow the birth of a baby in the first hour and the death of a man in the second hour.

I have always felt like I was born that night. Neither childbirth nor death had yet become the openly discussed public events that they are now, and the film was a revelation.

Coming around the same time as “Salesman” by Albert and David Maysles, and a year before two incredible semesters at UCLA studying the history of documentary film with Professor Edgar Brokaw, it was the first time in my life that I saw the raw and emotionally jarring power of cinema verite documentary. Before that night I had no idea what was possible when a first-rate cinematographer, often working with a handheld camera, would use excruciatingly intimate close-ups and candid reaction shots to capture the inherent power of lived experience.

“Birth and Death”  (1968) is discussed and remembered far too seldom, and was very much an early, brief precursor to POV. The night of that broadcast began what became PBS’s proud history of showing the work of outstanding documentary filmmakers to national audiences. It was also the night on which, as a teenager typically oblivious to mortality, it first struck me at the deepest level that going to Viet Nam with the rest of my age cohort might mean that I would die.  And I remember thinking after seeing the Barron film: Dying means you stop breathing. Dying means darkness. Not good. Not good at all.

I thought of all those years tonight when I heard that Fred Wiseman’s film company, Zipporah, has gradually been releasing his extraordinary body of work on DVD. Wiseman, I only learned a year later in 1969 at UCLA, had — at the very same time as Barron’s “Birth and Death” — already begun his astounding body of verite work in 1967 with “Titicut Follies.”

I later saw most of that work, much of which was also broadcast on PBS. Check out the Zipporah site and catch up on some of the greatest verite film ever made. I have a personal favorite, “Near Death,” and I’m sure many of you have yours.

1967 – 1972.

An amazing time for cinema verite. An amazing time to be coming of age. And – for a 17 year old about to contend with the Viet Nam draft — an amazing time to realize that, sooner or later, for good or for bad, birth would eventually be followed by death.


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