Too busy to blog today (in fact, with a book due in 6 weeks, that may be a not infrequent occurrence for a bit). But not too busy to put up another British Pathe film, this time on another topic close to my heart: logging. Watching this footage, especially of the guys working on the log drive in the river, should remind us all what a horrifyingly dangerous profession logging was during these years.
What are the best documentaries of all time? Sight and Sound is about to release a poll around this issue. Richard Brody has his choices, of which I’ve seen 2: Night and Fog, which belongs, and The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, which is one of the most remarkable films I’ve ever seen although I’m not sure one of the best.
I don’t know that I’m quite qualified to answer this question. There are a lot of bloody documentaries out there and I’ve seen a lot of them, but then a lot of really important ones I haven’t seen. I think it’s more interesting perhaps to think about what makes a good documentary. Brody’s take:
What these selections have in common is the idea of history, the construction of history cinematically, and the manifest personal involvement of the filmmakers in that construction. The ultimate subject of all great documentaries is the presence of the filmmaker at the events on view or under consideration—and when, as in Wiseman’s work, the filmmaker is subtracted, it’s a conspicuous subtraction, as if by way of an onscreen equation. The implication of the past in the present, the ongoing effect of the past in the present, is another crucial documentary idea—the contextualization of reported events by means of visual archeology and intellectual analysis, the unfurling of the filmmakers’ own thought process by way of that analysis. That’s the source of these ten movies’ vital, dynamic, and ongoing inspirations for other filmmakers, as well as for these filmmakers’ own later works. The past in the present, the future in the present—the essence of the great documentary is in the cinematic conception of time, the disjunction between the real time of filming and the times that it implies. Rule of thumb: the greater and more wondrous that disproportion, the greater the film.
I’m not as smart as Brody, so I’ll be a bit less lyrical. I like documentaries that throw you off kilter. That certainly can consist of the interplay between past and present as Brody says, but it doesn’t have to be. What I dislike about documentaries–and what annoys me about how people talk about interesting documentaries–is the idea that the tell the truth. So often, when I watch something like Jennifer Baichwal’s Act of God, which is about people struck by lightning and closes with the experimental guitarist Fred Frith telling his story of his strike with a 5 minute guitar improvisation, the commenters are angry because they just wanted to know SOME FACTS ABOUT LIGHTNING!!!! There’s the strong sense that documentaries serve as either how-to manuals of understanding the world or as crusading films exposing evil.
I’m more sympathetic to the latter, but most of them aren’t very good films. I don’t necessarily want to know more about a topic when I come out of a documentary. I want to have my way of thinking about the world transformed. And sometimes this happens. Here’s 11 I think very highly of as I’m sitting here. Not definitive, even for me.
Night and Fog (Resnais, 1955). Maybe the best documentary ever. Even among Holocaust films there’s a lot of competition there, but that’s a very powerful film.
Manufactured Landscapes (Baichwal, 2006). What is nature? Following the photographer Edward Burtynsky as he photographs Asian pollution, both artists involved challenge the viewer. It’s 2 stories, with Baichwal as important as Burtynsky. Wonderful for the intelligent Environmental Studies student interested in social justice. Plus anytime we can start a film with a 8 minute shot of row after row after row of Chinese factory workers doing the exact same thing, we are on the right path.
Grin Without a Cat (Marker, 1977). The best film about what the 60s represented and how they declined. No one played with the complexity of truth and memory more than Marker.
Louisiana Story (Flaherty, 1948). Probably my favorite of the older style of documentary that provides a lot of narration and a main character that may or may not have any real relation to how these people actually lived. But again, who cares about some arbitrary line of accuracy.
Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005). Speaking of the complexity of truth, I’ve had multiple people who did not know each other question whether Herzog was really telling anything resembling the truth here. Which is great. Timothy Treadwell is an anti-social weirdo with major problems. So is Werner Herzog. And it’s not like Herzog is even all that sympathetic. So there are two stories from two dislikable people going on at the same time. Entertaining and seriously makes the viewer question the relationship between people and the wild.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, 2010). I usually try to limit films to one per director on these lists, but Herzog tells an incredibly compelling story about life and art 10,000 years ago. The past and present merge in this beautiful film. I was completely compelled from start to end.
Louie Bluie (Zwigoff, 1985). Documentaries about musicians are usually somewhat entertaining but don’t often get to the point of being really compelling. Louie Bluie is an exception, about a very cranky and hilarious old man and his amazing musical and visual art (including his “found art” (a term I hate) pornographic alphabet book.) Astounding.
The Times of Harvey Milk (Epstein, 1984). An exception to the political documentary problem of earnestness, as Epstein tells a story of movement just beginning to rise in American culture at a point where it is just beginning to go through its biggest crisis.
When the Levees Broke (Lee, 2006). Spike Lee’s finest film. Some complain that he gave credence to people who thought the government had blown up the levee to force black people to suffer the brunt of the disaster. Sure, that didn’t happen. However, it actually did happen in 1927. And given how horribly the government has treated African-Americans in New Orleans basically forever, those people had good reason to think that was possible. Again, documentaries aren’t about telling a single truth, whatever that even means in a case like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The Beaches of Agnes (Varda, 2008). The best autobiographical documentary I’ve seen. A great filmmaker making a film about a great filmmaker.
The Battle of San Pietro (Huston, 1945). Almost forgot about my favorite World War II film, where Huston spares the viewer nothing of the horrors of a minor battle in a necessary war. Made the military so uncomfortable that Mark Clark added an intro on the vital importance of this battle so the public wouldn’t get so upset by it.
Pretty recent set of films, but then we are living in the golden age of documentaries.
Bspencer’s post about animated films reminded me of the great and utterly bizarre Vladimir Tarasov 1979 animated film Shooting Range. Part of the superb Animated Soviet Propaganda DVD set, Tarasov’s film is perhaps best described as what happened when a bunch of LSD was smuggled into the Soviet Union and then dropped in whatever horrible concrete building the animators were stuck in. Maybe it was so hard to believe in Soviet propaganda messaging by 1979 that the craziness was necessary to keep it interesting, I don’t know. I’m surprised I’ve never posted this before, but I haven’t. The first time I watched this was in front of students. I basically decided to screen this cold because it looked great. I didn’t regret it. In 2 parts:
Georges Méliès, The Doctor and the Monkey, 1900
On March 14, 1954, the great labor film Salt of the Earth, a fictionalized version of a 1950 Mine, Mill strike in the zinc mines of southwestern New Mexico, premiered despite being lambasted as a communist plot, subjected to police harassment, and having one of its leads deported to Mexico.
On October 17, 1950, miners in Grant County, New Mexico went on strike against the Empire Zinc Company. These workers were led by the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, or Mine, Mill for short. Mine, Mill was a communist-led union, a left-leaning alternative to the United Mineworkers of America. It was the direct descendant of the Western Federation of Miners, the radical mine workers in western mines that played a key role in founding the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. Mine, Mill joined the CIO, but was kicked out with the rest of the communist unions in 1950. Mine, Mill had supported the Wallace campaign in 1948, opposed the Marshall Plan, and defied the odious Taft-Hartley Act’s anti-communist provisions (although in 1949, it caved on this).
The workers had several complaints that led to the strike. They wanted their time traveling to and from the mines paid (a common point of friction in the mining industry). They wanted more paid holidays. Mostly, they fought against institutionalized racism. Jobs were classified to give the higher paying jobs to whites and the lower paying jobs to the majority Mexican-American workforce. The strikers were united in their demands to end this racist system. After 8 months of picketing, Empire Zinc won an injunction against the strikers, thanks to provisions of Taft-Hartley. Mine, Mill had few funds without CIO support and could not pay fines for violating the injunction. But the local’s ladies auxiliary proposed that they picket instead. Although this offended the gender norms of many workers, it was the only avenue they had to continue the strike. So they did.
For the next 7 months, women were the strikers, despite police harassment and arrest. The women were pretty intense. They dragged strikebreakers out of their cars, threw rocks at them, and even used knitting needles, rotten eggs, and chiles as weapons. They brought a new militancy to the front lines of this strike. The men were more than a bit flummoxed as gender roles were reversed and they had to stay at home and take care of children and feed the family while their wives took on the more traditional male roles, not to mention one fraught with real physical danger. Most of the men really did not like this at all.
Yet the tactic worked. Empire Zinc caved somewhat in January 1952. Mine, Mill certainly did not win everything, but they did receive a major pay raise disproportionately favoring the lowest paid workers which effectively undermined the racialized pay norms, even if it didn’t overturn them. The company also installed indoor plumbing in the company houses of the Mexican-American workers, a sign of how women’s influence in the strike affected the outcome and shaped the demands.
The strike received national attention from the left and after the victory, leftist filmmakers worked with Mine, Mill to shoot a feature film based upon it. It is a sort of last gasp of leftist filmmaking in the Cold War, combining a union evicted from its federation for communism and blacklisted film people. Herbert Biberman directed. He was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to play along with HUAC’s bumbling facade of an investigation against communists in Hollywood. Clinton Jencks, a leftist Mine, Mill organizer who only subjected to the Taft-Hartley anticommunist provisions at the last second (and in fact was later charged with perjury for signing the anti-communist card) plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself. Will Geer, also on the blacklist, plays the sheriff. Juan Chacon, president of Mine, Mill Local 890 is the main miner and his wife is played by Rosaura Revueltas, a professional actor from Mexico. The minor roles are played by locals, mostly the miners and their wives. The film itself is a landmark in a number of ways, not only for its sheer existence in the face of such virulent redbaiting and intimidation, but its promotion of women’s rights, indictment of machismo, feature of Mexican-Americans as protagonists, and focus on the viciousness of the employers and police. Even in the heyday of left-leaning film in the 1930s, this would have been controversial. The production was harassed by police. Revuletas was arrested and deported back to Mexico toward the end of the shoot. Vigilantes fired shots at the set.
The film caused a national outrage by redbaiters. It was officially condemned in the House of Representatives. During its production, in February 1953, Donald Jackson (R-CA) lambasted it in Congress, saying, “This picture is deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds and to depict the United States of America as the enemy of all colored peoples. If this picture is shown in Latin America, Asia, and India, it will do incalculable harm not only to the United States but to the cause of free people everywhere. “In effect, this picture is a new weapon for Russia.”
On March 14, 1954, the film debuted in New York. My old friends at the American Legion, a group always ready to raid an IWW hall or work as strikebreakers, called for a national boycott. Pauline Kael, reviewing it for Sight and Sound wrote it was “as clear a piece of Communist propaganda as we have had in many years.” That’s absurd. What the film does is present the dignity of people fighting for a better life, fighting against racism, classism, and sexism. If fighting for labor right and opposing racism is communist, sign me up. If anything, the film played down communism. The workers themselves were constantly accused of communism, but the subject never comes up in the film, either as a political position or an epithet. Only 13 movie theaters in the country showed it and it was forgotten for a decade.
The long-term effects of the strike on gender relations among the New Mexico miners is complex. Some couples returned to their previous ways of doing things. Others saw their relationship change. The wife of one high local official, who had been abused by her husband, walked out and moved to Los Angeles. A few years later, he went to L.A. to convince her to return. When she refused, he shot and killed her. At his trial, he claimed he was protecting his children from communism.
The film is also in the public domain. So watch it right now.
For more on the background of the strike and the making and controversy around the film, see James J. Lorence, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth.
This is the 98th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
The U.S. military’s use of film during World War II was remarkable. The bravery of the cameramen, risking and often losing their lives, in taking this footage is amazing. Of course, it took good direction to turn unbelievable footage into a good film. In The Battle of San Pietro, John Huston did that. To the Shores of Iwo Jima definitely fails in that task. Plus it’s racist and jingoistic when the former was smart and focused on the soldiers’ lives. But regardless of its shortcomings, the footage here is jaw-dropping.
I am no expert on psychiatry. I do however have a great interest in American visions of the Soviet Union. Albert Maysles’ 1955 film “Psychiatry in Russia” is a pretty interesting entry in that category.
This week, Méliès Monday brings you 1908′s The Grandmother’s Story.
Although I probably like Her better overall, 12 Years a Slave is an excellent choice for Best Picture.
It’s also worth noting that it the first major Hollywood production to deal with slavery in a serious way came out in 2013. And no, Amistad was not a serious depiction of slavery. Can we aim for 2 major Hollywood productions dealing with slavery in the second century of film? Even a meh biopic of Frederick Douglass?
There are a lot of bad Best Picture winners. And I really dislike Slumdog Millionaire, although the other Best Picture nominees that year are no great shakes. I’d like to give it my vote. And it’s a crime against humanity than Dances with Wolves, off all the dreck out there, won over Goodfellas. But there is not only no worst Best Picture winner than Crash, there is barely a more loathsome movie. OK, that’s a slight overstatement, what with your The Idiots over here and Soldier Blue over there. But my god is Crash a terrible movie. And it was so obviously terrible at the time. I was watching the Oscars with friends the year it won and I remember annoying them with a good bit of angry swearing after it won. And for Christ’s sake, it beat Brokeback Mountain, a film 100 times superior. It also beat Capote, a film 20 times superior. I do have to give Crash credit though–by showing the hellish problem America faces with Iranian on Mexican crime, not to mention the mean the black woman who just doesn’t treat Matt Dillon very nicely which is bad even though Dillon sexually assaulted Thandie Newton and why can’t we all get along and of course Ludarcis carjacking that rich white dude at the beginning of the film after talking about how he hates being stereotyped as a criminal–it demonstrates that all of us are affected by racial prejudice equally and thus we can all equally forget about power structures and come to a nice liberal consensus that racism sucks.
About a year later, I was in Malaysia. There were some Europeans watching the film on a TV at the hotel where I was staying. They were watching it and talking about how messed up the United States well. I felt very smashy.
I think it’s time to turn this over to a better writer than I. Ta-Nehisi Coates, from 2009:
Before we go any further, I need to admit that several people who I love and respect actually like Crash. I need let them know that I don’t hold this against them, and I still love and respect them–though, with Crash in mind, more the former than the latter.
With that said, I don’t think there’s a single human being in Crash. Instead you have arguments and propaganda violently bumping into each other, impressed with their own quirkiness. (“Hey look, I’m a black carjacker who resents being stereotyped.”) But more than a bad film, Crash, which won an Oscar (!), is the apotheosis of a kind of unthinking, incurious, nihilistic, multiculturalism. To be blunt, nothing tempers my extremism more than watching a fellow liberal exhort the virtues of Crash.
If you’re angry about race, but not particularly interested in understanding why, you probably like Crash. If you’re black and believe in the curative qualities of yet another “dialogue around race,” you probably liked Crash. If you’re white and voted for Barack Obama strictly because he was black, you probably liked Crash. If you’ve ever used the term “post-racial” or “post-black” in a serious conversation, without a hint of irony, you probably liked Crash.
The English language does not contain the words needed to express how much I hate Crash.