Tag Archives: Documentary

Top 100 Films #20 – Grizzly Man (2005)


11#20. Grizzly Man (2005)
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Written by: Werner Herzog
Starring: Timothy Treadwell, Amie Huguenard, Werner Herzog

Grizzly Man is the fourth and final documentary on my top 100 films list. Werner Herzog’s intimate and disturbing look at the life and death of the controversial Timothy Treadwell was one of the films that introduced me to the power of documentaries, and is an experience that I will never be able to forget. Grizzly Man is composed of videos captured by Timothy Treadwell, a nature and bear enthusiast who spent a great deal of time camping in Katmai National Park in order to capture footage of grizzly bears.  Treadwell claimed that he was a “protector” of the bears, warding off poachers while forming strong relationships with the unpredictable animals.  Interspersed throughout are interviews with family and friends of Treadwell, as well as those who encountered Timothy along the way on his adventures.  Treadwell is painted as a deeply caring but reckless man whose trust in the grizzly bears eventually cost him his life.  Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man is a masterpiece in terms of editing and story structure, combining hundreds of hours of tape into a film that clocks in at less than two hours.  Herzog’s attitude towards Treadwell is made clear from the onset of the project – the director is fascinated by the bear-enthusiast, but also deeply disturbed by his point of view and actions. Despite this, Herzog constructs a beautiful and often endearing portrait of Timothy Treadwell, never straying into exploitative territory like some documentarians would have done.  Treadwell consistently proves to be a fascinating and complex character, making Grizzly Man a powerful and moving character study.  It never shies away from Timothy’s obsessive and naive character traits, but also never punishes him for these things. The footage that Treadwell managed to capture during his camping trips is stunning, with bears and other animals making regular appearances in the background and foreground – Timothy even approaches the bears confidently on multiple occasions.  Herzog notes that he admires Treadwell as a filmmaker, as his talents are clear.  As always, Werner Herzog adds a sense of pitch black humor to the project through the use of deadpan narration, helping the story flow along at a quick pace.  Grizzly Man is a profound and moving experience the likes of which only comes around once in a lifetime.  No matter what your opinion of Timothy Treadwell, I implore you to see Grizzly Man.  

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Top 100 Films #50 – The Great White Silence (1924)


the-great-white-silence-5#50. The Great White Silence (1924)
Directed by: Herbert Ponting
Written by: Herbert Ponting
Starring: Robert Falcon Scott

Herbert Ponting’s pioneering documentary about Antarctica is definitely the newest addition to my list of favorite films, and for good reason.  The Great White Silence tells the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated voyage to Antarctica, where the Captain and four crewmates would die of exposure. Herbert Ponting documented much of the journey to Antarctica, up to the point of Captain Scott and his crew leaving to reach the South Pole in order to beat the Norwegian team attempting to do the same.  The events that take place on the voyage to the South Pole are told through still photographs and title cards, as Herbert Ponting was left with the rest of the crew at base camp.  The film tells the tragic story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his crew with the utmost respect, even without any real visual support – the final act of the film features some of the most heartbreaking storytelling I’ve ever seen in a documentary.  The Great White Silence became one of the first documentaries to capture penguins, seals, and killer whales on camera in their natural habitats, and the first to shoot the unlivable continent of celluloid.  Ponting also employs the use of comedy and wit in his title cards, telling the story of the journey in a playful, fun way in order to hook audiences immediately.  The tonal shift in the final act of the film is fitting and classy, rather than jarring or unfitting – it works perfectly in telling the story of the Terra Nova expedition.  The Great White Silence’s breakneck pacing and playful attitude makes it truly stand out among other classic documentaries, making it stand out among its peers.  It’s a truly special film in its epic scope and Ponting’s eye for storytelling, and one of the most unique documentary films ever made.  To read my full thoughts about The Great White Silence, check out my Doctober review of the film here.

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Top 100 Films #54 – When We Were Kings (1996)


when-we-were-kings-muhammed-ali-muhammad-ali-2-rcm0x1920u#54. When We Were Kings (1996)
Directed by: Leon Gast
Written by: Leon Gast
Starring: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman

Muhammad Ali has long been one of my personal heroes – his never say die attitude combined with his brash, loud personality matches the personalities of most of my heroes.  When We Were Kings takes a look at Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in Zaire with then heavyweight champion George Foreman.  The documentary captures Ali’s close-knit relationship with and deep respect for the people of Africa, and Foreman’s much more awkward interactions with the fans. The arguably past his prime Ali was the clear underdog going into the fight, but watching the film you would never see it phase him.  Instead he uses his confidence and swagger to psych out Foreman and his team, encouraging crowds to shout “Ali Bomaye” or “Ali kill him” and even approaching Foreman outside of public appearances just to play mind games.  When We Were Kings is a picture perfect example of how archival footage can be turned into a compelling storytelling exercise.  Leon Gast uses footage to show how dominant Foreman was going into the fight, and that Ali was seemingly in over his head.  The combination of the lead-up to the fight with footage of the soul music festival taking place concurrently, featuring world class artists like James Brown and B.B. King.  The combination of the two landmark events sets the tone and atmosphere of the film and makes this one incredibly memorable experience both for viewers and for those in Zaire lucky enough to witness them.  The beauty of When We Were King’s and Leon Gast’s structure of the film is that it isn’t just about the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight – it’s about an attitude towards African’s and African-American’s during a time of great strife, and about the 1970’s as a whole. When the fight finally does take place, the scene has been set and you’re ready for the events about to take place.  The ultimate underdog Muhammad Ali employs the world famous “Rope-a-Dope” technique, which causes his opponent to exhaust himself in time for a perfectly placed knockout blow, which Ali nails in the eighth round.  The moment is triumphant and incredibly emotional, reuniting Ali with the championship he was stripped of in 1967.  When We Were Kings is an emotional, intense, and atmospheric documentary the likes of which I’ve never seen before.  It perfectly captures the attitudes and mood of the 1970’s, and combines it with the most iconic fight of the era.  See When We Were Kings if you’re a fan of documentaries or boxing in general – it’s a magical experience.

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Doctober II #6 – The Fog of War (2003)

fog_of_warThe Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
Directed by: Errol Morris
Written by: Errol Morris
Starring: Robert S. McNamara

The greatest documentary subjects often tend to be the most divisive and controversial ones.  Usually without agenda or bias, they instead challenge viewers to think outside the box and reconsider their own personal positions and points of view.  Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War pushes this idea even further.  Consisting of a 105-minute interview with Robert S. McNamara, former Secretary of Defense of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, The Fog of War is more stylish, revealing, and honest than most docs could ever hope to be.  McNamara brings with him a list of eleven critical lessons he learned during his time serving the United States of America, and makes an excellent case for his and his colleague’s often controversial actions.  In many cases, his eleven lessons can be considered for universal use, and not just for those in high-ranking positions of power.

McNamara comes across as a genuine and truly down to earth man with nothing more to lose.  His political career is behind him, and it’s clear that he has reflected on the actions of his government and his country that came in a time of great confusion and turmoil.  He is transparent and never afraid to admit when somebody was in the wrong, using a vast knowledge of history and terrific anecdotal evidence to backup his claims.  McNamara frequently tells the camera that it was sheer blind luck that got the United States and Russia through the Cold War without starting a nuclear war.  The former Secretary of Defense gives chilling recollections of the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of JFK and the subsequent inauguration of Lyndon Johnson, and America’s entry in Vietnam and the immediate mess that situation would become.  Stories like these leave a long-lasting impression with viewers because of how genuinely terrifying they are, and really puts the role of government into perspective.  Nothing is black and white for those in charge; at the end of the day, regardless of education, wealth, or status, we’re all just feeling our way through the dark.

The film’s fascinating subject aside, director Errol Morris is a major reason why The Fog of War works nearly as well as it does.  He shows tremendous restraint by allowing McNamara to speak his mind, especially since he often doesn’t seem to have any sort of script or agenda.  He lets his subject stumble, pause, and go back in his own timeline to clarify facts and anecdotes, and adds a great deal of humanization to somebody who is considered to be very divisive and controversial.  Morris’ veteran eye for details and penchant for storytelling shine just as bright as they did in his earlier masterpiece The Thin Blue Line.  It’s clear that he’s matured as a filmmaker and a storyteller in the years since that film, but his trademarks are still there.  He manages to turn an interview with this controversial figure into a very intimate and revealing experience – something Morris seems to have a knack for.  The Fog of War tackles incredibly complex topics like human nature, conflict resolution, acting under pressure and scrutiny, and most importantly our taste for war and appetite for destruction.  He adds to McNamara’s storytelling by using archival footage and stylized graphics and inserts, making The Fog of War constantly interesting from both visual and narrative standpoints.  Backing up Errol Morris’ expert direction is a typically haunting (and sometimes playful) score by frequent collaborator Philip Glass.  The film’s soundtrack adds weight to McNamara’s anecdotes and Morris’ direction, turning the film into a truly unforgettable experience.  Today, The Fog of War is considered to be one of Errol Morris’ greatest accomplishments, and perhaps one of the most important documentaries of the 2000’s.  It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2004, as well as an Independent Spirit Award.  Robert McNamara passed away in 2009 at the age of 93, leaving an incredible legacy behind him – he is still to this day the longest acting Secretary of Defense in US history.
What I Liked:

  • Robert McNamara is an incredibly fascinating and well-spoken subject.  His points are all delivered clearly and concisely, and his anecdotes are riveting.
  • The “11 lessons” structure really adds to the pacing of the film, but doesn’t detract from McNamara’s interview at all.
  • Errol Morris’ interview style is up-close and personal and very intimate.  By the end of the film, you really feel like you understand McNamara.
  • Philip Glass’ score is incredible – haunting, tense, and just a tiny bit playful.  Would work perfectly in a spy film.
  • The use of archival footage never distracts from the interview, but adds tremendous weight to the picture – especially when dealing with the subjects of nuclear war or Vietnam.
  • Morris often chimes in from behind the camera, sometimes asking questions or calling for clarification, and it always helps to alleviate things a little.
  • Every single one of Robert McNamara’s eleven lessons are relevant and important to leaders around the world.  They deal with empathy, rationality, efficiency, data, good and evil, and human nature, and every single one resonates after the credits roll.

Errol Morris’ The Fog of War could have easily been another dull, lifeless, lost in the crowd interview documentary – but the end result is so much more than that.  Morris created a masterpiece using simple direction, incredible archival footage, a brilliant score, and one hell of a subject.  It’s intimate, important, startling, informative, and powerful.  Robert McNamara is one of the most interesting documentary subjects in the history of the medium, and the importance of his messages cannot be understated. You don’t have to be a history buff to take something away from The Fog of War, you only need to be human.  Errol Morris’ The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara gets my highest recommendation.

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Doctober II #3 – Hearts and Minds (1974)

heartsandmindsdvdHearts and Minds (1974)
Directed by: Peter Davis
Written by: n/a
Starring: n/a

The Vietnam War has been said to be one of the United States’ most fatal mistakes in modern history, and no matter what your politics are, it’s likely that you agree with this notion.  Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds takes a good hard look at how America got into this mess of a war, how it affected their soldiers and the people of Vietnam, and points fingers at the people responsible.  We travel to Vietnam to view the destruction of villages, to speak to wounded and mourning Vietnamese, and get up close and person with US soldiers still on the ground. Back home in the United States, Davis manages to capture revealing interviews with high-ranking officials who either supported or opposed the war, with soldiers whose lives have been drastically altered from their time in the jungle, and anti-war protesters who knew it was a mistake from the word go.

Hearts and Minds undoubtedly has a bias, but it’s hard not to when dealing with one of the darkest, most pointless wastes of human life in modern history.  Peter Davis captures a great deal of anger, confusion, and disenfranchisement, felt by everybody from politicians to civilians.  It’s tragic to see such a large number of people lose faith and patriotism due to something that could have been so easily avoided.  It’s a feeling that has persisted in American people ever since the Vietnam War, and one that was exacerbated by later wars in the Middle East. Many of those interviewed attempt to frame the war in different ways that fit their personal narrative, and yet none of them manage to justify the horrific actions and decisions that took place over a period of nearly two decades.  This is the brilliance of Hearts and Minds, nobody makes it out looking saintly or evil – everybody realizes that mistakes were made and corrective measures should have been taken.

Peter Davis captures many intimate and heartbreaking moments throughout Hearts and Minds that it’s difficult to pick out highlights.  Some of the moments that touched me the most were an interview with a Vietnamese man building coffins for young children killed in bombing runs, a scene in an American classroom where an army official explains to young students that they will most likely have to go to war someday, and an interview with an American soldier who was accidentally hit by a US napalm run, burning his pants clean off.  He remarks about how hard it is to fight a battle when you’re not wearing drawers, almost making the viewer forget about the horrific loss of human life going around all around him.  Memorable moments like these would lead to Hearts and Minds winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1975.  My only substantive complaint about the film is that it can at times be very heavy-handed, trading subtlety and honesty for something that comes off as less genuine, but included in the film only to get a point across.  These heavy-handed moments just aren’t necessary, as anybody viewing the film is intelligent enough to put two and two together themselves.

What I Liked:

  • Interviews with Vietnamese and American soldiers are very well-balanced, both of whom are given a great deal of respect.
  • People from all walks of life are featured: Vietnamese farmers, soldiers, prostitutes, US soldiers and protesters, high-ranking politicians and military officials.  
  • The film is edited to be told in a completely non-linear way, which works very well for what is effectively a look back at a period of nearly two decades.  We’re not burdened with dull stories of the politics that led to the war, we just dive in head-first.  
  • Some of the footage captured is horrifying, including US soldiers burning down Vietnamese villages, children and civilians retreating from napalm and bombing runs, soldiers in the middle of firefights defending their positions, etc.  We’re thrown right into numerous battle scenes and left wondering how the footage was obtained.
  • Both Democratic and Republican politicians are heavily criticised, with nobody escaping from the line of fire.  Even the US President’s involved in the two decades are heavily implicated.
  • Peter Davis goes a great length to human the Vietnamese people after two decades of blatant hatred and racism against them.  When soldiers refer to them using racial slurs or about how inhuman they are, Davis makes you feel guilty because you know that things aren’t black and white, and that these soldiers have essentially been brainwashed to hate something they don’t understand.

What I Didn’t:

  • The film becomes unironically heavy-handed and sentimental in its last act, the most notorious example being: overlapping the words of General William Westmoreland talking about how life is not important to the Vietnamese, coming immediately after a scene in a Vietnamese cemetery, featuring grieving children and parents.  Instead of being touching and genuine, it feels like too much, and that Davis is going too far to push his viewpoint – which is already shared by the majority of viewers.
  • I would have appreciated the use of subtitles for the Vietnamese instead of narrated translation, as certain things can be lost in translation or skipped over in this manner.

Overall, Hearts and Minds is an incredibly effective anti-war documentary, and perhaps one of the most all-encompassing and important views of how so many Americans became disenfranchised with their own society and government.  It’s a difficult look at one of the most regretful periods in modern American history, and doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to pointing fingers and showing the audience why it was such a tragic period.  It’s expertly crafted and edited, capturing many memorable and heartbreaking moments that never would have been witnessed otherwise.  Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds is recommended, but may not be for the faint of heart.

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Doctober II #2 – Crumb (1994)

crumb_movie_posterCrumb (1994)
Directed by: Terry Zwigoff
Written by: n/a
Starring: Robert Crumb, Charles Crumb, Maxon Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb

Documentaries certainly don’t get much stranger than Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, which follows the day-to-day life of American artist Robert Crumb, his wife Aline, and his brothers Charles and Maxon.  This isn’t so much an autobiography of Crumb’s life, but more a fly on the wall perspective of the man and his eccentricities…and boy is he eccentric.  Robert Crumb burst onto the underground art scene in the 1960’s with counter culture and contemporary folk comic books like Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, and Keep on Truckin’.  Charles and his brothers were raised in an average American family; their father an author and mother an amphetamine-addicted housewife,  both parents trapped in an unhappy marriage.  It’s hard to believe that the eccentric and bizarre Robert is considered to be the “normal” brother, with both Charles and Max suffering from severe mental illness.

It would have been easy for Zwigoff to paint this family as a group of weirdos, but instead he opts to simply observe.  What follows is an incredible portrait of the creative spirit in all its uniqueness.  We get to find out first hand the shortcomings of contemporary American life that drive Robert’s satirical and at times disturbing works, with the artist telling us firsthand what his works mean and why they’ve been created.  This is what makes Zwigoff’s Crumb stand out from the thousands of other artist portrait documentaries made; he lets the artist speak for himself instead of the director taking the reigns and crafting the narrative.  He doesn’t paint Crumb as a tortured, sympathetic artist, nor a twisted, oddball.  He just lets his subjects be themselves and doesn’t sway the narrative.  Director David Lynch had a hand in producing the film, and I couldn’t possibly imagine a more perfect fit for his surreal, bizarre style.

There are many highlights to be found in Crumb, and oddly enough almost none of them have anything to do with the man’s artwork.  Instead they’re found when examining the artist himself and his peculiar family.  Robert’s odd relationship with his wife Aline is something I enjoyed watching, and would have loved to see more of.  There’s both a coldness and a warmth towards each other that is very difficult to describe.  Robert constantly references his past loves and sexual conquests, and none of it seems to bother Aline in the least.  We even get moments with Robert’s ex, who almost compulsively lied to and cheated on her. There’s an incredible and very rare openness in Robert and Aline’s marriage that I just found to be fascinating.  Other highlights of Crumb are found towards the end of the movie, where Charles and Max discuss their various mental illnesses and how it influenced them sexually.  Charles described himself as having pedophaelic homosexual tendencies, and Max recounts a story of “molesting” a woman in a store, publicly masturbating and pulling down her shorts.  This entire portion of the film is tragic, surreal, and at times even pretty darkly funny.  I’ve never seen anything quite this honest and self-aware, and I adored Terry Zwigoff’s transparency.
What I Liked:

  • You won’t see a more unflinchingly honest and open documentary about public figures in your lifetime.  This is a rare and invaluable film for that very reason.
  • Zwigoff’s camera is never afraid to capture long, drawn-out conversations about seemingly nothing, and yet somehow they’re all captivating, hilarious, or bizarre.
  • Having Robert Crumb’s mother finally open up in front of the camera is an incredible moment, especially after almost exclusively hearing her yelling in the background and nothing more.
  • At two hours long, Crumb absolutely flies by because of its unfocused style and the incredibly unique characters it follows.  
  • There’s no dull archival recount of Crumb’s career, nor are his works endlessly praised by talking heads.  This is a movie about the man himself, not his work or his influence.
  • Every instance of Robert, Charles, and Max’s history of bizarre sexual escapades, interests, and at times their deviancy all rings so true.  It’s honest in the most human way possible, and made me both laugh and cringe more than I thought possible.  These stories are part of what makes Crumb so unique and such an interesting work.

What I Didn’t:

  • The non-linear style of the film at times makes it feel unfocused and maybe slightly long in the tooth.  It’s never boring or uninteresting, but at times you’re left wondering what the point is.
  • While I can’t hold this against the film, I wish there was more than a passing mention of Charles Crumb’s eventual suicide at the end of the film.

Crumb is a film that I’ve wanted to catch up with for more than five years now, and I’m so glad that I finally have.  Terry Zwigoff’s fly on the wall portrait of Robert Crumb and his family is unlike any documentary I’ve ever seen (with the exception of something like Grey Gardens), and probably would not be made in our current “politically correct” atmosphere.  It’s something I never knew I wanted, and it pains me that it stands on its own stylistically and thematically.  Crumb is an absolute treat from start to finish, but it’s probably not for the faint of heart, nor is it for anybody who is very easily offended.  Crumb is very highly recommended.

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Doctober Feature #2: Werner Herzog Triple Feature – Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), The White Diamond (2004), and Wheel of Time (2003)

Werner Herzog is one, if not the most, influential documentary filmmaker of our time after a host of incredible and successful documentaries like the incomparable Grizzly Man, Lessons of Darkness, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and his most recent Into the Abyss.  His eye for quirky interview subjects, beautiful scenery, relatively uncovered film subjects, and his penchant for asking really, really, really (REALLY) big questions of the audience have turned Werner Herzog into something of a cultural icon in the film world.  His narration is often lovingly mocked by those in the film community, and comedian Paul F. Tompkins has even made it a regular part of his act on television and podcasts.  The bottom line is that Werner Herzog is incredibly influential, and has given us some of the greatest documentary and narrative films of our generation, and deserves to be discovered by an even wider audience. These three films were blind spots in my viewing of Herzog’s documentary filmography, and even though I had different reactions to the lot of them, I’m incredibly happy that I finally sought them out.  If you’ve never seen a Herzog film, do yourself a favor and see Grizzly Man as soon as humanly possible.  It will change the way you view the art of documentary filmmaking.

Cave_of_forgotten_dreams_posterCave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Starring: the Chauvet Cave, Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary was originally released in 3D, and I’m very upset that I didn’t have the opportunity to see it as it was originally intended.  In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog takes the audience on a tour of the Chauvet Cave in France, where some of the oldest surviving human art was discovered in the 1990’s.  The cave paintings were created over 30,000 years ago, and are very carefully preserved by the French government.  Due to the sensitive nature and rarity of the paintings, the general public is not actually admitted to exploring the cave, and even Werner Herzog himself was only able to take himself and three others to film the documentary.  Special walkways were created for those permitted into the cave, anything off the path being strictly prohibited.

The cave and the ancient art inside are absolutely beautiful, and it’s hard to imagine that these images were created so long ago.  Alongside the paintings are many bones of the now extinct cave bear, a relic and a major find in themselves.  Herzog manages to find experts in the archaeological field, interviewing them about various items found in the area surrounding the cave, including an ancient wind instrument, as well as a spear of sorts.  These experts in question are ridiculous and quirky and incredibly fun to watch in their brief appearances on screen.  One of the experts in question happens to be a perfume creator, and goes about finding cave openings in the woods using only the power his nose, another is openly mocked by Herzog about his spear-throwing abilities.  It is these interviews coupled with the imagery that makes Cave of Forgotten Dreams an absolute delight.  I would highly recommend this film to both Herzog rookies and seasoned veterans alike.  High recommendation.

The White Diamond (2004)


Directed by: Werner Herzog

Starring: Graham Dorrington, Werner Herzog, Dieter Plage

This is a film I knew almost nothing about before going into it, as it came out a year before one of Werner Herzog’s greatest successes, Grizzly Man. For a film I knew very little about, The White Diamond absolutely took my breath away, and quickly became one of my favorite Herzog documentaries.  In The White Diamond, Werner Herzog and his lovable voice take us on a journey into the dense rainforests of Guyana, a small country in South America.  There we find the film’s subject Graham Dorrington, an engineer who has created a terrific white airship (or blimp) in the shape of a teardrop;his mission is to fly the airship over canopies of the Guyana rainforest.  The film chronicles Dorrington’s past as an aeronautical engineer, covers the history of modern flight as a whole, and explores the beauty of Guyana’s vast rainforests, specifically taking a look at the massive Kaieteur Falls, as well as astounding white-tipped swifts, a species of bird which roost in an unexplored cave directly behind the falls.

Despite the incredible visuals and Werner Herzog’s always incredible narration and subtle humor, what makes The White Diamond a special documentary and a film to remember is the story of Graham Dorrington’s cinematographer and friend Dieter Plage, who died on an ill-fated ascent in the experimental airship.  Herzog films Dorrington telling the story of Dieter Plage’s accident and attempted rescue with unblinking and unflinching direction, never underestimating the weight of Dorrington’s words.  The story is incredible, tragic, and heartbreaking, and is easily one of the great moments in documentary film, period.  The White Diamond is one of Werner Herzog’s most underrated treasures, and a film I plan to revisit again for the visuals and the incredible stories featured throughout.  High recommendation.

Wheel_of_time_posterWheel of Time (2003)

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Starring: The Dalai Lama, Werner Herzog

Before the impressive White Diamond came Werner Herzog’s 2003 documentary Wheel of Time, which I knew even less about, but unfortunately wasn’t quite as taken with it as I was with that film.  Wheel of Time is once again narrated by Herzog himself, taking us on a journey to through Asia to meet the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who at the time was suffering from rather poor health.  Herzog covers two ill-fated Kalachakra initiations, one in India, and the next in Austria, presided over by the sick Dalai Lama, as well as the pilgrimage to Mount Kailash in Tibet; considered by many religions to be a sacred place.

Wheel of Time unfortunately didn’t resonate with me the same way previous Herzog documentaries have done, and I can’t quite put my finger on why that is.  The subject material isn’t something I’m particularly interested in, but that hasn’t stopped me before.  I think the biggest reason for my disconnect is Werner Herzog himself, who is incredibly respectful in his chronicling of the ill Dalai Lama, Buddhist traditions, and the Buddhist people themselves.  Not that this respect is a bad thing in any way, but Herzog refrains from using his trademark dark and subtle humor throughout the film’s short run-time, instead opting to cover the events in a much more deadpan style.  Fortunately the visuals throughout the film are more than worth the price of admission, with several breathtaking moments being caught by Herzog’s sharp eye.  One of my favorite scenes featured Buddhist monks on their pilgrimage, giving money to the poor who remain unseen behind a large fence – with the exception of their arms.  Wheel of Time has a lot to say about Buddhism as a whole, and beautifully covers some important and notable ceremonies of the faith, but unfortunately it didn’t move me the way I wanted to.  I enjoyed my time with Wheel of Time, but none of it resonated with me in any way – unlike most of Werner Herzog’s documentary films.  Even though the film did not personally appeal to me, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t still a delight to watch, nor does it mean you won’t get anything out of it.  If you’re interested in Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, give this a shot.  Recommended.

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Doctober Feature #1: The Decline of Western Civilization Parts I-III (1981, 1988, 1998)

Disclaimer: Documentaries are, in my opinion, the absolute most difficult genre to write in-depth about.  These are films about real-life people and scenarios that shed light on various times, subcultures, people, and events, both contemporary and throughout our history.  They often have no narrative to speak of, have no performances to praise or pan, and far more subtle direction than feature-length narrative films.  I’m writing about this trilogy because it moved me in ways that few films have ever done in the past, and because I’m hoping it will reach those who never would have heard of these films otherwise.  These reviews are very much stream of consciousness, so I apologize in advance if that is a problem for you as a reader.

The Declineresized_decline_of_western_civilization of Western Civilization (1981)

Directed by: Penelope Spheeris

Starring: Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Alice Bag Band, Fear, Germs, X, and Catholic Discipline

Thank the gods of film for Penelope Spheeris and her eye for documenting a subculture that nobody wanted anything to do with at the time.  The Decline of Western Civilization is the widely acclaimed and highly influential punk rock documentary by one of the most influential female documentarian of our time.  The film focuses on the Los Angeles punk scene of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, giving impromptu – but always entertaining and insightful – interviews with both influential and forgotten punk bands of the time, including Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, Germs, X, and Fear, along with fans of the genre, club owners, and those who adhered to the punk rock subculture of the time.  The documentary is notable for covering a subculture that was widely ignored by mainstream press of the time, and treating them like any other group.  These people have insightful and intelligent things to say, create brilliant (if chaotic) music, and aren’t afraid to speak their minds about injustices taking place throughout the Western world at the time.

Though the first film in the trilogy is probably my least favorite due to its impersonal nature and fly on the wall film-making (which isn’t to say it isn’t impressive or will leave an impression, I’m just more taken by more up-close and personal styles), there’s absolutely no doubting or underplaying the influence The Decline of Western Civilization had on music and documentary film in 1980’s America.  The films subjects have a lot of terrific anecdotes, opinions that needed to be heard at the time, and do a great job of showing the world why they shouldn’t be ignored by the world around them.  The music is loud, chaotic, and of an extremely personal nature, but that’s the beauty of punk music; it can either mean everything to you or sound like distorted noise.  No matter what your opinion on punk music and the people in and around it, do yourself a favor and watch Spheeris’ film immediately; at the very least it will expose you to ideas and music you hadn’t given much thought to, and give you an idea of the social environment of the time.  This film is absolutely recommended, and its sequels even more so.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)

Directed by: Penelope Spheerisdecline-of-western-civilization-2-the-metal-years-movie-poster-1988-1020196006

Starring: Megadeth, Ozzy Osbourne, Steven Tyler, Alice Cooper, Paul Stanley, Chris Holmes, Motorhead, Faster Pussycat, Lizzy Bordon

Taking place five years after the documentary that changed it all, Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization Part II focuses on Los Angeles’ heavy metal scene, a much different animal than the same city’s punk rock scene in the early years of the decade.  Though several jokes are made at the expensive of glam rockers of the time, the film focuses heavily on the glam metal scene, as well as speed and thrash metal.  The documentary features incredible and highly memorable interviews with rock superstars like Ozzy Osbourne, Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, Lemmy of Motorhead, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, KISS’ Paul Stanley, and Chris Holmes of the band W.A.S.P.  The second Decline of Western Civilization puts a huge amount of emphasis on getting into the minds of metal bands and trying to uncover why they live the way they live.  The sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is heavily discussed – and featured – throughout the picture, with many artists admitting to alcohol and drug problems, and telling stories of partying and debauchery.

Spheeris’ second part of the Western Civilization trilogy improves on the original in so many ways (in my opinion), getting much more up-close and personal with the artists, and uncovering why they are the way they are.  The film focuses on established – and often tortured – heavy metal superstars as well as up-and-coming bands who will stop at nothing to stand next to the rock stars they adore and become idols to metal heads around America.  The subjects and interviews through the film are much more compelling this time around, particularly in scenes with Ozzy Osbourne Steven Tyler recounting their less than glamorous moments as rock stars, and admitting to their many faults and vices.  The absolute highlight of the film is Spheeris’ one-on-one interview with W.A.S.P.’s Chris Holmes (and his mother).  Holmes floats around in a pool, talks about being a “full-blow alcoholic”, and pours vodka over his head, mouth, and body all while his mother looks on rather helplessly.  If you’re at all interested in hearing these tales and seeing many now-famous musicians in a rather unflattering light, by all means watch The Metal Years immediately.  It connected with me on a personal level, and managed to surpass the original film.  I highly recommend this film, and would even call it the best film of the incredibly impressive trilogy.

220px-TheDeclineIIIThe Decline of Western Civilization Part III (1998)

Directed by: Penelope Spheeris

Starring: Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression, The Resistance

Though I just stated that The Metal Years was without a doubt the best film of the trilogy, Penelope Spheeris’ final film in the series, The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, is my personal favorite of the bunch.  The film focuses far less on the music scene in Los Angeles (though it is still heavily featured and referenced) and more on the “gutter punk” lifestyle. The subjects of the film are mainly young adults (and teenagers in some cases), who adhere to the punk rock lifestyle, live on the mean streets of LA, are addicted to drugs and alcohol, and who have been abandoned by their parents and mentors.  These “gutter punks” have no real goals in life, nor do they care about what society thinks of them; they’re on this earth to have a good time or die trying.  The interviews with street kids and squatters are hilarious at times, and absolutely heartbreaking at others.  How anybody could not love these kids is beyond me, no matter how “troubled” they may seem on the outside.

The subjects mainly go by their street names like Squid, Hamburger, Pinwheel, and many, many others, and are all funny, resourceful, and surprisingly insightful young people who you grow to adore over the course of ninety short minutes.  By the time the credits rolled, I was begging for more time with them, and was left wondering what came of them in the years to follow.  Spheeris is at her best throughout the film, interacting with and interviewing the teenagers, who seemed to have developed a genuine liking and appreciation for her style and brand of humor.  Due to the nature of the film, I don’t have much more to say about it, but I do want to stress how incredibly fun and personal the third film is.  I was genuinely brought to tears by the end of the film, and have developed a genuine appreciation for Penelope Spheeris and punks worldwide.  See this film, see this entire trilogy if you can, I absolutely can’t recommend it enough.

The Decline of Western Civilization I-III are without a doubt some of the best films I’ve seen in the genre, and ones I’ll be returning to again and again for years to come.  Highest recommendation.

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