Lo and Behold! Werner Herzog brings us the Internet

Documentary

Directed by Werner Herzog

Even those of us who grew up, married, and had kids before dial-up modems were common now take the Internet for granted. We socialize, work, play, read, find restaurants, and enjoy movies and music through this decentralized network.

Werner Herzog tries–and to some extent succeeds–in providing an overview of the technical and sociological entity that has pretty much taken over civilization. Organized into ten clearly-marked chapters, Lo and Behold starts with early tests on the Berkeley campus in the late 1960s and ends with predictions of the future.

For the first half hour or so, Lo and Behold feels like a puff piece. Everything about the Internet seems wonderful. In the most upbeat moment, a medical researcher describes how the behavior of certain molecules–needed to be understood for medical purposes–were cracked by thousands of gamers.

But then we come to a chapter called “The Dark Side.” We meet a family that lost a daughter in a traffic accident. Photos of the beheaded girl went viral, and people of the worst sort emailed them to her parents with insulting messages. When the mother calls the Internet “the Anti-Christ,” you may not agree, but you’ll certainly understand her feelings.

Herzog rightfully spares us the gory pictures in that sequence, but in other scenes I wished he used more pictorial aids. Visually, Lo and Behold relies heavily on people talking. Many of the concepts they discuss would have been easier to understand with simple animation.

And sometimes I wished he would dig deeper into the research. One sequence involves people living away from the Internet–and not always by choice. These folks explain to Herzog’s camera that they’re sensitive to the electro-magnetic waves emitted from all of our technology. Their suffering is clearly real, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was psychosomatic. An interview with a doctor or two would have helped.

Of course Herzog covers security concerns, centering on hacking the big fish–government and corporations. He covers the very real threat of cyber warfare (which strikes me as less scary than the real thing). He points out that the weak point in any system will almost certainly be a human, not a piece of technology. In one amazing sequence, a hacker explains how a few phone calls got him some very important corporate code.

Oddly, he barely scrapes into issues of personal privacy. He doesn’t seem worried that corporations and governments know a frightening amount of information about us. One person he never interviews, or even mentions, is Edward Snowden.

Yet he examines some technologies that are only vaguely involved with the Internet, but are still fascinating. These include robots, Elon Musk‘s plans for Martian colonies, and driverless cars (which really need their own feature-length documentary).

There’s very little in Lo and Behold that I didn’t already know. But then, I’ve been writing about the Internet since it first became a thing. People who merely use it may find the movie much more informative.

San Francisco portion of Jewish Festival ends with Mr. Spock

Sunday night I attended the last screening at the Castro Theatre for this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The festival itself will continue in other Bay Area locations.

The film was For The Love of Spock, Adam Nimoy’s loving tribute to his father, Leonard, and the character that made his father famous.

Adam Nimoy, an entertainment lawyer turned television director (he directed his father in a 1995 Outer Limits episode), gave a surprisingly long introduction to his documentary. He pointed out that this screening was the film’s west coast premiere. Because this was a Jewish film festival, he discussed his father’s connection to Jewish tradition. Born to orthodox parents, he was a frequent donor to Jewish charities and he created audiobooks of Jewish and Yiddish short stories.

He also discussed how this film came about. “We had made a short film together about his growing up. it was such a great bonding experience that i wanted to replicate that…Leonard was immediately enthusiastic about it. ”

Originally, they were going to make a documentary about Mr. Spock. After the elder Nimoy passed away, Adam decided that the film had to also cover his father’s life, and their loving but sometimes difficult relationship.

So what did I think of the film itself?

Adam Nimoy splits this feature documentary about evenly between his father Leonard and his Star Trek character, Mr. Spock. He tells us how the character developed, and then became one of the last century’s most important cultural icons. But he also shows us how his father developed, from a struggling actor to a star to a director, how he struggled with family conflicts and with alcohol. It’s a loving tribute, but also an honest one.

I give For the Love of Spock a B+. I’ll publish a longer review next month, when the film opens in theaters.

After the screening, Nimoy and three other people involved with the film or with Star Trek came on stage for a Q&A. A few highlights:

  • We broke all crowdfunding records for a documentary.
  • The one word that characterized your dad is passion.
  • If you’re not passionate, you don’t belong in this industry.
  • [Leonard Nimoy] grew up in a shtetl. It happened to be in Boston, but it was a shtetl.

For the Love of Spock screens again tonight (Monday), 8:30 at Berkeley’s Roda Theater. And as I mentioned above, it will open in theaters and on VOD September 9.

Russian Ark & Buena Vista Social Club: Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive

I saw Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark and Wim Wender’s Buena Vista Social Club Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive. The first film was part of the ongoing series Guided Tour: Museums in Cinema. The second one closed the long-running series Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road.

But they had an interesting thing in common. Both were shot digitally at a time when that was unusual, and when the arguments for sticking to 35mm were far more compelling than they are today.

Both films were projected digitally off of 2K DCPs. Considering the low resolutions of the cameras they were shot with, 4K would have been pointless.

Russian Ark

Sokurov’s 2002 dive into European art and Russian history is easy to admire but difficult to love. Technically speaking, it’s an astounding achievement. And while it’s often beautiful and exciting, it sometimes feels aimless and pointless.

I saw Russian Ark once before, on DVD, soon after it’s theatrical release. This was my first time seeing this big-screen movie on the big screen.

The film provides a tour of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, one of the largest museums in the world. The Winter Palace–the home of the Czars’–is just one of the Hermitage’s six main buildings. Sokurov creates a fantasy fiction around the complex. An unseen narrator (perhaps a ghost; certainly the camera’s eye) and an early 19th Italian diplomat walk not only through the museum’s space but through its time. As they move from one room to another, they find themselves in different centuries. They meet people in modern clothes (some playing themselves) and others in powdered wigs. The diplomat joyfully joins a 19th century waltz. The last Czar’s children play in their home, not knowing their horrible fate.

Sokurov shot the entire 96-minute film, minus the credits, in one unbroken take. The logistics must have been insane. The camera wanders through a gallery that looks like a modern museum, with students and tourists examining the art. Then it glides into a magnificent ballroom, with hundreds of costumed extras laughing and dancing. And then it glides on to something else. All those people had to be ready on cue. The lights had to be set up correctly. One mistake and the whole thing would have had to be shot again. The final film is actually the fourth take.

It’s hard to pace a single-shot film properly. Without editing, you can’t remove the slow parts. Russian Ark occasionally has its slow parts.

When things slow down, you can study the paintings, the sculptures, and the bright and uniquely costumed extras. But the best digital camera available in 2001 (when the film was shot) lacked the resolution and color depth needed for enjoying such spectacular eye candy. I suspect it would have been a better film if shot today. Shooting a single, 96-minute take on film is quite simply impossible.

Much as I admire Russian Ark, its flaws keep me from giving it a better grade than B. But that’s an upgrade. The last time I graded it, based only on a DVD, I gave it a B-.

The PFA will screen Russian Ark again today (Sunday), at 5:30.

Buena Vista Social Club

Too many recent music documentaries make the same mistake: They focus on the musicians and ignore the music. You’re lucky if you get one song played from beginning to end.

Wim Wenders didn’t make that mistake in 1999 with Buena Vista Social Club. He puts the songs front and center. You fall in love with the music, and thus become eager to meet the brilliant musicians who created it.

I saw the film theatrically soon after its release. So Saturday night was a revisit.

In 1998, Ry Cooder went to Cuba to find a group of musicians that had played brilliantly together in the 1940s. He brought them together, recorded an album, and eventually took them to Carnegie Hall. Fortunately, he brought Wenders with him to record all of these events.

Music takes up most of the film’s 105 minutes. We see the Club performing live. We see the musicians recording in a studio. When the music isn’t playing, the musicians tell us about themselves–the poverty they grew up in, how music saved them, and life in general. Their stories are moving and funny.

We see a fair amount of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, nearly 40 years after the revolution. But that’s only background. Wenders sticks to the music and the musicians.

The digital cameras Wenders used for this film were far inferior to the one that shot Russian Ark. In fact, it was standard definition–a pre-HD video signal blown up to a big theater screen. But for Buena Vista Social Club, that wasn’t really a serious problem.

This was my first screening in the new PFA theater that really showed off the new Meyer Sound audio system’s capabilities. It was excellent.

I give Buena Vista Social Club an A-.

Sunday Docs at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

I went to the Castro Sunday afternoon to catch two documentaries screening at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

It wasn’t until Monday before I realized what they had in common. Both centered on a very old person.

A German Life

Brunhilde Pomsel, 103 when she was interviewed for this film, worked as a secretary and stenographer for Joseph Goebbels during World War II. She did not believe in Nazi ideology, but she joined the party in 1933 because it seemed good for her career. At that time, her best friend was Jewish. After the war, she spent five years in a Soviet prison.

Clearly, she carries a lot of guilt. But she also carries a lot of denial.

The film’s four directors shot these interviews in black and white extreme close-up, against a black background. The audience is not allowed to see anything except her wrinkled face. We never hear the voices of the people interviewing her.

The documentary doesn’t always show her face. It often cuts to clips and outtakes from American, German, and Soviet propaganda films–including some of the most horrifying Holocaust footage I’ve ever seen.

I found the film troubling and frightening. With its story of a people giving up their freedom and basic humanity for a demigod, I couldn’t get thoughts of Donald Trump out of my mind.

I give it an A-.

After the film, two of the four directors came on stage for Q&A. Some highlights, paraphrased from my notes:

  • When you made the film, did you know how timely it would be? (This question got huge applause.) Europe is shifting to the right, and it’s happening here as well.
  • Because of her age, we never knew how long we could interview her.
  • Was she truthful? Yes. She stuck to her own experiences. For instance, she didn’t tell us how Goebel’s children died (they were poisoned by their mother), she told us how she found out about it.
  • Is she still alive, and has she seen the film? She’s still alive at 105. She saw the film. She found it interesting to “look at your life and see all the things you did wrong.”
  • During the interview, she went through her whole life, and it triggered something every day. We repeated a lot of questions over and over. In the end she gave completely different answers. There was a process in her.
  • It’s not so much about her personal guilt, but about human nature.
  • Do you think she’s a criminal? She’s guilty, yes, of course.

A German Life will play one more time in the Festival, at Oakland’s Piedmont Theatre, Sunday, August 7, at 2:15.

Freedom of Speech Award: Norman Lear

Every year, the Jewish Film Festival hands out an award to someone who has fought for our First Amendment rights. This year, the Freedom of Speech Award went to television producer Norman Lear.

Lear isn’t quite as old as Brunhilde Pomsel, but he’s turning 94 this week, and is still working. He’s recently completed his memoirs, and is working on a new TV show for Netflix.

Before bringing Lear up on stage for an interview, we were treated to a screening of the new documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. The film is on the Festival’s Hold Review List, which means for the time being, I have to keep my review short. Here it goes:

In the 1970s, Norman Lear changed the face of television with controversial sitcoms like All in the Family and The Jeffersons, then became a full-time political activist creating the organization People for the American Way. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have created a warm, sympathetic, and funny documentary about Lear. Of course it’s funny; comedy is his lifelong trade. But parts of the story felt incomplete, such as a happy marriage hits trouble and then…he was married to someone else.

I give it a B+.

After the film, Lear and former SFJFF Executive Director Peter Stein came on stage for an interview. Some paraphrased highlights:

  • What is it like to watch a form of you in this documentary? All my life I’ve been an audience member. I sit down to what I’m watching and say “Take me. I’m yours.”
  • I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of America’s right hand. What I mean is that the man is the fool he is, the asshole he is, and I believe that the American people understand this.

This was followed by an audience Q&A. Unfortunately, as soon as Lear answered an audience question, Stein would ask another, related question, eating up time that should have been used for more audience participation.

  • How did you get Sammy Davis Jr. on All in the Family? I met him when I worked with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. He begged to be on the show.
  • How you get your sense of comedy? If your father goes to jail when you’re nine years of age, and a guy is buying your father’s favorite chair, and the guy says “Well Norman, you’re the man of the house now,” you understand the foolishness of the human condition.
  • Shooting sitcoms in front of a live audience? I love performing with a live audience. If the audience didn’t laugh, that was it. We didn’t use a laugh track.
  • I created Archie Bunker on paper, but I never saw the real Archie Bunker until I saw Carroll O’Connor. Nobody could write the Archie-isms like he could speak them.
  • On Jean Stapleton: She was always where she was. We’d ask What would Jesus do. That’s how we wrote Edith.

For some strange reason, the Festival had placed a painting on a stand on the stage. Near the end of the Q&A, it collapsed. Lear proclaimed “Now that’s funny!” He got a big laugh on that one.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You will screen one more time in the Festival, at the Rafael, Sunday, August 7, at 2:10. But it will screen three more times at the Rafael that week–not connected with the Festival. PBS will eventually broadcast it as part of the American Masters series.

Frank Zappa doc forces you to Eat That Question

B- Documentary

Directed by Thorsten Schütte

Early in this documentary on the legendary musician and provocateur, Frank Zappa insists that you can’t possibly know someone from an interview. It’s artificial; it’s unpleasant; it’s only two steps away from the Inquisition.

And that captures the film’s biggest problem. We hear a lot of Zappa’s words, but they’re public words. We don’t hear his private words, as we did in the Marlon Brando doc, Listen to Me Marlon. Nor do we hear from the people who knew and loved him. Fortunately, Zappa always made an interesting interview subject–blunt, opinionated, impossible to pin down, and often obscene. But still, this film never lets us see what made him tick.

Frank Zappa hit the cultural radar as the 1960s became what we think of as The Sixties (although there’s one TV clip with Steve Allen that appears to be from the 50s). With his long hair, his big mustache, and his vocabulary spiked with words that polite people didn’t say in those days, he seems to be the ultimate hippy–although he despised that word and preferred to be called a freak. He talked about artistic integrity and criticized American materialism. But he didn’t do or approve of drugs (other than tobacco–you rarely see him without a cigarette), and his tunes were often too complex and sophisticated to dance to. He also composed classical music.

Director Thorsten Schütte didn’t shoot new footage for Eat that Question, and if he interviewed anyone for this movie, it didn’t make the final cut. The film lacks a narration. Almost the entire runtime is made up of archival footage of Zappa performing or giving interviews. The rest is Zappa rehearsing, Zappa making TV appearances, and Zappa testifying before Congress attacking censorship. The entire film is pillarboxed in the pre-HDTV 4×3 aspect ratio in which all of these performances and interviews were shot.

Fortunately, the film has a good deal of concert footage–something that many recent music documentaries lack. Aside from the enjoyment of the music, these scenes show us how closely he controlled his band, The Mothers of Invention. Long before Bruce Springsteen became famous, Zappa was very much The Boss.

Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993, less than three weeks before his 53rd birthday. At that point in his life, he was concentrating on classical music– selling out concert halls in Europe while Americans thought of him as a has-been ’60s rocker.

Frank Zappa deserves an excellent documentary. Here, he gets a merely good one.

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

A- Music documentary

Directed by Morgan Neville

In the year 2000, cellist Yo-Yo Ma decided to take his musical career in a new direction. He gathered up musicians from various countries, all experts in their own cultures’ music, and created The Silk Road Ensemble. The idea was to find the beauty in their different traditions and create something special out of them.

Documentarian Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies20 Feet from Stardom) captures the enthusiasm these talented performers have for their work. While it looks at their problems and suffering (which are significant), it shows the consolation they find when playing–especially together.

The film follows the ensemble and several of the individual musicians within it, creating a study of world music, its importance, and what one has to go through to create it.

Not everyone approves of such musical mixing. Many members of the ensemble were criticized in their native countries for “diluting” their cultural heritage. Never mind that art constantly evolves; there are purists everywhere.

The musicians that Morgan focuses on include the Iranian master of the kamancheh, Kayhan Kalhor; Ma calls him his brother. There are others. Wu Man plays the pipa–a stringed instrument from her native China–and in one scene plays an electrified one. Spanish bagpiper Cristina Pato shows the charisma of Bruce Springsteen as she merges her Galicia musical roots with just about any genre–including rock.

And then there’s Yo-Yo Ma himself, who comes off as a modest, self-effacing, nice guy. Like Buster Keaton, he never really chose his career; fame found him as a seven-year-old prodigy. It’s given him incredible success, but at a price. He tells us in the film that in the 35 years of his marriage, he was on the road 22 of them.

Of course, Ma’s travails pale in comparison to those of the musicians who came from truly oppressive countries. Kalhor had to leave an Iran increasingly intolerant of artists who didn’t toe the line. Wu Man suffered in Communist China. The film becomes surprisingly political when discussing these issues. Damascus-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh cries about the losses among his family and friends, all because of the current war in Syria. He boils in anger at the refugee crisis, as Neville shows us the crowded, snow-drenched camps where people are freezing to death hoping to be admitted into a safe haven.

Much as I enjoyed The Music of Strangers, I have to admit that it
suffers from the problem so prevalent in recent music documentaries: There isn’t enough music. I would have easily sat through another 30 or even 45 minutes of this film if those minutes were of concert footage.

June Film Festivals

I don’t have to tell you about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival; I already have. But here are two other festivals coming up next month.

SF DocFest (June 2-16)

If you prefer your cinema without fiction, this is the festival for you. Here you’ll find documentaries about East LA, LSD, two-dollar bills, Internet sex workers, and, of course, music. I haven’t seen anything in this festival, so I have no opinions.

DocFest opens with a surfing documentary called It Ain’t Pretty. Don’t expect Frankie and Annette, or even bikinis. These are Northern California surfers, which means that they wear wetsuits. And they’re all women.

It Ain’t Pretty

The closing-night show, Silicon Cowboys, is about a piece of tech history that only old-timers like me remember: the fall of the once important Compaq Computers.

Frameline (June 16 -26)

Now in its 40th year, the world’s oldest LGBTQ film festival is not about a particular type of film, such as a documentary (although it certainly has plenty of them). It’s about a particular type of person—the sort who tends to throw North Carolina into a hissy fit.

Again, I haven’t seen anything in the festival. But here are some that intrigue me enough to make me want to catch them:

The Intervention: This American relationship comedy involves a group of friends trying to convince an unhappily married couple to divorce. But some of the interventionists need their own interventions.

Summertime: Politics and love intertwine in this French romance set in the 1970s. A closeted farm girl goes to Paris and falls in love with a feminist.

Summertime

The Freedom to Marry: A documentary that we all know has a happy ending.

Being 17: Another French film, about two very different teenage boys forced to live under the same roof. Thing’s get complicated.

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