Monthly Archives: February 2010

The September Issue | documentary 39 of 100

I’ve been head’s down editing a commercial piece for Eton School over the past week, which I’ll be posting as soon as it’s approved and we clear the audio track. I came up for air last night long enough to screen The September Issue with my wife. It’s the first documentary film in this series of 100 that I intensely disliked.

Synopsis: A soulless behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of Vogue Magazine and it’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour. This film made no sense to me at all, until my wife told me that it was a response by Anna to critics who say she’s a militant bitch. It does little to improve her reputation, in my opinion, but at least this explains why it was made: it’s basically a feature-length PR stunt. Or to put it more simply, crap.

Story Structure: The film is structured around the 6-month-long process of producing Vogue’s largest issue, which is published each year in September. Unfortunately, the story train just isn’t interesting: of course they will meet their deadline (it’s Vogue, duh, did you have any doubt they would?) There’s some comedic relief in seeing the world of mostly cowering minions that Wintour has created for herself to live in, and the frustration on the part of her assistant editor who actually does the real heavy lifting to produce the magazine is palpable.

Cinematography: The quality of the video often was disappointing. Highlights were often blown out, and there was plenty of searching for focus happening. I got the sense it was shot with a crappy camera and included sloppy camera work so that it “looked” like a documentary, possibly because of some brisk decree issued from Anna Wintour to make it seem more believable.

Editing: There’s some nice cutting in this film, for example, the way in which we go very quickly from someone talking about a runway show straight into the show with just a few steps in between.

Sound and Music: The thing I liked most about this film was the music. The energy of the runway scenes brought the film to life with pulsing electronica. Of course, all warmth generated by said scenes was immediately drained when the camera inevitably settled on Anna Wintour.

After this, I’m looking forward to screening “Valentino: The Last Emporer” for another take on the fashion world.

Capturing Reality | documentary 38 of 100

Cinematographer Steven Bradford came over this evening and we screened Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary. It’s a 2-dvd set with a feature length doc on one, and nearly 4 hours of interviews with 38 documentary filmmakers on the second disc. The whole thing is produced by the National Film Board of Canada, an organization the supports Canadian filmmakers. When I was a kid growing up in Alberta, my dad would rent 16mm films from film lending libraries that the NFB made available in Calgary. He’d bring them home, and I’d play projectionist. That was movie night for our family.

The website for this film is the best documentary film site I’ve ever seen. It’s got part of the soundtrack playing, and you can roll over any of the 38 directors to play cuts of them talking about their approach to filmmaking.

Synopsis: Documentary filmmakers strive toward truth in one way or another, working with real lives and real events in the way that narrative filmmakers work with actors and costumes. But both approaches are manipulations. In interviews with 38 filmmakers, including Academy Award winner Errol Morris, Capturing Reality shows that there are as many approaches to making films as there are filmmakers.

Story Structure: This is an interview-driven film, a film that perhaps only filmmakers will really love. Intercut with the interviews are clips from many of the films being discussed. It’s thematically organized by major components of filmmaking, for example, Sound, Editing, Cinematography, Narration, Ethics. In particular, I loved the probing sections about what led them to become filmmakers, and how they decide on which ideas to turn into films.

Cinematography: Almost all of the interviews are shot and lit identically, in 3-light setups against black. I’m not sure that was the right choice, frankly – I would have liked to see something of each filmmaker’s environment if possible (although it’s possible the film was shot at a festival or something which would have made the environment meaningless). This approach DOES focus your attention exclusively on what the directors are saying, rather than their surroundings, which means content is king in this film. And the result is an treasure trove of ideas, tips, techniques and anecdotes, uncovered so rapidly that it begs for a second viewing. A nice touch at the beginning is catching the editors while they are putting their mics on, saying off-hand things. Sets the tone for what’s coming in the film.

Editing: The editor did a great job of in some places showing directors talking about their own films while at same time showing a clip from film, but often showing another director referencing another filmmaker’s film and showing that one. Or showing a clip that wasn’t specifically referenced by what’s being said, but works anyway. In many cases the directors say essentially opposite things, and the cuts show the diversity of opinion rather than attempting to enforce agreement in the edit, which felt true. In other places, directors nearly complete each other’s sentences, which really pulls the film forward.

Music and Audio: Great audio on the interviews, as one might expect from the controlled conditions they all were filmed under. The minimalist orchestral string-heavy music that runs under much of the film reminded me of Errol Morris’ recent films (but it’s not Philip Glass – although there are some clips of Glass from a documentary made about his life). One interesting audio fact: On “Touching the Void,” Kevin MacDonald’s sound guy came up with the sound used in the ice crevasses by slowing a leopard’s grown down 50 times. The result is an eerie, spooky sound that was perfect. Herzog had a great quote: “Music gives new insights – a different kind of vision.” By contrast, a couple of directors said they think music has no place in documentary. I side with Herzog.

This amazing film also turned me on to a whole bunch of films that I haven’t seen, which I can’t wait to get my eyes on: “Lessons of Darkness;” “The Peacekeepers;” “Salesman;” “The Scavengers;” “Metal and Melancholy;” “The Bomber’s Dream;” “Darwin’s Nightmare;” and directors like Scott Hicks, and Jessica Yu.

I’m not sure who said this, but it was one of the female directors in voiceover during a clip, and it’s the line: “The films that we make are our teachers.” But Velcrow Ripper got the last word: “The answer to life is becoming a documentary filmmaker.” Here here.

Manufactured Landscapes | documentary 37 of 100

Manufactured Landscapes is one smart documentary. Let me count the ways: it manages to take us from beginning to end without a single on-screen sit down interview. It’s got a haunting, techy, glitchy original soundtrack. It manages to make a huge political statement without being preachy or even taking an overt position. But most of all, it’s simply breathtakingly to look at. I saw Jennifer Baichwal’s latest film at SIFF Cinema last fall, Act of God, and it’s also a visual orgasm.

Synopsis: Canadian nature photographer Edward Burtynsky photographs the landscapes of the Earth that have been transformed by human activity to reveal a haunting picture of the modern world, and filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal weaves his pictures into a compelling visual poem.

Story Structure: A non-linear journey in which the filmmakers accompanied Burtynsky as he made his way around the world filming, from China to Bangladesh, intercut with current art exhibitions of photographs made on this trip. This overt playing with time combined with otherworldly soundtrack is like dreaming. The elements of story are provided without narration, with voiceover from the photographer who at no point is interviewed (although at one point is seen talking on stage explaining his work to an audience).

There’s also a rather strange sequence in the final third of the film in which a Shanghai real estate agent is essentially narrating the story of Shanghai. On balance, though, this is just brilliant filmmaking: eschewing traditional interviews in favor of endless, humongous images, in an open-ended meditation that leaves the viewer to draw her own conclusions.

Cinematography: In a word, HUGE. The opening sequence is an unforgettable 8-minute long tracking shot of a factory floor in China that assembles clothing irons. Reaching the end of the line the frame wipes to a still photo of the same factory floor, which then becomes the title of the film.

There’s a bunch of black and white footage in the film that was obviously shot by someone else – presumably they ran it in black and white to show that it was shot by someone other than the filmmakers. I did some googling and found out that another filmmaker, a rookie documentary filmmaker, had shot 80 hours of footage hoping to make a film, but Burtynsky wasn’t happy with the results, so he hooked up with Baichwal, who also hails from Canada.

There’s one dutch camera angle in the film that is a judicious use of the heavy-hammer technique: it’s used to show a container being lifted off a truck and hoisted onto a ship.

Editing: The way the editor linked the still photos to the moving pictures was sick. The first time this happens is with the shot of the workers lined up in front of the factory. It works like this: 1. shot of Burtynsky taking film out of his camera. 2. Still photo that results. 3. begin zooming out … and we realize that we’re in an art gallery as someone walks in front of the photo. All of this with J edits that had sound from one overlapping the next scene. Damn. That’s HOT.

In general Baichwal likes to use cuts that dissolve slowly into each other at different angles while the camera is traveling. For example, there’s a memorable dissolve between an angled tilt shot over a city scene from above, which is slowly dissolved into an oppositely angled tilt shot of a model city. She uses this type of edit a lot in Act of God, in which she’s tilting into treetops and cutting them together into a dreamy montage.

Music and Sound: Techy, glitchy, minimalist music is a perfectly discordant match for the pictures and images in the film. Some of it sounds like it was made from samples recorded at the scenes – jets of gas recur in music sounding like work on an assembly line. The way that found sounds creep into the edits is brilliant – for example, the “beep, beep” of the huge cranes at the port lifting containers off trucks and loading them onto container ships. You hear the beeping long before you see the crane making the sound, and I think it was in fact foly generated and then matched to the actual track because of background noise in the shot. Nicely done.

This film is an inspiration that I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson | documentary 36 of 100

I wonder how many journalists became journalists because of Hunter S. Thompson? At the student newspaper when I was a journalism student at University of Montana, we’d spend hours debating his style late into the night, usually over beers. But the reality, I quickly discovered at my first newspaper job, is quite different. Journalists generally quietly support the status quo with stories that rarely challenge anything other than our ability to remain interested in what they have to say.

Synopsis: Few journalists have made a greater impact on their readers than Hunter S. Thompson, whose “gonzo journalism” defined a generation from the pages of The Rolling Stone. This film recounts that as well as his less well known life as father, a gun-lover, and a world-class celebrity who ultimately felt trapped by his own success, but who always followed his own eccentric path right up to his suicide in 2005.

Story Structure: Mostly linear and chronological story of his life, but with the frequently used device of beginning at his death, and then skipping back to the beginning, the progressing through his live to end the film at his spectacular funeral. I’m not sure how well this type of beginning works, actually – if there was something cliffhanger about his death, or something that was unexpected or in doubt, this approach would have worked better. But I suppose it’s better than just starting at the beginning – that’s even more predictable.

What I’m trying to say is: there’s nothing innovative about the way this film is structured – and it works just fine. It uses still photos, family film clips, tv news footage, and interviews with important figures like Jimmy Carter, Rolling Stones editor Jann Wenner, Pat Buchanan, and many others. The fact is, this film is exactly what it claims to be: the story of the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson. Nothing more, and nothing less.

Cinematography: Most of the film is a compilation. This is a classic “archival film.” But there are plenty of interviews, which are shot unremarkably in mostly natural light in the offices of the people being interviewed. But they get the job done nicely.

Editing: Editing was the big job on this film. How to pull all that archival footage together to tell a cohesive story? That’s the trick. And it’s done very well in this film. But without discernible innovation. One memorable edit: Thompson shoots his typewriter – which functions as a metaphor for him shooting himself. Great way to handle it.

Sound and Audio: There’s one really fun bit of audio accident that made it into the film: At one point during an interview with Pat Buchanan, an extremely loud Harley motorcycle blasts off outside the window where the interview is taking place. Buchanan pauses, laughs, and says “I think that’s perfectly fitting, isn’t it.” Music is all period songs from the likes of Lou Reed, James Brown, and Bob Dylan. Must have been a hefty price tag on getting all those clearances.

Nanook of the North | documentary 35 of 100

I decided to screen Nanook of the North for one reason: it was the first feature-length documentary film ever made. I didn’t expect to get much out of the screening, figuring it would be just a bunch of clips strung together predating the arrival of using the medium to tell stories. But I was wrong. In fact, as Robert Flaherty explains through heavy use of intertitles (the silent-film era’s way of explaining things), he in fact DID make a film of that kind, and was unsatisfied with the results, so he returned to visit the Eskimo people who live along the eastern shore of Hudson Bay to create a film with a story worth telling. And that’s exactly what he did.

Synopsis: Robert Flaherty spends more than a year filming one Eskimo family in northern Quebec, and introduces us to Eskimo life via their story. The family overcomes a series of hardships – lack of food, cold weather, dangerous ice – but Nanook, the “great hunter” saves the day.

Story Structure: This is much more than a simple “document” of life in the frozen north. It is a story structured as a series of life-threating obstacles which the family must overcome. Conflict comes from dramatizations of hunger, cold, and need to hunt animals to trade. The difficulty of life is sharply pictured, but at the same time a picture of a simple, solid family that lives in harmony with the Earth emerges.

Cinematography: The film opens with a tracking shot taken from a boat – moving past chunks of ice. It’s actually quite beautiful. One thing that struck me right away was the fact that this was filmed in extreme conditions! How surprising that the very first documentary film was shot somewhere so extreme. I would have thought someone would document something in their back yard first? So from the beginning, filmmaking has been about “the other world.”

There is also striking pathos in this film. For example, when Nanook harpoons a walrus, for a long time the walrus cries for its mate, which risks its own life to try and lock horns with the doomed walrus and help it to safety. It was a touching moment that spoke volumes about how close animals are to Eskimos and in fact how attached they are to one another and how brutal it is to kill them. An even more brutal scene occurs when Nanook traps a white fox, and straps it to his sled ALIVE, where the children pester it. You can’t help but feel terribly sorry for the creature, which is essentially being tortured before ultimately being killed.

Editing: There’s a lot more going on here than I would have expected for a film this early on. For example, the film opens with the entire family being disgorged from the mouth of a kayak that appears far too small for them all to fit into, which makes me think he was using some editing magic for comedic effect. Same thing in the scene where he harpoons a seal – which is followed by a lengthy scene in which he falls down repeatedly on the ice while waving madly for his friends to come help. This was almost certainly inspired by Charlie Chaplin, and totally staged.

One thing that surprised me is that this very first film contains animated maps. The animation is simple – just lines spreading out into the map to show the territory of the Eskimos. Nevertheless, animation as a storytelling device dates from the very beginning of documentary film. It’s clear that Flaherty wasn’t content to simply point his camera and document – he wanted to communicate and tell stories.

Music and sound: It’s simple, because there was no sound in those days. The music, though, is carefully cut or composed to match the on-screen action. For example, there’s a comical scene in which a trader plays a gramaphone for Nanook, who acts like he can’t figure out where the sound is coming from (also almost certainly staged). But the music interrupts to match the interrupted music on the screen, and so on. Also, plucking strings in the orchestra when Nanook is jigging for fish is nice tie-in. Essentially what was happening in those days was that the orchestra was matching their performance to what was happening on screen.

The Criterion Collection version, which I viewed, had an extras segment featuring an interview with Flaherty’s wife, who explained that Flaherty was “an explorer first and a filmmaker way after.” In fact, Flaherty was almost 40 years old when he made the film. Which gives me great confidence that 43 years old is not too late for me ūüôā

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer | documentary 34 of 100

OK I’m fully a third of the way into screening 100 docs. And one thing is clear: I’m most captivated by the small filmmaker teams, the people who manage to make film after film with just a couple of people. People like Werner Herzog, Marshall Curry, or Ross McElwee. Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill are two filmmakers who have a long history of collaboration, with Nick often in front of the camera, which is run by Joan. But Broomfield is most known for being an early adopter of the “self-reflixive” style that would later be adopted with overwhelming box-office success by Michael Moore. For Broomfield, how the picture was made is part of making it, and he explains his thinking, questions, and includes the bits where he was wrong, which is part of the appeal.

Synopsis: In 1992, Broomfield and Churchill made a film about death-row inmate Aileen Wuornos, who was convicted of killing 6 men. In that film, she claimed she had killed in self-defense to avoid being raped. Broomfield picks up the story years later in this 2003 film, as Wuornos date with the death chamber looms, and makes some discoveries that call into question both his previous beliefs about Wuornos, call into question her sanity, and the fairness of the legal system.

Story Structure: Broomfield approaches his films the way an investigative reporter might approach a story Рhe patiently visits the people involved, gets them on camera filling in details, then he follows the trail wherever it takes him next. Along the way, he shares his thoughts, questions his earlier beliefs, and generally takes you along on the filmmaking experience, so that you are (often quite literally) looking over his shoulder the whole way. Broomfield actually takes the witness stand in the trial at one point, putting himself squarely in the middle of his film in a style that has been called Les Nouvelles Egotistes. Underlying the personal approach is roughly chronological storytelling Рthe film opens with him catching you up to speed on the details of the story, his own involvement with it, and ends with the execution of Wuornos.

Cinematography: Joan Churchill operates the camera, in a cinema verite style that is unremarkable but remarkably effective. She catches Broomfield putting mic on, has the camera rolling when prison guards ask if they have any hidden cameras as they enter the prison (to which Broomfield, without missing a beat, says “just that rather large one there.”)

Editing: One thing I noticed in this film, which made it feel more like TV journalism than film, was that names were occasionally beeped out and faces obscured.

Sound and Music: There was some fairly bad audio in the film, like planes flying over during interviews and such. Again, this all combines to make the film feel like a piece of TV journalism, rather than a “film.” As the film ended, we hear a song that Wuornos requested be played at her wake. As it was being played, the camera follows one of Wuornos friends to her home in Michigan. It seems obvious that the next scene will be the wake itself, with the actual audio. But it’s not. The film just ends. Which felt like a missed opportunity to me.

I’m seriously intrigued by this approach to storytelling. I don’t think I have the presence or desire to be “on” all the time while making a film, but I’m fascinated enough that I’d like to try it on a short film just to see what happens. There’s something magical about inviting people to share your thoughts while making a film the way Broomfield does. But this early in my career, my thoughts aren’t very coherent, so I’m not sure they’d be worth sharing. Yet.

My Best Fiend | documentary 33 of 100

Against my better judgment, I am becoming a real Werner Herzog fan. Even though I find his megalomania and world view repulsive, there’s something deeply human and irresistible about his films. There’s an authenticity you don’t often find in filmmakers, a transcendent realness and willingness to invite you to share his thoughts. And I love that he makes films about the things that matter to him: in this case, Klaus Kinski, a German actor with whom Herzog made 5 films.

Synopsis: My Best Fiend is filmmaker Werner Herzog’s 1999 homage to actor Klaus Kinski who died in 1991. Herzog returns to the location of some of the films Kinski and he worked on together, and interviews actors and other people who worked with Kinski to paint a picture of a tortured genius. The film makes frequent use of clips from the films they worked on together, and details the frequent outbursts that colored their tumultuous working relationship.

Story Structure: The film is structured as a non-linear personal journey, in which Herzog makes use of archival footage, previous films, still photos and interviews to paint a portrait of Kinski in relationship with himself. In fact, the film doesn’t really tell us anything about Kinski beyond his relationship with Herzog, to the point where this film could be said to say more about Herzog than it does Kinski. Herzog and Kinski, it seems, were made for each other.

Cinematography: Straightforward style shot by single camera operator, Herzog’s dp, Peter Zeitlinger. Lots of shoulder mounted following shots during interviews, everything appearing to be naturally lit. The more memorable clips in the film cinematographically were pulls from the films Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Fitzcarraldo.

Editing: Lots of long sequences cut together simply by Herzog’s editor, Joe Bini, who uses an unobtrusive, simple cutting style to link the interviews by showing supporting film clips while Herzog’s voiceover narration carries the story. I particularly like the choice of opening – a long sequence in which Kinski is playing Jesus, and you seriously don’t know whether he’s crazy and should be handcuffed by police, or applauded for his performance. It’s also disconcerting that there are no subtitles, so you don’t even know what is going on, which of course is the point.

Music and Audio: Herzog makes frequent use of chanting vocals, and my favorite place where he does that in this film is the Machu Pichu scenes, in which he’s describing the filming on Aguirre. Interviews are recorded with visible lav mics. And in an interesting and unusual twist for Herzog, what appear to be actors are used opposite his narration to translate what the other characters are saying in many scenes. This was a little awkward and hard to follow at first, but once I figured out what was going on, it worked.

I learned a lot more Herzog trivia from watching this film: did you know, for example, that one of the crewmembers working on Fitzcaraldo saved his life by sawing off his foot with a chainsaw? He had been bitten by a deadly poisonous snake, and after realizing he would be dead very soon, he sawed off his leg, thus saving his life.

Why the Canon 550d/T2i will be my first documentary filmmaking DSLR

Big news from Canon earlier this week: They announced a new DSLR that is a bold step forward where it matters to me most: price. I’d been holding off on taking the plunge into DSLR filmmaking, because the field is moving so rapidly and I didn’t want to plunk down a couple thousand bucks on something that would be outdated in a few months. But at a retail price of just $800, Canon just removed that concern with the Canon 550d/T2i.

This new camera, which is rumored to begin shipping any day, features virtually the same video capabilities as the 7d, complete with selectable cinema framerates and a fat APS-C sensor. The result, when paired with good lenses, is dreamy shallow depth of field in a handheld camera.

Another big factor for me: This camera uses SD cards! This might not seem like a big deal, but I absolutely HATE having to plunk down the big bucks for different types of media. I already have invested in 3 SD cards that I use in my JVC HM-100, and absolutely LOVE them: they’re tiny, and hold nearly an hour of 1080p HD video per 16gb card. Sweet.

This camera allows me to join what I expect will be legions of videographers who want to take the visual quality of their work to a whole ‘nother level – without breaking the bank. This camera will allow me to put my money where it belongs – on buying great lenses.

This camera doesn’t address the issues that have kept me out of the dslr filmmaker fold previously – it still is a 35mm stills camera with video bolted on. No articulating screen, no good audio features, etc. But at this price, it doesn’t matter. A camera will come along before too long that will fix that, and let me use the glass that I’ll begin buying. I already have two very fast 35mm Nikon lenses that, with a $10 adapter I bought on Ebay, will work fantastically on this new Canon. Thanks Canon for making a game-changing product that allows me to join the DSLR filmmaking revolution.

Man With A Movie Camera | documentary 32 of 100

Can a 1929 film made in Russia have anything to teach a beginning filmmaker today? That question was on my mind today when sat down to watch Dziga Vertov’s film, Man With A Movie Camera. The mere fact that you can instant-play the film on Netflix 81 years after it’s release is a clue. This film wasn’t simply trying to show life: its stated intent, shown in brief subtitles that occur mainly at the beginning of the film, is to create a language of film, a cinema without intertitles, without scenario (story), and without actors. In short, it was an act of film rebellion, very much in keeping with the rebellion that he was part of in the fledgling Soviet Union.

Synopsis: Dziga Vertov trains his mechanical eye on ordinary life, composing a visual symphony from a series of carefully paced sequences. A woman rising, streetcars passing, carriages riding down busy streets, athletes performing, audiences watching and many more scenes are explored in slow motion, fast motion, split screen, and superimposed sequences, techniques that are still in use today. Further, he includes himself (or another cameraman) as a character in the film, as the observer and participant in modern life.

Story Structure: Basically when is film is called “experimental,” that means it doesn’t have a traditional story. What that means in this film, is that it simply shows life unfolding in a series of tightly edited sequences, which are cut to music, not unlike¬†Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka would be cut many years later. We see a range of human behavior, from waking up, to a funeral procession. An almost comedic sequence shows one couple signing a marriage contract, followed by an unhappy couple signing a divorce contract. The whole thing is strung together with numerous transportation sequences of trains, streetcars, horse-drawn carriages, and automobiles, on which the camera is sometimes mounted for tracking shots.

Cinematography: First revelation is that 1929 cameras were¬†portable! That caught me by surprise. I always thought the first cameras were huge ponderous beasts that were virtually immobile, but not so. The man with the movie camera is everywhere in this film, with his boombox-sized camera mounted on a wooden tripod, slung comfortably over his shoulder. Lots of special in-cemra effects: for example, there’s lovely fast-motion sequences of clouds moving rapidly over a bridge. There’s a special effect in which people dissolve into a scene that is empty until the person dissolves into it. The film must have been at least a little scandalous in it’s day in filming topless women in mud baths. You get the sense that the filmmaker was very confident in pursuit of his images.

Editing: Split screen technique deployed to show man with camera towering over masses of people. Freeze frame action. There’s even the most basic kind of animation in this film, in a comical sequence that shows the film camera cranking itself and dancing, spider like, on its tripod legs. There’s even a pile of dead lobsters with one animated by hand crawling that’s quite freaky. We see pictures of Vertov’s wife editing the film, which are intercut with images of sewing machines, referencing the metaphor of editor as stitching together reality. The role of the filmmaker is ever present in this film. Rapid fire image sequences are at one point intercut with a blinking eye, cut with blinds opening and closing and finally the lens of the camera with it’s iris opening and closing.

Music and Sound: This of course was a silent film, but it’s not silent in that an orchestra would perform with the films of the day. The filmmaker left notes about how the score should be performed, and the version I saw noted that these notes were followed in the production. What we see a lot is that the musical score is fast and bubbly at times, in which editing matches the score (or vice versa). Other times it slows down, and the pace of visuals matches that. There are basic sound effects – such as a pan being hit every time a machine stamps out a widget.

What I learned about filmmaking from this film is that filmmakers have been pressing the limits of what a camera could do from the very beginning. And that the more filmmaking changes, the more it stays the same. Many of the techniques that we use today go back to the very beginning of filmmaking.

The Sweetest Sound | documentary 31 of 100

Alan Berliner is a name that keeps popping up in books about documentary film that I’m reading. So I finally decided to investigate the Berliner buzz by ordering a copy of The Sweetest Sound.¬†Turns out there’s a lot to this name. Enough, in fact, to make a 60 minute documentary film. But what this film proves to me is that if you can make a film on this subject, you can make a film about anything. Whether it’s a film worth watching is less clear.

Synopsis: New York filmmaker Alan Berliner launches a personal investigation into the origins of his name with the help of his parents, people on the street, and 12 other Alan Berliners.

Story Structure: Structured as a personal essay, the film attempts to launch a story train with this line from the filmmaker: “when it comes to names, there’s no such thing as community property.” In essence, Berliner lays claim to the name and calls into question the right of other Alan Berliners to “his” name. He sets up a meeting with 12 other of them by flying them to New York and putting them up in hotel. However, there’s no specific challenge, or other “must see” reason to see what happens when the 12 of them meet. In fact, very little happens when they meet. They basically stand around talking as if they were at a Chamber of Commerce event. While it may be a flimsy story train, it is a train nevertheless, and Berliner ¬†then uses interviews with people ranging from his parents to people in the street, to explore what Alan Berliner is all about. Maybe if my name was Alan Berliner, I would care. But it’s not.

This film strikes me as being made for TV, rather than as a film, at exactly 60 minutes in length. I think it would have made a much better 30-minute TV show, than a 60-minute one. That would have allowed for him to edit out the duplicated devices that were interesting once, but not after the 3rd or 4th time.

This film reminded me a lot of Ross McElwee, reflexive filmmaking. But it isn’t nearly as interesting as Sherman’s March. It’s problem, perhaps, lies less in its approach and more in its subject: which topic do YOU think is more inherently interesting: someone’s investigation of their name, or someone trying to find a girlfriend?

Cinematography: There’s one scene in this film that I’ve never seen done before, and I think works extremely well. It’s the last one in the film. The 13 Alan Berliners are all gathered around a round table, and they are having a toast. He put the camera on a lazy susan, and spun it very carefully to follow the glass clinking as it travels all the way around the room, until it ends up on the filmmaker, at which it suddenly stops. This rocked. He used the same technique earlier in the film, as a device to whip-pan through all the guests, to stop on a specific one at the point where that person begins talking.

There are lengthy narrated sequences in which we see circa 1999 websites being clicked and searched on. Perhaps this is interesting for one reason – it shows how badly the web sucked in the years prior to Google. But it’s a tiresome device.

I liked the way he filmed the his nieces, who were swinging. He put camera in front of them on sticks, locked off, with enough depth to keep everything in focus. Works.

Simple animation of name being written works, but it’s predictable after first use, and like many of the other elements in the film, he returns to it again and again. In fact, if there’s one take-home lesson for me from this film, it’s this: Use cool effects sparingly.

Editing: It felt like a 30 minute film edited to be 60 minutes. One innovative thing: He continues narration throughout credit roll. Haven’t heard that one before.

Music and Sound: I don’t recall any music in this film. But what I DO recall, in fact what I wish I could forget, is the never-ending mouse clicking and computer keyboard pressing that this filmmaker made use of. That device was cute for about 30 seconds, but it never ends. Another nice effect: sewing machine sound effect with tombs scrolling past rapid-fire.

While this isn’t one of my favorite films, I give Berliner major props for putting himself squarely in the middle of his films. That’s always a bold move: some people (me) aren’t going to like it. But for those with im the story resonates, it can resonate big time, and Berliner has had great success in getting his films screened at major film festivals and is widely perceived to be an “artist” filmmaker, with his work being recognized with a retrospectives of his films presented at the Museum of Modern Art (NYC). But for me, I’d take a movie theater over a museum as a showcase for my work any day.