Documentary Round-Up – May 2021

Hemingway (2021)
Directed by Ken Burns & Lynne Novick

In college, I was assigned some Hemingway to read for the first time. If I remember correctly, the first piece I read was “Soldier’s Home” and then “Hills Like White Elephants.” It was explained to me by an English professor that one divided among academics & students was Hemingway vs. Faulkner. I always felt a greater affinity to Hemingway. I can’t say I read much beyond his short stories or knew much about him as a person. There was a consistent viewpoint that he was a misogynist, but I found his stories haunting & heart-aching. Two decades later, I watched this documentary and learned how complex he truly was.

If you have seen any Ken Burns doc ever, then the format and delivery of this film hold no surprises. What I found so great about the documentary was how much I learned about Hemingway that I was completely unaware of. The film is comprehensive in that it covers everything from his childhood to his death. Along the way, portions of his works are read by Jeff Daniels, who stands in as the author’s voice in letters and other pieces of writing. An element of Hemingway’s life that is central to this film is his relationships with women. He was married multiple times and certainly treated these women poorly. He wasn’t a brute so much as a flake and utterly inconsiderate of their humanity.

However, Irish writer Edna O’Brien argues that Hemingway’s relationship with women and femininity is much more complex than simply labeling him a “misogynist.” She points to stories like “Up in Michigan,” which depicts an instance of what we now call ‘date rape’ from the woman’s perspective and does so in an empathetic and painful light. O’Brien also refers to the ending of A Farewell to Arms and the brutal sadness of the protagonist, and the loss of his wife in labor. 

Even more fascinating is how during his time in Cuba, where he lived with Mary Welsh, another writer, it was reported that Hemingway would engage in gender play during intercourse. Welsh wrote that Hemingway would want to play as the woman and Mary as the man when they were in bed. The documentary also talks about Hemingway’s child Gregory who struggled with gender identity issues for their life. Sometimes Gregory would go by Gloria, but they never seemed to settle on a single gender. Coming out of this documentary, I think more questions are raised about Hemingway, and his work can be seen in a new light. He is certainly not a one-dimensional misogynist, yet he is also not a saint.

Some Kind of Heaven (2021)
Directed by Lance Oppenheim

The Boomer generation is now aging rapidly into retirement, becoming the largest generation of retirees our society will have ever seen. The Boomers are also some of the biggest consumers we’ve ever seen, and so to give them a wonderland to spend and play in, The Villages were created. The Villages are an age-restricted community in central Florida that is actually composed of 17 different retirement communities. There are activities, restaurants, and leisure all centered around people 65 and older. Sounds like a beautiful place to retire, right?

Director Lance Oppenheim pulls back the veil to show how life is not a dream for every older person living in The Villages. His subjects are Barbara, a widow; Dennis, a bachelor with a dark secret who is prowling for a rich woman; and married couple Annie & Reggie, who deal with Reggie’s mental health issues. Oppenheim delivers one of the most visually engaging and gorgeous looking documentaries I have ever seen. At specific points, it feels like you are watching a polished studio film due to the lighting and cinematography. Pair that with the fascinating stories of the people the film follows, and you won’t be able to look away.

I found myself most drawn to Barbara, who lives under a cloud of sadness. She’s not mired in self-pity, instead resigned to the way life is. After her husband died, she wanted to move back to Massachusetts but couldn’t afford it. Now, unlike many of her fellow seniors, Barbara has to work in an office in the Villages providing service for others who were luckier than her. During her time off, she tries to find social clubs that might be a good fit or trying to find a partner. She eventually reveals a brilliant talent for performance when delivering a monologue at a drama group meeting. 

She’s paralleled with Eddie, who is a grifter that preys on women with money. His great aspiration is to shack up with a rich lady and leech off of her. Meanwhile, he lives in his van and lives off of the charity he can squeeze out of people. He’ll attend church when he’s hungry enough, and they are offering food. Then Eddie worms his way back into the home of an old fling who is lonely enough to forgive him for his mistreatment for a time. The director intentionally withholds some vital info about Eddie until the end that will undoubtedly reframe him, making him an even worse person than the viewer first thought.

Annie & Reggie are a bizarre fever dream. He’s taken to consuming drugs multiple times a day, including cocaine and other harsher things. Reggie seems to be practicing his own cobbled-together version of tai chi and references vaguely Eastern medicine concepts. It really looks like he is acutely aware of his mortality and that this period of his life is the end. Much to Annie’s chagrin, he doesn’t engage in the activities and relationships she wanted to come to The Villages for. Things get much darker for the couple as the documentary progresses. Some Kind of Heaven is a true masterpiece, a perfect slice of America, showcasing many of the truths people try to hide from daily.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (2021)
Directed Marilyn Agrelo

It appears that nostalgia docs about PBS are now a permanent sub-genre. It started a decade ago with Being Elmo about puppeteer Kevin Clash, followed by I Am Big Bird, focused on Caroll Spinney. Then there was Won’t You Be My Neighbor that spotlighted Fred Rogers and now Street Gang. I’m not opposed to this trend, but I would like to move away from the Muppet-centric ones to look at other shows. How about a doc centered on The Electric Company or Zoom?

Street Gang is about how Sesame Street was created and the first fifteen years or so. The central figures in this story are Joan Ganz-Cooney, a television exec, and Jon Stone, a television director. Ganz-Cooney formed the Children’s Television Workshop to create programs aimed at Black children living in urban spaces. Stone was a television veteran who had become disenchanted with the industry and profoundly aware and wanted to become involved in the Civil Rights movement. They sound like a perfect pair, but part of the doc talks about the clashes between the two, especially Stone’s resentment for the credit Ganz-Cooney received for her development of Sesame Street. She even says that he was more of the creative force, along with Jim Henson, behind the show, and her role was more about bringing together great minds from the education/psychology world with television creators. 

My biggest problem with this documentary is how absolutely scattered it is. Sesame Street is a vast topic, and the film clocks in around an hour and a half. This means it touches for a bit on Jim Henson and then a bit on the show’s development and then a bit on the human cast members and then a little about the songwriting on the show. I think a docuseries would have been a much better fit for this story. With HBO owning Sesame Street, something I have a significant problem with, they could easily have made a 6 to 10 episode docuseries that gave us an entire hour on these elements. There could be an overarching narrative, but when a spotlight needed to be shone on Jon Stone or the songs, they would have had more time to breathe and more context to be given.

I was particularly annoyed about the absence of discussion over Will Lee. Lee played Mr. Hooper, who was a major presence in the early years of the show. He died in 1982, and the producers and writers decided to make his passing a part of an episode. They have Big Bird wanting to give Mr. Hooper a picture he drew, and the human cast members have to remind him that his friend died months ago. They shed real tears talking about the loss of their great friend, and it’s a fantastic scene. The documentary talks about that, but it never gives us any information about Will Lee. Lee was a Jewish actor who was blacklisted by HUAC in the 1950s. He was able to find work teaching at the American Theater Wing, where among his students was James Earl Jones. Eventually, he booked the role of Mr. Hooper as part of the original cast of Sesame Street and operated as a character that was Big Bird’s closest human contact. The documentary never even has his name spoken once, and that left me with a very bad taste in my mouth. Hopefully, someone is working on or will make a doc about this amazing actor and the impact he had on so many children in the 1960 & the 70s.

One thought on “Documentary Round-Up – May 2021”

  1. Pingback: May 2021 Digest

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