We close out our first volume of American documentaries with a film about making a movie in America. Today, making a decent-looking movie is not hard if you have the passion. With numerous video distribution platforms, you can likely get your film up somewhere streaming for free if you simply want people’s eyes on it. In 1999, the process was more challenging. Equipment & film were always the most expensive part of shooting a movie before the digital age took off. To get that kind of money, you would have to be a smooth talker & a hustler. Nothing better describes Mark Borchardt, an absolutely fascinating example of pure white American mediocrity. Borchardt drifts from thing to thing, often in a circular pattern, returning to unfinished fragments and adding a little more to them over time.
Since the first African people were captured, sold through European markets, and forcibly transported to “The New World,” Black bodies have been commodified by white supremacy. African people were not the first slaves, but their subjugation under the institution of chattel slavery is a defining aspect of humanity in the Western world. To pretend that it “was a long time ago,” that we live in a “post-racial world” or any other white copium is just that. It’s a complete dismissal of material facts and accurate historical analysis. Today, Black people are still seen as white commodities in capitalism’s gaze. Instead of working the fields of cotton plantations, American society works Black men as gladiator figures, tossing them in arenas to destroy their bodies and damage their brains for our entertainment. The thought of what these men will do when natural aging & physical strain catch up to them is not even contemplated by most people.
Those who gain power from the existing institutions love when art is made “highbrow” and separate from the masses. The documentaries made by the Maysles Brothers and Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA were not seen as a threat because they lingered in the art house/film festival scene. Michael Moore has always been a different creature, and the reactions from those in power show us they feel threatened by his work. Why is that?
I really feel sorry for adults who think the United States of America is good for anything. How privileged & wilfully ignorant one must be to hold onto those myths in the face of stark reality. There’s not one single moment we can pinpoint as the event when it all went to shit, just mile markers of misery along the way. One of the most significant points in the nation’s history was the election of Ronald Reagan. The American public had already been suffering an extended period of intentional governmental failure and corporate takeover of what had previously been for the public good. The ascension of Reagan and his accompanying religious right-wing zealots secured America’s final descent into Hell, a pit each successive president has made sure we’ve stayed in.
Grey Gardens (1975) Directed by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer
In Harlan County, USA, we were reminded of the recent history of the ongoing war between Labor and Capitalism. It’s easy to forget how close we are to profound historical movements and that these conflicts never ended; they merely changed shape. The Gilded Age, one of the most horrific periods for Labor, was not as far back as we like to think, and in The Maysles’ Grey Gardens, a woman born during that period is prominently featured. History doesn’t have a stopping point; one moment flows into the next and carries humanity forward, and with it comes many of the unacknowledged problems of those eras, mixing with the issues of contemporary periods. Cultural detritus lodges itself into the culture’s psyche and leads to horrors. The story of the Beales is a horror story like that, neglect and the decay of beautiful things.
Harlan County USA (1976) Directed by Barbara Kopple
Like sand, our memory of history in the United States slips so easily between our fingers that we have forgotten far more than we remember. In this way, film is an act of preservation, the attempt to secure moments in our past in a manner that words cannot. The story of the American worker is one that was ground down almost to nothing in the hands of the Reagan Administration and on into the Clinton Administration, Bush Jr, Obama, Trump, and now today. Many promising new unions are being formed, and it is clear younger people want to embrace that collective strength that is far more potent than the individualism that only leads to ruin & alienation. Barbara Kopple understands the importance of unions and who leads them, which brought her to Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1973.
Salesman (1969) Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin
Cinéma vérité is a style of documentary filmmaking. It was developed by French philosopher Edgar Morin and his equally French collaborator Jean Rouch who made movies as an anthropologist. In turn, these two gentlemen derived the idea from Kino-Pravda, a series of 23 newsreels produced in the 1920s. Kino-Pravda translated from Russian into English as “film-truth,” with the intent to capture life unstaged & unperformed, simply as it happens.
Cinéma vérité is often referred to as the “observational style” of documentary filmmaking. There are rarely staged interviews; instead, the director and/or camera operator might have a conversation with the subject, and often their portions are pared down as much as possible so that the subject is the focus of all action. The goal is that the truth of the subject is revealed through what they say, akin to talk therapy in many ways, having them go through the actions of their life, resulting in their commentary on their own actions and then the realization of the meaning of their life. Or the reverse, the subject comes to no realization, but the audience expands their understanding of the human experience through observing a person in their natural environment.
The Cannes Film Festival has kicked off this year. Many new films will be unveiled, from the Hollywood studio ones to small, independent pictures. Forty-eight years ago, the documentary Hearts & Minds debuted at Cannes. However, its distribution in the United States would be held back when a restraining order was issued by one of the interview subjects, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow. Columbia Pictures, which owned the rights, refused to distribute the film to venues. This led to director/producer Peter Davis and his colleagues being forced to buy back their own movie from Columbia. Why would so many people and institutions work so hard to prevent the public from seeing a film? Because it is a searing condemnation of America and the atrocities it committed in Vietnam.
Baraka (1992) Written by Constantine Nicholas and Genevieve Nicholas Directed by Ron Fricke
When Seth told me that his brother had selected a movie to be reviewed, I wasn’t surprised. The shocker came that he had chosen me to do it, and as the title was given, for a brief moment, I thought my brother-in-law was forcing me to watch a movie about Barack Obama because he wanted to test me.
Luckily, I was wrong, but still, a little perplexed as Seth further explained it to me. I am not a cinephile. I’m just a woman who likes what she likes.
The One and Only Dick Gregory (2021, written & directed by Andre Gaines)
Before watching this documentary, I can’t say with confidence that I knew who Dick Gregory was. I’d certainly heard the name, but beyond that, details were sparse. But, if you were like me, then Gregory was a stand-up comedian born in St. Louis. He came up in the 1960s alongside the new wave of Black American comedians like Nipsey Russell & *gag* Bill Cosby. Gregory’s breakout performance came at the Playboy Club in Chicago as a stand-in for their regular comedian. This led to gigs on popular television programs and a general acceptance by the mainstream media industry.