October 18, 2012
|Rolling Stones' Crossfire Hurricane, London Film Festival 2012|
|By NEIL McCORMICK|
Crossfire Hurricane is a highly entertaining, pungently nostalgic documentary about the career of “the world’s greatest rock and roll band”, writes Neil McCormick.
The title, lifted from Jumping Jack Flash, is a neat evocation of the fast-moving, jump-cutting style of a highly entertaining, pungently nostalgic documentary about the career of “the world’s greatest rock and roll band” (a catchphrase helpfully uttered on camera by a fan). Cramming 50 years into two hours, however, the sense is not so much of weathering terrifying winds as being swept along by surging waves. Contextualising their career with cleverly sourced archive footage, Crossfire Hurricane presents the Stones not as masters of their own destiny but as pop culture surfers battling their way through a series of storms.
In smartly conceived vignettes constructed around thrilling live performances wittily juxtaposed with other period footage, we see the Stones buffeted by the sexually explosive female hysteria of the Sixties era and a more violently aggressive male anti-establishment riotousness. The big moments and transitions are each given their own song and distinct filmic mood, carrying the viewer from the scruffy innocence of their early years in screaming theatres (where the Stones often look terrified by the frenzy of their fans) to the showbusiness swagger of their 1980s stadium incarnation, when, as Jagger observes “we’d become an institution and we hadn’t even turned 40”.
We are treated to a dreamily psychedelic take on the infamous Redland’s bust, an emotionally affecting account of the death of Brian Jones set to No Expectations and a genuinely scary depiction of their murderous free concert at Altamont, in which Charlie Watts memorably compares their Hell’s Angels security as “like asking the Nazi party to sort out the front of the auditorium”.
Time and again, we hear one or other of the Stones describe events as being out of their control. Keith Richards talks of “unstoppable momentum” and being “swept along”, Watts of “just being dragged down the river”. The more analytical Mick Jagger considers how the Stones became a personification of “the violence of the time”, like actors stepping into roles that were tailor-made for them.
Crossfire Hurricane is about as close as you could get to a Stones-eye view of the madness and glory that has surrounded them since they first stepped on stage together. If it ends anti-climactically in the stadium years, there is, at least, a kind of poignant resonance in Jagger’s off-camera acknowledgement that “you can’t be young forever”.
As you would expect from an official documentary, Crossfire Hurricane never takes a particularly critical or controversial perspective. But neither is it a whitewash, with Jagger shown snorting coke from a switchblade in the opening minutes, and the 1970s passing in a dizzying blur of drugs, drink and women, a period Jagger characterises as “an ill-disciplined, hedonistic binge”.
But all the while, beating on the soundtrack, elevating these characters above their surreal and often sordid circumstances is the music – rocking, raw, wild, shamanistically free and deeply felt.
Jagger is the one who makes the most sense of it, but it is Richards, as ever, who evokes the real spirit of the Stones, describing Midnight Rambler as a “making an opera out of the blues” and gurgling wondrously about nights when “you don’t even wanna touch the strings cos they are playing themselves. And anyway, they’re too hot.” If you are a Stones fan, this film is going to blow you away.
|NEW YORK TIMES
November 26, 2006
|Bringing a Political Trial to Animated Life|
|By JOHN ANDERSON
|OUTSIDE, along broiling Main Street in Bridgehampton, N.Y., the summer traffic flow was controlled by Land Rove≠rs and large dogs on leashes. Inside there was no traffic flow: the film director Brett Morgen and the actor Roy Scheider were jammed into a Buick-size sound booth, fashioning a vocal performance to accompany the animated sequences of Mr. Morgen's new film.
Mr. Morgen — to whom the words mad scientist have occasionally been applied — seemed to be channeling strange voices, from a strange place and time.
“ ‘Will you please identify yourself for the record?' ” he recited from a court transcript. “ ‘Of course I will, Len, my name is Abbie and I'm an orphan of America.' ‘Your honor, will the record show that it is the defendant Hoffman who has taken the stand.' ”
Picking up his cue, contempt dripping from his voice, Mr. Scheider said: “Well, it is rather important in this case. There's a Hoffman up here, and one down there. I certainly wouldn't want the jury to get confused.”
Mr. Scheider listened to the playback: “I sound like Lionel Barrymore.” But it's just what Mr. Morgen wanted: the voice of Julius Hoffman, the presiding judge at the December 1969 trial of the Chicago Eight, accused of conspiracy to commit violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. (The defendants later became the Chicago Seven, when Bobby Seale's trial was separated from the others'.)
Mr. Morgen, the co-director of the boxing film “On the Ropes” (1999) and the Robert Evans cine-memoir “The Kid Stays in the Picture” (2002), has been working on his latest documentary since 2001. In the process he has amassed what he says are 180 hours of 16-millimeter film, about 40 hours of video, 14,000 photographs, more than 200 hours of audio and a 23,000-page court transcript, and has come up with what may be a new kind of nonfiction film: a work of “experiential cinema,” as he chooses to call it, a third of which is animated.
Sitting on the oversized windowsill of his SoHo office, blowing smoke down at Spring Street, Mr. Morgen — whose film was only recently titled “Chicago 10” and chosen as the opening-night offering of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival — expanded on his plan to marry two eras.
“I didn't want the film to be a valentine to the '60s,” he said. “I didn't want to see a bunch of old men talking about how vibrant they were in their youth. I didn't think that would appeal to people in their 20s, who are the ones I think have the greatest chance of creating social change in this country. They'd be looking at their grandfathers.”
For similar reasons Mr. Morgen kept Mr. Evans off camera in “The Kid.” “I wanted,” he explained, “to preserve the integrity of him into the present tense.”
“I also wanted the new film to be playful, not overtly academic,” he added. Some of it is harrowing: Mr. Morgen's recounting of the violence, assembled from at least 50 sources of film and audio, is a galloping nightmare of mayhem. But not everything of course was preserved.
“Animation came in for a number of reasons,” he said. “There were certain moments that weren't on film, especially the trial. We needed a way to show what was happening in the courtroom. We could have done it in re- enactments, or though talking heads, or we could have had courtroom drawings panned and scanned. But I thought animation would have served as commentary on the trial; Jerry Rubin called it a ‘cartoon show,' and when I read that quote, the bells went off.”
The animation, done via the process known as motion capture (most often associated with the Tom Hanks film “The Polar Express”), is being handled by Curious Pictures, which Mr. Morgen found — after a worldwide search — a few blocks away on Lafayette Street. The precision of “mo cap,” which has a capacity of 120 frames per second compared with film's standard 24, provides a level of control directors previously could only dream of.
“Traditionally the director has been at the mercy of the person who's drawing,” Mr. Morgen said. “Once you'd communicated what the action was supposed to be, it was really in the hands of the animator. Now, as the director, I get to control whether I want the eyebrow to go up, if I want it to go down, if I want the hand to go here, the hand to go there. So it's allowed me total control over performance.”
Diane Weyermann, former director of the documentary program at the Sundance Institute and now executive vice president for documentary production at Participant Productions (“Good Night, and Good Luck,” “An Inconvenient Truth”), which is backing the film in partnership with River Road Entertainment, described Mr. Morgen's film as “utterly contemporary,” which is the quality that attracted the two companies' financial support.
“Our goal is to be the leading provider of entertainment that inspires and compels social change,” said Participant's president, Ricky Strauss. “And for many years the events surrounding the Democratic convention in 1968, and the way they helped change the way Americans felt about the government, were synonymous with social change. How the country was being run, and the way the media portrayed it, is all very relevant today.”
|River Road's president, William M. Pohlad, said his involvement began during the 2004 presidential election. “We wanted to get people more active, not just in regard to that election, because the film would not nearly have come out in time,” he said. “But as interesting as it was at the time from a political standpoint, or a social standpoint, it was exciting creatively. Doing a film that was using archival footage as well as animation was exciting to me.”
Mr. Morgen said he originally thought that if he could not finish the film by 2004, it would have been “completely irrelevant.” Yet the echoes of the '60s persist: An unpopular war. Wiretaps without court orders. A government mired in constitutional questions. All were aspects of the Nixon years, and all are among the reasons Mr. Morgen has been making a film that found its title only a day or so before the Sundance announcement.
“Chicago 10” is to be only the second opening-night documentary in the festival's history (“Riding Giants,” about surfing, was the first, in 2004). It is also one of the few films that will arrive without distribution in place. It will not be shown to buyers before Jan. 18, all but ensuring that a bidding war will break out on the streets and slopes of Park City, Utah.
The new title refers to the eight original defendants, as well as the defense lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass. In the summer, Mr. Morgen had said, perfectly seriously, that he was “leaning toward calling it ‘C7: The Story of the Chicago Eight,' ” adding, “It was going to be ‘C7,' but you can't very well use that because of Bobby Seale.”
Mr. Seale, a founder of the Black Panthers, was one of the original defendants, the others being Mr. Rubin, Mr. Hoffman, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines and Lee Weiner, all prominent leaders of the antiwar movement. They were indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to commit violence at what many would come to call the “police riot” at the Democratic convention. Sketches of an unruly Mr. Seale, bound and gagged in Judge Hoffman's courtroom before his trial was separated, were perhaps the most disturbing and resonant images from the proceedings. All were convicted.
Mr. Morgen, who was born in October 1968, said his perspective would be the same as most of his audience's.
“The way I see it,” he said, “unless you were over 10 at the time, you really didn't experience it, so anyone under the age of 50 in America has only the slightest knowledge of it, and most people under 30 haven't even heard of what happened. When I started making this film, my idea was to make it for people who didn't know what had happened.”
Of the principals who became involved with the proceedings, both inside and outside the courtroom, the most colorful turned out to be Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman, who are both being voiced by Hank Azaria, the first professional actor Mr. Morgen approached.
“Brett said, ‘Whatever you can help me out with,' ” Mr. Azaria said. “ ‘Pick a voice. If you can do Abbie, great.' And I said, ‘I think I can get Abbie and Ginsberg,' so those are the two I did.”
Other cast members include Liev Schreiber (as Mr. Kunstler), Jeffrey Wright (Mr. Seale), Mark Ruffalo (Mr. Rubin), Nick Nolte (the prosecutor Thomas Foran), Dylan Baker (Mr. Dellinger), Mr. Scheider and Mr. Weinglass, the veteran civil rights lawyer.
“Early on,” Mr. Morgen said, “I was like, ‘O.K., I'll use real voices wherever possible.' ” Speaking of Mr. Hayden and Mr. Hoffman, he added: “I talked to Tom about voicing himself, but he didn't talk that much during the trial. Then I was having a really hard time casting Abbie. We had to talk to his son for something, and we got on the phone with him and were like ‘God, he sounds just like Abbie,' so we flew him to New York to do a recording. And he does sound identical to Abbie. But once again, he's not an actor. So I figured it wasn't going to work. Len Weinglass was the one exception. But he had limited lines.”
Mr. Weinglass, reached at his New York office, said the filmmakers were detail-oriented. After he did his recording session, he said: “They were very interested in talking to me about the trial and various aspects they wanted to flesh out. Did the undercover police officers appear in police uniform? Or did they appear in civilian dress? They want to present the case as accurately as possible. Of all the projects I've had a part in, they are the most fastidious in terms of detail.”
Mr. Weinglass said that he does a fair amount of speaking on college campuses and law schools, and that whenever he does, the introduction tends to focus on the Chicago trial.
“I look out at the audience, and am not sure they're getting it,” he said. “The faculty member or the dean remembers, but I'm not sure about the others. But the trial of the Chicago Eight was the quintessential political trial. And I think it has resonance, especially today.”
Correction: December 10, 2006
An article on Nov. 26 about a forthcoming documentary on the trial of the Chicago Seven, the protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention who were accused of rioting and conspiracy, misstated the verdicts. All seven of the defendants were acquitted of conspiracy, and two, John Froines and Lee Weiner, were also acquitted of violating the Federal Antiriot Act. They were not all convicted. (The remaining five were found guilty of crossing state lines with the intent to incite riots, convictions that were overturned on appeal.)
|THE WASHINGTON POST
Friday, February 29, 2008
|'Chicago 10': Right On
A Brilliant Depiction Of Events That Turned America on Its Head
|By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
|Ding-dong, the dumps are done: After a slew of awful late-winter studio releases, the first great film of 2008 has arrived. "Chicago 10," Brett Morgen's bold, ambitious and improbably affecting documentary about the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the trial that followed, not only brings to life one of the sorriest chapters in American cultural and political history; thanks to Morgen's adroit manipulation of the cinematic medium, "Chicago 10" feels like a brand-new kind of film, and one that's every bit as inspiring, exhilarating and contradictory as the events it depicts.
A spirited and densely layered collage of animation, archival footage and ingeniously anachronistic music, "Chicago 10" stars the voices of Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo and Jeffrey Wright. They play Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale, who with five other activists were arrested on conspiracy charges during the convention, when violence broke out between antiwar demonstrators and Chicago police (by way of Mayor Richard J. Daley's thuggish machine).
"Chicago 10" takes viewers back to the beginnings of the demonstrations, which came on the heels of the Tet Offensive, troop escalations and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Led by Yippie founders Hoffman and Rubin, as well as the more clean-cut members of the Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), thousands of "Yippies, hippies and just plain kids" descended on Chicago that August to protest Democratic Party establishmentarians and the brand of militaristic capitalism they represented.
As portrayed in "Chicago 10," the activists were spoiling for a fight, but not half as much as Daley, who ordered out the Illinois Army National Guard as well as his own blue-helmeted police department to push back against the demonstrators. The result, over the four days of the convention, was what many observers saw as a full-blown police riot, a bloody scene of mayhem and bloodshed that came to symbolize the most violent generational and political ruptures of America in that pivotal year.
Morgen, whose last documentary was "The Kid Stays in the Picture," does a breathtaking job of plunging viewers straight into the action, combing reams of stock footage to create a riveting tick-tock of the demonstrations. But what elevates "Chicago 10" from a good documentary to a great film are two strokes of brilliance. The first is Morgen's use of animation to represent the ensuing conspiracy trial, which comes improbably to life through the use of motion-capture animation, wherein the movements of human actors are digitally recorded, then turned into animated characters. (The script is taken verbatim from court transcripts.)
Rubin called the trial a cartoon, and as Morgen cuts between scenes on the street in 1968 and scenes in the courtroom in 1969, it's clear that both were stages for agitprop mischief. It comes across as an almost Oedipal struggle between the Daddy State and its most disobedient sons. Within the first few minutes of "Chicago 10," the animated characters of the trial have become vivid, full-blooded people, from the notoriously erratic Judge Julius Hoffman (voiced by the late Roy Scheider, in a fittingly memorable performance) to the embattled Bobby Seale, whom Hoffman had bound, gagged and chained.
|Although the defendants were known as the Chicago 8 (and then the Chicago 7 after Seale was severed from the case), Morgen's title includes their attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, because of their significant roles in the courtroom drama; the two were later imprisoned on contempt charges. (Kunstler is voiced by Liev Schreiber and Weinglass voices himself). Reanimated by Morgen, these outsize characters play their parts in a narrative that is by turns appalling and amusing. A recurring note of gently comic relief appears throughout "Chicago 10" in the figure of beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who at one hilarious point chants "Om" as Kunstler and the judge engage in one of several shouting matches.
During the film's most grievous passage, Morgen intercuts the sequence of Seale being silenced with graphic scenes of police brutality the year before, which reached its apotheosis when demonstrators tried to march from Grant Park to the amphitheater where the convention was being held. And this is where Morgen's second stroke of brilliance comes most movingly into play, as protester David Dellinger and the marchers behind him are greeted with billy clubs and tear gas -- accompanied not by the standard "For What It's Worth" or "We Shall Overcome," but by Eminem's anthemic rap "Mosh." Throughout "Chicago 10," Morgen uses such relatively contemporary artists as the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine as a musical setting for archival footage, giving the film not just aesthetic sophistication and verve, but a sense of relevance that is no less urgent for being understated.
As the trial dragged on, Hoffman, Rubin and the others became known as "rock stars"; when Hoffman compares his fame to "La Dolce Vita" he doesn't even know how to pronounce "paparazzi." If Morgen's sympathies are clearly on the side of the Yippies and hippies, his portrait doesn't succumb to complete hagiography: He's created a new movement myth, one that takes into account the Left's self-indulgence, its sexism, its leaders' canny manipulation of their growing fame, but that firmly puts Daley and the Chicago police on the side of repression and injustice.
One of the film's most haunting images is of a young man being beaten for climbing a statue in Lincoln Park, a scene that recalls Tiananmen Square in its stark symbolism. The whole world was watching, then. Refusing to wallow in boomer nostalgia or impotent recrimination, "Chicago 10" instead has the artistic and political audacity to confront filmgoers with a far more timely and essential question: Who's watching now?
Chicago 10 (100 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for profanity and brief sexual images.
|NEW YORK TIMES
July 26, 2002
|A Fallen Movie Maestro, Still Addicted to Himself|
|By ELVIS MITCHELL|
|"I think that from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued," George Orwell theorized in his essay "Why I Write." Robert Evans -- a failed actor and fashion executive who went on to run Paramount Pictures when the studio released a storied cluster of hits like "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Godfather" -- does not specifically iterate Orwell's sentiment in his ribald trench of an autobiography, "The Kid Stays in the Picture." But both the book and the film version of "Kid," from the directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, flow from similar motivations.
Mr. Evans's story of sauntering into the right place at the right time and still feeling underappreciated is the focus of this movie, in which he serves as star, subject and unreliable narrator. His husky-voiced murmur drunk with self-love and self-loathing has become the basis of one of the funniest, and most telling, films of the year. The filmmakers call "Kid" a documentary, but the movie is one of the unusual kind that is firmly lodged inside the subject's perspective. We expect documentaries to expose a kind of truth, but sometimes they don't, and this may be the first one built entirely around delusion.
"There are three sides to every story: my side, your side and the truth," Mr. Evans intones, acknowledging his subjective take. But despite -- or perhaps because of -- his skewed viewpoint, this film succeeds. "Kid" travels through Mr. Evans's unmediated illusions from his days as a young actor (the clip from the trailer of his horror western, "The Fiend Who Stalked the West," is hilarious) to his sojourn as a studio chief and as a producer who was responsible for "Chinatown."
When he revived the flagging fortunes of Paramount in the 1970's, Mr. Evans incarnated the image of the "Man Who Reads Playboy," womanizing, glorifying his richly shallow existence and unashamedly turning his life into bio-fodder. He's seen with a series of dazzling women on his arm at lavish social events, while his from-the-book narration insists that he wasn't much of a party boy.
When the film takes a tour of Mr. Evans's dark days after his cocaine binges, you realize that he was -- and is -- a man incapable of self-reflection. It is nearly stupefying to watch him congratulate himself on producing a court-enforced public-service anti-drug special, the all-elbows and tone-deaf forerunner of "We Are the World."
But eventually the one-sided perspective the picture poses becomes a little wearying, as does Mr. Evans's muggy volubility. By the end, after listening to his single-note approach to the story of the making of "The Cotton Club" -- involving drugs and murder -- we've earned a treat. And "Kid" offers us one, in the form of a 1976 film clip of Dustin Hoffman, impersonating Mr. Evans. Mr. Hoffman used the producer's trademark self-absorbed rambling mumble twice -- in Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog" and in "Dick Tracy," in which he played, well, Mumbles.
The documentary was inspired by Mr. Evans's infamous audiotape version of the book. The audio-book, featuring a muttered tough-guy reading by its author, was a huge hit with cocktail-lounge dandies who found themselves imitating Mr. Evans all over Los Angeles. (When it was released, the audio of "Kid" was a popular Christmas gift in the film industry.)
"Kid" -- which opens today in New York, Los Angeles and Irvine, Calif. -- is remarkable because it details the story of the first man to run a Hollywood studio who himself was shaped by the movies. Mr. Evans's story is full of its author working to recreate, in his own life, the glamour that attracted him to the movies and struggling to instill a form of that glamour in an era -- the 1970's -- when movies had outgrown it.
|The filmmakers use clips, photographs and montages instead of relying on a series of interviews with anyone except the protagonist. For one thing, interviews with the people Mr. Evans mentions would produce contradictions; they'd be at odds with his highly subjective version of events.
And that would detract from the world Mr. Evans carefully constructed for himself. Mr. Evans documented everything in his life, and Mr. Morgen and Ms. Burstein use the film he obsessively kept to contrast with his absurd claims. Amazingly, a man who's so meticulous about photos of his life is unable to see what they reveal. "Kid" provides Mr. Evans's family album -- a disconnect from his vocal on-screen preening -- instead of offering the observations we've come to expect from "Biography" and "Behind the Music."
In the images, we get to watch Mr. Evans remake himself into a film ingÃ©nue, a passive raven-eyed beauty who let people seek him out and use his native wiliness to charm them. "Kid" lets us watch Mr. Evans search for a father figure in men like Henry Kissinger, the bellicose Charles Bludhorn (the two-fisted, bilious industrialist who hired Mr. Evans to run Paramount) and an all-powerful lawyer whom Mr. Evans paints as a real-life Godfather. Mr. Evans must have been the only person in 70's Hollywood not to make any conclusions about Mr. Kissinger's politics -- perhaps the funniest thing about the whole film.
"Kid" is a visit to a self-promoting Camp site. Mr. Evans himself, now 72, is like an aging version of Austin Powers, or Captain America, a living anachronism with a mission. Touchingly, he is really devoted to the making of movies, his saving grace, and, even more touchingly, he sacrificed himself to his love -- and his lifestyle. The movie's departure from standard documentary filmmaking is much like Mr. Morgen and Ms. Burstein's previous "On the Ropes," a look at lives intersecting at a boxing gym that started off as a journal and became a piece of journalism.
"Kid" was originally intended to be a special DVD included in issues of Vanity Fair, but the producer Graydon Carter, also the magazine's editor, and the directors realized this was too expensive a proposition. The movie serves as a renunciation of the What-Makes-You-So-Fabulous celebrity cover articles that serve as Vanity Fair's specialty. Obviously, Mr. Evans would never catch on to such a fact.
"The Kid Stays in the Picture" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for the strong language Mr. Evans uses.
THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE
Directed by Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein; written by Mr. Morgen, based on the book by Robert Evans; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by Jun Diaz; music by Jeff Danna; produced by Mr. Morgen, Ms. Burstein and Graydon Carter; released by USA Films. Running time: 93 minutes. This film is rated R.
WITH: Robert Evans.
© 2012 The New York Times Company
|All The Rage|
|By Bennett Miller|
The Bed-Stuy Boxing Center in Brooklyn is the dramatic setting for On the Ropes, Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen's transfixing digital video tale of four individuals whose life hopes are pinned on boxing. Bennett Miller (The Cruise) speaks with the directors about their dramatic approach to making documentaries.
Trainer Harry Keitt
Brett Morgen: This whole video-to-film thing raises so many issues.
Bennett Miller: Like what?
Morgen: Like, will there be more bad films now?
Nanette Burstein: I think it's a combination. Basically, the technology makes filmmaking more accessible to everyone. The downside is that the IFFM [Independent Feature Film Market], which is already a nightmare, is going to be purgatory because everyone is going to make a film. But at the same time, people who do have a vision, first-time filmmakers who wouldn't be able to get money but have a really interesting story to tell, can just go out and do it. And they can capture a certain intimacy that's harder to capture with film.
Morgen: It's ironic, though, because people are all talking about the digital video revolution the same way they were talking about cinema verité in 1960. Somewhere along the line, Kodak screwed it up for all of us with the high cost of film because you can shoot on film stocks with the same amount of light needed for video. I got into an argument with someone who said, "Well, I shoot on video because I don't need a lot of light." Have you seen the new film stocks? You don't need a lot of light!
Miller: Frankly, I'm sick of all this digital talk.
Morgen: Bennett Miller is the godfather of the digital revolution!
Miller: Blah, blah, blah. So, what was it that originally compelled you to to make On the Ropes?
Burstein: I was actually training at the boxing gym, and Harry was my trainer. I got to know him really well, and I thought he was a really fascinating person. And then I got to know Tyrene. I went to her house and saw the situation she lived in, and how much she wanted to get out. That whole scene at the gym... these people had dreams but they had every obstacle against them. That was something I really wanted to capture.
Miller: For me, On the Ropes is a great documentary because it allowed me to enter a world I knew only by reputation and discover a humanity within it. We see these people deeply enough so that we care. I became emotionally invested and was able to identify with these people whose lives are very different from my own.
Morgen: This isn't a ghetto film or an inner-city film. It's a film about the human spirit. It's a film about betrayal, dignity, and redemption. It deals with a lot of universal themes. In the story of the trainer, Harry Keitt, there are elements that are totally Shakespearean, and I think that's what really grabs people.
Burstein: Also, [in On the Ropes] you're watching these people go through these dramas. The film is not just interviews in which people are telling you what they're about. Much of it is verité-style, and yet there's a three-act structure – a beginning, middle and end.
Miller: Do you think this film represents any sort of departure from traditional documentaries?
Morgen: Aesthetically, I think our film is almost too traditional. This is a film that definitely pays homage to our forefathers, those who inspired us.
Burstein: It's very traditional in the way it was shot. I think one thing that sets us apart from other documentary filmmakers is that we are completely conscious of the three-act structure. Shooting the film, we would say, "Okay, we're in the second act now, and we have to make sure we shoot this and this and this. And how is the third act going to unfold?" I don't know if most people think of making documentaries that way. Certainly not in the verité films of the '70s.
Morgen: The scene where Harry returns from the gym illustrates our directing sensibilities. We tried to be present for all the action in the film because we didn't want any talking head interviews or any exposition. We wanted everything to be in the present tense. Except, the moment Harry got fired, we weren't there. We were on a plane to New York. Our whole narrative was leading up to this moment, and we weren't there to capture it. So how do we present this scene? We came up with the idea of having him open the gym. So if you want to talk about the idea of staging, yes, we had to get inside the gym before Harry opened it up and put our camera there. And we specifically talked about shooting it primarily in silhouettes. We thought it should be very moody. We talked to Harry and sort of directed him, to the point of making sure mentally he was where we were with the scene. We basically storyboarded that scene.
Miller: But at the same time, when you embark on a film like this, you can't really know precisely what's going to come out or what you're going to get.
Morgen: We knew the first two acts. With Harry and George, we knew that we were going to follow that relationship. And we're thinking, are things going to fall apart? What are we filming? You have to have an angle and a point of view. We had a really strong idea about what the first two acts of the film would be, but we had no idea what the third act would be, where the stories would end. The thing is, you don't know when you set out, but I think you should have a map as to where you want to go. When we make documentary films, I don't feel that we're just passive observers floating down the stream with the characters. You have an idea of where you want to go and you make sure you get there.
Miller: At the same time, do you feel in any way that the movie revealed itself to you in the process of its making in a way that you didn't expect?
Burstein: I don't think it did, no.
Morgen: I don't think so. Our first treatment before we began production is very close to what the final film is. I think it's foolish to go into production with a subject and not know where you want to take it. A lot of people think you can just go in and collect footage. I look at someone like Todd Phillips, who I think is doing some of the best work – although, I guess we lost him to Hollywood – but you look at Frathouse, and that film is fucking directed. And what's great about that film is that it's directed. If you watch a lot of television documentaries, there's a producing credit but no directing credit. I think that documentaries are not directed enough.
Miller: Brett, didn't you just tell me you weren't the trailblazing type?
Morgen: No, we are trailblazers. There are two elements that I think we employ that actually are fresh to the genre. I think the score by Teddy Shapiro and Web Dee is very cohesive. It creates punctuation points and underlines the action along the way. And it doesn't just go underneath, it sits on top a lot of the time. And in our mix, there were a lot of scenes where we would actually raise the music above the dialogue, where Teddy was telling a story, creating the emotional vibe of this film. That's been done in a lot of documentaries, I'm not going to sit here and say we are the first documentary to employ music. But when you think of the purity of cinema verité, they certainly didn't employ a score the way we did. I know Brother's Keeper and Hoop Dreams did.
Miller: With regard to the concept of directing documentaries, you chose to keep the focus on the human beings — their struggles — and not simply the "issues" their lives might represent to some people. To me that's the mark of a documentary director even more than the aesthetic control you exercised. This could have very easily become a political film, but you took it much deeper than that. Of course, the film does have political undertones but they are the by-product of human dramas and not the bottom line. And on top of all that, it's also entertaining.
Morgen: That's funny, because I always tell people that we set out to make a really entertaining film, and it became a social issue documentary by accident.
Burstein: We didn't have a political agenda at all. We were just interested in the subjects because of who they were and what they were going through. The universal truths that came up could have been in any situation. We could just have easily have gone and filmed in a small town in Texas in a high school.
Miller: I think it's the admission of some of the less venerable qualities of some of these characters that generates compassion for them and an understanding of their situation.
Morgen: I think the film ultimately has a nihilistic sensibility to it. Harry wants to climb out of the gutter so bad, but at the end of the film he's back where he was at the beginning. He's not really any closer to achieving his dreams.
Burstein: For us, it was very conscious in our minds that we wanted to entertain people with this film. I think our future projects will probably not take on such serious subject matter.
Morgen: We grew up on Barbara Koppel and Fred Wiseman and Pennebaker and those guys, and we have total respect for their work. But I think that we would like to take documentary to a place where you don't realize you are watching a documentary. Where when you stop and think that it's a documentary, then it makes it that much more powerful. You realize, "Oh shit, it's real people." I want to get to a place that's like a Cassavetes film, where it's got this honesty to it but with a dramatic narrative. Nine out of ten times if I'm going to go to a movie, I go to see a Hollywood movie, just because I like entertainment. And I'd like to make non-fiction films that are more entertaining. And where this departs from our predecessors is that most of the great filmmakers had political agendas. The stuff we are developing is, not to say it's shallow, but it's going further away from the political and closer to the emotional. It's funny, because Nanette and I disagree stylistically. I'm much more heavy handed in my approach than she is. I'm into employing a lot of slo-mos and hyper-stylization, which is something I started in Ollie's Army. Todd did that in Frathouse. Frathouse to me was the greatest American film in the last couple of years, documentary or otherwise. Todd introduced you to a world you've never been into, and it's horrific and hilarious at the same time. And it's totally hyper-stylized. Aesthetically, he packaged it in a way that is like camp. You're laughing your head off, it's totally entertaining, and yet at the end of the day you learn something about this culture. It achieved everything that I think documentary should. And furthermore, to comment on the controversy surrounding it, whatever he had to do to achieve it, in my mind, is fine.
Miller: It just gets back to the question of truth.
Burstein: There is no truth in documentary as soon as you put a camera in the room.
Morgen: I disagree with both of you. There is a truth. Truth exists in all art, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, and it's "Does this scene feel honest to me?" You know, Brecht and Godard aside, when I see a Hollywood film, the moment that I start to feel that it's manipulative or forced, or something doesn't feel real or authentic, that's where the film collapses.
Miller: Also true.
Burstein: It's all about your definition of truth. Todd was still going for a truth. It's still honest what he's saying.
Morgen: A film like 20 Dates, which is this pseudo-documentary, held no truth for me. I just felt that everything was manipulated, and as a result I was lost in the sauce from the second the film began. I didn't trust the filmmaker, I did not trust what he was doing to me. In both documentary and fiction, when you start to feel manipulated, then the walls start to come down. So what's so upsetting about the controversy around Frathouse is that the same people who praised that film are now tearing it down. And, yes, I can't tell a story about a Nicaraguan drug dealer and have you play the drug dealer and sell it as the truth. But ultimately, when those people saw it at Sundance, they dug that film and it resonated with them. And I don't understand why that should be any different at this point. If I found out that Speed Levitch really wasn't a tour bus guide, it wouldn't matter. I wouldn't care. The Cruise is still a great film.
Miller: For the record, he was a real tour bus guide! What's really funny to me are these little debates I would learn about that cropped up in places like Seattle and Minneapolis — little rumors that Speed wasn't real but an actor, or something. I suppose I agree with you that it doesn't really matter that much what the "truth" is. But again, for the record, Speed Levitch was real.
Dec 17, 1999
|By Roger Ebert|
|On The Ropes
Release Date: 1999
Ebert Rating: ****
"On the Ropes" tells the true stories of three young boxers. One of them is sent to prison, although she is apparently innocent. We watch as she is represented by an incompetent lawyer, crucified by uncaring prosecutors and sentenced by a judge who exhibits the worst kind of barbarism: indifference to those whose lives he has power over.
The most amazing thing about the trial and conviction of Tyrene Manson is not that it happened. Justice miscarries all the time in America, frequently when poor black defendants are involved. The new movie "Hurricane" tells the true story of a boxer much more famous than Manson, who was railroaded for life on three fabricated murder convictions.
No, what is amazing is that the lawyer, the prosecutors and the judge allowed themselves to be filmed as they toyed recklessly with Tyrene Manson's life. You'd think that even the most indifferent of jurists would be on good behavior before the camera. Perhaps the camera itself explains their lack of prudence. "On the Ropes" was filmed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen with a low-tech Sony Handycam; its subjects might not have expected a real movie to result. But it did and won the Special Jury Award at Sundance. Now they know.
"On the Ropes" is a sports documentary as gripping, in a different way, as "Hoop Dreams." Both films are about ambitious young people from the ghetto who see sports as a road out of poverty. "On the Ropes" centers on the New Bed-Stuy Gym in New York, where a wise trainer, himself a survivor of hard times, guides the careers of three boxers.
The trainer's name is Harry Keitt, and his story also will figure here. The boxers are Tyrene Manson, a young Golden Gloves contender who has already knocked out the defending champion; George Walton, who seems to have genuine professional potential, and Noel Santiago, who is quick and promising, but easily discouraged. As they prepare for upcoming fights, we learn something of their stories.
Tyrene Manson's is the most inspiring--and therefore most heartbreaking. She is determined to be "the first member of my family to make something of myself." Trapped in poverty, she lives in a house with assorted other family members and is raising two nieces who belong to her Uncle Randy, described in the movie as a crackhead. During her training for the Golden Gloves, disaster strikes when Randy is arrested for selling drugs to undercover police. They search the house, find cocaine in a bedroom and charge Tyrene with possession with intent to sell.
|Now pause a moment for Tyrene's story, which is more than the court did. She is a woman with no previous history of drug crimes. She does not use drugs. Five people shared that bedroom as their sleeping quarters. There was no lock on the door. She had been trying desperately to find other houses for herself and her nieces, to get them away from the crackhead and his life. Why was she the one charged? Because she was there.
Now follow the progress of the court case. Because her court-appointed attorney forgets a key appointment, Manson's trial is rescheduled for four days before the Golden Gloves. She asks for a postponement so she can fight. Request denied. On the very day of her fight, she is sentenced to four and a half to nine years, after a "trial" that is an incompetent assembly-line procedure. One wonders if the judge even really saw her. Certainly he took no notice of her story. Her lawyer is so inept we want to shout obvious suggestions from the audience. Her tearful speech in her own defense does her no good.
The message is clear: The drug epidemic is so widespread and the courts so overburdened and cynical that a defendant without a competent lawyer is more or less routinely doomed to be locked up. In this case, the evidence suggests that Tyrene Manson was innocent. But to be cynical, even if she were guilty, if she had been white, rich, or well-represented, she would never have done a day, because of the tainted evidence trail.
There is more heartbreak in the film. We watch as George Walton shows such promise that he gets a shot at the big time and promptly allows himself to be fast-talked by Vegas types, while hard-working Harry Keitt gets left behind. We see how hard Harry works to help Noel Santiago find direction in his life. We learn something about Harry himself, his own past history of drug problems, his homelessness and how the gym represents his own comeback. And we see the almost unimaginable disappointments he has to bear.
In a few weeks, I will be reviewing "Hurricane," another powerful film about a black boxer who did not deserve to go to prison. It contains an intense, furious performance by Denzel Washington--Oscar material. If he wins the Academy Award, I can suggest a three-word acceptance speech: "Free Tyrene Manson."
Cast & Credits
A Documentary Featuring Boxers Tyrene Manson, George Walton, Noel Santiago, Trainer Harry Keitt, Manager Mickey Marcello And Randy Little. Produced And Directed By Nanette Burstein And Brett Morgen. Running Time: 90 Minutes. No MPAA Rating (For Mature Audiences; Some Language, Drug Jargon).
June 16, 2010
|June 17, 1994|
|By Noel Murray|
|As solid as the 30 For 30 series has been thus far, often the documentary filmmaking itself has been either distractingly quirky or merely functional, with the subject matter determining the success of an episode more than whoever's putting it all together. Despite that, 30 For 30 has been responsible for two of my favorite documentaries of the year so far (and this has been a hell of a year for docs). First came Steve James’ No Crossover: The Trial Of Allen Iverson, which deals smartly with race, justice, and cultural bias; and now Brett Morgen’s June 17, 1994, which is as exciting and playful a piece of media analysis as anything I’ve experienced since Negativland’s cola wars deconstruction Dispepsi.
So what’s the big deal about June 17th, 1994? Well, it was the day that Arnold Palmer played his last round ever at the U.S. Open, the day that the World Cup opened in Chicago, the day the Rangers celebrated winning the Stanley Cup, the day the Knicks played Game Five of the NBA finals against the Houston Rockets, the day Ken Griffey Jr. tied Babe Ruth for the most home runs hit before June 30th, and—oh yeah—the day O.J. Simpson was charged with double homicide and fled through the streets of Los Angeles in a white Bronco. The Simpson story dominated the day, though the major networks and ESPN covered everything else that was going on as well, while jumping back to L.A. for frequent updates. For June 17, 1994 Morgen starts in the morning and rolls forward, showing how the various stories piled up on top of each other and even commented on each other.
Actually, Morgen starts even earlier, with Simpson’s speech at the Pro Football Hall Of Fame induction ceremony in 1985, where he thanked his new wife Nicole for helping him adjust to life after football. Then Morgen lays the groundwork for the significance of the various stories in a quick-cut montage of soundbites from the Simpson murder case, the Rangers’ run through the NHL playoffs, and so on, ending with a barrage of sports and news anchors on June 16th saying what’s going to happen “tomorrow.” But of course they have no real idea. The parade? Yes. Palmer’s farewell? Yes. World Cup and NBA playoffs? Sure. But Simpson’s bizarre fugitive run? No one could’ve predicted that.
Really it’s misleading of me to refer to the opening of June 17, 1994 as a “montage,” because the whole episode is one long montage. Morgen uses no voice-over narration, no new talking-head interviews, and only a few on-screen titles (mostly at the beginning and end). Instead, he cuts together short snippets from the day’s various broadcasts, including footage from the pre-air feeds when reporters were primping and cracking jokes. He also pulls up pieces of old commercials and interviews to show how the media narrative on the likes of Simpson and Palmer (and even the Rangers and the Knicks) had been shaped prior to 1994.
Morgen has a lot of points to make here: about the banality and ineptitude of the 24-hour news media; about the inadvertent ironies of everyday life; and about how aspects of our shared cultural history may get lost in our memory but stored (haphazardly) in our archives. But the absence of narration or reflective commentary means that Morgen doesn’t overplay his hand. Some of his edits are meant to provoke a clear response, as when he cuts from Angelenos cheering on O.J.‘s Bronco from the side of the freeway to New Yorkers cheering at the Rangers parade to a little kid in the crowd saying that now that the Rangers have won the cup “I can die in peace” to the LAPD on the phone urging Simpson not to kill himself. That sequence—which lasts less than a minute—is funny and chilling in equal measure, and a clever commentary on the madness of crowds. But Morgen doesn’t make that commentary directly; June 17, 1994 is more like a piece of music, manipulating the audience’s emotions but ultimately leaving us alone to have our own personal response to the composition.
Myself, I had multiple responses. I was surprised by how much I’d forgotten about the Bronco chase; I didn’t remember Simpson’s quasi-suicide letter, read to the media by his friend Robert Kardashian (!), and I’d forgotten about Bronco-driver Al Cowling’s dramatic call to the police, beginning with, “This is A.C.… you know who I am!” Also, given my usual presumption that the quality of news and sports media has declined precipitously over the last 10 years, I was surprised (not unpleasantly, actually) to realize that things were already plenty lousy in 1994, judging by the way reporters leapt onto the air with misinformation and space-filling hype. (One network has a psychologist analyzing Simpson’s farewell letter to offer an opinion about his guilt or innocence. There’s some hard news for you.)
The cleverest conceit of June 17 is the use of footage collected on the day but largely unseen, like the pre-broadcast feeds and material captured by the cops. Some of it is just fascinating for its rarity, as is the case with the shots from the Los Angeles News Service chopper just before it picked up the Bronco, or the tapes of the LAPD negotiator bargaining with Cowling and Simpson. And some of it serves a larger purpose in the documentary, as is the case with the footage of Bob Costas trying to figure out the best way to integrate Simpson coverage into his NBA hosting duties.
|For me though, the most stunning passage in the whole documentary involves the Griffey home run. Mariners play-by-play man Chip Carey catches viewers up on the latest O.J. Simpson news—namely that he’d just issued what sounded like a suicide note—and then blithely segues to Griffey, who promptly homers. Carey makes the comparison to Ruth, steering the story in its expected direction, establishing this moment as one step on the road to a potentially historic season for Griffey. What Carey doesn’t know, though, is that in two months, the Major League Baseball Players Association will go on strike, canceling the World Series and ending Griffey’s run. And so the narrative will shift again, no matter how much the media tries to stay out in front of it.
June 17, 1994 is structured like a day of television as experienced by a restless channel-surfer, and yet it becomes about the different ways the media tries to hold our attention and keep our hands off the clicker, by making every moment into something we can’t afford to miss. That approach to storytelling is summed up by a reporter outside the Simpson estate, arrogantly wasting the nation’s time by muttering into his microphone, “It looks like something… is going to happen… right now.”
-Ordinarily I’d post this review after the episode airs, but since there’s no real way to spoil a documentary like this, and since I want to make sure people are aware of how good June 17, 1994 is, I’m posting early. 30 For 30 airs tonight at 10 p.m. eastern and will be repeated multiple times in the weeks to come. Please watch.
-If I see historical footage of the Knicks in the playoffs, I have a foolproof way of remembering whether they won a title that year or not. If Patrick Ewing is in the footage, I know they didn’t.
-I was shocked to hear two fairly raw O.J. Simpson jokes dug out of the feeds from June 17th: one by a Kansas City Royals announcer before air (“Did you hear that O.J. Simpson’s at the U.S. Open? He already has two under.”) and another by an intruder at the Knicks’ post-game press conference (“If OJ Simpson doesn’t cut to the left, do you think he makes it?”) Almost as much as news coverage, sick jokes are on the frontline of our cultural experience. And yet they’re so quickly forgotten.
-Something else I’d forgotten: after Simpson was allowed to go into his house and call his mother, he went to the bathroom and had a glass of orange juice before he was officially arrested.
-Crazy coincidences abound: Arnold Palmer and O.J. Simpson once did a commercial together for Hertz. And Morgen has the evidence.
-One minor complaint about this documentary: the music’s a little too wall-to-wall. That said, the use of Talking Heads’ “Heaven” over the closing sequence is pretty brilliant.
-They’re not booing. They’re saying, “Juuuuuuuuice.”
-My wife made an excellent point after we finished watching the screener of this episode, which I was tempted to steal as my own, but I have to give her the credit. She noted that often our memories of historical events from our lifetimes get boiled down to the one or two images that get shown on news programs and documentaries in perpetuity. In the case of the Bronco chase, it’s usually a single overhead shot of the Bronco, pursued slowly by police cars. All the rest—the people cheering, the chaos by the gates of Simpson’s house, the media babble—tends to fade.
-For the record, on June 17th of 1994, I was waiting tables in Nashville, TN (either at Applebee’s or Dalt’s… I worked shifts at both back then), working part-time as a critic/reporter for the alt-weekly Nashville Scene, and preparing to move in a month up to Charlottesville to be with the woman whom I’d marry two years later. (Who would then go on to make astute observations about television in the easy chair next to mine.)
|LOS ANGELES TIMES
JNovember 26, 2007
|By Robert Lloyd|
|Since the current writers strike was first bruited, the prospect of more reality TV has been held out to the public like a threat -- coal in the stocking at Christmas, the boogeyman waiting in the closet. People watch a lot of reality TV as it is, but I suspect that even among its most ardent fans there are many who sense there is something not quite right about it, something not . . . real. It's good for sensation and sentiment but not for anything resembling the dispassionately considered truth.
It sometimes feels as if all this unreal reality, fast and cheap as it is to make, will leave no room for more considered, delicately rendered representations of the world. But the answer to that, as embodied by Brett Morgen's eight-part, four-hour "Nimrod Nation" (which begins tonight on the Sundance Channel), is "Not yet."
The series tracks a season in the life of the Watersmeet Nimrods, a small-town basketball team in far-northern Michigan that in 2004 was featured in an ad that Morgen ("The Kid Stays in the Picture") directed for ESPN. The spot turned them briefly into celebrities -- the team appeared on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," and Watersmeet Township School sold more than half a million dollars' worth of Nimrod-branded apparel to the wider world. But none of that is mentioned here, and it would be beside the point anyway. The team is the focus, but the community is the subject, and a little notoriety does not seem to have changed it.
It is a sweet film, beautifully shot, with an interest in and sensitivity to light and air, to bodies in space and in motion, to landscape and in detail that can arguably be called love. Where reality TV invites you to judge, "Nimrod Nation" merely asks you to look. You don't have to like sports particularly -- I can say that as one who does not -- to go under its spell.
The world it presents, relentlessly sub-zero and covered in white and silence, is at once harsh and enchanted. "This is heaven," says one resident, out ice fishing in 30-below weather, even as another, much younger, dreams of getting out: "I want to be in a half-decent, warm place," she declares. (She wants to go to Wisconsin.)
|Like David Sutherland's "Country Boys" or Frederick Wiseman's "Belfast, Maine," it is long, unhurried and set in the sort of out-of-the-way, less-than-affluent place that TV typically romanticizes or demeans but rarely gets right, when it bothers at all. "Men in Trees" borrows a bit of the climate, and "Friday Night Lights" approaches similar subject matter; yet for all that "Lights" attempts to stay real, it still succumbs to fits of melodrama and fills the screen with model-hot kids mostly too old for their roles. (The kids of "Nimrod Nation" are beautiful too, but in the way that kids just naturally are.) In Hollywood, someone who looks and talks like Nimrod coach (and high school principal) George Peterson III would never be cast as himself, unless for comic effect.
Of course, this is not necessarily the last word on Watersmeet -- the town may have fewer than 1,500 inhabitants, but that's still at least 1,400 more than appear here in any significant way. Those we do see are seemingly untouched by modern media and distractions: Instead, we see them hunting, fishing, gathered at bonfires, hanging out on the ice, rehearsing a school play. (I would have liked to have seen more of that, personally, and less hunting, slaughtering and butchering -- sensitive viewers be warned.)
As with the ice fishers of "Nimrod Nation," documentary filmmaking takes patience; you have to let the story come to you. And these are not stories as such, with beginnings and ends, but slices of life within a sliver of time. There are crises -- a teenage pregnancy, tension over the perceived slight of a Native American player, the threat of development -- but the film is more about continuity than conflict: Morgen takes as his Greek chorus a pack of senior citizens, gathered in a local diner, who discuss the team and its young players, who have themselves been playing basketball together as long as they can remember.