Terrific Documentaries

Earlier this week I finally saw Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary that’s been showing in NYC since early March. I had intended to see it before now, but other films always got in the way. For instance, I saw Battleship before seeing this, a film that’s about nothing and means even less. What can I say? In any event, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a really great film about 85 year-old Jiro Ono, who manages Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat sushi-only restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station. Which might not sound like much, but Jiro is thought by many to be the greatest sushi chef in the world, and his restaurant has 3-star Michelin status. Reservations need to be made at least a month in advance. Foodies come from around the world  just to get one of the ten seats at the counter. A whole world is packed into the film’s 82-minute running time. We learn about Jiro’s approach to life, work, and preparing the best sushi possible. He believes he can always improve; this is what he strives for daily, and he passes this work ethic on to his apprentices in the sushi bar. The film, a first feature directed by David Gelb, is a true pleasure to experience. The soundtrack (music by Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Bach, Max Richter, and a lot of Philip Glass), and the way it’s utilized, along with frequent slow-motion in close-ups of the sushi preparation, play a big part in the effect the film has. (Jiro Dreams of Sushi will be released on DVD on July 24, 2012.)

What’s interesting to me is that I don’t eat fish, cooked or raw, but I was completely captivated by Jiro Dreams of Sushi, mainly by the presence of Jiro himself. This has me thinking about what makes a great documentary, and for me it’s almost always when there’s a strong central character at the heart of it. Yes, I like films that tackle big subjects, such as An Inconvenient Truth and Fahrenheit 9/11, but when the focus is on someone like New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, Formula One race driver Ayrton Senna, or Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash, it’s more human, more personal, and I can get engaged on an emotional level.

Sometimes I go in knowing virtually nothing about the person the film is about, or what they do. It’s pretty cool when I can come out of the theater having learned something new, and feeling better for having seen the film. That definitely happened last year with Senna, a British film about Brazilian race-car champion Ayrton Senna. I don’t follow Formula One racing, don’t know much about it, and had never heard of Senna. But this didn’t matter, because Senna himself is so charismatic, so alive, a great driver, a national hero in Brazil, and so young, really, that even though I knew going in that the film was leading toward his death, I was hoping it wouldn’t happen. I got very caught up in his story. The film consists almost entirely of existing footage, put together in a way that feels very immediate.  (Senna is available on DVD, Amazon Instant View, and streaming from Netflix.)

Gerhard Richter Painting is another example of my knowing basically nothing going in. I’d never heard of Gerhard Richter before, which says more about my own unawareness than anything else, as I’ve since learned that he’s quite famous in the art world. The film, directed by Corinna Belz, lives up to it title as we watch Richter painting for long stretches. This might sound boring (like watching paint dry, so to speak), but believe me, it’s not. Richter is a fascinating personality, someone who speaks very articulately about what he does. For him, painting is a process of discovery. As he says, the painting tells him when it’s finished. (A DVD release is not yet scheduled, as far I can find; the film is still in theaters.)

Pina, Wim Wenders’ extraordinary film about choreographer Pina Bausch and her dance company also took me to a place I hadn’t been before. When I think of dance, my points of reference have been Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Broadway musical numbers, and maybe ballet. Modern dance has been a bit beyond me; I’ve never understood it. Pina really turned my head around. There is a lot of performance in this film, performance staged specifically for the film in locales outside a theater where they wouldn’t otherwise take place. Wenders shot it in 3D, and it’s one of the best uses of that format I’ve seen to date. Bausch died during the film’s preparation, but she’s still the central character, present in archival footage, the interviews with her collaborators and dancers in the company, and in the performances themselves. The effect of the dances is hypnotic, exciting, dynamic, and at times deeply strange and unsettling. In other words, definitely worth seeing. (Pina is currently available on Amazon Instant View; I can’t find any other sources at this time.)

There were three documentaries released last year that I absolutely loved. All three are excellent examples of having a strong central character, someone you come to care about and would like to know. The first is Buck, directed by Cindy Meehl, about real-life “horse whisperer” Buck Brannaman. His life and work are extraordinary. He treats horses with the greatest respect, the same way he deals with the people in his life. He seems to come from a place of such patient calm and understanding that he’s almost too good to be true. (Buck is available on DVD, Amazon Instant View, and streaming via Netflix.)

Bill Cunningham New York, directed by Richard Press, profiles photographer Bill Cunningham, noted for his “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” spreads in the New York Times Style section. Eccentric and immensely likable, Cunningham at age 83 gets around the city on a bicycle, and still shoots 35mm film, which he has developed at a small photo shop down the block. In addition to his candid photos of celebrities at events, he’s noted for his ability to spot styles and trends via his street photography. There’s an interview near the end, in which he’s asked about, among other things, his religious views and his relationships, which is quite moving. (Bill Cunningham New York is available on DVD, Amazon Instant View, and streaming via Netflix.)

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, directed by Constance Marks, focuses on Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind Elmo on Sesame Street, and how he came to realize a childhood dream. As a boy in Baltimore he began building his own puppets and putting on shows for friends. He then got work on a local television station, which led to time on the Captain Kangaroo series, where Muppet designer Kermit Love noticed him, and Kevin’s dream of working for Jim Henson finally came true. One of the film’s strongest moments is near the end when Kevin is on the phone encouraging a young, aspiring puppeteer, inviting her to come to New York to visit the studio, which she does. It’s always inspiring to me to see someone who’s “made it” pass his or her knowledge on to someone younger. Kevin Clash is a teacher and an inspiration in the strongest sense. (Being Elmo is available on DVD, Amazon Instant View, and streaming via Netflix.)

Finally, to wrap up this little survey of recent documentaries I’ve liked, I want to mention one I enjoyed immensely, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, directed by Alex Stapleton. I saw this last fall at the New York Film Festival, with Roger Corman in attendance for a Q&A with the director after the screening. I hadn’t known he would be there, and was startled when I nearly ran into him head on as I was rushing out to get popcorn before the film started. Quite a kick. It’s hard to believe he’s now 86, as he appears youthfully vibrant, with his mellifluous voice intact, and he’s still working today, producing TV movies for the SyFy Channel.  His career as a writer/director/producer of low-budget genre films kicked off in the mid-1950s with such titles as Swamp Women, It Conquered the World, Attack of the Crab Monsters, and The Wasp Woman.

I vividly remember his series of films based (very loosely) on the works of Edgar Allen Poe, which began with House of Usher in 1960, a film in color and wide screen that got a lot of attention at the time for Corman and American-International Pictures. A film of his that has a legitimate claim to “seriousness” is The Intruder (1962), starring a very young William Shatner (before he’d acquired many of his mannerisms) as an outside agitator stirring up racial hatred in a Southern town on the eve of integration in the high school. Corman has said that this is the only film of his to ever lose money.

He has been enormously influential as a producer and mentor to new talent. Some of the directors and writers who got their starts with Roger Corman include Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, and John Sayles, as well as actors Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and Robert De Niro, among others. Many of these are interviewed in Corman’s World, including Jack Nicholson in an amazing segment, appearing totally open, candid, and relaxed. The film is also a treasure trove of clips for those of us who grew up with Corman’s films, and an eye-opener for those who didn’t. (Corman’s World is available on DVD and Amazon Instant View.)

Below is a clip of Corman at the New York Film Festival screening of the documentary, introducing the film with the director,  and the Q&A following.

I realize I haven’t talked much about these documentaries as films. While I think that the subject of a documentary is the most important element — everything comes from that — it’s obviously necessary that the film be well made if it’s going to have much impact. Suffice it to say that all of these films are definitely well made, and artfully so. – Ted Hicks

About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
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7 Responses to Terrific Documentaries

  1. jammymonkey says:

    I too enjoy a documentary film that focuses in on a world or individual with whom I am not familiar. I recently watch Bill Cunningham and found it to be a captivating film about a world I have perhaps a passing interest in.

    Corman’s World is sitting in my ‘to watch’ pile – looking forward to that one.

  2. garywdavis says:

    Thanks for the suggestions of documentaries I would never have known about. I watched “To Hell and Back” today. Tragic. Does Obama see stuff like this? If he does, why does it not drive his policies?

  3. I know this is silly, but the Muppets always scared me, especially when you see the puppeteer. I know that’s weird since I’m part alien, part human and part terminator and always scare people. But I get frightened too!!

  4. Nice documentaries, I’ve heard of the “Jiro” movie, thanks for reminding me I need to watch it. May I recommend “Born into Brothels”?

  5. Leo Saade says:

    i love to watch formula one races, they are really cool and exciting.,

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