Random Notes on Recent Films – Documentaries!

I’ve recently seen several exceptional documentaries. They cover a range of topics and experience, but all have very human concerns. Here are my impressions of them.

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Echo in the Canyon (Andrew Slater, director)  This brilliant display of nostalgia centers on the California folk rock music scene that was born in Laurel Canyon — a winding stretch of hillside homes between Sunset Boulevard and the San Fernando Valley — in the mid-1960s and radiated out from there. Members of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Beach Boys all lived and hung out there, developing their music. The Mamas and the Papas came out from New York City and became part of the collective sound. Members of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield eventually spun off to form Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young).

Echo in the Canyon covers the years 1965 to 1967. The Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine album was released in ’65, and the ringing sound of Rober McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker guitar changed things forever. The film opens with Jakob Dylan behind the wheel of  a ’67 Pontiac Firebird convertible driving to Laurel Canyon. Jakob is an on-camera interviewer throughout. We see him talking with people who were directly involved with the scene and those who were influenced by it. These include Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Brian Wilson, Michelle Phillips, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Lou Adler, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, and Ringo Starr. The segments with Tom Petty (his last interview before his death in 2017) and David Crosby are especially vibrant and evocative.

Echo in the Canyon was directed by Andrew Slater. He managed Jakob Dylan’s band, the Wallflowers, and was also the president of Capitol Records from May 2001 to January 2007. Per Slater, “The film is about the exchange of ideas and how it’s resonated over time.” It’s fascinating to hear how the groups and their music interacted. Brian Wilson says the Beatles’ Rubber Soul (1965) influenced the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), which in turn influenced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).

The music is the thing, and for those of us who were around when these songs first came out, Echo in the Canyon provides quite an emotional punch. The following clip shows Buffalo Springfield on Hollywood Palace in 1967, with a condescending introduction by host Tony Martin. I almost needed a seatbelt when “For What It’s Worth” segued into “Mr. Soul.”

In addition to the archival footage, the film includes songs performed by Jakob Dylan and the Echo in the Canyon Band in 2015 at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. Rehearsals for these songs are effectively intercut with the concert performances. When we saw Echo in the Canyon on opening weekend here in New York, Andrew Slater and Jakob Dylan were there for a Q&A after the screening. After the Q&A, Dylan and about seven other musicians set up at the front of the theater and gave us a 15-20 minute mini-concert of music from the film. Overall a really great experience.

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David Crosby: Remember My Name (A.J. Eaton, director)  This makes a fine companion piece to Echo in the Canyon. It was produced by Cameron Crowe, who interviews Crosby during the film. David Crosby can be a prickly individual, and very hard to get along with, which he readily admits. He says that even now none of his former band mates will speak to him. He has no trouble talking about this and the rest of his life. He’s quite engaging as he leads us through his years with the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash (& Young), and his subsequent solo career. This is a sad story at times, but he’s still here and still making music.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

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If you have an interest in the first two documentaries, you’ll probably want to  see Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, which opens at Film Forum here in New York on September 6. I saw her open for Jackson Browne at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 1975. She was giggly and seemed thrilled to be there. That was a good show.

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, director)  I knew who Toni Morrison was before I saw this film, but had not read any of her books and had no idea of how important she was as a writer and a person. She’s a compelling on-camera presence, speaking directly to us as she tells of her life and work and the way she sees the world. Talking heads who offer their thoughts on Toni Morrison include Oprah Winfrey, Hilton Als, Russell Banks, Fran Lebowitz, and Angela Davis. Her recent death somehow makes the film feel more immediate.

Update: This film will be playing a return engagement at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center from August 16 through August 22.

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Mike Wallace Is Here (Avi Belkin, director)  I found this documentary absolutely riveting. Every moment had my complete attention. At one point I realized I needed to visit the restroom, but kept putting it off for fear of missing anything. In what must have been a monumental challenge, 698 hours of footage was boiled down to a 90-minute film. It’s a superb job of editing. The clips come fast enough to give you whiplash.

I knew Mike Wallace as an aggressive interviewer on 60 Minutes, but there was a lot I didn’t know. He’d been a radio drama announcer, an actor, a game-show host, and had done cigarette commercials. But it’s his confrontational style with high-profile interview subjects that fascinates.

The film begins with a clip of Wallace interviewing Bill O’Reilly. He’s pressing O’Reilly on his aggressive, rude, and hostile treatment of guests. Wallace shows clips from O’Reilly’s show to illustrate this. O’Reilly responds that Wallace was an inspiration to him, and that he used him as a model for how to behave during interviews. Wallace is clearly taken aback by this, and doesn’t have a comeback. It’s an interesting moment.

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Excerpts from press notes for the film:

Mike Wallace Is Here is told exclusively through archival footage, without one talking-head commentary or backward-looking interview diluting the immediacy and power of Wallace’s work. The film traces his career on the air from his invention of the “tough question” in his 1950s interview show Night Beat to his news specials of the ’60s and his extraordinary four decades on CBS’ 60 Minutes, examining how his genre-defining work changed the standards of broadcast journalism for good and for ill, while unpacking the personal qualities that made Mike tick.

Director Avi Belkin had broad access to CBS News’ archives for the making of the documentary, including never-before-seen materials from 60 Minutes’ earliest days on the air. Drawing from that and other sources, including the University of Texas at Austin where Wallace’s early kinescopes are stored, he crafted the story of Wallace’s path from radio drama announcer to early TV actor-pitchman to hard-hitting journalist.

Belkin’s aim was to create a dialogue with his subject, who died in 2012 at the age of 93.  By collecting every instance where Wallace himself was interviewed, and coupling his answers with his interrogations of others, Belkin created a framing dialectic for the film inspired by Wallace’s own trademark style. “This film interviews Mike while he’s interviewing others,” says Belkin, who began researching the film in 2016. “We got a ‘Mike Wallace interview’ using Mike’s own tools.”

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Here’s Mike Wallace interviewing Donald Trump on 60 Minutes in 1985. Note that Trump is more or less coherent, not ranting, and seemingly not yet insane.

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In the following clip, Wallace gets fiercely schooled by Louis Farrakhan.  I don’t remember if this is in the documentary, but I wanted to include it here.

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From the press notes:

Mike Wallace Is Here resonates at a moment when journalism and the American press corps are threatened by a government intent on sowing constant doubt and spreading distrust of the media. “The idea for this film originated with a question:  how did we get to the place broadcast journalism is at today?” says Belkin. “Mike was era-defining, yet he was so prescient in many ways. For him, journalism was about asking the hard questions, and in doing so, speaking truth to power. Now, the powers that be fight back against journalism. [The government] is focused on giving one very subjective point of view, with all else labeled ‘Fake News.’”

“We’re at a very precarious tipping point for broadcast journalism, where the different corridors of power are getting the upper hand,” says Belkin. “A crucial moment in the film is when Mike says ‘the first thing that totalitarians do is attack the free press.'”

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I don’t think there’s anyone quite like Mike Wallace in broadcast journalism today. I’ve heard that he was not a fun guy to work with, but we could use a few more like him.

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Jay Myself (Stephen Wilkes, director)  I’ve seen this twice and loved it both times. I hadn’t heard of Jay Maisel — a well-known New York photographer — before this film. In 1967, needing a larger and more substantial place to live and work in, he bought the Germania Bank Building on Bowery and Spring Street. Built in 1898, it had 36,000 square feet, six floors, and 72 rooms. More than enough space for the endless collection of objects Jay found strange and beautiful, however useless they might be. By 2015, tax and maintenance costs that had grown to $300,000 a year forced him to reluctantly sell the building. He’d originally bought it for $102,000, and sold it for $55 million. Not a bad deal, but now he was faced with the overwhelming task of clearing out all the stuff he’d accumulated over the 48 years he lived there.

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Stephen Wilkes, the director of this film, was nineteen years old in 1979 when he went to the Bank to drop off a portfolio of his photography for Jay Maisel to see. Jay liked his work and became a mentor and friend. When Stephen heard that Jay was selling the Bank building, he felt he had to document the move. Maisel said okay, gave Stephen access with a film crew, and the result is this fascinating film.

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According to Jay:

He wants to “see things the way a child would see them.”

“Before you can see, you have to look.”

“Objects there only if you really see them. Art is trying to make others see what you see.”

Holding a rock from his collection, Jay  says “You couldn’t build a rock this good. Although I have a friend who makes rocks.”

“We do not take pictures, we are taken by pictures.”

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Jay Myself is currently showing at Film Forum. It was originally scheduled to end on August 13, but has been held over.

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For Sama (Waad al-Kateab & Edward Watts, directors)  This is not only a great documentary, but also a tremendously important work that should be essential viewing for everyone. In the press screening invitation I received in early July, it’s described as “…a powerful account of one woman’s inspirational journey through love, motherhood, war and survival during five years of conflict in Aleppo, Syria.” It had won Best Documentary at the 2019 Cannes and South by Southwest film festivals, as well as top prizes at other festivals. Despite that, when I’d received invites to earlier screenings, for some reason I didn’t think I wanted to see it. I’m glad I overcame that, because when I finally did see it on July 10, I was completely knocked out.

For Sama is comprised of footage shot by Waad al-Kateab beginning in 2012 when she was a student at Aleppo University who joined the resistance to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. She wanted to bear witness to what was happening and get it out to the world. During this time, Waad falls in love with Hazma al-Kateab, a doctor in the last remaining hospital in the rebel-held city. They have a daughter in the midst of constant bombing and rocket strikes. The voice-over narration spoken by Waad takes the form of a letter to their daughter Sama.

Sama

I’ve never seen anything quite like this. The point of view is as personal as it gets. These are not events seen from the outside. The film shows war from the inside as experienced by people dealing with life and death survival in their homes and neighborhoods. It’s very raw and very real. I’ve seen For Sama twice now and it definitely retains its power. There are things in the film I’d not seen before, and would have preferred not to see, though I’m glad I did. This was day to day life for Waad and her husband, daughter, and their friends and neighbors. What hit me the hardest was that it was children who were the most tragic victims. And it’s still going on. There’s nothing past tense about any of it. This film is not history seen in a rear-view mirror.

I was particularly struck by a scene with one of the volunteer doctors after casualties from a bombing have been treated in the hospital. Many of them are children, and some of them are dead. He’s sitting on a bench or guerney in a hallway looking distressed and wiped out. He says, “Children have nothing to do with this. Nothing.” In another scene, Naya, the five or six-year-old daughter of friends of Waad and Hazma, is talking about cluster bombs in a very ordinary way. Why does she even know what a cluster bomb is?

While many others fled the city, Waad and Hazma and others like them chose to remain in Aleppo to do what they could to help. In the end, when Assad’s forces overwhelmed the city, they were forced to leave. It was then that Waad met filmmaker Edward Watts. They worked for two years to shape the film that became For Sama.

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If you don’t see any of the other films in this post, I urge you to see this one. Unfortunately, For Sama is no longer showing in New York City. I mentioned earlier that initially I didn’t want to see it. Others must have felt the same way, because after playing for one week at a Manhattan theater, screenings were reduced to once a day for the second and final week of its run. It’s probably playing elsewhere in the country, but this for sure is not a multiplex film. It will be shown on the PBS series FRONTLINE later this year, so the potential for more people seeing it is greater. Though the announcement at the website says a “broadcast version” will be shown, which makes me uneasy. I’m afraid the rawer footage may be cut, but maybe not. In any event, it’s a great film. I said earlier that For Sama should be essential viewing. Don’t let that put you off.

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That about does it for now. I’ll be posting supplementary material for these films in a day or so. Stay tuned. See you later. — Ted Hicks

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Sama a few years older

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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3 Responses to Random Notes on Recent Films – Documentaries!

  1. Sharon van Ivan says:

    Teo —

    Thanks for your fantastic “Random Notes….”

    Staying tuned!

    Love, Sharon

    >

  2. Greg A Slagle says:

    Man… some great films to see that I haven’t heard of quite yet! Thanks Ted! Damn fine man you are.

  3. garywdavis says:

    Thanks, Ted. Documentaries seldom get the respect they deserve. These films deserve attention and you deserve praise for bringing them to our attention. Keep up the good work!

    Gary Davis

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