Tag Archives: Documentary

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: HOW STRANGE TO BE NAMED FEDERICO (2013)

Che strano chiamarsi Federico; AKA How Strange to Be Named Federico: Scola Narrates Fellini

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DIRECTED BY: Ettore Scola

FEATURING: Vittorio Viviani, Antonella Attili, Tomasso Lazotti, Giacomo Lazotti, Maurizio De Santis, Giulio Forges Davanzati 

PLOT: Film director Ettore Scola remembers his friend and contemporary, the legendary Federico Fellini, recreating moments from the great filmmaker’s life on the soundstages of the fabled Cinecittà Studios.

Still from How Strange to Be Named Federico (2013)

COMMENTS: If we’re being honest, How Strange to Be Named Federico is not a movie at all. It’s a eulogy, an Italian take on an Irish wake, replete with fond remembrances and amusing tales of a sadly absent friend. For most of us, it’s the kind of thing that might be shared at a bar or a VFW hall. But then, most of us aren’t successful filmmakers, and our friend isn’t a titan of the art form. So it’s only to be expected that Ettore Scola’s eulogy for Federico Fellini would have to take the form of a film.

Scola makes no effort to try and sum up Fellini’s career or the tremendous mark he left upon cinema. How Strange is a deeply personal account, and we see Fellini’s life exclusively through Scola’s eyes. Early scenes depicting Young Fellini’s big break drawing cartoons for the satirical magazine Marc’Aurelio are presented as a prelude to Scola’s own arrival at the periodical and his subsequent tutelage under Fellini and the staff of hard-bitten comedy writers. Later scenes depict the men holding court at an outdoor café, recounting Fellini’s successes. This isn’t an opportunity to analyze or deconstruct Fellini. Scola just wants you to know what it was like to hang out with the man.

If we learn anything about Fellini, it’s how much of his films seem to come from his observation of others. Scola suggests that Fellini’s intense insomnia, which he addresses by taking lengthy drives through his beloved Rome, provided inspiration in the form of passengers he picked up and encouraged to expound upon their views and experiences. We see two such raconteurs: a prostitute who deliberately overlooks the lies told to her by a thieving suitor because she derives happiness from the falsehoods, and a sidewalk chalk artist whose need to express himself is paramount. They don’t map directly to characters from Fellini’s films, but you kind find their spirit throughout his career.

This isn’t going to make much sense to the uninitiated, and the narrow focus of Scola’s memory play may be more likely to close off audiences, rather than invite them in. The wordless opening scene is like a parade of Easter eggs for Fellini aficionados, as a series of performers appear to audition for the director on a beach at dusk (one of many such scenes set on Cinecittà’s iconic Stage 5), evoking the memory of such classics as La Strada or . And there are occasional side trips into archival footage of Fellini at work: making a rare turn as an actor, traveling to Hollywood to pick up an Oscar, or finding ways to showcase his avatar, Marcello Mastroianni. (We see the actor’s mother confront Scola with the charge that Fellini makes her son look handsome while Scola’s films turn him into a monster.) But these are all part of the kaleidoscope of Scola’s reminiscence. He’s remembering his friend through the method of storytelling they both knew best.

The final scene is probably the most unusual – or Felliniesque – as the not-dead-after-all filmmaker bolts from his own funeral, eluding the honor guard and escaping to an abandoned fairground where he finds pleasure in the rides, and we are treated to a whirlwind montage of striking visions from throughout his catalog. It’s akin to a celebrity-themed version of Cinema Paradiso. But the moment is affecting, because this is truly Scola’s farewell to the man he loved and admired, using Fellini’s own cinematic language to render him forever free. It’s the wish we all hold for the ones we hold dear, but only a filmmaker can make it come true. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

How Strange to be Named Federico, Scola Narrates Fellini hits just the right notes of whimsy, nostalgia and mocking tomfoolery to bring this memory of Fellini and his times vividly to life… Scola leaps around casting bits and pieces of expressionist portraiture before us. This makes the film much more interesting to watch, even for audiences who know little about the director.” – Deborah Young, Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Brad. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

How Strange to Be Named Federico ( Che strano chiamarsi Federico ) [ NON-USA FORMAT, PAL, Reg.2 Import - Italy ]
  • How Strange to Be Named Federico ( Che strano chiamarsi Federico )
  • How Strange to Be Named Federico
  • Che strano chiamarsi Federico
  • Non US Format, PAL, Region 2

CAPSULE: GODARD CINEMA (2022)/TRAILER OF A FILM THAT WILL NEVER EXIST: PHONY WARS (2023)

 Godard, seul le cinéma/Film annonce du film qui n’existéra jamais: ‘Drôles de guerres’

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DIRECTED BY: Cyril Leuthy

FEATURING: (archival footage)

PLOT: A documentary overview of the career of nouvelle vague icon Jean-Luc Godard, programmed together with a sketch for the director’s final, unfinished film.

Title card from "phony wars trailer of a film that will never exist" (2023)

COMMENTS: There have been a number of director retrospective documentaries lately: Dario Argento Panico (2023), Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer (2022), Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist (2020). These affairs are typically hagiographies wherein talking heads (usually other directors) sit around complimenting their comrades. Godard Cinema, originally made for French television, digs a bit deeper into its subject, and isn’t afraid to expose a few of Godard’s warts (his habit of literally stealing to finance his early films, his troubled relationship with first wife , his “inexplicable” decision to go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao). If there is an ongoing theme to Leuthy’s portrait, it’s Godard’s ultimate unknowability: early on, he observes that there are no known boyhood pictures of young Jean-Luc. Although, by the end, we understand why this free spirit did not quite fit in with his bourgeois family, the absence of much childhood biography reinforces the idea of Godard as a sui generis being who arises spontaneously in response to his time in cinema history.

If there’s one complaint here, it’s that, as an examination of a man’s life, the the pacing feels wonky. You may find yourself wondering how the doc is going to fit in the majority of Godard’s five-decade career when it’s already at the midpoint, and they’re not even through 1967. They aren’t; the doc rushes through the final 45 years of Godard’s life, spending only about 15 minutes on the entirety of his output after 1985’s controversial comeback, Hail Mary. Godard Cinema follows the commonly-accepted dogma (which this writer also endorses) that Godard’s vital movies were all completed in his first eight years of filmmaking, and that his work falls off an ideological cliff after 1968. The front-loading makes sense if you consider the documentary as an essay on film history, but as a complete biography of Godard the man, it falls short. But perhaps that’s why it’s called Godard Cinema and not Godard.

The main selling point to Kino’s Godard Cinema release may not be the documentary itself, but the supplement: “Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars,” the auteur’s incomplete sketch for a final feature. The piece is a skeletal outline for a work that would be, by all appearances, a very loose adaptation of the novel “Faux Passeports” by Communist artist Charles Plisnier. What we get, mainly, are a series of photographic collages, with Godard’s enigmatic handwritten notes scrawled on some of them (e.g., one reads “it’s your business and not mine to reign over the absence of…” The next phrase is blotted out by magic marker). Much of it is silent; other segments are scored to dissonant classical music. There is almost a minute of actual film, studies of a young actress wandering around smoking, overdubbed with Godard giving some background on Plisnier; later on, we hear what seems to be a dialogue rehearsal, read in both French and Russian. It’s impossible to guess what the final film might have looked like—did Godard intend to flesh it out, using these stills as an outline, or was it always intended to be a longer version of the experimental abstraction we see onscreen? It’s hard to imagine anyone but the most dedicated Godard scholar watching this “trailer” more than once, but it is an interesting artifact, a peek into a master’s creative process, and therefore worth a gander.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Godard Cinema] provides an immersive exploration of his influence on both the celluloid world and broader cultural landscapes… TRAILER OF A FILM THAT WILL NEVER EXIST: PHONY WARS, the final work from Godard, emerges as a daring and inventive visual tapestry.”–Chris Jones, Overly Honest Reviews

Godard Cinema / Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars [Blu-ray]
  • An in-depth look at the career of revered French director Jean-Luc Godard
  • Includes Godard's final work, Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (2007)

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DIRECTED BY: Werner Herzog

PLOT: A profile of the scientists and adventurers who spend months at a time in Antarctica exploring the mysteries found there.

Still from encounters at the End of the World (2007)

COMMENTS: Somehow, Werner Herzog has emerged in the past several years to become the most unlikely of pop culture celebrities. His voice, chronically pessimistic but tempered by an exhausted Teutonic restraint, has become the stuff of legendary parody. This distinctive delivery has inspired an unexpected career as an actor in projects as diverse as a Tom Cruise thriller, a Star Wars TV series, a sitcom, and even an animated jokefest starring penguins. If you had predicted that the man behind Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God would become a participant in postmodern ironic comedy, then I hope you also invested heavily in lottery tickets.

It’s that last item I mentioned—the voice cameo in Penguins of Madagascar—that is surprisingly relevant here, because the minds behind that film must surely have screened this one, in which Herzog brings his cameras to Antarctica with no intention of filming, in his words, “fluffy penguins.” Herzog’s Earth is a harsh, cruel place governed by the unforgiving vicissitudes of nature, and a bunch of goofy flightless birds aren’t going to change that.

Herzog is very much on brand here. His general distaste for the bulk of humanity is triggered by the sight of McMurdo Station, the busy port-of-call that has dragged the most distasteful elements of civilization to this once-pristine wasteland; he calls out the presence of an ATM with particular scorn. But he seems captivated by the strange rituals that have sprung up as part of survival in such an inhospitable climate, such as a training exercise in which a platoon of newcomers simulate finding a lost colleague in the midst of a snowstorm by putting plastic buckets on their heads.

Herzog is a crank, of course. “I loathe the sun both on my celluloid and my skin,” he intones, as if trying to prove that he’s nothing like you. But the people he encounters challenge Herzog at his own game. They are willing to endure harsh climates to pursue their passions, and yet they bring along their own personal whims and amusements, such as talent shows, electric guitars, and monster movies. One such scientist—a penguin researcher, naturally—seems just as disgusted by other humans as Herzog professes to be, and the filmmaker seems so cowed by being judged pedestrian by this man that his questions end up justifying the assessment.

Part of what’s so strange about Encounters at the End of the World is that there’s a traditional nature documentary peeking out from under Herzog’s misanthropy. Footage from beneath the Antarctic ice reveals a stunningly unfamiliar world that James Cameron should be tripping over himself to capture. Underwater canyons are populated by string-legged crabs who gambol over frozen stalagmites. Seals make sounds straight out of science fiction. And a remarkable collection of scientists have assembled to catalog these wonders, often with the South Pole being just the latest stop in an unexpected series of mileposts around the globe, such as the lawyer who now drives McMurdo’s bus, or the pipefitter who claims ancient royalty as ancestors. Herzog may hold out little hope for the human race, but even he must admit that no one here is leading a life of quiet desperation.

Ultimately, even Werner Herzog can’t escape the gravitational pull of the penguins. But of course, he captures them in the most Herzogian manner imaginable: we watch as a lone member of the species becomes separated from his compatriots and—either by confusion or madness—sets off on a trek to nowhere. Humans are proscribed from interfering, so they can only watch the hopeless march from the sidelines. As the camera pulls back to reveal the vast nothingness that surrounds the lost bird, it appears that Herzog has finally found someone who reinforces his worldview: we are all doomed, but strangely determined to be ourselves to the bitter end.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“But I make the movie sound like a travelogue or an exhibit of eccentrics, and it is a poem of oddness and beauty. Herzog is like no other filmmaker, and to return to him is to be welcomed into a world vastly larger and more peculiar than the one around us.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous; Herzog dedicated the film to the critic)

(This movie was nominated for review by Marcella, who wondered, “is it really a documentary? or found footage used by a human actor claiming to be an alien…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: WERNER HERZOG: RADICAL DREAMER (2022)

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Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer can be rented or purchased on-demand.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Thomas von Steinaecker

FEATURING: Werner Herzog

PLOT: Talking heads and archival footage come together to explore the career of Werner Herzog.

COMMENTS: I recall reading a review of a Herzog film from some years ago in which the critic dismissed the director as riding his own coattails for a good long while. But here’s the thing: this is Herzog, and he’s allowed to do what he wants. Even if he weren’t allowed, he’d do it anyway—a point made firmly, but gently, in Thomas Von Steinaecker’s Radical Dreamer. Combining the traditional mix of archival footage, eager talking heads, and conversations with the director-subject, this ninety minutes breezes by compellingly and informatively, painting a picture of this pleasantly non-traditional artist detailed enough for nearly any Herzog-habitué.

Steinaecker benefits not only from having a chattily obliging subject—Herzog’s wit, openness, and slightly non-sequitur way of thinking makes him always interesting to observe—but also from those “eager talking heads”, which proved an impressive line-up. , , Carl Weathers, , and , as well as his two brothers (finding that there are in fact three Herzog boys, all alive and well, was a delight): all had intelligent, and impressed-but-not-sycophantic remarks to deliver.  Bale, in particular, provides a font of amusing, unlikely observations; for example, “Look at Werner’s face, right? He’s got a good face. A really fascinating face.” These contemporary conversations, paired with archival footage of most of Herzog’s major projects, provide a thorough summary of the man and his career without overwhelming the viewer with minutiae.

Just before the documentary went to credits, the screen froze at a perfect moment during the wrap-up. Herzog appeared in the first season of “The Mandalorian” as, you might say, an evil version of himself. Seated across from the titular bounty hunter, Herzog’s character is chiding the other, arguing the pointlessness of the revolution. “I see nothing but death and chaos.” And in a way, that sums up Herzog’s view—as perceived by a dark soul. Werner Herzog, as illustrated amply during interviews throughout his life, as testified by countless creatives who have worked with and under him, and as shown, grandly and obliquely, through so much of his work, is not “dark,” however. There is death to life; there is chaos to life. But being intrinsic to these elements, there is also gentleness and wonderment.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The true value of Thomas von Steinaecker’s thorough feature documentary is the ease with which he has Werner on-side. The true test of a biographical documentary of this nature is the depth of investment by its subject. Herzog is at total ease with Steinaecker’s camera.” — Chris Greenwood, A Sliver of Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LYNCH/OZ (2022)

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Lynch/Oz can be rented or purchased on-demand.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alexandre O. Philippe

FEATURING: Amy Nichols, , , , , ,

PLOT: Six directors and one critic give their thoughts on the connections between The Wizard of Oz and the complete works of .

Still from Lynch/Oz (2022)

COMMENTS: Director Alexandre O. Philippe has made a career out of making films about other filmmakers’ films: George Lucas, , and are among his previous subjects. This modestly structured doc—nothing but experts reading their own personal essays over film clips—tackles his weightiest subject yet. The Wizard of Oz is a massive icon in pop culture, and, within his sphere of influence, David Lynch is equally influential. The result is not as narrow and academic as you might fear; although the movie expects the viewer to have a working knowledge of Lynch and Oz, the topic is broad enough to serve as a jumping-off point for reflections about movies, American culture, and the artistic process itself.

The essays are roughly arranged in order from most to least enlightening. Nicholson’s opening chapter (“The Wind”) is, in my view, the best; I think her position as the only critic on the panel gives her the widest lens through which to view the subject. Rodney Ascher focuses on Oz as a perfect story template (it’s basically the Hero’s Journey with doppelgangers). John Waters is a mid-show change-of-pace: he doesn’t analyze Lynch’s films intensively, but plays to his talents as a raconteur, telling stories about meeting Lynch (and nuggets like the time he dressed as the Wicked Witch for a children’s Halloween party). Karyn Kusama gives us the most direct evidence of the connection: Lynch’s unelaborated response at a Mulholland Drive Q&A, “there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about The Wizard of Oz.” Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead dig into Lynch’s obsession with Judy Garland. David Lowery’s segment is probably the least on-topic—and the most concerned with his own personal output—but nevertheless contains fascinating theories about the purpose of childrens’ films (setting kids up to deal with the disillusionment of adulthood and the real world). Phillipe’s contribution is mainly in selecting the clips and images that illustrate and expand on the authors’ words, an exhaustive task that’s not as simple as just fast-forwarding to the appropriate spot in Oz or Wild at Heart; there are also archival Lynch appearances to sort through, and excursions into everything from Gone with the Wind to Star Wars to Videodrome.

“The fact that The Wizard of Oz and David Lynch can go hand-in-hand and communicate with one another,” Lowery explains, “the fact that we can have this conversation about ruby slippers and ,’ is one of the most beautiful things about this medium.” Indeed, Lynch/Oz is about the influence of one on the other, but it’s also about all sorts of creative cross-pollinations and new perspectives. Cinema, and the arts in general, are all about conversations between human beings over time. Lynch/Oz is obviously aimed at a select few cinephiles, but if your breadth of knowledge is wide enough, you’ll find plenty to get you thinking—and if not, you’ll discover plenty of new corridors to explore in the labyrinths of cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An enjoyable, if not entirely satisfying, look at a strange cinematic affinity…. Though frustratingly unfocused and sometimes overreaching (even compared to Philippe’s other docs, which are never what you’d call precision-crafted), the film is consistently enjoyable, with just enough flashes of insight to justify its existence.”–John Defore, The Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)