Tag: documentary

Movie Review: Miss Representation (2011)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

Well my viewing of Miss Representation has been a long time coming. A documentary about representation of women in the media is basically all I want a documentary to be about, you know? When actress Jennifer Siebel Newsom became pregnant with a girl, she found herself increasingly worried about the culture her daughter would be born into- specifically the misogynistic environment propagated by the mainstream media. She set out to interview a range of women in different media-related fields- including newscasters, politicians, professors, filmmakers, and actors- as well as current high school students to determine the types of experiences women have both as media participants and audience members. The resulting documentary also features footage of news segments, films, tv shows, and advertisements in an attempt to encapsulate how women and girls are being treated and represented in mainstream formats.

Ok so it’s no secret that everything is sexist and we are always trying to fight the patriarchy/kyriarchy. We all deal with misogyny every day on some level, often through the media we’re imbibing. This shouldn’t be news to anyone, but sadly I’m sure it is. A lot of people are likely either unaware or simply don’t care how bad it really is, and a film like Miss Representation serves as a dark reminder as well as a call to action. The statistics and personal stories told here are frankly horrifying, and the barrage of outright hatred in news videos shown in rapid succession was hard to take at times (overemotional lady wreck that I apparently am, I cried frequently during this movie). Clips of conservative political commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Glen Beck attacking Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and other female politicians on the basis of their gender were especially nasty, especially since I tend to avoid that sort of thing so I hadn’t seen a lot of it before. To temper all this negativity Newsom interviews a number of middle school and high school students, many of whom display definite awareness of the power media images have over the self-esteem and actions of young girls. One high schooler showcased is basically a young Leslie Knope, and her dreams of running for public office seem easily realized given her talents and determination. Others hope to become writers or filmmakers, to put better representations of women and people of color onscreen.

I had gone into Miss Representation thinking it might focus more on women in filmmaking, which is a personal interest, but I was actually pleased to see it include so much about female newscasters and politicians, which are areas I’m less familiar with. It also gave some of the talking heads opportunities to talk specifically about women of color in these positions, which of course should be a matter of equal importance for all feminists. I would have liked a little more discussion about women of color and LGBT issues, but I recognize that this is a very broad look at a multifaceted issue, and even just narrowing down and organizing all of the material must have been a struggle. Newsom keeps her thoughts about her daughter’s future as the forward thrust of the film, and while her narration is a bit stiff I think it was a good personal narrative addition that glued various segments together.

This film is so important, and I know not enough people will see it because EVERYONE should see it. Most of its viewers will probably be women like me, and it will be preaching to the choir, as it were. This needs to be seen by anyone affiliated with media production, anyone who absorbs tv, film, and online content, anyone who’s a teacher, anyone who has impressionable girls (and boys) in their lives. After I watched it I felt helpless for a while, even though I already knew about much of what was said, it’s rare I am hit with it all at once like that. But obviously feeling helpless and not doing anything about it is the opposite of what I should be doing, and the whole “Be the change you with to see in the world” mantra comes to mind. I will never stop pointing out sexism in the film industry, I will never stop supporting films made by women and films featuring positive representations of women, and I will use what little voice I have to try and get others to understand my point of view, so that slowly, gradually, the media will begin to rise to meet our expectations.


Pair This Movie With: One of the ways you can help improve images of women in the media is by seeking out films and televisions shows that are written/directed by women, and feature them in positive lead roles. I do this is as much as I can already, but I feel like I don’t encourage others to do so. So consider this my own call to action. You should try to do this as much as you can, while avoiding those that are sexist/ageist/racist/ableist/etc. Women and Hollywood has a great list of films currently in theaters with women at the helm, so there’s a start. I know depending on where you live many of these indies may not be playing, so looking into older movies might be more doable. I collect all the films I watch with women writers and directors, as well as those with great portrayals of women even if the filmmakers are male, in my “Ladies!” page, with my favorites narrowed down in an icheckmovies list. Remember that films by and/or about women are not just FOR women. I watch a shit ton of movies about dudes that I enjoy, it can definitely go the other way around. If you’re looking for specific recommendations please don’t hesitate to ask me!

Check out the official website for more information about screenings and what you can do to help spread the film’s message.

Movie Review: Yayoi Kusama: I Love Me (2008)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

One of my favorite things is wacky performance and installation art, especially by lady artists. I’ve always admired the polka dot-infused works of Yayoi Kusama, who made a splash in New York in the 60’s with her tremendous output of sculpture, installation, paintings, and performance pieces that brought a colorful playfulness while also commenting on Western perception of “exotic” Japanese female bodies. I was pretty excited to find Yayoi Kusama: I Love Me, a documentary focusing on the artist, now in her 70’s, whose output is still considerable and whose clinical obsession with polka dots has remained strong. The film focuses primarily on her production of 50 large-scale black and white abstract drawings in 2006 and 2007, with side-trips for various awards and honors as well as a few interviews with peers. The artist feels her body aging but her mind remains sharp, and her self-confidence and incredible passion for her work is obvious.

With in-depth access to Kusama and her studio, I Love Me is a wonderful look at the artist’s working methods and general outlook on the art world at large. At times she reminisces about her past career, but primarily remains locked in the present, concerned with her own market value and how her art can move forward. She’s a bit surly at times, while drifting into poetry at others. She is intensely focused on art-making, with little mention of family or non-work friends, though of course that could just be the film’s framing. I loved watching her work, being privy to her intense, detail-oriented process, and it is made clear she would never want to do anything else, and indeed may be unable to. Her work- specifically the repetitive nature of polka dots- helps keep her balanced, therapeutically combating her own depression and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

I think coming into this film with some knowledge of the artist had both negative and positive effects. I had certain expectations that weren’t met, so I was somewhat frustrated by the end. I really enjoyed the film overall, primarily because I love Kusama’s work so much and am always excited to see artists during their process. It’s also got some great time-lapse photography and lovely music. But I was really hoping for a more biographical approach, with more time devoted to her entrance into the New York art scene in the 60’s, as well as more examination of her history with mental illness and its connection to her artistic output. There are scant mentions of her hospitalizations (though it’s never said why) and interviews with two artists she lived with in the 60’s but it’s a minor section of the film. There’s an interesting recap of her childhood towards the end that is somewhat illuminating but I wanted more. There’s nothing wrong with focusing almost exclusively on an established artist’s current projects, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Luckily I’ve learned that there is another documentary about Kusama in the works that looks like it will cover more of her early stuff, so this one would be a nice follow-up.


Pair This Movie With: Well whenever that other doc comes out that will probably be good. Otherwiseeeeee um is there a movie about Yoko Ono? They were contemporaries.

Movie Review: Lost in La Mancha (2002)

Seen: On my boyfriend’s Macbook Air, streamed from my hard drive. On a bus.

Oh Terry Gilliam, the man who makes the movies I am most likely to obsess over, why do you always have all the problems? Somewhat accidental documentary Lost in La Mancha chronicles the auteur’s failed attempt (one of several) to film an adaptation of Don Quixote, his dream project. He manages to cull together European funds and a production team, working in several countries to put together the extensive puppets, props, and period costumes needed for the planned film. He secures actors Johnny Depp, Jean Rochefort, and Vanessa Paradis- tenuously, really, since their contracts aren’t exactly finalized and he has trouble contacting them during pre-production. Finally filming begins in a desert region of Spain, where a nearby army base frequently sends noisy planes over the set and a freak flood destroys the equipment and changes the landscape entirely. When the lead actor becomes ill, production is halted indefinitely.

A wealth of behind-the-scenes footage and some telling interviews make up the bulk of Lost in La Mancha, certainly sating my desire for Gilliam secrets and working methods. The animated storyboards, clips of various high-concept props being tested, and general enthusiasm surrounding pre-production are certainly titillating, and even knowing the outcome of the project I started the film with some optimism (it must be catching). But then as the AD reminds Gilliam of their extremely tight schedule, and Gilliam admits to a budget significantly smaller than he needs, the seeds of destruction are planted and all one can do is sit back and wait for everything to go to shit. And it does. It really does.

While of course I’m bummed that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has continued to not get made (Gilliam’s still working on it, I think), I’m grateful that filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe happened to be around to record all the goings-on. I love learning about movie-making since there are always so many small details and outside factors that I don’t even think about, not being in the industry myself. (Hehe… “the industry”.) It’s a sad but enlightening tale that if anything reminds us of the remarkable fortitude of Gilliam and his stalwart crewmembers. They’ll find a way, eventually… maybe. ‘Til then I’ll be debating trying out Johnny Depp’s bleached-streak hairstyle.


Pair This Movie With: Aw this made me want to show Gilliam my support and watch his movies! Brazil is my favorite, though they mentioned The Adventures of Baron Munchausen a few times so that came to mind.

Movie Review: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011)

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

I missed this at IFF Boston last year, which was too bad since Elmo himself was totally there! It doesn’t seem to be getting much of a theater release but luckily The Brattle screened it for a week. Being Elmo tells the remarkable true story of Kevin Clash, a black self-taught puppeteer who grew up in Baltimore and rose to become the artist behind one of the most beloved television characters of the past few decades. A kind of puppet prodigy, he constructed and operated his own puppet characters in his teens, learning all he could from watching Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. He performed on a local television show and began attracting notice from the likes of Captain Kangaroo and Muppet builder Kermit Love, who became Kevin’s mentor. He eventually was able to work with his hero Jim Henson and become a major force behind Sesame Street, but his demanding profession strained his familial relationships.

Enthusiastic and likable, Kevin Clash is a fitting subject for a documentary. He’s not how most people might picture the men and women behind popular children’s puppetry (I can’t help but imagine everyone having a “A BLACK SHERIFF?!?!?!” moment), and yet for years he’s been a driving force behind several well-known properties. And he’s adorable. He starts off as a fresh-faced kid with endless determination, and eventually sees all of his biggest dreams achieved through talent, dedication and a little luck. His eventual creation of the Elmo personality is little surprise, since he comes off as a genuinely sweet and caring guy.

The highlights of Being Elmo are the behind-the-scenes footage and accounts of the productions Kevin worked on, from a look at the making of the dancing demon scene in Labyrinth to a tour of the puppet-production lab for Sesame Street. I loved learning more about how muppets are created and operated, it’s something I hadn’t really considered before! It was very nice to see how Kevin was inspired as a kid and now continues to inspire new generations of future puppeteers. I hope this is an art form that continues to grow.

Unfortunately at a very trim 80 minutes, the film feels like it’s missing a piece. For the most part the focus is on Kevin’s career, with some glimpses of his upbringing and family, but most of his personal life is unexamined. His ex-wife and daughter are very suddenly introduced in the third act, and neither are interviewed. I’m assuming they didn’t want to be a part of this documentary, which is totally understandable, but the whole topic was just dealt with strangely. Kevin talks about his strained relationship with his daughter towards the end but I still feel like I’m missing something important to this story. Oh well. Elmo’s still there. And I kind of cried when Jim Henson died.


Pair This Movie With: What better way to follow up The Muppets than with a little behind-the-scenes Elmo action? I myself watched these within a few days of each other and they each inform the other interestingly.

Movie Review: Tabloid (2010)

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

It’s no secret I’m not really up on the hip documentaries. I tend to only see the ones relating to my personal tastes, meaning most of them are art/culture-related somehow. But when I heard a synopsis for Errol Morris’s newest venture Tabloid, it seemed like something I wouldn’t want to miss. Setting UK headlines ablaze in the 70’s, former beauty queen Joyce McKinney was arrested for allegedly kidnapping a Mormon missionary in England, chaining him up in an idyllic isolated cottage, and raping him. She claims that he was her fiance and came with her willingly, and that the Mormon church brainwashed him to say otherwise. She spent years trying to clear her name, increasing the press interest in her story as various details about her past came to light.

This movie is insane, I’m still reeling a bit just thinking about it. It’s a fascinating story, with a number of unexpected twists and turns and a wealth of entertaining interview moments. Joyce’s side of the story is a somewhat obsessive fairy tale, the Mormons see it as a horrific, ungodly abduction, while the tabloid journalists assume it’s somewhere in between but don’t especially care as long as it’s sensational and exploitative. As the film progresses through interviews with several players involved, it delves into secret practices of Latter Day Saints, wildly inappropriate disguises, S&M, garish make-up choices, lifestyles of the rich and famous, intrusive journalism, and a bit of cloning (though that’s sort of unrelated to the rest). Different perspectives are given and no one comes off as wholly trustworthy, so viewers are left to somehow distill this plethora of information into something resembling fact. I dug the newspaper collage aesthetic strewn throughout in little animated sequences between segments as well as in any descriptive text. Some of the stock footage used for comedic effect or to illustrate certain points is unnecessary, though.

I’m still left with a lot of questions after viewing Tabloid, partly because not everyone was available for questioning (most notably Kirk Anderson, the supposed “abductee” himself), and certain elements felt glossed over. Joyce, while at many points sympathetic, is obviously a practiced performer and I took most of her emotional outpourings with a grain of salt. Nothing can keep this from being a tantalizing and intricate tale, but it’s frustrating to still feel under-informed and generally unsure after such a seemingly comprehensive look. I blame the nature of the story and its characters, though, not necessarily the filmmakers.


PS So I guess Joyce McKinney is super against this movie and protesting it all the time? Not sure exactly what her problem with it is, though. Neither does anyone else, apparently.

Pair This Movie With: Oh jeez, not sure what this could be compared to! Maybe another documentary focusing on an eccentric? Man on Wire or Marwencol, perhaps?