Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Real Deal

by Daddy X

No fiction, no plot, some character development. Conflict, yes.  Resolution of a sort. But in general, quite informative and unique in approach.

The documentary.

“Grass … A Nation’s Battle for Life.”  1925    Merion C. Carver; Ernest Schroedsack; Margurite Harrisson

Depicting the annual nomadic search for pasture in 1922 Iran.

Follow the entire Bakhtiari nation, of ‘oriental rug’ renown, transecting an extreme and varied topography into western Persia (now Iran).  The tribe traverses an inhospitable landscape of rivers and mountain ranges—fording swift icy cataracts, scaling snowy mountain passes; sometimes having to repair precarious cliffside trails as they go. Men, women, and children—all their worldly belongings: livestock, tents, rugs, looms, cooking utensils, tools—the entire population suffering through a tough and desperate existence on the move.

The massive migration crosses rivers by using blown-up animal skins as a kind of freaky water wing affair, starting way upstream, hoping to find footfall and pasture on the other side. This was the first time westerners had witnessed the trek.

The goal obviously not gold, riches or fame—but grass. Grass to feed the cattle, sheep and goats upon which the people’s find lives depend. Much is lost and gained each year, and did I mention? The Bakhtiari wear no shoes on the journey.

What will amaze is that the technology of the times would even allow filming such a punishing ordeal. It is also a naive representation of the Hollywood “Orientalist” attitudes of the times, regarding “primitive” people.  

“Harlan County, U.S.A.”      Barbara Kopple 1976

Still regarded by some critics as the best documentary film ever made. Won an Oscar in 1976. Not to be confused with “Harlan County” starring Sally Field a (pretty okay) dramatization of the original film.  The current TV series “Justified” is set in the same geographical area and capitalizes on many aspects of the documentary’s grand testimonial.

Harlan County is coal mining country. The film captures a violent standoff between a town, its people, a mining company, the company scabs and hired ‘gun thugs’ versus the union representing the workers. Koppel studies, in emotional detail, elements surrounding a contested strike and how the battle affects a desperate community who need not only the mine to survive, but each other as well.

Seems as though the town, and the union, mostly run by men, is going to give up. But then along come the women! There is one scene, a woman giving an impromptu speech at a town meeting, that will blow you away. The patterns of wise country vernacular, the music, the involved anguish of the town and the feel good ending will energize with tears of sorrow and tears of joy, even though we are painfully aware that unions are barely viable entities now. We can track the success and failure of the ‘American Dream’ by the rise and fall of unions.  

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams”    Werner Herzog 2010

The best use of 3-D I’ve seen.

Herzog was skeptical of 3-D until presented with the project of documenting the 25,000 year-old cave paintings in Chauvet Cave in France. Not as famous as Lascaux, Chauvet is off-limits to practically everyone. Toxic levels of carbon dioxide and radon restrict each filming session to four hours per day. This crew of three (plus Herzog himself) was allowed six excursions into the cave for a total of twenty-four hours filming time. All equipment had to be battery-operated and hand-carried. They were not allowed to touch the walls or walk on the floor.

Today, when filming 3-D, we are generally talking about working on a set. The equipment is installed on-site and ready for use each day when the actors show up to work. But for Herzog and crew, everything had to be removed from the cave each time and re-assembled on the next visit. Considering the extremely sensitive environmental conditions in the cave, everybody and all equipment had to remain on a two-foot wide walkway.

Three dimensions allow us to see how the ancient artists used the contours of the cave to convey literal shapes. A 2-D film wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling, losing that sense of the third dimension that the artist consciously worked with to such advantage. A convex bulge became a bison’s shoulder. A boulder suggested the size and shape of a lion. Paint it and it comes alive.

And how this world is depicted! Aurochs in full gallop—bounding deer, vicious sabertooth tigers, wolves tormenting horses, muscles defined, all implying sensual and rhythmic movement, brought to life in the flickering light of ancient torches, relating information worth knowing in the past and reporting it forward to us over the millennia.   

During the involved filming, it became apparent that one prehistoric artist, with a missing tip of a pinky finger, had signed his or her work by dipping that hand in pigment and pressing it near the painting on the wall—or boulder—or ceiling. A rare insight into an individual from ancient times. You wouldn’t need to be an expert or see the signature to tell which works were the signer’s. Often there were unique artistic characteristics—skill and vision—that an astute observer could recognize as consistent in an individual’s style.  

The Artist is Present”    Matthew Akers 2012

Performance artist Marina Abramovic is profiled in this engaging story of a true original. From her background in cold war Serbia we leap forward to her work with long-time collaborator and some-time lover, Ulay, who makes a surprise appearance in the museum performance featured in the film.

Some may remember Abramovic and her performances with Ulay from the seventies. This charismatic and transformational woman is sometimes simply brushed off (by simple idiots) as a masochist, but her drive to draw out what it is that makes us who we are has gone way beyond simple labels.

Years ago she did an installment entitled “Rhythm 0” where she was in a room stocked with 74 tools, household objects and whatnot that attendees could use on her for pleasure or harm as they wished. There were feathers, a rose, a pair of scissors, honey, a gun, a single bullet, gloves and myriad other enticements to the imagination.

She relies on human nature. After many performances, Abramovic says she has learned that there are takers and there are protectors. She often depends on the audience to rescue her from positions she has put herself in, often suspended somehow, sometimes lying on a block of ice, sometimes incapacitated by catatonic drugs, all part of the performance.  

Abramovic does one experiment, setting up an attractive man and woman on either side of a narrow passageway. The two are naked, standing facing each other and very close together. To get to the exhibit, the audience must choose which way to face when walking sideways between them. Who to touch and who to try and avoid? 

The focus depicted in this documentary, in addition to a retrospective of much of her earlier works (performed for the first time by others) involved sitting at New York MOMA eight hours a day for two and a half months, (736.5 hours total). Attendees who take turns sitting across from Abramovic are visibly taken and transformed by nothing more than the experience of staring across a table into each other’s eyes. No words are spoken. No touching. At one point she decided to remove the table for the remainder of the show. Without the table as a buffer, the encounters became exponentially more personal. This allowed her transcendent and charismatic personality to come into its own.

Although Abramovic has been around long enough to call herself the Grandmother of Performance Art, she still has a lot of spunk. She reminds me of a perfect subject for Readers Digest’s “Most Unforgettable Characters” (RD likely wouldn’t have her).

This film has led me to at least two other documentaries with her as the subject. I’m also ordering “Marina Abramovic: The Biography of Biographies” by Michael Laub.  

Should be an ‘out’ read.



  1. ha! we're on the same wavelength, Daddy X. my post is on documentaries too :)

  2. I loved Cave of Forgotten Dreams (I go for anything about cave paintings) but I have to admit I didn't see it in 3D. Or even in a theater. Now I regret that.

    I'll have to look for The Artist Is Present. Thinking about the narrow corridor test, though, I realize that for me it would be matter of being right-handed. I would automatically lead with right shoulder. Besides, whether you make frontal or, well, dorsal contact while squeezing by, it's all good.

  3. Hi Amanda- You and I have done that before. Our "Glad to be alive" posts had a common threads well. I only wish I was as good a writer.

    Sacchi- Some of my friends saw it in regular format too. Sorry if I spoiled that for you. 3-D should be available at home sometime in the near future (if we could ever afford it). Yeh... and try to catch anything about Abramovic, She's so cool. I think I'd face the woman and get all touchy-feely (in a good way). I don't think they'd slap me...

  4. i think we also do it in our fiction as well. & pshaw about the as good a writer comment. we just need more of your writing ;)

  5. Hi Amanda- Thanks for that. Maybe so! I'll be posting another flasher on ERWA Sunday and just started something I think has some legs. Maybe the dam broke.

  6. All sound interesting. You're correct; "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" does sound like a good use of 3-D. So much of that technology is superfluous, but this actually makes sense given the deadly gasses. Allows a lot more people to witness the art and history. Thanks again for bringing these to our attention.

  7. This topic is making me realize how much I've missed!

    Thanks, Daddy!

  8. Hey Carlos! Thanx for your comment. My friend Carlos runs a book store, "The Lovable Rogue" here in Novato, Ca. I''s a 'mens' bookstore, carrying manly dude stuff like sports, adventure, Mailer, Hemmingway, Donleavy, etc. He even has an erotica section. His stock of 'Playboy's is impressive. He sponsors author readings and shows old movies too. He put a blurb about our blog on his Facebook page.

    Thanx, Lisabet- How is it when we go to a movie we so seldom think documentary?

  9. i'm so bored by contemporary H'wood films these days which pay more attention to the gimmickry of 3D rather than good stories, that i turn to both documentaries & independent film more & more. i loathe the excessive violence, the cacophony & caterwauling, the rah rah patriotism of American films. on the other hand networks like HBO are producing some fine television. maybe we should have a topic about tv shows ;)

  10. Daddy X, thank you for bringing up documentaries. I didn't even think of them while rummaging through my mind for movies to write about.
    So much to see, so little time!


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