Waiting for “Superman”

[Screenshot]“Superman” claims to be out to explore what’s wrong with our educational system. I can’t help but think that it came to the table with some fairly strong preconceptions on this point. Some of those preconceptions are right, but others seem a bit like oversimplifications. Among the attitudes laid out fairly transparently: charter schools, especially KIPP schools, are good because they provide opportunities transcending economic class, teachers’ unions are bad because they protect incompetents and promote stasis, lotteries are extra-bad because they put children’s futures up to dumb luck, and funding isn’t actually the problem. Oh, and Michelle Rhee is sent down from heaven to save the Washington, DC public school system (that one clearly didn’t work out quite as well as the filmmakers had hoped, but I think we were all optimistic about Michelle Rhee).

I have my own take on these ideas, of course, mostly sympathetic to the views of this film, but not entirely in accord with them. It’s worth noting that purely from a craftsmanship point of view, this is an effective documentary; it’s a convincing advocate making good use of emotional connections, presenting the focus children and their parents sympathetically and wringing every last bit of tension possible out of the various lotteries (and cementing the notion that the lotteries are a particularly cruel way to choose students for the sought-after advanced programs). While watching the film, it’s pretty easy to believe that the solutions it suggests are the best, and it presents its information in a very convincing form (although the little cartoons seem a bit distracting and patronizing).

For my own part, I have the luxury of seeing our pre-college education system from the outside, and being dubious about its fixability and the nature of solutions. I had some contact with a quite good charter school in San Diego, so the idea that a charter school will generally outperform a public school isn’t wholly alien to me. I know little about the specifics of teachers’ unions, but I can well believe they promote stasis. With those premises I can more or less get on board, but I’m not sure where we go from there. The filmmakers seem to believe that the systems that work need to be expanded, which wouldn’t be a bad idea, but where do the resources to do so come from? Ultimately the problems with public schools come down to manpower, finding people who are passionate about teaching and competent to share their knowledge. The problem isn’t so much (as the “lemon” cartoon and voiceover claims) that bad teachers are perpetuated within the system, but that there aren’t enough good teachers to replace them, which seems the obvious problem with expanding charter schools and suchlike programs: eventually you’re going to end up filling teaching positions with the same kind of people as those who make our current system mediocre. “Superman” never addresses this concern, but there’s a lot wrong with education, and anyone who expects to get it all worked out in less than 2 hours of film is fooling themselves.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

A Film Unfinished

This was not quite the film I expected, although in many particulars it conformed to my expectations. The central artifact of this documentary is a different film, an infamous and unfinished Nazi propaganda film of staged scenes of ghetto life, which had previously been taken as a mixture of staged and documentary scenes; however, discovery of an outtakes reel in 1998 indicated that even the less manifestly propagandistic scenes had been directed and staged. I was expecting a typical documentary, full of talking-head film historians and voiceovers musing about the German propaganda machine. The making of the propaganda film is in fact is not the thrust of this movie at all, and it devotes the bare minimum of interest to the questions raised by Das Ghetto (of which there are many: it’s a bizarre work even by the standards of Nazi propaganda); instead it uses the film, and the events of the filming, as a central motif in recollecting life in the Warsaw ghetto through the eyes of survivors, the journals of the dead, and the reports and later testimony of German officials. In spite of being staged, and highly offensively staged in respects, it is in fact the only video memento of that horror, and this film reclaims it with dreadful purpose, setting the scenes which bear a semblance of verisimilitude against survivors’ experiences of the same, and the wholly staged scenes against readings of entries form Czeriniaków’s diary relating to the stagings performed by the film crew.

It was affecting and horrifying, and distressingly real. There’s something to be said about the mediation of film, that in the scene depicting a mass burial I was startled and shocked to think that it wasn’t, say, Hotel Rwanda, and that I was seeing not a recreation or a dramatization but the actual atrocities being depicted. We are perhaps to a certain extent desensitized by re-enactment, and filter what we see on film as not being “real”. But no matter how many Nazi propagandists were massaging the cinematography to cast themselves as well as possible, this was a lens on the death and squalor and hopelessness of the ghetto, juxtaposed grotesquely with the staged luxury. Viewed just as a silent film, this work would be troubling but so intercut with patent absurdities as to be impossible to process. Taken in concert with appropriately chosen survivor memoirs and the cameraman’s testimony, we get a vivid view of the realities the camera evades.

Apropos of all this admiration for the film’s commitment to reality, I must confess a certain disappointment with the decision to re-enact some scenes of the German administrator’s reporting and the cameraman’s testimony. Re-enactment is rarely a useful tool, but particularly in the context of a film struggling with the concept of cinematic verity in gleaning truth from a much older work of fiction, I found it to undercut the purity of the endeavor and wished that they’d stuck to voiceovers for this, as they had done for reading the victims’ diaries.

See also: Wikipedia, IMDB

Ginsberg: Egy költö a Lower East Side-ról

[Screenshot]I got the impression this was a meeting-of-the-minds film, with a notable poet of the East, or at least the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, getting to mix with one of the luminaries of a new era in American poetry. Unfortunately, the Hungarians in this film don’t actually have a role, and it’s mostly just Ginsberg puttering around New York commenting on things. As a period piece about New York, or as a primary source for plumbing Ginsberg’s character, it’s not bad, but it kind of fails as documentary cinema, because it gives this whole meandering project no thematic focus.

See also: IMDB.

Blessed is the Match: the Life and Death of Hannah Senesh

[Screenshot]I missed this film when it was part of the Louisville Jewish Film Festival, so I took it in on DVD. I might take exception to the film’s spelling of Ms. Szenes’s family name, but can’t complain about its presentation of her life.

I had never heard of her before watching this movie, which is somewhat peculiar because (a) she’s apparently a major Jewish folk hero of the 20th century, and (b) she wrote the words to a song I learned decades ago (“Eli, Eli”). Since they’re mostly avoiding re-enactment in this work, her early life is told mostly in voiced-over stills, which are moderately static. That’s my only real complaint about the presentation of this material (and I don’t know how one might fix it). Her emigration to Palestine, training as a partisan, and growth as a poet are more vividly revealed, through a greater variety of presentation modes: not just stills but videos from the era, as well as modern interviews of her compatriots and readings of her poems. The rescue mission and arrst are the only sections of the story which involve significant quantities of re-enactment (a tool to be avoided in documentaries, IMO). and even there they stick well to primary sources.

I never quite know what to write about documentaries. They mostly are what they are and leave little opportunity for criticism. The choice of sources here appears to be well-balanced and complete, and the subject is well-worth learning about. That’s a success, in my eyes.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Plagues & Peasures on the Salton Sea

[Screenshot]The Salton Sea is one weird place. I never went there in the 5 years I lived in San Diego, and in fact had only a hazy idea of what it even was. It’s hard to know what to make of the place: it’s both tragic and funny. The predicted real estate boom that never actually came meant that it was a cluster of intricately planned streets and lots (the weirdness from an urban-planning standpoint comes through on Google Maps), almost none of which ever saw development. The recipes for a fascinating story are all here: an overdeveloped community on the banks of what was once thought would be a new Riviera, now one of the world’s major ecological disasters, periodically vomiting enormous quantities of dead fish and birds onto the shores. And, most important for the story, the exceedingly strange people who still live in this hellhole.

Plagues and Pleasures manages to not screw up this tailor-made story. It gives enough background to explain the particularly colorful aspects of its history, and presents a light touch in interviewing residents. Living on the banks of the Salton Sea definitely attracts an odd group, and their stories are played for a certain amount of absurdity, but nonetheless they’re presented sympathetically, avoiding veering into either pity or mockery, which are two pretty easy attitudes to take.

It’s a really odd part of the world. On a large scale it’s obviously a tragedy: there’s basically no mitigation which will turn it into anything but an extraordinary ecological crisis waiting to happen (or indeed going on now — it’s the primary resting point for migrating birds in coastal California, and it kills most of them). But on a small scale, seeing a fisherman relax on the edge of a shore covered with rusty benches and lounges (quoth the Park Service: “they should not be eating those fish. Those fish will kill them.”) you can’t help but laugh a little at the absurdity. It this sounds as fascinating to you as it is to me, you’ll not regret watching this one.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

ואלס עם באשיר‎/Waltz with Bashir

[Screenshot]This one I had to see. As a cultural Jew, I have more than a little interest in Israeli film and Israeli subjects. As an animation buff, I had to see how an animated documentary could hold up. And as a fan of cinematic oddity, I was drawn by its critical acclaim. It lived up to the hype and my expectations. I don’t know much about the Lebanese Civil War, so I was coming into this with no particular context. It’d be interesting to see how someone more culturally grounded in the Lebanese massacre as an element of history would view this: this film seems not to inform about the massacres themselves as to illuminate with individual vignettes, most of which work. It seesaws between the fabulous and the horrific, the reality of battle and the unreal trance of waiting. It captures war as a human experience quite well, and it does so within the constraints of a documentary form: the stories are built from eyewitness accounts.

Arguably, it might be considered more of a docudorama than a documentary: a documentary actually uses primary-source footage, while a docudrama includes re-enactments, and an animated feature is necessarily the latter (the animated scenes of Folman interviewing veterans complicate matters even more, since it’s surely an accurate depiction of Folman and his subjects talking). From a format perspective Waltz is difficult to categorize: if it’s a documentary, then is, for instance, Persepolis also? I’m not averse to that categorization, but it raises interesing questions about its purpose. There’s the danger that animation can be distancing, and I doubt it was Folman’s purpose to try to make the war seem fictional. Perhaps it was meant to explore the space between “unreal” and “imaginary”, and I can roll with this as a noble purpose.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

The Pied Piper of Hützovina

This film is actually kind of painful to watch, from a certain perspective. On a surface viewpoint, there’s a fair bit to like here: Eugene Hütz (frontman of the eccentric American Gypsy band Gogol Bordello; also, the actor playing Alex in Everything is Illuminated and the inspiration for Eugene in Wristcutters. Connections!) is an energetic, wild character, playing guitar whenever anyone will let him and getting back to Ukrainian roots. It’s got scenes which are individually pretty refreshing but as a whole somewhat repetitive (in spite of the pleasingly diverse folk and rock music he plays for roughly half the running time of the film).

But where the film becomes interesting is actually on a metatextual level. The filmmaker either fell into or pretended to fall into a trap more-or-less of her own devising. She took an infamously wild-and-crazy Gypsy musician on a road trip, and I think she decided it was going to be like every road-trip movie she’d ever seen. And of course that means lots of wacky antics and the guy and girl inevitably falling for each other. Hütz had a completely different narrative in mind, and the tension between what she wants and what he’s actually willing to deliver is profoundly embarassing to watch, although it must’ve been worse to actually be part of. Hütz basically refuses to live up to her expectations — he affectionately joins the circle of life everywhere he goes, but in a restrained and respectful manner. Even when he’s coldly rebuffed by a Gypsy cultural leader, he’s less angry than disappointed. So neither we nor Pavla Fleischer get the crazy guy. And as to the romance angle, let’s not even go there.

See also: IMDB.