True Films

Burden of Dreams


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Occasionally, the movie about making the movie is the better movie. Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams is the better movie which documents the filming of Werner Herzog’s fictional movie Fitzcarraldo. Herzog imagines that his film hero, Fitzcarraldo, employs a small army of native tribesmen to haul a steamship over a mountain in the Amazon, from one river to another. For reasons clear only to himself, Herzog decides this super-human scene must not be done with special effects. Burden of Dreams records Herzog’s 4-year obsession in trying to film native American tribesmen hauling an immense steamship over a mountain pass in the deep Amazon jungle. He becomes Fitzcarraldo, or maybe Captain Ahab. Herzog’s blind determination whips him from one disaster to the next, making this journey both astonishing and incredibly mesmerizing. Like Hearts of Darkness, this is a peek into how a movie can drive one insane.

– KK

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Burden of Dreams
Directed by Les Blank
1982, 95 min.
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

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The Up Series


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What started out as a British documentary exposing the role of class in a child’s destiny has turned into one of the most satisfying works of cultural anthropology and a showcase longitudinal study. Every seven years, starting at the age of seven, we visit the same group of children as they grow up, have dreams, are lost and remade, and in many cases see their lives take the unexpected turn as they age. Because each new film is created to be understood by itself, each recapitulates all the others before it, so there is a lot of repetition from issue to issue, but a lot missing if you only see the last one.

– KK

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The Up Series
Directed by Michael Apted
2004, 576 min.
$48, DVD

Rentable from GreenCine

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Posted at 1:19 pm | comments


Unzipped


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The concept is simple. Reveal what really happens as a world-class couture designer develops, in fits and starts, his fall line. Show the factual side of a fashion show. The result is both hilarious and mesmerizing. Unexpectedly I came to appreciate fashion designers as artists, even though I have zero fashion sense.

– KK

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Unzipped
Directed by Douglas Keeve
1995, 73 min.
$80, DVD

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Thin Blue Line


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This unforgetable and legendary documentary relives a real crime from multiple viewpoints. Like Rashmon, you get many versions of the event, each story told from the perspective of a different persuasive person. You don’t know who to believe. As variations of the day’s events are re-enacted over and over again, your sympathy is whipped back and forth from one plausible person to the next. Eventually, after many changes of mind, the truth dawns on you, as the director Errol Morris hopes it would, and it doesn’t jive with the verdict. But because you’ve gone down so many alternatives, the final conclusion is hard to shake off. After watching this brilliant film the necessary judges admitted ordered a retrial. So now this documentary has the unique distinction of being an artwork responsible for freeing an innocent man wrongly jailed. Not many films can say that. The film is heroic, and more entertaining than the best fictionalized crime show. However, the way the released film influenced the courts in real life, and the bizarre events it unleashed in the lives those it touched, including the director, demand a film of its own, a film that sadly has not been made. You’ll have to read about it online. In any case, Thin Blue Line is the canonical crime documentary, impeccably crafted, as it artfully plays upon your belief, and shows how hard it is to discern the truth. It’s a great ride.

– KK

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Thin Blue Line
Directed by Errol Morris
1988, 82 min.
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

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| in category Investigative


Theremin


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That woo-woo sound during the scary parts in old science fiction films was generated by a Theremin, an odd musical instrument invented by the Russian Leon Theremin. The futuristic device is operated by waving your hands without touching it, and was the inspiration and precursor of all electronic music today. The story of its unlikely creation is wrapped in mystery and drama, including the disappearance of Theremin, who may be been have kidnapped from the US by the Soviet KGB to work on sonic weapons back in the USSR. This documentary reveals the strange characters who orbited this strange instrument. You’ve got Jerry Lewis, stage dancers, a Russian diva, the Beach Boys, and nerds like Robert Moog, who invented the electronic synthesizer. It’s a strange story.

– KK

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Theremin
Directed by Steven M. Martin
1993, 82 min
$45, DVD

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Swimming to Cambodia


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This monologue performance by the late Spauding Gray can be considered a documentary because threaded through funny satire is a lecture on the geography of Cambodia and a journalistic report of the civil unrest, revolution, and incursion by the US that occupied that country. It’s a comedic history documentary. It’s also about him. You’ll learn a lot, while laughing.

– KK

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Swimming to Cambodia
Directed by Jonathan Demme
1987, 85 min.
$15, DVD

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Posted at 12:11 pm | comments


Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey


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The best travel documentary series ever made. For ten years two brothers lived in, adventured throughout, and mastered the islands of Indonesia. They delve into this truly esoteric culture with reckless enthusiasm and true love. And they film a lot of bizarre events. This is travel as art.

– KK

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Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey
Directed by Lorne Blair and Lawrence Blair
1999, 290 min.
$50, DVD

Re-released and available for purchase here.

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Posted May 20, 2004 at 4:58 pm | comments


Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth


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Proving that even an interview format can succeed if done with passion, this famous set of conversations between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers on the power of myths still delivers a very powerful punch.

– KK

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Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth
With Joseph Campbell and George Lucas
1988, 360 min.
$150, DVD (2 discs)

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Nanook of the North


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One of the first film documentaries in history, and still unrivaled for clarity and amazement. Shows how Eskimo (Inuit) survived with traditional ways.

– KK

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Nanook of the North
Directed by Robert J. Flaherty
1922, 79 min
$25, DVD

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Posted at 1:31 pm | comments


Lumiere & Co.


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What would world famous film directors do if all they had was the naked simplicity of the very first movie camera? Could they produce anything as interesting as the first movies made? Twenty modern directors try. They load up an original camera with new film and deliver an unexpected variety of very short (3 minutes) film vignettes. Constraints yield creativity; this is a very cool way to teach history.

– KK

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Lumiere & Co.
Directed by David Lynch
1995, 88 min
$33, DVD

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