The illegitimate son of a famous architect seeks the father he never knew. The architect is Louis Kahn, who co-founded modernism -- naked concrete, glass walls, etc. Kahn was a late bloomer, an unemployed artist who was 50 years old when, on his first trip to Rome, he had a revelation of how to create an entirely new monumental style of architecture: make it look like ruins from the future. Kahn was an elusive nomad, traveling constantly and fathering three separate families, with three "wives," each of whom was weirdly (even delusionally) faithful to him. After a few decades of sleepless striving to make great buildings, Kahn died bankrupt, alone and unidentified in Penn Central Station, New York. His son Nathan, whom he rarely saw, was only 11. Now an adult, Nathan sets out to find out who his mysterious father really was by investigating the only thing his father left behind -- his buildings. In a very emotional and satisfying climax that takes place in Dacca, Bangladesh of all places, Nathan finds what he is looking for. At this same climax scene viewers find out that his father Louis really was as great an artist as his contemporaries believed. Along the way in this odd family saga, you get a fabulous lesson in modern architecture.
This one is very hard to explain. It's hypnotic. There is not a spoken word in it. The film is a feature-length ethnic MTV video. A continuous 103 minute song. Sung in the language of gypsies. Starts out in India, where nomads sing and dance in the magnificent Rajasthan desert, and then pass their music -- without losing a beat -- onto their roaming singing cousins in the mid-east and Egypt, and then onto their Roma relatives in Turkey and eventually into the heart of old Europe as gypsies. They sing about their predicament, their hopes and sorrows, and about the joy of life and freedom (all lyrics subtitled). They tell their history entirely in music. The most marvellous thing about this unusual film is the authenticity of the local singers, their incredible musical gifts, and their stunning locations and landscapes. Even though the superb audio and lighting required more than the usual documentary opportunistic make-do, you can't tell how staged the performances are, or if they are. One feels like a gypsy on foot who just happens to meet some cousins as they sing their hearts out. It works as ambient music video -- stunning, mesmerizing scenes from some archetypical past. Except for the film Baraka, which this resembles because of its eerie lack of dialog, I can't think of anything like this operatic trance.
Directed by Tony Gatlif
1994, 103 min.
$16 (VHS only)
Available from Amazon
An all-out five star dramatization of Jared Diamond's best selling non-fiction book of the same name. His main argument -- that geographical differences are responsible for the unfair and uneven distribution of wealth among nations today -- is compressed into three very intense hours, with as much quality as one could hope for. Much of the book's subtlety and continuous barrage of evidence is lost, but for readers and newbies alike, this polished series is a great survey of one of the most important ideas in a long while. I read the book carefully and enjoyed the emotional delivery of the logical argument in this documentary.
This is a wonderfully peculiar combination of a PBS science program meets new age self-help video. That's right, a part how-to, part drama, part talking head special spiced with interviews with real philosophers, delivering practical advice on how to deal with this bombshell: that the reality of atoms is something we construct in our heads. This movie is shot straight and sincere but I can't remember a film more trippy. It's an odd kinda-documentary. In addition to very well-edited interviews with world class physicists and cosmologists, and classy NOVA-ish special effects, we get the meaning of things as channeled by the legendary psychic Rama �-- all the while weaving through a fictional story of a deaf photographer coming to terms with her handicap. Yep. Bizarre! Corny! Magical! Thought provoking! The bottom line of the film is the late-night thought that we're making reality up! It needs all kinds of strangeness to keep this argument going in daylight, but it is worth the ride.
A quasi-documentary about a family of camel shepherds in Mongolia. The family almost loses a rare white camel colt because its mother rejects it and won't nurse the calf. Mom and child are re-united by means of a special ritual conducted by a local violin player who serenades the mother camel. Music cures what ails her. Mother camel weeps on film as she finally suckles her newborn colt. Yeah, it's odd and unusually haunting. The story is held together by the family's youngest boy. This unique film is as minimal as the desert, as melancholy as the sweetest nomad ballad, and as authentically detailed as hand-woven carpet. It is a really fine carpet.
What a marvelous treat! This exquisite documentary transforms the hugely institutional (if not imperial) Apollo journey to the moon into something very intimate and personal. Sort of a home movie version of "my trip to the moon and back." The film score by Brian Eno assists the lift-off. This film really made me proud to be a human.
In 1978 a bus-load of cocky juvenile delinquents are given a day off from school and sent to visit a federal maximum prison for an afternoon as a field trip. They are locked up for in a cell a half an hour. Then the designated "lifers" in jail proceed to scare the air out of the kids with a most graphic, explicit and X-rated picture of what awaits them inside and what their lives will be like if they stay on their current path. The kids, all hardened punks by 17, come out shaking. Like the documentary The Farm, it's a picture of what to avoid. But unlike most films, it doesn't stop there. The filmmakers return 20 years later. They track down each of the 15 kids and all of the convicts lifers and re-interview them to see what effect this encounter had. It is simply astounding that all but two of the kids turned their lives around 180 degrees after that one afternoon. It was the most important hours of their lives. Each person attributes the fact they are still alive to that brief meeting. It changes the lifers too. Even those who backslid have remarkable stories about what happened in those few minutes. The film is moving. It gives hope. And the movie itself is almost as good as a visit by lifers. Show it to a kid at risk that you know.
A wonderful series of cinematic speculations on what animals could evolve into in the next, oh, 500 million years. The same skill and techniques that resurrected dinosaurs of old and made them seem real and natural (see Walking with Dinosaurs) are applied here to possible animals millions of years into the future. It's a fabulous job of scientific imagination and a great lesson in following the logic of evolution.
A superb genesis story about that most essential invention, the personal computer. Before it was an industry, the personal computer was a strange hobby for nerds, who were definitely not cool back then. In three parts, tech gossip columnist Robert X. Cringely gives a very personal, breezy, witty, and remarkably lucid technical summary of the origins of Microsoft and Apple. Even better, he focuses on the forgotten founding companies and figures who did not make it. Cringely turns this story about hardware into one about humanity. By taking you step by step through the process of invention, counter-invention, claim of theft, bankruptcy, and bad timing, you see how accidental success was for the winners. And how vital their ability to listen to the technology. This classic documentary series should be required watching for anyone who uses a computer -- that is, everyone. It's that good.
Cool and useless. That's my definition of art. A midnight engineer and MIT professor creates totally useless machines. They are exquisitely beautiful. They do absolutely nothing. At best they whir and click and shake. A genuine artist, he also has filmed his machines obliquely, only partially seen, behind a veil of mystery. You want to know how they work, what they do, how come? No answers. Only peeks at cool and useless machines in marvelous varieties and cleverness, turning, turning, turning. Utterly riveting, supremely inspiring, and very geeky. �Show this at a party, and everyone stops transfixed.
Arthur Ganson Presents a Few Machines: Created between 1978 and 2004
Available from Arthur Ganson
This super educational series from the Discovery channel is now on DVD. The two hosts, veteran Hollywood effects experts, test urban myths. You know, folklore such as: you get less wet if you walk, not run, in rain. Or, you can kill someone with a bullet of ice that leaves no evidence. Or, a small hole in an airplane at altitude will rupture into a large one and suck everyone out. If it involves explosives, all the better -- can a cell phone cause an explosion at a gas station? In each episode they build elaborate equipment to recreate the conditions of the myth in order to determine if the myth is remotely possible. Sometimes the apparatus is formidable. They bought a steel ship to test whether sinking it would suck you down if you were swimming nearby (a la Titanic). Their comprehensive recreation of the myth that a penny dropped from the Empire State Building will kill you is brilliant and probably the final word on the subject. The cool part is the techie way they approach the problems: make stuff yourself. As in the series Junkyard Wars, you learn a lot by watching tinkerers quickly build things that really work. But here, they are not just engineering. They are actually doing an entertaining kind of science experiment, with controls, measurements, and results. Once the defined experiment is completed they push it to the limit. In other words their approach to investigating an urban legend is this: first they test the conditions as stated in the myth, and then if that does not work, they try to recreate the results of the urban legend. For instance, if they can't get an ordinary cell phone to ignite overflowing gasoline at a gas station (and they couldn't), they'll keep modifying the phone, gas supply, voltage, whatever it takes until they can get results -- a spark from something like a phone that blows the station up. Cool! My entire family, including teenage girls, watches these with glee, and more than once, since there's a lot going on. And as a bonus, you wind up with a fairly good grasp of which urban legends have any veracity. Now on the third season, they cover three myths per episode.
13 episodes, 11 hours
Available from Discovery Channel Store
Let's say your regional industrial mill town is rusting away, bypassed. Main street is boarded up, windows in the old brick factories broken beyond repair, fine homes abandoned, and the last employer in the old company town is long gone. The stagnation is lethal. As mayor, you need something to sell in the global economy. You need some new economy commodity. You need..... modern art! This very personal, but very smart, documentary is the uplifting story of how the dying rustbelt ghetto of North Adams, Mass gambled on building a modern art museum to resurrect itself. Crazy, but it worked. It proves the current adage that artists and bohemians lead economic growth. The museum attracted starving artists, who immediately found uses for the empty factory hulks, who then demanded nice restaurants, which dragged in workers and so on. Ten years later the local yahoos who would "not cross the street for funny art" are discussing the merits of upside down trees on the promenade -- from whence comes the title of this very heartwarming film. It's simple message: art works.
2002, 54 min.
Directed by Nancy Kelly
Available, for home use only, from Transit Media, 888-367-9154
Institutional users check New Day Films for purchase and rental pricing.
This film marries three of my favorite genres: fringe characters, tales of endurance, and a contest. The contest is a 135 mile footrace -- essentially five marathons back to back -- held annually in Death Valley, during the brain-frying furnace of July. It ends up high on Mt. Whitney after a killer climb. The runners shuffle through the nights and don't sleep for days. The black asphalt road is about 150 degrees. Everyone succumbs to heat exhaustion; the trick is to avoid heat stroke and death. In this year's event there are two amputees, who hobble the entire 135 mile run on their flesh-gnawing prosthetic legs. In Death Valley, in July Why? Because the memorable characters are compelled to. The tough guys and gals puke ceaselessly and are carried away on stretchers. Surprisingly, most of the winners are in their 50s and 60s; something about pacing and knowing yourself. Even more surprising, by the time you finish watching this irrational race and the characters it attracts, you are thinking to yourself, hey, that's so stupid it's inspiring; I wonder if I should do this?