True Films

Artists at work

Being Elmo


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This is another one of those films that is far more interesting than the title would suggest. It follows the unlikely trajectory of a black kid from the tough side of Baltimore who finds his genius as the invisible soul of a furry puppet with a high voice on public TV. In a flash of inspiration after many decades of struggling as an unknown puppeteer, Kevin Clash re-invents Elmo as a being who radiates unconditional love, and thus elevates this overlooked character (and himself) into universal stardom. (After this film was released Clash resigned over sexual accusations, but it does not detract from brilliance of his creations, or his impact on our culture.) The insight offered in the film that even puppets have to be ABOUT something, was worth the ride for me. It is also a pretty good view into the dynamics of what makes the foam Muppets believable as beings.

— KK

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Being Elmo
Constance Marks
2011, 96 minutes
DVD, $13

Official website

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Posted December 13, 2012 at 5:00 am | comments


Bill Cunningham New York


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Bill Cunningham is the long-time photographer for the New York Times who, at 80 years old, still rides his bike around the streets of New York shooting street fashion — or folk fashion — what people actually wear. Today there are hundreds of blogs chronicling this vernacular fashion, but for decades Bill Cunningham was the only one. He is an odd, but sweet genius. He unfashionably has worn the same blue blazer for 30 years, works all the time, ignores money, lives by himself in a tiny closet of an apartment stuffed with his photo negatives, and is a man marching to the beat of his own drum. There is a legitimate zen quality to his style and manner. While his subjects may be swayed by wealth, celebrity, and the superficial, he seems immune to them. This film is not about fashion; it’s about someone who has successfully invented their own occupation, and their life. It is uplifting. I smiled the whole time watching it.

— KK

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Bill Cunningham New York
Richard Press
2011, 90 minutes
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

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Posted November 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm | comments


Exit Through the Gift Shop


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Think of this as a documentary version of Inception. There are layers of truth and fiction that lead down many levels. The subjects being filmed are sometimes also making the film, and sometimes the subject of a real obsessive documentarian, but it is never clear what level you are watching. On the first level this is a documentation of street art beginning in the 1990s — and at this level alone it is worth watching. Street art means not just graffiti and stickers, but ironic stenciling, performance art, and even pranks in the manner of the guy who nailed his own painting on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art. That guy was the street artist Banksy, famous for both brilliant pranks and for keeping his real name and face unknown. For the first time Banksy is filmed in in action, pixelated. But who is filming him in this documentary? Is Banksy directing or someone else? This film itself is a prank about street pranks. It is a piece of street art, as much as a documentary can be, as indicated by its title reference to the moneyed art world of galleries (please exit through the gift shop). It is a fun ride and its intimate journey into late night urban art will really help you appreciate what street artists are trying to do (way beyond vandalism), and why it probably is the art of our times.

— KK

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Exit Through the Gift Shop
Banksy
2010, 86 minutes
$2, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

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Posted May 17, 2011 at 4:39 pm | comments


My Kid Could Paint That


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The focus of this documentary is a four-year-old girl who likes to paint large pictures. Attractive colorful paintings. She is discovered by a local artist and art dealer. He stages a show of her work. Now her story makes the national news and she picks up a number of wealthy patrons who want to buy her paintings at $20,000 a piece. She is only 4!

A hundred questions burst forth. Would experts be able to discern whether these canvases were paintings made by an admired artist or just pictures that “your kid could paint”? Does it matter who paints a painting? Would it matter if her father gave her suggestions? Is it all a scam? Is modern art itself a scam?

After planting a hidden camera in her painting room, PBS’s Charlie Rose decided the young artist must have had help, but time-coded film made by her parents suggested she did not. The documentary weaves all the bigger questions of what is modern art anyway, with the more intimate question of whether the little girl has a special talent, and if she does, what should her parents do or not do about it? The girl is so young she can’t articulate what she does, nor why, and in fact is bored by the whole subject.

For what it’s worth I came away with the notion that this girl does have special talents — not in seeing or painting abilities, which I think she shares with most open-eyed children — but in her confidence and willingness to follow through and keep painting. A good doc for artists and art students.

— KK

My Kid Could Paint That
Amir Bar-Lev
2007, 83 min.
DVD, $20

Official website

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Posted May 19, 2008 at 10:19 am | comments


800 CDS


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Part documentary and part how-to. A struggling musician uses his PC to produce his own album and winds up with a stack of 800 CDs in his apartment. Now what? How does he get anyone to buy them? He turns his camcorder on, and records his journey into music promotion and small time marketing. He tries flyers, bar gigs, street corner handouts. Eventually he goes to a seminar for indie music promotion, and for the rest of the documentary he records the results of following what he learns at the seminar. It’s a good crash course in Music Marketing 101, perfect for any indie band. You really should hear what works. I think there are enough general purpose lessons that any artist should watch this and learn. There’s no formula. The film’s seminar leader can’t repeat too many times: it’s all about tapping into the inner authentic you, doing things in a way that is appropriate for you and your creations. Following this injunction, the musician-filmmaker does sell out his 800 CDs by the end of the film. Now he has a stack of 800 DVDs of this indie film to unload, but he knows how to do that. For example, he got one to me.

— KK

800 CDs
Chris Valenti,
2007, 84 min.
DVD, $30

Available from the Chris Valenti’s website

Posted May 5, 2008 at 5:00 am | comments


Wild Wheels


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You mean you’ve never had the urge to decorate your car? Add a few marbles to the hood, or plastic toys on the roof? Or maybe cover it in grass? Harrod Blank, son of artist parents, got that urge one day in the 1970s, and converted his VW Bug into an “Omigod” car. It was promptly singled out for tickets by the police simply because it was strange. Soon he found other art cars around the country equally ostracized and began to interview their creators on film about their mutual obsession. This film took 10 years to complete and is a film made for love about cars made for love. Both are cheerful testaments to creative impulses. The art car artists are wonderfully sane, fabulously interesting, decidedly unique, and full of life. I am left wondering why we all don’t personalize our cars? The film has an upbeat spirit and solid countercultural perspective – even though art cars are less rare these days. Really makes me want to turn my old white van into a blaze of dreams.

— KK

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Wild Wheels
Directed by Harrod Blank
1992, 64 min.
$30, DVD

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Posted March 2, 2007 at 5:00 am | comments


Sketches of Frank Gehry


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A famous movie director (Sydney Pollack) documents how a famous architect works. As Pollack struggles with his first documentary, Gehry struggles to be amazing again as he plays with paper models. Gehry is the renowned architect who designs the swoopy, crumpled, and absolutely non-rectilinear buildings such as the Bilbao Guggenheim museum. But he is almost an accidental architect, and certainly an accidental superstar. He started out driving trucks and wanted to be a pilot. The theme of this documentary is the fragile nature of creativity – how difficult it is to sustain for anyone, but especially for the already successful. Gehry is unexpectedly candid about his fear of failure and even lets his therapist profile him. Best of all is his openness to let us watch him as he comes up with lame ideas and stupid suggestions, on the way to finding something that works.

— KK

 

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Sketches of Frank Gehry
Directed by Sydney Pollack
2005, 84 min.
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

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Posted February 2, 2007 at 12:22 am | comments


New York Doll


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Not many documentaries make me cry, but this one did. It recounts the unlikely rise, the predictable fall, and the final resurrection of a little-known rock musician. The Dolls were an early glam punk band partly responsible for reviving rock’n’roll in the 1970s by being outrageous and raucous. During their short-lived fame they inspired the Sex Pistols, the Stooges, and all the rest. But three of the six band members drugged themselves to death, and the fourth, bass player Arthur Kane, nearly drank to death. While Kane sank into alcoholic destitution, the other two survivors went on to rewarding musical careers, embittering Kane further. At a low point Kane saw an ad for a Bible and converted to Mormonism, eventually working as a white-shirt-and-tie clerk in a genealogical library of a Mormon temple. In his new-found spiritualism he had one prayer he refused to stop believing – that the Dolls would reunite. Thirty years later, somewhat miraculously, the band did reunite (with substitute new members) for a gala performance in London. This documentary follows Kane’s improbable come-back. We start with his humble job as a meek, almost angelic clerk. He’s so broke he can’t buy his own pawned guitar back. As his prayer comes true, he is suddenly catapulted onto the London stage in his place in the rock band that invented punk. To Arthur this was a divine appointment to make amends with the surviving members. The concert was a smash hit, and the guys were reconciled. Then in a cosmic ending, Arthur died within days of undetected leukemia. Above all else, this is a film about how every now and then someone does the impossible; they change.

— KK

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New York Doll
Directed by Greg Whiteley
2005, 78 min.
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

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Posted September 11, 2006 at 10:56 pm | comments


Touch the Sound


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Evelyn Glennie, from Scottland, is a virtuoso percussionist. Her musical performances are stunning and original. She also happens to be profoundly deaf. While we all can hear low vibrations with our body, Glennie has learned to hear high sound vibrations (and music) with her body instead of her ears. She literally “touches” sound, and what a touch! In constant motion and with infinitive child-like curiosity, she plays with sounds everywhere she goes, even though she has to lip-read to hear people talk. This unexpectedly visual film explores the soundscape. You begin to hear things you’ve not heard before, and then see things not seen before. The exquisite cinematography is so in tune with the sonic explorations, that you even begin to see the sounds as well; to in fact hear sounds as bodily things as Glennie does. This is an art film in the most accurate use of the term: it is a work art about artists. Two artists: Glennie and her incredible music, and the filmmaker, who has made the invisible visible and beautiful. As the film progresses, Glennie emerges as original visionary and world-class inspirational hero. I hear the world differently now because of her and this great documentary.

— KK

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Touch the Sound: A Sound Journey With Evelyn Glennie
Directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer
2004, 99 min.
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

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Posted July 24, 2006 at 5:00 am | comments


Mystery of Picasso


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Astounding time-lapse photography of Picasso painting. You chiefly see his paintings (without him) as if they were organic organisms evolving, growing, and mutating. Picasso’s relentless energy is overwhelming. You quickly realize that beneath every painting of his are 100 other paintings that have been painted over. As one image morphs into another — all equally riveting — you wonder, what is Picasso searching for? He seems to be hunting for something as he layers one variation over another. He’s said elsewhere (not much dialog here; just time lapse film) that he is not looking for beauty but truth. I decided he keeps painting over until he does something he’s never done before. In the spirit of this layering, the two independent commentary tracks by two art historians are worth listening to and much preferred to the corny music soundtrack. It’s not often we get to see greatness at work. This film, made by a French director in the 1950s, is a stroke of genius.

— KK

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The Mystery of Picasso
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
1956, 75 min.
$17, DVD

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Posted June 28, 2006 at 5:00 am | comments