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Ken Burns - Jazz (2001)


A worthy documentary on the first 60 years of jazz with an emphasis on Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and swing.

1. Gumbo - Beginnings to 1917
2. The Gift 1917-1924
3. Our Language 1924-1928
4. The True Welcome 1929-1935
5. Swing - Pure Pleasure 1935-1937
6. Swing - The Velocity of Celebration 1937-1939
7. Dedicated to Chaos 1940-1945
8. Risk 1945-1956
9. The Adventure 1956-1961
10. A Masterpiece by Midnight 1961-2001

Epic Jazz

The opening note of Jazz, Ken Burns' new 10-part series for PBS, comes from trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who's not playing but lecturing. "Jazz music objectifies America," he tells us, then offers a lesson about what jazz really is. The form's great power emerges from musicians who "negotiate their agendas with each other." According to Marsalis (he's Lincon Center's artistic director for jazz), that negotiation, that handing off and passing around of inspiration - that jam - is jazz's transcendence.

Most jazz musicians would agree. As the clich� goes, it's one thing to do a show for your paying customers, playing what they expect and have paid to hear, but after the squares go home, you can stop blowing shit and make another kind of music altogether. Yet many musicians would also agree that, more often than not, it's a lot more satisfying to play that personal kind of music than it is to sit and listen to it. Jazz musicians involved with each other in intimate creativity may well be negotiating their way to improvisational sublimity, but they've often left the audience out of the musical deal. This is a central but rarely acknowledged tension in Burns' documentary treatment.

Neither Burns nor PBS would be presenting nearly 19 hours of archival footage and contemporary performances and interviews unless the series could claim, as it does repeatedly, that jazz is a fundamentally American art form that reveals much about the culture from which it has sprung. But it would reveal nothing if jazz had not been a commercial form to begin with, if - to put it in Marsalis' terms - its original makers had not hungrily included the customers in the negotiation. For all its knowing (and legitimate) commentary about expressive artistry, for all the context of romantic creation, Burns' film actually works best when it showcases jazz as an opportunity for its audience's ecstatic pleasure.

Albert Murray, one of American culture's greatest critics (because his work is broadly instructive, rather than narrowly judgmental), puts the matter directly in one of his appearances. Playing a contrapuntal riff to Marsalis' Professor of Negotiation Studies, Murray says simply, "Jazz is dance music." That doesn't mean jazz isn't also a lot of other things. But it does mean that jazz's artistry is deeply rooted in sensual pleasure. The farther jazz has strayed from those roots, away from breathless, sweat-beaded ecstasy, the more clubs have closed, the more radio stations have switched programming (often to its rhythm-and-blues-based offspring), and the nearer it has approached its appointment with public broadcasting. PBS has fallen into the role of cultural memorializer, the celebrator of dead genres.

Yet Burns' series, its self-conscious gestures toward epic notwithstanding, is filled with rewards, many of them proffered unintentionally. Jazz is indeed an American story, which means that art and commerce need not be separate and opposing forces. Indeed, the former triumphed through the latter, rising from whorehouse scorn in such places as New Orleans and Kansas City to find an enthusiastic audience despite the original dismissal of gatekeeper critics (Gilbert Seldes notably excepted), editorialists, and even doctors, before eventually falling into the suffocating embrace of Lincoln Center itself.

Burns doesn't set out to tell that tale, but that's the story that emerges, over and over again. Burns' documentary gifts are not visionary, analytical, nor even properly historical. Rather, he is a talented biographer, and his films are most effective when he is able to present an overarching narrative in terms of the biographical detail of that narrative's participants. The approach worked especially well in his Civil War series, because it unexpectedly humanized the war. It didn't work so well in his baseball series, because the mass of detail tended to obscure the game itself; few sports fans really want to know their heroes out of uniform.

But as Vasari might have told Burns, biography - even when it's legend - is a good way into culture. Thus we have a century's worth of the lives of the jazzmen and women, told sequentially and profusely illustrated. (The rap against Burns is that he has left some important people out of his group portrait, a charge he invites by claiming epic comprehensiveness.)

What has Burns revealed? Given 19 hours in praise of every kind of jazz, viewers will be able to take away every kind of moral. But one lesson that seems hard to ignore is that jazz was at its strongest when its makers embraced their audience and used their popularity to develop the audience musically, even leaving themselves open to learning something from that audience. Anybody can play the contemptuous bohemian, a type that was eventually to overwhelm the world of ever-more isolated jazz makers. The real artistic work lies in forging a connection with the audience, inviting it to share in the innovation. That's actually a rhetorical skill as much as it is a musical one, and is on display in every frame Burns includes of Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was as immensely influential as he was not only because he was a great trumpet player, but because he embraced his audience, was anxious that it enjoyed itself, and was thus able to take it with him, note by soaring note.

Perhaps the most instructive sequence in Burns' series involves Armstrong's character opposite, Duke Ellington. Ellington's whole career was built on a remarkable marriage of jazz , elegance, and dignity (traits embodying the cultural longings of Ellington's black Washington, D.C. milieu). Yet in 1956, with jazz receding into elitist taste and his own career in the balance, Ellington jump-started his creative life by nearly starting a riot at the Newport Jazz Festival. Characteristically, Ellington had composed a long, serious suite for the occasion. But when he saw his audience heading early for the parking lot, he broke the band into "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," a hard-driving work he'd written in 1937. The crowd turned back. Famously, one beautiful woman started to dance, and the crowd gathered around her. Ellington dug into the number, even when the worried festival impresario signaled for him to cut it off before the usually polite Newporters got violent. Saxophonist Paul Gonsalves did 27 choruses, and the band followed with four encores. "I was born at Newport," Ellington liked to say afterward.

There's also a cautionary tale for this theme of audience embrace: the career of Miles Davis. Davis had enjoyed success as a musician of aloof cool, but started to chafe when pop groups like Chicago used his riffs to get very rich. Davis actually asked his label to stop calling him a jazz player at all, having concluded that it was a barrier to reaching a larger audience and making real money. He eventually was to find that audience, at least for a while, by playing the rock-jazz mix known as fusion. But many people agree that this was a dead end for both Davis and his listeners.

Why? The answer again has to do with the issue of musical negotiation. Davis' musical identity was originally built on artistic distance, on insisting that the audience come to his music. But when he switched strategies and went in search of a larger audience, he made the (perhaps inevitable) mistake of staying aloof: He never learned how to teach his new audience what he wanted it to appreciate, or for that matter to learn from it either. In the albums that follow 1969's Bitches Brew, Davis doesn't seem to know what he wants to play. Sustained success is not just about a happy, buying audience. It's an ongoing dialogue - a negotiation.

The same is true for many other forms, of course. But jazz's lesson is especially valuable because, for one thing, its compressed history is a fractal of these other cultural histories, and for another, that history is suffused with unmitigated pleasure. Burns gives his audience 19 hours of that history, a lot of time for a lot of extraordinary people to play and find (posthumously, in many cases) another generation of admirers to talk with.

Never mind the lectures: What a concert.
Charles Paul Freund,, March 2001


no pass

Frederick Wiseman - Domestic Violence (2001)

Review (Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times)
The word that comes to mind most often while you're watching Frederick Wiseman's unambiguous new documentary, Domestic Violence, is weariness. The fatigue starts with the police officers, who come off best with their measured responses in the tense aftermath of household warfare. You can only imagine how many of these incidents they've rolled into, and their ability to move through them and ask the relevant questions without being sickened by another depressing tableau is testament to their patience in their work.

Domestic Violence, which begins a two-week engagement today at Film Forum, is set in Tampa, Fla. This film, which lasts 3 hours 16 minutes, is structured like a parable: it begins with clean blue skies reflected in the glass panels of the city skyscrapers and ends at night with another story that will no doubt leave you clutching your stomach. There is probably no time more appropriate for the film, as reductions in social programs are likely to destroy extremely effective institutions like the Spring, the shelter and counseling center for victims of abuse that figures prominently in Domestic Violence. (It's described as Florida's largest such center.) Mr. Wiseman shifts from the broken homes, as he shows injured victims wheeled out on gurneys, to the Spring, where the women and their children take refuge and try to heal.

You'll be astonished at the way the women can detail the violence, enumerating incidents with a precision that doesn't diminish their damage. Mr. Wiseman's most arresting power as a filmmaker has always been to make us feel as if we're eavesdropping on conversations we've no business listening to, and to make us understand how our lives are affected by what we're overhearing.

The Southern accents of the people captured by his cameras work in a less than subtle way. We think we know these families until one woman talks about her husband's contempt for her education, which includes a doctorate. With that brief fact, dropped simply into the conversation as the woman describes her life to a crisis counselor, Domestic Violence immediately shocks us out of our complacency.

The world of reality television -- Cops and the like -- wouldn't exist without Mr. Wiseman's lingering examinations of fragments of society. And those who've grown up watching such programs should look at this film to see what it's like to investigate a scene without being rushed. Mr. Wiseman's relaxed detachment is integral to the way the stories unfold in Domestic Violence. The picture itself is about, yes, cycles, and as tiresome as that sounds, 10 minutes into the film you'll be white-knuckled and unable to look away.

Like other Wiseman works, Domestic Violence examines American institutions: in this case, institutions that are built to assist sufferers. But he is unflinching about their frequent ineffectiveness, showing the repetitive nature of the relationships involved; the women are unable to withdraw for more than a short period.

In this respect, Domestic Violence brings to mind several of Mr. Wiseman's numerous documentaries, among them Hospital (1970) and more specifically Welfare, his 1975 treatise on the indifference of the labyrinthine government assistance system. It is also an answer to the bleakness of Welfare, which was almost three hours of shrugs and hands' being thrown up.

Domestic Violence can dawdle, but the way the Southerners talk figures into its length; they take their time. It is ultimately the most compassionate of all the Wiseman films. We come out of it feeling that change is possible, even as the film circles back to where it started.,frederick_domestic-violence_2001_2of2_dvdrip.avi,frederick_domestic-violence_2001_1of2_dvdrip.avi

no pass

Jay Rosenblatt - King of the Jews (2000)

Grand Prize, USA Film Festival

"A highly emotional personal essay on Christian anti-Semitism that weaves together history, autobiography and snippets of Hollywood films depicting the life of Jesus."
–Stephen Holden, The New York Times

King of the Jews is a film about anti-Semitism and transcendence. Utilizing Hollywood movies, 1950's educational films, personal home movies and religious films, the filmmaker depicts his childhood fear of Jesus Christ. These childhood recollections are a point of departure for larger issues such as the roots of Christian anti-Semitism.

King of the Jews explores the challenges and fears of being an outsider, of holding beliefs different from the mainstream. The myth that "the Jews" killed Jesus has been responsible for centuries of pain and destruction. After 2000 years, the wound is still open. The film uses the resurrection of Christ as a metaphor for personal renewal. Only by acknowledging past injustices can we get closer to our shared humanity.

no pass

Chris Smith - American Movie: The Making of Northwestern (1999)

Seat-of-the Pants Director: Lights! Camera! Gumption!

Meet Mark Borchardt, the funny, garrulous subject of the not-to-be-missed documentary ''American Movie.'' He's someone you won't soon forget. He has dedicated himself to making a no-budget black-and-white horror film that features homemade scarecrows and primitive acting, one that's not about to rival ''The Blair Witch Project'' in anything but the expletive department. But that doesn't matter. The point is that Mr. Borchardt cobbles together this project as if his life depended on it, because it does. Insightfully and stirringly, not to mention hilariously, ''American Movie'' shows why.

''The American Dream stays with me each and every day,'' Mr. Borchardt says when he speaks of his motivation. And he likes to drive past big, sterile new houses to illustrate what that dream means. But as captured here so intimately by Chris Smith, Mr. Borchardt is already living through a much darker and more authentically American story. As hard as he works to attain what he wants, he's struggling even harder to escape what he has.

Because ''American Movie'' is the rare documentary that combines a wildly charismatic subject with an elegant structure, it begins very simply, with the lanky, long-haired Mr. Borchardt talking about his big ambitions. (''If he is able to do even 25 percent of what he says, that is more than most people accomplish,'' a girlfriend later says of him.) Then the film starts to open, like a slow iris shot, onto the larger landscape of his life. When it comes to obstacles, he has a brother who announces that Mr. Borchardt would have been best suited for a factory job. And that's just for starters.

Mr. Smith, who made the film working closely with Sarah Price, builds a surprising amount of suspense and even shock into this documentary's gradual revelations about its subject. By the time Mr. Borchardt is seen doing a dead-end job at a cemetery and describing the worst kind of work he's ever been faced with, the film has built up an enormous amount of empathy and hope for him.

But even those parts of ''American Movie'' that display the most ''Crumb''-like poignancy have their share of affectionate humor. Take Uncle Bill Borchardt, the only family member who might conceivably lend Mark any money. Mark Borchardt woos his uncle into the movie business by flashing a picture of a pretty young actress and announcing, ''She wants to be in your movie, Bill.'' Almost before Bill can exclaim, ''Oh, my gosh,'' he has been enlisted as the producer of ''Coven,'' which his nephew likes to mispronounce as KO-ven because he doesn't want it to rhyme with oven. When he gets an idea, he tends to stick with it all the way.

''I see great cinema in this,'' he says at one point, causing the woozy, pitifully fragile Bill to ask, ''Cinnamon?'' Mr. Smith has a wonderful ear for moments like that and does an expert job of extracting them from the 70 hours of film he originally shot.

Because Mr. Borchardt had been recruiting friends and relatives for projects like ''The Creeps,'' ''I Blow Up'' and ''The More the Scarier III'' since he was 14, everyone here is very comfortable with a camera rolling, and very revealing. Mr. Borchardt's friend Mike Schank, who seems to have wandered in dazed from a Kevin Smith movie, tells about a near-death experience on drugs. Then he giggles nervously and offers to tell some more. While Mr. Borchardt struggles to overcome a history of alcoholism, Mr. Schank goes him one better. He has an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor who also drives him to Gamblers Anonymous meetings.

''American Movie'' begins with Mr. Borchardt's ambition to make an autobiographical film called ''Northwestern,'' which is meant to be an ambitious exploration of his upbringing in Milwaukee. Since this soon proves to be a non-starter, he vows to raise the money for it by completing ''Coven'' and selling 3,000 video copies. It is soon revealed that this won't be easy, as Mr. Borchardt lies in the snow filming friends in black hooded capes (''Now you guys gotta look menacing!'' he directs), bungles a scene in which a cabinet door is supposed to break on a friend's head, and otherwise shows why the road to a finished ''Coven'' is full of potholes.

By the time ''American Movie,'' opening today at Film Forum, completes its own mission, it has blossomed wonderfully into much more than a portrait of one fiendishly determined filmmaker. For anyone wondering where the spirit of maverick independent filmmaking has its source, you need look no further.

Janet Maslin, NY Times, November 5, 1999.

no pass

Jay Rosenblatt - Human Remains (1998)


Human Remains is a haunting documentary which illustrates the banality of evil by creating intimate portraits of five of this century’s most reviled dictators. The film unveils the personal lives of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Francisco Franco and Mao Tse Tung. We learn the private and mundane details of their everyday lives -- their favorite foods, films, habits and sexual preferences. There is no mention of their public lives or of their place in history. The intentional omission of the horrors for which these men were responsible hovers over the film.

Human Remains addresses this horror from a completely different angle. Irony and even occasional humor are sprinkled throughout the documentary. This darkly poetic film is based entirely on fact, creatively combining direct quotes and biographical research. Though based on historical figures, Human Remains is contemporary in its implications and ultimately invites the viewer to confront the nature of evil.

hard German subs
no pass

Michael Winterbottom & Kevin Brownlow - Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1996)

Documentary mini-series about the rise and fall of the European silent film industry.

no pass

Brian Springer - Spin (1995)

Brian Springer’s Spin has more than a passing similarity to Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway’s entertaining campaign documentary Feed, but rather than just put those missing moments from the satellite feed on display to amuse cynics and humble political players, Spin goes deeper into how and why the media distorts the images we see on television. While Feed is an effective demonstration of this particular use of satellite technology, Spin illustrates how crucial access to these uncensored moments can be in uncovering the media’s agenda. As Springer presents excised moments from coverage of the 1992 presidential primaries, the L.A. riots, and that year's Columbus Day celebrations, a disturbing pattern emerges of how carefully the American media sculpt news coverage of many events, in order, it seems, not to disturb the status quo. In showing Larry King’s commercial break efforts to gain favor with Bill Clinton, George Bush, and other politicians, the film exposes his egotism and his lack of journalistic integrity. There are also some Feed-like moments of Pat Robertson making bigoted comments off the air. But this compelling and disturbing film’s real service is in explicating how the media’s inability to inform audiences and reflect the political spectrum of our culture is a systemic problem. --Josh Ralske,

no pass



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