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Oct
10
    

By Umut Newbury
October 10, 2007

Tom Jackson’s Out of Balance: ExxonMobil’s Impact on Climate Change, which premiered on satellite television channel World Link this week, exposes not only exactly what this big oil company has done to spin the debate on global warming but also tells us specifically why we should not buy into its propaganda.

In Out of Balance, Jackson arms himself with a number of climate change experts such as Michael Oppenheimer and Bill McKibben. These experts take us step by step through the facts surrounding global warming. For example, it is a known fact that there is a link between carbon dioxide and temperature. Scientists have collected data from ice cores that can tell us how atmosphere and temperature changed over the last 400,000 years. What they found is that the warming of the last few decades is inconsistent with the natural warming patterns of our planet.

The United Nations General Assembly called for an assessment of climate change almost 20 years ago – in 1988. The best climate scientists of the world wrote a report, which was reviewed by hundreds of other scientists. By 1995, the world scientists were in a consensus: This is going to be a serious problem. 

Many people have argued since Hurricane Katrina that obviously climate change is not so bad or it doesn’t exist, because we have not had another Katrina. The scientists Jackson interviews clarify this fallacy once and for all. Global warming does not mean that there will be an increase in the number of storms per se, but the tropical storms that do form will become stronger because of the warming oceans.

Bill McKibben points out that though we are all responsible for the unusual warming of our planet, every problem has a face and the image of global warming includes ExxonMobil and its former CEO Lee Raymond. 

While considered a hall of famer in the area of CEOs who maximize shareholder profitability, Raymond also is known for managing to delay action on climate change for over a decade. Jackson points out that while many large energy corporations such as BP are trying to green their image with slogans like “Beyond Petroleum,” ExxonMobil is proud to be just an oil company. Read the rest of this entry »


 
Oct
08
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 8, 2007 

Delightful. 

It, among many others, is a word the reviewer rarely has occasion to honestly affix to any film, let alone the weighty topics seen in documentary film today. It is the first word that came to mind when considering Chasing Gus’ Ghost. It was soon joined by a number of other laudatory parts of speech, but “delightful” has it. Todd Kwait’s journey into the jug band world does many things well, but beyond all others it sets a mood in perfect symbiosis with the topic. Jug band music is, beyond any other consideration, celebratory. If we’re speaking of the outright exuberance of “Feather Bed,” or the liberation of “Newport News Blues,” or even the number of elemental topics in blues music which seem at first to speak of anguish and despair, until the listener opens himself to the fact that the singing and playing of these songs is a triumphant catharsis, the common emotion felt when listening to Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers, The Memphis Jug Band, or The Ballard Chefs is unmitigated joy. Kwait has done a marvelous job of channeling this ear-to-ear grin throughout the film. 

Part of the charm is in its relaxed presentation. Kwait, a Cleveland attorney and businessman, takes us on his journey to the roots of the music up to the 1960’s revival and into the future. He manages to accompany us in a very personal way. This can be fatal to a film when done unartfully, but there isn’t a moment where he delves into narcissism. Instead, the viewer feels like he’s having a beer with Todd, spinning some 78’s. No scene could illustrate this jolly filmmaking method better than his collection of Amazon.com packages from his step, queuing a mountain of music up and lighting his pipe. It is hard to tell whether this is an example of control, knowing just where to lay off on the personable, or if it is just that Kwait is such a likable chap one never grows tired of him. Whatever it is, he manages to disarm all but the sourest viewers, and the end product happens to be the most enjoyable film anyone will see this year. 

Devotees of southern culture, blues and string band music, and folk revival stars such as John Sebastian alike will cherish multiple viewings. There is much for the casual viewer as well. If you haven’t heard of Gus Cannon or Will Shade (which, if you haven’t, you should report to the nearest record store and have a knowledgeable salesman straighten you out from square one) there is still much to enjoy. Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost is not made or intended for the specialist.

A note on that. Those of you who, like the reviewer, spend the better part of the day meditating on the vicissitudes of minstrelsy, the finer notes of Charlie Patton’s biography, the banjo technique of Murph Gribble, or the picking style of Blind Blake, might lament that Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost isn’t so much about Gus Cannon as his legacy. There is some great footage and biographical information (some would argue over Cannon’s age at death, 96 or 104) and it doesn’t hurt a bit that Gus’ voice is provided by none other than Taj Mahal. Kwait travels to Memphis, Brownsville, Louisville and Sweden to provide a solid background to the story. For the discerning reader, the latter location is home to a foremost scholar on the subject. We get an idea of how Gus struggled with the issue of appreciation vs. appropriation, and some splendid footage of Gus rapping the banjo. This is great to see, because though Cannon played an up-picking style in his ensemble, he was a virtuoso at the old time technique. Call it thumping, rapping, frailing or clawhammer, we get to see an all-too-brief but much welcome clip of Gus in action. 

Purists and obsessives might voice some consternation at the focus on the revivalists like Sebastian, Kweskin and Weir among others. With so much to learn about Memphis, 1928, why focus so intently on Greenwich Village, 1968? 

For one, those of us who eat, sleep and breathe old time music or ethnomusicology in general, are a minority. Kwait made a film to inform and entertain, not to join the archives at The University of Mississippi. Setting aside that the subjects interviewed are steeped in jug band music, they are popularly recognizable. It is the common traversal for the music fan from good music, back to great music, and eventually to eternal music. Sebastian in particular is an engaging and likable guy with a good deal of respect and knowledge. Fritz Richmond’s role in the film is touching to the point of tears, and the contemporary Japanese revivalists like Mad Words are tremendous. 

In a feature film, only the staunchest of purists could ask for more balance. If the complexion is looking too pale, consider the sections with the sons of Sleepy John Estes, concert footage with the inimitable Yank Rachell, or the interviews and performance of Sankofa Strings. 

The latter are enjoying the beginnings of a discovery that is much deserved. If there were no other reason to watch and own the film, it would be sufficient to see the knockout performance of Rhiannon Giddens. One third of Sankofa Strings, she belts like Bessie and exudes all things wonderful in a performer. She, along with her fellow polymaths Dom Flemons and Sule Greg Wilson, is reviving the tradition in the best possible way. They deserve a feature on their own, but their participation in Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost assures its must-see status. 

It is difficult to believe that Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost is Todd Kwait’s first film. The pacing is superb, the narrative is winsome, and the research tight. The specialist might not learn anything new, but he will delight in the performances, perspectives and footage. The casual viewer will enjoy the same while becoming more informed about the history of American music. Every breathing entity will smile to the whimsical animation interludes. 

With a realistic expectation for this type of documentary, there is little fault to find. This reviewer’s only wish is that a complete box set with every minute of every interview and performance some day will be available. No doubt the hours upon hours of footage would be nothing short of… there’s that word again…

Delightful.

—–

Written and Directed by Todd Kwait, Produced by Todd & Carol Kwait

2007, Ezzie Films, Color and Black & White

http://www.chasingusghost.com/

Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost will be making its official World Premiere at the Woodstock Film Festival on Saturday, October 13th at 10pm.


 
Oct
04
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 4, 2007  

The War, by Ken Burns, An Overview;

Or, My The War, with apologies to Andy Rooney’s sensibilities.

My last seven reviews on DocumentaryFilms.net came about in a peculiar way. In the words of everyone’s favorite World War II draft dodger, “It began as a mistake.”

I’d seen Burns on Countdown with Keith Olbermann and my ambivalence for his latest project morphed into irrational exuberance. This looked like one hell of a series, and I wanted to catalogue it in full. 

In the days that followed, I decided to tackle this series in a completely different manner. It is telling that the approach I came to turns out to be relatively Luddite in our century. I had decided to watch The War at 7 o’clock CST on the appointed nights, with my rabbit ears tuned to local PBS on a tube television. 

It saddens me that such a television event has had its impact weakened by DVD sales, TiVo and a host of other technological advances in easy chair enjoyment. There were moments when it seemed I was the only person engaging in appointment viewing who hadn’t been around to see World War II the first time. A lonely pursuit, but one I suggest to everyone who wants to enjoy each drop of juice from an epic cultural event. I have weighed whether it might do more harm than good… should everyone succumb to nostalgia and modes of focal practice in my way, the market on Olivetti typewriter ribbons and 78 records might get awfully tight. 

Watching The War in the way we watched The Civil War was rewarding in terms of deferred gratification. To see the first three episodes on my own time, then bits of the fourth, then the build and descent, would rob the series in some way. It could be argued that PBS should have spread the first four out a little more in an effort to minimize my The War fatigue. Maybe, but the experience was rewarding if for no other reason than having something to do four nights a week.

Enough with the Copperfield, then.

The triumphs and the shortcomings of The War border on the inevitable. Much as other Burns works, excepting his Mark Twain feature, The War suffers from dubious distribution. Just as Jazz felt like a never-ending riff on the career of a white Iowa trumpet virtuoso while giving short shrift to the likes of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, The War can be perplexing in its five minute A-Bomb bleeps in relationship to the personal trials of Sascha Weinzheimer. Yes, Weinzheimer, along with everyone else featured in The War, has a compelling story to tell; however, it seems discordant while Winston Churchill enjoys less than a half hour of screen time. 

“This film wasn’t made to mimic what we already have seen about World War II.” Such is the justification for these perilous proportionalities. It would be all well and good if the topic didn’t enjoy a larger-than-life standing in the American mind. 

The War could have come off more successfully if it weren’t for its format. Burns shows us WWII through the eyes of four towns, three of which we’ve heard of. This approach makes for questionable parallels and coincidences, and fails to deliver the emotional impact of, say, the story of four people involved in the European or Pacific Theater, or on the home front. Any four witnesses could have provided us with fifteen hours of gripping drama and pathos. Among them, the tales and thoughts of Eugene Sledge, John Gray, Daniel Inouye and Maurice Bell might have blown the doors off. 

It was not to be. As we crisscross the events of the Second World War, we’re left puzzled. Which battles, conferences, events loomed largest at the time? What was the turning point? Who were the heroes, villains, goats? Why did the European Theater go on so much longer than it should have? How could our nation, when she was the arbiter of truth and goodness, justify the indiscriminate slaughter of August 1945, whose effects lasted throughout the century? All of these questions are addressed, but in glancing blows that serve to dance around the subject.

Two failings come to the surface right away. First, if one chooses to tackle this topic from the perspective of the plain people that fought and won, or worked to facilitate, this victory, then do it. If he wants to document World War II from the top view of the generals and heads of state, do that. To mingle both demands a level of time and discrimination not in evidence. Second, the crooning of Norah Jones at the conclusion of the series (and more disarmingly, three quarters through another episode) diminishes the gravity of the work itself with such lachrymose exhibitionism. 

This judges Burns more as an epic artist than a filmmaker. It should be stated quite clearly that each episode is well worth watching, and that The War provides us with some of the most engaging moments of documentary filmmaking we’re likely to see this year. Were it not for The War’s expectation, accolades, funding and duration, it would surely be a success. When more is expected of you, well, more is expected. 

It will be very interesting to see what Burns comes up with to follow his latest long form documentary. It is hard to imagine that he is at work on another almost daylong film event. Hopefully no one suggests The Cold War as a topic. If we’ve learned anything, it is that Burns flourishes when the subject is tight and biographical. Despite the scope of his larger works, Mark Twain and Unforgivable Blackness are easily his best. There are seas of subjects in this format, some of whom appear in The War

Criticism demands a certain cruelty, which is a bit of a shame. As a casual viewer, there is no reason to regret a single second of The War. As a critical viewer, it is still much more good than bad, and some of the work is marvelous. It isn’t the coup that some expected, but I doubt that a Sunday some years hence could be better spent. At least in front of a television.

Now, back to those Bob Wills records.

—–

Click here to read all of Newbury’s writing on The War.

A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

Purchase The War at Amazon.com


 
Oct
03
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 3, 2007 

Glenn FrazerReviews of previous installments in Ken Burns’ epic undertaking, The War, suggest that there are a whole lot of loose ends that need tying up in the final episode. It is a pleasure to report that many of them are, and in stylish fashion. One would have to expect the finale to live up to the hype preceding the series. In many ways it does, and it stands just behind Episode Three in terms of quality and sheer entertainment value, to say nothing of coherence and consistency.

If one moment stands out head and shoulders above all others, it comes in A World Without War. This remarkable moment could almost be expected, in that it is wholly unexpected, given the context. 

A ton of dramatic, world-shifting events occur in the time period covered by Episode Seven. There’s V-E Day. V-J Day. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. The whole gruesome picture of Nazi death camps coming into focus. A filmmaker could easily spend fifteen hours on the preceding alone.

In classic Ken Burns fashion, though, the thing that sticks out in The War has to be an image of a shark.

No witness can boast a more shocking or compelling account than that of Maurice Bell, a sailor aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Shortly after delivering its secret cargo (rumored to be a number of things… possibly scented toilet tissue for General MacArthur) to the B-29 fleet, the Indianapolis was sunk by Japanese torpedoes. Bell recounts his escape from the ship in detail, pushing off with his feet so as not to get sucked in by the sinking vessel’s whirlpool. He, along with a few hundred fellow sailors, survives the night in the dark, surrounded by nothing save vast water and terror. For four days and five nights, they remain stranded at sea. The distress signal was taken for a deceptive ploy on the part of the Japanese. Without food or fresh water, many of the men go mad. As Bell recalls, a number of them would dive to the area of colder water at their feet, thinking it a water fountain below deck. The image conveyed reminds the viewer of Gericault’s painting. 

O, and then came the sharks. 

Every so often, one of Bell’s shipmates would strike the fancy of a local shark. The hapless seaman would be carried below the water, leaving nothing but a pool of blood behind. 

It would be imprudent to equate it with Auschwitz or the hell’s sewer experienced by soldiers and marines on Sugar Loaf Hill, but nothing matches the imagery of this flotilla of the damned in the middle of the Philippine Sea.

With the dramatic climax out of the way, A World Without War segues into the experiences of witnesses in the post-war (or, World War to Cold War transitional) United States. The marriages, vocations and psychological aftermaths of the film’s subjects. There are periods of great poignancy, especially in the case of Babe Ciarlo’s grief-stricken family, Eugene Sledge’s difficulty adjusting to peacetime life, Robert Kashiwagi’s battle for acceptance, John Gray’s experience back in the Old South, knowing that the spoils of victory would not be his, and just about everything dealing with the real star of the series, Glenn Dowling Frazier.

Early on, we’re told of his throwing spare dog tags into a mass grave. He did this so his family could have some closure were his body not to be found. The grave was discovered before his time as a war prisoner, from the Bataan Death March to the second atomic bomb, was finished. The army had confirmed his death and notified his family in the interim; yet, his father refused to believe.

At this point an analogue could be drawn to Babe Ciarlo’s mother. Knowing the outcome, it is probably unfair to suppose that, in the recesses of her heart, Ciarlo’s mother knew all along that her son was indeed a casualty. She scanned newspapers daily for a picture of her son until his body was finally returned.

Frazier’s father seems different. It is hard to argue a person’s instinct, being able to feel that someone is still out there in the flesh. Glenn Dowling’s recollection of his father’s calm demeanor—moments after a his mother, aunt, &c. fell to the ground fainting—when he called from San Francisco to inform the family that the confirmation was a trifle premature suggests something we all sense in an emotionally connected parent. 

Following his homecoming, it would seem that something as elemental as a vanquished love did more harm than his years as a prisoner. So it goes, and the reasoning behind an emotional telling of World War II turns out less suspect.

Though A World Without War brings a satisfying conclusion to the series, it is not without its flaws. Again we are confronted with a proclivity for suspect proportionality in the work of Mr. Burns. It is a welcome development that we might become familiar with the likes of Glenn Dowling Frazier and Eugene Sledge. If book sales for the two don’t see a bit of a spike, it would be a shame.

Even so, it is difficult to reconcile the fact that the only atomic assault in human history, or one of the most ghastly chapters in inhumanity, share inordinately short screen time. In the end, one has to question whether Burns was up to the task of tackling The War. He must be lauded for his ambition, if for no other reason than that it is virtually impossible to do justice to the subject. His approach falls short of the mark, but that doesn’t diminish the fifteen hours of essential viewing for those of us enamored of human struggle, history, or simply the art of documentary filmmaking.

—–

Click here to read all of Newbury’s writing on The War.

A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

Purchase The War at Amazon.com


 
Oct
02
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 2, 2007 

Leading up to 16 December 1944, Americans stationed in the Ardennes referred to their post as “The Ghost Front.” The respite from war’s horrors, however brief, must have been a godsend. 

Brief it was. The German counterattack was something that no one was prepared for, some Germans included. The four-month period covered in The Ghost Front was one of dramatic twists and massive battles. Back at home, news of what would be dubbed The Battle of the Bulge was greeted with a good deal of dread. Just as conventional wisdom seemed to predict a relatively clean and timely conclusion to a war that had dragged on nearly half a decade, events stubbornly pressed forward in the opposite direction. The Allies appeared to cede territory to the Germans, the Japanese remained determined on the Pacific front, and the level of violence from Dresden to the Bonin Islands actually intensified.

The Ghost Front of the Ardennes proved to be anything but. 

Episode Six of The War proceeds much like that time of calm in the forest. It is a series of glimpses at topics that are only partially resolved. Unlike the first five installments, nothing seems definitive. The subjects seem to drown in a sea of details.

To stretch the metaphor, we receive a mountain of statistics delivered in small packages. It would be too much of a stretch to imagine that a concrete image of Iwo Jima was intended to emerge in this dissonance. It is a neat trick, however unintended it might be. 

Where episodes one through five strike up a narrative, however sprawling, The Ghost Front is downright lyrical. The strength of it is in the firsthand footage of winter battles, the recounting of soldiers, spending months in the same clothes without regard to even basic hygiene, the value of a godforsaken bit of volcanic rock measuring eight square miles, and the film of a shellshocked soldier describing his understandable distress at dead men all around him. It is a passage to transition us from the first action to the last.

It is hard to place a criticism on it just yet. Were it a stand alone film, it would be quickly relegated to the dustbin. The same dustbin that we’d throw “Wild Honey Pie” into were it taken as a single. 

With that distinction in mind, and with the understanding that Burns neither claims to be nor should be a polemicist, the lack of social commentary or context in Episode Six cannot be avoided. Where have the 442nd and the African-American soldiers gone? While it suits the storyline to leave the issues of race and class resolved at those moments of recognition, that haircut or medal, these inconsistencies in the American character didn’t go away on Thanksgiving of 1944. The War has progressed in an elliptical sort of perpetual motion. Why did this come to a screeching halt? The viewer doesn’t have to take snaps on Monday morning to wonder why Burns & Co. didn’t take the opportunity to finally approach the attitudes and experiences of Axis soldiers and civilians in some detail. Yes, this is a series about the American experience of the war… ostensibly those of four American cities. While we speak of stretching— in any event, Episode Six effectively kills the rising action without a climax. If an intermezzo was needed, did it have to be 120 minutes in length?

If two hours of Burns’ work could possibly give a viewer The War fatigue, tonight would have to be it. There is a good deal of drama in the events unfolding, but it is certain that punches are being held for the finale. When it comes time to review The War in DVD format, at a time of one’s choosing, this observation could be refuted. As always, there are anecdotes from the subjects that are entertaining, revealing, and jarring. These moments are simple jabs, though, and it can’t be doubted that Burns, after giving and taking some substantial shots in the first eleven rounds, is marshalling his energy for the knockout punch in the twelfth.

Let’s raise a glass to hoping that he studied his subject intently while making Unforgivable Blackness.

—–

Click here to read all of Newbury’s writing on The War.

A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

Purchase The War at Amazon.comf


 
Oct
01
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 1, 2007 

“War? The one war I’d be happy to join is the war against officers.” 

No doubt the subjects in Episode Five of The War could relate to Ed Abbey’s sentiment. The War seems to be developing not as a series of acts, as in Henry V. Instead, we’re seeing the story from a different perspective each night. To summarize: night one, the civilians and soon-to-be soldiers; night two, the workers; night three, the collective; night four, the officers and planners; night five, the enlisted men. Vexing though it is that it marches chronologically along to this motif, there is a sense about it. 

In a Harper’s insert (along with many others, presumably) the quote about FUBAR that grabs a person is “[G]enerals make plans, plans go wrong and soldiers die.” True enough, and Episode Five follows this maxim throughout. Whether it is the apparently gross incompetence of Major General John E. Dahlquist near Bruyeres and St. Die or the staged swagger of the larger-than-life Patton, the story returns again to an officer figure of, at best, Celine’s General des Entrayes. The viewer is confronted with an officer corps that resembles a football coach of exceeding arrogance, intent on running out the clock minutes into the third quarter and almost blowing a thirty point lead.

The portrayal is a tad unbalanced. One is compelled to ask throughout The War if it is possible that the Germans or Japanese were good tacticians as well. Sure, plans go wrong. That could have something to do with the fact that for every plan, there’s bound to be another bloke making a counterplan. In the case of Arnhem, for example, it seems that the Germans might have just outfoxed the Allies. FUBAR seems to suggest that intransigence is at the root of this coup. Were the Axis Powers unable to game plan, World War II would have been a marginal skirmish. 

This is not to say that there weren’t critical errors in the fall and winter months of 1944, nor that the bravado of the men barking orders doesn’t often result in countless meaningless deaths among the enlisted ranks. What would you expect to hear if you had the opportunity to get an oral history from those in the front lines?

FUBAR stands out by having that living room feeling. When Quentin Aanenson or Joe Medicine Crow is speaking, the screen seems to disappear. This is one of the stated goals of the project, according to Burns. The Greatest Generation is dwindling, and it will not be long until young people will not have the opportunity to experience these recountings firsthand. Episode Five may just give that vicarious experience for generations to come, and needs not to claim any other social value. Shame that there wasn’t a series of this scope solely for this purpose. 

There is also an intellectual recogniton, in line with the dominant theme, provided by the secret journals of Mobile’s Eugene Sledge. His sentiment, that coming from a culture of life and individualism, the knowledge that you yourself are expendable, isn’t one that we associate with WWII’s zeitgeist. There is a good deal of this type of myth busting in The War, especially Episode Five, and it is welcome. Those of us lucky enough to be brought up around WWII veterans often assume the Brokaw narrative. The men and women of the 1940’s were tougher than we can imagine. No bitching or bellyaching. Just do what you’re told and proceed along stoically. Of course, people are the same throughout time. People didn’t wait until marriage throughout human history, then one day rip off their clothes and begin fornicating openly in 1967. Men didn’t start to lose it on the front in Vietnam. Dissent didn’t begin with John Lennon.  It is a topic of interest, and whatever mask The War has taken off, it is a valuable service. 

At the end of this episode, we are on the brink of the firebombing, the Battle of the Bulge, and Iwo Jima. O, and that occurrence that brought the war to its end. After years of work, The War could be criticised in poetry workshop parlance as “not well crafted.” It would be reasonable to expect a more coherent narrative, beyond the slings and arrows of humble online critics. It won’t make that mark, barring a stunning conclusion. Still, it has us on the edge of our seat, despite knowing the outcome. Plus, we get to hear Keith David utter the word “fucked” a few times in his omniscient tone. For the viewer, little else should be required.

—–

Click here to read all of Newbury’s writing on The War.

A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

Purchase The War at Amazon.com