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By Umut Newbury 
February 23, 2009

“Life isn’t some vertical or horizontal line; it isn’t neat,” declares Patti Smith early on during Dream of Life. This is true for both the subject and the style of Steven Sebring’s documentary. 

Most biographical documentaries follow a linear pattern. But when a filmmaker spends 11 years (or a quarter of his life, as Sebring puts it in the booklet of the DVD), it is not possible to fit that immensity of footage into a traditional biopic format. Sebring’s Patti Smith: Dream of Life is epic, poetic and artistic, but definitely not neat. 

The film opens like a punk rock song – in less than three minutes Smith summarizes her entire life. We learn that she was born in Chicago, got a job at a factory at age 16, moved to New York and met Robert Mapplethorpe, lived in Chelsea Hotel, married Fred Smith, had two kids. In 1989 Mapplethorpe died followed by Fred and her brother Todd’s deaths in 1994. Just exactly how a regular working-class teenager from New Jersey moves to New York and meets someone like Mapplethorpe and lives in Chelsea Hotel isn’t explained – perhaps it isn’t important, perhaps it doesn’t matter.  

Smith’s narrative of her life during Sebring’s documentary is definitely selective. About her move to New York, all she says is that she knew there was not a chance “to be destroyed or to be created in New Jersey,” and that’s why she moved. Her descriptions of early experiences in New York are Whitmanesque. She speaks of the smells and sounds and the sky, a classic case of a young artist taking in it all in, hoping that someday, she, too, will be a part of the scenery that other young hungry minds will want to absorb. 

Dream of Life really centers on Smith’s one quote: “Life is an adventure of our own design intersected by fate and a series of lucky and unlucky accidents.” We get a good glimpse at exactly how lucky she was. Aside from being close to Mapplethorpe, Smith also mentions nonchalantly that Sam Shepard (playwright, actor) happened to gift a 1939 Gibson to her. When she lived at the Chelsea Hotel, she would invite musicians to come see this guitar, they would play it and “that’s how I got it tuned.” The 1970s are definitely lucky years for Smith, she goes on to meet William S. Burroughs and flirt with him, even though he had to kindly remind her: “My dear, I am a homosexual.” 

Sebring then takes us to Smith’s childhood home and parents. Smith’s parents are the most adorable working-class parents anyone can have in New Jersey. She couldn’t have come from a more cookie-cutter home; complete with a mom obsessed with cow figurines and a softhearted dad who used to feed squirrels in his backyard. He says he stopped the feeding a while back, and adds wistfully: “They have to fend for themselves now.” One could only imagine their reaction to the likes of Mapplethorpe and Burroughs, though they seem to have accepted Patti for who she is. Smith recalls a time when she performed for the two of them before a show and says, “Only for you mom, would I do a medley.” 

Here is when a documentary-maker really benefits from following a subject around for more than a decade. By far, the best footage of the film is when Smith is talking about losing her brother. She explains the strange feeling one gets after losing a loved one:  “When he died, my heart became full of him. I became a better person, more optimistic.” 

There are many candid moments like that throughout the film, such as when Smith’s son Jackson is talking about the birthday helmet he received and just exactly what he thinks about birthdays in general. Or the part where Smith is trying to unlock the Persian urn that holds some of Mapplethorpe’s ashes. She says she got some of his ashes, so she “can travel with him.” 

Smith is lucky for having to meet and be close to so many special, talented people like Mapplethorpe, Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Michael Stipe. The unlucky part, of course, comes from seeing most of those people die. There is footage of the wake of Ginsberg and her walking around Corso’s grave. She puts that pain plainly earlier in the film when she makes the remark about “the time when all my friends were alive.” 

Sebring, on the whole, stays extremely loyal to Smith throughout Dream of Life. This is a biographical documentary about Smith as told by Smith. There are no interviews with friends and family when she is not present. There is no narrator but Smith. Sebring’s film is not a piece of investigative journalism; it is an essay, a poem, a painting Smith created about herself that Sebring captured. Smith doesn’t talk much about her husband Fred, or the details of her relationship to others or her musical career.  

Dream of Life is a haiku about Smith. The bad news is if one does not get the haiku, then she won’t get Smith. The good news is, there is plenty of material yet to be covered about Smith, so young filmmakers can go and retrace Smith’s steps in New Jersey, New York and beyond. So, this isn’t the definitive film about Smith, just a very beautiful and warm meditation on her…�

Patti Smith: Dream of Life

2008 Palm Pictures

Directed by Steven Sebring

109 minutes


By Bryan Newbury
February 16, 2008 

Watching Seven Up is reminiscent of having one’s first potato chip… crisp, if you’re so inclined. Fourteen Up is like the fifth pack of cigarettes, Twenty One is like the first pack in your fifth year of smoking. When the viewer gets on to Twenty Eight and Thirty Five, he can only speculate as to what those Trainspotting characters are going through.  

Upon seeing the first installment, I ran to Liberty Hall video and rented the rest. Well, almost. I was at my limit with Thirty Five Up. Between viewing Twenty One and Twenty Eight Up, I returned the first two discs, knowing that by midnight, if all the loo breaks and crumpet toastings (if Apted is addictive, then Anglophilia may well be contagious) were timed appropriately, I’d be happily viewing the final installment available at the time. I’d followed these fourteen individuals through their lives in the space of a day, one of the finest film experiences a person can ask for. 

It was a while before 49 Up would come out. This was a problem. Do I bounce from search engine to search engine scouting out developments in the lives of these people? Do I wait through the excruciating months until Apted can deliver them to me? Each man must make his choice. 

A few things were certain: if I could, I would certainly allow John, Charles and Andrew foot my bill in London, swilling beer and sherry. I would then take a car up to Arncliffe and stroll about the Dales, breathtakingly depicted in Nick’s youthful interviews, on the way to meeting up with the one person I’d choose above all to have a conversation with; naturally, it would be Neil. 

Not all wishes can or should come true. This doesn’t preclude fortunate things from happening. First, it is with great pleasure that we announce The Up Series is now available as a DVD box set, with a new exclusive Michael Apted interview and featurette and audio commentary by Claire Lewis and others. Given that there is no better way to take in the Ups than in marathon form, viewers will get the opportunity to relive the bliss of each new discovery.  

It is regrettable that the Up series has apparently concluded with its sixth installment. Still, this unprecedented collection will serve to provide endless fixes for Up junkies. 

A small footnote to that is our opportunity to have a brief interview with the most captivating of the subjects, Neil Hughes. John, Charles and Andrew have refused my requests for air fare to Cumbria, so the interview was conducted via written questions. This, sadly, prevents much follow-up. Endeavoring to get the most out of it, my questions were admittedly compound if not pedantic. I make no apologies. I imagine that Mr. Hughes has answered enough questions about how the film and its subjects have impacted his life. If you want to know that, watch the films. It was quite a discovery to see that Neil is every bit the literary creature we might infer him to be, and a sad state of affairs indeed that his work hasn’t had the outlet of a publisher. New York and London, what are you waiting for? 

What are your thoughts on the relative mutability within the class system in contemporary Britain ? One might take from the Up films that its rigidity, if not conquered, is at least in question, yourself being a primary example. To what degree do you credit the film itself, its linking disparate individuals in class and geography, with influencing the class mobility of the subjects? 

The basic precept that you couldn’t cross class barriers is false, so whilst it may be true that people have gone down a variety of routes, there is still a lot of sympathy across the group. People can get along together; background doesn’t hold you back from doing so. My situation isn’t due to class background; it is due to my own life (genetic make up / social environment etc). 

Surely everyone would like to know how you’d describe the enigmatic Mr Hughes. Joyce once said that he considered Ulysses the only all-around character in literature. It would be fair to say that the person we see in the Up films is as complete, maybe even a bit more complex. Do you see yourself in the literary light that the Neil of the films suggests to the viewer? 

It’s funny that you mention that as I’ve been writing seriously since I was 16, despite never having found anyone who wanted to publish my plays and prose. That’s the real me, and I know you can’t spend your whole life writing unless you are privileged. But what I think is if someone claims to be a writer they have the write the play and then not comment in other arenas, the true essence of their thoughts is in their writing. 

Deviating a bit from the vicissitudes of politics and your mythological peregrinations, could we get a bit of the banal on Mr Hughes? Your ideal breakfast, favorite film and the like? 

Hmm well my ideal breakfast is a cereal with fruit in it and toast! I don’t have a favorite film as I haven’t watched films since I was a child. I do remember that as a child I loved the film Zulu, I even went back and watched that when I was at uni which really proves that the impact stayed with me. I like it because of the courage and the sense of the honour shown by the chief. Obviously there is a gloss put on it, but the message was of courage and people helping each other. I am incredibly interested in literature and plays, and I would say that Macbeth is definitely the greatest play. 

Back into politics. There are some very telling scenes in 49 Up, where one of the Eastenders has relocated to the Mediterranean . He suggests that his current situation is closer to the East End he knew as a child. Certainly much has changed in the time these films have been made, and many people have become bemused or concerned about the role of culture, race and religion in the west. How do you see what some call a clash playing out? What is the best way for Britain to absorb a demographic shift and, while retaining its “Britishness”, retain a welcoming atmosphere to its immigrants, particularly Muslim? 

It is fair to say that the ethic minority population has grown and diversified and I welcome that, I think it’s wonderful. The world is fluid, and there is still a great deal of injustice – but it isn’t down to minority groups. I find it curious that people love traveling and diversity, but then when they come to UK they are furious with the diversity in their country.  I did some teaching in Poland once and half of British contingent were non white, and they were welcomed as warmly as the white people. To our Polish hosts this was a sign of British diversity and they welcomed it, it is definitely a positive sign of being British. 

Finally, we’d love to know if you are at work on any pursuits of the pen. Will there be a memoir, a novel – possibly an epic poem – from Neil Hughes? 

I am constantly writing, at the moment I am part way through a poem, the third in a long cycle of plays I have written during my life. I’ve written on biblical themes and translated into modern life. Characters like Saul, David etc, all translated into modern drama. It is a reflection on contemporary political issues. I’m not so sure about the memoirs, my life isn’t terribly interesting.


By Sarah Boslaugh
February 15, 2009 

Few people are neutral on the subject of graffiti. One the one hand you have the practitioners who see themselves as everything from the true artists of the urban landscape to revolutionaries reclaiming public space on behalf of the people. On the other, you have property owners and government officials who see graffiti as vandalism and those who create it as at best public nuisances and at worse as criminals.

One reason graffiti is such a volatile issue is because it touches on many fundamental questions of urban life. What constitutes public space? Who gets to decide how it will be used? Is advertising in public spaces a form of pollution? Can graffiti achieve the status of art, and as such should it be protected from defacement by other graffiti artists? What constitutes a work of art anyway, and who gets to decide? Does spraying your name on a wall constitute a significant political act, or would such energies be better directed elsewhere?

Jon Reiss’s 2008 documentary Bomb It raises these questions and more, presenting a wide sampling of graffiti art from around the world, and a variety of viewpoints relating to graffiti. He includes interviews with everyone from first-generation graffiti artists to academic theorists: segments shot in South Africa, Brazil, Europe and Japan are particularly useful in broadening the discussion. The main weakness of this documentary is the lack of integration or analysis: most often viewpoints are simply juxtaposed with the result that the documentary acts primarily as a collage of statements and images to be taken at face value, with no attempt on the part of the filmmaker to verify them or inquire further.

Bomb It is clearly in the pro-graffiti camp, as signaled by its tag line: “Street Art is Revolution.” Reiss does give some screen time to anti-graffiti voices, but the preponderance of the film presents graffiti as fun, daring, revolutionary, and beautiful, while the anti-graffiti camp not only gets less time to state their case, but are filmed in a manner which often makes them come off as scolds and killjoys. Ironically, the words of the graffiti artists are often contradicted by the ugly scrawls evident on the walls behind them: if anyone is free to write and paint on public walls, there’s no reason to expect that the artistically untalented will decline to participate.

The pro-graffiti stance of Bomb It may have been influenced by aesthetics as well as politics: taggers appeal to everyone’s inner child (until your own property gets tagged, at least), and many present themselves in a colorful manner which makes for interesting footage. It’s no surprise that Cornbread (the Philadelphia resident often cited as the father of modern graffiti) plays to the camera far more blatantly than the distinguished academic George Kelling (co-author of the “broken windows” hypothesis that visual signs of vandalism create a climate of fear and will prompt further vandalism), or that a midnight expedition of hooded taggers is more fun to watch than a city official being interviewed in his office.

There’s nothing wrong with a documentary taking sides: indeed, it’s almost an expectation these days. The best approach to viewing Bomb It is to sit back and enjoy the ride, while bearing in mind that the tour presented to you has a definite point of view which is hardly universal. If you live in a city, you have should have plenty of your own experiences with graffiti to balance against the viewpoints presented here; if not, better to reserve judgment until you acquire that experience, or at least consider a broader selection of opinions.

Reiss begins his overview of graffiti with Cornbread in 1970’s Philadelphia, then follows it through the 1980’s in New York City (the city and era which many associate most strongly with graffiti) and up to the current day, with brief excursions back to cave paintings and Alexander the Great. He takes an inclusive approach: scribbles with a black marker are juxtaposed with elaborate and colorful painted murals, and articulate interview subjects are interspersed among the inane and trendy.

Bomb It also presents views from several cities in Europe, South Africa, Brazil and Japan. The similarities and differences with the U.S. are striking: in France Reiss interviews both disaffected young men who echo American taggers in both their spray painted styles and their motivations (the racism of French society), and the older artist “Blek le Rat” who has developed a striking stencil art style similar to that of British artist Banksy. As in the U.S., some embrace graffiti as art or political protest, while others consider it vandalism. There are differences also: in Cape Town, graffiti became a means of political protest during the Apartheid years and remains common today. In Barcelona, there are no laws against painting on city walls, and colorful murals have become a well-known feature of the city.

In a few countries, graffiti has become mainstream, with former taggers receiving commissions to execute murals on public property or to create billboards for advertisers. Graffiti-inspired art also became chic for a period in the 1980’s, when it was sold in commercial galleries at gallery prices. This sparked a debate among graffiti artists which continues to this day: since accepting commissions or selling one’s work in a gallery requires at least temporarily abandoning the stance of outlaw, does profiting from your work mean losing your street cred? Should such work even be considered graffiti, even if it is made to order and serves governmental or commercial interests?

Taken as a worldwide sampler of graffiti styles and attitudes toward it, Bomb It is an excellent documentary which is sure to spark further discussion. On the down side, the film’s organization is unnecessarily random at times, and the steady stream of self-aggrandizing taggers and their justifications (everything from “there’s nothing to do” to “rebellion is the cornerstone of our society”) becomes tiresome. DVD extras include a commentary track with director Reiss and producer Tracy Wares, a 14-minute “behind the scenes” documentary, two extended interviews, and three extended time-lapse sequences which document the creation of murals by Kid Acne (England), Ise and Koyok (Brazil) and Shinzentomotel (Japan).



Bomb It


Directed by Jon Reiss

Color, 2008, 93 Minutes


By Sarah Boslaugh
February 6, 2009 


Many Americans still think of AIDS as a disease of gay men, but this is a misconception: about half the adults infected with HIV worldwide are women and the usual route of infection reported is heterosexual sex. In Malawi, the subject of the documentary The Female Face of AIDS, the national rate of infection is estimated at 14%, with almost 60% of the infected being female.  

In 2007, a team of four faculty members and eight students from the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice of the Fordham Law School traveled to Malawi to study why Malawian women are disproportionately infected with HIV and how HIV infection affects their lives. Interviews conducted by the team, which are recorded in the documentary, reveal a deadly combination of female inequality, poverty, and cultural practices and beliefs which promote the spread of HIV and severely impact the lives of infected women and their children. 

Some of the factors which promote HIV+ transmission in Malawi are common to many countries of the world. First of all, Malawi is a poor country: the per capital income in 2006 was $690, and per capita government expenditure on health in 2005 was $64. Women do not have the right to assert themselves in sexual situations, for instance by insisting their husband use a condom. They also have few ways to earn a living, and if they are HIV+ are often abandoned by their husband (the most likely route of the woman’s infection, since multiple sexual partners are both common and socially acceptable for Malawian men but not for women) and shunned by their community. As a result, some infected women become prostitutes, further spreading HIV infection to men who will spread it to their wives.  

The Fordham team also discovered some cultural practices specific to Malawi which further support HIV transmission. One is the custom of “widow cleansing” in which a widow is expected to have intercourse with a specific man (the “widow cleanser”) after her husband dies, in order to be accepted back into her community. Another is the practice of requiring girls to have intercourse with an appointed man as soon as they begin to menstruate, in order to be considered a woman. Not coincidentally, both practices deny women the right to control their own bodies or protect themselves from HIV infection.  

Not all is bleak, however: antiretroviral therapy is available in Malawi, and some of the women and children interviewed are receiving it. Some of the women have also begun to take action to help other women: for instance a woman identified only as “Daphne” responded to learning of her infection (by her promiscuous husband, who refused to accept responsibility) by founding the Coalition of Women Living with HIV, the Malawi’s first HIV/AIDS organization run for and by women.

The Female Face of AIDS is a straightforward, high-quality film suitable for classroom use. Despite the serious subject matter (statistics presented at the end of the film highlight the serious consequences of HIV infection for Malawian women), the film itself is not downbeat: high production values, including excellent photography and a soundtrack of traditional African music, and the positive attitude of most interview subjects, emphasize the strength of Malawian women and the possibility of positive change.  

The only DVD extras are a gallery of still photographs accompanied by traditional music, and a link to a guidebook for the film. The Female Face of AIDS is available from Choices, Inc: further information is available from or by calling 1-888-570-5400. Further information about the Leitner Center’s work in Malawi, including a copy of the report We Will Still Live: Confronting Stigma and Discrimination Against Women Living with HIV/AIDS in Malawi, is available from  


The Female Face of AIDS: Crisis in Malawi

Choices, Inc.

Directed by Doug Karr and Edward Boyce

Color, 2008, 33 Minutes