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By Bryan Newbury
October 8, 2007 


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 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…



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

2007, Ezzie Films, Color and Black & White

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


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 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


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


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


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


By Bryan Newbury
September 27, 2007

“Gentlemen, this is it.” This was Quentin Aaneson’s introduction to combat. Over Omaha Beach, D-Day, Phase Two. 

Episode Four begins with the climactic scenes from the Normandy Invasion. It has been nearly seven hours to this point, and The War is intent on the payoff. After the first three offerings in the series, the accounts of the three phase European entry almost take the viewer by surprise. It has been noted, and Burns has admitted as much, that The War did not seek to go in a conventional direction; rather, it was conceived as a multi-faceted project that seeks to document the war in ways we haven’t seen time and again. The ways of retelling it that made it a knowing joke that the big “H” on the bottom of your screen stood for The Hitler Channel.

This technique is risky. When an artist of any sort attempts to take on a subject of this nature, he is caught in a sort of… forgive me… Catch 22. He can’t tread the well-worn soils that countless others have walked. He must make it new. However, when endeavoring to make it new, he runs the risk of marginalizing major events and shining a spotlight on the marginal ones. To evade this Daedalus design, he is forced to give great sway to the biggest of the big events, while portraying the surrounding events in a novel manner. So far, Ken Burns has managed to avoid the Minotaur. It is early yet to imagine The War as his Ariadne.

Episode Four is great filmmaking. It is also quite a chink in the armor of this series. 

The inherent difficulty in focusing on the personal stories of America and four of her cities at war is that war, by definition, is a rather dramatic enterprise. Pride of a Nation is filled with the drama, the strategy, the blood and toil of battle. As such, it feels a bit out of place. 

Assume, for a moment, that a person started watching The War with little knowledge of World War II. It isn’t exactly a fair assumption, considering the fact that, more than any event in recent history, World War II is omnipresent. Twenty years from now, who knows? When an artist conceives something on this scale, it is fair to apply the twenty-year test. By that time, the attention span of the American public could make that hypothetical citizen a very believable quantity. What might this John Doe take away from the series? 

Again, it isn’t quite fair. Though mammoth in scope, no one imagines that Ken Burns would wish to create the authoritative film history of World War II. If that is the case, why not focus firmly on one event, one campaign, one theater, one city, one soldier, one soldier’s wife? By setting it so broadly, he becomes vulnerable to criticism that would otherwise be absurdly rash.

D-Day does loom large, especially when viewing the war from a very American perspective. (Will there be the stories of German citizens cowering under aerial attack? If one wanted to bring the American viewing public a different angle from which to view the war, this would certainly be a golden subject.) The rub is that, by focusing in on D-Day, it only diminishes the three years of battle that led up to it. Besides, how much is left to see from the Normandy Invasion? 

Saipan is another watershed, and again, Episode Four delivers on its historical representation of just what we imagine those battles must’ve been like. The counterpoint of the 442nd is well-placed. While witnessing the attitude of the Japanese, from admiral to civilian child, choosing suicide over surrender, we get a kind reminder that this outlook served us nicely in the European theater, courtesy of our own Japanese-American soldiers once they were allowed to prove their patriotism. This does the job in maintaining an intellectual balance. This does not solve the imbalance of the first four episodes as a whole.

With three installments to go, our filmmaker is staring down the white bull’s horns. His personal history is getting hijacked by the larger-than-life events that surround the people in question. Unfortunately, the Japanese penchant for shunning surrender feels like a setup for the events of August 1945. It is too early to assume that this will be the case, and possibly we are being fooled with a bit, but if the cynical bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (or even the firebombing of Tokyo) are glossed with the “We had to do it” routine, all could be lost. 

From what we’ve seen thus far, this reviewer is inclined to doubt a ten-thumbed conclusion, with the bunker, Truman’s good faith, and the spawning of suburbia playing out to rosy credits. It is also hard to imagine that the final three episodes will serve to form a coherent project. Should they accomplish this, we might want to find out just who gave Ken Burns the yarn. 

O, I do love cliffhangers.


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


By Bryan Newbury
September 26, 2007

Good popular music can follow any of a number of paths to achieving momentary success. Great popular music must navigate choppier waters. One of the essential disciplines for a great pop album is song placement. The artist and producer weave a complex, but in many ways predictable, emotional pattern. Song placement is key in this endeavor. Almost always, the great album peaks at song four. There is no way of explaining it. Whether it is ten songs or thirteen, whether pensive or exuberant, the key song is always positioned at number four. For the skeptical, the following apply: 1. Everybody Hurts; 2. Thirteen; 3. Veronica; 4. This Is Hell. Elvis Costello occupies two spots.

Rubber Soul and Pet Sounds notwithstanding, it holds true more often than not. Apparently, the same applies to sprawling documentary work.

The War’s Episode Three is that perfect tune. It isn’t necessarily the hit, but it is certainly the piece of work that will stand out thirty years from now, justifying the importance of the project. Like so many of those pieces of music, there isn’t a definitive explanation for why it is exceptional, especially in comparison to the other pieces comprising the whole, but almost everyone eventually accepts the supposition.

It isn’t hard to accomplish tension and emotional upheaval when your subject is World War II. Manipulating those elements into rising and falling action, therefore, is a thankless task. It is expected, despite the difficulty it entails.

Episode Three throws in the kitchen sink.

We begin with racial tension. There is a need for delicacy here. We all know, whether we choose to admit it or not, that the United States in the 1940’s was far from an egalitarian example. The War points out not only the segregation of the Jim Crow South, and the discrimination faced by African-Americans in both the military and civilian world, but also the continuing saga of Japanese-Americans (as a matter of proportion, notice we can say “Japanese” rather than “Asian” American) in the tumult of our battle against the Axis Powers. The delicacy required pertains to the apparent dichotomy of a country that played a major role in defeating fascism while simultaneously denying basic rights to its minority communities.

Much is made of American exceptionalism. It is hard to controvert, considering men like Daniel Inouye of Hawai’i. As the American military displays the gall to recruit in internment camps for the new 442nd Regimental Combat Team (a segregated, Japanese unit allowed to join—or exhibit treason, should they refuse—the fight in 1943) Inouye’s father tells him that “This country has been good to us… we owe a lot to this country… do not dishonor this country.” Where else can a country expect loyalty from those who find themselves incessantly under the boot of their betters? As The War depicts over and over again, this loyalty is obviously in earnest. Without the efforts of the segregated regiments, it would have been difficult at best to prevail. Somehow, America earned their trust more than its majority population.

If the viewer expected to be spared the importance of collective sacrifice, think again. As we segue from those brave men of Senegambian and Japanese, along with Anglo, German and Italian, etc., extraction, another bit of oblique history is accented. In Episode Two it is made quite clear that, rather than strategy or expertise, sheer overproduction was key to victory. Episode Three illustrates another key to victory: recycling. The question is obvious. When was the last time we were asked to save our kitchen fats? Take one less spoon of sugar? Hell, nowadays it would cause a rebellion if we spared a few thousand Congolese lives to do without the same amount of Play Stations. Point taken.

Issues of mutual effort and ethnic inequality eventually give way to those personal stories Burns hinges the entire series upon. While we’re throwing in the kitchen sink… well, let us say that Babe Ciarlo’s correspondence reaches climax.

More and more, The War reminds us of The Old Testament. While absorbing it, we observe that much of it is scattered, irritating and absurd. And, in some inexplicable way, absolutely necessary for all projects of its kind to follow.


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


By Bryan Newbury
September 25, 2007

If Herodotus is history’s father, we might nominate Celine his counterpart in terms of twentieth century war analysis. As he recounts his experiences with the World Wars, as a soldier, citizen and sometime refugee, the primary component… aside from war’s mindlessness, brutality and exacerbating class divide… of his evaluation comes down to a sense of randomness.

As Ken Burns’ The War continues, the viewer is assailed with what seems to be a designed randomness.

The concept, for starters, seems to employ the dart-to-map strategy. The War is told as a series of chapters in municipal biographies. The four towns (Waterbury, Connecticut; Sacramento, California; Luverne, Minnesota; Mobile, Alabama) are representative of our distinct geographic and cultural areas. That said, the selection of four communities in the United States to represent our nation at war tends to improvise on that theme of arbitrariness.

Earlier, this reviewer referred to the “Bix Beiderbecke moment” one can expect in a Ken Burns documentary. In The War, Episode Two, that seems to come in the shape of an intense focus on the Weinzheimer family in Sacramento and The Philippines while the Battle of Midway receives a mention almost in passing.

The War’s focus is not on historians or tacticians, though. Through the stories of “common” individuals, Burns endeavors to get at the gestalt. He is to be commended for a unique approach, eschewing “all things Nazi” or the time-tested technique of men with scrambled egg hats poring over charts and troop movements. This method, while novel, does come with problems.

The Beiderbecke phenomenon is the result of those problems. It is evident that, while looking at these average Americans, the sense of perspective is skewed. After all, Eisenhower is more important than most.

But this is nitpicking. Episode Two is a striking two hours of film. From the North African front to the European air engagements to Mobile shipyards, the totality of World War II is portrayed with clarity. Just as this tightrope act appears in peril of falling off into a haphazard telling, the film manages to hit just the right transition. It is quite remarkable. When it seems that an entire year of trench and air warfare, rations, and, for the most unlucky, internment, is progressing along just a bit too fast, a wonderful monologue on what the infantryman faced on a constant basis rights the ship. When one questions the precision of a narrative that pits the under trained but increasingly well-equipped Americans against the sophisticated and professional Axis forces, he soon finds himself blushing at the incisive descriptions of military strategy and collective sacrifice on the home front. If the Japanese look barbaric in their treatment of prisoners, Executive Order 9066 looks us right in the eye. In case you think the portrayal of our loyal public is coming too close to a back patting for your comfort, we learn about the prevalence of black market purchases during the time of rationing. Et cetera. Et cetera.

It would be unwise to continue without mentioning these individuals that represent our wartime society. There is a need to entertain, and in this regard the pacing is spot-on. In the first episode, Katharine Phillips steals the show. Who can resist a southern belle in full flower? In the following episode, the letters of Babe Ciarlo are compelling. Future episodes will develop other interview subjects to a crescendo.

The approach is imprecise but engaging. Again, we find ourselves in an amusing predicament. At this point, what is left to tell about WWII? Still, The War concludes its second night with a cliffhanger. Can Burns and Co. hang on without spiraling into soap opera? So far, the answer has to be in the affirmative.


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


By Bryan Newbury
September 24, 2007

Ah, The Good War.

Despite pronouncements by soldiers far and wide, one of who plays an integral part in the latest epic documentary project of Ken Burns, that there is no such thing as a good war, all Americans seem to know instinctively that there is indeed. To finish the statement above, though there are no good wars, there are necessary wars. If we are honest with ourselves, the opposite is probably true from the Peloponnesian campaign to Guadalcanal. To refer to a war as necessary by definition extends a value judgment… and in the case of The Big One, at least for the United States, the verdict is overwhelming.

A good war, it seems, is what we are so desperately lacking these days. When considering the Axis Powers, we can conjure images of evil despite the cartoonish posture of Mussolini or the comical moustache Hitler sported. The “gathering threats” of Messrs Hussein and Ahmadinejad seem laughable when considering the challenges of the Anglo Saxon world in the 1940’s. 

Burns does well to assert this difference, albeit in a rather subtle way. The filmmaker has given a number of interviews, which allude to the substantial differences between WWII and our current endeavors in the Middle East. When the subject of collective sacrifice comes up in Episode One, only the most tin-eared observer can miss the comparison.

Anyone familiar with the Burns oeuvre doesn’t need to be told that The War will not be a firebrand’s polemic against American empire. Every detail, ranging from the street addresses of the interviewees to the ubiquitous narration of Keith David, points to a continuation in the Burns body of work. 

Early on, the question seems to be whether or not he can sustain the subject.  The subject, like so much in the Ken catalogue, isn’t all that surprising. Burns has never demurred from America’s larger themes. The Civil War. Our greatest novelist. Our national pastime. One of our two contributions to world culture. Why not tackle the sacred cow of twentieth century America? Of course, one could reasonably accuse him of painting with the broadest of brushes. What is there to profit from an examination of arguably the most examined period in contemporary history? 

This question will be borne out by the seventh episode. Considering the first 150 minutes, it is fair to say that the goal just might be achieved.

Through each turn, The War accomplishes an element of surprise. 

The discerning viewer finds himself questioning Burns’s motives, only to castigate himself when the film acquits itself of any accusation of jingoism. Good war or no, the atmosphere of xenophobia must’ve been palpable during the Second World War. In one moment, we begin to doubt the objectiveness of the film, as footage and stories from Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March seem to cultivate a propagandistic approach. The next, we’re faced with actual propaganda from newsreels and Executive Order 9066. The latter placed the Japanese in America, regardless of citizenship, into internment camps along with German and Italian aliens. It is only natural to assume the side of the victors in this conflict, but The War goes the extra mile thusfar in broadening the scope of ideas.

The question remains: how broad? Should The War sustain its catholic perspective from the invasion of Poland to the mass murder of Hiroshima, it could be an epochal piece of filmmaking. If it diverges in the woods right around the Bix Beiderbecke mile marker, we might have to wait for a nine part series on The Great Depression.


A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

Purchase The War at


By Bryan Newbury
August 29, 2007 

Americans have a natural inclination for collective grief. This predilection, though it surely exists and is widespread, is antithetical to much in the American character. We will attend the funeral, maybe even, when in Rome, dance to the dirge. Joining together to prevent the condition that causes the grief? That’s not exactly our thing.

Two years ago, we engaged in a national handwringing over the near loss of a city that defies definition. New Orleans, possibly more than any other city in North America, was and is an island unto itself. No doubt the national mourning over much of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was sincere, but the question lingers now—and likely will for decades to come—couldn’t this have been prevented?

It would be unfair to cast too many aspersions on the national character for avoiding issues as dry as infrastructure and egress until they have passed the crisis point. Aside from the example of The Netherlands, it is human nature. That said, no one could blame the people of New Orleans for expressing an allegiance to their own. “Cash can be sent in lieu of flowers, America.”

We are one nation, but all politics remain local. In the same vein, it could be said that all tragedy is personal.  Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
August 4, 2007

Most of us remember that jarring nature film moment in our formative years. The one where the film crew flexes its objectivity by choosing not to intervene in the preventable demise of some poor beast caught in the mire. There are a few ways to approach that moment. First, one might set aside the emotional element and take the “scientific” view, that Cartesian cruelty that would make him only observer, never participant. Second, there is the prerogative of the filmmaker, whose intervention would taint the work. Third, that of the human being, aghast at such apathy no matter the means.

Eric Steel’s The Bridge dredges up that conflict in the viewer. Though the plaudits of critics seem to validate views one and two, view three never seems to disappear.

The setting of The Bridge is San Francisco’s Golden Gate. An architectural marvel and national treasure, The Golden Gate Bridge draws shutterbugs and newlyweds from around the world. Unfortunately, such majesty also provides arguably the ultimate means with which to do oneself in. Through just over an hour and a half, the viewer observes along with the filmmaker as men and women brace themselves, hurdle the barriers and plunge to their demise.

While there is much to question in the approach and execution of the film, there can be little argument about the quality of the cinematography. There’s a truism in the photography world that one can’t help but to take a good shot in India. The same could be applied to filming in San Francisco. The seemingly constant fog contrasted with the hours of California sun make for fantastic images, as much for an editor as a cameraman. To seasonal affectives, the atmospheric yo-yo is something out of Dante. If you’re shooting a picture, it is a bounty. This is not to say that Steel & Company don’t display an eye. On the contrary, the viewer ends the film feeling that the same crew could produce a work of stunning imagery in a Dallas suburb. As with any gift, this demands the greatest care not to go around the bend. Sadly, that is just what The Bridge does.
Take the star of the film, Gene Sprague, as an example. Some might recoil at such a designation. In the context of the film, that is precisely how the jumper is treated. Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
June 25, 2007

“It is based on a recognition of the astonishing beauty of things and their living wholeness, and on a rational acceptance of the fact that mankind is neither central nor important in the universe; our vices and blazing crimes are as insignificant as our happiness. We know this, of course, but it does not appear that any previous one of ten thousand religions and philosophies has realized it. An infant feels himself to be central and of primary importance; an adult knows better; it seems time that the human race attained to an adult habit of thought in this regard.”

Robinson Jeffers
Preface, The Double Axe and
Other Poems

The words Robinson Jeffers unleashed in 1947 did not endear him to the established order of things, nor the public at large. While there is little to dispute in his logic, when applied to the cosmic order, The Double Axe likely sealed his demise in academic and critical circles. It is not good business to be against war in a time of hyperpatriotism. It is not good business to suggest that centuries of western philosophy and theology have been mistaken. It is most assuredly bad business to tell any audience, especially an American one, to grow the hell up.

It shows a good deal of bravery, but it ignores an essential truism about mass communication: no one likes the truth-teller.

No doubt Jeffers has rolled in his grave so many times over that Texaco has considered attaching a bit to his corpse to drill for some of those waning ounces of black gold. It is a curious debate to be had on whether Jeffers might have known that some sixty years hence, the world’s lone superpower would not only fall short of the mark in terms of cosmic awareness… it would extend its indifference beyond the world around, including the very people that its core philosophy held paramount.

This callous disregard for our fellow man seems to be the dominant theme emerging in the oeuvre of Michael Moore. Distilled to the essence, this is what Moore’s films have illustrated with outrage, humor and poignancy. If it is the indifference to the plight of the American and international working class, as seen in Roger & Me and The Big One; if it is the casual approach to gun violence in our culture of fear that Bowling for Columbine masterfully exhibits; if it comes in the voices of the helpless Iraqis in the jarring footage of Fahrenheit 911, the underlying message tying all of these elements is clearly that we just don’t seem to collectively give a damn about our fellow human beings.

Which brings us to Moore’s latest offering, Sicko.

Much of the media surrounding Sicko would lead the viewer to believe that this is an about face from the combative and, in the eyes of his critics, solipsistic filmmaking approach that has made Mike famous. If one only has the major media to rely on for a general idea, it would not be beyond reason for him to think that Sicko is a completely different ball of wax. Fox News gave it good reviews, for heaven’s sake.

True, Moore has polished his approach. The film doesn’t lose the real story, though in fairness it is hard to think of an example where Moore is more memorable from Roger forward than the subjects of his documentaries. The hubbub of the kinder, gentler Mike seems to be more a result of news outlets looking for an original angle (as opposed to reasoned reportage) and giving offerings at the precipice of the echo chamber. To the delight of his fans, and for some reason without the dismay of many of his detractors, Sicko is actually vintage Moore. His filmmaking has evolved, as is in evidence from the more subdued pacing of this latest offering, but isn’t that to be expected? Though fewer in number, the sardonic historical footage, replete with not-so-subtle allusions to our irrational response to L’ennemi du jour, is still present. The somewhat maudlin moments of empathy to his hard luck protagonists are as often as anything else in the Moore canon. Predatory capitalism’s vicissitudes are logged with the same force. George Bush says some very stupid things.

All the ingredients are there, but it could certainly be argued that Sicko delivers the message better than any of its counterparts. Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
February 26, 2007

Last month Showtime announced that it would air six episodes of a television adaptation of WBEZ’s acclaimed This American Life. Regular listeners will hardly miss a beat, as the screen version is a nearly identical experience right down to host Ira Glass’ herky jerky cadence now with visuals! On second thought, they’ll miss a number of beats along with… Iraglass…. on…. Thisamericanlife… Act II. But these are the out of the pocket rhythms to which they’ll be accustomed.

Viewing episodes one through four, it is quite clear that Glass and Co. have retained complete creative control. The format is instantly recognizable, and the single detraction is Glass narrating from a desk with Walter Winchell microphone in various locales. Retaining the geek chic of the show seems to be nonnegotiable. Fans of the show will no doubt be pleased. Whether it will play in Pittsburgh is yet to be seen.

For those not acquainted with the somber singing of Garrison Keillor or the admonitions of the brothers Magliozzi not to drive like them, a little background. Since 1995, This American Life has brought listeners engaging and offbeat stories of not-so-regular regular Americans. The subjects range from quirky to delusional. Glass serves as the personality, along with a cast of sidepeople that all seem to share what can only be described as an urban privilege aesthetic. He has enough of a presence of personality to keep each program consistent and coherent, though that choppy manner of speech (presumably to avoid bridge words such as “like/you know”) can be trifling. It is singular, and it places Glass in the category of a postmodern Rod Serling, guiding us through short stories where the subjects are the stars.

About those subjects. It is difficult, especially with the knowing irony that serves as constant companion in the show, to judge whether these strange everymen whose stories fill This American Life are being looked at with wonder or derision. The answer seems to be a combination of both. In four 30 minute episodes, viewers are treated to a rancher so bereaved by the loss of his bull that he clones him with nightmarish consequences; a Vermont band who is pranked into a dream gig; a retiree focused on screening her first short subject at Sundance; and, among others, a woman who spent her youth getting out from under the yoke of her strict Mormon upbringing only to return to Utah because her boyfriend becomes iconic to the father as a result of his striking resemblance to Jesus.

One can’t accuse the show of lacking imagination or the ability to captivate. Glass himself turns out to be a sympathetic interviewer, and this no doubt elicits more information from the show’s subjects. There is still that nagging feeling that despite such empathy for outsiders, the subjects are much like Ghosts of Pasha: they aren’t quite in on the joke, good natured though it may be. The dichotomy necessitates ambivalence in the listener or viewer. These people are far from commonplace, but they are common. In this respect, all are tragicomic. If This American Life can be accused of one principle weakness, it is that they focus more on the comic than tragic in their role as observer.

Fortunately, it will be easy to decide if the show is for you. Just tune in on public radio (it is broadcast on most local stations) and listen for a few weeks. One of three options will present itself. You’ll tune in to Showtime because you love it, you’ll throw your radio out of the kitchen window because you don’t love it so much, or you’ll like it, tune in, and then discover that you’re not gaining a whole lot by watching rather than listening to it. Indeed, you’re losing a half hour. Even if option three is your choice, it is advisable to stick it out through episodes three and four, whose visual contributions add much to the narrative.

It would be fair to say that This American Life isn’t destined for a long television run. Part of the show’s success has been its hipper-than-thou stance, which plays well to selective public radio audiences. This attribute makes it hard to see a broad audience. It isn’t so much that such shows are “too smart” for the viewing public… just that they tend to tell you “I’m pretty smart” over and over. Perceptive viewers will likely sense some condescension. It is not beyond consideration that the engaging characters who fill the program will be enough to see past that. Judging from the initial episodes, Showtime will be enjoying a loyal following for the show… even if… it… isn’tforeveryone.


This American Life, Episodes 1-4

Showtime & Chicago Public Radio


By Bryan Newbury
January 9, 2007

“(E)ach candidate behaved well in the hope of being judged worthy of election. However, this system was disastrous when the city had become corrupt. For then it was not the most virtuous but the most powerful who stood for election, and the weak, even if virtuous, were too frightened to run for office.”

–Niccolo Machiavelli.
Attention filmmakers: if you desire a hit, or at least critical accolades, you could do worse than throwing a dart at a map of New Jersey and filming local elections. After seeing both Anytown, U.S.A. and Street Fight, it is hard to imagine many documentary buffs who aren’t itching for another volume to comprise a New Jersey electoral trilogy. Street Fight isn’t quite as compelling as Anytown, yet its excellence is tough to dispute.

Actually, much of Marshall Curry’s film Street Fight borders on what could best be termed “accidental excellence.” Not that Curry isn’t a gifted filmmaker with an eye for gripping political drama. Not that this feeling permeates viewing the film. It is only upon reflection that one thinks to himself, “He seems to have stumbled into it.”

In a way he has, which is not to be judgmental, because there are scores of solid documentaries whose creation and execution seem to be guided by stars. Curry came to Newark originally to set up a literacy program. Like much of Newark, Curry was once a fan of the eccentric and gifted mayor Sharpe James. As the film unfolds, the dark side of Mr. James becomes increasingly disturbing.

Street Fight is more a profile of attractive upstart Cory Booker, a 32-year-old one-term city councilman. The battle between Booker and James is unlike most in American politics. Both are African-American (unless you take the view of Mr. James, who states or implies at various times that Booker is a white Jew on the Klan payroll) and both are Democrats… unless, well, you know. In spite of those on-paper similarities, the two could scarcely be more different. Booker was raised in a suburb, went to Stanford and then to Yale Law, has a casual charm and a genuine altruism. There are a number of parallels one could draw between Booker and Barack Obama. As Curry describes on the film’s website, Booker was getting the “first black President” talk even while his political career was nascent. Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
January 1, 2007

Disarm gives the viewer some indicators that it is what we might refer to as an “activist” film. The primary image associated with it are Afghan children standing in front of a wall… one of what used to be four… with the title stenciled in black spray paint. The score is provided by Brendan Canty of Fugazi. That spray paint stencil is used as the title image in the opening credits, with participants from the affected nations painting it on walls, tanks and other iconic images of war and waste. This presentation gives the title itself a character more of demand than display.

This judgment is soon rebuffed by the work presented. Disarm takes us to the hot spots of antipersonnel mining, and subsequent de-mining, and does so with impressively athletic pace. We begin at the Myanmar-Thai border. As an official explains, the use of cameras in the area is illegal. Given the reputation of the government in Myanmar, one senses that the footage we see was gained at some peril.

From there, they set off to Sarajevo. The scenes from Bosnia and Herzegovina do best to illustrate a key point Wareham and Liu are driving at. Namely, that the horrific irony of the practice of mining is that though it serves a limited military purpose, which few fighters would choose to do without, the people who fall prey to the devices are overwhelmingly civilian and usually come across the mines in peace time. In Bosnia and Afghanistan alike, the de-mining is done best by men who laid the things in the first place. One Bosnian soldier reflects upon the inevitability of digging up some he has set.

The second key point, which Disarm succeeds in making, is that the subject of land mines seems to deter from the principle point of the argument: the victims. As scenes from Kabul and Colombia show, even if the nations of the world had the will to eradicate the munitions from the face of the earth, there would still be an overwhelming need to assist those already afflicted by them. Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
December 19, 2006

“April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.”

T.S. Eliot
That The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is the most essential viewing for one who endeavors to understand international politics could scarcely be disputed. Whether it is more valuable as a portrait of emerging democracy in Latin America or an account of media manipulation by private industry is up for debate.

As the Irish film crew, led by Kim Bartley and Donnacha O Briain, captures tense moments inside the presidential palace, the role of media (and subsequently, historians) is illustrated perfectly. While Hugo Chavez’ ministers are languishing in the palace, which is under threat of cannon fire should Chavez not surrender himself to the coup d’etat, one is filmed exclaiming that “[T]hey can’t destroy history.” Can’t they, now?

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised illustrates a number of issues with Latin America in general and Venezuela in particular, but the idea of destroying history is at the forefront. As one watches the film, it is alluring to contemplate just how much of history is reliable. And just how much could well be laughable. Were it not for the filmmakers arriving in Caracas in September of 2001 to shoot a documentary about the populist President of Venezuela, the official story would appear as some bastard doppelganger inverse to actual fact. That ironies seem to compound in relation to the film is symptomatic of the state of North and Latin American media it seems to decry. Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
December 11, 2006

In literary circles, there are two schools of thought regarding Henry Charles Bukowski. The first reveres, going so far as to stand him next to Whitman and Villon in the poetic pantheon. The second finds him craftless, boorish and generally not their kind of people. “How many ways can you look at rough sex or horse races,” this second group, usually consisting of equal parts obsequious academic intellectuals and overly sensitized hausfraus, will go on. The first group answers, “Quite a lot,” and braces for fisticuffs while group two laments the state of contemporary verse.

This sketch could be a bit of a simplification, but finding a gray area when it comes to Buk is like seeking common ground between English and Argentine football fans. A fitting tribute to the man. Bukowski wasn’t one for nuance.

Whatever camp one falls into, there is no disputing his selling power. In the twelve years following his death, Charles Bukowski is more than a cottage industry. From 1994 to the present, he’s had more books of poetry released than many do in a lifetime. He’s sold more than most. Matt Dillon stars in a recent adaptation of his second novel, Factotum, and the chances of seeing Buk’s pockmarked mug on a tee shirt at a rock show are exponentially greater than when he was alive.

This presented a daunting task to director John Dullaghan. When a cult figure reaches this kind of popular apogee, the longtime fans tend to get a bit restless. For the many who have shared a kinship with this drinking class hero, this level of attention is a bit unwelcome. At the very least, the 2003 release of Born Into This must have appeared opportunistic to die-hard Bukowskians. This is a group of men and women who have been known to steal titles, drink heavily and heckle Phillip Roth. Dangerous characters.

On the other hand, Bukowski fans are thrilled with even a passing glance. There is no limit to books, recordings, broadsides or… tee shirts… that a devotee might collect. Though the exposure may strike the hard core as unseemly, it must be taken into consideration that Buk was not in the company of Auden or Bunting, eschewing biography for the work itself. To the contrary, few have cultivated such a cult of personality. The more Bukowski content there is, the fans say, the better.

Dullaghan had a tightrope to walk. Yes, there is an audience for this film. A rabid one at that. That audience, however, tends to define cynical. Sure, that certain number will own a copy; but the chances of them widely deriding it as bullshit are very high.

It is with pleasure that the reviewer can report Dullaghan has the balance of a cat. Born Into This is beyond a triumph. For fans of Bukowski, and even of contemporary literature, it is an essential addition. Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
November 30, 2006

It was 73 degrees Fahrenheit in Lawrence, Kansas on Tuesday, 28 November 2006. Within a day, that turned to 37 and reduced to low 30’s, then 20’s and eventually into the teens. Rain was followed by freezing rain, then drizzle, then sleet. In spite of the deteriorating weather situation, hundreds packed into the University of Kansas’ Woodruff Auditorium for the maiden screening of Fall from Grace. Mr. Jones quipped to a capacity hall that he was pleased with the attendance. “I spent a year with the Phelps family…with the weather I was beginning to fear that God does hate me.”

Yes, the audience, along with Mr. Jones, pressed on. Good for the filmmaker’s soul, no doubt. Murder on a reviewer’s complexion.

Fall from Grace is the fruit of a long year spent with the Phelps family, the primary members of the Westboro Baptist Church’s congregation. As the film illustrates, Phelps & Co. are known throughout the world for their pickets, protests, and general hatred of Broadway musicals. What would make a young man devote such time to the subject of Phelps and his ever-visible “God Hates Fags” and subsequently, “God Hates Troops” signs? One suspects it is the same reason Westboro changed its focus from homosexuals to the Iraq War: publicity.

Surely he can’t be blamed for it. Indeed, this is a timely subject. Though we might like to look beyond these evangelical instigators and picture them as quaint anachronisms inhabiting a time prior to the War on Terror, it is instructive to get a view from the crow’s nest into their political, theological and philosophical world. Considering that common ground has been reached between Palestinian Imams and Israeli Orthodox Rabbis on the assertion that a gay pride march is the ultimate anathema in al Quds, we may see Phelps through the lens of history as ahead of the curve. When a bulk of America’s states, including Kansas, decided to validate a portion of Westboro’s teachings through the constitutional prohibition of same-sex unions, Phelps might have demurred. Rather than circling the victory lap, Pastor Fred saw an opening for a new whipping boy. How, exactly, Mr. Phelps came to the conclusion that the American military is aligned with the sleeper cells of the homosexual agenda is up for debate. Changing the object of his ire from fags to flags could be a tremendous miscalculation. Then again, when one ponders James Guckert, he might not be that far off.

The aspect of a convoluted philosophy manifested through a charismatic personality is tackled well in Fall from Grace. The aim of the picture seems to be an in-depth portrait of the personality of Phelps and by extension his family and congregation. (As Jones pointed out in the question-and-answer period, there are only two other families in the congregation. One is married in, the other apparently another filmmaker who migrated back to Kansas from Florida to do a documentary on Phelps and ended up a member of the parish. Tread lightly, Mr. Jones. There but for the grace.) As a profile, Fall from Grace works rather well. We learn much about Fred Phelps’ development both spiritually and professionally. Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
November 10, 2006

Detractors of Michael Moore usually share something in common besides politics. More often than not, they haven’t seen the films of which they’re speaking.

It is surprising, then, that The Big One hasn’t shared the enmity that greeted his other feature documentaries. After all, if there is one film of Moore’s that hasn’t been seen, by and large it is this one.

The film takes place on Moore’s book tour promoting his 1996 work “Downsize This!: Random Threats from an Unarmed American.” It is little wonder that Moore has been widely castigated by not only the right, but also mainstream media in general. Here is a man making millions from films and publishing books… and he doesn’t even have a college degree! What right does such a slovenly lout have telling us on which side the bread is buttered? Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
November 20, 2006

There was a time, not too distant in this nation’s history, that to be accused of profiteering was tantamount to a treason charge. In fact, Harry Truman said as much. One gets the feeling that if he could resurrect Truman and F.D.R. for a screening of Robert Greenwald’s Iraq for Sale the reaction would be something just short of seeing Rosemary Clooney on stage in hiphuggers and a bustier.

War profiteering is as time-honored as the act of killing itself; however, just like appearing in public in a Vicodin haze and a state of undress, there used to be something clandestine and scandalous about the enterprise. As this film illustrates, the act of profiteering has become essentially official state policy.

Greenwald takes on the usual suspects. We begin with Blackwater’s private security team. Everyone remembers seeing the grisly scene of 13 April 2004 in Fallujah where four American citizens were burned, mutilated and strung up. The most jarring realization at the time seemed to be that these weren’t American military, but civilians. Actually, these men occupied the gray area of the mercenary. Not a state charge, exactly, but certainly not a water treatment worker or an architect. As it happens, Blackwater funds a sort of private army in Iraq. The four who lost their lives that day were doing security detail for Mr. Bremer.

A reoccurring theme is set with the story of two of these men, told by grieving families. The money paid to private contractors to outsource military duties at an egregious premium is the primary motivation for said companies’ employees to be in Iraq in the first place. While we feel sympathy for the losses of the families seen throughout the film, it is hard to ignore the fact that the employees of KBR, CACI and Blackwater are there for a huge payday as well. Irrespective of this, there is a case to be made that with such hefty resources it is the duty of these companies to use some reason in deployment of hired guns and truck drivers. The beef of the families is by and large that the private contractors in Iraq cut corners to increase profits. Couldn’t call it unexpected that when an entity whose primary goal is increased profit is charged with the business of state, the invisible hand of the market chops off the occasional head.

The numbers and actions of the companies profiled in Iraq for Sale make quite a case for the bereaved. Crisis communications expert Chris Lehane describes in detail what public relations moves Blackwater made after the Fallujah incident. No matter what a person thinks about the men and women seeking a small part of the fortune and the risks they take, it is difficult not to look for new and better curse words for these folks. Combine that with the 600% growth the company has enjoyed and the fact that the U.S. government awarded them with a $73 million contract from FEMA for Katrina “relief” and the question of just who is running the government becomes increasingly salient. Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
November 14, 2006

Do not be alarmed. That sound you heard at the coffee shop this morning was United States documentary buffs praising the celluloid gods in for the manna they’d received from their rental clerk.

Michael Apted’s latest installment of the Up series has hit the street after an excruciating wait. For the film fan, it is something akin to having a class reunion, Thanksgiving Dinner and a letter from a distant relative all at the same time. The opening sequence from 1964’s World in Action feature takes us back to the point we became aware of this groundbreaking work. Since Seven & Fourteen, Apted’s septennial look into the lives of English men and women from across the class and geographical spectrum has surpassed simply groundbreaking and been catapulted into the legendary realm. An argument could be made that it stands alone atop Olympus in the world of documentary filmmaking.

As Apted has admitted on many occasions, the Up series started off with some preconceptions of the class system in Britain that turn out to be far more nuanced than anyone had thought. Rather than serving as a document for the rigid class system, over the years the Ups have displayed striking exceptions to it. Beyond that, it has chronicled the new face of London to some degree, as well as the ever unchanging Dales and Scottish countryside. Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
November 7, 2006

In this midterm election season it is heartening to consider what country, and world, we might be looking at were it not for the 2000 Presidential Election. Watching The Party’s Over sustains those “what-ifs” while displaying just how we got to 2004. It is difficult to gauge just how apropos the filmmakers thought this title would be in 2004 and beyond, but judging from this fact-heavy documentary one is led to suspect that there is a bit of a wink behind it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman narrates the film and acts as tour guide to American politics circa 2000. It would be hard to imagine a better person for the role, as Hoffman admits he isn’t, or at least wasn’t, very politically engaged. This is a great benefit to the film. In today’s market there seems to be an echo of what the news media refers to as “balance.” For example, when someone does a film critical of Wal-Mart, the retort comes in the form of another film which is sympathetic to it. Leaving aside the facts, the reaction seems to be that one is equal to the other. Both sides are told, one from each slant.

Of the many documentaries of a political nature this reviewer has watched in the course of the last six years, none have exhibited less bias or more balance than The Party’s Over. It could serve as a companion volume to a number of films made in the aughts. It pairs well with the Moore Canon. Hoffman examines the issue of fear as control, much like Moore in Bowling for Columbine. Only Hoffman gets the quotes at a gun show from N.R.A. meetings. It would appear that the far right and far left in America understand precisely what kind of game is being played. The disconnect lies in the perceived culprits and solutions. Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
November 5, 2006
“All politics is local.”

Should you wish to disprove Tip O’Neill’s famous advice, which actually dates back to Finley Dunne, you needn’t look further than Anytown, USA.

Ostensibly it captures the most local of political races: that of the mayoral in Bogota, New Jersey. Bogota is typical of small town America demographically, culturally and politically. The main concerns of the citizens, depending upon whom you ask, are either taxes or services. One maverick answered this type of question by stating he’d like lower taxes and better schools and roads. We wonder why the best and brightest stay out of politics.

That truism still has legs. At the outset, citizens of Bogota are seen up in arms about budget cuts which threaten the school. Schools are always high on the list for potential voters, but the problem goes even deeper in Bogota: it could kill the football team! Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
November 4, 2006

At least there’s Keith Olbermann.

Though certain reviewers have called comparisons to the antiwar movement during the Nixon administration to that of today’s tumult, one would need blinders fitted for a thoroughbred to avoid obvious parallels. The U.S. vs. John Lennon begins with an archetypal image of the scene in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. A concert is being held for jailed MC5 manager and marijuana legalization activist John Sinclair. Sinclair’s offense? Offering two joints to an undercover agent. His sentence? Ten years maximum security.

Enter a cast of fellow musicians and activists. At center stage is John Lennon, armed with National Resophonic guitar and his wife Yoko. We are to find out that the simple act of singing on Sinclair’s behalf coincided with the Michigan Supreme Court summarily overturning the conviction they’d recently upheld. Maybe there’s something to this whole rock ‘n roll thing.

The U.S. vs. John Lennon follows this scene with a bit of exposition. Much of it isn’t altogether necessary to fans of Lennon. For that matter, fans of popular culture in the second half of the twentieth century. It does, however, serve to build the foundation for a narrative pacing that is commendable in documentary filmmaking. Read the rest of this entry »


Happy film productions are all alike; every unhappy film production is unhappy… well, it is unhappy in almost always the same way.

In Hearts of Darkness the angst, agony and ecstasy of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now receives a masterful dissection. That it doesn’t descend into parody for one minute is an accomplishment of Herculean proportions.

Coppola had originally intended upon shooting Apocalypse with George Lucas during the Vietnam Conflict. Screen writer John Milius wanted to stage the thing in Vietnam. Studios wouldn’t go near it for obvious reasons, and Coppola had to settle for making The Godfather I and II.

By 1976 he had parlayed that success into American Zoetrope and developed enough clout to make the epic.

Hearts is full of ghosts. The first is that of Joseph Conrad.

Conrad can have a funny influence on people. His books caused this reviewer (an ardent pacifist) to join The United States Navy. He inspired both Orson Welles and Francis Ford Coppola to tackle “Heart of Darkness.” Challenged would be closer. Should the Necronomiconesque qualities of the dour Pole be doubted, consider the Unabomber.

Welles must have felt the chill in the room. Before rolling a frame, Welles was looking at twice his allotted budget, butting heads with the studio and lost his screenwriting partner. No mention is made as to whether Coppola sought out Welles when beginning an adaptation of the same novel in a different war, but his shadow looms in any event. It is a substantial coincidence that after Welles’s aborted Heart of Darkness he went on to make Citizen Kane. Considering that Welles and Coppola respectively released what many consider to be the Number 1 and 2 films in the history of cinema, the idea of an odd type of curse is pervasive. “You may try,” we find Conrad taunting, “and for your efforts you will be rewarded. But I will be damned if you make the thing.”

Coppola is obviously cognizant of the connection. While we watch the priceless footage shot by his wife Eleanor, the feeling that he is willing the thing to be a fiasco is omnipresent. It is hard not to speculate as to whether Coppola wanted a failed production. He certainly played his hand into it. Negotiating a deal with Ferdinand Marcos whereby Philippine helicopters were leased with the caveat that they could be taken back at a moment’s notice should they need to be used for counterinsurgency. Giving his lead actor the sack and hiring on Martin Sheen, at the time something of a loose cannon. Casting the temperamental Brando as Kurtz and advancing him $1 million. (Why not just shoot the moon and have Orson play him?) It doesn’t require an undue amount of cynicism to postulate that the fruition of the film was the real failure in Coppola’s mind. As tapes of his conversations indicate, Coppola was motivated by something much larger than just a movie. With each outburst it seems that he’s aiming not so much for “Heart of Darkness” as “Dead Souls,” “The Anathemata” or Orson Welles’s Don Quixote. Though completed works make legends, those testaments to a creative genius delving so deeply into a work that he loses himself entirely make myths.  Read the rest of this entry »