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Lo and Behold

Werner Herzog’s documentary Lo and Behold shows the history of the Internet and provides insights, some I’d heard and others I hadn’t, about the Internet’s growth and it’s effects.

I found the segment interviewing a man who had an alternative version of the Internet and the actual look at the earliest equipment and its presentation by a man who was one of the computer scientists who invented the Internet 1.0. Herzog interviews his subjects well asking all the questions I wanted to know and finding people whose contributions and work are crucial to technology today. I liked seeing the people behind the bytes and bits.

Lo and Behold would a good film for technology students, though you don’t need to be an insider to follow it.

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Homme Less

 

This documentary follows the life of a fashionable, savvy New York model/photographer who has become homeless. Though he does photo shoots for international fashion magazines, rubs shoulders with the beau monde, and seems to have a fair amount of connections, this middle-aged man has no home. Unbeknownst to his friend who gave him an apartment key, the film’s hero sleeps on his friend’s rooftop. He has a locker at the Y, uses coffee shops as offices (not a bad thing), and somehow manages to look well heeled and even entice young 20-something women into bed. (He’s not mentioning that he’s homeless.)

The film was unique as is the subject, Mark, who had a lot of bravado, and was able to publish photos in a lot of publications. It wasn’t clear why he was homeless. He got checks and made deposits of $50,000 or more. I know that doesn’t go far in New York, but sleeping under a tarp and using an old gallon milk jug for a toilet in January in New York sounds like a horrid way to live. The hero alternated between being interesting, annoying and perplexing. He hasn’t figured out why he’s homeless and I couldn’t either.

The film’s website and promotional materials allude to how this film shows how poverty is encroaching on the middle class. Yet Mark is a talented and resourceful enough guy to have taken a different, less dreamy career path. He could live elsewhere and make enough money to put a roof over his head.

I’m glad I saw the film, but I can’t say it’s a “Must-See.” If you run across it, give it a watch, but don’t go to a lot of trouble to see it.

Chronicle of a Summer

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I’d heard the term “cinema verite” and like many wrongly thought that referred to a film that’s extremely realistic. It turns out that’s not exactly right. For my classic movie resolution, I watched Chronicle of a Summer by the inventors of cinema verite, two French sociologists. Cinema verite is a sociological film that forces people to come to the truth. Released in 1961, captured on black and white film, which adds a filter of reality that color couldn’t strangely enough, Chronicle of a Summer sets out to prompt real people to come in contact with truth through interviews and discussions that begin with the simple question: Are you happy? The directors behind the film are Jean Rouch, an engineer turned ethnological filmmaker who mainly worked in Africa and Edgar Morin, a sociologist based in Paris.

With two directors, the film does have two distinct moods. Viewers can feel when the somber, analytical Morin is in charge or when the more playful Rouch has the reins. The film begins with a woman agreeing to interview people on the street asking subjects whether they’re happy. It turns out that in Paris in 1960 few were. Still the film gets under your skin. Though neither director has gone to film school, the creative shots grabbed me and did feel very real. At times the film just shows people, working in a factory, eating lunch, walking down a street. They’re shown in their individualism in a way that’s compelling and fresh. I liked some of the subjects more than others. For the most part, the subjects came off as sincere and they presented a snapshot of life in 1960. I found the ending simple and powerful. Rouch and Morin gather their subjects for a screening of the film followed by a discussion. We hear their reactions whether they thought some people were exhibitionists or authentic, whether the whole endeavor was true to life or indecent. People were honest and through this scene were elevated beyond just being “performers” or “subjects” to being co-creators. Chronicle of a Summer is a Criterion Collection film and as usual features some worthwhile bonuses. The best was an insightful interview with Faye Ginsberg, who worked with Jean Rouch after he made this film.

Tim’s Vermeer

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I saw this nifty film on my flight back from China. Tim’s Vermeer is a documentary about a friend of Penn Jennett, the magician, who has always loved to tinker and invent. Tim Jenison, who has a software company and earned buckets of money creating various kinds of software, gets fascinated by Johannes Vermeer’s paintings. Vermeer made no records of how he worked and his paintings intrigued Tim because they have such an illuminated, photographic quality. As an inventor, Tim knows a lot about optics and lenses (and all sorts of engineering sorts of things). He believes that Vermeer must have used optics to paint and he goes about trying to replicate Vermeer’s technique.

The film demonstrates camera obscura’s and explains the inventions of the day. Narrated by his old school pal, Jennet, the film follows Tim through the lengthy process of recreating Vermeer’s studio and getting the lens apparatus to work. Tim is not a painter, but with this technique, which is quite cool, that’s not a hindrance. David Hockney appears in a few scenes to comment on whether Tim’s on the right track, whether this method might be right.

It’s fun to see a smart amateur take on such a project.  It’s a short film and Tim is very down to earth. I cheered him on as he explored this fascination with Vermeer.

The Men Who Made Us Thin

This is a fascinating documentary on how Western culture got hooked on diets and the idea of being thin when we really didn’t need to in the 1950s. An insurance executive pretty much changed what “thin” means and convinced healthy people they were fat. The result is perpetual dieting for many that doesn’t work and can just make us gain weight.

Well worth watching.

Documentary: Somm

Somm documents four sommeliers as they study for the highest level certification in wine tasting. Similar to Kings of Pastry, viewers will come away with a great respect for professionals who strive and sacrifice to become the best of the best.

The test is demanding and each man approaches it with a different intensity. The film will fascinate anyone with an interest in wine. I was impressed as these sommeliers practiced tasting wine and then stating its characteristics and pinpointing its origins. Like Kings of Pastry, I found the film enjoyable in a way that’s a bit more serious and classy than the Food Network competitions. The biggest drawback in the film is that cameras were not allowed into the tasting rooms. So we watch all the practice and hear the results, but don’t get to see the actual testing.

Kings of Pastry

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The epitome of achievement in the world of French pastry is the M.O.F., a pastry chef who’s merited the prestigious Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition (Best Craftsmen in France). The documentary The Kings of Pastry takes viewers into the world of the intense competition. MOF chefs receive a red, white and blue collar and a medal from the president of France.

The film follows Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of Chicago’s French Pastry School, as he vies for the supreme honor. We see Pfeiffer and two other chefs preparing and competing. They must create a wedding cake, sugar sculpture, buffet of pastries under strict rules in three days.

The film is engrossing as it goes deeper than the average TV cooking competition and really examines the passion and craftsmanship of the pastry world. It did make me crave some delectable, sophisticated treats so you’ve been warned.

Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry

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Be prepared to be blown away. Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry packs quite a punch. This documentary shows Chinese artist cum activist Ai Wei Wei as he stands up for victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and seeks justice after police break into his hotel room in Chengdu and beat him.

The film fascinated me. It follows Ai as he tries to get the government to publish the real numbers of students who died in the flimsy school buildings in Sichuan. With newsreel footage and interviews, it shows the torture and abuse his father endured in the 1950s. I’ve read several books, fiction and non-fiction, about the Anti-Rightist Campaign. The stark newsreels of neighbor denouncing neighbor deepened my understanding of this horrible period.

The documentary shows Ai in New York where he started his art career and in Europe installing current works. Filmmakers follow him as he pursues justice after being beaten by police and detained so that he was unable to testify on behalf of another Chinese activist, who was found guilty.

Ai is mesmerizing. He’s bold, audacious, brave, down-to-earth and shrewd. He’s figured out the power of social media and despite the government’s censorship has attracted a following of Chinese who share his desire for transparency and democracy. These folks aren’t just spectators as we see when Ai protests the government mandated demolition of the studio the government told him to build, hordes show up for his protest. They know they’re being watched and recorded and are willing to take that risk.

Ai knows what the government’s up to and finds clever ways to show it for what it is. Though he doubts he can win, he works within the system seeking justice from the police whom illegally knocked in his hotel room door, beat and detained him. By recording every step of his bureaucratic quest for justice, he shows the world how the government works and that all is not well in the new China.

I found the interviews with fellow artists and Evan Osnos of the New Yorker insightful and trenchant. They show how people who care about China will stick their necks out to make it better, even though they doubt they’ll see improvement.

Living in China myself, I see the good parts and know that experiences like Ai’s and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo‘s are true, but it’s so easy to forget. I’m grateful for this movie that reminds me and fleshes out Ai WeiWei’s life and work.

Never Sorry is available on Netflix.

Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam Style Parody

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

It looks so simple

Jiro Dreams of Sushi delights as it presents the story of a sushi master par excellence. Like Bill Cunningham: NY, this documentary gives us a glimpse of a man whose a master in his field and finds great joy in his art. Jiro is 82 and has a small, unassuming sushi restaurant in a mall that seems to be part of the subway pedway in Tokyo. You would not expect this to be a 3 star Michelin restaurant. It’s maintained that elite status for years.

Jiro and his two sons will make anyone appreciate sushi, even folks like me who don’t particularly like fish. He works so hard at making his food perfect. He’s probably the only chef who insists his apprentices massage octopus for 50 minutes so that it’s perfectly tender. Some may find this sexist, but he gives women smaller portions so that both male and female diners finish eating their sushi at the same time. Evidently, he’s noticed that women would take longer to eat the same size sushi as a man.

I found each moment of Jiro Dreams of Sushi mesmerizing. His description of his childhood and getting kicked out of the house to fend for himself at age 7 or so, his reunion with old classmates, the trips to the fish market – it was such a joy to watch Jiro delight in his work.

Never Sorry

This documentary on Chinese artist and activist Ai Wei Wei is at the top of my list of films I want to see. My impression of Ai Wei Wei is that he’s a real hero.

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