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Barbara Kopple: Pathfinder

A politically engaged filmmaker since her 1976 Oscar winning documentary Harlan County USA, Barbara Kopple's latest, New Homeland, tackles the current refugee crisis through the prism of children at a Canadian summer camp.
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Carmine Street Guitars

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Carmine Street Guitars is the latest offering from acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ron Mann, capturing 5 days in the life of the fabled custom guitar shop in Greenwich Village, New York. Its owner Rick Kelly is a dedicated craftsman, building electric guitars from reclaimed wood found in dumpsters and old buildings – the “bones of New York”. His veneration within the community is disclosed by the number of musicians (plus the film’s credited instigator, Jim Jarmusch) that drop in, often to play and share a good yarn with the congenial Rick.

In a modest workshop out back, Rick quietly works away on his stringed instruments like Geppetto, and instils them with character. The shop’s upkeep is supported by his mother, who takes cares of the general admin and his apprentice Cindy Hulej, who adds to his work by burning beautiful designs into the wood. While Rick maintains the business of the shop through word of mouth and traditional methods (he admits to not having a mobile phone or internet at home), Cindy helps the business by sharing their collaborations on social media.

Carmine Street Guitars is a time capsule of an establishment; a testament to the neighbourhood’s bygone era of culture and music. It’s a shop also pleasingly unaffected by the growing gentrification in the surrounding neighbourhoods, highlighted amusingly in one scene when a laconic Rick is visited by a real estate agent.

With guitars made for the likes of Lou Reed hanging on its walls, each handcrafted instrument is a tangible piece of New York’s history. Rick opines about the joy he gets from giving the resonant wood a new life by repurposing them as guitars. He compares the markings in wood as scars or wrinkles on a face that tell stories. On another day, he collects some wood from New York’s oldest bar, McSorley’s and ruminates on how “people have been spilling beer on this wood for 160 years.”

Though each conversation is framed in multiple angles and through editing, the anecdotes and conversations never feel contrived. Instead, Mann makes them feel as intimate as the shop’s pervasive customer service and the main man’s intrinsic affection for his medium. When The Kills’ Jamie Hince shares an old story about damaging the tendons in his finger, Rick knowingly gives him a more-suited instrument with a wider “neck”. After sharing their love of Fenders and nostalgia of surf guitars, Rick wistfully listens to Bill Frisell strum out a rendition of ‘Surfer Girl’. “I’m going to charge a lot more for this guitar now,” he jokes afterwards.

As thoughtful as it is fascinating, Carmine Street Guitars is an affectionate ballad to a New York institution and a portrait of its amiable proprietor and artisan.

 
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The Insufferable Groo

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The Insufferable Groo (directed by Scott Christopherson) is about, as Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess puts it, “a true American do-it-yourself auteur”. A man so enthralled by the process of making movies his – might we say – oeuvre consists of 166 films at the time of Christoperson’s documentary.

An average day on the Groo set, often on an abandoned car park or in the towering forests of Utah, rakes in a staggering 148 shots!

Stephen, his wife Sherry, and their four sons live in her parents’ rent-free apartment, and they rely solely on Sherry’s $1000 per month income. Groo has tried, stopped, and failed in various jobs – the police academy, university teaching, paramedics. At the time of shooting he is unemployed. Since graduating with a Fine Arts degree, Groo has dedicated his adult life to making films.

Christopherson’s documentary begins when things are looking up for Groo. He plans to re-shoot an earlier film called The Unexpected Race – a quasi-fantasy about an ordinary family and a platinum blond elf. To execute the project, Groo enlists the (unpaid) assistance of Lourie Bloomfield, a local cinematography student. It is from this point that the truly “insufferable” nature of Groo becomes all too clear. His style of direction is frantic and bullish, and the product of his efforts are largely bombastic genre-pieces for a very niche audience. His casting couch is a rotating stream of dutiful friends, most of whom have grown tired of his skittish intensity and moved on.

What the documentary lacks is the steely command needed over Groo’s tragicomic aspects. There is a slight imbalance, perhaps deliberate, between its more playful beginning and abject ending. In many ways, he is a pathetic character; blighted by personal obsessions, unable to cooperate, and unwilling to face reality. In the final analysis, Christopherson opts for a more comic direction, splicing on-screen illustrations of Groo throughout the film to enhance his cartoonish effect.

A particularly strong segment is when Groo travels to Los Angeles to film a scene with Jack Black, procured by Jared Hess. Even more satisfying is seeing Groo and Sherry spend a day enjoying the city, rummaging through kitschy tourist parlours and finishing up in a glitzy nightclub. In these shots they are removed from their cramped apartment and financial woes, strolling along the streets of Hollywood like the showbiz couple they might have been in another life.

 
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New Homeland

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Immigration is a hot topic for every political party across the spectrum in Australia and abroad. Too often, the people that come to our shores are described as a collective; a faceless mass of people to be marched out for the purpose of gaining some votes to stay in power. In her latest film, New Homeland, Oscar winning documentarian Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA, Shut Up & Sing) attempts to burrow through the sensationalism to offer a more personable portrait of refugees.

After some harrowing footage of Syria and Iraq, Kopple presents her audience with Canada’s sponsorship programme, where people can sponsor other families fleeing these war-torn countries. People like the Zin family from Syria, the Majeeds from Iraq and the Darwishes also from Syria, who have been lucky enough to now find themselves in the relative safety of Canada. We hear about the terrible things they’ve overcome before their arrival, and the charitable work done by the families that sponsor them. For all of the refugee families, this is a chance to start a new life.

Having made us familiar with her subjects, Kopple focuses in on the children and essentially turns New Homeland into a sort of coming of age drama in the best possible way. The boys from each family have been invited to partake in the Pathfinder programme, a summer camp wherein boys can learn all the basics of summer, such as camping, canoeing and dodgeball. The boys can barely contain their excitement as their parents fuss over them as they await their bus to this new adventure. The rest of the film follows them as they partake in what is essentially a great north American tradition.

Most of the boys seem to throw themselves into whatever the camp has to offer and it’s genuinely joyful to hear them talk to their fellow Canadian campers about where they’re from without an ounce of trepidation or prejudice. However, Kopple, through the two Majeed brothers, also manages to capture the effect which trauma can have on young minds. The youngest Majeed, Omer plays up to the camera, spouting Americanisms and trying to be the cool guy. He’s also quick to anger and seeks provocation in everything he does. The eldest, Hameed, seems better adjusted but requires constant encouragement to stay at the camp.

What resonates is how the camp counsellors never waiver in their support of the boys, even when push comes to shove and one of them has to be removed, it is done with a heavy heart. Perhaps one of the standout moments is a discussion between a camp counsellor and three other campers who are fearful of Omer. Without patronisation or fear mongering, the opportunity is taken to explain that whilst his behaviour is not to be tolerated, it comes from a place no one in the conversation could comprehend. The maturity of the boys during this time is particularly effective and highlights that young minds are capable of complicated discussions. It also underlines the fact that there’s likely a glimmer of hope in this next generation of people who are more willing to embrace different cultures and concepts.

Shot simply but bursting with warmth for its subjects – both refugee and not – New Homeland is one of those pieces of cinema that manages to be humanistic without having its head in the clouds. It doesn’t seek to offer up answers to ending conflict abroad, nor does it tackle current immigration legislation in certain countries. What it does do is show that these statistics thrown up during political broadcasts are people and deserve to be treated as such.

 
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Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Miles Davis could just as easily use his windpipes to revolutionise music as he would use his raspy voice to describe someone as a motherfucker.

Through archival audio narration from Davis himself, as well as various music commentators (including previous colleagues and ex-partners), Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool documents Davis’ musical ability as a medium for black expression and an outlet to release his indignation.

Davis’ contribution to music history is one for the ages. From Davis’ early days living in Jim Crow America, to his involvement with the music scene in 1940s NYC, it’s clear that Davis was an artist whose dedication to jazz would become an outlet for his hardships, creating a place where he could get some relief. Ongoing racial mistreatment and the abuse he witnessed in his childhood, through to his difficulties with substance addiction in adulthood, all fed into his music and mythology.

Davis’ commitment to innovation, wherein he famously improvised his jazz recordings, often fusing other genres of music in with the freeform nature of jazz, is explored in vivid enough detail that those unfamiliar with Davis’ contributions to music can appreciate its significance. His prodigious talents saw him capable of creating work that spoke to great pleasure (“music people could play and make love to” as described by one commentator) and underlying struggle. This musical duality was counteracted by Davis’ acid-tongued-personality and his uncompromising veracity that was motivated by the inequality stitched into the American social fabric.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool finds its relevance as an examination of African American mistreatment; a mirror from the past that reflects into the now. Race relations had always been a defining aspect of Davis’ career: this ranges, but is not limited to, the appropriation of black identity, casual racism being accepted by society and Davis’ experiences with the police, which despite his success still saw him unable to escape racist encounters.

Commentators celebrate Davis as a pioneer within the field of music, not just as a maestro jazz artist but a musician unafraid to experiment with genre. Their admiration for Davis is spoken to with intelligence, recognising the work of a talented musician that influenced other greats; yet looking at his transgressions towards women as though they were iridescent. In the documentary, Davis’ acceptance of his wrongdoings is earnest, but is underscored by Stanley Nelson’s direction – a somewhat abnormal feat as Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool exists in a period where the condemnation of celebrities is considered entertainment.

A musical genius whose demeanour was as unpredictable as the jazz harmonies he produced, Miles Davis Birth of the Cool provides an explicit account of a musical legacy that refused to be restricted by genre.

 
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The Eyes of Orson Welles

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Analysing the thematics of Orson Welles’ oeuvre is no mean feat. Finding a through-line that cuts to the core of who the man was, that hasn’t been ground into a well-worn path by biographers and documentarians over the years, seems a tall order indeed.

Enter Irish film critic/author/filmmaker Mark Cousins, who earned his bones introducing cult films for BBC TV on a show in the ‘90s called Moviedrome before graduating to interviewing filmmakers (like David Lynch and Martin Scorsese) for the TV series Scene by Scene. He’s favoured the visual essay documentary format in recent years (in similar territory to Jean Luc Godard), where he re-frames the subjects of his documentaries via his personal perspective on them, addressing the subject of the documentary in the first person within the narration, posing questions to the subject that hang in air, unanswered. In his recent What Is This Film Called Love? he chronicled a three-day ramble around Mexico City, having a ponderous ‘conversation’ (of sorts) with a picture of Sergei Eisenstein.

The success of his softly spoken Northern Irish lilt, narrating in a ‘stream of consciousness’ fashion, depends on how you react to the documentary’s subject matter. In the ground-breaking series The Story of Film: An Odyssey or the wonderful A Story of Children and Film, it works remarkably well, with an almost ethereally beautiful synergy. In the films he’s made that don’t gel as successfully, it can tip over into self-indulgent wankery, with sharp rapidity.

In The Eyes of Orson Welles, Cousins stays true to form and steams in with his signature style and perspective, to wrestle with the core themes in Orson Welles’ filmmaking, drawings and paintings. He breaks the documentary into five thematic segments, numbered like chapters.

This rigidity in categorising an artist’s intent and thought process seems to draw a long bow but Cousins has a considerable amount of insight to offer on Welles’ work. There are truly fascinating observations put forward, particularly when he looks at the ‘facelessness’ of characters sketched or painted by Welles after the period that saw the rise of authoritarian leaders like Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. This concept of ‘facelessness’ became Welles’ go-to motif in films whenever alluding to corruption, loss of humanity and power and there are notable examples in Citizen Kane, Macbeth and The Trial.

Cousins also talks to Welles’ third daughter, Beatrice, who sheds light on her own relationship with her iconic father. However, it’s when Cousins uses Welles’ paintings and drawings (Welles trained to be a painter at the Chicago Art Institute) to find the connective tissue that linked his films, his romantic life and his political views, that the film soars. Using Welles’ artworks as a way in to examining his inner life is an inspired move, though it does shift the focus of The Eyes of Orson Welles, seeing it become less a dissection of a filmmaker than it is an overall reflection upon the creative impetus of an iconic artist.