Monday, May 4, 2009

The Clock Keeps Ticking

Stephen Colbert may have cornered the market on truthiness, but timeliness is a much more elusive factor to nail down. Documentarians may struggle for years to complete the funding, production, and editing of their movies but only a certain amount of kismet can make the stars align in such a way that their films reach audiences in synch with current events. Two films seen last week at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival did just that.

On Sunday, April 26th, Zachary Stauffer's 28-minute documentary, A Day Late In Oakland, received its world premiere shortly after Devaughndre Broussard pled guilty to manslaughter in the murder of Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey on August 2, 2007. On Wednesday, April 29th, an Alameda County grand jury indicted Yusuf Bey IV and Antoine Mackey on murder charges in the Chauncey Bailey case.

Stauffer's short examines Bailey's history as a minority journalist covering stories that the mainstream media were more than content to ignore. It shows how his investigation into the questionable finances of Your Black Muslim Bakery (founded by the charismatic Yusuf Bey in 1968) made Bailey one of the few journalists brave enough to cover the story when local politicians and media were doing their best to look the other way and ignore the glaring corruption within the local black community.

Stauffer's film underscores why it was so foolish for Yusuf Bey IV to put out a hit on Chauncey Bailey -- stressing that only a fool would try to kill a journalist and think the death would go unnoticed.  He shows how the Center For Investigative Reporting (the nation's oldest nonprofit news organization) came into being in 1977 following the murder of an Arizona journalist and laid the groundwork for the formation of The Chauncey Bailey Project: Investigating The Death of a Journalist.

Making solid use of archival footage (as well as interviews with some of Bailey's relatives and other members of the community), Stauffer does an admirable job of analyzing how two men (Chauncey Bailey and Yusuf Bey) could rise to become such pillars of the community and have their legacies trampled by the thoughtless arrogance of youth.

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Joe Berlinger's Crude got an extra dose of timeliness this weekend when 60 Minutes devoted a segment to the lawsuit brought by indigenous Ecuadoreans against Chevron-Texaco. While watching Crude at the film festival, I was (as always) impressed with Mark Fiore's animation, including this segment which appears in the early part of Berlinger's film:

In case you missed it, here is the 60 Minutes segment on the Ecuadorean lawsuit:

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A more industry specific documentary -- which couldn't be more timely -- was Gerald Peary's new film entitled For The Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism. In his documentary, Peary shows how film criticism began with movie studios hiring writers to produce copy about their films. Since then, this particular branch of arts criticism (for which there is no formal matriculation) has progressed through a variety of stages.  Although there have been great film critics (such as Bosley Crowther, Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, and Pauline Kael -- whose writing not only inspired many readers to go see obscure films, but also provided them with a concise, albeit informal education about film and film criticism), many of them have toiled in relative obscurity.  

Gerald Peary

When film critic Elvis Mitchell began stammering as he was introduced to Barack Obama several years ago, he was shocked to hear Obama state that he listened to Mitchell's comments on NPR all the time and faithfully read all of his articles in The New York Times. Less than 24 hours after seeing Peary's film, I read Rod Lurie's loving tribute to Roger EbertIn Praise of a Real Man, on The Huffington Post.

Narrated by Patricia Clarkson, Peary's documentary captures more than just the passion of film critics for their subject. It shows how, starting with people who had no history of even viewing film, a literature of film criticism has developed over the past century which documents, analyzes, and creates new cultural references in an ever-evolving world of multimedia. The last parts of the documentary focus on how the digital revolution is affecting today's professional film critics. It's no secret that many newspapers have cut back on arts criticism -- some have even gone out of business. While more and more people are writing about film online (myself included), fewer people are getting paid for their critical insights.  In his director's notes, Peary states:
"This is a “pro-critic” film. At a time when American critics are being laid off and fired, and when their influence has diminished, For the Love of Movies is an unapologetic defense of a profession under siege. I know intimately many of my colleagues, and had unprecedented access interviewing them for the camera. I talk to several dozen critics, including writers for newspapers (The New York Times, The LA Times, The Chicago Tribune, etc.), magazines (Entertainment Weekly, The New Republic, etc.), blogs and websites (, My first desire is for an audience to become intimate with the reviewers behind the bylines, so it can be understood how critics think about and see movies. How did they come to their jobs, and to their abiding love for cinema? Those interviewed vividly describe scenes from movies which, seen as children, made an indelible impression, and which transformed their way of viewing.  

Also, today’s critics comment on American critics of the past – Robert E. Sherwood, Otis Ferguson, James Agee, etc. – whose work inspired them. I offer a history of American film criticism, from the time of The Birth of a Nation to Bosley Crowther’s 27-year reign at The New York Times, from Ebert-Siskel on TV to amateur reviews on the Internet. I touch upon the infamous Pauline Kael-Andrew Sarris debates, and show the antagonist relationship between youthful web reviewers and veteran print critics. There have been American critics who, simply, are great literary stylists. Among these: Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, James Agee, and Manny Farber. A further object of my documentary is to spread appreciation for such first-rate prose and original thinking. I hope that this film motivates audiences to consider reviews by the best American critics, whether in print or the web, as a key component in watching movies in a deeper, more thoughtful, way. "
Following the screening of Peary's documentary, the San Francisco Film Society hosted a panel entitled "A Critical Moment" during which several professional critics discussed the state of their art and took questions from the moderator, Susan Gerhard (editor of the film society's online daily magazine, SF360) as well as members of the audience. 

Concerns were raised about whether the newest (and most insidious trend) in filmmaking will be an increased number of 3D films. Some of the critics described how foreign countries (particularly in Africa) are using the French and British legal systems to sue documentarians for libel as a means of preventing their films from being seen. Mention was also made of how some countries are now trying to copyright their country and everything in it as a way to protect their image from being tarnished by documentaries critical of what may be happening (politically or socially) within their nations' boundaries.

One audience member expressed her chagrin that, from what she was hearing, her 35-year-old son  who dreams of making a career as a film critic (and whose rent she is underwriting) might not be able to support himself financially by writing film criticism. With print media evaporating into thin air and movie releases heading more in the direction of download distribution and DVD sales (rather than theatrical releases), her son's ambitions couldn't be further off target. While the professional critics unanimously bemoaned the lack of paying jobs available to current and future critics, they also exhibited a remarkable optimism that new writers (whether through blogs, podcasts, or other online publishing tools) would eventually create a business model which might be able to support film criticism.

What Peary's film and the lively discussion that followed clearly demonstrated is that people remain deeply passionate about cinema. San Francisco was cited as having the most film festivals, the oldest film festivals of almost every description, and perhaps the most enthusiastic and best-informed audience for film in the nation. Here's the trailer:

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