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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

2012 DOC NYC - Treva Wurmfeld's Shepard & Dark

A friendship in letters, Treva Wurmfeld’s Shepard & Dark is an insightful documentary about the relationship between playwright/actor Sam Shepard and photographer/writer Johnny Dark, and their project publishing a book of their letters of correspondence over nearly fifty years, since they met in Greenwich Village.  Their relationship is complicated, as Sam Shepard’s ego and self-identity as a lone cowboy overshadows Dark’s homebody sensibility and penchant for quiet ways of life. Most likely, one leaves the film inspired by Dark’s passion for living a solitary and peaceful life, while being turned off by Shepard’s posturing and inconsideration towards Dark as a friend.

Shepard, due to a dislike of flying, drives all over the country to his engagements and jobs, enjoying the open road and balancing between enjoying solitude, but also getting used to being without companionship, since breaking up with his partner Jessica Lange of 26 years. Dark, working at a deli in a New Mexico supermarket, prefers to live at home with his two dogs, and see as few people as possible. “I don’t like knowing people,” he jokes.

The two display a warmth together as old friends that is jovial to watch, despite their personality differences. Shepard, in his 60s, shows the wear and tear on his face, with hints of having been a lean, handsome man in his youth. Dark has a sharp wit that just slips in unexpectedly, looking more of the sidekick, yet more grounded and stronger than Shepard is.

Personally, it was very enjoyable to watch Dark unveil his hobby as an archivist, with bookshelves full of binders labeling letters, photographs, and videos that date back to the 1960s, with an expansive archival history of his life as an artist. As an amateur archivist myself, it gave me great pleasure and inspiration to see a kindred spirit onscreen.

His records are not only of his letters with Shepard, but also detail his relationship with his late wife, Scarlett, whose daughter O-Lan Jones married Shepard, and had a son with him. This family suffers a tremendous blow when Scarlett suffers a brain injury and her fight to heal leaves the family in difficult straits. The situation gets worse when Shepard not only leaves his wife for Lange, but abandons his 12-yr old son as well, leaving Dark act as father figure for him. Before, I was not a fan of Sam Shepard, despite enjoying his writing, because I felt his lone cowboy/rebel badass image was a concocted image of an artist’s idea of being cool, much like the romanticized images of Beat poets or jazz musicians or bikers. But upon this knowledge of his absolute selfishness, plus being more attracted to Hollywood and celebrity than being with his family, made me disgusted by him.

Dark was a more interesting figure because he was less pretentious, and didn’t have a need to become famous. He was an artist and an archivist for his own pleasures, not to appeal to a culture’s idea of what “cool” is. He is slightly eccentric, but very likable and amiable.

The film is a small venture, understanding the complications between two lifelong friends, between an extrovert (Shepard) and an introvert (Dark). It isn’t a particularly memorable film, but Dark proves to be an interesting character that sticks more in one’s mind than Shepard’s, despite his celebrity.

2012 DOC NYC - Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon's The Central Park Five

The Central Park Five, a documentary about the Central Park Jogger case of 1989 and the ramifications of racial profiling against its wrongly imprisoned convicts, has recently run into more controversy. The film, directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, has been under fire with the New York City government. The City has issued a subpoena against the production company, claiming illegal possession of footage which would offer in evidence in favor of the charges that the convicts were not only innocent, but mislead and misled into making false confessions. As the former convicts are now suing the city for wrongful imprisonment and racial discrimination, this footage would serve as greater ammunition against the city's offenses. The film is a devastating look at police investigations that target minority youth, and the justice system which decides in favor of their imprisonment, robbing the youth of opportunities and chances to be well-adjusted, successful citizens.

In 1989 New York City, racially-motivated violence swept the airwaves. With high-profile cases such as the 1984 Bernard Goetz shooting of teenage muggers in the subway, the 1986 beating death of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, and the 1989 shooting death of Yusuf Hawkins, the city was seen as a war zone. Crime was at an all-time high, and the police and Mayor Ed Koch were under enormous pressure to maintain order. It would take the near death of an upper-class white woman and the arrest of five teenage boys from Harlem to declare “justice” being served in the eyes of law enforcement.

The film builds up to the case slowly, through a series of events. The subjects, now men close to age 40, spoke about being average teen boys growing up in Harlem, living good lives. One night, they decided to hang out in Central Park with twenty other teenage boys, and getting caught up in petty violence along the way. But in the park, a young jogger, a 28-year old investment banker named Trisha Meili, was viciously beaten and raped, barely alive when she was discovered.  The boys, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, were brought down to the police station, under the guise of the police just “wanting to ask them a few questions,” “and You’ll be home in no time." But after hours of questioning , and two days of sleep deprivation, the police were tricking them into false confessions with lines like “Just tell us the truth and you can go home.” One of the men poignantly stated, “I went to the precinct, and I came home 13 years later.”

The scenes where the men remember the manipulation and their fear as innocent teen boys not understanding the justice system are tragic to watch. The shakiness in their eyes and bodies is palpable, and their hopes that it can all be over are dashed as the media pounced on the story. Their methods included publishing the underage suspects’ names (while withholding the victim’s name), calling for the death penalty on these children, and using language like “wolf pack,” comparing young black youth to animals. The bloodlust was disgusting, and raises images of lynchings from decades past. The race was on to implicate suspects who dared to injure an upper-class white woman, while ignoring similar cases where the victims and assailants were not white or lived in a lower-income neighborhood.

Despite mounting DNA evidence and inconsistent stories that proved that the boys were innocent, the trial still found the boys guilty, as a way of wrapping up the case and scoring a win for the justice system. Meanwhile, the true assailant, Matias Reyes, who had raped several women on the Upper East Side before attacking Meili, was still active for years as a rapist/murderer before being sent to prison, and admitting in 2002 to his part in the Central Park Jogger case. While the former convicted boys were now free of their charges, it still wouldn’t bring back their youth and lost years spent serving a sentence for a crime they didn’t commit.

The film is incredibly sad to watch, and painful to see innocent children being abused in the press, manipulated by a racist justice system, and having their lives ruined, not just by a corrupt police investigation, but by Matias Reyes, who stole their youth and nearly murdered an innocent woman. It was a tragic and horrible case for all the victims involved, and an example of the dangers of public witchhunts in order to fulfill a societal need to “get the bad guy” and continue on with life.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Dumb Girl of Portici

As part of MoMA's Tenth Annual To Save and Project Festival, the silent film, The Dumb Girl of Portici, was screened. This film, an historical epic directed by pioneer feminist filmmaker Lois Weber and starring the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova in her only feature film appearance, was an adaption of the 1828 opera La Muette de Portici, by Daniel Auber, a historical re-telling of the uprising of peasants in 1647 Naples against Spanish rule. The piece introduced dance into opera using a mute heroine, whose lack of words are replaced by vibrant and emotional movement.

The film was designed as both a historical drama on a grand scale for 1916 (this also being the time of D.W. Griffith epic films like Birth of a Nation and Intolerance), and a star vehicle for Anna Pavlova, considered to be one of the finest ballerinas in the history of dance, and an exquisite artist in her own right. The film opens with Pavlova dancing en pointe, occasionally being supported by an "invisible" man hidden against the black background. It didn't have much to do with the rest of the film, just a treat for the audience coming to see the great ballerina for the first time on screen.

The opera's plot, at the heart of it, centers Pavlova as Fenella, a poor mute Italian woman, who falls in love with a Spanish nobleman that poses as a fisherman, and ultimately betrays her in order to maintain control of her people. The plot gets complicated, but Pavlova displayed both a moon-eyed fragility, and a wildness that exemplified her creative spirit and cosmopolitan worldliness. She was truly a magnetic star to behold.

However, while Pavlova was an exceptional dancer, she falls into the cliches of silent film acting, by overacting with exaggerated gestures and facial expressions that were sometimes unintentionally hilarious. It was understandable because she was playing a mute woman, with no title cards to display her dialogue, but it resulted in Pavlova waving her body all about wildly, looking more insane, than finding more subtle ways to express emotion through dance.

The film took major chances in staging the riots of the Neapolitian peasants against their Spanish rulers, with a grand finale that MoMA compared Weber's direction of action sequences to be a predecessor to Kathyrn Bigelow. It was wonderful to see hordes of extras playing peasants that were storming the scenes, stabbing one another with swords, falling off of balconies, and taking back their rightful land. Again, the acting can be more influenced by overdramatic theater styles, like extended moaning while dying, and swords clearly going under a victim's arm than through them. But it was the early days of silent film, and The Dumb Girl of Portici was a monumental film that was a landmark for a woman director, a showcase for an unforgettable star, and was a treasure of the Wild West-like days of silent filmmaking, where anything was possible.

2012 DOC NYC - Beth Toni Kruvant's David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure

 How does a Jewish rock musician go from touring the world with his funky, blues-inspired band, who can count Dr. John and Bob Dylan amongst his friends, to giving up performing and, twenty years later, running a small violin shop in Wilmington, DE? It’s a story that is touched by a passionate love for music and creative journeys, and Beth Toni Kruvant's David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure profiles a musician who culled from his influences to play music that fused rock, folk, bluegrass, blues, and country, blending music in a way that celebrates the close ties of many genres, as well as the incredible talents of many diverse artists.

David Bromberg was born in Philadelphia, came up in Tarrytown, NY, and initially taught himself to play the guitar, much to his father’s disapproval of a musician’s life, for personal reasons that Bromberg did not learn until his father was dying. In addition, he became proficient on the fiddle and many styles of the guitar. He got into the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s while attending Columbia, and refined his guitar technique with Reverend Gary Davis, a blues and gospel singer. Bromberg not only learned how to play blues guitar from him, but also learned about the style of phrasing from the gospel church, telling stories and captivating an audience while shaping music in time, a practice he would take in his live concerts.

As Bromberg assembled his band, he collaborated with many other artists. George Harrison co-wrote “The Hold-Up” on Bromberg’s first album, a jaunty folk song with trumpets about a robbery. When hearing his music, it’s listening to lengthy stories while being amazed by the talent that Bromberg surrounds himself with. The 1970s were a glorious time for music, where musicians collaborated closely with one another, crossing genres, and supporting each other in a drive to entertain audiences and have fun with playing music. Vince Gill, interviewed as he recorded a duet for Bromberg’s 2011 album Use Me, said of him “A Jewish man from the Northeast playing bluegrass would be a stretch, so to speak, but I learned that it wasn’t.” These are artists who are true to what they do, and it is more satisfying to hear that than artists who claim to be about the music, but are more attracted to celebrity or excessive rock star lives.

In 1980, after ten years of touring and recording albums, Bromberg was burnt out.  Because he loved music so much, he wanted to preserve his sanity and stay focused at home. In an interview from that time, he said “Nobody ever holds a gun to your head and says ‘Go on the road.’ And I’d get to the point where I’d go, ‘Oh God, I hate it out here, I’m going crazy, this is awful.’” It was a healthy decision for Bromberg to leave, and he and his wife, singer/artist Nancy Josephson, raised their family in Wilmington, DE.

In 2002, Bromberg and Josephson opened a violin sales and repair shop, and it’s here where Bromberg’s expansive love for music is further developed and cherished. It is really wonderful to see Bromberg speak so knowledgably about the craft and history of violins, and beaming as he watches a customer play them beautifully. Bromberg owns the largest American violin collection in the world, and the shop is clearly is his safe place in the world. He says of it “I love my shop. I get up in the morning, go down to the shop, day after day. And the grind is difficult. And when I was touring, the grind was difficult.” It’s a good kind of grind, less taxing than when he toured for many years with little breaks. The shop is his other life, separate from his music career.

Bromberg has worked to revitalize Wilmington’s urban economic growth through the arts, being considered the “cultural ambassador.” According to city officials, he has been a major component to bring Wilmington back to its former glory. He and Josephson donated funds to rebuild the Queen Theatre, creating a beautiful space for the cultural arts, and he has made a performing comeback with friends like Dr. John and the late Levon Helm. He also performs regularly at the New World CafĂ© at the Queen Theater, in a weekly jam session with many other local musicians, continuing his tradition of simply enjoying music as a collaborative community.

David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure is a wonderful little film about how much fun music can be. I personally enjoyed it because my father is a major music aficionado, particularly 1970s rock bands who blended genres and worked together a lot, without too much ego getting in the way, and his record collection is of many well-known and obscure rock bands whose music had a richness and creativity that is hard to find today, but well worth it when you do.