Posts Tagged ‘Documentary’

Marwencol, My Fave Film of 2010, Airs This Week on PBS!

April 25, 2011

Just a quick post to let you all know that the movie I rated as my favorite film from 2010, Marwencol, is going to be airing nation-wide this week on PBS stations.  If you’re in Seattle, it’ll be on tomorrow night, April 26th.

Check your local listings/station if you’re interested in seeing it — WHICH YOU BETTER BE BECAUSE IT IS AMAZING.

Read my original review of Marwencol.

View the PBS page about Marwencol (includes trailer).

View the Marwencol web site.



MOVIE: And Everything is Going Fine (2010)

January 19, 2011

I never saw Spalding Gray live, and I’ve always regretted it.  Oddly, the first time I ever noticed him was in The Killing Fields, and it wasn’t until a few years later that I learned acting in films wasn’t his primary gig — that instead, what he did was what he called “poetic journalism” or “autobiographical monologues.”  For 90 minutes at a time (usually), he’d sit at a table and tell stories about himself, sometimes calling people from the audience up onto the stage with him to “interview” them and swap stories  interactively.

A lot of these monologues never made it onto film (or, more specifically, they were filmed but never distributed to the masses), but the ones that did were all brilliant.  Swimming to Cambodia (about making The Killing Fields) and Gray’s Anatomy (about his foray into the health care world after a rare eye disorder started to take out his vision) are probably the most famous of those.  But even catching him periodically on talk shows was always an incredible experience.

This film, directed by his long-time friend Steven Soderburgh, is a compilation of clips from various monologues and talk shows, organized to tell, chronologically, the complete story of Spalding’s life.  Knowing what we know about his death — for those who don’t know or have forgotten, Gray committed suicide about seven years ago — makes this an extremely difficult film to watch.  A lot of Gray’s monologues talked about his experiences growing up with a severely mentally ill mother (she committed suicide herself at age 52), and his own struggles later in life with bipolar disorder.  Hearing him talk about the fear he suffered through when he himself turned 52, for example — convinced he was going to kill himself that year too as part of his mother’s legacy — was almost unbearable in retrospect.  Hard any time, of course, but so much harder knowing he finally lost that fight years later.

And yet, this film is also laugh-out-loud funny at times, too.  Of course.  Because that was Spalding Gray — he was this amazing mix of sadness and joy.  He used his stories to make sense of the chaos in his life, and his willingness to share even the worst parts of himself with the world (he was, after all, also a sometimes-quite-awful narcissist) spoke to a quiet courage heightened all the more by this film’s focus on the most painful parts of his psyche.

Soderbergh has said he was afraid to go see Spalding after he was in a serious car accident that resulted in terrible chronic pain and brain damage for Gray — he was afraid Gray would lose his ability to sort out that chaos and would become suicidal, as he did, and he was afraid that urge to give in to the depression would rub off on him in some way.  This film was his attempt to apologize to Gray, he has said, for not being there at the end.  Mr. Soderburgh, I think you did a fine job.

The final clip in this film is of an older Spalding Gray, sitting outside talking while a dog in the distance starts to howl.  He listens.  He chuckles.  He talks but is interrupted by the dog’s howl again.  He listens some more.  He chuckles again.  The last line of the movie is Gray describing that howl, a pained smile wistfully flitting across his face:  “It is a lamentation.”

I can’t seem to remember the title of this film — every time I’ve told someone about it since seeing it last Friday, I’ve had to just refer to it as “the new Spalding Gray movie” — but I don’t think I’ll ever forget that last line.


[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Documentary, Theater
Cast:  Spalding Gray, directed by Steven Soderbergh

MOVIE: Cropsey (2009)

November 11, 2010

Growing up on Staten Island in the 70s and 80s, filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio often heard stories about a local boogeyman known as “Cropsey.”  The legend of Cropsey was typically evoked by parents trying to scare their kids out of doing things they weren’t supposed to, like playing in the woods, talking to strangers, etc.

Zeman and Brancaccio never really believed the stories.  That is, until the day a little Staten Island girl named Jennifer disappeared.

As police investigated the case, a man named Andre Rand, spotted in the area Jennifer had last been seen in, became their chief suspect.  He was a former resident of Willowbrook, a “state school” (more like mental institution) in the woods of Staten Island that had been shut down a decade earlier after horrific abuses of patients were exposed in a Giraldo Rivera special.  Patients of Willowbrook were then farmed out to local halfway houses and hospitals, but many ended up sort of instinctively migrating back to the area.  Andre Rand was one such patient and when, a few months later, Jennifer’s body was found buried near his campsite in the Willowbrook woods, it seemed obvious he was the killer.

Cropsey was real.

Or was he?  As the story spread and witnesses of an increasingly dubious nature came forward, some began to suspect Rand had either been framed or was being used as a scapegoat by the Staten Island police, desperate to appease the community by locking up a child killer.  For example, Jennifer’s body had not been found during previous searches of the area — instead, it was found just after a photo of a drooling, crazed-looking Rand was published in the local paper.  Forensic experts determined that she had been killed elsewhere and then moved to the discovery site later.  Possibly even moved there recently.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of physical evidence tying Rand to the case, he was convicted in the mid-1980s and sentenced to 25-to-life (for kidnapping; jurors were deadlocked on the murder charge).  Stories of “Cropsey” faded after that, until a decade and a half passed and Rand’s name hit the papers again.  He was being charged with another murder, one from 20 years prior — one of four additional Staten Island children whose disappearances police suspected Rand was involved in.  They had no evidence — not even a body this time — but again, Rand was put on trial, and again, convicted.

This fascinating documentary tells the stories of Willowbrook hospital, Andre Rand, the missing children, and the way media frenzy, public pressure, and fear can influence our criminal justice system.  While the film’s outcome isn’t terribly satisfying (did he do it or not? we’ll probably never know), the story itself is riveting and the filmmakers do a solid job in its telling.

Definitely recommended, and I also enjoyed (well, not enjoyed, exactly) an hour long documentary specifically about Willowbrook that I stumbled across online while looking for more information about Andre Rand.  That one, Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years After Willowbrook (narrated by Danny Aiello), describes in greater detail the horrors patients institutionalized there experienced (within six months of admission, most patients suffered from parasites and pneumonia, and the incidence of hepatitis infection was 100% — broken bones, malnutrition, mental and physical abuse, and worse.  Unbelievable.).  You can rent it for $2.99 at, and it’s well worth your time, especially if you have seen or are interested in seeing Cropsey.


[Netflix it (available for streaming)]

Genre: Documentary
Directed by: Joshua Zeman, Barbara Brancaccio

SIFF MOVIE: Marwencol (2010)

June 2, 2010

Several years ago, 38 year-old Mark Hogencamp was attacked and beaten within an inch of his life by five men outside a bar.  After nine days unconscious and thirty-one more in the hospital, Mark returned home with severe brain damage.  He had to relearn how to walk, talk, write, eat, and take care of himself, all of which he did, in time.  But also lost in the attack was his memory — for him, nothing before waking up in the hospital had ever happened.  All friends and family were strangers.  Everything was new.  And none of that would ever come back.

This documentary tells the amazing story of Mark’s recovery.  After being cut off prematurely from medical and psychological care due to Medicaid restrictions (he had no health insurance — p.s. ARGH!), Mark decided to continue his own therapy by creating an elaborate WWII village in his front yard, a village he named Marwencol (after Mark, Wendy, and  Colleen — himself and two friends).  Using GI Joe- and Barbie-type dolls, he began to dream up and then stage extremely complex stories.   He would set each scene, paying attention to the most minute of details (the bend of a wrist, the setting of a bar counter, etc.), and after each scene was carefully staged, he’d take a photograph.  At the end of the day, he’d have dozens of photos which, when put together, told the complete tale —  kind of like a stop-action film with a lot more stops.  This process helped not only with his dexterity problems, especially in his hands, but also served as a very powerful form of emotional healing as well.

Many of the characters in Marwencol represent real people from Mark’s life, in part as a way to reconnect with those he’d lost all memory of.  He’s in there himself (he’s the star, in fact), and so are his family members and friends.  Together, they have dramatic, exciting adventures, many of which involve violence and warfare (a way Mark vents the anger and frustration that emerge as a result of his painfully debilitating PTSD), but a lot of them also involve friendship and love, as well as the loneliness and isolation Mark feels in his new life.  It’s those latter stories that made Marwencol one of the most thoroughly affecting movies I’ve seen so far at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF).

Hogencamp is a disabled man with a brilliantly artistic mind, always a challenging combination.  But one of the things I found fascinating about this film was thinking about the differences in his personality before and after the attack (“personality” might be the wrong word, but I can’t think of the right one).  Before the attack, Hogencamp says, he was an avid artist (drawings, mostly, and they were incredible), a terrible alcoholic, and a transvestite.  But after the attack wiped out his memory, only two of those three characteristics remained — he woke up in the hospital with no craving or desire for alcohol whatsoever, but returned home clearly still an extremely talented artist (though because of the brain damage, his hands are no longer steady enough to draw) and still a transvestite as well.  Two things innate, one the product of circumstances or experiences he no longer had?  Who knows?  But as someone fascinated by the way the human brain works, I found this to be a particularly intriguing element of the story.

Blah blah science blah who cares, though.  What made this film a delight was Hogencamp himself.  His stories are unbelievably entertaining, his art mind-blowing.  And the man himself is an absolute inspiration, not just because of what he’s overcome, but because of his courage, confidence, and self-respect.  Hogencamp refuses to hide any part of himself; he’s completely open, loving, and honest.  He is, in short, the purest form of beauty there is — he is truth.  You can see it in his eyes when he talks, and you can see it in his art too — so complex and yet so thoroughly unfettered somehow, too.

Marwencol is, without a doubt, a film that will stay with me for a very long time.  Lucky for the rest of you, the director reported at the screening that it will be opening in theaters nationwide in October, as well as air on PBS next spring.  In the meantime, you can visit Mark’s web site, where you’ll see some of his work (stories and photos), and there you can buy his book, part of the proceeds of which will go to help Mark with both medical expenses and with the costs of upgrading and maintaining the amazing, beautiful world of Marwencol.

Don’t miss this film.  Just don’t do it.  You need to see it.  It’s that incredible.  It really is.  Listen to me.  Just listen this time.  Listen up.

[Update 9/15/2010:  The Marwencol trailer is now up on YouTube, and the film should be opening nationwide in theaters on OCTOBER 8, 2010.  Don’t miss it!]

[Prequeue it at Netflix | Marwencol site (with photos!) | Marwencol trailer]

Genre: Documentary
Cast: Mark Hogencamp, directed by Jeff Malmberg

MOVIE: The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)

September 26, 2007

Until I saw this documentary, I only had the vaguest idea who Daniel Johnston was. I’d heard his name thrown around here and there, and had heard some of his songs covered by bands like Yo La Tengo or singers like Tom Waits (though at the time I first heard them, I’m sure I didn’t know those were Daniel Johnston songs). And I probably even saw his famous “Hi, How Are You?” tee-shirt on Kurt Cobain every now and then without realizing what it was. If you’d asked me who he was, I would’ve said, “Some kind of musician?” What I didn’t know was that he is also an artist (in fact, personally, I think his drawings are a lot better than his music, but it seems many disagree with me on that), and also, that he is completely insane.

That’s kind of a simplistic way to put it, of course — “completely insane.” And yet, Daniel’s insanity is really what this film is about (or, more accurately, it’s about Daniel’s battles with his insanity). Daniel was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his 20’s and the documentary describes in great detail some of his most infamous manic periods (like, when he nearly killed himself and his father by grabbing the controls of his Dad’s plane away from him because he wanted to be Casper the Friendly Ghost, or when, all of a sudden one day, he picked up a pipe and bashed in the head of his manager (thankfully not killing him)).

All in all, it’s a fascinating story — the documentary takes us through Daniel’s childhood, where he was an odd kid but not necessary a crazy one, and then into his early adulthood, when he got serious about his music and also began doing drugs, which I’m sure didn’t help his brain chemistry much (his first hospitalization came after a bad acid trip, for example, and it was kind of all downhill from there).

Through it all, Daniel worked hard to fulfill his dreams of becoming a recognized musician, and I think you can definitely say he managed to make those dreams come true. At the pinnacle of his career, he appeared on an MTV music special, and it wasn’t long before famous bands and musicians were passing around his homemade tapes and covering his songs at shows. Daniel’s music, performed himself, isn’t really my thing — it’s simplistic, like what a child would write, and his voice is just grating and awful (sorry, man, but it’s true). But, every now and then, he can turn a phrase in an interesting way, and there’s something to be said for childlike music being played by grown-ups. It’s got irony and wistfulness, if nothing else.

In any case, anybody interested in Daniel’s music or art should definitely watch this film, and those interested in learning more about bipolar disorder would benefit as well. All in all, it’s a fascinating and heartbreaking film about a man struggling against his own mind and ultimately losing the battle. The end of the film tells us that Daniel is still living at home, barely able to manage life without the constant assistance of his parents, who live in fear of the day they pass and leave Daniel to fend for himself. . .). Recommended!

[Netflix me | Buy me | The Official Daniel Johnston Site]

Genre: Documentary

Directed by: Jeff Feuerzieg

MOVIE: Coma (2007)

July 5, 2007

This HBO-made documentary follows the ups and downs experienced over the period of a year by four brain-injury patients at the Center for Head Injuries, JFK Medical Center, New Jersey. The four patients are all very different. First, there’s Tom, a 31 year old who fell off a balcony and after only a few weeks at the Center has already come out of his coma and moved into a fairly conscious state (he’s the most “normal” of all the patients, but even after a year is still not able to speak very clearly or walk or care for himself). Then there’s Roxy, a 19 year old girl who was injured in a car accident, and who is also in a fairly conscious state, though she suffers from delusions that make her believe she is 13 years old and being tortured by “evil” people. Al-Khan is an African American who seems to have the greatest overall health issues (repeated infections) and keeps moving from a persistent vegetative state to a minimally conscious one (persistent vegetative meaning he is not aware of his surroundings at all, with minimally conscious meaning he can do things like follow a light with his eyes, make noises like speech, and recognize familiar faces). And finally there’s Sean, who is 19 or 20 and was attacked and thrown off a bridge — he is in a fully persistent vegetative state, and of the four has been in the Center the longest (a year already when the documentary begins).

By watching the changes — steps forward and back — of each patient, we get a mesmerizingly intimate look at the mysteries of brain injury. We also see the very raw emotion of the families struggling to hold it together for their injured loved one, but barely managing to get through each hard, often hopeless-feeling day. I’m not embarrassed to say I was essentially crying non-stop throughout most of this film. But at the same time, there were many elements of it I found utterly fascinating — there’s just so much we STILL do not know about the human brain, and though these four patients all had similar injuries, the variety of differences between their recoveries is simply stunning.

This is the second HBO-made documentary I’ve seen in the last few months, and I was as impressed by it as I was by the other one (a doc called Thin, which was a profile of patients at an eating disorder clinic — also fascinating). I really had no idea HBO had it’s own documentary series, and I have to say, I’m really looking forward to watching more of these. This is a very simply made film, but it taught me more about every angle of this subject than all the discussions about Terry Schiavo did. I finally understand better what her parents were going through and why it was so difficult for them to give up on their daughter despite the fact she was not showing any real progress towards recovery. And, I also understand better why her husband wanted to end her life — for her sake, and for the sake of everyone else suffering along with her.

All in all, a complex, thoughtful, and extremely sensitive film. Highly recommended, so if you are an HBO subscriber, keep an eye out for it. It looks like it will be repeating several times over the next week or two. You can find more information about the film, including scheduling details, at it’s page at HBO:

Genre: Documentary
Directed by: Liz Garbus