A Time For Burning (1966)

A Time For Burning is arguably my great DOCember discovery, recommended the first year of DOCember by Martin, it jumped immediately to my top-100, and eventually my top documentary. At the time, it proved powerful because I saw analogy to the gay rights movement. It covers discussions in an Omaha Lutheran Church about efforts to increase racial tolerance by using the church to promote interaction, though these efforts were faced with threats of splitting the church. The year I watched this, the ELCA (who released this film), was facing similar splits over the decision to recognize gay marriage.

A few years later, concerns about gay rights seems passe. There is still some real bigotry (Michigan just decided discrimination is A-OK, Romer v Evans will likely see that law overruled) but those fighting against gay rights are so clearly on the losing side at this point. This time, my viewing of a 1966 documentary about bridging racial divides seemed most relevant in talking about…bridging racial divides. It is kind of sickening that nearly 50 years later it is the same shit, different millennium. Now, I’m not sure how many white people are presently storming out of church services due to the mere presence of black people, but the past couple months have been illustrative of just how entrenched racial issues remain in society. The idea that white cops can kill black civilians with impunity sounds more believable in the Jim Crow south than in modern St. Louis or New York (we’ll see about Cleveland and Phoenix, etc).

This film portrays a few people who are proper racists, but the main battles are between those who feel it is their duty (their Christian duty, especially) to push society to improve and those who are supportive of the ends but not willing to risk anything to get there. I’m optimistic enough to think that the silent majority falls in this last group, which is kind of the problem, and something that ultimately they need to take some responsibility for. It is a sign of privilege to be able to comfortably sit and wait for what you see as just to come about. Using a cinema verite style, simply observing conversations, this film is powerful in revealing how untenable this conservatism (in the classical sense, not in the reactionary sense) is.

A

Big Hero 6 (2014)

I’m beginning to think the genre of superheroes has lost, if it ever really had it, the ability to tell compelling stories. As the dominant force in cinema presently, a seemingly ever-increasing slate of these films arrives, each seeming to come with fairly strong critical buzz about what sets it apart from the regrettable blockbuster fare, but each time I come out feeling a bit empty. Based upon a Marvel franchise I didn’t realize existed (and really, until it was brought up at the film’s release, I didn’t even realize this had anything to do with superheroes at all), I had hoped this might switch things up based on being animated, and being from Disney Animation, which has been on a roll of late.

The initial set-up did gain my interest. This was a film about scientists and engineers, it was something that placed them as keys to innovation to solve our problems. Aside from champion nerds as heroes, it really called on people to put their skills towards community benefit, not self-enrichment. Of course, this is a very Millennial message, something my generation already believes in spades (and is broadly mocked or called entitled for craving such meaning from our work). But while I get that this is a fake universe, the tech on display (and the ease with which it is invented and designed) becomes so removed from reality, that it falls into that problem of so many of these films, lack of stakes. Oh, there’s plenty of destruction (organized in ways to not risk the lives of random bystanders, so that’s a plus at least), and presumed peril to our protagonist, but aided by the animation it just feels too removed. Maybe looking for something pushing interesting boundaries on the nature of science and technology (including the possible dangers) would be too much to hope from Disney animation, instead, it goes for the softer emotional target of dealing with loss.

C+

Gideon’s Army (2014)

Generally, but this week especially, I hate everything about the American legal system. Everything except, perhaps, public defenders and what they represent, not just the right to an attorney but ultimately the broader set of principles that are supposed to represent the key counterbalance against tyranny. Gideon’s Army gets its title from the case Gideon v Wainright that established the right to an attorney in criminal trial, adapted into the film Gideon’s Trumpet, along with 12 Angry Men and The Ox-Bow Incident what I term Henry Fonda’s civil liberties trilogy.

Gideon’s Army does a fair job portraying the overworked and underpaid, and generally stressful job that being a public defender is, and that is a tragedy in itself. These lawyers are doing the most essential work in our entire legal system, and that is a certain reward, but it is another nail in the coffin of the idea of meritocracy. One thing that strikes me is that I’ve rarely heard of public defenders running for office, yet I’m always hearing about prosecutors running for office. Offices that they often win. Offices that allow them control over public finances and perhaps restrict funding for public defenders offices that house their formal rivals. That prosecutors gain greater public favor says a lot about the problems with the average American voter, who is also the average American jury member. As much as my own philosophical leanings would take me toward public defense or constitutional law (which is just a different level of fighting the same fight). This week has shown how necessary, and how lacking, good and honest prosecutors are; as often as I might accuse them of cheating to win, it is just as problematic when they cheat to lose.

This film can be a bit dry as an experience. It does get at some of the sad aspects of the system. Public defenders aren’t just about getting people off, a majority of their effort is just trying to try to get a fair sentence. The truth is most people don’t go on trial, they accept a plea bargain. This is essential to a system that couldn’t handle the load of trying everything, but it has the bad effect of pushing presumptively innocent people to accept blame because the punishments from a loss in trial are so much more dramatic. One example here is particularly interesting in large part because it is an example of a defendant failing the Prisoner’s Dilemma miserably. The more powerful moments highlight how poverty intersects with the justice system. Onerous bail demands mean that poor defendants are stuck in jail for months waiting for trial while those of means get back out. Sometimes posting bail is tied to alternate punishment opportunities. Further, and perhaps the thing that was the thing I hadn’t thought about most, is the way that the mere fact of time served waiting for trial can devastate one’s life, even if they ultimately are acquitted, as many people lose their homes and their jobs while locked up. That feels like a pretty heavy punishment to be doled out without a conviction. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t generally get at these tragedies with enough emotional resonance to feel profound. On an issue I’m already strident on, it felt too intellectual and not enough of a real call to arms to fix the system. Maybe that is a good thing in terms of impartiality or something, but it does make it less powerful an experience.

B-

The Punk Singer (2013)

I love almost everything about this, and its subject Kathleen Hanna, except the music. Though her domain is punk rock, it reminds me of this feminist rap group I saw open for Tegan and Sara. I’m sure I’d agree with them on a lot of stuff politically, but the music itself was completely unpalatable to me. But that is just musical taste. This is why insisting on the subjectivity of art is important to me because I don’t want to be held accountable for rendering some authoritative verdict on a piece of art, which would do a disservice both to myself (perhaps having to equivocate my own response) and to the art.

Thankfully, this being a documentary and not an album, the quality of the music isn’t of essence, rather the context of the music, both what formed it and what impact it had. Watching this film I thought a lot about GamerGate, a recent movement as such targeting women in the video game industry and highlighted the misogyny present there that can make it a community unwelcoming to women. The documentary does a pretty good job showing some of the ways the music scene did that as well and some areas where Hanna fought back. Something as simple as moshing presented a hostile environment, and in speaking out politically as a feminist through her songs and actions, Hanna was the target of hate and threats. There is also some interesting things about how the media coverage of women in music was problematic. It all strikes a familiar note.

The final third goes into a different, more personal direction, getting toward the answer posed at the start of why Hanna, this dominant force in feminist punk, disappeared from the scene. I won’t spoil for those who don’t know but it is an emotionally powerful look at how one’s idealized self can sometimes be undone by human frailties. It is a demonstration of just how hard it is to be a feminist icon because there are a lot of symbolic expectations that come with that. Like the punk genre of music, the documentary certainly has some rough, lo-fi aspects, but it does pack a pretty powerful punch.

B

Fort Bliss (2014)

Women have had roles in the U.S. military, officially and sometimes unofficially (I just read a book that talked about one woman in particular who fought in the Civil War, dressed as a man), for quite a while, and while they’ve only been cleared for combat roles for the past two years, the nature of war has meant increased risk and responsibilities for a good while longer. The cinema of women in the military may be lagging further behind, with a lot of potential ground to cover.

I haven’t seen it since it came out, but I remember being struck by Grace Is Gone back in 2007. In this case it is the absence of the woman in combat that drives the narrative. We’ve seen scenes of wives and mothers being told that their boys have been lost at war, but we are less familiar with men having to deal with the loss of their wives, the mother of their children. Ultimately Grace is Gone is more about John Cusack and dealing with emotions as a male, but it takes the reversal from the standard narrative about military families to set the scene.

In Fort Bliss, SSgt. Swann (Michelle Monaghan) is an Army medic in the heat of the action, but when she returns from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, she finds she can’t just fall back into the home life, as her young son has grown more attached to his step-mother in her absence. While this is in many ways a portrait of the difficulties of women “having it all” when their career is the military, contrasted against a perhaps easier time that a male soldier would have integrating back into his family because we are made to normalize men leaving their families for work, the film importantly shows the toll of this kind of service for men when it comes to family. It both is and isn’t about gender. In addition to the focus on the effect on family, it includes more glancing treatment of some of the other concerns women face in the military, from the threat of sexual violence (about which, watch The Invisible War) to the struggle to be respected by men in your command and perhaps changing some of the counterproductive macho practices common in the military.

It is an interesting and generally satisfying film, though I felt the third act spun a bit out of control, going for too many points that felt a bit abrupt or underdeveloped. Still, a useful contribution to what should be a growing body of stories.

B-

Quiz Show (1994)

Mark Kermode has a frequent rhetorical point that Jaws isn’t about a shark, the point being that the subtext is the real thing. Well, Quiz Show isn’t about a quiz show. The plot may be a demonstration of how a television trivia contest was fixed, and how that scandal was revealed, but below these moments are bigger questions about human integrity and the broader social and political system.

The first moment of great power comes early when the defending champion Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) faces a hand-picked challenger and successor, Charles van Doren (Ralph Finnes). Herb know his answer but is asked to get it wrong, Charles’ request that things be on the level is ignored as they ask him a question they know he knows. Both has a chance here to do the responsible thing (Herb to get the question right, Charles, curiously, to throw the game) and they agonize, desiring to act rightly, but tempted by the promise of what playing along offers (some of which can even be nobly rationalized as for the greater good). It is a deeply cynical assault on the American Dream, placing morality opposed to success, and sets the stage for a pretty damning indictment of society.

The contrast of Herbie and Charles, between a blue-collar Jew in Queens and the WASPy son of a Columbia University professor. In battling for our affection, it asks whether we truly favor the American Dream notion of a melting pot and of social mobility, or whether we ultimately prefer an established aristocratic elite. It might seem weird for the masses to see appeal in this because it limits them, but it also provides them with a ready excuse for failure, it makes them more content with their place in society. The film toys with the viewer as Herbie is grating while Charles is grace, it makes it hard to choose the side we feel like we should want to support.

The Congressional inquiry headed by Congressional aide Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) leads to perhaps the most depressing message. This particular instance, what would amount to a fairly insubstantial fraud, may not be the most important, but the implication is that this case is emblematic of how more important considerations would also go. I won’t spoil details (though it is a true story so perhaps spoiler rules do not apply) other than to say that it shows our system to be just as rigged as the show 21.

It is good that the film is well made, with great performances from top to bottom and tight scripting that makes its 2+ hours breeze by. It is great that it uses a compelling story to lay bare serious issues about society. Unlike the defense made by the producer of the quiz show, you can’t write off the film Quiz Show as “just entertainment.”

A

What If (2014)

What If, a non-romantic comedy about Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) falling for Chantry (Zoe Kazan) but not being able to do anything about it as she has a long-term boyfriend. This is a conundrum I know well (whether the hold-up be unavailability or lack of reciprocated interest) and it is a challenge worth considering because as much as positive thinking types stress not to fear rejection because it doesn’t have consequences, sexual interest isn’t consequence free. Even though it is the most natural thing in the world, we don’t seem to have figured out a good way to deal with the fact of sexual interest in a non-sexual relationship that allows that relationship to still thrive. As famously postulated in When Harry Met Sally, “the sex part always gets in the way.”

I’ve had the privileged to know a great many exceptional women, smart, beautiful, fiercely independent. These wonderful traits are things that draw me to want to be friends with them, but also make me want more and it is a constant struggle and I think What If does a great job handling the nuance. It does so in a slightly over-the-top way with both real and fantasy plot elements that push realism, which make it easier to accept the improbabilities of the genre. It really succeeds based on the highly charismatic cast and sharp dialogue, namely from the trio of Radcliffe, Kazan and Adam Driver but even with the rest, it is exceptionally cast.

If there is one gripe, it is that Wallace’s plight isn’t that troubled. He’s had many girlfriends and has many options, his problem of finding himself on the outs is pretty confined to this relationship, the problem for him is he is caught too much on this one ideal woman. That is less sympathetic than someone more lacking in success or options. I pray that in my own life, if my Zoe Kazan is unavailable, I will not be too fixated to know that when life gives you Megan Park, you fuck Megan Park.

B+

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