Ross McElwee (The Bat Segundo Show)

Ross McElwee is most recently the director of Photographic Memory.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Stepping away from the memories.

Guest: Ross McElwee

Subjects Discussed: Walker Percy’s “certification,” Heidegger’s Alltäglichkeit, whether social media and YouTube can capture the essential quality of “everydayness,” patterns and layers of meaning discovered through the act of filming one’s life for decades, whether or not people have the patience to sit through a two and a half hour movie these days, how McElwee’s cinematic voice has altered with Photographic Memory, the use of Ken Burns-like music for a photographic montage, why McElwee decided to look backwards instead of tackling the present, problems in passing on the McElwee legacy, Adrian McElweee plugged into technology at the expense of conversation, patriarchal dissing, the imprecision of father-son parallels, the godfathers of the cinéma vérité movement, recreating the moon shot from Sherman’s March, the pernicious influence of the YouTube confessional, Time Indefinite as the obverse of Photographic Memory, filming a tumor for 72 seconds, why Marilyn Levine was not included in Photographic Memory, whether removing a family member from a film offers the truth about a dynamic, divorce, preserving privacy while remaining transparent, meeting Josh Kornbluth in Six O’Clock News, McElwee making “fiction films,” the middle ground between fiction and truth, Tolstoy’s maxim about novels not revealing everything, Andy Warhol’s Empire, why Charleen Swansea hasn’t appeared in McElwee’s recent films, a rare McElwee complaint about irrelevance, compartmentalizing the home environment and France, an adamant yet insignificant moment about a dish which caused Our Correspondent to question its significance, the future of documentary filmmaking and reality TV, Catfish, whether the marvel of the everyday will be informed by seducing the audience over questions of truth, the hidden rat at the motel in Bright Leaves, marveling over quotidian details, Steve Im in Six O’Clock News, conversation vs. dramatic evening news elements, when it’s easier to have conversations with strangers, the virtues of sitting still in one place, apocalyptic elements in McElwee’s films, being informed by lingering anxieties about the end, the harmful effects of smoking, confronting your own mortality, how Adrian’s presentation has transformed in McElwee’s films, fishing, the world divide between those who have kids and those who don’t, periods in life when kids are delightful, whether most people remember the last names of all their lovers and roommates, McElwee’s early attempts to write fiction, being inspired by limitations, how libertine digital shooting has impacted documentaries, and the dangers of not being selective enough when making am ovie.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’m sorry I didn’t wear my Opus shirt. I couldn’t find one. I don’t think they even make them anymore. I was expecting you to come in and film me or something.

McElwee: Well, that can be arranged. I’ve got a little camera right here. (picking up iPhone)

Correspondent: Oh, I see. Well, I’ve got mine right here. (picking up Galaxy) So I know you wrote an essay on Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman, which is very interesting. Because I’ve seen your films and they really make me think of what Percy said about “certification” in The Moviegoer, which of course is taken from Martin Heidegger’s notion of Alltäglichkeit, “everydayness” in Being and Time. This idea where we go about our lives, we’re always sort of reflecting on what the meaning of this is. And he said that it was essential. So I’m wondering. How can the video medium, which you have actually gravitated to for the first time with this film, and social media in our present landscape take into account this notion of everydayness? I mean, this film almost seems to be an argument for and against it. So what of this?

McElwee: That’s a question? That’s an essay! (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, we do essay questions and answers here. It’s sort of similar to your films, I think. (laughs)

McElwee: It is. It actually perfectly complements my whole way of making films. Because it’s a very complex thing that you’re asking of me. And to me, filming the everyday, filming little moments from everyday life, is totally essential to understanding what life as a whole is about. I think it’s somehow not recording of any specific moment of life that leads to a richer understanding or a deeper presentation of the meaning of that particular life. But it’s the accretion of all of these things and the overlapping, the patterns, the resonances of daily moments filmed that resonate with things you’ve already seen before. And I find as I get older, as I film my friends and my family, that I see patterns and layers of meaning that would not have been there if I had just filmed them one time. So I think it’s partially that curiosity about the moment of being in the present. And that’s very, very important to my filmmaking. And yet now there’s also a kind of layering that seems to be happening de facto, which is because I’ve been filming for a long time. I’m led to putting together combinations of shots and scenes and moments that span decades. And I have the luxury of doing that now. Because I’m getting older. One of the few benefits of getting older.

Correspondent: The films have gotten shorter, however. Interestingly.

McElwee: Yeah, that’s partially because people don’t have the patience to sit through two and a half hour films anymore.

Correspondent: I do.

McElwee: Well, you’re not the typical viewer.

Correspondent: Well, the interesting thing, aside from the fact that this is shot on video, is that there are a number of surprises about this film, aesthetically speaking, where it just does not seem like a Ross McElwee film. We have, of course, the photos with the music. And I was like, “Am I watching a Ken Burns movie or am I watching a McElwee movie?”

McElwee: Right.

Correspondent: Or even the fact that you gravitate more towards the past instead of the present.

McElwee: Yes.

Correspondent: You know, if you are altering your voice to fit the needs of what is required today, is it truly a genuine McElwee movie?

McElwee: No. Well, I’m not altering the voice because of marketing. There’s no way that I’m doing that. But I think it really is a matter of becoming older. I know, for me, for having kids or at least a son who’s a different generation, I’m starting to wonder, “What is this tension that I feel with my son? And why does this seem so extreme?” And that led me to go back to my own past. And I think in doing so, I did fine. I wasn’t shooting film back then and I don’t have images, moving images, to call upon, to represent what was happening at that point in my life. But I do have still photographs. And so, yes, there’s still photographs in my film and it is the first time I’ve used them this extensively. You’re absolutely right about that. And it’s the first time I’ve used stretches of music the way that I have in this film. Music has been in all my films. It’s diegetic. It comes out of the filming itself and the filming environment.

Correspondent: But the music comes before the voice. Whereas in previous films, the voice has ushered in the music.

McElwee: Yes, that’s true. Although I do….yes, you’re right. You’re right. That’s a different way of using music. But I think I felt that these were raw materials that I had available, which represented what my life was like at that time. Therefore, I had to draw on them. And it did make a different kind of film. Of course, the other large difference was that I’m much older now. And so there’s much more to look back on. So that way does become more “historical.”

Correspondent: Much more to look back on? What about looking forward? I mean, literally. I was shocked watching this movie. Because I was expecting the cross-country quest of some kind. But, no, it really is going backwards towards events that are half a lifetime ago. I mean, why should they define who you are in the present? They certainly haven’t in other films that you’ve made.

McElwee: No. And I think it may be a one time departure. But I feel that I have now earned the right to make whatever film I wanted to make and that was the film I wanted to make. And I think it’s mainly because of what I say in the beginning of the film. It’s that I’m a little stymied by my relationship to my son. And I’m confused by the directions he’s going in. And those directions are somewhat representative of his entire generation. But I’m also smart enough to realize that my father had the same questions about me. I didn’t go to medical school. That’s so puzzling. “Why would you not want to do something that would guarantee you a comfortable and fulfilling life?” No, I wanted to become a filmmaker. What is that all about? He must have really wondered about those things.

Correspondent: But the difference between you and your father, and Adrian and you, is that we have this image you have throughout your films of your father showing how to suture up something and your brother going ahead and participating. You’ve used that repeatedly.

McElwee: Yes.

Correspondent: In this, it’s almost like you’re the hired cameraman for Adrian’s movies.

McElwee: Yes.

Correspondent: It’s not necessarily like the passing of a legacy that Adrian rejects, although Adrian also adopts the filmmaking guise. So is there really a parallel here?

McElwee: Not a precise parallel. But there’s some irony too in there. I become Adrian’s camerman at the end of the film and I think that’s meant to be somewhat humorous. People understand that. I’m doing documentaries and determined to do fiction. Not only that, but I become his cinematographer. So, yeah, it’s clearly a departure for me to go in some of the directions I’ve gone in too. But I think it’s very healthy. Why not try something you haven’t tried before? And I’ve done it. Whether I’ll do something similar again remains to be seen.

Correspondent: Going back to adjusting to recent developments of the last five or six years — smartphones, social media, and so forth — one of our first images of Adrian. He is plugged into his laptop, quite literally. He has the laptop in front of him. He has the headphones. He has this massive cafe drink with a bright blue straw. And you’re trying to say, “I need your full attention.” And he refuses this. And this to my mind — because I saw your film twice. The first time, I was horrified by this. The second time, I actually came to sympathize with Adrian a little bit more.

McElwee: Right.

Correspondent: But I initially thought, “My God, he’s a spoiled brat. Here he is. The great Ross McElwee is being dissed by his own son!”

McElwee: But that’s his job as a son. Is to diss his dad.

Correspondent: Yeah, but diss in that sort of way? I mean, not have a meaningful conversation with you? Because it seems that you clearly establish, especially when you drag out all of your old notebooks and all of your old photos, there’s meticulous ideas that you set down in your youth and he’s frivolously typing away on his computer.

McElwee: Well, see, my father through I was frivolously scribbling away in my notebooks. It’s like so judgmental of fathers to be that way about their sons.

Correspondent: Or viewers to be that way about patriarchal relationships.

McElwee: Exactly. And the other thing that you can say is, “Well, yeah, he’s busy texting and listening to some conversation at the same time. He’s multitasking and he doesn’t even hear me when I ask the question or acknowledge that he’s heard me.” But what am I doing? I’ve got a digital camera on my shoulder. Who am I to criticize him for being wrapped up in his technology when I’m also wrapped up in my technology?

Correspondent: Well, you weren’t in the camera shot. But I’m pretty sure you weren’t holding a beverage. I’m pretty certain.

McElwee: That’s true.

Correspondent: He had more distractions than you going on.

McElwee: Or he’s just more ambidextrous than I am.

Correspondent: (laughs) Ambidextrous. But I mean, you say that it’s pretty much the same thing. But I would argue, given all the additional impediments from Adrian, that it’s not. That your quest into France was a quest for the usual frivolities of falling into weird relationships. I mean, you have the image of your son next to his girlfriend and there are two laptops there. I mean, that’s a fundamental difference that disrupts the parallel. So what of this? Is there? Can you actually adopt a parallel between your own life and Adrian’s?

McElwee: No, of course. It’s never precisely the same from generation to generation. We all know that. And I think the things that you point out visually were stunning to me when I actually saw them through the viewfinder. The two laptops opened at right angles to each other at a cafe table.

Correspondent: You didn’t notice when you were filming? It’s sort of like the rat in the motel [from Bright Leaves].

McElwee: Well, I did notice when I was filming. Because I thought, “Ah! This is the image I’m looking for.” I didn’t tell them to do that. But from the minute I saw this, I said, “I’m going to film this. Because it just seems so appropriate.” But I think it’s unfair to be too critical of Adrian and his generation for being so wrapped up in this technology. Because it’s available. And I was shooting 16mm film because it was suddenly available in a portable sense. You could put these cameras on your shoulder and go into the world for the first time. That was the whole cinéma vérité revolution. You know, my dad didn’t understand any of that. He thought it was crazy. In fact, at the very beginning, so did most funding agencies. Public television. Arts agencies. Nobody got it. That this was going to be something significant. That you could take technology into the world and interact with it on its own terms. As opposed to bringing people into the studio and interviewing them. Or recreating things the way Flaherty did. Directing it as if it were a fiction film. Using people from real life. And, in fact, it took a while for people to understand the possibilities of cinéma vérité. This was before I began making films. Those guys. [Richard] Lecock and [Albert and David] Maysles and [D.A.] Penebaker. They had to fight to get their kinds of filmmaking seen and shown and produced. So there’s always a learning curve for the rest of them.

Correspondent: And I dig all those guys. But the one commonality throughout all that early cinéma vérité is that there is a concern for capturing the human as opposed to cutting reality up into a stylistic mélange that gets in the way of really grasping with life. I mean, you try to recreate that famous moon shot from Sherman’s March in this film, but we see that we have all these buildings and your monologue is there. But the moon is more insignificant on video and it’s populated by all these buildings and so forth.

McElwee: Right.

Correspondent: Clearly you’re aware that this is either fading or this is in competition with the YouTube confessional/YouTube star movement. And so forth. I mean, where do you fit in? Is there a place for you, do you think?

McElwee: In this? Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m not really trying to tailor my films for any particular generation or any particular venue. I didn’t know where this film was going to end up. It was commissioned by French television. But aside from that, I had no idea where it would end up. And even that was an obscure presentation and platform. It was a late night experimental television series. And I was very happy to accept their commission and make this film. But I didn’t know what kind of film it would be. And I didn’t feel like I could tailor it to suit any particular category or any particular audience. And so there’s a way in which perhaps I’m shooting myself in the foot by not really thinking more about where these films are destined and is there a way I can make them more accessible to the younger generation who will then download it from their computers. I just…I can’t think like that. For whatever reason, I’m just driven to make a film because I want to make it on my own terms.

The Bat Segundo Show #491: Ross McElwee (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Nick Broomfield

Nick Broomfield appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #413. He is most recently the co-director of Sarah Palin: You Betcha.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he has gone rogue or rouge.

Guest: Nick Broomfield

Subjects Discussed: Being attracted to conservative politicians with big hair, Christopher Hitchens’s sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher, Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris, contending with publicists and press agents, Joe McGinniss’s The Rogue, Levi Johnston and Tank Jones, filming Daryl Gates accepting an interview fee on camera, the ethics of paying interview subjects, Broomfield’s amateurist aesthetic, the faux professionalism of film crews, Broomfield filming himself on the phone, Broomfield’s tendency to gravitate towards ad hominem, whether the possibility of Sarah Palin becoming President is a serious question, John Bitney, Steve Schmidt, campaign management of Palin, Broomfield doing less documentaries, the Kickstarter campaign for Sarah Palin: You Betcha, flipping between documentaries and narratives, wearing red flannel in Wasilla, JC McCavitt, the influence of Palin and the evangelical right in Wasilla, whether or not Wasilla reflects America, whether Broomfield is motivated by vengeance or retaliation, the chewing gum photo montage, balancing the visual details and the facts, collaborating with Joan Churchill, why Broomfield put himself in front of the camera after Lily Tomlin, claims of Lily Tomlin’s insecurity, the difficulty of filming Tomlin, why the construction of a documentary creates a more inclusive one, the dangers of moral labels, why people should trust Nick Broomfield, moral paralysis, subjective truth borne from a personal quest, embarrassing public questioning, Broomfield’s view of restraint as a weakness, hedge funds, getting investors to sign on for a Broomfield movie, working with non-actors, and the ever-shifting Broomfield paradigm.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Going back to Margaret Thatcher [Tracking Down Maggie], it seems to me that you have an especial interest in conservative politicians with very interesting hair-dos. What’s up with this particular commonality? I sense also a formalistic commonality as well with the chase for Maggie and the chase for Sarah here. What of this?

Broomfield: Well, in fact, I never thought of the similarity of the hair-dos. But now that you’ve pointed it out, it’s quite extraordinary.

Correspondent: Are you a man who likes big hair? You’re a Clintonian man?

Broomfield: I’m actually not a particularly big hair man. But when I was doing the Margaret Thatcher film, one of the people I interviewed was Christopher Hitchens.

Correspondent: Yes.

Broomfield: Who had a lot of almost sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher, which I hasten to add I never shared. But I noticed that a lot of people also have the same feelings about Sarah Palin.

Correspondent: Yes.

Broomfield: And, again, I’ve never succumbed to those kinds of thoughts with her. But I think that both women captured the imagination of a large part of the population. Probably also because they were women and they had a determination and a charm that was unexpected and was refreshing in its own way.

Correspondent: Yeah. Not attracted to Sarah sexually. But I also think to Fetishes and also to Heidi Fleiss; Hollywood Madam.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: It seems that there is also some sexual quality sometimes to some of your subjects. Especially women. Why do you think this is?

Broomfield: Well, I mean, I think as any full-blooded male once interested — I would apply it more to films like, yeah, Fetishes, Heidi Fleiss. I did a film, Chicken Ranch, in a legalized brothel in Nevada. Even someone like Aileen Wuornos was very interesting along those lines. Sexual lines. It’s funny. Just last week, I saw Fred Wiseman in Toronto. He’s just made a film. The Crazy Horse. A strip club. And before that, he did the ballet film. And I said, “Fred, do I get the sense of some kind of Fräulein in your work.” And he said, “I’d like to see what you’re doing when you’re 81 years old.”

Correspondent: Errol Morris’s Tabloid as well. While we’re on the subject.

Broomfield: Oh really?

Correspondent: Yeah, there you go.

Broomfield: What’s he just done?

Correspondent: He did Tabloid on the sex scandal. 1970s. So there we go.

Broomfield: There we go.

Correspondent: All you documentary filmmakers are turning into dirty old men.

Broomfield: Exactly. Exactly. Just give me a few more years and I’ll be completely there.

Correspondent: To get on a serious subject, since you had experienced difficulties in both Tracking Down Maggie and Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam when dealing with press agents and publicists, you had to know going into this one that you were probably not going to get a sitdown interview with Sarah Palin.

Broomfield: Well, I think that I always had the belief that I would get one probably. And it was only after we’d been there for about ten weeks — just before Christmas — that I really realized with that final phone call with Chuck Heath, the father, that I wasn’t going to get one. I don’t know that one would necessarily learn something devastatingly original with a sitdown interview with her. Because she’s done many interviews and nothing very revealing has come out. Generally, she’s revealing by omission. Which is: she doesn’t know something or she mispronounces a word or she is factually inaccurate or she gets things all confused. So she’s very revealing. Generally about lack of knowledge. She’s very unrevealing generally about herself and her upbringing and even her beliefs. I think she’s very guarded. For somebody who studied media at university, she is completely distrusting of the media and has more control probably over what she says and does than anybody. I mean, the only interview she does is with FOX Television, who she’s employed by. And obviously Facebook and Twitter. But I did think that as we were resident in Wasilla that maybe we would get a down moment with her that would at least be revealing of her — thank you (to barista) — of her family and her friends and the way she saw life around her or as part of the evangelical community. Which is really what Wasilla is.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting because Joe McGinniss also has a book called The Rogue. And he managed to get more childhood friends to talk — anonymously in that book — and you had to go all the way to way to Alexandria to find someone who would talk with you. I’m curious…

Broomfield: Well, my sources were not talking anonymously. They were talking on camera. And I can back up all my various claims in the film. Whereas I think one of the problems in quoting undisclosed sources is that you cannot back up your claims. And you obviously can’t do that in a film.

Correspondent: I was curious. While we’re on the subject of interviews, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam has the famous moment where you’re showing Daryl Gates accept the cash.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: In this, you have one moment where you’re talking to Levi Johnston’s manager, Tank Jones, and you’re negotiating trying to interview him for $500. And I’m curious about this. Is this kind of thing ethical? I mean, why would it be ethical? And I’m wondering, when you do in fact pay someone for an interview, do you feel an obligation to feature that on screen? Has this always been the case for you? Have you paid other people?

Broomfield: What I think was interesting is that people like Levi Johnston basically live off — I introduce that segment in the film, saying that there’s an industry that’s grown up around Sarah Palin and people live from that industry. So that was an illustration of Levi Johnston basically — I mean, I think they were asking $20,000. So I think my derisory offer of $500 was more of a joke than anything else. But I think it’s very relevant to point out that there is a great deal of money in tabloid journalism and that people are paid to make contributions. I mean, I didn’t pay anyone in this film. But there have been other films, which you quite rightly pointed out. Like, for example, the Heidi Fleiss film, everybody expected to be paid.

Correspondent: Everybody in Heidi Fleiss pretty much got paid? Ms. Sellers and the like?

Broomfield: They all expected to be paid. I don’t know if they all got paid. But yes. And I think I make a big point of that in the film. I comment on how much money various people wanted. Like DarylGates. I think he wanted $2,000. $1,500 to take part.

Correspondent: But when you introduce money into the equation, doesn’t this affect what you’re going to be getting from your documentary subjects?

Broomfield: Well, I’m making a film about what is. And we live in a world that’s very commercial and a world that has to do with money. And as a documentary filmmaker, you’re reporting on that world. So if everyone wants money in that world, you report on that fact. And of course, that makes a difference. Yes.

Correspondent: What about this amateurist aesthetic that is often in your films? I think of the tape running out in Biggie and Tupac.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: And in this [Sarah Palin: You Betcha], your efforts to try and cross an iced lake or to try and negotiate ice in numerous ways. Or the hat trick in, of course, The Leader[, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife]. And all that.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: There’s a certain…

Broomfield: You’ve certainly done your homework here.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious about why this exists. Are these deliberate moves on your part to either win over your subjects or win over the audience with a more amateurist approach that’s calculated? Or are these just mess ups on your part?

Broomfield: Well, I would argue that there’s sort of a faux professional approach with a lot of film crews. You know, when they climb back in the car and drive on to the next location, I’m sure they’re a whole lot of fun. And they crack a whole lot of jokes that are not in the film. But when they get the cameras out, they get the clipboards out, and they became these serious professionals. Which I think is a load of bullshit. I think it’s much better to reveal what it’s really like to be doing that film or what you really think or what the humor is, you know? Rather than having this — you know. I remember when I was working for television. I was working with a presenter. And the presenter was actually a very funny guy. And I remember we were making a film in a monastery. And he would get into all these arguments with the monks about whether God existed or how many angels he could get on a pin and all those classic debates. And he would always lose the arguments. Because the monks and the abbot and so on, that’s all they did. And they studied all the books. And they were really up on their theology and logic. And when I showed the film to the TV company, they were horrified. Because they said a professional reporter does not lose his way. Does not stumble over words. Doesn’t turn to the camera and say, “I’m stuck.” But of course, they do. And I think by including those kinds of things, you make a much more accurate portrait than if you leave them out. I think there’s a sort of faux professionalism that we’re surrounded by that is completely inaccurate.

Correspondent: But doesn’t your persona, your schtick, sometimes get in the way of the very subjects that you’re photographing. I mean, every time you make a telephone call in your movies, you’re always in a car.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering why you feel the need to film that as well. It’s almost as if you’re counting on the subject to say no.

Broomfield: Well, what…wha…I mean, I don’t really understand the point. I don’t know whether you’re saying that the phone calls are irrelevant or the fact that I’m in a car is irrelevant.

Correspondent: I’m trying to point out that you’re really trying to show yourself more than anything else.

The Bat Segundo Show #413: Nick Broomfield (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: James Marsh

James Marsh appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #401. He is most recently the director of Project Nim, which opens in theaters on July 8, 2011.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering unethical experiments that might slide by today’s authorities.

Guest: James Marsh

Subjects Discussed: States of exhaustion, Project Nim’s purported origins of the 1970s hippie residue, scientific ethics and Columbia code of conduct, attempts to teach a chimpanzee to use sign language, Professor Herb Terrace, the transgressive aspects of ripping an animal from his mother, Skinner, Harry Harlow’s experiments, Terrace’s efforts to seek media coverage, Nim Chimpsky’s attacks on grad students, Terrace’s concerns for insurance issues over harm and suffering to students, Washoe, a filmmaker’s obligation to history, contending with demands from studio executives, when Marsh recreates moments in a documentary, dramatic reconstructions, murdering poodles, the inherent danger in cutting too much, audience imagination and the dangers of being too literal, balancing the needs of individual perspective and audience reaction, having ongoing debates while editing a documentary, some of the qualities that cause a documentary filmmaker to become prickly, the potential conflict of interest of obtaining film clips from the very subjects you’re interviewing, having sexual feelings for a chimp, being faithful to the honest confessions of documentary subjects, viewing documentary subjects as actors, earning trust as a filmmaker, Philippe Petit, whether discomfort is required in the questioning process, asking a question in ten different ways, trying to get a scientist to reveal he committed an affair, why people should trust James Marsh, the moral implications on Catfish, the possibilities that Catfish is a fake documentary, and phony indignation.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You don’t bring up the Washoe project. Allen and Beatrix Gardner and Herb Terrace had a huge rivalry going on at the time. And it’s almost like East Coast/West Coast, Biggie/Tupac…

Marsh: Well, there’s another film to be made about all that stuff. There’s quite a few PBS type documentaries that get into the whole language experiments that Washoe, the Gardners, and that whole debate. That would be a film about science, a film about ideas. And our film is a drama about a chimpanzee and people. So I was aware of that context and many people spoke about it in the course of our interviews. But I thought it was going to be a blind alley for me as a filmmaker to get into that too much. It may be an oversight on my part. But that’s a different film. If you want to go see that film, someone else can make that. That’s not my film.

Correspondent: But don’t you think you have an obligation to present, to some degree, the history…

Marsh: No.

Correspondent: Of all of these animal language…

Marsh: Why?

Correspondent: Why? Because Washoe ended up having 350 words she “learned” of sign language. You can just do a brief mention.

Marsh: Well, you see, here’s my feeling about that. It’s that a brief mention is not good enough. That’s when you’re playing with it. If you’re just trying to flirt with something and say, “Well, I can mention Chomsky and I can mention Washoe and the Gardners.” You may know about that. But my brother watching the film won’t know anything about that. So I’m not trying to be — I’m being a little defensive here. But that wasn’t the film I wanted to make. That’s a different kind of film. And that film? Go online. Nova has done that film. Washoe, the fucking dolphins — you know, the Gardners, signs. But the bottom line is that the experiment failed. And that chimps do not learn language. So I can get caught up in this whole discussion about who was right and who was wrong, and who learned the most words. That’s not a story. That’s a discussion about the practice of science and the nature of these experiments. And so I wanted to focus on a dramatic story as opposed to the issues and the context. And, of course, someone like yourself, who is very….who is familiar with this stuff, probably feels a bit cheated. Because I don’t explain and give you the context you are sort of dimly aware of or know a little bit about. But that’s a very conscious choice on my part. Not to get caught up in things you can’t really fully explain and will, I think, be a sort of sideshow to what I think my interest in the story, which is my interest in the drama of it and the life story of this chimpanzee. Now if you’re a Nim, what does he fucking care about Washoe and dolphins and the Gardners? He isn’t going to know nothing about these things. So I’m trying to put you. You know, his life story is where I’m focused here. Not so much on this whole fascinating internexual climate that you’re aware of and the film doesn’t really get into.

Correspondent: To go ahead and correct your impression that I felt cheated, what I’m actually talking about here is how you as a documentary filmmaker make the choice to not include Washoe. Is it really a consideration of “Oh, well here’s a rabbit hole that will create a three hour film”?

Marsh: Yeah. Or where is my interest in this story? Where do I think the narrative is in this story? As opposed to — I think you could cram the film with reference points to other experiments and to other thinkers and linguists. And on and on. But that isn’t the film that I think would work for me as a filmmaker, or the one I’m interested in making. And so to distill my view into I want to tell you the story of this from the point of view of the chimpanzee, who would have no awareness of the other chimpanzee lab experiments and no interest in them either, I think.

Correspondent: So to some degree, it sounds to me that when you make a film — especially one that deals with science as opposed to, say, an event that numerous people see such as Man on Wire — your problem, I suppose, is that you’re enslaved to narrative to some degree. Is that safe to say?

Marsh: Well, that’s my interest in narrative. I guess I’m a little prickly about this. Because there’s quite a lot of pressure around the making of the film of this sort. Explaining to people. “Give me more context. Give me more science. Show me the scientific debate here.” And so I’m prickly about it because it caused me a lot of trouble as I was filming it, getting these comments from people — executives involved with the film — that they wanted more of this stuff. And they’re saying, “Well, I want a narrator for the film.” And I began to get quite pissed off about this. Because it wasn’t the kind of film that I was making, nor did I say that I was going to make this film. I was making the story of Nim the chimp. And films tend to not deal with ideas terribly well. It’s not what films are good at doing. I mean, some films do it extraordinarily well. But it’s not what they’re best for. I think film is best as a medium for storytelling. And so that’s where my interest is in this particular story again.

The Bat Segundo Show #401: James Marsh (Download MP3)

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Review: Hey, Boo (2010)

Hey, Boo, a largely hagiographical overview of the great Harper Lee, has the finest cinematic aesthetic that 1986 has to offer. Or maybe with all of the talking heads, it’s the finest television aesthetic. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the film’s director, Mary McDonagh Murphy, worked at CBS News for twenty years. Unfortunately, this experience has translated into a indolent, superficial, and largely unhelpful film in which we get to see Oprah Winfrey tell us how she “devooooooooooooooured” To Kill a Mockingbird when she first read it. We must endure the unctuous Scott Turow, who has resembled an empty oil barrel both in look and intelligence since his divorce, commending Lee’s “bravery” in writing about race in 1964. But given the novel’s quiet and diligent origins (Lee given a check by her friends Joy & Michael Brown to write anything she wanted for a year, nervous first editorial meeting at Lippincott, two years of vigorous editing), wasn’t Lee’s purpose less about shaking up the social landscape and more about writing the best novel she could? Hasn’t Turow been around the block enough times to comprehend that writers, even those who pen masterpieces like Mockingbird, often become blockbuster successes by fluke?

You’d think that Murphy would question her subjects. After all, there’s no point in including big names unless they have something to say. (Even Wally Lamb, while offering quasi-generalizations about Scout being “an extension of a Huck Finn character,” comes across as fairly thoughtful.) But Murphy isn’t especially interested in nuance. Her narrative is damaged by her editor’s tendency to kill the mood, lopping off crackling moments just as they’re catching fire. When Murphy’s camera briefly escapes the studio and enters the field, I was genuinely stunned that the filmmakers had managed to get off their sedentary asses. Talking with kids about what Mockingbird means to them is a foolproof method of investigating Harper Lee’s durability. But just as these future readers are getting jazzed up, the editor then cuts back to the literary luminaries (which include Tom Brokaw, for some inexplicable reason) sitting in chairs, doing their best to sustain excitement as their collective wisdom is reduced to audience-friendly platitudes. Richard Russo begins telling an interesting story about his father, only for the tale to be killed at press of a button. (You don’t give Richard Russo the cane. You let the man talk. Especially when your “feature” documentary is only 82 minutes. If this is Murphy’s idea of inclusiveness, why did she bother to include it?)

Murphy is also fond of simplifying her story, perhaps because she is terrified by the prospect of challenging an audience. When Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote is brought up, he is, of course, portrayed as an inveterate wastrel. But even accounting for Capote’s jealousy (which involved spinning prevarications that he had secretly written Mockingbird and that Lee’s mother was mentally unbalanced, even attempting to kill the young Lee twice), one cannot easily ignore that Capote was Lee’s best friend during a significant period of her life and that, contrary to the film’s insinuations, Capote and Lee reportedly stayed in contact up to the former’s death in 1984.

Lee, by contrast, is an angel who can do no wrong. It never occurs to Murphy (or her subjects, at least as they appear on camera) that Lee had her faults: her failure to complete books (including an In Cold Blood-like project she abandoned in the 1990s, never mentioned in the film), a refusal to suffer fools, and a sensitivity to anybody bringing up To Kill a Mockingbird in person. Efforts to reveal some of these complexities, an admittedly difficult proposition, can be found in Charles Shields’s Mockingbird. There are faults with Shields and his book, but the man has pounded the pavement. You’d think that Murphy would enlist him to be part of this project, but, rather tellingly, Murphy hasn’t interviewed him.

While we aren’t privy to Murphy’s questions, one senses that she has fired little more than softballs at her subjects. For fascinating figures such as Lee’s lively 99-year-old sister, Alice Finch Lee, this isn’t a problem. Alice speaks her mind, irrespective of the interlocutor’s deficiencies. But it does become a thorny issue when Murphy elicits answers from one especially sheltered Caucasian writer (“to be crying for a black man was so taboo!”) and when James Patterson, with typical hubris, compares his own hackwork to Lee’s (“Lee kept building and building and building. Obviously, I try to do this with my work.”). Such crass remarks demand that an interviewer call bullshit. But Murphy is a head nodder rather than a listener. When the distinguished Andrew Young says “not a lot of black people read” Mockingbird back in 1960, one wishes that Murphy had the capacity to pursue the bigger picture instead of waiting around for the power quotes.

The Bat Segundo Show: Reed Cowan

Reed Cowan appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #341. Mr. Cowan is most recently the director of 8: The Mormon Proposition, which opens in numerous theaters on June 18, 2010.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Conducting investigations on Dick Van Pattern’s possible Mormon connections.

Guest: Reed Cowan

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to also ask about the box of secret documents. You don’t actually cite a source. And there’s no indication in the film that you made efforts to corroborate this with the LDS. Or to even contact the names that were possibly on the emails or the memos. I mean, I’m a viewer — let’s say — who is on the fence. I see this. There’s no provenance. Did you make any steps to confirm the provenance? And why isn’t this in the film? I mean, is there some sort of website component here that one can use to find authenticity?

Cowan: I’ve actually met the person with the documents out of the Church offices. Out of the archives. So there was some corroboration that went on there. And also, what a lot of people don’t know is that, during the federal case that’s going on right now, those documents were provided to the case as well. Which led to subpoenas of other documents from the Mormon Church. In those subpoenas, we were able to see that the documents the Church had to hand over correlated with the ones we have. So it’s a matter of court record, from my understanding with the people inside the trial, that they match.

Correspondent: Which court record is this? Which case?

Cowan: In the federal trial that’s going on right now. Perry vs. Schwarzenegger.

Correspondent: Okay. Got it. And speaking of which, I actually wanted to ask you why you didn’t cover Strauss vs. Horton — the three cases that were consolidated into the California Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8. It would seem to me that that’s just as much a part of the story as the Mormon mobilization. And also the efforts to try and take Proposition 8 off the ballot that were again rebuffed by the California Supreme Court.

Cowan: Well, the thesis of our film is “8: The Mormon Proposition.” And so really the onus is on us to prove their strategy, right? And to prove to the audience how it came together, how the strategy was formed. And so we feel like we did that. And anything else is outside of that focus. And, you know, there’s so much here. I mean, you’re right. There is so much here that if the citizenry really wanted to see what’s going on, I mean, you could produce ten, fifteen hours of programming. Just in the federal trial alone. I mean, the fact that they are not allowing the testimony to be televised, to me, is sickening. And could be hours and hours and hours of documentary material that we could obviously add to the film.

Correspondent: Hours and hours of dramatization as well.

Cowan: Sure. Sure. But I don’t know an audience that wants to sit through ten hours of documentary. And so look for the books, I guess. Look for other documentaries. And I hope there are more made.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if you believe that any Mormon can believe in same sex marriage.

Cowan: I do. I know that some of my high profile Mormon friends believe that I have the same rights as they do. And I have the right to claim those rights. It would be surprising, I think, to a lot of Mormons to know that one of the most popular governors in the state of Utah, Jon Huntsman, and his wife Mary Kaye are dear friends of mine. Jon has now been appointed the Ambassador to China by President Obama. And they are very close friends of mine. And Jon Huntsman has gone so far in that state — now a lot of people wouldn’t like that he didn’t come out and advocate for marriage, but he advocated in that state for civil unions. And that was a huge step. And Mary Kaye said to me, “You realize why we took this stand and took the heat. It was because of you and your partner. It was because of our relationship and friendship with you.” So can Mormons get it? Absolutely. Absolutely.

Correspondent: Then I’m wondering why you didn’t profile, for example, Laura Compton, who started that site MormonsforMarriage.com. I mean, that seems to me a decided apostasy in relation to this particular issue. That not all Mormons are some sort of Borg-like collective.

Cowan: Yeah. You know, there were a few who did dare speak out. There were many who were punished in certain ways for speaking out. And that created a culture where they didn’t dare. So people like Laura are heroes. But again, the thesis was to prove “Look, this was their proposition.” It wasn’t the Catholic proposition. The Mormons were the man behind the curtain. And so again, I welcome any documentary who can profile her or the other few, the minority of Mormons who stood up for marriage equality. And continue to do so. And who are now crossing the aisle and seeing where the inequity happened.

Correspondent: Surely deflecting criticisms from the Mormon Church by having someone like Laura Compton in your documentary would have allowed, I suppose, for those sitting on the fence to consider the issue perhaps a little bit more.

Cowan: Maybe she would have provided a light that people could follow. But again that’s not what the film was about. The film was to show the inequity. Because that was the great wrong that happened. And, you know, in an hour and twenty minutes, that’s the time we had. The time we had to try to prove that case.

The Bat Segundo Show #341: Reed Cowan (Download MP3)

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Review: Blessed is the Match

seneshThe most truthful moment contained within Roberta Grossman’s documentary, Blessed is the Match, comes from parachutist Reuven Dafni. Dafni reveals, in what Grossman bills as his final interview, that he did not like the widely celebrated Hannah Senesh very much, but that he admired her stubbornness. One is curious to know why. But the question is never asked.

It is this journalistic diffidence that prevents Grossman’s documentary from being anything more than a helpful yet tendentious refresher course for those who wish to learn more about the intriguing Senesh. The film, littered with spoon-fed “recreations” of existing photos, Indiana Jones-style animated trails across maps, and Joan Allen’s stately, Oscar-nominated voice reading Catherine Senesh’s writings, chooses to present Hannah Senesh as a martyr, but doesn’t make any serious efforts to ask whether Senesh’s martyrdom was premeditated, or whether history has the right to judge Senesh’s life almost exclusively from her final days. All this is a pity and a missed opportunity. For are not noble actions committed without the expectation of credit? If Senesh set herself up to be a martyr, and there exists some possibility that she did, is there not more wisdom to be found crawling around the gray areas?

Senesh, of course, is known for her courage in parachuting into Yugoslavia, working her way to Nazi-occupied Hungary to rescue imprisoned Jews, only to be captured by Arrow Cross soldiers and systematically tortured in prison. But Senesh offered hope to her fellow inmates, singing songs and flashing vital signals with a mirror through her cell window. She communicated to her fellow inmates that there was indeed an end in sight, and Senesh did all this while brutal interrogators continued to beat her, punching out her teeth, and bringing her mother into the cell in an attempt to loosen the information.

Senesh did not talk. Her mother, Catherine, wandered up and down the streets of Budapest hoping to obtain her release. But despite Hannah’s reported eloquence before the judges during her tribunal, she was tried for treason and executed.

It is difficult to argue against the idea that Senesh espoused bravery. But Senesh was also a human being, flawed as human beings are. In 1939, she emigrated to Palestine to attend the Nahalal Agricultural School. Grossman presents but smooths over the fact that Senesh skipped town just after the First Jewish Law was passed in 1938, which restricted the number of Jews employed in liberal vocations to 20%. Known as a precocious intellectual among her largely upper-class peers in Budapest, the documentary informs us that Senesh wrote haughtily back to her family that she could put her abilities to better use. We are also informed that Senesh was exceptionally idealistic, but that she kept largely to herself and couldn’t share any of her concerns with others in the kibbutz. But instead of examining all this through interviews with surviving members of Senesh’s family, or even “recreating” these flawed moments, we’re given a film with an inflexible and somewhat primitive perspective, all set to Todd Boekelheide’s heavy-handed orchestral music.

Here is a fascinating and complex figure who deserves better than the Biography Channel treatment. Sir Martin Gilbert lends some gravitas to the project, providing extremely useful historical context. But what’s troubling about this film is that, long before the film is over, the audience has already made up its mind about Senesh’s virtues. As the current atrocities in Gaza cause any feeling mind to draw uncomfortable parallels with other historical actions, Blessed is the Match arrives in theaters without an ability to expand its perspective beyond simplistic good vs. evil dichotomies. With the high watermarks established by Marcel Ophuls and Claude Lanzmann, this is a film terrified of offending and presenting, and not altogether different from hundreds of other Holocaust documentaries.