Category Archives: Documentary

Mondovino (2004)

Mondovino (2004)

Every story needs its good and bad, and for one to triumph over the other. In the world of wine the good guys are those versed in the traditional ways, passed down through generations; the bad guys those larger corporations that transcend a modest few hectares in favour of homogenising wine on a global scale. In Jonathan Nossiter‘s Mondovino (2004, 131 mins), the world is not so clear cut and the truth lies somewhere between.

One of the few documentaries ever considered for the Palme d’Or, this film takes a look at the globalisation of wine by getting global itself and travelling the world to interview its subjects. From the Old World to the New; through sprawling Napa valley vineyards onto humble uprofitable patches in Argentina; and from tradition to modernity. Nossiter gets access to an excellent range of high profile interviewees and his cinéma vérité style, while a bit hyperactive at times, works well in opening up the industry and being alert to its problems.

What we see is two distinct worlds: one of class, heritage and terroir; and another of democratised brand-led wine production pioneered by the American Mondavi family, its ripples felt around the world. In this first world, Nossiter meets with aristocractic families of France and Italy, their vineyards preserved through periods of fascism by collaboration and support, something for which descendants seem happily unapologetic. And in the other world, wine as a brand is considered, where Californian wine producers have led the capitalist charge to commoditise wine — the faster, better, cheaper approach.

To see how wine has changed in the last fifty years, it’s little surprise to hear that “wine is dead” from Aimé Guibert, the owner of 40 hectares in Languedoc. Where, for millennia, wine has been about the relationship between man and nature, today it is different. What once was about terroir is now about manipulation. The patience once required in maturing a vintage can now be hastened. Guibert is one of the handful of traditional vintners featured — a dying breed in this new world of wine — who will be lost to modernity.

But what is modernity in wine when considered against a timeless culture of grape fermentation? Where one may expect it to be the unrelenting march of technology, the answer in Mondovino appears to lie in the closeness of tastemakers. As the interviews progress the name of Robert Parker comes to the fore, a writer who, with his casual — some might say American — style and easy-to-understand ratings cut through the stuffiness of prior wine writing to become the world’s preëminent wine critic. Parker comes across rather well, a victim — in so much that he’s practically deified — of his own success, perhaps. But should you, as a supposedly independent writer, stop if you could be responsible vicariously for the death of wine.? Are you really to blame for those that hang on your every word?

If Parker is a tastemaker in print, the influence of Michel Rolland is not overlooked either, and Nossiter spends plenty of time chauffeured around with him. Consultant to hundreds of wineries around the world, Rolland offers his advice and improves the fortunes of those using his services. In effect they are moulding wines to his taste. Learning that Rolland shares tastes with Robert Parker, the world of wine begins to feel smaller, more restricted. As Rolland advises in one direction, wineries adapt their wine to the palate of the one man who will sing its praises and make its fortune. A damning epiphany, although it begs the question as to where wine is headed once these men are gone.

Although Nossiter, for the most part, sticks to simple lines of questioning and allows the interviewees to expound on matters oenological, political, and geographical, it feels likely that his mind is made up and that the subjects are there to confirm suspicions that globalisation is detrimental to wine. Subtle hints come when he notices a French press attaché use the English term ‘winemaker’ in a stream of Gallic dialogue; or less subtle such as the moment when Parker talks of his “candid, democratic way of tasting” and the camera turns to underscore this with a Burger King advertisement.

At over two hours there’s so much to Mondovino that it only hints at so much else. And its no surprise to learn that, with 500 hours of original footage, there’s so much more. Fringe characters add further colour, such as the New York wine importer despondent at the changes in the industry and the Christie’s Wine Director who, with the quiet grace of a butler, pines for a return to the 19th Century where England played its part in the French wine industry. Or even the Burgundian di Montille family, where the daughter decides to quit her job at a larger rival for dishonest practices and join her father’s independent concern.

This last one is indicative of much of Mondovino. Whether it be long and morally suspect lineages or siblings working together (or against!), families are important in wine. In this ever globalising world they seem to be the one thing that keeps it human. And it seems to be the one thing that keeps them looking to the future. One of the Mondavi clan dreams of growing wine on Mars fifteen generations from now. And globalisation is bad enough, as Nossiter’s film convinces, without the threat of universalisation lying in wait.

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My Architect (2003)

My Architect (2003)

In the preface to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray, he makes the famous statement that “all art is quite useless”. Not so architecture, an art form that can be both admired and functional. Time, though, is a great leveller, condemning some art to the past while elevating others. The works of Louis Kahn (1901-1974) receive this treatment in My Architect (2003, 116 mins), a documentary of his son Nathaniel Kahn‘s journey to better understand the man who died when he was eleven. The Richards Medical Research Laboratories, once lauded on newsreel as Kahn’s greatest achievement now seems a monstrous carbuncle to those who use it today.

Kahn’s death was a bit of a conundrum. Following his return from project work in India, he suffered a heart attack and died in a New York toilet. His address was scored out on his passport and his body lay unclaimed in the city morgue for three days. Despite his career and the high profile of his work, he was half a million dollars in debt. The subsequent obituary noted that he left behind a wife and daughter. No mention was made of his children from two other relationships that he concurrently maintained. It’s this exclusion from his father’s publicly known life that begins this film.

The twenty-five year distance between Kahn’s death and making the film is not fraught with the problems expected, namely that his contemporaries would also be dead. Luckily, architects appear to be immune to death and some of those appearing here (I.M PeiPhilip Johnson, and, for six-degrees-of-separation fans, Kevin Bacon‘s father, Edmund Bacon) are, if not already there, pushing nonagenarian status. Johnson calls Kahn a true artist while Bacon, famous for his role in rebuilding downtown Philadelphia, appears less enthused by Kahn’s seeing individual flourishes while neglecting the larger picture (“all brutal, totally insensitive, totally impractical”)

Bacon’s dissent aside, the overall sense is one of warmth (and why wouldn’t it be in a film about a son wanting to understand his father?) but that sensation comes not from the editing but the words of all the others interviewed. The women who he maintained away from his own marriage never themselves married and still look back favourably on the architect. Frank Gehry attributes his first works to his reverence for Kahn. Old friend Robert Boudreau is lost for words when Kahn fils reveals his heritage. Even a group of career cab drivers seem pleased to take a trip down memory lane without their meters running.

There are two stories running parallel here. That of the son learning of his father and then there’s the story of the father himself which, debts aside, can be held up as an American success story. As a three year old in his native Estonia, he burnt his face with hot coals, and the scars stayed with him through life. Later his family emigrated to America, where he would draw and play the piano for money. Architecture finally came as his calling, although it wouldn’t be until he was almost fifty that his undistinguished career would get the inspirational injection it needed, thanks to a residency in Rome where he learnt from the ancient monuments that endured millennia. No longer would he attempt to emulate the glass fronted buildings leading the new architectural wave; instead he would make ancient buildings for the modern world.

The buildings are certainly unique and Nathaniel Kahn makes an effort to visit them throughout the film. Most vivid are the Phillips Exeter Academy Library for its undramatic exterior which gives way to a beautifully exposed interior and the Salk Institute, which I.M. Pei declares “will stand the test of time”. While time (in the terms that architecture needs to prove its worth) is not possible within a shooting schedule, Kahn does treat us to a lovely time lapse sequence of the building. A young boy plays over the central canal, the sun sets, the building lights come on in phosphorous green, and a portentous sky is reflected in the water. The architecture here is not just the shapes and materials, but how it ties in to the world around it. And not just ties in but shapes it, as evidenced by the tears of Shamsul Wares as he contemplates how the beautiful Bangladeshi parliament building gave the country a home for democracy. Such forward-looking is what ultimately allows the son to say goodbye to the father.

As an inspiration and vaunted as one of the modern greats the sacrifice taken to reach such architectural heights must certainly have been Kahn pere‘s family life — or families’ lives. “Are we a family?” Nathaniel asks of his half-siblings. The answer may be as unclear as their image of him as father, but there’s food for thought in whether a family should be defined by blood or by choice. The blood is certainly there, but notions of familial unity may ultimately be personal.

It’s suggested that certain attributes (being short, ugly, and Jewish) may have driven Kahn internally, such soul-searching ultimately leading to his artistic drive and unique vision (“symmetry, order, geometric clarity, primitive power, and enormous weight”), and his family life being secondary because true artists don’t have discipline. But the story of Louis Khan appears to be one of the older themes around; that of man versus nature. Indeed there’s a voiceover of Kahn eulogising on the power of art to recreate and inspire wonder (“Truly the work of art is one that tells us that nature can not make what man can make.”) The story of Nathaniel Kahn and his father may have been one borne of nature, but it takes an artist to tell it.

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Juvenile Liaison 2 (1990)

Juvenile Liaison 2 (1990)

Fifteen years after the events of Juvenile Liaison (1976), Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill returned to Blackburn in Lancashire to trace the children they had filmed. Although the premise of returning to subjects is nothing new — Michael Apted‘s Up series had been doing that for years — this was not just a dropping in on old friends but a means of again exploring the legacy of both the scheme and the original film upon the lives of those featured. The result was Juvenile Liaison 2 (1990, 78 mins.), which in a marked change from the original saw Broomfield insert himself prominently into the film. From observing the interrogations he had now become the interrogator.

In all but one case the children, now grown, remained in Blackburn. Glenn, the young boy terrified by the bullish Sergeant Ray, lives in London, stacking shelves in Safeway. Asked about that infamous encounter he admits it had an effect on him in that it kept him out of trouble. Interestingly, fifteen years on, his responses are terse, practically monosyllabic as he stares reflectively beyond the camera. There’s the sense that the first encounter left some traumatic mark. However, there’s little meat for whatever narrative the directors wish to create, and so they move on.

There’s more enlightening interviews with the other children. Some, like Glenn, have left their misdemeanours behind, while others’ lives have been miserable thenceforth. One guy, Russell, is facing prison on twelve counts of burglary. Saddest however is the life of George, the crying boy dragged from his bed by Sergeant Ray. Now thirty and estranged from his family, he clearly has a mental disability and has been receiving psychiatric help for voices.

While we meet a number of participants from the first film, there are others that decline to be involved but closure is still given to, what in a narrative, may have constituted loopholes. In one scene we see Broomfield sitting on a hotel bed, microphone strapped to a phone receiver, calling Sergeant Ray. While the policeman, now retired, seems amiable enough to chat, he declines the chance to participate in the film, citing the original’s editing (“It made me look like an ogre, most of the time.”) and how it never showed the pleasant side of the scheme.

As we learn at the beginning, the original film was screened twice — in the House of Commons and also to those filmed — and from there it was banned. The great public debate it was expected to kickstart never happened, becoming only an internal police enquiry that found in its own favour. If there were questions to be asked of officers’ skills or suitability, they were never to be answered. If the film was “unbalanced”, as Ray suggests, can the unseen treats for children really bring parity to the acts shown? Sergeant Ray was seen as leading the way in the juvenile liaison scheme, so what’s shown is that it’s not just questions of individuals actions that are questionable but of the system also.

When it comes to asking those involved to stop looking back and instead to reveal what their futures hold, some have it worked out. Go live in America or buy a house. But there’s the sense that there are some dreams that will never come true. For Russell, with both ambitions and a criminal record, he’s under no illusion as to his future (“I’m a loser. That’s where I’ll go. Down, down, down. I know that for a fact.”). His life is a nightmare from which he will never wake up.

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Juvenile Liaison (1976)

Juvenile Liaison (1976)

Screened twice and then banned for fifteen years, Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill‘s Juvenile Liaison (1976, 97 mins.) embeds itself into the work of the Lancashire Constabulary’s juvenile liaison scheme. Adopted in 1968 this three person department worked with schools, social services, and parents with the purpose of keeping young offenders out of court. In the year prior to the film’s release, the police had recorded shy of a thousand cases. With delinquency at such levels the need for such a scheme is obvious, although the execution demonstrated is dubious.

Over the course we meet a succession of children whose crimes range from truanting and petty theft (felt pens and apples) to physical abuse. When a first time offence occurs all relevant bodies are informed and the police give the kids a good old talking to. Doing the talking are Sergeant Ray and Policewoman Mrs Brooks, both thrown into a role that they appear ill-equipped to manage. Ray drags one lad from bed when he refuses to come downstairs; Brooks equates a young girl’s swearing with sluttery. Poor questioning finds more tears than admissions of guilt. Yet enquiries continue, repetitive and directionless.

Ray’s methods in particular are excessive; he brings an excessive counter-productive bluster to the role that suggests Philip Glenister‘s turn as DCI Gene Hunt in Life On Mars may be a stingingly accurate portrayal of a 70s cop. Yet it seems acceptable at that time as others stand aside, complicit. The most horrible scene is one where his hulking figure looms over an increasingly terrified seven year old boy, interrogating him as if he’s some master criminal. The crime? A stolen cowboy suit.

At times it can be difficult to understand what’s being said. In some cases it’s the Northern brogue; in others it’s the murmuring through sobs; and sometimes the diagetic sounds overpowering. The microphone captures everything and there are no helpful subtitles to punctuate the less comprehensible moments. But there also comes of this an immediacy, a sense of being in the moment. There are a few nods to the directors’ presence — an aside here; a cigarette proffered there — but otherwise we are strictly observers.

With all the ineffective questions being asked of the kids’ misdemeanours, the one unspoken is why they are inclined to their crimes. The juvenile liaison scheme, as well-intentioned as it is, puts its emphasis on preventing court appearances in lieu of exploring the underlying problems. The police sound more like angry parents when speaking with the children, which is perhaps what they need; some parental interest. Although it sometimes feels that attention now is just too little too late.

Viewed now, Juvenile Liaison is a fascinating social document capturing an aspect of its time. Then, the scheme was adopted as a public relations exercise which, in part because of this documentary, turned into a disaster. However, the potential public debate that the film could have sparked about the scheme’s efficacy never happened. As it closes there is no mention of what happened next. That would come later, in 1990.

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Glass (1958)

Glass (1958)

In the Academy Award-winning Glass (1958, 10 mins.) Dutch director Bert Haanstra introduces us to his country’s glass industry by way of the Royal Leerdam glass factory. There’s no talking heads, no explanations of what’s going on, and no industry jargon to learn. Instead, he borrows the old writers’ adage of show, don’t tell, the result of which is an entertaining shot-by-shot glimpse of the skills involved and a paean to the craft.

The documentary opens with a range of men, young and old, blowing the malleable glass, their cheeks inflated like puffer fish. One gent is so adept as to not bother removing his pipe while blowing. There’s no goggles, gloves, overalls, or anything else that contemporary health and safety zealots would endorse. And with the furnaces all around them, they don’t appear to even be breaking sweat. They blow the glass, they roll it, and they shape it both in moulds and by hand, all in sync to an upbeat jazzy soundtrack that gives the impression of being trapped in an elevator.

When technology gets involved, the music changes. It’s much more restrained, applying sound effects to the machinery. Clinks, whizzes, and clockwork winding punctuate a bottling line as it produces identical bottle after bottle, all with a robotic voice incrementing a count. It makes sense to show this side of the industry since it poses a potential threat that could ultimately downsize the workforce and nullify the skill involved. However, since the product is uniform and in high quantities it leaves the glass blowers to focus on the more complicated designs. As the film shows, when a bottle gets stuck on the line, causing breakages, people can never truly be ruled out as someone has to watch over the machines.

When the focus returns to the men of Royal Leerdam — and a jazzy piano accompaniment —  we no longer see their faces. Instead Haanstra turns his camera to their hands. In every swivel of the blowpipe or roll of the molten glass, the men are likened to musicians. Artists, certainly, with a very unique skill. As the climax builds all elements that have gone before come together, showing that the craftsmanship and the automation, as an industry, are ultimately tied.

The real joy of the film is experiencing what is most likely a mystery to most — the shaping of glass. To see it twisted, moulded, and worked into a recognisable everyday object is a pleasure, especially as it dawns on you what is being produced. The complementary soundtrack simply adds to and enhances the positive experience the film provides. Put succinctly, Glass is as immaculately crafted as the items it portrays.

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Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

Although the moving image is a natural progression from static photography, what a wonder the movie camera must have been in those early days. It may well have been an answer to this little couplet from Robert BurnsTo A Louse:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

The movie camera, assuming that power, was able to record and play back the world around us. Naturally, when it came to telling stories through this new medium, the narratives were borrowed from both page and stage. Was this to be the fate of moving images? Dziga Vertov thought different. The moving picture made possible new means of expression and new narratives. The movie needed to be a language in its own right, an “absolute separation from the language of theatre and literature”.  Hence Man With A Movie Camera (1929, 68 mins), a manic composite of disparate scenes and images drawn from any old day in Soviet Russia edited in such a way as to tell a universal story.

As the title suggests, the premise is thin – a man does indeed have a movie camera – but it’s the execution that is rich and makes this a rewarding view. Our eponymous man can be seen regularly, out and about with his camera, whether he be running along the streets, standing on rooftops looking over the streets, or even just standing in the middle of the street. It’s hardly surprising that much of the content should be set here as this is a film about life and much of our daily life happens on the streets. Shops line them, trams glide along them, and those down on their luck sleep in them. But the man about town with his camera is not the subject, but what is seen through his lens. And, what the camera sees is a world without borders. Where a person may have difficulty going, the camera has no qualms. And so the streets are only part of its focus. Beyond there’s industry, beaches, and bedrooms.

All human life is here, juxtaposed. Birth alongside deaths; marriage against divorce; the rigours of work versus the pursuit of leisure. That it’s real people and not actors make it a beautiful historical document, but Vertov’s handling of this is nothing short of cinematic poetry. And it’s not just his attention to the myriad Russian lives that composes this symphony but the technology that occupies the people, be it in the workplace or through entertainment. The wheels of machinery turn, churning out their product repeatedly, a mirror to humanity’s daily saga of life and death.

Ultimately, the camera does not just capture what it sees, but shows a startling self-awareness. It sees the movie itself being made. When it begins we see an empty cinema, the type where news reels were once shown. The seats come to life, people gather to watch. Just another facet of daily life. But what they have come to see is not just the end result, but its production. Vertov’s work has fun here. We see innocent street scenes and then cut to the man filming them. Many people are blissfully unaware of the camera’s all-seeing eye while others direct their performance its way. We see a boy smiling, unaware he’s being filmed, before moving to the film in the editing room where his smile is static in a single frame.

The speed at which images fly by is incredible. The second you’ve been presented with something — a scene, an object, a face — to observe, and adjusted to this, the film has discarded it in favour of something else. It’s frenetic, and with the accompanying high-tempo soundtrack (Michael Nyman’s 2002 score, in my case) it takes you on a dreamlike journey that carries an undercurrent of urgency. It’s not quite free-associating, but the wealth of images flow in and out, both complementing and contradicting each other.

If Vertov’s new cinematic language is playful, so too is its further use of technique. The director doesn’t shy away from experimenting with his footage, and thus we see double exposures, split screens, slow motion, amongst others.  This creates interest and adds variety to the those scenes that are perhaps overused. There’s one moment, shown in reverse, featuring the gathering – or ungathering, rather – of chess pieces that doesn’t ring true with the opening assertion to viewers that the film is “a cinematic communication of real events” however it still works as another interesting image in the film’s inventory. What most impressed me was a piece of stop motion animation that saw our titular movie camera lose its man and walk around on its own. Truly the camera has the power to go anywhere.

With no definite narrative, the montage of disparate shots in Man With A Movie Camera is a fine example of the Kuleshov Effect writ large. What can it mean when one image is followed by another? A train passing and a woman rousing from sleep, say. Each to their own. But to watch this film now, over eighty years since its release, represents many different journeys. One back in time to a world gone by; one across the world to a place unvisited; and one through a day in the life of both a city and a man. A man with a movie camera — the reel deal.

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