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Jim and Andy Review

I spent a couple of days last week at the AFI Fest in Hollywood, which is a film festival right here in Los Angeles, with a lineup of some of the year’s greatest films. I was able to catch a documentary called “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond−With a special contractually obligated, mention of Tony Clifton.” It’s a Netflix original production, and in fact I just noticed that it’s already up on the site! The film is constructed with a blend of behind the scenes footage of Jim Carrey for the 1999 film, “Man on The Moon,” a biopic about Jim’s comic idol, Andy Kaufman (directed by Milos Forman), intercut with a present day interview of Carrey himself, looking back on the whole experience.   If you remember that film, or if you were around for the career of Andy Kaufman, then you will know that Kaufman tended to push the boundaries of what most people would consider “performance” and “entertainment.”  Famously, Kaufman would construct what many would consider elaborate pranks on his audience, like making it seem like the reception on the television was bad during one of his shows, or refusing to break character with certain performative personas […]

On Getting Lost in Berlin

Last Summer I had the privilege of working on a movie that filmed in Budapest, Vienna, Amsterdam and Berlin. While I was spending most of my time working, I made the most of the free time that I had.   During one of my days off in Berlin, after partaking in some of the usual touristy fare, such as Checkpoint Charlie, a bus tour and the Berlin Wall, I found myself wandering through an old former East Berlin neighborhood. While researching for my book, I delved into the films and writing of the great Werner Herzog. Of course I’ve always been a Herzog fan, finding films like Grizzly Man both tragic and profound, and Encounters at the End of the World hauntingly beautiful and sublime. But on this day I was thinking about something that Herzog had said about filming the Truth (he used a capital T). He posited that so often, documentary filmmakers are like tourists, “documenting” where they have been, but failing to develop a real relationship with the places they seek to portray. Instead, he opted for a “journey on foot” in search of the sublime.   I found Checkpoint Charlie (as well as some of the […]

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Errol Morris’ Documentary about Documentation: The B Side

Errol Morris’ Documentary about Documentation: The B Side I’ve been a fan of Errol Morris ever since his 2003 Academy Award Winning feature, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, which is, essentially, as the title suggests, a feature−long interview with McNamara. Having had a background in journalism, Morris is perhaps one of the greatest interviewers in cinema history. Famously, the reaction to the movie, which is about a contentious and nation−dividing event in American history, the Vietnam War, left individuals on both sides of the divide disappointed. Some people thought that Morris was too easy on McNamara, who has been widely seen as the primary hawk as U.S. Secretary of defense during the Vietnam period, and therefore primarily responsible for the war itself. Others thought that Morris was too hard on him, juxtaposing shocking images of the war with McNamara’s calm confidence, which could be perceived as a kind of smugness, in the interview. But what emerges in the film is a complex portrait of the man, rife with new insights and revelations about a period in history about which so many of us had preconceived notions as to how these events unfolded. […]

Shrinking the Camera

One of the problems with documentary filmmaking has always been the observer effect, or the idea that the act of observation changes what one is observing. Of course we cannot get away from the philosophical problem of the observer effect, which we all just have to live with if we want to document anything at all. But the presence of the camera adds an additional hurdle to this idea. One simply cannot get away from the fact that subjects are aware of being filmed, documented or portrayed, and they are therefore implicitly self conscious in a way that they might not be in a situation that does not involve the camera, or lights or cumbersome sound equipment.   I have, in my career, often been jealous of radio journalists for this reason. It’s much easier to simply place a recorder on the table in between one’s self and the interviewee than it is to convince them to step in front of a big lens on a camera, often with other technicians listening in. It becomes a performance all of a sudden, and no longer the intimate, one−on−one conversation that is often required. Filmmakers get around this in various ways. Often […]

A New Adventure

Hello everyone, and welcome to my new website, my new endeavor, and the one place where I’ll be gathering all the news and information on what I’m thinking, what I’m doing, and what I’m making. Austin Kleon, in a great book for artists called “Show Your Work” explains the benefits of using social media to simply let your fans in on what you are working on creatively. I’ll be using this space to post about documentary film as a window into this great adventure we call life, both in practice (as a filmmaker) and in review (as a writer, reviewer and lover of the documentaries made by others). I’ve come to believe that documentary film is an incredible opportunity for us all to engage with, reflect on and in many ways participate in the rhythms, liturgies and reflections on life, humanity and God. My good friend and former classmate, now a film critic who suggested I write a book summarized my project thusly, “for you, documentary film can be a spiritual practice.” I really do believe that, and in some ways, the blog posts here, the examples and reviews of the films of others, as well as the films of […]

The Essence of Place

  Living in Budapest for three months taught me a lot about Europe. Sure, we all visit the touristy spots and go on vacations in Europe; many of us have backpacked through Europe and done the hostel thing after college, but how often do you get to live in a European city, to have an address, a daily routine, and a job? That was essentially my life this summer, and the experience went well beyond what I could have picked up from a mere visit.     The city itself is very safe and clean, the people are wonderful, and the prices (for housing and eating) are very cheap for a major city. The culture is great. You can find anything you want in Budapest: great museums, concerts and plays, jazz clubs and live music, ruin bars and cocktail clubs, speakeasies and great restaurants, it’s quite remarkable. Of course you can find that in cities all over America as well, and yet I felt as though this city was fundamentally different.     Perhaps one of the most incredible realizations for me was that people in cities all throughout Europe are, at this very moment, sitting at tables outside restaurants and […]

Rain in Amsterdam: 1929 vs. 2017

    I had the privilege of visiting Amsterdam recently, and having written a section in my book about the early 20th century documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens’ poetic ode to the interplay between the rainstorm (nature) and the city (Amsterdam), crafting shots of the gathering clouds, the city preparing for rain, the drops in the canals, and finally, the sun breaking through once more, I thought I might compose and ode of sorts to Joris Ivens, in the city of Amsterdam, nearly ninety years later. My quick trip was set up to shoot some street interviews for my documentary about urban planning “The Space Of Our Time,” but as I boarded the plane in Budapest for my trip, I noticed the weather report: three days of rain. I seriously considered punting and re-routing myself to Prague instead, a city that would have yielded great architectural B-roll for my documentary as well. But I had already arranged for a camera operator to meet me the next day and decided to go anyway and risk getting rained out. Amsterdam is beautiful, a historic port city that sits below sea level, keeping the rising oceans at bay with giant, brilliantly engineered levees and […]