Based on a True Story: 8 Documentaries that Inspired Feature Films

True stories have been a prime inspiration for movies for as long as there have been movies. Early films recreated historical events and breaking news for eager audiences and films as disparate as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1921) and In Which We Serve (1942) to All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015) turned recent history into compelling drama. Books, newspapers and sometimes TV and radio news reports were primary sources for years, but more recently, documentary films have become an inspiration for adapting real-life stories and riveting events. In fact, a fictionalized version of the story told in the Independent Lens film The Great Invisible is due out this fall: Deepwater Horizon stars Mark Wahlberg as an electrician on the doomed oil rig.

While dramatized versions, with their movie stars and big budgets and carefully crafted screenplays, are invariably more popular, the original documentaries have their own, more compelling stories to tell. It’s not just a matter of “the original is better” or “documentaries are real.” Non-fiction films are shaped as surely as feature films but the immediacy, the authenticity of subjects who haven’t been polished for prime time, the messy historical records that don’t necessarily hew to the structure of the traditional three-act story all offer a different kind of drama. And the best of these non-fiction works are as dynamic and powerful as Hollywood’s greatest fictions.

We look at the relationship between eight films and the documentaries that inspired them, and why the original documentaries are still essential. Read on to plan some quality based-on-a-true-story double-features.

The Walk (2015), inspired by: Man on Wire (2008)

Robert Zemeckis dramatized the story of Philippe Petit, the French wire-walker and street performer who strung a tightwire between the Twin Towers and walked between the newly-constructed buildings in 1974, in his 2015 feature The Walk, using 3D technology to communicate the awe and wonder of the event from Petit’s perspective. Filmmaker James Marsh had neither the budget nor the technology for his 2008 documentary Man on Wire but he didn’t need it. Petit and his collaborators tell their own story, a mix of performance art and heist thriller, and Marsh illustrates their tale with news footage and brief recreations of their rehearsals. The documentary is just as compelling as the dramatic retelling, a reminder that storytelling is at the heart of great documentary filmmaking.

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Blood Guilt: 12 Movies about Healing After Heinous Crimes

My Nazi Legacy

Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter are the adult children of high-ranking Nazi officers. As we learn in My Nazi Legacy, their fathers sent tens of thousands of people to their deaths, and Niklas and Horst spent decades dealing with the legacy of that birthright, though not in the same way. While both men speak out against the Nazi atrocities, Niklas holds his father responsible for his complicity while Horst insists that the “good character” of his loving father fought against the Nazi machine, all evidence to the contrary. He’s not a Holocaust denier, mind you. He merely denies his father’s part in the Third Reich’s heinous crimes.

The intersection of the personal and political gets complicated when faced with the crimes of a loved one, a colleague, even a culture. Evidence can be overcome by emotion. How can a doting father be responsible for barbarous crimes? How can a government have lied to those who followed its every command? Is it possible for true believers to acknowledge the crimes they committed in the name of a corrupt ideal, or simply to survive a brutal culture? Here are a few documentaries and feature films that explore how some people come to terms with such actions — their own and others — while others simply cannot or do not.

The Holocaust and the Legacy of Nazism

Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988): Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie was branded the “Butcher of Lyon” for the atrocities committed under his command, yet he escaped prosecution and lived free for almost three decades in Bolivia before he was extradited to France to stand trial for war crimes. Filmmaker Marcel Ophuls’ profile of the man and his crimes reveals a culture uneasy about dredging up the past and people trying to hide their complicity in shielding one of the most notorious war criminals of the 20th Century. Their justification? He was such a warm, likable man. How could he be guilty?

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Blu-ray Classics: John Huston’s WWII documentaries, ‘The Vikings,’ ‘Passage to Marseilles’

LetThereBeLightLet There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.

You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.

Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.

All four films were shot on 16mm and were not well preserved so there is evident damage and wear. The Blu-ray and DVD editions also feature a 26-minute documentary, raw footage from San Pietro, and Shades of Gray (1948), a remake of Let There Be Light with actors recreating scenes from the documentary and the dark corners of Huston’s film replaced with a sunnier portrait of the returning soldier.

These are important pieces of World War II history and the most radical documentaries produced during the war.

VikingsThe timing is good for the Blu-ray debut of the 1958 The Vikings (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD), the splashy Hollywood adventure that launched a wave of Viking movies through the 1960s, with the History Channel series Vikings a cable hit and the BBC America The Last Kingdom reaching back to the history of the Norsemen.

Set in the middle ages, when the Vikings pillaged the English coast, The Vikings is barbarian fantasy, with Kirk Douglas playing the lusty Viking Prince Einar, the “only son in wedlock” of King Ragnar (a cackling, wild-eyed Ernest Borgnine) and Tony Curtis as his defiant slave Eric, who is in reality the long-lost heir to the British throne. Douglas is too old for the boy prince role and Curtis is unconvincing as an action hero but makes the prettiest slave boy in the movies, and their combined star power overcomes their miscasting. With jagged scars down his face and a milky white blind eye that almost glows in his skull, Douglas has a rowdy time as he kidnaps a Welsh Princess (Janet Leigh) betrothed to the King of England and battles the defiant Eric who rescues her from the Viking clutches and sneaks her back to England with the help of a primitive compass.

It’s pure Hollywood hokum, with the Vikings reduced to pagan cartoon barbarians who make sport of terrorizing women and take pride in the torture and murder—the fact that Janet Leigh’s character lives in constant threat of sexual assault makes for uneasy viewing when the film plays it as some kind of “Taming of a Shrew” situation—but it is spectacular hokum. The great cinematographer Jack Cardiff turns his Norway locations into a lush Valhalla on Earth and journeyman director Richard Fleischer, faced with an absurd story, goes for the gusto in brawling Viking parties, furious sieges, and clanging broadsword battles. The sexual politics are barbaric to say the least, and borderline jawdropping as the film walks a fine line between playing the sexual threat for lusty humor and making it a genuine danger, but it is colorful, energetic, and hearty, with star power to burn. It was enormous hit and it spawned a huge wave of Viking movies, some perhaps smarter but none as much fun, and has become a cult movie in its own right.

PassageMarseillesThe 1944 wartime drama Passage to Marseilles (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) reunites Humphrey Bogart with his Casablanca director Michael Curtiz and co-stars Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre in a production that packs a lot of genres into a single film. Opening on an air force squadron of Free French fighters hidden in the countryside, it segues into a sea drama, a prison escape thriller, a war film, and during a brief deck brawl something approaching a pirate film, all nestled into the storyline through flashbacks and plot twists. Bogart’s story takes us to pre-war Marseilles, where his crusading newspaper publisher takes on the rise of Fascism and is framed for murder by his enemies, and to Devil’s Island where he meets his fellow patriots.

This is shameless wartime propaganda, a rousing call to arms to free Europe from the Nazis and the turncoat collaborators (all of whom are presented as martinets with Fascist sympathies from the beginning), but is also enormously entertaining and action-packed. And for fans of Hollywood storytelling tricks, this films features the rare treat of a flashback within a flashback nestled within yet another flashback. Curtiz and cinematographer James Wong Howe create the world of the film, from Devil’s Island to a cargo freighter on the high seas, entirely in the studio. Howe’s cinematography is gorgeous, creating a sense of shadowy menace in the flashbacks, and it looks superb in the film’s Blu-ray debut.

Includes the supplements featured on the earlier DVD release, including the Oscar-nominated short Jammin’ the Blues featuring Lester Young and other jazz greats of the forties, a collection featuring a newsreel, short subject, cartoon, and trailers from 1944, and a Warner Bros. studio blooper reel.

More Blu-ray classics at Cinephiled

Robert Flaherty: The First Poet of American Documentary

‘Moana’

In 1926, film critic and future filmmaker John Grierson wrote in The Sun (under the pseudonym “The Moviegoer”) that Robert J. Flaherty‘s “Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value.” Whether or not it is the first use of the term to describe nonfiction filmmaking, it was the first to appear in the public discourse and it stuck, making Robert Flaherty, in a sense, the first documentary filmmaker.

But the next line in Grierson’s review is at least as important in defining the work of Flaherty: “But that, I believe, is secondary to its value as a soft breath from a sunlit island, washed by a marvelous seas, as warm as the balmy air. Moana is first of all beautiful as nature is beautiful…”

Flaherty was by no means the first nonfiction filmmaker of the cinema…. But it is Robert Flaherty that we celebrate as the father of documentary filmmaking and his debut film, Nanook of the North (1922), the first great nonfiction feature.

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Blu-ray: The silent south seas of ‘Moana’ and ‘Tabu’ restored with sound

MoanaMoana with Sound (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) – After creating what (in retrospect) is generally considered the first documentary feature, Nanook of the North, in the snows of northern Canada, filmmaker Robert Flaherty traveled to the South Seas island of Savai’i to create a similar production around the Polynesian natives. Like Nanook, Moana (1926) is not a true documentary record but a recreation of a long lost culture for the cameras created in collaboration with locals, who draw from their own historical memory. And it was the film that inspired the term “documentary,” which film critic (and later documentary producer) John Grierson coined while reviewing the film.

Moana is a poetic portrait of Polynesian life as an South Seas paradise, the opposite of Nanook, where the Inuit people fight to survive the harshness of the elements. The pace of life is easy and gentle in the Pacific sun, food plentiful in the sea and growing all around them, just waiting for anyone—even a child—to pluck the coconuts off the trees. Hunting and gathering is akin to play in this culture that was, again as in Nanook, long lost by the time Flaherty put his camera on these people. His filmmaking reflects the theme, each scene taking its time to play out, not to record every detail of finding fresh water in a branch, climbing a palm tree with a simple woven band wrapped around the ankles, or hunting a wild boar (the only real threat to human life on the island), but to appreciate the grace with which these activities are accomplished. The gentleness of the filmmaking—which was as painstakingly created for the camera as any Hollywood drama—creates a lovely, luscious film, a great leap forward in Flaherty’s cinematic talent.

The film was of course silent but Robert and Frances Flaherty (his wife was very much a partner on the project despite her lack of credit) wanted to accompany the film with the music and songs (especially “the singing,” as Frances remarked back in 1926) of the people. So in 1975, their daughter Monica traveled back to Savai’i with documentary legend Richard Leacock to record a soundtrack, not just music but sound effects and dialogue in the regional dialect, for a rerelease of the film. (Lip readers helped determine what was being said and a script created from that.) The sound was added to a copy of the film and Moana With Soundreleased in 1980, but the version of the film available to Monica Flaherty at the time was not accurate to the release version and featured worn imagery generations away from the original negative. This new restoration, produced by Bruce Posner and Sami van Ingen, restores the film from the best existing elements and marries the soundtrack (also cleaned up with new digital tools) to the superb imagery of the restoration. Some damage and wear can be seen in brief sequences but for the most part the film looks amazing.

Blu-ray and DVD with the new 40-minute featurette “Moana With Sound: A Short History” with Bruce Posner (who produced this restoration) and the shorter “About the Restoration” (also with Posner), two very informative productions debuting with this release, and filmed commentaries by historians Enrico Camporesi and Bruce Posner. Archival extras include Flaherty’s 1925 short film Twenty-Four-Dollar Islands, the 1960 interview with Frances Flaherty “Flaherty and Film: Moana,” and Flaherty home movies.

TabuTabu (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) was begun by Robert Flaherty in collaboration with German émigré F.W. Murnau, who wanted to revisit the culture of Moana as a backdrop for his own dramatic ideas. Sensibilities clashed and Flaherty left the film, leaving Murnau to create his own vision of Paradise Lost in the story of young lovers (Mathai and Reri) threatened by tribal law. Murnau uses the clash of cultures to contrast an Eden-like innocence with the corruption of modern society (one seemingly sensitive white soul is more opportunist than romantic). The mythic undertones are more European than Pacific Rim and Murnau’s portrayal of the young lovers as Peter Pan-like children of nature is paternalistic at best and downright condescending in parts. But Tabu is also astoundingly beautiful, like a B&W rendering of Paul Gauguin’s visions of Tahiti through an expressionist sensibility. This is classic Murnau, a powerful, poetic story of the doomed struggle against fate, and his final film. He was killed in a car accident just a week before the film premiered.

Shot as a silent film, it was released with a synchronized soundtrack with a score (called a “musical setting” in the credits) by Hugo Riesenfeld, preserved for this restoration by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung.

Blu-ray and DVD with the short documentary “The Language of Shadows,” a German language featurette on the making of the film and this new restoration that the institute produced, and the featurettes “Tabu: Takes and Outtakes” and “Tabu: A Work in Progress,” which present some of the unused footage shot by Murnau for the film with narration in German with English subtitles. Also includes Hunt in the South Seas (1940), an ethnographic short film created from unused footage from Tabu.

Early Silent Documentaries: Real-life Adventure Cinema

Since the dawn of cinema, cameras have been taken around the world to capture unique and exotic sights previously available to audiences only in still photographs.

Motion picture pioneers the Lumiere brothers sent their cameras to get scenic shots of foreign landscapes and cultures, and rivals (such as Britain’s Mitchell and Kenyon) followed suit, creating programs that took audiences to faraway places. Mitchell and Kenyon narrated their presentations, turning the shows into events, while on the lecture circuit, explorers started using movie cameras to supplement their slide shows with moving picture footage.

These pre-documentary forays inspired filmmakers and explorers to take their cameras into more remote and inhospitable locations.

‘The Epic of Everest’

Herbert Ponting accompanied Captain Robert Scott on his 1911 expedition to the Antarctic with two moving picture cameras. Frank Hurley, the official photographer of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, also brought a movie camera. Captain John Noel, gripped by fascination with the Himalayas, documented the third British ascent of Everest in 1924. Photographer and anthropologist Edward S. Curtis went to the coast of British Columbia to recreate the lost culture of the Pacific Northwest tribes. Robert Flaherty, still celebrated as the father of documentary filmmaking, took his cameras to the Arctic to capture the culture of the Inuit, and to Samoa to document South Seas life. And before they made King Kong, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack hauled their cameras through the mountains and plains of Iraq and the jungles of Thailand to explore the rigors of life in worlds far from our own.

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Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films

Warner Home Video

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (Warner, DVD) – Australian filmmaker Mark Hartley has become a champion of the disreputable genre films of the seventies and eighties thanks to such loving productions as Not Quite Hollywood (spotlighting the disreputable side of the early Australian film industry) and Machete Maidens Unleashed (on Filipino grindhouse films). Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is a labor of love from a man whose career to date has been a labor of love.

The story of Cannon Films is unique and fascinating. In 1979, Israeli producer / director Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus, who handled the financial side of their Israeli production company, decided to go international. They purchased Cannon Films, a small American independent production company with a couple of successes to its name. Golan and Globus quickly became B-movie moguls, determined to beat Hollywood at its own game with a series of cheaply-made genre movies with stars like Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson and cashed in on current fads and box-office hits with quick knock-offs. They became infamous for their flamboyant presence, their non-stop self-promotion, and their reputation for cranking out incoherent and at times incompetent movies between their occasional hits, while in a seemingly alternate universe also produced arthouse movies by Andrey Konchalovskiy (Runaway Train, 1985, Shy People, 1987), John Cassavetes (Love Streams), Franco Zeffirelli (the opera film Otello, 1986), and Jean-Luc Godard (King Lear, 1987), whose contract was written on a napkin over dinner at a restaurant. By the end of the eighties, they had driven the company to bankruptcy by the end of the decade.

Continue reading “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films”

Videophiled: Politics on ice in ‘Red Army’

Red Army
Sony

Red Army (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Director Gabe Polsky, the Chicago-born son of Russian immigrants, dreamed of playing pro hockey and ended up making movies. This documentary, his directorial debut, finds the intersection of sports triumph, political gamesmanship, and personal sacrifice in the story of the powerhouse Soviet national hockey team of the eighties, when it won two Olympic gold medals and seven World Championships.

The story is built around interviews with Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, the former team captain, and Polsky begins the film with a scene of Fetisov more engaged with his cell phone than with the interviewer (“It’s business,” he explains) and flipping him the finger when Polsky keeps peppering him with questions. Clearly both Polsky and Fetisov have a sense of humor, which helps move us into the story through Fetisov and his teammates, which is not humorous at all. We learn about the rigorous training regimen that kept the men from their families 11 months out of the year, which drilled into them the distinctive playing style that confounded western teams. The players became national heroes, at least for time, but were essentially prisoners of their success. They were under constant pressure to win as a matter of national dignity and political pride.

The sports story is also our entry into a culture, and this hockey film provides no less than a sideways look into the way that communist USSR controlled its athletes—the Red Army Team players were indeed treated like soldiers whose field of battle was the ice rink—and the dramatic changes that occurred in both the political and social culture of the Soviet Union. From the Cold war climate of the eighties through the introduction of perestroika, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of capitalism and a new kind of political power, the players were pawns in a global PR campaign.

Fetisov is a commanding personality in the film and his story is great true-life drama. In the late 1990s, when Fetisov and his former teammates from the eighties squad were in their mid- to late-thirties, five former Red Army stars were brought together on the Detroit Red Wings squad and, under Coach Scotty Bowman, recreated their unique Soviet style of play in the NHL for two Stanley Cup championships. It’s a happy ending for a turbulent life.

Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by director Gabe Polsky and executive producer Werner Herzog and Q&A with Polsky from the Toronto International Film Festival screening. Exclusive to the Blu-ray are an extended interview with Coach Scotty Bowman (the winningest coach in NHL history), a Q&A with Polsky and former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and deleted scenes. Also on Cable On Demand and VOD.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled: Celebrating Orson Welles in ‘Magician’

Magician
Cohen

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Chuck Workman and released to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Orson Welles, is not in the running for the definitive portrait of the artist. At a brisk, dense 90 minutes, however, it is an excellent introduction the life and work of the Welles with a focus on the creative.

Workman brings elegance and visual musicality to his work (such as the remembrance montages of the Academy Awards ceremonies) and a density to his documentaries, and this is no different. His nearly breathless editing pace sweeps us through a wealth of film clips (many of them rare) and new and archival interviews with the likes of biographer Simon Callow, critics James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum, collaborators Norman Lloyd, Charlton Heston, John Houseman, and Jeanne Moreau, and daughters Christopher Welles and Beatrice Welles-Smith. And along with clips of his feature films, we get audio of his radio work, newsreel footage of the “Voodoo” Macbeth stage production, clips from the TV version of King Lear directed by Peter Brook, and scenes from unfinished films Don Quixote, The Deep, and The Merchant of Venice. Die-hard Welles aficionados will likely have seen some (if not all) of these, but to everyone else this is a glimpse into hidden treasures.

Magician-2
Orson Welles

Most importantly, Workman understands that Welles is not a “failed” director—too many ill-informed commentators (and some who should know better) still echo the cliché that Welles never returned to the artistic heights of his debut feature Citizen Kane—but a restless artist who never stopped exploring and engaging with cinema even when the industry turned its back in him. Workman clearly respects Welles and loves his work. At a mere 90 minutes, he can’t delve deeply into the contradictions and complications, but we do get snapshots and quick impressions, with plenty of clips of Welles himself talking about his work and career that give us insight to his personality as a person and an artist. He was a storyteller in all aspects of his life. And we get a glimpse of a career that is full of wonders, too many of them unavailable outside of special screenings and festivals—how frustrating is it to have Simon Callow proclaim Chimes at Midnight Welles’s masterpiece, only to be told it is unavailable because of tangled rights issues?—but all of them so intriguing that it may inspire new fans to seek out these rarities (hint: YouTube and import DVDs).

Features a video interview with director Chuck Workman conducted by film scholar and critic Annette Insdorff and a booklet with stills but no film notes.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Aftereffects: Joshua Oppenheimer’s Shorts

‘The Globalisation Tapes’

“I’ve never thought of myself as an activist. I do think, though, that the purpose of art is to force us to confront the most painful and important aspects of who we are.”
—Joshua Oppenheimer, interviewed by Jessica Kiang at Indiewire

American-born filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer is a 1997 Marshall Scholar, a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award (the same year that Alison Bechdel was so honored), and director of Academy Award nominated documentary The Act of Killing (2012). From his earliest films, he’s experimented with new forms with which to explore big themes and historical forces, and he’s explored issues of representation and “truth” inherent in the form in articles and books on the subject of non-fiction and documentary.

“In so-called ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary, there’s a claim that the camera is a transparent window onto a pre-existing reality. But what really is happening is that the director and the film crew and the subjects are collaborating to simulate a reality in which they pretend the camera is not present,” he explained at the 2015 Based on a True Story documentary conference. “No one forgets the presence of the camera, no matter how long it’s there. All documentaries are performance. They are performance precisely where people are playing themselves.” It’s the quantum physics of filmmaking: the act of observing changes the behavior of the observed. His solution is to incorporate the tools and the practice of filmmaking into the structure of the film.

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Videophiled: Joe Sarno’s ‘Dirty Movie’ and ‘What is Cinema?’

LifeDirtyMovies
Film Movement
A Life in Dirty Movies (Film Movement, DVD) – The work of Joe Sarno is little known outside of cinephile and cult cinema circles, and not widely seen even among cineastes. That’s because he, with the support and collaboration of his wife Peggy, made his low-budget explorations of adult sexuality within the confines of the sexploitation industry, where they played in grindhouse theaters under such titles as Sin in the Suburbs (1964) and The Love Merchant (1966). His films, however, were handsomely made, carefully composed and lit, and focused on the odysseys of women exploring their sexuality and their desires in a society stumbling through the sexual revolution. In a cinematic culture that focused on men getting their rocks off and women taking their clothes off, Sarno made women the active protagonists of his films. And while he satisfied the requirements of nudity and sexual spectacle (within the conventions and limits of the pre-X-rated era), his idea of a money shot was a close-up of a woman’s face as she reached climax. That sensitivity to women’s experiences and his lovely black and white photography earned him the nickname “The Bergman of 42nd Street.” In fact, he found more respect in Europe and even made films in Sweden, such as Inga (1968) and Young Playthings (1972), which played in the U.S. as foreign imports and earned Sarno a kind of critical respect his American films never received.

A Life in Dirty Movies gives viewers an overview of his career and its decline, when X-rated films displaced the softcore culture and Sarno was no longer able to make his kind of movies, but director Wiktor Ericsson is more interested in the couple themselves, together and still in love after more than 40 years, and on Joe’s doomed attempt at a comeback at the age of 88. Peggy actively encourages him and provides constructive criticism but confesses to the camera that Joe is hopelessly out of step with the times. His health was clearly declining while this documentary was being shot (he died in 2010, soon after production wrapped), and Ericsson finds his story in Peggy’s protectiveness and support of Joe in his decline, still defending her husband to her disapproving parents. Ericsson includes illuminating film clips but only a general overview of his career and he completely ignores 15 years when Sarno made X-rated films under a number of pseudonyms. The most interesting story is their long partnership, Sarno’s drive to keep making films, and Peggy’s determination to support his dreams even though she knows he’ll never make another film. Features bonus interview clips and two cut scenes.

WhatIsCInema
Cohen
What Is Cinema? (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) isn’t so much a lesson in film history and aesthetics as a survey of the breadth of cinematic possibilities. Filmmaker Chuck Workman (most famous for his short films and clip montages at the Oscars) throws a wide net and gives documentary, avant-garde, and experimental filmmaking an equal footing with Hollywood classics, independent film, and foreign cinema. Among his commentators are David Lynch, Mike Leigh, Costas-Gavras, Kelly Reichardt, and Jonas Mekas, all sharing their cinema loves (Leigh basically talks about his own method), and the gamut of featured filmmakers run from Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Bresson and Robert Altman to Abbas Kairostami and Chantel Akerman and Bill Viola. It’s not so much about defining cinema as exploring the possible, a celebration more than a history illustrated with clips from 100 films. Workman is a wizard with clips and you can lose yourself in the montage of images and the enthusiasm of filmmakers talking about the films that inspire them. But it does feel more like you’re wandering through a film museum than getting a guided tour with a point of view.

Features 10 bonus experimental shorts glimpsed in the documentary, including three films commissioned by Workman.

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Videophiled: Monty Python’s Swan Song (or, if you prefer, Dead Parrot) and Shirley Clarke’s ‘Portrait of Jason’

MontyPythonLiveMostly
Eagle Rock
Monty Python Live (Mostly) – One Down, Five to Go (Eagle Rock, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital) puts to disc the stage performance that was previously shown via satellite in select theaters around the world for one night only earlier in 2014. The first live show sold out with 30 seconds of the moment tickets went on sale and more shows were added, but they capped it at ten performances at the O2 in London. They say that this is the last time the group will perform together, and there’s no reason to doubt it; the last time they entire group performed together was 30 years ago, when Graham Chapman was still alive.

The title says it all: the five remaining Pythons (plus their favorite guest performer, Carol Cleveland) reunite for an encore, with Gilliam getting a little more involved than usual and a featured chorus member periodically joining in. You could say that Chapman is as much as a presence as could be hoped for, considering he died 25 years ago, but in fact he’s featured more than you would think possible, from the title of the show to classic film and video clips that bring him back into the ensemble (including some clips that showed in their first concert film, Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl) or make him a link between live segments, as if he was still interacting with the old gang.

This isn’t a master class, it’s a reunion and we’ve been invited to watch the old gang fall back into old patterns. Between revivals of their greatest hits (with a few wink wink nudge nudge updates) are big song-and-dance production numbers out of an overblown Broadway revue, with young dancers and singers taking over to kick up the energy and provide the production value. The rest is nostalgia. They are nowhere near the top of their game but they are clearly having fun (they are just as funny when they forget their lines or lose their place, which happens a couple of time) and so is the audience. Everyone there seems to know the skits by heart and get a kick out of seeing these senior citizens revive their standards for one last go round.

There are a few supplements, notably behind-the-scenes clips from the initial reunion meeting, the official announcement, and highlights from the 10 shows (including all the guest star appearances), plus the raw footage that the Pythons shot for intermission breaks and other video screen announcements.

PortraitJason
Milestone
Portrait of Jason (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD), Shirley Clarke’s stream of consciousness character study of Jason Holliday, aka Aaron Payne, is a landmark of non-fiction filmmaking and LGBT cinema. Ostensibly part of the cinema verité movement, it straddles the line between documentary and performance art piece. Clarke shot her portrait of the gay black hustler as an all-night extemporaneous monologue and gave voice to a man who would otherwise never be heard in any media form in 1967. In his round coke-bottle glasses and collegiate blazer, Jason plays to the camera and skeleton crew (heard just off camera throughout but never seen), telling stories and doing impressions over the 12 hour session, which Clarke edited to just under two hours. It is an act, all performance and outsized personality, with Jason playing the raconteur and would-be nightclub headliner, and it’s not clear how much is true and how much flight of fancy and projection. But between his paroxysms of laughter, puffs of a joint, and endless glasses of vodka, he offers a glimpse of how one grows up and survives as a flamboyant queer in sixties America.

It’s a scruffy, raw film that got scuffed up over the decades and had never been released on home video in the U.S. until Milestone undertook “Project Shirley.” Portrait of Jason is officially “Project Shirley, Volume 2? but the first in the series to be released to Blu-ray and DVD. This restoration, built on materials found in worldwide search, recovers lost footage and visual detail but leaves the roughness of the 16mm shoot intact because Clarke treasured that gritty texture. And as with all of Milestone’s archival presentations, the discs are packed with invaluable historical bonus material, from outtakes to archival interviews with Clarke to the audio-only “The Jason Holliday Comedy Album,” a rarity that makes an astounding companion piece to the film.

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