Friday, April 27, 2012

Burning the Future: Coal in America

Release Date: 2008
Director: David Novack
Run time: 56 minutes for PBS version (89 minutes full length)
Seen on: PBS, see website for Airdates in your area, Available on Netflix DVD
Recommended: YES.  And then turn off some lights.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 88%

The first thing I did when watching this documentary was turn off an extra light.  Look around you.  Do you have too many lights on in your house?  If so, please stop and turn some of them off.  SERIOUSLY, get UP and turn off a light.  I'll wait.




OK, done?  Thanks.  And I am sure the people of West Virginia thank you too.  Burning the Future aired last week on PBS in its shortened format.  This doc takes a look at coal mining in West Virginia.  Deep mining of coal has gone on in the Appalachians for generations.  Coal has fueled our country.  However, deep mining takes time.  They have now frequently changed to the practice of mountaintop removal or strip mining.  Strip mining removes the rock at the top of mountains to expose the coal seams near the surface.  This practice obliterates the environment.  It moves entire mountains, takes out the useful coal, and fills in valleys.

This documentary does not have much animation, graphics, or even elaborate text.  After watching numerous documentaries over the past few months, I sometimes find my attention waning if there is not a great production value.  Although this doc did not have elaborate production, it drew me in.  I was drawn in by the stories of people whose families have lived there for generations upon generations.  They love their homes and want to stay there.  But they are being poisioned by the water coming out of their pipes and the air that they breathe. 

Neighbors are pitted against neighbors.  There are people employed by the coal companies who oppose the stopping the mining.  But their neighbors are sick and dying.  The water coming out of their pipes is contaminated with sludge and runoff.  They have to buy their own water or are forced to know they are getting sick from it.  West Virginia has some of the greatest natural resources, but also has some of the poorest people in the world.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Not just in the US, but some of the poorest people in the world.

As I have said before, the best documentaries engage you.  They pique your interest and even enrage you.  Although I was not sold on this rough looking documentary to begin with, I am now.  WATCH THIS DOCUMENTARY.  Think about what you use and where it comes from.  There are people sick and dying because of the coal companies.  Coal companies consider it "collateral damage" to provide people with the high standard of living they are accustomted to.  One of the interviewees says it best, that he is not "collateral damage."  He is a human being. 

This documentary forces you to consider the lives of people far from you, but intrinsicially linked to yours.  Coal production in West Virginia powers large parts of the country.  So watch this documentary, think about what you use, and then turn off some lights already.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Reel Injun

Release Date: 2010
Production Company: Rezolution Pictures, National Film Board of Canada
Directors: Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge, and Jeremiah Hayes
Run time: 85 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD, available on Watch Instantly
Recommended: Yes, very compelling and interesting
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 85%

The film begins: "In over 4000 films, Hollywood has shaped the image of Native Americans.  Classic westerns like They Died with Their Boots On created stereotypes.  Later blockbusters like Little Big Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Dances with Wolves began to dispel them.  Not until a renaissance in Native cinema did films like Once Were Warriors and Smoke Signals portray Native people as human beings."  This film explores the effect of Hollywood cinema defining the Native American not only for whites, but for Native people as well.

The desire to watch films depicting Native Americans may stem from their tragedy.  "The myth of the fearless stoic warrior lives on."  It is similar to watching Greek or Roman myths.  The narrator, Neil Diamond (no, not that Neil Diamond), drives 4000 miles from Canada through the American West to discover the origins of the stereotypes of the "Indian."  He arrives in the Great Plains and Black Hills, home to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.  Here, the narrator fulfills a dream.  "I've always wanted to ride a horse on the open plains.  I finally feel like a real Indian."  The irony is not lost on the viewer.  We later learn that Plains Indians were the stereotyped "Indian" with the large headdress and the excellent horsemanship.

With the Battle of Little Big Horn, Hollywood turned the battle into a legend and Crazy Horse into an icon.  He is a mystical warrior to Native Americans as well as in movies.  "He is an embodiment of the human spirit." (John Trudell.)

Birth of the Hollywood Injun
The Native American is portrayed as spiritual, noble, and free.  The first films created by Thomas Edison in the 1800s through his kinetescope captured the world's imagination.  "These people are mythological.  They don't even really exist.  They're like dinosaurs." Jim Jarmusch, Filmmaker.  "The reason Indians were projected so heavily into movies was the romance of the tragedy, Greek/Roman tragedy."  (Chris Eyre, Cheyenne/Arapaho Filmmaker)

This documentary moves nicely between the journey of the narrator through the American West, interviews with Native filmmakers and critics, and clip of the important films.  The narrator comes to Crow Agency, Montanta.  It was here that the myth of the Native as a born horseman may have begun.  It is like they were born on a horse.  Rod Rondeaux is a Crow Stuntman who also teaches his craft of horsemanship.  He believes the horses can save them as they saved him.  In an ironic twist, Rondeaux can also ride in a low-rider and or put on a turban to be your "worst enemy."  Now Hollywood does not have whites playing Indian, but Native Americans playing Hispanic or Arab.

The Noble Injun
In the silent era, Indians were a Hollywood star.  People went to the movies every week.  There were Native Americans directing and acting in the films.  The population was dipping, so films were see as a chance to capture Indians before they vanished.  The Silent Enemy was one of the most authentic films of its time.  The enemy was starvation and their battle to survive.  The star, Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance was a darling of Hollywood before his tragic end.

The Savage Injun
During the Great Depression, Indians were transformed into the brutal savage.  This was damaging to Native people.  It gave the opinion of Native people for decades, not only for the country as a whole, but for Native people as well.  Native men were viewed as a characterture.  Movie stars such as Burt Reynolds, Anthony Quinn, and  Charles Bronson "played Indian."  Hollywood robbed Nations of their individualism.  They were no longer regional, but all became Plains Indians, with headdresses, buckskins, and the thoroughly unauthentic headbands.  Native women were largely absent, aside from the mythic image of Pocahontas.  The Hollywood image of Pocahontas was so removed from the reality of a nine year old girl.  Her character became the embodiment of American society and desire.

The Cowboy
John Wayne's violent actions are excused because they are against Indians.  John Wayne represented the moral center of America.  The actors used in films during this time were often true Native Americans.  They spoke their true language during filming, one that the director did not bother translating.  One actual translation is: " Just like a snake you'll be crawling in your own shit."

A Good a Dead Injun
Even Bugs Bunny killed Indians in his cartoons.  These films shaped peoples opinions.  "I am a human being.  This is the name of my tribe.  This is the name of my people, but I'm a human being.  But the predatory mentality shows up and starts calling us Indians and committing genocides against us as a vehicle of being a human being.  So they use war, textbooks, history book, and when film came along they used film.  You go in our own communities.  How many of us are fighting to protect our identity of being an Indian and 600 years ago that word 'Indian', that sound, was never made, ever.  And we're trying to protect that as an identity.  See, so it effects all of us."  "But we're not Indians and we're not Native Americans, we're older than both concepts."  "We're the people, we're the human beings." (John Trudell)

The Groovy Injun
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Western was out of style.  The Hippies were popular and emulated the American Indian as a free spirit.  It was a fictionalized version of American society.
"Native American people became a great allegorical tool to stand in for virtually any oppressed people.  So you had Native Americans really standing in for the Civil Rights Movement which was going on at the time.  It was a time when Native Americans began to assert themselves more politically and more forcefully."  (Jesse Welte).  Native people began to fight back not only in movies, but in real life as well.  Through the character of Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, "There was a beginning to see an ownership over these stereotypes." (Jesse Welte)  There was a satire of these stereotypes through Little Big Man.  Natives were fleshed out as characters.  The view was still from the outside, but there was a sensitive and sympathetic approach.
The Renaissance
Native filmmakers are emerging as a cultural and artistic voice.  The stories being told are not necessarily for the Hollywood audience.  They are telling their own stories, from the inside.  They are recording their own stories.  Their is an aboriginal film movement across the world from Australia to South America to Canada.
"We're not asking to be you know nobles, righteous, or good all the time.  We're asking to be human."  Chris Eyres

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Release Date: 2006
Distribution Company: IFC Films, The Weinstein Company
Director: Patrick Creadon
Run time: 94 minutes
Seen on: IFC Channel 164, previously shown on PBS' Independent Lens, Available on Netflix DVD
Recommended: Yes, interesting use of graphics kept me engaged.  I doubted it at first, but stick with it, and trust me on this.
Rotten Tomato Rating: 95%

I have had "Wordplay" on my DVR since February.  I put off watching it, because honestly, how interesting can a documentary about crossword puzzles actually be?  I was wrong.  I was drawn into the documentary during the title sequence after hearing Cake's "Shadow Stabbing."  The design of the documentary is very appealing.  It had excellent graphics and used overlays to show the clues as the answers filled in on a page.  This technique drew me into the documentary and allowed me to solve the puzzle along with the contestants.  I credit this interesting use of graphics that kept my attention throughout the film.

The first half of the doc introduces us to the big names in the crossword puzzle world: the editor, the creator, and the enthusiasts.  This doc features Will Shortz, Editor of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.  He was so interested in puzzles that he created his own major at Indiana University, enigmatology.  He was willing to be poor in order to do puzzles.  Shortz reads some amusing hate mail in the doc, revealing the interest and passion of those who regularly do the NYT Crossword.  Shortz also founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2008.  We are also introduced to puzzle creator Merl Reagle and former Public Editor of the NYT Daniel Okrent.

While the first half of the documentary focuses on the creation of crossword puzzles, the second half focuses on the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.  We were introduced to five major competitors in the first half of the documentary and now have a more personal connection to these contestants.  The contestants include:
#333 Al Sanders from Fort Collins, CO
#321 Ellen Ripstein from New York, NY
#90 Jon Delfin from New York, NY
#162 Tyler Hinman from New York, NY
#292 Trip Payne from Fort Lauderdale, FL

Because we had been introduced to these contestants in the first half, we are now rooting for them to succeed in the competition.  There are numerous rounds in the competition.  You are competing against yourself as much as you are against the person next to you.  Your score is based on your time and your errors.  So the first one done may have the highest score.  The competition is based on seconds and accuracy.  You struggle with the contestants and groan when you know they have made an error.  Again, the graphics help you to work along with them and keep a running score of who is in first.  By the time you are in the final round with the final three, you are right there with them.  I won't ruin the ending for you, but I was yelling at the film by the ending.  I recommend this documentary.  I doubted it at first, but stick with it, and trust me on this.

Interspersed into the doc are interviews with fans of the NYT Crossword including: Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Indigo Girls, Mike Mussina (New York Yankees Pitcher), Bob Dole, and Former President Bill Clinton.  The documentary filmmaker Ken Burns describes his interest in crossword puzzles: "Cities are where we leave the imprint of human interaction.  What the city offers, particularly this city, especially this city, is a sense of grids.  You know, it's all about boxes.  You live in a box, and you ride in a box to go to work in a box.  And we have the wonderful newspaper that boxy-shaped that has in it this page which is my favorite page in the whole newspaper and there are a set of boxes in which you kind of practice the wordplay of this particularly exquisite language."