Spike Lee’s 4 LITTLE GIRLS (1997) – Powerful documentary about violence against race

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4 Little Girls is a remarkably clear-eyed telling of an incendiary tale — how four young black girls, ages 11 to 14, were killed in a 1963 bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
I hesitate to compare 4 Little Girls to Schindler’s List, and yet it has that same quality of being a restrained, dignified recounting of an emotional incident. Spike Lee had been wanting to tell this story since before he became a noted filmmaker, and Lee brings all of his remarkable talents to bear. The movie is not flashy, just quietly gripping.
Lee frames the incident within the bigger picture of the Southern civil rights movement, particularly as it took place within an inflamed Birmingham. We see the town’s police commissioner, Bull Connor — described by one interviewee as “the dark spirit of Birmingham” — keeping order in town while driving a tank painted white, an image that is sure to bring gasps to those who aren’t familiar with the full story (which, I humbly admit, included me). And we see a repentant Gov. George Wallace, dragging a reluctant black colleague on camera so that Wallace can introduce him as “my best friend in the world.” (Notably, the “friend” looks quite unconvinced.)
It is that Wallace footage that might seem the most showy in a documentary otherwise bereft of editorializing. But it seems right to include the footage after seeing how the segregationist tactics of Wallace and others led indirectly to the deaths of Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley. Using little more than home movies and interviews with surviving family members, Lee brings the dead girls back to life and shows us that, when racial stereotypes are accepted and even honored, individual tragedies are the result.
Mostly, the story is told through simple, heartbreaking facts. Chris McNair tells us of the day he had to explain to his daughter Denise how she was taken by the aroma of a cooking hamburger at a lunch counter but could not eat there because she was black. And the film comes full circle by pointing out the inexplicable resurgence of black church bombings in the 1990’s.
Most of the victims’ relatives, understandably, become quite emotional on-camera. It can’t have been easy to reopen these old wounds, but 4 Little Girls makes you grateful that they endured their pain to do it. I only wish the movie had been up for Best Picture, as it is worth a dozen L.A. Confidential‘s.

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The Beatles in LET IT BE (1970) – And in the end…

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The following is my entry in The 4th Annual British Invaders Blogathon, being hosted by Terence at his blog A Shroud of Thoughts from Aug. 4-6, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read blogs about a wide variety of British-based and -themed movies!

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I’m really glad that most of our songs were about love, peace and understanding.” – Paul McCartney, The Beatles Anthology, 1995

“This is what we are like with our trousers off, would you please end the game now?” – John Lennon’s take on Let It Be, 1970

There are several good reasons that Let It Be has not been released on DVD or other recent home viewing formats.

One is that it’s a just-plain-sloppy documentary. You have to be at least an intermediate Beatles buff to understand or have any perspective on the movie. Initially, it was to have been made as a TV documentary that would accompany a live concert. When the Beatles then nixed the concert idea, the movie’s format was changed to theatrical so as to become the final film required under the group’s contract with movie studio United Artists.

The movie shows the band rehearsing songs at both Twickenham Film Studios and their Apple Records studio, and the film ends with their performing the once-requisite live concert during a London lunch hour on the rooftop of Apple. But again, you have to be a Beatles buff to know any of this.

The film does nothing to identify any of the surroundings, or even The Beatles or others within the movie. Songwriter/performer Billy Preston performs with the group throughout the movie, and the soundtrack album took the unprecedented step of crediting him along with the group — but the movie does not. We also see Yoko Ono (then a fairly fresh presence in John’s life), Paul’s adopted daughter Heather, and the group’s music producer George Martin, all unidentified. It’s as though they were merely movie extras flitting around the Beatles’ orbit.

The movie’s biggest debit, though, is that it fairly justifies John and George’s later complaints that, after their manager Brian Epstein died in 1967, the other group members spent much of their time serving as “sidemen” for Paul. The movie’s first third shows the group rambling through early rave-ups of songs from this movie’s soundtrack and Abbey Road, as well as some rock-and-roll chestnuts. And they perform so lackadaisically that, if you didn’t know that these were the famous Beatles, you might wonder why they were even the subject of a documentary.

The group finally manages some solid performances, but mostly of songs by Paul. Other than a duet with John on “Two of Us,” the middle section is Paul’s show all the way, with him lovingly performing “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” to the camera as the other members drudgingly provide backup.

John finally gets some wind in his sails (literally — it looks awfully cold on that rooftop) during the final concert, as he rips through “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “One After 909” (both with Paul) and a soulful “Don’t Let Me Down.” But even that concert feels strange. Considering, in the late 1970’s, how hopefully anticipated a Beatles reunion concert had been, here most of the public onlookers seem to regard these guys as freaks who are simply being rude to interrupt local business.

As always with The Beatles, their music is enough to carry the show, half-baked as some of it is. (The movie won the group a “posthumous” Academy Award for Best Original Song Score.) But if A Hard Day’s Night depicts The Beatles at their sunniest and most vibrant, Let It Be makes everyone but Paul look as though they’re ready to be somewhere else.

DON’T LOOK BACK (1967) – One rock legend’s ego

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D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back has been described for years in glowing terms such as “one of the most influential rock films ever made.”

But the movie it seems to have influenced most is This Is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner’s legendary mock-documentary about a rock group whose egos far outweigh their talent. (There’s even a scene in the Dylan movie, where Dylan’s entourage wanders endlessly to find an exit door, that seems to be directly parodied in Spinal Tap.)

The ostensible reason for this movie’s being is to record the ups and downs of Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. But no matter what the setting is — a concert, a press interview, hanging out with friends — “Don’t Look Back” assumes the same two points of view: mere mortals arriving to worship at the feet of Bob Dylan, or Dylan sneering at fans who try to look for deeper meaning in his music.

Heaven knows that, from the ’60s “British invasion” on, pundits have spent too much time looking for subtext in pop music. But since Dylan’s enigmatic lyrics have always invited such analysis, it’s a bit pompous of Dylan to continually put down the fans who made his name.

The movie’s most famous scene is the confrontation between Dylan and Donovan, a ’60s singer best remembered as a Dylan wanna-be (remember his hit “Mellow Yellow”?). The movie takes little potshots at Donovan throughout, until Dylan meets The Great Pretender himself and sings a sneering version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” to him.

The funny thing is, Donovan is remembered these days, if at all, as a one-hit wonder. If Dylan had it in for a famous peer such as Elvis Presley or The Beatles, it might make for some interesting drama. But for Dylan to use a major documentary to display his resentment about a minor-league imitator speaks volumes about the man’s ego.

For Bob Dylan buffs, Don’t Look Back is probably tantamount to a lovefest. But the non-converted will be left scratching their heads wondering why and how.

 

THE ARISTOCRATS (2005) – Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

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Never has a single joke been so thoroughly deconstructed, much less to such satisfying effect, than in the documentary The Aristocrats. The movie is the brainchild of performers Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame) and Paul Provenza, who have analyzed the workings of an off-color joke that (according to the movie) has been around since the days of vaudeville.

The basic form of the joke is this: A guy walks into a talent agency and tells the agent, “I have a family act you won’t believe.” The guy then proceeds to describe himself and his family members doing feats that can never be adequately described on a PG-rated blog. The stunned agent says, “And what do you call this act?” The guy haughtily replies, “‘The Aristocrats’!”

As you can probably guess, it is in the second third of this joke where its teller goes to town, as he/she expounds upon the ethical and physical lows to which this family will stoop in order to make it in show biz. To be sure, many versions of the joke (told here by three or four generations of actors and comedians) are enough to prevent you from munching on your popcorn for a while.

But one of the movie’s points is how a comic’s style can make the joke his own, and that often happens here. The Smothers Brothers make it sound like a slightly racier version of their usual routine. A mime does a version of the joke that wouldn’t have been out of place in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie. There’s even a sleight-of-hand card-telling version of it.

And the quiet subtext of this bawdy, often hilarious movie is how some people are easily offended by certain subject matter, while the movie illustrates that once shock value is opened up for discussion, its power is often dissipated. As such, the movie is as interesting an argument for the First Amendment as The People vs. Larry Flynt.

But finally, the movie’s lure isn’t due to its power as a political treatise. It basically shows how talented comedians can make even the most unsavory material funny. And in these times, that might not be such a small talent.

INSIDE DEEP THROAT (2005) – A riveting documentary about the famous porn film

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(WARNING: As befits its subject matter, this review contains some possibly offensive wording. It is not intended to be titillating, merely a frank discussion of a very frank movie.)

I never saw the famous porn movie Deep Throat. When it was first released, I was way too young to get into an X-rated movie. And now that I’d be quite able to get into a theater showing such a movie, I can see far more graphic sex than that on the Internet.

However, the documentary Inside Deep Throat is a fascinating account, not only of that movie, but of the era in which it was released. While the movie, its “creators,” and its stars (Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems) are the movie’s primary focus, lurking in the background are the extreme-right politicians of the time — including everyone’s favorite whipping boy, President Richard Nixon, who commissioned a scientific study on pornography and its effects on the nation, then brushed the study under the rug when it told him the exact opposite of what he wanted to hear. It was in that repressed climate that Deep Throat made its mark.

The most profitable movie of all time (made for $25,000 and grossing over $600 million to date), Deep Throat is the story of a woman (cutely billed, “Linda Lovelace as ‘Herself’”) who finds that the reason she cannot climax during sex is that her clitoris located in her throat. As I’ve said, I’ve never seen the movie per se, but the documentary provides generous clips from the film — and based on its meager plot and its high-school-nerd attempts at comedy, it seems fair to say that if you’ve seen Deep Throat in this documentary, you’ve seen the movie.

Based on the movie’s premise, which is a blatant male fantasy (gee, I can shove this down her throat and we’ll both be satisfied!), the story begins and ends with the men behind the scenes. Chief among them is the movie’s director, Gerard Damiano, who seems an affable enough man on the basis of his interviews here. He really does seem as though he was out to have fun and to break down a few taboos in the process.

A far more sinister figure, though shown only in still photos, is Chuck Traynor, who apparently lured Linda Lovelace out of her middle-class existence and into graphic sex porn before she knew what hit her. Serving as her unofficial pimp, Traynor never let Lovelace out of his sight during and, for a while, long after the movie was made.

The movie came out and immediately hit pay dirt, helped along by a New York Times review that “legitimized” the movie and made it okay for “regular” people (not to mention celebs such as Johnny Carson and Jack Nicholson) — not just the “raincoat brigade” — to attend an X-rated movie. Unfortunately, the movie was basically financed by the Mob, who went to every theater where the movie played to collect “fifty percent of the gross — or else.”

The movie’s stars, so eager to please others on-screen, ended up suffering the most from the movie. Thanks to the hounding of the Nixon Administration, Reems nearly had to serve five years in prison just for starring in the movie. Although his conviction was overturned, the same Hollywood hotshots who came to his defense when he was a First Amendment icon forgot all about him once he was acquitted, and his movie career went straight downhill after that. The movie tells us he is now a Christian and a real-estate salesman.

Then there’s Linda Lovelace. Her public persona was wiped clean and revised so many times, it’s hard to know what to think of her. In Deep Throat and in interviews given at the time, Lovelace seems like a happy, healthy, sexually unrepressed young woman. Then in the 1980’s, she went public with her stories about the manipulative Traynor and the contention that she was essentially “raped” for the sake of the movie. Then, when she stopped receiving publicity as a feminist/survivor, she eventually turned back to porn again, trying to sell herself in porn magazines. She died in 2002 from injuries sustained in a car crash.

Inside Deep Throat is never less than absorbing, but the lesson it intends to teach isn’t quite as notable as the lesson it really teaches. The doc’s ostensible reason for being is to promote the First Amendment and the idea that, even if we are personally offended by a movie, we mustn’t take Gestapo tactics to shut the movie down. That’s certainly a valid argument.

But what the movie finally shows us is that nobody involved with the movie had a positive outcome (except, of course, the mobsters who cleaned up on the production). Deep Throat’s director never made any money from it or any other movie he did. The owners of the theaters that played the movie were elbowed out of the way by the mobsters. Inside Deep Throat is reminiscent of another dark documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, in that its protagonists, while certainly not guilty of the crimes of which they’re accused of the movie, seem to have been tainted by life as being guilty of something.

Inside Deep Throat is rated NC-17 for frank sexual dialogue, and much nudity and sexuality.