Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi have made a documentary marking half a century of the New York Review of Books and there seems to be a little confusion as to what, exactly, its title is. Cinephil, the film’s distributor, calls it both The 50 Year Argument and A 50 Year Argument—on the same page. The BBC, a co-producer, goes with “The,” but the NYRB itself is sticking with “A.” Regardless, it sees its official premiere on Monday night at the Sheffield Doc/Fest, which opens today and runs through Thursday. As notable reviews of notable films appear, you’ll find pointers to them here.
As for the NYRB doc, the Guardian‘s Henry Barnes finds it to be “a slow-paced and often unforgiving film. Scorsese and Tedeschi follow a similar ethos to that of their subject matter: the reader (or viewer) will catch up with us. This can make watching the film an exercise in concentration, when many docs would be happy to fill in the blanks. No bad thing. Yet the film works best when in the office, on location at the making of a print product that has survived in times that should rightly sink it.”
An early cut screened in Berlin in February and critics were expressly forbidden to write about it. At critic.de, though, Rüdiger Suchsland, taking inspiration from Susan Sontag, who appears in the film (“a critic must resist the mainstream” and remain steadfastly “anti-establishment”), ignored the ban. Stylistically, he found the film pretty run-of-the-mill, but “fascinating as a cultural history of Scorsese’s own generation.” And I have to say, the BBC‘s description has cranked up my own anticipation, which was already running pretty high.
Updates, 6/8: For the Observer, Rachel Cooke talks with NYRB editor Robert Silvers, who says of Scorsese: “He’d been reading the paper since 1963, when he was at NYU. He knew the articles extremely well and he had a big pile of the paper sitting in some room. Fortuitous! He’s a marvelous fellow.” And as for the film: “It can only be, for me, a slice of the paper. We have had about 15,000 articles. Philosophy, physics, art, ancient history, poetry: all this could not come into a one-hour film. But I think it is a very interesting take. I don’t have any quarrel with it. There’s a fairness to it.”
From Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter: “Anchored by the old-world charm of Silvers, still at the helm and still a formidable intellectual force at 84, The 50 Year Argument features a stellar intellectual cast from the world of letters including Joan Didion, Derek Walcott, Michael Chabon, Noam Chomsky, Mary Beard and Colm Tóibín. Among the notable former contributors who appear in archive clips are Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Vaclav Havel, Isiah Berlin and James Baldwin, who provides one of the most exquisitely witty two-minute deconstructions of racist terminology ever caught on camera. Tedeschi previously worked as an editor on several Scorsese projects, including his acclaimed biodocs of George Harrison and Bob Dylan. Though they have no classic rock anthems to propel the action here, the duo still give their latest collaboration a musical rhythm, resisting a straight chronological narrative for a more freeform collage approach.”
“It wouldn’t be a Scorsese doc without a killer soundtrack,” writes Matt Thrift at Little White Lies, “so what’s surprising (and so commendable) is the lack of any intrusive musical montage. An early Take Five sets the scene, but some choice Miles Davis cuts aside, it’s really the words that are the thing. As Colm Tóibín says of the NYRB‘s attraction: ‘The ideas were sensuous,’ and Scorsese and Tedeschi have crafted a thematically dense but wholly accessible film about how fifty years of sensuous ideas can open a dialogue towards social and political change.”
Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014 opens tonight with the European premiere of Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets, which saw its world premiere back in March at SXSW. That’s when the Austin Chronicle‘s Marc Savlov wrote: “Frontman Jarvis Cocker, pencil-thin and prone to oversized glasses, flares, and a seriously Bowie-esque sense of stage dramatics, was for much of the Nineties a common cover story for music rags like NME, Q, and Melody Maker. The band’s 1995 album Different Class spawned four top 10 singles, among them the working class heroes’ anthem ‘Common People,’ which was later to be covered by William Shatner and Ben Folds. Their 1998 album This is Hardcore took Cocker’s wry lyrics into darker territory, with the ominous and perverse title track seeming to bode the death knell of Britpop, which in hindsight was more or less the case. The follow-up, 2001’s We Love Life barely charted in the UK, much less on this side of the pond, and the band disintegrated soon after. Director Florian Habicht‘s documentary serves less as an appraisal of the band’s history than as a smartly crafted eulogy.”
The occasion for the film is the comeback tour of 2011 and 2012 and, in the Hollywood Reporter, Stephen Dalton‘s found the doc to be “as much a warm and witty love letter to the band’s home city of Sheffield as it is to Pulp itself.” Charles Gant in Variety: “Sheffield is introduced early as a city that’s not easily impressed: The verdict ‘they’re all right’ evidently sets the high bar for a compliment. Which makes [the December 2012] homecoming concert not the easy coronation one might expect, and the band… seems genuinely nervous about the outcome…. Overall, it’s the process of growing old that emerges as the film’s strongest theme.” For Adam Woodward at Little White Lies, “hard not to compare Pulp to Shane Meadows‘s superior Made of Stone. That film boasted a euphoric energy that Habicht’s lacks.”
Update, 6/8: The Observer‘s Mark Kermode: “The live performances are electrifying, all jagged elbows and brilliant pop tunes, with the band suitably assisted not by drugs and booze, but by a neatly organised display of treatments for colds, incontinence and light grazes. On the subject of fame, Cocker asserts boldly that ‘it didn’t agree with me—like a nut allergy.’ Hardcore indeed.”
Updates, 6/8: For Screen Daily, Michael Rosser talks with festival director Heather Croall, who tells him, “There are so many! I can’t stand to pick favorites, but here goes for some tips…
- The Case Against 8, Ryan White, Ben Cotner.
- Regarding Susan Sontag, Nancy Kates.
- Beyond Clueless, Charlie Lyne.
- Alfred and Jakobine, Jonathan Howells, Tom Roberts.
- Vessel, Diana Whitten.
“And the Interactive at Sheffield exhibition in Millennium Gallery will be wonderful. Spend some time in there.”
Here’s the Guardian‘s Henry Barnes on the first film she mentions: “On November 4th 2008, as Barack Obama was elected president, the people of the state of California voted to bar gay couples from marrying. Proposition 8, the state constitutional amendment voted in by 52% of the electorate, stated that only a marriage between a man and a woman was valid. The Case Against 8, Ben Cotner and Ryan White’s Sundance hit, offers a triumphant account of how Prop 8 was eventually overturned…. Their documentary plays like a Grisham drama—showing the idealism of law in action, with very little of the boring paperwork.”
Tom Roston talks with Cotner and White for the New York Times: “‘The blessing and the curse of following a court case is that it moves at a glacial pace,’ Mr. White said. ‘We didn’t know we had a film until three or four years into shooting.'”
Update, 6/10: Genevieve Koski at the Dissolve: “The Case Against 8 has advantages more powerful than a dozen dramatic ‘Perry Mason moments’—though it has one of those as well—namely behind-the-scenes access to one of the most historic, influential cases in recent history as it’s happening, along with an immensely likable cast of characters serving as a conduit to the emotional heart of that case.”
Sheffield’s also staging an Agnès Varda retrospective and, writing for the Quietus, David Hamilton-Smith argues that the relevance of The Beaches of Agnès (2008) “extends far beyond European cinematic history or the hybridising of documentary with fiction. Really, Agnès Varda has been present, camera in hand more often than not, at a great many significant and strange world events from the Second World War onwards. The film feels like it’s been pieced together from a huge and fascinating archive—evidence of an endlessly curious creative life set in motion by her prodigious photography skills and the early success afforded to her second feature, Cléo de 5 à 7, at the height of the Nouvelle Vague’s renown.”
Updates, 6/10: Reviewing Peter de Rome: Grandfather of Gay Porn, Leah Green notes that “the director, now 90, managed to capture not just sex but titillation, fun and beauty in his gay pornos. Though he denies being an activist, De Rome made his films in New York at a time when homosexuality was illegal. That he managed to show men having sex, and make it domestic, unaggressive, and loving, is progressive even by today’s standards.”
Also in the Guardian: “To celebrate the Tour de France gracing Yorkshire with its presence this year, three cycling films are playing at the Sheffield Doc/Fest under the Hell on Wheels strand,” and Helen Pidd has a look at each of them.
Viewing (2’35”). The Guardian talks with Justine Pimlott and Maya Gallus, the directors of Derby Crazy Love, “a documentary which follows the growing craze of roller derby… which is played mainly by women and incorporates elements of punk rock and feminism.”
Update, 6/12: The Guardian talks with Doug Block about his new doc, 112 Weddings, in which “he speaks to couples who have remained together (and those who have split) to discover what makes a marriage last.”
Update, 6/13: The Inspiration Award has been presented to Laura Poitras for “raising deeply moral questions that demand attention simply because of her telling.” Criticwire‘s Sam Adams notes that Poitras, “citing concerns for her safety,” declined to appear but sent a statement “read by Hot Docs’ Charlotte Cook, who provided a copy to Criticwire.”
Updates, 6/14: Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter on The Last Man on the Moon: “Take a pinch of Top Gun, stir in a generous dollop of The Right Stuff, add a light sprinkling of Mad Men and you have the formula for this uplifting documentary portrait of former Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan.”
“My biggest achievement is that I’ve been able to make a living at it for 25 years. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to be a documentary filmmaker.” Joe Berlinger‘s given a masterclass, and Paula Bernstein was there for Indiewire.
Update, 6/15: “Set to jaunty music and smoothly edited into easily digestible morsels, 112 Weddings skips along so effortlessly that it sometimes feels like an upmarket cousin of America’s Funniest Home Videos,” writes Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter. “Block plays on our emotions shamelessly, invoking both laughter and tears, though his ultimate goal appears to be fast-moving entertainment rather than serious insights. The social profile of his client base, mostly moneyed New York professionals, also leads to an inevitable narrowness of focus. But even if it lacks depth, Block’s big-screen banquet of matrimonial testimonials is still a highly engaging proposition.”
Update, 6/16: The Special Jury Award goes to Jacqui Morris and David Morris’s Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime,” reports Casey Cipriani, who’s got the full list of winners at Indiewire—where Brandon Latham‘s got the audience award-winners.
Update, 6/19: “With its mix of screenings, live events, music, and genuinely fantastic parties, this five-day celebration earns its reputation as the Glastonbury of documentary festivals (albeit without the mud),” writes Paul Dallas in a report for Filmmaker. “The analogy is encouraged by the seemingly endless days (the sun doesn’t set until 11pm), as well as some remarkable outdoor venues. These include a giant cave affectionately known as the Devil’s Arse, where I caught an evening screening of Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors (bats squeaking along to the Philip Glass score) and the sprawling grounds of the Chatsworth estate, which hosted the premiere of Kim Longinotto’s terrific BFI archival doc Love is All.” Peter Wintonick and Michael Achbar’s Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992) “was an unexpected highlight for me and should be mandatory viewing for any documentary filmmaker.”
“A local story with global implications, the British director Anthony Baxter’s debut documentary You’ve Been Trumped grabbed news headlines, positive reviews and festival prizes back in 2011,” writes Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter. It’s a “classic underdog yarn about a ragtag group of citizens protesting against property tycoon Donald Trump’s scheme to bulldoze a luxury golf resort across environmentally sensitive coastline in northeast Scotland…. Now Baxter has made a follow-up documentary bringing the saga up to date. But A Dangerous Game is more than just a sequel, broadening the story’s scope to include public protests against similarly controversial golf resorts around the globe. It also features heavyweight interviewees including Trump himself, making a comically clumsy attempt at damage limitation.”
Also: “On February 15, 2003, millions of people around the world marched in opposition to the impending war in Iraq. With more than 700 coordinated demonstrations in over 60 countries, final estimates of the total number of citizens mobilized that day vary. Six million is a low estimate, but some say 10 million, others as many as 30 million. Whatever the figure, most social historians agree it was the largest protest event in human history. In London alone, about a million people took to the streets.” Amir Amirani’s We Are Many “charts the build-up of the anti-war movement, the main day of marches, and the bitter aftermath.”
Update, 6/29: For Sight & Sound, Thirza Wakefield reviews The 50 Year Argument and Kevin Cameron’s Alasdair Gray: A Life in Progress: “Filmed over 15 years, it follows Glasgow’s cherished mouthpiece, writer-artist-muralist Alasdair Gray—whose 1981 novel Lanark: A Life in Four Books he began writing at 18. Now in his 70s, he fills his time in overalls, designing and painting murals and restoring his earlier wall-works in locations across the city. Prized as much for his visionary art as his pro-independence, socialist politics, Gray (whom Will Self has called a ‘little grey deity’) is a man not to scale; so great and original a presence, he’s not easily contained.”