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Armchair Cinephile

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The good, the rich, and the strange

Sometimes it seems that all the good ideas are already taken. Paradoxically, that feeling can hit you the hardest when you've just encountered a new stroke of genius: "That's the last one," you figure. "Guess the world will be pretty boring from here on out."

Michael Apted's Up Series (First Run Features) is one of those ideas, a concept so perfect for the cinema it's a wonder it took until 1964 for someone to do it.

That's the year that England's Granada TV interviewed a group of 7-year-olds for a documentary; since then, Apted has revisited the group at seven-year intervals, affording us the captivating spectacle of watching kids grow up before our eyes. Until now, the series has been practically impossible to see in its entirety. If the early installments were ever available on VHS, they were so rare that even the best video stores couldn't obtain them. Now, they're in one tidy collection from ages 7 through 42 and if you thought Hoop Dreams was a gripping bit of real-life cinema, you should take a deep breath before putting this in your DVD player.

Another group of singular documentary films hit DVD recently: Anchor Bay's second Werner Herzog Collection boasts some of the strangest "nonfiction" films that have been made, and a few that stretch that label to the breaking point. Lessons of Darkness is one of the finest, in which the danger-defying filmmaker and his crew travel to Kuwait after the first Gulf War. There, they find oil fields left in flame by Iraqi soldiers and film the Americans trying to tame the fire. What makes its way onto the film is more ruminative and poetic than expository; the movie's peculiarly haunting quality has led some writers to describe it as a science fiction film. That's a label that might be applied others here, like the bizarre Even Dwarves Started Small, or Heart of Glass in which, the legend goes, the entire cast was put under hypnosis before being filmed.

I remember my first viewing of How To Draw A Bunny (Palm) as if I'd been hypnotized myself: In the icy, sleep-deprived world of the Sundance festival, the life of artist Ray Johnson seemed even stranger than it really was. The late painter/collage-maker emerges piecemeal through interviews with a great many people here, including such artists as Chuck Close and Roy Lichtenstein, who each knew only a facet of Johnson. After we have some grip on his unorthodox approach to art-making, we hear about his final artwork: His own death, which he prepared meticulously and peppered with eerie coincidences.

On a much sweeter note (and getting back to the world of children), New Yorker has released the immensely touching To Be and To Have, which was a hit in France and should have done as well here. A portrait of a teacher in charge of a one-room rural school, it might prove a hugely successful recruiting tool for the American education system were it required viewing for college freshmen in search of a major. The intelligent and devoted George Lopez is shown with his dozen or so elementary-age students, who are entrusted to him alone for many years. The warm-and-fuzzy vibes produced here are muddied by some bad blood that arose after the film's release, but this picture of what teaching ought to be remains very powerful.

Finally, since muckraking political docs didn't get quite as irrelevant this month as some of us hoped, there's Born Rich (Shout Factory), made by and about young people born into obscene wealth, which should convince any right-minded individual that some kind of estate tax would benefit the inheritors almost as much as the rest of us. September 11 (Empire), showcases the projects of 11 acclaimed international filmmakers from Alejandro González Iñárritu to Shohei Imamura who were commissioned to make short films responding to that day's events. The Trials of Henry Kissinger (First Run) is a feature-length argument that the man George Bush wanted to head the investigation into 9/11 should be prosecuted for war crimes, and Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky In Our Times (First Run), makes the insanely liberal argument that the United States should operate under the same moral rules it wants to impose on the rest of the world.


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