The real thing and the fake
As embattled geniuses go, Welles had a peer in boundary-pushing comic Lenny Bruce. A new release, Lenny Bruce Without Tears (First Run Features), sets out to show what was so exciting and original (not to mention funny) about Bruce's work, and puts it all in the context of a straight-laced America not ready to grapple with his insights.
Decades later, comedians can be treated like serious political commentators - as (rightly or wrongly) is Bill Maher, whose Bill Maher: Be More Cynical is fresh out from HBO - and the occasional heavy-duty political thinker can become a pop icon. Noam Chomsky: Rebel Without a Pause (Docurama) is the latest in a string of portraits of the famous dissident. Unlike the celebrated Chomsky film Manufacturing Consent, this one offers the benefit of the author's insights into the aftermath of September 11.
It's hard to imagine The Corporation (Zeitgeist) existing without Chomsky's influence. The entire film is built around the kind of perceptual shift that the philosopher has inspired in so many followers: What if we stopped taking corporations for granted and asked some basic questions about them? Why do they exist, how do they live and grow, what effect does their legal structure have on human beings? The filmmakers' answers to that question are persuasive and inspiring, and do a lot to move the anti-corporate debate away from knee-jerk responses and into reasoned analysis.
Today's rabblerousers might take a look at The Same River Twice (Docurama), a then-and-now portrait of a group of free spirits. In 1978, Rob Moss documented a month-long trip through the Grand Canyon that was all about the wholesale rejection of mainstream values. Twenty-five years later, he revisited his buddies to find out what had become of them and their ideals.
Documentaries have long been recognized as one of the biggest reasons to attend film festivals, and now there's at least one fest devoted full-time to non-fiction film. That's cool, but even better is that you don't have to travel to see some of the fest's offerings: Full Frame Documentary Shorts Vol. 3 (Docurama) collects six of the series' most popular films on one disc.
Moving on to more conventional non-fiction forms: New Music releases run the gamut from the Sting performance film Bring on the Night (A&M), shot when the Police-man was still a really intriguing musician, to the ongoing home-video run of VH1 Storytellers titles (Natalie Merchant's is the latest entry), to Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection (Hip-O), which is not only a good introduction to the singer (with two CDs culled from throughout her career) but a DVD that thoroughly scours the archives for film and TV appearances, audio interviews, and assorted ephemera.
Also on the music front, Dig! (Palm) is an extremely engaging, hilarious, but sometimes painful look at a "musical genius" who believes his own hype. Ostensibly about a rivalry between the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, it's really a portrait of mental illness in the form of BJM leader Anton Newcombe.
Similarly, My Architect (New Yorker) isn't completely about what one might suppose the subject to be, revered architect Louis I Kahn. The film does go on a beautiful, often haunting tour of the master's buildings, and it digs a bit into questions of what he was like as a man, but it also focuses on the emotional issues of the filmmaker, Louis' illegitimate son Nathaniel Kahn. Fortunately, there's something of interest in that angle as well.
Finally - isn't it about time that "reality" television started looking something like the real real world? A&E's Airline takes the bold step of actually being a sort of documentary, instead of some goofy gag where wannabe actors are recruited to embark on a worthless task. The series is all the more interesting for being about Southwest, which has long been a thing to marvel at in the world of transportation. Wonder how the Southwest folks would handle the big window frame that Orson Welles reportedly took with him every place he traveled ... •
By John DeFore