Five Film Favorites: Documentaries

This week’s Five Film Favorites is courtesy of one of our regular readers, film goers and community members, Albert Green. When I recently put out a call for writers for Five Film Favorites — a weekly column conceived, authored and subsequently turned over to us by F.T. Rea — Albert was one of the first to reply saying he’d love to take a turn at our weekly exercise in film list-making. As has been mentioned before, Five Film Favorites is not a top five or best five, but a favorite five — five favorite movies in a particular genre or category by a particular person on a particular day. No more, no less but a hell of a lot of fun. If you want a turn at the Five, let us know. — James Parrish

Gimme Shelter

When I suggest watching a documentary to most people, their first reaction is to wrinkle their nose, thinking I am dragging them to watch something oppressive and tedious.

Gimme Shelter is the antidote that that attitude. It’s about the dark, decadent, drug soaked side of rock and roll. The movie details a free concert in 1969 headlined by the Rolling Stones.

(If you haven’t heard about the story before, giving you the bare facts doesn’t spoil the film.)

The film team (led by brothers Albert and David Maysles) had everyday access to the Rolling Stones.  This was in keeping with their style of film making, Cinema Verite.

Even when things began to fall apart and they were the middle of a bad scene they kept a steady hand on the camera.

The film starts off like rocket but quickly a sense of foreboding creeps in.

This is one of those movies I wish I could see again for the 1st time.

Hands on a Hard Body

“You got to have the mental.”

Set in east Texas in the mid-1990s, Hands on a Hard Body details a stunt that a radio station and and a truck dealership created where appx. twenty people stand and keep at least one hand on a brand new truck. The last one standing gets the truck for free. Each person gets a five minute break every hour and a fifteen minute break every six hours. The whole contest lasts around three days.

Basically, it’s an up close view of sleep deprivation. The finalists last three days without sleep.

The film is full of down to earth country people. They’re people who have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. Not having a truck payment motivates them to stay up for three days. (I can imagine them waiting in line all night on Black Friday to get a deal at Wal-Mart or Best Buy). For most of the contestants, this contest isn’t something for fun or to show off for their friends. One contestant says “Cars don’t make money; trucks do.”

There is one man who won the competition before. His comments and personal perspectives are a through-line for the film. He compares the contest to one of his favorite films Highlander — “There can be only One.” While he doesn’t speak of his motivation for returning, he must like the challenge-like a marathon runner.

(This  movie is only out on VHS, btw.)

Cane Toads: An Unnatural History

Cane Toads: An Unnatural History is a cinematic knuckleball. It takes a serious ecological problem (invasive species) and presents it in an odd, WTF kind of way. This movie brings out the giggles.

In the 1930s, in an attempt to protect their sugar cane crop from being destroyed by beetles, Australian authorities introduced Bufo marinus, the Cane Toad.

The problem was that while the beetles could fly, the toads could not. (You’d think they would have figured this one out). DDT introduced shortly after this mistake killed the beetles but the Toad remained and flourished. Within a couple of years, Australians knew they were in trouble.

Cane Toads have an incredible, surreal appetite for sex.

Cane Toads love to eat and they, in turn have no natural predators.

Locals have different attitudes about the Toads-some cheerfully run them over, others treat them as beloved pets and still others melt them down to a paste which, when smoked, produces a psychotropic high.

The film uses mock horror music and Cold War era “The Russians are coming” maps to illustrate how the Toads are marching across northern Australia. But before a viewer snickers too loudly, I would remind them that film was created in 1988 and the toads are still breeding …

Man on Wire

In 1974, Philippe Petit danced across a wire stretched between the World Trade Center towers.

Man on Wire gets inside the Olympic level of obsession it took to pull this off. It took six years of escalating planning.

The film is paced like a heist movie. The distant goal, the obsessive desire, the gathering of the “criminals,” the planning, the nerve racking execution.

The shadow of  9-11-01, while never spoken of directly, is a part of this movie. How could it not be? It is a testament to the movie that one of the most traumatic locations in American history is seen in a different light.

What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann

One of Sally Mann's photographs of children, “At Warm Springs” (1991).

This  movie is about the everyday attitude of a professional artist.

Recently, I saw an exhibit of Sally Mann’s photography at The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. This is an excellent complimentary work to her art.

Like many people, I had first heard of her photography when the controversy surrounding her series “Immediate Family” erupted in the 1990s. She acknowledges the difficulties of this period but she was not frozen by them. Sally Mann works constantly, engaging with whatever is in front of her. She doesn’t try to put on airs: career struggles, family health problems, brushes with violence and criminality — all subjects are used.

Her work often engages with mortality, like a Renaissance painter. One particularly vivid section is a visit to “The Body Farm” an open air forensic study area. (Fair warning-this may be too much for some viewers). She approaches this somewhat gruesome task with reverence, to which she credits her father.

The film examines the work habits of a mindful artist and will hopefully make you want to seek out her photography.

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