Category Archives: documentary film

Exploring The Weather Underground

I watched this documentary, directed and produced by Sam Green, yesterday. My husband and I both agreed that while we remembered the group–and in particular I remembered knowing that some of them had blown themselves up in Greenwich Village–we did not remember how active they had been in bombing various buildings. I suppose it’s a testament to my age–I was 13 when the Vietnam War ended in 1975–but also to the lack of widespread media in the 70s. The news just wasn’t as big a deal as it is now.

The PBS show Independent Lens has an extensive website devoted to the documentary. In an interview frm the site, Green says that he and his co-director, Bill Siegel, tried to give a fair and balanced account of the history. I guess I agree. They did interview a former FBI agent involved in the hunt for the Weathermen. They also included Todd Gitlin, former SDS president, who is clearly negative towards them for taking over his organization. And the members of the group themselves seemed to cover the various points of view. For instance, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers seem to have little regret for what they did while Mark Rudd discusses feeling ashamed by their actions. I guess I just can’t imagine what it would be like to be them. They are close to 60 years old now, with jobs and families, one of them even went on Jeopardy and won some money. So, what do they tell their grandchildren? “When I was your age, I was at war with the government.”

Continue reading Exploring The Weather Underground

Technical Learning

I am learning technical skills even while I am interfacing with documentary films on DVD.

I learned how to rip a DVD to my iPod using Handbrake.  Learning how to use Handbrake was pretty easy although I think I only got one of the movies on the DVD. But I thought of all the learning I’ve already done to make using Handbrake easy: I can access a webpage, find the download link, pick the correct format, etc. I know how to install programs on my computer and am pretty adept at navigating software. For instance, I opened Handbrake and tried to access the DVD but it didn’t seem to work. It occured to me that I had to quit the DVD player that opens automatically. When I did that, Handbrake worked fine. I’ve learned most of these skills so well that they are automatic; I don’t have to think about them anymore. But I didn’t learn them all at once and I learned them in two primary ways: reading help files and talking to people. I continue to learn from people; I downloaded Handbrake because of a colleague’s recommendation when I told him I knew I could rip DVD to my iPod but didn’t know how.

I wanted to watch The Weather Underground, a documentary I’ve had floating around for awhile now. I started watching it on my laptop and then realized I coudln’t work on my computer while I watched. Luckily, the Fed Ex truck pulled up and my new 20 inch monitor got unloaded. (The computer itself won’t be coming until the first week in October–blech.) I unloaded it and got it hooked up and working in about five minutes so now the movie is playing on the monitor and I am blogging on my laptop monitor. I didn’t really “learn” how to hook up the monitor since I’ve done it before, but I did read the manual just to make sure I was doing it correctly. Also, I was already familiar with the concept of dual monitors and mirroring so I knew I could drag the DVD window to the new monitor.

Postmodern Learning?

One of my friends made the recent comment that with the advent of the supplementary material on DVDS, watching movies can require a huge time commitment.  I think it’s mostly a way to use b-roll stuff and justify charging all that money for 50 cent piece of plastic.

The Monterey Pop documentary DVD includes commentary by Lou Adler and director DA Pennebaker.   Adler was one of the organizers.  I did not know that the festival collected funds for a charitable foundation that is still in existence today although I couldn’t find a website.  I was fascinated by their commentary.  There were things they simply didn’t remember after 40 years.  They talked about how people who had gone to the concert still thanked them for both holding the festival and producing the movie.

Pennebaker focused on the emergent nature of the whole movie.  They didn’t do much pre-planning or storyboarding. They did decide they were only going to include one song from each group.  They stationed seven cameras different places and did at least try to record the same songs using a red light to indicate which to record.  It didn’t always work and sometimes they couldn’t see it; yet, somehow they all recorded the same songs.  Zen, according to Pennebaker. According to this review, one of the camera men was direct cinema pioneer Albert Maysles.  But some of the other camera men were musicians rather than camera men and had little or no experience.  In fact, two of them filmed the Ravi Shankar raga.

So, I ended up watching the film again and listening to their running commentary.  I think this is what I’m labeling post-modern…in the modern era, we went to see a film and perhaps knew something of its production.  Now, I can get the director’s viewpoint frame by frame.  And, this new series that came out in 2002 includes two more disks with two films of additional material along with outtakes.  One thing people complained about with the original documentary was which songs and groups Pennebaker chose to include.  For instance, he ended the movie with this incredible Ravi Shankar raga that took place Sunday afternoon even though there were more groups on Sunday night. And what a contrast that was to the sexually charged footage of Jimi Hendrix and his guitar. So, while Pennebaker may have taken a Zen-like approach to filming, he had to make choices when it came to keeping the film to a reasonable length.  In the commentary, he also discussed his decision to not use transitions; instead, he moved directly from one group to another without any fades or other breaks.

This commentary provides a way to “look at” the film itself, the techniques used to create it, the way it represents reality.   Without the commentary, I wouldn’t have thought too much about the Otis Redding section where Pennebaker gets behind the singer and shoots straight at the stage lights.  Redding’s head in encircled in light.  The singer died in a plane crash in December 1967 while Pennebaker was editing the film and that light has come to be seen as an aura rather than just a trick of the light.  It’s another example of Zen, according to Pennebaker.

Live Blogging Monterey Pop Festival

I was five when the hippies gathered in San Francisco for the Monterey Pop Festival. I just started watching the film made by D.A. Pennebaker. (It was recommended in the Rosenthal book about making documentaries.) He is known as a pioneer in direct cinema. The Wikipedia article on direct cinema isn’t very good…it takes it awhile to get to the definition and even then it isn’t very good because it’s contrasted with cinema verite: “Direct Cinema, on the other hand, is more strictly observational.” I’ll see what I can track down for a better definition. One point the Wikipedia article makes is that this kind of documentary generates lots of film. Because so much editing is required, the editor is sometimes given co-credit for the film.

I am enjoying the film: great, classic music…the music that I grew up with, listening to on my clock radio, sometimes making tapes of the late-night radio shows with my Radio Shack cassette recorder. I am struck by the diversity of the music. I know I sound like my parents when I write this, but today’s music all seems to sound the same. So far, in this movie, I’ve heard jazz, blues, rock and roll and folk. John Weider of the Animals played violin. And, of course, Pete Townsend of The Who smashed his guitar as the roadies run on stage to try to rescue microphones and other gear.

Random thought: this wouldn’t happen now. Another random thought: in terms of dressing weird, today’s kids ain’t got nothing on the hippies. While I really came of age in the more cynical 70s, at the tail end of the baby boom (in fact, I can be a genx-er if I want to), this is the generation with which I identify. I experienced a few festival concerts but they had been toned down by the 80s when I went, more orderly and organized. I can’t help but wondering where all these people are now? Many of the musicians are still recording.

It occured to me that this is what I will be doing with all my video footage, creating direct cinema. And, for now, I am looking through the documentary, enjoying the movie, immersing myself in the story, rather than thinking too much about documentary film techniques.