Mar 062019

A document from another world that I loved in part because it touched on aspects of my past in ways that made it possible to see how a life is a responsive rather than a fixed thing. A different choice here or some bad luck there and my own could have become something so different from what it is now as to be unrecognizable to me.

Which isn’t to say I would have been a free solo climber! I wouldn’t have been. It’s simply an acknowledgement that the starkness of Alex Honnold’s choices make my own less extreme and, therefore, less visible choices more obvious and more available for examination.

Stated differently, without being a philosophical figure and without being a philosophical film, Alex and Free Solo inhabit and illuminate a philosophical situation that provokes philosophical reflection. In this way—but also in its subject matter—it’s a nice companion piece to Into the Wild. Maybe The Snow Leopard as well.


Feb 252016

AMy PosterI came to this movie knowing nothing about Amy Winehouse or her music. So it introduced me to a new character and then chronicled her steady decline under the influences of a father and a lover she had no defences against. What struck me about the story was (paparazzi aside) how unexceptional it was. It’s the fact that all kinds of people all the time find themselves in relationships they can’t cope with or escape and are broken or destroyed in just this way that made it so heartbreaking and ugly for me. Which is a way of saying, I’m not sure that this is a movie about celebrity.

The one positive moment that sticks with me involves Tony Bennet. Commenting on Winehouse’s early death and his confidence that with time she would have pulled things together, he says, roughly, “Over time life teaches you how to live it.” That seems right.

Jan 182016

What Happened, Miss SimoneI discovered Nina Simone in “Where Lies the Homo?,” an autobiographical, found-footage film by Jean-François Monet that moved me deeply when I first saw it and that I spoke about a few times at conferences but never got around to writing about. Over a long key passage in the film’s second half, Simone sings “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and together the music, the montage of images and the context they allude to are heartbreaking.

This documentary let me know who Simone was and, more importantly, let me see how much better she was than the moment I discovered her in. A real artist living fiercely in impossible circumstances with extraordinary people.

Oct 262015

The New RijksmuseumA film that documents the massive renovations of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Even after extensive cuts, it’s a long film, but this allows it to capture the structuring apparatus of the institution while also presenting a variety of fascinating and humane portraits of the people living interesting lives within it.

The film captures the frustration involved in working with organizations that have become too massive to control but it also suggests the extent to which they reflect and protect the beauty of the odd people that work within them.

The uncut version of the film exists and when it circulates, I’m going to watch it.

Jul 132015

José & PilarI didn’t know much about José Saramago as a writer other than that I’ve read without liking his novel Blindness. This documentary, which is one of the rare films about writing that works, introduced me to him, to his wife and to his region. I was charmed by all three.

I had no idea that Saramago only began writing novels late in life after a mediocre career as a journalist. I didn’t know that he began writing fiction only after meeting Pilar or that he’d dedicated each of his novels to her. Watching her in this film, I can see why. She’s clearly an extraordinary person, intelligent, strong willed and inspiring.

Mar 072014

A documentary about nuclear power, and the environmentalists who have decided that, despite our fears, it is the safest way to combat the climate change caused by fossil fuels.

Two segments caught my attention. In the first, the filmmakers take natural background radiation readings in various cities and in wild landscapes around the world. These vary widely, are often quite high and no correlation has been found between the variations and illness. Then the filmmakers take readings at Fukushima and at Chernobyl. They are among the lowest shown. In the second, a scientist talks about a breeder reactor project that was constructed, was functional and was tested. It could not meltdown, could not explode, and it was a closed system recycling its own waste a fuel for decades. And blanket opposition to nuclear shut the project down leaving less safe plants–like the ones at Fukushima–to be built instead.

I came away realizing I don’t know enough about nuclear energy to have confidence in my opinions or in what I learned here. But I’m curious and need to track down more information.

Apr 072013


 Two powerful documentaries about the AIDS epidemic, both deeply moving. We Were Here is the more standard fare stylistically: many talking heads and the heads belong to ordinary people. How to Survive a Plague is something different. There is nothing ordinary about the people it follows. Their skills and talents were above the norm, and the plague drove them to the hights.

However sad, these are deeply inspiring films. They sparked nostalgia in me for the nineties and the activist spirit of the time. We lost that with the twin towers, and the stupidity that was the Bush years. And yes, I blame the Bush years. And the hooplah around Clinton’s penis.