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Ellsberg, A Dangerous Man

Patriotism became trendy during the Bush years, when many thought that simply slapping yellow ribbon “Support the Troops” magnets on their SUVs would make them automatically daring and brave as they defended American values while driving around their neighborhoods. Daniel Ellsberg’s story—as chronicled in Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s incisive and absorbing documentary portrait, The Most Dangerous Man in America (opens September 16, 2009, the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street)—puts the lie to such lazy patriotism by recreating another volatile time when some people put their country’s well-being ahead of themselves.

Ellsberg entered the annals of American history in 1971 when he was unmasked as the man behind The Pentagon Papers, top-secret documents about our involvement in Vietnam passed on to the New York Times and other newspapers. Rightly viewed as a hero by many, he’s also been wrongly vilified as a traitor, but Ellsberg is a true patriot who put his life on the line for what he believed was in the best interests of his country.

It took awhile for Ellsberg to become affected by our long slog in Vietnam, but once he did (after he began dating Patricia Marx, a radio host who became his second wife), he realized that he must risk his own freedom to help stop a war he watched become a fiasco.

Ehrlich and Goldsmith have made a standard talking-heads documentary dressed up by canny use of archival material such as photographs, video footage and priceless snippets from the Nixon tapes, particularly when the president laments (in his view) Ellsberg’s treason and the press aiding and abetting it. And we thought that this kind of White House paranoia and name-calling began after September 11!

The filmmakers’ ace in the hole is Ellsberg himself, who narrates the film. Following his mistrial on charges of conspiracy and theft, the charismatic Ellsberg has walked the walk for the past four decades as a dedicated peace activist, having been arrested numerous times while protesting. The filmmakers also interview his wife Patricia, former Rand colleagues and journalists; even Nixon administration honcho John Dean chimes in.

Why so many of today’s documentaries must show re-enactments of pivotal events (i.e., when Ellsberg and his children are nearly busted by L.A. police while copying classified materials) is mystifying; whenever shoehorned in, they threaten to drag the film down to the level of a melodramatic History Channel program.

Overall, however, The Most Dangerous Man in the America is a movie that all Americans would do well to see: its hero reminds us of the real definition of patriotism.

The Most Dangerous Man in America:
Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Directed and written by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith
Featuring Daniel Ellsberg, Patricia Ellsberg, Howard Zinn, John Dean, Egil “Bud” Krogh, Hedrick Smith, Max Frankel, Anthony Russo
Opens September 16, 2009 at
Film Forum
209 West Houston Street


The Hidden History of Indie Cinema

Today, there are people who think that American independent cinema began in 1989 with Sex Lies and Videotape; or in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs; or even in 1999 with The Blair Witch Project.

Well, writer Phil Hall puts such fallacies to rest with his well-researched and readable The History of Independent Cinema, squarely placing domestic independent moviemaking in an historical context. Both enlightening and entertaining, Hall’s book traces independent cinema from the very beginnings of the film industry as we know it.

Most remarkably for a 300-page book, Hall brings together many disparate strands of American independent cinema and, if he doesn’t tie them together—who could?—delivers enjoyably rough-and-tumble stories about men and women known and unknown. Present and accounted for are the silent era’s trailblazers (Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith), those who came of age during the early talkies (Hal Roach), or those who made popular or critical hits outside the studio system (Howard Hughes, Otto Preminger, Stanley Kramer).

But Hall’s book is at its best when he travels down several forgotten film roads, even paths virtually impossible to follow because of the dearth of available materials or because the works themselves are of scant historic interest. Among these are “race films” made by “visionaries” like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams; or Ida Lupino, the rare notable woman director; or Yiddish-language filmmakers like Maurice Schwartz and Joseph Green. In these chapters, Hall presents alternative histories that illuminate the standard ones we all know.

There are also succinct accounts of notables who made names for themselves by going their own ways, such as Maya Deren, Roger Corman, George A. Romero and John Cassavetes. And Hall summarizes other trends, from non-theatrical and educational films to online filmmaking, which is itself so pervasive now that a book could be written on just that subject. In his roundup of documentaries, he even mentions Sunn Classics, a great lost era of my youthful movie-watching, when as a gullible teenager I ate up schlock like The Mysterious Monsters and In Search of Noah’s Ark.

Minor flaws include copy-editing errors (mostly punctuation) that crop up frequently, and a larger flaw is the lack of an index, an oversight limiting the book’s usefulness as a research tool. However, The History of Independent Cinema is a most welcome overview.

The History of Independent Cinema
Written by Phil Hall
BearManor Media; $21.95

A Charming Look Into A Certain Future

directed by Jac Schaeffer
starring Emmy Caulfield, Michelle Borth, JoBeth Williams, John Patrick Amedori
seen at The Tribeca Film Festival 2009
The first feature from writer/director Jac Schaeffer, TiMER is a charming look into a future of certainties. It’s part sci-fi, part comedy, part buddy film, part romance, and 100% chick flick. That’s no easy trick.

Oona O’Leary (Emmy Caulfield, best known from TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Beverly Hills 90210), pretty, uptight, about-to-be 30 orthodontist, wants guarantees in life and love. In the futuristic world of TiMER (which looks a lot like Los Angeles here and now), the timer, a device surgically implanted on the wrist, offers one. The timer tells one how exactly how long one will wait to meet one’s true love.  It’s like dating service eHarmony on steroids.

Oona’s problem is that her timer has not even started ticking – which means that she either will never have a true love or that he has not yet got a timer. One’s true love must have a timer for one’s own to start ticking.  (It beeps like a pager when the lucky couple meet.)  Opening scenes show her bringing prospective love connections to the timer franchise to have the device implanted – only to learn that each one is not Mr. Right. That is tough for Oona to swallow.
Step-sister Steph, ably played by Borth, has one and it’s counting down – for years to come.  Steph makes the most of it by casual sex with guys whose timers are also counting down – but to different dates. It’s one way of dealing with the inevitable. Borth also figures in an amusing subplot at the old-age home where Steph works involving an octogenarian World War Two vet played by John Ingle of Kitchen Aid commercial fame. Her relationship with Oona offers a buddy aspect to the film.
Into Oona’s well-ordered world lands Mikey, supermarket checkout boy (John Patrick Amedori), who also drums in a rock band at the bar Steph tends in her night job. An uncharacteristic (for Oona) romance follows the classic meet cute. Mikey has a timer, but it is revealed as a fake 55 minutes into the pic, a tool to score with chicks still waiting for their soulmates. (“The closer they get to D-Day, the more likely they are to throw you around a little bit.”) He’s also eight years younger than Oona.  According to the timer, Oona’s soulmate is Dan the Man (Desmond Harrington), who doesn’t make an appearance until more than halfway through the picture. JoBeth Williams excels as Steph’s and Oona’s mom, providing much of pic’s comedy.
Pic’s moral, if there is one, is revealed by Delphine (Nicki Norris), mistress of Oona’s estranged dad, legendary record producer Rick O’Leary (Muse Watson).  “I had it [the timer] removed,” she tells Oona.  “Your dad isn’t my one, but I love him.  Fuck it.”  Or as Mikey says to Oona in a pivotal scene, “Your problem is not that I can’t give you a guarantee.  It’s that you can’t give me one.”
Schaeffer skillfully creates a realistic future not too different from the present and very believable. This film benefits from its snappy dialogue. Editing by Peter Samet and lensing by Andrew Kaiser are more than up to the job.  Maya Siegel’s music, with a tick-tock theme, is well suited to the production.
TiMER does not have a distributor as yet and is not rated, but it's a compelling flick that can attract intelligent filmgoers. It may, however, fly well over the heads of its potentially large teenage audience.  

The Summer of ’69 — Remembering Woodstock Musically

Every summer is special, but it seems as if the summer of 1969--and yes, I know it’s hard to believe that was 40 years ago — was particularly memorable. Canadian rocker Bryan Adams knew it when he did his huge 1985 hit “Summer of ’69,” in which he recollected memories of learning to play his first guitar and his first summer crush. That tune still gets a lot of play on classic rock stations. But when most of us think of that year, we think of the Miracle Mets, men walking on the moon, maybe the Manson murders — and certainly the most famous rock concert of all-time, Woodstock, the three-day festival held in upstate New York.

Various Artists

Woodstock Two


Rhino Records has just reissued the long out-of-print triple vinyl albums, Woodstock and Woodstock Two that were originally released on Atlantic Records in the fall of 1970 and the spring of 1971, respectively. They’re now double-CD sets.

The Woodstock Music & Art Fair, also called the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, was held from August 14 through 17 on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel. It was supposed to be a traditional for-profit concert, but it became a free event when security could not handle the nearly half-million fans who showed up. Promoter Artie Kornfeld was able to recoup some of his costs by selling the rights for a Woodstock movie to Warner Bros. Pictures.

It should be noted that both the Woodstock soundtrack and its sequel contain just a small portion of the music actually played at Yasgur’s farm. While the biggest rock acts of the day, such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Doors, passed on Woodstock, the Who, Blood, Sweat & Tears, the Jefferson Airplane, the Band, the Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills, Nash & Young and Creedence Clearwater Revival all played full sets.

CCR has always been involved in record company litigation, so it’s not surprising that none of their performances are on these albums. Capitol Records also refused to give up their rights to the recordings of the Band, so none of Robbie Robertson and company’s songs are here either. But a lot of great tunes are.

Neither Richie Havens nor Jimi Hendrix were well-known going into Woodstock, but they were legends after it. Hendrix’s behind-the-neck blistering guitar rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” is, for my money, the most memorable take ever on Francis Scott Key’s tribute to American valor during the War of 1812. It’s tragic that Hendrix would live just barely more than a year after Woodstock.

The Vietnam War was certainly on the minds of everyone at Woodstock, and it’s safe to say that no one who made the trip to Sullivan County that weekend supported it. Folk singer Joan Baez certainly made her feelings known from the stage. A band called Country Joe & The Fish took a page out of the Stan Freberg and Tom Lehrer book of satire with “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag,” which you can be sure was not a favorite of draft boards or President Nixon. Keeping the humor going was the ’50s doo wop revival group, Sha Na Na, formed at Columbia University, who played such anachronistic warhorses as “At The Hop” and “Teen Angel.” Both songs were only about a decade old at the time but seemed as if they were recorded in the Stone Age given the Woodstock atmosphere.

One New York-born band certainly played its part at Woodstock. Mountain, a so-so rock band that would have its lone hit a year later with “Mississippi Queen,” was led by Forest Hills High School alum Leslie Weinstein, known by the showbiz moniker Leslie West. Mountain played a dozen-song set on Woodstock’s second day.

No one epitomized the sunny disposition of “flower power” better than Astoria native Melanie Safka, better known simply as Melanie. Although she only sang three songs, one of them, the melodic “Beautiful People,” captured the egalitarian spirit of the hippie movement better than any other tune from Woodstock.

Sly & The Family Stone/Santana
The Woodstock Experience


Columbia Records’ Legacy division dug deep into the vaults to find the entire sets played by two of the label’s great performers at Woodstock, Santana and Sly & The Family Stone, and put them on two separate CDs that are part of a five-artist series.

 At the time, few outside of San Francisco had heard of Santana and namesake lead guitarist Carlos Santana. The band debuted their signature song, “Evil Ways,” to a national audience at the show. The fusion of rock and Latin soul on Santana staples like “Jingo” also was warmly received.

Sly & The Family Stone, whose soulful rock generated such hits as “Dance To The Music,” “Everyday People” and the concert-ready “I Want To Take You Higher,” got a heroes’ welcome from the Woodstock nation. It’s a shame the band didn’t play “Hot Fun In The Summertime,” a feel-good summer song if there ever was one, which was climbing the charts at the time. But what’s here is fun to listen to in any season.

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