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DOC NYC 3rd Season Reviewed – Part 1

Just in its third year, DOC NYC is already a major New York showcase for diverse documentaries, bringing a slew of notable new non-fiction films to town November 8 - 15, 2012.

DOC NYC features advance screenings with director Q&As shortly before theatrical runs or broadcasts of much-buzzed films including:

  • The Central Park Five -- directors Ken and Sarah Burns
  • West of Memphis -- Amy Berg
  • Turning -- Antony and the Johnsons

There are also second chance screenings of catchworthy docs you may have missed as well including 5 Broken Cameras and Wattstax.

In the “Viewfinders Competition” category of “films notable for their distinct directorial vision” are several documentaries noteworthy for capturing the strong personalities of eccentric raconteurs. 

A hefty chunk of this year’s 61 feature-length films are “bio-docs”, portraits of people renowned in an entertaining variety of fields -- sports, children’s literature, theater, a whole lot of music, and even a pimp. You may not have heard of these real characters before, but after seeing these revealing films, you’ll want to see more of their work, and that of the filmmakers who explore their lives.

Iceberg Slim: Portrait Of A Pimp
directed by Jorge Hinojosa
Opening in a gala U.S. premiere, this feature uncovers the troubled life of crime, punishment and remorse of Robert Beck, the man behind the Iceberg Slim street name/nom de plume of a series of gritty, told-in-the-first-person, straight out of the inner city paperbacks popular in black communities since 1970. 

 Readings from his autobiographical novels, starting with Pimp: The Story of My Life and on with Trick Baby, Mama Black Widow, Long White Con, Airtight Willie & Me, and Death Wish: A Story of the Mafia, are slyly illustrated through animated versions of lurid pulp fiction covers.

But while rappers (Ice T, Snoop Dogg), comedians (Chris Rock, Katt Williams), and African-American studies scholars enthuse (repetitively) about the impact of his singularly authentic words on their lives and as influential precursors for blaxploitation movies and gangster rap, debut director Jorge Hinojosa, Ice T’s long-time manager, digs much deeper to challenge fans’ assumptions about the man and his alter ego, particularly his complicated relationships with women.

 With frank family interviews, photographs, evocative archival footage of city life, and supporting document evidence, Hinojosa chronologically tracks a life that started in 1918 with maternal abuse, hardened by a prison education, and graduated into a successful criminal entrepreneurship of manipulating women.

But it was years after Beck reformed that his white wife typed up his vivid stories as a cautionary memoir from his Iceberg Slim past into book form and brought them to a (more than a bit unscrupulous) white publisher, in order to support their daughters. They still have conflicting impressions of him, and a thoughtful viewer will too. 

Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story
directed by Brad Bernstein
This U.S. premiere is an eye-opener for those who only know his droll off-kilter children’s books, if you could find them in American libraries over the 40 years since his banishment in the 1970’s for earthily acknowledging his equally prolific parallel career drawing adult erotica. (The late author/illustrator Maurice Sendak provides context about his unique place in children’s literature.)  

First-time director Brad Bernstein takes the irascible Ungerer’s sketches from his peripatetic pen into active animation while wheedling out witty interviews. Ungerer’s devilish charm adds to a fascinating personal history (and nightmares) that this documentary shows he has transformed into snakes, pigs, teddy bears, ogres, moon men, and, in his most famous book, The Three Robbers. 

His thick Alsatian accent speaks (bitterly) to growing up on the French-German border of shifting political and linguistic indoctrination. Archival footage supplements the many images and incidents from his 1998 illustrated autobiography Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis

While his shaggy white hair speaks to a long life visually skewering the ferments of the 20th century (cartoonist Jules Feiffer sets the design context of his political posters), Ungerer’s eyes twinkle over his fortuitous success as an immigrant in New York City, making distinctive graphic art for Madison Avenue ads and explicit fun during the sexual revolution (inspiring his saucy Fornicon in 1969). 

Though the film doesn’t make clear that his books continued to be published in Europe when he exiled himself to isolated studios until he was back home in Strasbourg, France, you will share his triumphant delight over his l998 Hans Christian Andersen Prize for lifetime achievement in illustrated children’s literature. And then you will probably run and seek out, as I did, his over one hundred recently re-issued books.

Shepard & Dark
directed by Treva Wurmfeld 
A New York City premiere, this film is essential viewing, at least, for fans of Sam Shepherd as playwright and actor, let alone if you’re curious about seeing him post his celeb-fodder break-up with actress Jessica Lange. His enduring friendship with Johnny Dark, a good ole boy he met in Greenwich Village in the early ’60s, provides insightful background to the style and substance of his Cain-vs.-Abel theater themes and the macho image he projects. 

But this is also a joint biography of a male friendship that is rarely captured so intimately, an unusual bromance that has been intertwined by living with related women, complicated by Shepherd’s fame (and drinking), and fostered by continual letter writing. 

The two men may not have realized how much they would be baring when director Treva Wurmfeld started filming to mark their decision (for sad financial reasons) to add their staggeringly voluminous correspondence to an academic Shepard archive and prepare a selection for publication. But tensions build as they go back through their epistolary history (supplemented by Dark’s many photographs, home movies, and honest memories). 

Unexpectedly, they not only get overwhelmed by revisiting painful episodes from their pasts, when they moved around the country over the years (separately and together), but their professed bonhomie gets strained by repeating on camera dysfunctional patterns in their lives, to the extent that they turn away, and you may feel uncomfortable watching them. 

The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology
directed by Sophie Fiennes
Philosopher/film historian Slavoj Žižek dominates this U.S. premiere. A bearded, rotund eminence with a thick accent, Žižek looks and sounds more like central casting for a charismatic Slovenian Hegelian professor who uses psychoanalytic concepts to analyze political theory than the titular “pervert” -- which here really means “iconoclast.”

In this follow-up lecture to his collaboration with director Sophie Fiennes six years ago on The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema, they illustrate his passionate opinions about the driving forces over the past century and into the future through an amazing array of film clips, familiar (including Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music) and obscure (such as John Carpenter’s 2006 They Live), from around the world, supplemented with real images of dictators, the World Trade Center attack, and recent riots. 

While Žižek talks (with lots of gesticulation) directly to a camera that can be in front, over, under, or next to him, Fiennes creatively edits him in Zelig-like into scenes in similar-looking landscapes or reconstructed sets– so he can be coming out of a faux-Stalin’s airplane in a Soviet propaganda vehicle or lying in Travis Bickle’s dirty bed in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, among over a dozen settings. 

As dazzling as his contrarian interpretations are, he makes mesmerizing sense while you watch him identify the powerful messages of such Big Ideas as religion, consumerism, and militarism in great cinematic scenes that represent the collective consciousness of hidden ideology, will you be able to cogently repeat any of his Big Ideas afterwards? 

David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure
directed by Beth Tony Kruvant 
Among the seven films in the “Sonic Cinema” “exploring a wide range of music” this New York City premiere affectionately profiles an eclectic musician whose songwriting, guitar picking, and influence extends by himself across a wide range --blues, acoustic, rock ‘n’ roll, and classical-- even when he stopped performing for over 20 years. 

Director Beth Tony Kruvant closely follows Bromberg through the two revivals he has plunged into since 2007 – his performing career and an historic city center. His diverse musical interests are just scratched as he’s seen recording a covers album, “Use Me”, where each track is written, produced, and performed with a different artist -- bluesman Keb’ Mo’, New Orleans’ legend Dr. John, bluegrass whiz Tim O’Brien, and country star Vince Gill. Each genre leads Bromberg to recall vignettes of the masters he learned from in 1960’s Greenwich Village (his recollections of being mentored by guitarist Rev. Gary Davis are particularly touching) and collaborated with, such as George Harrison and Bob Dylan. (More disjointed are his personal biographical references.)  

Fans will also welcome the many fresh performances of Bromberg classics, especially the joyous return of his Big Band horns backing the irresistible carnival barker songspiel of “Sharon (What Do You Do To Those Men?)”, which almost makes up for omitting my favorite humorous blues of his “Did You Ever Wake Up with Bullfrogs On Your Mind?”

The film briefly satisfies curiosity about The Missing Years away from the public eye for glimpses into his other career in violin making and collecting. His conversation with an Emerson String Quartet violinist about bows only hints at the depth of this other strings’ expertise as he proudly shows off his preeminent collection of American-made instruments. 

That tour segues into the remarkable story of how the African-American mayor of Wilmington, Delaware recruited him to relocate his violin shop as an anchor for the historic city’s revival with a downtown arts district. Together, they are spurring the restoration and reanimation of an old theater to warmly demonstrate that rousing American roots music can rouse physical roots into a lively future.

Can’t Stand Losing You 
directed by Andy Grieve
This film records the history of the band The Police through guitarist Andy Summers’ autobiography One Train Later about how he met, teamed up, and broke up with drummer Stewart Copeland and bassist Sting. He reads his memoir in an annoyingly bland monotone that drains out any excitement from the illustrative sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll footage debut director Andy Grieve edits together, despite how rare the images. 

Best are the photographs Summers took in his blossoming second career, and not just because of his exclusive behind the stage access. But the incorporation of scenes from their 2007 corporate-sponsored reunion oldies tour (filmed by Lauren Lazin) only serves to reinforce how calculated was their rise from punk roots to bleached blonde commercial sell-out to MTV with their enduringly catchy pop tunes.

Venus and Serena
directed by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major
This Gala premiere pretty much shows that the driven African-American tennis superstar sisters have been in the American public’s eye for so long that there isn’t too much new to reveal about how they’ve achieved so much in sports and more, even with directors Maiken Baird and Michelle Major’s unusually close cinema verité access to them and their extended family members during a critical point in their personal and professional lives last year. 

While the sisters are fairly open about their complicated family relationships and John McEnroe’s comparisons to himself are amusing, this is the kind of flimsy documentary that has Vogue editor Anna Wintour uselessly commenting more about their tennis than their fashion sense. 

This documentary does look at the racial issues they’ve faced, but appreciation of their principled insistence on women’s tennis prize parity will have to wait for ESPN Films’ upcoming “Nine for IX” series to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX.

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