Category Archives: Documentary

Obey Giant Review

Obey Giant, a documentary currently on Hulu, covers the career of street artist Shepard Fairey and explores some of the movement’s influences and history. Fairey is best known as the creator of the iconic Obama Hope posters that were seen everywhere during the 2008 campaign. He’s also featured in Exit Through the Gift Shop, another documentary (some say mockumentary) about the even more famous street artist Banksy.

Obey Giant gets its title from one of Fairey’s widespread use of pro wrestler Andre The Giant’s image in his early work. Later, he began to use the word “obey” in his stickers and stencils, inspired by the sci-fi cult classic They Live (where advertising signs contain subliminal messages such as “obey” and “consume” that are only visible with special glasses).

One thing that makes Obey Giant more entertaining than the average documentary is that the director, James Moll, stays out of the way and lets Fairey (along with other characters involved in his life) do all the talking without inserting unnecessary interview questions or voiceovers. The film discusses the artist’s early influences, mainly 70s punk rock and skateboarding and concludes with a look at his legal problems after being sued by the AP and a photographer for allegedly stealing an image for his Obama poster.

Fairey’s popularity, along with that of Banksy and other street and graffiti artists, reveals the growing acceptance of this type of art (which doesn’t extend to authorities, who arrest Shepherd just before his biggest opening at a Boston museum). As with Banksy and Exit Through the Gift Shop co-creator Thierry Guetta, people are willing to line up around the block for his openings, a somewhat strange and paradoxical phenomenon for artists who made their reputations as outlaws who work under the cover of darkness and anonymity.

People have wildly conflicting views of street art, of course. Depending on your cultural and political leanings, you might see it as a vibrant form of rebellion or out-and-out vandalism. As Fairey points out, however, he only covers vacated buildings, something also done by big brands without legal consequences), Obey Giant provides a fascinating look into this world. Personally, I admired Fairey’s commitment and willingness to take risks (not only legal but also placing his art in dangerous places) while feeling a bit skeptical at some of his political views.

His “Obey” campaigns were based on the They Live premise that there’s a sinister subtext to everything put forth by mainstream culture (an idea Fairey eloquently explains early in the film) yet he seems a bit naive in thinking that certain political candidates such as Obama aren’t part of this manipulation. Political views aside, the film is close to flawless in letting its subject reveal what makes him tick. Nor does it (or Shepard himself) shy away from admitting his own insecurities and periods of self-doubt, as when he admits to lying about the photograph he used for the Obama poster.

One thing that stuck out to me is the fact that Banksy’s name is not uttered once in the whole film. Exit Through the Gift Shop is referenced, Banksy is listed as the director and Fairey talks at length about his contentious relationship with Thierry Guetta. However, Banksy’s name is never spoken out loud. A minor detail to e sure, but considering how many other artists are mentioned in the film the commission seems deliberate for whatever reason.

Regardless of how you feel about street art, Obey Giant provides insight into a popular and controversial type of art. It also gets into the lively debate about digital age issues such as fair use, copyrights and the anarchistic notion that art and ideas belong to everyone. Fairey isn’t 100% on the anarchist’s side, at least from what he says here. His argument with the Obama photo is that he transformed the image to the extent that it falls under the category of fair use (the case was ultimately settled). Obey Giant is one of the better documentaries of recent years and is recommended to anyone interested in art, culture, and countercultures.

The Institute -Blurring Art, Myth and Reality

The Institute (2012) -Directed by Spencer McCall

The Institute is another entry in that emerging genre that lies on the borderland between documentary and mocumentary. In the tradition of fascinating yet frustrating docs such as Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Institute relays a story that obviously has some elements of truth, yet it’s impossible to determine how much of it was re-enacted or even fabricated for the film.

In this case, the subject itself is so nebulous and deliberately confounding that separating fantasy (or, in this case, a game) from reality is a futile enterprise. Yet, that very ontological quandary could very well be the whole point of The Institute -as well as the game upon which it is based.

The Institute is about a city-wide role playing game/social experiment/art project that was (presumably) carried out in San Francisco between 2008 and 2011. It involved a cult-like organization called The Jejune Institute, presided over (allegedly) by a Scientology-like leader. Participants were drawn in after seeing cryptic flyers around the city. Those who followed up were led to a building where they watched a video explaining the Jejune Institute’s vague but noble objectives. Participants were assured, for example, that their view of the world would be utterly transformed. Even more grandiose claims were made, as the Institute allegedly had possession of inventions and formulae that would solve all of humanity’s problems.

Those participants who chose to continue (we can assume that there were many dropouts) were drawn into an increasingly complex and murky scenario where the line between game and reality were collapsed. To make matters even trickier, viewers of the film have another layer of ambiguity to decipher -reality/game/film.

At first, it seems fairly straightforward that the film is simply documenting an extremely ambitious art project. Interviews with the game’s creators, such as Jeff Hull, indicate that it was a long term, open-ended and extremely creative project that encompassed multiple locations, many players and several overlapping plots.

Yet by the middle of the film, viewers will no doubt begin to wonder how much of this really happened as reported. For one thing, this game would have required substantial funding. For another, certain scenes and incidents seem to have been filmed during the time of the game, long before the movie was made. Does this indicate that the documentary was, from the start, a key aspect of the project? Or that some of these scenes were filmed for the movie and were re-enactments or utter fabrications? It’s impossible to say.

One of the bizarre yet interesting plot lines of the game involved making players immediately distrust the very Jejune Institute that had supposedly recruited them into the game. The Institute’s leader was labeled a fraud, someone who had betrayed the cause of “divine nonchalance.” The latter is revealed as the mystical quality that was, once again I must insert the word allegedly, discovered by a mysterious teenager named Eva who disappeared shortly after revealing her discoveries. Eva’s father was said to have been the inventor of some of the Institute’s inventions.

Divine Nonchalance, as the term implies, can be understood to mean going through life in a way that’s open to endless possibilities. It could also be compared to the Taoist concept of Wu Wei, or acting without effort. One image connected to the concept in the film is the tarot card, The Fool -the character who fearlessly stands at the edge of a precipice.

It’s almost impossible to describe the “plot” of The Institute without getting mired in uncertainty and confusion. What’s interesting is that, if you’re open to it, it can motivate you to ask some very basic questions, such as “what is reality?” Parts of it reminded me of Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy, a cult classic that involved (among many other things) warring secret societies, where you never knew exactly who the good guys and bad guys were. Wilson was also part of a movement/pseudo religion called Discordianism, which certainly could have been an influence here as well.

Those who are left with questions after watching The Institute might Google some of the people and terms from the film, such as Jejune Institute and Eva Lucien (Eva-Lucien -get it?). In fact, the Journals of Eva Lucien are available for sale online. Yet such a casual search will not prove whether these entries and characters preceded the film.

The Institute will fascinate some, bore/confuse/confound others and be of mild interest to still others. If you like to ponder the borders between fiction and fact and suspect that films such as The Matrix are not mere science fiction, The Institute may be just what you’ve been looking for. It’s available on Netflix streaming right now.

Radio Unnameable: The Singular Career of Bob Fass

Note: This review has recently been re-published on Devtome.

Radio Unnameable (2012)
Directors: Paul Lovelace, Jessica Wolfson

This is a documentary about Bob Fass, an underground celebrity not widely known outside of certain circles. I must confess that his name was only vaguely familiar to me prior to seeing the film. This was a good thing in a way, as it allowed me to learn all about the subject from the ground up. Fass is the kind of character who, even if you’ve never heard of him, you have certainly heard of many people and events where he played a central role.

The name Bob Fass will be familiar mainly to New Yorkers who tune their dial to the independent radio station, WBAI, which is owned by Pacifica Foundation. WBAI’s slogan, according to their website, is Free Speech Radio, and they have traditionally featured many controversial and offbeat programs, such a Democracy Now!

Pacifica has had its share of controversy in recent years as it has undergone various changes in leadership and faced financial hardship. Currently, there are rumors that Pacifica is about to sell out (literally!) to corporate radio giant Clear Channel.

Fass, whose program was called Radio Unnameable, was the creator of free form radio. As the name suggests, this meant that his program was a completely open-ended affair where guests and callers could discuss anything under the sun. These often ended up being radical and controversial topics, but they were just as often random and personal stories.

Part of the uniqueness of Radio Unnameable was its time slot -the wee hours from midnight to 5 a.m. This fact alone tended to skew his listener base to the unconventional. There is something about the late night hours that makes people drop their usual filters.

Fass was at the hub of many iconic countercultural events of the 1960s. Arlo Guthrie’s famous Alice’s Restaurant was introduced on Fass’s show in 1967. Other guests included Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsberg, Judy Collins and Abbie Hoffman.

All of this and more is captured in this quite thorough documentary, which is sure to appeal to Fass’s fan base as well as those not yet familiar with him. Many of the events portrayed in Radio Unnameable are long forgotten by most people (those who knew about them in the first place). For example, Fass helped to organize a “Yip-in” at Grand Central Terminal which started off like an exuberant party but degenerated into police-instigated violence.

Watching this, we are reminded that in the pre-Internet days, radio played a pivotal role in keeping people informed and connected. Parallels are drawn to Twitter, as several of the events portrayed are analogous to the type of flash mobs that now rely on social media for their momentum.

The amazing thing about this man is that he began broadcasting in 1963 and is still at it today. After being thrown off the air for several years, he was reinstated by WBAI, albeit on a part time basis –the current WBAI schedule lists his show on Friday from 12 to 3 AM.

The young documentarians Lovelace and Wolfson provide a healthy sense of perspective to Fass and his story. While they obviously admire him, they also don’t fall into the trap of relegating all of this to a bygone era. They are aware of how internet activists and the Occupy Movement, for example, use similar tactics. This places Fass in a contemporary context as well as an historic one, which is certainly where he deserves to be.

For more information about this film, see: Radio Unnameable

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    Craigslist Joe

    Note: an edited version of this review was recently published on Devtome.

    Craigslist Joe (2012)

    This is a fun and uplifting documentary about the experiences of Joe Garner, who spend a whole month traveling the country without any money -relying entirely on Craigslist postings for rides and shelter.

    If the point of this movie is to prove that anything is possible (in a good way) on Craigslist, or in the contemporary U.S., then it doesn’t quite live up to its goal. On the other hand, it’s still quite entertaining and rather inspiring to watch Joe on his journey, which is a kind of modern day vision quest.

    As much as I enjoyed Craigslist Joe, I couldn’t forget the presence of the camera. Although we never see or hear the cameraman, his existence takes away some of the documentary’s credibility. While it would be difficult to make a documentary (or any film) without a camera, in this case it creates a never addressed artificiality, as everyone interacts with Joe as if he was alone when we know that he isn’t.

    In quantum physics, there is something called the Observer Effect, where the mere presence of an observer effects the outcome of an experiment. The same is often true with documentaries. We are never entirely sure if the people who welcome Joe into their home so freely would have done so without his cover story that he was making a movie.

    This is a relevant point, as he discusses early on about his need to discover if people have become disconnected in today’s high tech world. Yet, people today are also media obsessed and often willing to do almost anything to be filmed. Additionally, the camera also establishes Joe as a respectable member of society, rather than another (potentially dangerous) individual living on the fringes.

    Additionally, Garner is not just a random person making a low budget indie film. He has quite a bit of Hollywood experience. See: IMDb Joseph Garner. Zach Galifianakis is actually listed as the film’s executive producer. So, like many documentaries, Craigslist Joe may not be exactly what it appears at first.

    Despite all of that, however, Craigslist Joe still manages to succeed at showing how connections can be quickly fostered on the road. While Joe might be a little overdramatic at times (as he makes clear, he has a comfortable life and family to help him if he really needs it), he still manages to touch the hearts of many of the people he meets along the way.

    What I liked best about Craigslist Joe is that it’s a road movie that’s a celebration of spontaneity and breaking free of deeply ingrained assumptions.

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      Tales From the Script (2009)

      Tales From the Script (2009) is a documentary about screenwriting in Hollywood. Aside from aspiring screenwriters, it should be quite fascinating to anyone who’s intrigued by the whole movie-making process.

      The format is quite familiar, and simply shows one screenwriter after another giving his or her perspective on the craft, with no signs of an interviewer. So many modern documentaries follow this model and it has advantages as well as drawbacks. We get to hear many points of view, but it means that the feedback on every issue is scattershot more than in depth. I suppose modern attention spans are deemed too short for old fashioned interviews or dialogues that last more than a few seconds.

      As might be expected, the writers tend to focus on the many absurdities of life in Hollywood and how the industry keeps writers in a relatively powerless position. Much of this material is already pretty well known, not only among industry insiders but to anyone who’s seen films such as The Player (which, oddly enough, is not mentioned here).

      For example, the writer’s original script might be rewritten dozens of times. Actors and directors may change lines, and in some cases the final product bares little resemblance to the writer’s first draft. There is also a segment that laments the modern preference for franchise type movies, often based on comic books, rather than traditional character and story based scripts.

      Tales From the Script, of course, is only talking about mainstream Hollywood here and doesn’t mention the growth of low budget independent movies, many of which are written, directed and produced by the same person (or small group).

      Even if the insights aren’t exactly earth-shattering, it’s still great to hear from so many legendary screenwriters. After all, the public seldom gets to see them and in many cases probably wouldn’t even recognize them. Unlike actors and directors, writers generally remain behind the scenes.

      Many of these writers spend a lot of their time griping about their low place in the hierarchy of filmmaking. Yet they also appreciate how fortunate they are to be in the enviable position of making money doing what they love.

      Some of the screenwriters featured in Tales From the Script include William Goldman, Paul Schrader, Allison Anders and John Carpenter.

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        Exporting Raymond -Russian vs. American TV

        Exporting Raymond is an entertaining documentary about a clash of cultures that occurs over a sitcom. Phil Rosenthal is the creator of the popular CBS show Everybody Loves Raymond. He was recently invited to visit Russia so they could adapt the show for their audiences. The results were a strange and sometimes funny mixed bag.

        I have to confess that I’ve never watched Everybody Loves Raymond and am not a fan of sitcoms. I simply cannot watch anything with a laugh track. It seems like an oxymoron if you have to tell people when to laugh. So, for me the main interest of this documentary was watching the inner workings of creating television and, of course, the cultural issues.

        From the start, there were difficulties in adapting the show in Russia. The show portrays a down to earth, middle class American family, and, as it soon became clear, Russia is not quite the same. This resulted in many frustrating attempts at communication between Rosenthal and his Russian counterparts. For example, a costume designer informs Rosenthal that Russian women like to dress up, but he can’t fathom a housewife looking like she’s going out to a nightclub.

        This type of debate was amusing, though I also found it a little perplexing. Rosenthal seemed unable to accept that the show couldn’t be transplanted “as is” and still be popular with Russian audiences. Why does he care so much about realism when we’re talking about a sitcom?

        Looking at it from the other side of the coin, I wondered why the Russians were even interested in this show in the first place if it was so culturally alien to them. The problems were deeper than simply how the characters dressed. Apparently, the character of Raymond was too passive for Russian audiences, who don’t like to see men pushed around by their wives, even in jest (at least according to the Russians who Rosenthal dealt with on this project).

        There are some interesting insights into how Russian television operates. Apparently, actors must work much harder than in America, and the same people must work around the clock on different sets. We can assume they earn considerably less money too.

        Exporting Raymond is a documentary that will appeal to a variety of people -obviously to fans of the show; those with an interest in culture clashes, and anyone who would like an inside look at the entertainment industry.

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          Burzysnki -Cancer is Serious Business

          Note: I have recently published a slightly edited version of this review on Devtome.

          Burzynski is a controversial documentary about an alternative cancer cure. More specifically, it’s about the work of Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, who has allegedly found an effective cure for many types of cancers while facing persecution from the FDA and other arms of the medical establishment.

          This is a movie that has gotten lots of grass roots support, and very little attention from mainstream critics. In fact, the majority of the “professional” reviews I read were extremely hostile, no doubt causing the conspiracy minded to wonder if there are powerful forces at work to suppress this film and the topic.

          The movie itself is well done, persuasive and yet completely one-sided. There is no attempt to show things from the FDA’s point of view. This won’t bother people who are firmly entrenched in the “alternative” side of things (I’d have to include myself in that category, to be honest), but is unlikely to win many new converts.

          All of this, however, should be secondary to the real question -has Dr. Burzynski actually found a cure for cancer? After watching this film, I wasn’t completely persuaded. It certainly seems that he’s cured many people who were deemed incurable by conventional doctors, yet even the film admits his success rate is only around 25%. The film, of course, only focuses on cases that were successful.

          Does this justify the FDA and the Texas Medical Board spending years trying to revoke his medical license, prevent him from treating patients, and even trying to get him put in prison? Of course not. The film is far more successful at exposing the corruption, mindless bureaucracy and ultimate heartlessness of the medical establishment than it is in showing us that Burzysnki has found a viable cure.

          As the movie shows, many conventional chemotherapy treatments are deadly in themselves, some even causing other types of cancer, such as leukemia. Burzynski’s treatments, meanwhile, apparently have no harmful side effects. So, even if his methods haven’t (yet?) been perfected, what possible justification can there be to call him a quack or charlatan, while hospitals routinely administer such blatantly toxic treatments every day?

          The documentary also is quick to point out the real motive behind the suppression of alternative cures -pharmaceutical company profits. The fact that these giant companies work in league with the FDA is far beyond a conspiracy theory, as it’s practically done out in the open. For these reasons, I’m a bit perplexed at the reaction of some reviewers who seem all too quick to trust establishment medicine and condemn anyone who’s an outsider.

          My ultimate reaction to Burzynski is little ambivalent. I think the film would have been more effective if it has been a bit more balanced. For example, to show one success story after another, as emotionally effective as this is (in some cases they are young children with brain tumors), gives the impression that Burzysnki’s methods are always effective, when in fact they’re not.

          Overall, Burzynski is well worth watching, especially as it gives some disturbing insights into how the FDA and pharmaceutical companies operate.

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            Free Documentary Films

            If you’re a lover of documentaries, you may be interested to know of a website called Top Documentary Films, where you can watch all kinds of documentaries for free. This is not a very well known resource -at least I didn’t know about it until I happened to find it when doing research for this site.

            These may not be the best known documentaries around, but there’s a good selection of topics, including science, history and biographies. They’re currently featuring the popular Mythbusters TV series. According to the site’s guidelines, you can watch any films for free, but you’re only allowed to download ones that are public domain, which makes sense. Top Documentary Films also has links to other resources where you can find even more documentaries, so this site is a goldmine for anyone who appreciates this genre!

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              Catfish -Facebook vs. Reality

              Note: I recently published a slightly edited version of this review on Devtome.

              Like other reviewers of Catfish, I have the problem of talking about this film without revealing spoilers. While I won’t get too specific, it’s hard to discuss this movie without giving away, at least in a general way, the direction it moves in. Yet I think this problem has been exaggerated, as it’s not really a suspense film as much as a psychological and cultural study. You could know all of the main conclusions up front and still enjoy it.

              Catfish is a documentary by New Yorkers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman that chronicles a series of events involving Ariel’s brother Nev, who corresponds with a strange family in rural Michigan. Nev is first contacted by the youngest member of the family, an 8 year old girl named Abby, who is apparently a child prodigy who paints. Later, Nev starts chatting with Abby’s older sister Megan, and the two begin an online romance. Soon, however, Nev becomes suspicious about the whole family and the whole crew descends on the family’s home in Michigan to find out the truth.

              Reading the reviews, both professional and by customers, is almost as interesting as the film itself. While Catfish has won it’s share of praise, it’s also provoked quite a bit of hostility, for reasons that range from reverse class snobbery to a misunderstanding about what the film is supposed to be. Reading some of the reviews on Netflix, for example, it becomes clear that many people thought this was going to be a suspense, or even a horror film. There’s one scene where this is hinted at, when the film crew discovers the family’s farm late at night and there’s a Blair Witch Project-like atmosphere. But that really has nothing to do with the movie as a whole. I’m not familiar with the original marketing of this film, and some have charged that the filmmakers deliberately tried to trick people into believing it was going to be a horror movie. If this is true, then this was certainly a poor decision, but it still doesn’t detract from the actual film. When reading customer reviews, you also have to keep in mind that the average modern moviegoer isn’t a fan of documentaries.

              Another criticism that has been leveled against Catfish is that it’s fake. This is something I obviously can’t verify one way or the other, but strangely enough, it makes no real difference, as the whole point of the film is to make us think about “what is real?” on social networks like Facebook. To me, everything seemed real and if the directors faked it, they did a good job of it.

              It really seems doubtful to me that Catfish was staged or faked in any substantial way (all documentaries use a certain amount of staging, just like reality TV, to create a certain atmosphere and reaction in the audience, but that’s not the same as saying the main theme was made up. Nev, the young man who begins corresponding with, first a young girl who paints, and then her mother and sister, begins to have doubts about the family’s truthfulness quite early on. Unlike what some critics have said, it wasn’t presented as though it was supposed to be a major twist late in the film. So the suspense factor, while present, isn’t really the point here at all. It’s more of a psychological study of how people in the modern age communicate, and the impact certain online actions can have on others.

              While the customer reviewers who hated Catfish were mainly disappointed that the Michigan family didn’t turn out to be something out of Deliverance, or perhaps The Hills Have Eyes, the professional critics turned on it in another, more interesting way. The average high profile movie reviewer is, almost by definition, well educated, affluent and urban. They also tend to be very eager to portray themselves as liberal, politically correct and anti-elitist. So many of these reviewers were made distinctly uncomfortable by the interaction between the filmmakers, who appear to represent the educated elite of Manhattan, and a poor middle America family. To make matters worse, there are two severely handicapped children in the house, so one could easily read a “Haves vs. Have-nots” subtext into this film if one were so inclined.

              The reviewers who took this track were quite vehement in condemning the insensitivity of the filmmakers, and seemed strangely eager to embrace a member of the family who displays clearly delusional-bordering-on- psychotic tendencies. Yet the film itself maintains an admirable equilibrium, and helps to bring about an unlikely conclusion where no one is demonized and everyone comes clean. The fact is, class and geographic distinctions play a relatively minor role (if any) in Catfish, which is really about truth and identity in the digital age.

              If you’re philosophically inclined, you could even look at Catfish as a study in topics as deep as the meanings of truth and identity in general, not just online. I highly recommend Catfish to anyone who wants to look at some of the cultural consequences of Facebook and other modern forms of communication.

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              Edge of Dreaming -Are Dreams Prophetic?

              Edge of Dreaming is a fascinating documentary about a woman who has a possibly prophetic dream of her own death. Amy Hardie is a 48 year old Scottish woman, a wife and mother as well as a documentary filmmaker. Her films are scientific and she doesn’t seem to believe in anything beyond the material. At one point, she confesses to believing that death is simply the end.

              Yet when Amy dreams that her horse will die and he is indeed dead when she awakes, she is disturbed. Even more disconcerting is another dream, where her deceased ex-husband tells her she will die before her next birthday. So she films her life for the next year, as she ominously develops a serious lung disease that the doctors can’t diagnose.

              As she struggles with her health issues and the memory of the dream lurking in the background, Amy talks to scientists about what happens to the brain when we dream.

              In the latter part of the film, Amy visits a Brazilian shaman, who tells her that it’s possible to change the outcome of a dream by re-entering it. This is also related to the concept of lucid dreaming, though that phrase is never mentioned in the film. When Amy goes into a shamanic trance, it’s never mentioned if she was given any type of mind altering substance of if the shaman simply leads her into an altered state. In either case, this is a fascinating path for someone of a scientific bent to take.

              Edge of Dreaming can be found at, and is available for instant viewing on Netflix. It’s definitely recommended to anyone interested in dreams, psychic phenomena or shamanism.

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