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Hot Doc Highlights 2016

This is the time of year that Hot Docs offers an amazing selection of films. On Friday we viewed a documentary that promulgated that the KGB was in league with Neo- Nazis in Russia. Interesting but not nearly as well done as Pussy Riot last year that took you deep into Russian’s ( lack of ) justice and conspiracy, Credit for Murder by Antonevicz, an Israeli film maker, still spun a tale that was fascinating journey. 

On Saturday, it was Norman Lear-Just Another Version, more a tribute than a documentary that probed deeply into the multiple of who is Norman Lear. It is difficult not to be in awe of the shows Lear put together, and the social issues he exposed back in the 70’s and 80’s. We revisit the film film clips of Maude’s decision to have an abortion, The Jefferson’s use of the n- word, the conflicts between Meathead and Archie in All in the Family that focused on patriotism, gender and racism. Lear even publicly took on The Moral Majority when the Reverend Jerry Falwell excoriated his bias on television. Lear founded a group called People for The American Way in 1980.

 But this “documentary” like many novels speaks to what is not discussed, only hinted at. For example, his relationship with his feminist wife, Frances, his work that kept him away from his family and his decision to go into therapy at an advanced age. He is now a bright 93.

 What is shown is so much the tip of a brilliant iceberg .

 When Lear’s father Herman, the model for Archie Bunker, is lead away in manacles to jail, Lear’s mother seems to disappear from his life, and he at age 9 is shuffled from uncle to uncle, finally residing with his grandparents. Sequenced in the film as a young boy in dark settings as well as the now senior citizen, the impact of Lear’s retaining the eye and innocence of a child is made clear . He reminisces about how he strung a story of holding tightly to his grandfather’s hand as he watched parades of soldiers marching in the street, but quickly disclaims the image as belonging to a neighbor. Another uninvestigated moment that hints at the lone-ness of the child making his way. What was important , Lear laughs, was to be a provider: the mantra gleaned in his early years.

 In few words but movingly, Lear suggests he wanted to know his father, to understand him, and the 9 year old orphan has spent his life, seeking meaning of who he is. It is touching to watch the celebrated libertarian revert to the child who needed, as all of us do, a sense and support of self.  

 Of course, Lear has shown the world his attack on issues that were considered taboo 40 years ago and his method of exposition using the media cannot be fully understood by the Millennials today who might not be familiar with Betty Friedan or Allen Ginsberg or The Chicago Five or Malcolm X or any many others brave enough to challenge social mores and politics. Yet at heart, Lear is the boy who in the true literary and psychoanalytical search needs to know Where is Home and how do I get ( back) there: the question at the heart of JM Coetzee’s work, and many others.

 In the end, we are all mirror versions of Lear, but without the abiding unfaltering love of one’s parents, we are set a adrift, floating, swimming against the waves and searching for the warm shore where we can finally rest. That a 93 Norman Lear is involved in that process of discovering his roots speaks to his awareness that time is short and he/we require meaning in attempt to make sense of our lives, extraordinary or ordinary.

 For Lear who married a second time and raised a young family when he was in his 80’s, there must have been a reconciliation with his own mother, for in the film she is shown putting out her arms to welcome one of Lear’s twin daughters. But for the absent father, the traveling salesman, the bigot and get rich quick guy, there can be no reunion.

 Lear has been quoted as saying, “Life is made up of small pleasures. Happiness is made up of tiny successes. And the big ones come too infrequently. And if you don’t collect all those tiny successes, the big ones don’t mean anything.”Similarly, The Incomprable Rose Hartman, photographer to the stars and creator of iconic pictures from the days of Studio 54  and the fashion world recorded by Otis Mass,is a documentary that suggests the lacuna in her life might be attributed to a deceased father and domineering mother. Her portrayal as abrasive, obnoxious, and in your face is likewise not probed.The filmmaker does not not turn over the stones from her background, rather the fascination with the character cohalesces with the superficiality of presenting the surfaces of her subjects photographed in her work. Yet, as someone who did go behind the scenes to capture her shots,Hartman might also have been further revealed herself in the film- in a meaningful way.One ponders if Philip Roth’s famous line,  under the surface was only more surface:”…but all that rise to the surface was more surface…” would have held true.

In Amy, the documentary on Amy Winehouse by Asif Kapadia, the jigsaw pieces illuminated , underpinned and ultimately revealed a soul torn by familial and societal demands. Here, the undertones  in both the documentaries concerning both Lear and Hartman are subdued suggested in Lear by the shadows in which the young 9 year old lurks. We are aware but not made privy to them. The filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are respectful of Lear’s privacy. More revealing was Mark Maron’s interview on WTF. And perhaps it is appropriate to keep some things off camera and private.

 It is interesting for me that the Facebook generation that juxtaposes the banal and the sensational and the superficial with the tragic does not demand more, while the baby Boomers like myself wish for a franker, more meaningful analysis, not content to keep the personal and public separate. In contrast, however and ironically in Weiner, we view every intense moment, back and on stage of the Congressman who continues to disgrace himself sexually.In  this Sundance acclaimed documentary concerning  Weiner’s run for mayor of New York, the film maker queries, why are you letting me film this? We empathize as it really is too much to observe the painful downfall of Weiner and the impact on his wife, a fly caught in the spiders deceptive web and unable to avoid its sticky constraints. Yet we are fascinated and like the train wreck about to occur, we cannot look away.
Lear is in an entirely different category as his film serves  as a tribute to a great man,and deservedly so. Hartman’s is an expose and Weiner’s a record of a flawed personality. Three stories, each told differently: all providing catalysts for further consideration at The 2016 HotDocs festival this year.



Sent from my iPad


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