The Pulitzer at 100 / Score: A Film Music Documentary

Awards and film scores can be elusive. With any prestigious award steeped in tradition, there is a discussion about the greats who never won. Timing is also tricky. If only that movie or that novel had not been released in such a “strong year.” But wouldn’t one want to be included as a peer in a strong year as opposed to a weak one? Winners of these awards sometimes live in disbelief that they reached the pinnacle because it still does not seem real or because they reached it while others have not.

Film scores are elusive because, as Score: A Film Music Documentary (official site) reminds us, while we may notice they are there, we do not notice just how powerful they are in shaping our movie experiences. We are unaware of how they creep in and come at us from all sides and angles and predict our reactions before even we know what we will think or feel. Scoring a film is an art with so much to it than we realize, and first-time documentary film director Matt Schrader takes us behind the scenes to give us a glimpse at how it is done. Actors, directors, and screenwriters are not the only ones who anxiously watch moviegoers’ expressions as they sit in theaters and experience movies. Musicians who work at matching the action with the score are, again, so vitally influential that we do not even realize the extent of their impact. Score: A Film Music Documentary goes a long way in encouraging an understanding of this work, yet it will also leave you with a reminder that there will always be that element that can only be described as the magic of film.

Official Poster  https://www.facebook.com/ScoreMovie/

As a student of Academy Awards history, I was excited to see The Pulitzer at 100 to learn about the history of another award of the highest level. But even more precious was hearing the winners themselves–winners from the various fields the Pulitzer recognizes–talk about their work and also what it meant and still means to have received the honor (sometimes more than once).

I must say my favorite interview was Paula Vogel (How I Learned To Drive, Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1998). The way she described writing and her experience of winning intrigued me; her passion and, well, her way with words made me want to keep writing. Michael Cunningham, oh yes. He won the fiction award in 1998 for The Hours. (Read this novel immediately.) I also highly recommend his novel A Home at the End of the World (1990). The movie adaptation of The Hours (2002) is my favorite film, and you should listen to Cunningham’s commentary on the DVD. (The movie adaptation of A Home at the End of the World [2004] leaves too much to be desired for me to suggest it for viewing. The film goes off track at what I think is too powerful a place to be ignored.)

Released at the 100th anniversary of the award, The Pulitzer at 100′s timing is impeccable, and during the question and answer period after the screening, director (Academy Award® winner for Strangers No More [2010]) Kirk Simon reminded me why I admire documentary filmmakers so much. They have an idea, they have passion for that idea, they pull all the pieces together, and they work hard, many times with just themselves–the filmmaker–and a small crew. They get in and educate us and bring us their careful consideration of a subject, and we are better for it. Paula Vogel made me want to keep writing, and seeing the diversity of extraordinary talent from journalism (the Joseph Pulitzer biographical narrative is top-notch in the film), letters, drama, and music made me proud to be a writer and a person who values the art of storytelling.

I love documentaries. They bring the elusive to the forefront–but I still marvel at the magic of film.

Kedi – love and care without expectation

 

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director Ceyda Torun (hurriyetdailynews via kedifilm.com)

I have an aunt and a grandmother who feed stray cats who come and go as they please. Does it take a special empathy to take care of an animal? I think it takes a special empathy and a special love to take care of anyone or anything when there is no benefit of a return, whether that be some sort of pay back in terms of credit for good works or guaranteed companionship–when there is no point at which the caregiver demands a certain sustained, prescribed thankfulness or compensation.

Kedi, from first-time feature film director Ceyda Torun, gives us the picture of street cats who make their lives in the city of Istanbul and shows us the people who take care of them. Cameras follow the cats on their level as the felines go about their daily tasks while going on adventures, protecting their young, guarding their territory, and spending a little time with the various caregivers who protect them whenever they come around, feed them, and love them no matter where they are. Seeing Istanbul from the cats’ perspectives is satisfying, as is hearing the featured Istanbulites describe their feelings for the cats and the importance the animals embody in the communities they inhabit.

I was fascinated by everything short of anthropomorphism (by which I am not amused) in how the film shows us the cats’ individual personalities in close-up. A man in the film remarks, “People who don’t love animals can’t love people either.” There is a lot to be said about love between people and between people and animals in terms of culture, environment, and identity, but I tend to agree, in general, with that sentiment. While my interest waned a little more than halfway through this documentary feature, I am glad I saw and learned about an aspect of a culture that might have otherwise gone unhighlighted.

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official poster (kedifilm.com)

 

Amy – Love really is a “losing game.”

I know I am behind with posting, but I will just keep plugging along. Time to go back to July with Amy.


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I knew it would be painful to watch Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy. I knew it would also be hard to write about it. I first listened to the Terry Gross Fresh Air interview (transcript here) with Kapadia and Winehouse’s former manager, Nick Shymansky. The saddest part of that Fresh Air show for me was learning that when a teenage Amy told her mother about her new discovery of bulimia, her mother, whose non-assertive personality prevented her from parenting her daughter, did nothing.

In the documentary, I learned how her father’s affair and her parents’ divorce was the turning point in Winehouse’s life that was the beginning of her downward spiral that resulted in her death at 27. I learned how her father exploited her. I began to see her as a girl and then a woman who never had a chance. As someone who has been truly touched by her music, I cannot help but wish that she had not had the pain that inspired so many of her songs. Because Amy brilliantly shows us the path that Ms. Winehouse took from life as a happy child with beyond-extraordinary talent to one as a star haunted by demons and hounded by the press (and the general, insensitive public), I could see clearly her spiral that seemed inevitable because those she loved the most were not there in meaningful ways. She was doomed. She deserved to have a better life. I do not believe everything happens for a reason. I do not believe a 27-year-old should be sacrificed for some “greater” cause.

The home videos, the interviews, the behind-the-scenes expressions of emotions, and the very well-placed Winehouse songs (with lyrics on the screen for us to follow) make the structure of the film create an impact that is that much more powerful. I found myself wondering, “When will it get to the part when she becomes world famous?” But I was glad that I was seeing so much of the journey. And ultimately that world fame was, as it often is, destructive.

Amy is a success because of the care taken to make sure we understand Winehouse’s humanity and her sincerity. She is a hero to me. She had everyone around her, but she actually had no one and held on for as long as she could. She gave us her art that she could never quite do the way she wanted. What she wanted for her career she never realized, but I take away her genius. I also take away the peace and self-image that she should have had; instead, those gifts and that security were selfishly and brutally taken away from her. If you are a fan of genius and true sensitivity and true art, see Amy.

What Happened, Miss Simone?–“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”

“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”


“I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I performed, I just want them to be to pieces.”

What Happened, Miss Simone? Title

It isn’t hard to figure out “what happened” to Nina Simone. She was born in North Carolina in 1933 and was not allowed to talk about race in her home. Racial terrorism during the 1960s spurred her on to use her art, unapologetically, to speak out—and to figure out who she was and encourage all African Americans to do the same.

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When she was a child named Eunice Waymon, white teachers noticed her extraordinary talent and taught her classical piano. In order to get to her lessons, she —a girl who, for purposes of survival, was taught not to question racism and segregation—had to cross the railroad tracks that divided black and white worlds.

After a traumatic end to her dreams of becoming a classical pianist, she found herself a singer. When she chose to use her career as a platform for her activism (see her song “Mississippi Goddam“), her lack of concern for commercial appeal caused people to ask, “What happened?” Life-long demons and increasing frustration about Civil Rights led to abusive relationships; the unrelenting rigor of performing, traveling, and attempting to live up to expectations resulted in health struggles.  

Liz Garbus’s documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix), is a wonderfully unflinching look at Simone. The strength of the film is the use of rare, archival footage of her performances and recordings of and interviews with Ms. Simone and those who worked with her and loved her. It was clear to me what happened to her, and I was touched by how she so willingly gave of herself to inspire people and bring attention to the race problem. She used her art, which was what she had to express herself. “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” she famously said. In order to achieve what she believed to be the true artistic task, she allowed herself to feel intensely.

Her problems nearly destroyed her, but she had the gift of loving friends who came to help save her.

So when people ask, “What happened?” I hope they also ask themselves how brave they themselves are. In Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, Lena Younger (Mama) says to her daughter, Beneatha, at probably the second-most emotional moment of the play, “Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well, then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”

What Happened, Miss Simone? tells us what happened but leaves it to us to decide whether or not to consider those “hills and valleys.” I don’t see how anyone could not.

The Wolfpack – The Outside World of Movies

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When Mukunda Angulo gets a job as a production assistant and displays in-depth knowledge about filmmaking in that setting, I had the thought that he and his brothers possess more skill than many young people I know who leave their homes every day. The situation in Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack and in the outside world is, of course, more complicated than that, but it is worth noting the roles of curiosity, enthusiasm, outlook, companionship, and imagination when it comes to facing life’s opportunities and restrictions. The six Angulo (two brothers have since changed their names) grew up with parents who wanted a different, freer life for them. Unfortunately, the inability to get out of Manhattan and a distrust of the city and the people in it (essentially, “the world”) caused the father to restrict them to the walls of their apartment where they stayed locked in. He had the only key to the front door and controlled entry and exit.

The boys watched movies—thousands of them. They watched with the creativity and the drive to absorb, appreciate, and reenact the scripts with a seriousness that has them, as we see in the film, watching and rewatching in order to hand-copy entire scripts in order to play the roles among themselves. They create their own costumes, create their own sets, and inhabit roles with deep understanding of the process they learn so much about from their keen powers of observation and from the sheer amount of time they spend with films. They create a (literal) interior world (the rooms of their home turned movie sets) that grew from the interior world of their creative minds spurred on by their love of cinema.

They began to venture outside to explore New York. Moselle discovered them one day on the street early on. When watching the film, I was most saddened when watching interviews with their mother, Susanne. It seemed that she was always negotiating in the gulf between her husband and her children. She says “there were more rules” (set by her husband) for her “than there were for them.” What of her life and her own self-expression? I was struck by how she shows her deep love for her sons while balancing her relationship with her husband, who is estranged from most of them. Their lives have affected each brother in different ways, but that they have each other is what I took from the film—and what I mentioned earlier—the roles of curiosity, enthusiasm, outlook, companionship, and imagination when it comes to facing life’s opportunities and restrictions—is definitely something to think about.

For updates, see this New York Times piece (June 10, 2015) from Cara Buckley.

The Salt of the Earth (What is grief? What is resilience?)

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When events of uncaring disconnection (from fellow human beings, from history) happen—when people pull others into their pain, insecurities, and fear, as I believe is the case most of the time—the consequences turn into the greatest crises we see—terrorism, unjust laws and systematic practices, murder, genocide, everyday hatred, etc. It is hard for me to continue to believe in the “grieving process” or “human resilience.” And it makes me especially uncomfortable to hear people praise victims for their “dignity” and “grace” in handling injustice. People would not have to grieve or be resilient in these cases if we made our world better and did not waste our human potential—not our potential to build buildings or bridges or “win” a war—but our potential to treat each other humanely and with empathy and actually learn from history. But I guess a historian in a podcast I recently listened to was right—there is no such thing as learning from history. We learn the wrong things from history. But—still—I believe we can learn.

Sebastião Salgado spent decades depicting, in exquisite black-and-white photographs, horrific human events humans have perpetuated against other humans. He finally had to turn away from war, genocide, starvation, famine, and unspeakable horrors lived. After covering the Rwandan genocide, Salgado lost faith in humanity; his psyche was done. He says, “We are a ferocious animal. We humans are terrible animals. Our history is a history of wars. It’s an endless story, a tale of madness.” He’d reached the “maximum,” as he explains, because photography makes the photographer “part of the subject.” It was nature that rejuvenated him. He captures the beauty of the natural world (and how it does replenish itself) with the message that we must preserve it. This work became Genesis. In this interview with Benedikt Taschen, Taschen expresses that it is his hope that the book will “make a significant contribution to the awareness about the world we live in.”

The Salt of the Earth (2014 Academy Award® nominee, Best Documentary Feature, directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado) shows us that that—contributing “awareness about the world we live in”—is exactly what Sebastião Salgado has always done. With his remarkable spirit as an economist turned photographer, he shows us the land, the water, and the human condition in intimate ways that should bring us closer to one another. I know it made me feel more connected. This stunning documentary reflects Salgado’s stunning life’s work.

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Sebastião Salgado | Click photo for Amazonas images