2017 Film, Documentary, Film, History, Literature

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.

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.

2015 Film, Documentary, History

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution


During the last Christmas holiday, my brother (43), my dad (63), and I (31) had a spirited (heated) discussion about race. I mention our ages because they, in addition to our individual personalities and experiences (which are largely shaped by our ages), have so much to do with our perspectives and comments. My mother, who I wished would join in, just sat there giving looks that said plenty. We discussed the racial problem in this country, and at one point I said, “People get tired of being mistreated, so we need to consider that long history of mistreatment while we are considering people’s actions.” While we agreed in some areas and disagreed in others, I think that my comment resonated. I cannot simply take current events into account when they are in retaliation against a long chain (I use that word deliberately) of abuse.

I thought of that conversation (which is one of many–I love family debates) after I finished watching the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Stanley Nelson – Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, The Murder of Emmett Till) at RiverRun International Film Festival (It was my first film of the day). As I watched and learned about the party and the movement and its eventual split into factions and disarray, I saw African Americans’ reactions to continued abuse. I saw the intersection of race and gender. I saw people give their lives in the fight for equality that continues today. I saw human beings facing their human flaws. But the line in the film that affected me the most was a statement that, despite infighting, despite insurmountable struggles, the original, most important purpose of the party was motivated by a love of people. That love is what inspired them to do something for their people. That is what resonates with me the most because they did something, despite an entire nation that was against them. People get tired of mistreatment. We must take into account, to quote the Declaration of Independence, the “long train of abuses and usurpations” a group suffers (really take it into account) when we judge its actions and the decisions it makes. This reminds me of what Ruby says in Cold Mountain: “Every piece of this is man’s bullshit. They call this war a cloud over the land. But they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say, ‘Shit, it’s raining!'” When will this country realize that it made the weather?