Tag Archives: Errol Morris

American Dharma

2 Jan

‘American Dharma’: Bannon in a bunker, explaining what makes him tick, tick, tick …

 

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The latest from local filmmaker and provocateur Errol Morris presents something of a rewind of the 2016 election, as well as a delve into the alt-right media machine – with a healthy side of cinema studies to boot. Morris’ somewhat controversial “American Dharma” provides plenty of space for former Trump campaign organizer/adviser and Breitbart honcho Steve Bannon to make his case for Trump and the hard right, most of it through cinematic references such as Gregory Peck’s iron-fisted general in “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949), Robert Redford’s out-of-left-field pol in “The Candidate” (1972) and John Wayne in pretty much any John Ford western. Turns out Bannon’s a fan of Morris’ award-winning doc “The Fog of War” (2003), which featured businessman and secretary of defense Robert McNamara, who like Bannon attended Harvard Business School and similarly treated war and politics as business problems and chess matches.

Early on, as Morris interviews the commanding agitator in an abandoned hanger – ostensibly emulating Peck’s command center in that Henry King classic – Bannon in his gushing appreciation of “Fog of War” gives Morris an insider pat on the back about filmmaking. It’s an eye-popping pause, but true enough: Bannon has 10 directorial credits on IMDB, with such right-wing propaganda docs as “Torchbearer” (2016) and “Battle for America” (2010), most having abysmally low ratings (in the 2 or 3 range, with one or two breaking the middling 5 mark). During the session, Bannon recounts his entry at Breitbart, the takedown of Anthony Weiner on Twitter and joining Trump with shrewd strategies to shift the tide in the 2016 presidential campaign. For instance: to counter the Billy Bush tape, he attempted to sit Bill Clinton’s four sexual assault accusers at the front of a presidential debate the former president was to be in attendance at. The mention of Russian trolls is scant, and Hillary Rodham Clinton in her own words (via a post-election interview clip) attributes her loss almost exactly to what Bannon does: the Comey investigation and emails to Weiner.

Throughout the film, which boasts a smart score and does a brilliant job of interweaving film and news clips with public opinion overlaid via the Twittersphere, Morris, who clearly has vastly different political leanings than Bannon, affords his subject a long leash – perhaps too long – but not one that can’t be tugged on by the factual record. It’s nearly comical and hard to fathom when Bannon balks incredulously at Morris’ announcement that he voted for Hillary because he feared Trump. Later, when Morris links Bannon’s departure from the White House to the deadly Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, Bannon does a soft shoe and reverts to his fearmongering prognostications of greater divisions to come (check out his latest venture, warroom.org.) 

If there’s one thing to drink in about Bannon, it’s his cocksure confidence and charisma (on display more here than when at Trump’s side). He’s a clear natural leader with patriotic zeal, but the question then becomes: of whose country, and with what agenda? Morris and subject go at that, and watching the film, it’s chilling to see the spell Bannon and the alt-right can cast. Educated progressives clearly discounted that too much in the past; Morris’ film serves as stark (if accidental) reminder of that, and a timely one.

The B-Side

14 Jul

‘The B-Side’ Brings Pioneer Cambridge Photographer Elsa Dorfman Out From Behind The Camera

A portrait of Elsa Dorfman from July 2007. (Courtesy Neon) 

The latest documentary from revered local filmmaker Errol Morris is essentially a love letter to his longtime friend and fellow Cantabrigian, Elsa Dorfman.

“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” profiles the life of the woman who spent more than 30 years profiling others in her studio. She was a pioneer of photography, best known for her 20×24 inch Polaroid portraits. Given that Morris’ lens has been trained on such diverse and idiosyncratic subjects as pet cemeteriesrenown cosmologist Stephen Hawking and an off-kilter Holocaust denier, “The B-Side” may seem something of a whimsy by comparison, but it’s Morris’ most intimate and warmest output to date.

Elsa Dorfman. (Courtesy Neon)
Elsa Dorfman. (Courtesy Neon)

Morris first met Dorfman when she photographed his son — then 5, now 30 years old — and has had the urge to make this film for some time.

“I’ve known Elsa a long, long time,” Morris says in a conversation with Dorfman on her back patio just outside Harvard Square. “I had the idea for this movie for a while, and when I told Elsa she was skeptical.” Continue reading

The Look of Silence

30 Jul

A scene from Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary "The Look of Silence." (Courtesy Drafthouse Films and Participant Media)

The Look of Silence,” the new movie from filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, delves into the same period of bloody unrest that marred Indonesia in the mid-1960s that his highly lauded 2012 documentary, “The Act of Killing” plumbed, but from an entirely different angle.

“Killing,” which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary, allowed the sadistic perpetrators behind the mass executions to put their own spin on their unconscionable deeds, but not without Oppenheimer’s subtle, yet biting illumination of the heinous nature of their transgressions and the unrighteous impunity they received from a capitulating government looking to bury the past and move on. “Silence,” by stark contrast, is the salving counter flow to “Killing,” a cathartic podium for the survivors and family of the victims who live with daily reminders of the ghastly past and the constant duress of a reoccurrence.

How Oppenheimer arrived at such a place of riveting paradox, ghostly horrors and egregious complacency is almost as compelling a story as the ones told in his films and the tumultuous history of the Islamic archipelago. As a college graduate in his 20s, Oppenheimer signed on with the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers to make a documentary somewhere in a developing nation to highlight workers’ rights violations on plantations and mass producing farms.

“It could have been anywhere,” the filmmaker recalls, “you’d think  South America or Africa, but I went to Indonesia.” While working on the documentary Oppenheimer found it difficult to get the workers, who were working under what the director calls “slave-like conditions,” to open up. “There were these thugs there that kept silencing them. The workers were really fearful and when someone finally said something they told me about 1965.”

Oppenheimer who studied filmmaking at Harvard and resides in Copenhagen, admittedly (at the time) didn’t know the full extent of the atrocities that lay in Indonesia’s bloody past. Back in the mid-1940s, the Dutch colony won its independence from the Netherlands after the island was released by the Japanese at the end of the Second World War. Its first president, Sukarno, a galvanizing hand in the quest for independence, would lead the country for nearly 20 years until the September 30th Movement, an attempted coup allegedly initiated by the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) — there has been speculation of a plot from within the military — that would send the island nation into turmoil — something that the gripping historical drama, “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1982), starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, captured quite well.  Continue reading