In fifth grade, our “cool” teacher Mr. Horne assigned the class a “Reading Day,” encouraging us to bring in a book of our choice and sit silently while he spent the day catching up on paperwork. I lugged in a stack of Calvin and Hobbes books I’d recently procured through Scholastic and was in heaven. That afternoon, Mr. Horne approached my desk and asked if he could borrow my copy of Something Under The Bed Is Drooling. The other students were in awe and, for one shining moment, I was the cool kid in class.
Lance Armstrong is a big fat lying liar. No debate there. But he’s a liar in a sport where everybody cheats and everybody lies about it, so who really cares? Quite a lot of people, actually. For some reason, bicycle racing fans have been able to maintain hope in the purity of their sport even after endless doping scandals and revelations of cheating. Armstrong was such an inspirational figure—coming back from testicular cancer to win seven Tour de France races—people held on to the belief that he was clean long after repeated accusations were made. I don’t know if the general population really gives a damn about this. Banned substances used in a niche sport? Oh no. But it turns out the doping done by Lance Armstrong is the least interesting part of this story. The real meat is that, not only did he lie about cheating, he repeatedly went after his accusers, destroying their credibility in the press and even suing them for damages. He didn’t just defend himself, he went on the offensive to demolish anyone who strayed from the narrative he wanted to present.
Imagine being on the top of a high mountain. For the most part, the journey there has gone smoothly. Suddenly, an unfortunate set of circumstances puts you in a very perilous situation. Even worse, you get separated from your crew—you can see the danger they are in, but even attempting to rescue them could end your life in an instant. That is the dilemma at the heart of director Nick Ryan’s documentary The Summit (2012). In it, he charts the horrific events that killed eleven experienced mountain climbers trying to return from the top of K2 in the summer of 2008. K2, while being the second highest mountain in the world, is arguably the most dangerous to traverse. Various testimonies contradict what actually happened on that fateful day, but Ryan attempts to piece them all together to paint a very tragic picture.
Every year, I make a list of films I would like to review at the Seattle International Film Festival, and this year I was particularly interested to see Inequality for All, Jacob Kornbluth’s documentary about economist Robert Reich and the problems he sees with our country’s extremely large income gap. (The top 400 richest people in the United States own one half of the country’s wealth.) Inequality For All analyzes this issue using a class Reich teaches at U.C. Berkeley as a framework. There is a lot of data given here, so I will focus on the three things that stuck out most for me.
One of the most enigmatic figures of the 20th century was unquestionably J. D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye. Like many Americans, I became enamored with him after reading that book in school and soaking in its anti-establishment message. Almost as engrossing as the novel itself is the story of its author, who, after writing one of the quintessential novels of the last century, essentially vanished, becoming a recluse from the world…or so it seemed. The new documentary Salinger, by Shane Salerno, attempts to peak behind the curtain and look at the life of a literary legend and man who has almost become a cult leader to a legion of fans.
A good fashion documentary will juxtapose the silliness of the fashion world against the art of beautiful clothing and end up with something both interesting and compelling. It’s sometimes hard to take the denizens of high fashion seriously, what with the emphasis on appearances and their own—sometimes very odd—sartorial choices. (Karl Lagerfeld, I am looking at you.) The gold standard of fashion-related documentary films is 2009’s The September Issue, a fascinating account of Vogue magazine’s jumbo fall issue focusing on the interactions between editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and creative director Grace Coddington, their relationship, and what it takes to get a fashion magazine out. Mademoiselle C is a new documentary directed by Fabien Constant that tries to bring the same exposure to former Vogue Paris editor-in-chief Carine Roitfeld’s decision to leave Vogue and start her own magazine, CR.
The Muslims Are Coming! documents a tour of Muslim stand-up comedians doing free tour dates at various venues throughout the southern United States. Headed by comedienne Negin Farsad, the tour is meant to put a face on a group that in American discourse is largely misunderstood. It opens with a montage of various TV pundits fueling fear mongering aimed at those sneaky Muslims. A major point of this film is how all of the fear-based hostility focused on this group in our post-9/11 world is rooted largely in ignorance. And comedy can broach uncomfortable subjects better than just about anything. If people are laughing, you can create understanding without anger. At least that’s the hope.
From the outside, the annual Burning Man gathering in Nevada looks like a crazy gathering of sun-burnt, formerly Grateful Dead following, Phish listening, free-love having, acid-dropping, half-naked hippies. It can seem like a strange, otherworldly experience that might seem pointless. So to answer the question “What the hell is that unwashed mass of humanity doing out in the desert for a week every year?”, along comes the new documentary Spark: A Burning Man Story.
Pretty much everyone who grew up in the 1980s has a story about their family’s first VCR. My family’s was a two-piece unit: one piece for the video cassette and the other for the controls. It came with a video camera and a remote, both of which had to be attached by a cable. More importantly, of course, were the cassettes you could rent from the appliance store near the downtown area of where I grew up. At the time, there were no proper video stores; the appliance store that sold my parents the VCR was it. But they had a modest selection of tapes you could choose from by browsing through a binder, including Star Wars. If you’re reading this, then you’re probably thinking about your own childhood stories concerning VCRs, VHS, and the local video store. Whether or not you were old enough at the time to recognize it, it was a very crucial time of change. It was the first time you could make your own choice about what to watch, and it could be something that normally had to be seen in the theaters.
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with zoos. On the one hand, I love the opportunity to see all sorts of exotic animals up close that I otherwise would only see on television. On the other, I recognize it is terrible that these amazing creatures are taken away from their natural environments and are locked in cages for our amusement. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish cuts right to the heart of this issue by taking a look at the consequences of keeping orca whales in captivity, culminating with the death of highly respected SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.