The New Documentary, Part I: “Going Clear”

April 25, 2015 § 2 Comments

Going_Clear_Poster

In the late 90s, I took a UCLA Extension course in directing whose instructor declared, “There is no more objective truth in documentaries than [in] feature films.” I couldn’t have disagreed more. Documentary films–as opposed to the opinion piece or docu-drama–are the converse of feature films, with a distinct set of rules:

1. Don’t make things happen. Rather than forming an opinion and then trying to prove it, documentary filmmakers shoot first and organize later.
2. The script comes last. Any narration is based on the footage, as is the structure of the film. Documentaries are made in the editing room.
3. Don’t mess with the timeline. With the exception of interviews, events are shown in the order of occurrence.
4. No pictures, no story. All narration must be illustrated by images, preferably moving images, followed by still photos and illustrations. Re-enactments, if any, are a last resort.

Because I’ve followed these rules in all my documentaries, I’ve had to make hard choices, particularly where images are concerned. When Jim Thompson’s heir failed to follow through on his promise to let me use family photographs, I had to cut short the section on Jim’s youth. Later, a total lack of photographs of Peter the Hermit, the original Hollywood costumed character, led me to drop his story from “Under the Hollywood Sign.” In the same film, I reluctantly made a re-enactment of Peg Entwistle’s final hour because I lacked photos and artifacts. In both Peter and Peg’s cases, I later received a flood of photographs and information, some of which can be found on this blog, but in Peter’s case it came too late to be included in the film.

While I don’t regret my strict approach, it doesn’t jibe with recent trends. The preferred model for new documentaries is the three-act screenplay, which requires a dramatic arc. Stories unfold like police procedurals, with satisfactory conclusions, while unrecorded events are generously re-enacted, often in lurid slow-motion. All of this makes for compelling entertainment, but is it real?

Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” is a good example of the new approach. Essentially a filmed version of Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, the film employs traditional elements–interviews, archival footage, B-roll of Scientology landmarks. But it is also loaded with re-enactments that tell L. Ron Hubbard’s story and those of his disaffected followers. So we see recreated auditing sessions using the E-Meter, typewriters, explanatory charts and lots and lots of stars (the planetary kind, though there are archivals of John Travolta and Tom Cruise as well).

Absolutely nothing is left to the viewer’s imagination. To illustrate his subjects’ retelling of Scientology’s creation myth, Gibney creates a colorful montage of 1950s Americana, spaceships, volcanoes and planets. And in case the term “Operating Thetan” proves too difficult to comprehend, he inserts a shot the words, neatly typed, on a piece of paper. The paper is still in the typewriter, one of many such shots, lest we forget that L. Ron Hubbard was a writer.

Gibney’s treatment of the interviews is curious. Though his interviewees–who include not only Wright but former Scientologists Paul Haggis, Jason Beghe and Spanky Taylor–are without exception eloquent, compelling and worthy of screen time, Gibney does everything possible not to show them talking. When not cutting to re-enactments, he cuts to graphics–anything to avoid screen time for a talking head. The result is an undermining of the interviewees, whose stories, after all, are the crux of “Going Clear.”

Next time: “The Jinx.”

Remembering Albert Maysles

March 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

David and Albert Maysles filming "Salesman" in 1968/Courtesy imdb.com

David and Albert Maysles filming “Salesman” in 1968/Courtesy imdb.com

As news of Albert Maysles’ death circulated yesterday, I remembered not only his and his brother David Maysles’ important body of work (including “Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens” and “Primary”) but two personal stories. The first was my only meeting with him, which took place at the International Documentary Association’s conference in 1998. At the time I was teaching myself to make documentaries by reading books, taking classes and, of course, watching lots and lots of films. The conference was part of my self-devised education, so when I came upon Albert standing with Werner Herzog in the hallway of the MPAA, I introduced myself and told him about my idea for “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” my future first film. As I wrote in 2009:

I asked him what he thought, and he said something like “I think that sounds like a good idea.” (Coincidentally, Werner Herzog was there, too; he merely said, “I haf heard of zis man.”) Delirious from Maysles’s encouragement, I nevertheless remembered to compliment “Grey Gardens.” Beaming, he said in his thick Boston accent, “Isn’t it beautiful?”

As endorsements go, Albert Maysles’ was hardly effusive, but it sufficed. I started preproduction soon afterwards and went to Thailand to film in June of 1999. I returned with enough footage for two films, the second of which was an art and architecture piece called “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” (“Jim Thompson, Silk King” will be re-released shortly with new narration and two new DVD extras; it will be available on my website and on Vimeo. “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection is available at http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com)

My second Albert Maysles story concerns “Salesman,” his and David’s 1969 film about white, working-class Bible salesmen and the desperate hard-sell tactics they employed on their mostly poor, often black clients. A classic of cinema verite, “Salesman” was filmed in the late 1960s but depicts an earlier era: no one looks or talks that way anymore, and when was the last time you saw anyone selling Bibles door-to-door? The most confounding feature of the documentary was the dialog which, I recall, was subtitled because the salesmen’s Boston accents were so heavy. But even subtitles couldn’t decipher the patois they spoke, which at times seemed a different language. Making things even worse was that I watched “Salesman” with a petulant Spanish guy who evidently thought I, a native speaker of English, would guide him through it. He kept asking, “What does that mean?” Darned if I knew, and I used to live in Boston.

The Maysles brothers called their technique direct cinema because of its naturalism: the camera kept rolling until the subjects forgot it was there, and what interviewing there was sparse and informal. The result was at times profound but not without its problems, chiefly length. “Grey Gardens,” for all its acclaim, has some incredibly tedious stretches–raccoons again?–that illustrate the pitfalls of editing your own work, as the Maysleses did (albeit with others). Still, there’s no doubt that they changed documentary filmmaking forever. Because David died in 1987, Albert got the laurels, but the best Maysles films were the ones they made together.

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2009/04/27/grey-gardens-albert-maysles-and-me/

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/07/movies/albert-maysles-pioneering-documentarian-dies-at-88.html?hpw&rref=arts&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well

Merry Christmas from Under the Hollywood Sign

December 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

Thanks for reading this blog, which I began nearly six years ago to promote my work; it has been a labor of love. Nevertheless, if a fraction of the hundreds of thousands who’ve read my posts and pages would watch my films or read my ebooks, I’d be much happier. The documentaries are available for sale (via DVD or Vimeo download) or rent (via Vimeo); the ebooks are available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other ebook sellers. All are linked through my website http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com

Films:
Under the Hollywood Sign
Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of an Actress
The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection (available on DVD; downloadable in 2015)
Jim Thompson, Silk King (New edition coming on DVD and download in 2015)

Ebooks:
Peg Entwistle and The Hollywood Sign
On Blade Runner: Four Essays

The Journey Is Greater Than The Destination

September 4, 2014 § 2 Comments

Copyright Hope Anderson Productions

Copyright Hope Anderson Productions

For years I’ve been working on a novel. It was inspired by a trip I took shortly after finishing my first documentary, “Jim Thompson, Silk King” in 2001, though at the time I had no sense of it as anything more than an adventurous vacation. Soon after I returned from it I flew to New York, where JTSK was in a festival; it showed on September 8th. As fate would have it, I got back to Los Angeles hours before the attacks of September 11th, and for a long time no one wanted to think about documentaries, or entertainment in general. After marketing JTSK as much as I could during that grim time, I made its previously planned companion, “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” By this time it was 2005, and my 2001 trip had receded long enough for me to start writing a novel based on it. As I was finishing the first draft, I moved to Beachwood Canyon, which involved selling one house and buying another that turned out to more of a fixer than expected. When I was finally settled, I began preproduction on my documentary Under the Hollywood Sign, another long-simmering idea. Although I initially thought I was making a little neighborhood documentary, Beachwood’s history turned out to be enormous, and UTHS grew into a major project: thirty interviews, many hours of footage and hundreds of images. The project kept me occupied for the next three years, at which point it was late 2009. In 2010, I finally dug out my novel and starting writing again. Every summer since then, I’ve done another draft; now, four years later, the result is tangible: a 355-page manuscript about a journey, and the embodiment of my own long trek.

Beyond the films and moving house, why did it take me so long? There isn’t any simple answer, but it’s clear that reading novels doesn’t teach one to write them. And writing novels doesn’t equal finishing them: a previous attempt ended in frustration. (Recently I learned that Joyce Carol Oates’s late husband left a novel–his only novel, chipped away at for decades–unfinished when he died. It was not reassuring.) From a practical standpoint, the work would have gone faster if I had revised printed drafts rather than doing it on my computer. Because the novel existed only virtually, a number of gaps and errors went unnoticed for too long. But the biggest setback came during the summer of 2013, when a Time-Warner technician cut the power and crashed my computer. (He had assured me that I could keep working while he ran new cable to the house.) When everything went black, I lost the draft I was working on, including a substantial part of the last section. Although I had saved a previous draft on Dropbox, I was never able to recover what had disappeared. Worse yet, I was afraid to look at the manuscript, much less work on it, for several months.

But eventually I did. This summer I knew I had to finish so I soldiered on, finally getting to the end on Labor Day. This month I’ll send the manuscript out to some friends who have kindly volunteered to be my first readers. After that, I’ll work on selling it. One way or another, it will be published. But let’s face it: we’re not living in the Age of the Novel and no one really cares. So why did I bother? Because, with the exception of my (easily fulfilled) goal of motherhood, all my ambitions have paled in comparison to my desire to write a novel: it’s a dream I’ve had since the age of twelve. Accomplishing it has taught me many things, one of which is to love the process, not just the result. And even if only my friends and family read it, my reward has come already: I’ll soon be starting two new projects, neither of which would have come my way if I hadn’t persevered on this one.

“Salinger”: How Not to Make a Biographical Documentary

September 12, 2013 § 6 Comments

J. D. Salinger in 1950/Photo by Lotte Jacobi via Wikipedia

J. D. Salinger in 1950/Photo by Lotte Jacobi via Wikipedia

“Salinger,” the new documentary by Shane Salerno, has a fascinating subject, an intriguing trailer and enviable distribution via the Weinstein Company. What it doesn’t have, unfortunately, is good filmmaking. Salerno, a feature screenwriter making his documentary debut, apparently suffers from the conceit that documentaries aren’t as interesting as feature films, and that no one given a choice in the matter would watch the former.

You would think that with the notoriously reclusive author of “The Catcher In The Rye” as his subject, Salerno would have more faith in documentary technique, but you would be wrong. In a desperate attempt to hold the audience’s interest, he gooses his too-long film (129 minutes) with overly dramatic music and a truckload of re-enactments, most of which are so literal that they insult the intelligence of everyone who has gone beyond pre-school. (Not sure what, exactly, a writer does? Don’t worry, Salerno will show you, via a Salingeresque actor who types reams of paper over the course of the film.)

As far as re-enactments go, the typing just the beginning. When Salinger’s former teenage crush (she was 14; he was 32) Jean Miller talks about their chaste walks on the beach in Daytona, you’ll see actors playing Jerry and Jean walking on the beach. After Salinger exiles himself to Cornish, N.H., Salerno not only shows the bunker where he holes up to write but stand-ins for his wife Claire and daughter Peggy who, forbidden to enter, must gaze forlornly at it. Inside, the Salinger impersonator types up a storm, throwing piles of paper around to show us his creative anguish. Nothing is left undramatized, let alone unsaid.

In Salerno’s defense, he had very few photos of Salinger to work with, and even less moving footage. The photo above, which appeared on “The Catcher In The Rye” and is certainly the best-known image of the author, is used at least fifty times. The few other photos he has–of Salinger with his Army buddies and leaving the Cornish, N.H., post office–are repeated many times as well. Given the lack of Salinger photos, re-enactments are a legitimate way of filling in visual gaps. But the sheer number of them, and their obviousness, is an annoyance. Rather than letting his interviewees simply talk, Salerno is forever cutting away–to the farmhouse, the bunker, the beach. It’s especially odd given the care with which he stages the interviews, most of which are set in rooms with sweeping and varied views–of New York City, the Santa Monica Mountains, the waters off the Malibu Pier.

But there is a reward for the viewer: after nearly two hours, you finally get the details about Salinger’s secret manuscripts, including a memoir and two novels, as well as a timetable for their publication. That brief segment is thrilling, in part because Salerno couldn’t do it as a re-enactment. But the overall effect of “Salinger” is a curious one: you’re left with considerable sympathy for a strange, unlikable dead writer who–for all his faults–deserves a better documentary.

Jim Thompson’s Life After Death

November 10, 2011 § 5 Comments

Jim Thompson in the Living Room of his Bangkok House, circa 1967/Courtesy Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company

Jim Thompson (b. 1906) was an architect, Army officer, OSS operative, art collector and entrepreneur. In the years after World War II, he transformed homemade Thai silk into a thriving industry, in the process lifting some ten thousand impoverished weavers out of poverty and into comparative wealth. Jim Thompson’s silks, whose dyes and weaves he devised, soon found their way into Buckingham Palace and onto Broadway, via the costumes for “The King and I. Along the way, Thompson became famous, as did the Thai-style house he built to showcase his superb collection of Southeast Asian art. Then, on Easter Sunday of 1967, Jim Thompson vanished in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, and the mystery of his disappearance eclipsed the story of his life.

Jim Thompson was also the subject of my first film, “Jim Thompson, Silk King” (2001), and the reason I became a documentary filmmaker. In the expatriate communities of Asia where I grew up, Thompson was not merely famous; he was a household name. My father had met him, as had many of my parents’ friends, and the Thai Silk Company store in Bangkok was a primary destination for every westerner who visited Thailand in the 1950s and 60s. Because he was not merely a person but a brand, Jim Thompson’s disappearance struck our world like a bomb. The event was so odd and disturbing that my mother instructed me to “go to the library and find out what happened to him.” I was eight years old at the time, and eight months away from my first visit to Thailand.

I never found out what happened to Jim Thompson, though over the years I developed various theories about that Sunday in the Highlands. More importantly, I  became interested in his life, particularly his accomplishments in the silk industry, Southeast Asian art and traditional Thai architecture. Each of these feats would have been notable in itself; the fact that a non-Thai-speaking foreigner had left his mark on all three after the age of 40 impressed me enormously. As the years went by, I often thought about Jim Thompson’s life and hoped someone would make a serious film about it. When no one did, I learned the basics of filmmaking, tracked down his biographer, secured the permission of Thai Silk Company to film at its factory and main store, and flew to Thailand.

The result was not only the biographical documentary but a second film about Thompson’s Thai house, now a museum showcasing his art collection. (There would have been a third Thai documentary, about silk weaving, but no one cared.) “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” went to festivals, won a prize, got on TV and came out on DVD. Then came what I call The Jim Thompson Business: years of correspondence from conspiracy theorists, distant Thompson relatives, and a guy who wanted me to fly to Kuala Lumpur so that he could tell me what his dead father saw in the Highlands that Easter Sunday. (I didn’t go). There were inquiries from movie producers seeking the (perennially unavailable) rights to Thompson’s biography for a feature film, and inquiries from movie producers wanting to make a film based on a fictional character who resembled Jim Thompson. And a series of emails from a writer named Josh Kurlantzik, who was working on a book about Americans in Thailand after WWII, including Jim. Would I care to be interviewed? Of course I would; I also let him borrow footage of my interviews, newsreels and various other materials from “Jim Thompson, Silk King.”

Four years later, the resulting book has reached publication, only it’s called, The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War. (Why Kurlantzik danced around his subject is a mystery, since he had every right to write about Thompson, but he did the same with my interviewees in Thailand.) Although I haven’t read the book, I have read the new Foreign Policy article by Kurlantzik, which sheds light on Thompson’s political activities in Thailand and Laos during the Vietnam War. Through the Freedom of Information Act, Kurlantzik was able to obtain Thompson’s CIA file which, though heavily redacted, quashes the idea that he was a politically uninvolved businessman. As I learned from my own research, Thompson remained deeply committed to anti-colonialism and national self-determination in Southeast Asia, and scoffed at the prevailing Domino Theory. These beliefs put him on a collision course with various governments, including his own, and no doubt sealed his fate.

In making “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” I wanted to shift the focus of public interest from Thompson’s unsolved disappearance to his remarkable life. Then I tried to walk away from The Jim Thompson Business, only to learn that, as with the CIA, one can never really leave. Earlier this year, I optioned my documentary for a feature film. The script is in progress; if it gets made, I’ll let you know.

Note: DVDs of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” and “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection” can be ordered from www.hopeandersonproductions.com

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