November 22, 2005

New York

Ric Burns did a big long documentary on the history of New York. It is a lesson in how to feel about the city -- a very long, very repetitive lesson. It feels like the Illiad. It contains hundreds of false climaxes: "The city would never be the same again." "Little did they know that, in a few short years,...." "At the moment of their greatest triumph, the seeds of disaster were sown." "At the bottom of the box of despair, there fluttered one small gleam of hope." A little bit of that sort of stuff goes a long way, and Burns serves up very much more than a little bit. Imagine an emotional amusement park ride 15 hours long.

I don't know what to say about this piece. It seems likely that the feelings Burns wants to encourage are appropriate feelings, and also it seems plausible that the point of a documentary is just: to help people feel appropriately, to help them put disparate facts into emotional context. And yet this thing feels over-all oppressive to me, maybe partly because he does all the emotional work for the viewer. I like my steak, and I like it chewed, but somehow it's important that I chew it myself.

When I do documentary, I try not to enforce a tone, and New York
helps me to understand that decison.

Despite everything I've said, New York is pretty close to essential video for people in the United States, as the Illiad was essential for the Greeks. It identifies New York City as something we have no choice but to try to understand. That's a major accomplishment. The last episode, treating Robert Moses and the issues of urban development, is required context for understanding what happens in public space.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:32 AM

November 1, 2005

Stephen King

There's something fun about channel surfing around Halloween, cruising among The Sixth Sense, Silence of the Lambs, 6 forgettable horror movies, and the creepy episode of 10 series dramas. This time, I got caught by a Stephen King movie called Dreamcatcher, which is mostly unbearable: lots of creepy aliens with too many teeth coming out of toilets and peoples clothes and innocent looking snowbanks, people getting impaled, lots of greasy, slimy stuff. In the middle of it though is a scene in which four normal kids do a brave and kind action for a stranger who is being bullied -- and that scene is so strikingly right, so powerful in its cartoon goodness, that it keeps one watching, hoping for more.

I went searching for the other Stephen King movies, and found quite a list of stuff I remembered: Needful Things, Storm of the Century, The Shining, The Green Mile. And it struck me that, in all of them, there was lots of gross stuff not to like and at least one moment just like the moment in Dreamcatcher, when somebody tries to be good or notices how hard it is to be good or actually pulls off being good, and that moment anchors the movie in memory. It seems almost as if the horror content is the price King pays for getting one to pay attention to something that actually matters.

I need to know more about Stephen King.

Posted by shea0017 at 1:09 PM