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A brilliant, haunting and meaningful re-creation of the 1966 University of Texas Tower spree shooting that melds old footage, modern day interviews, and animation, the last of which renders the victims, witnesses and heroes in a classic imprint. Gripping and poignant, without a hint of inauthenticity or exaggeration, documentarian Keith Maitland gets you into the head of the terrified people pinned to their spots by fear as well as those who overcame it and risked their own lives to save others and/or ascend the tower and kill the sniper. Maitland has said he opted for animation “to show the geography of the campus” after being told that actual re-creation would not be permitted, but the use of animation to show the interviewees in their younger guise adds to the dreamlike, unreal quality of the event.

The film is stubbornly focused on the terrorized and refreshingly devoid of interest in the murderer, thereby avoiding the grotesque algorithm that revels in the psycho and makes everyone else a statistic. With the exception of a truly discordant and moronic “we have met the enemy and he is us” clip from Walter Cronkite, there isn’t a misstep in this picture. It was premiered for television on PBS Tuesday so it may still be available.

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An uplifting and engaging documentary about a Welsh barmaid and her two dozen working class pub clientele who decide they are going to kick in 10 pounds a month to back a racehorse. And by “back”, I mean, purchase the mare (who had a racing history of “last”, “eighth” and “pulled up”), purchase the semen, inseminate the mare, raise the foal, and then hand it over to one of the more premier training stables – Sandhill – the owners of which are naturally skeptical but happy for the monthly fee. The horse, Dream Alliance, is, of course, loaded with charm, and he leads a racing life ready-made for a Hollywood film, which I cannot believe is not in production as we speak.

This is a very nice, sweet, beautifully filmed documentary. It hits the class clash a little hard, and it could have included a little bit more about how racing in Great Britain works (for example, the damn horses don’t have a gate – they just take off in a gaggle – and there are hurdles on the straightaways!), but these are minor nits.

The story is now lore. In 1964, Kitty Genovese was attacked outside her Queens apartment. Her assailant stabbed her, ran, and then returned to rape her and finish the job. 37 witnesses turned away. They looked out the window and saw Kitty being stabbed. They heard her pitiful screams. Fearful, callous and/or a sign of the times in our urban hellholes, they drew their blinds and did nothing.

Turns out it’s all bullshit.  While it appears two people may have seen her and elected not to intervene, one did, screaming at her assailant to get away yet unaware that she had been injured.  A neighbor actually did go down to the street (Genovese died in her arms), many of the “witnesses” who are still alive state that they called the police or the extent of their “witnessing” was merely hearing a scream down on the street and then, not hearing more, thinking nothing more of it.

Ah, but what a story. The first half of documentarian James Solomon’s riveting re-investigation – which utilizes interviews, old documentation, photos, footage and animation to put us on that street or in one of the overlooking apartments – destroys the myth. As relayed by one reporter who had his doubts, “it didn’t make any sense” but because it was being propagated by the powerful and highly influential The New York Times, doubts were shelved because “It would have ruined the story.” That story was under the care and feeding of then-editor Abe Rosenthal, who wrote a book about the murder and jealously protected the myth, even going to the extremes of haranguing reporters decades later when the Times re-investigated and came clean on its excesses. In an interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes fame, who was then a radio reporter, his candor is both laudatory and depressing. Yes, he says cheerfully, the story was shot full of holes, but it is a great story and the Times was pushing it. What’s not to like? From there, the story embedded itself in the national psyche, a development Solomon firmly establishes.

This is an important film.  In an age where one would think, given the plethora of alternative sources of news and investigation, that such a meme could not take hold, it’s just the opposite. When the forces want to deliver you a narrative, be it for perceived social good or simple economic gain in the form of extended play, they can be overwhelming.  I remember reading the UVA  rape story in Rolling Stone and with a daughter at college, being incensed and affected.   I then re-read it, and it just seemed . . . thin. There was not one named source, yet, it was so utterly sensational as to be irresistible. Indeed, there was an entire phalanx of denunciations, movements, calls to action, tut-tutting about rape culture and privilege, etc . . .  And the entire story was a fanciful creation of a disturbed, pathetic woman. It does not stand alone.  Remember every false narrative offered in the MOVE bombing in 1980s Philadelphia, the Matthew Shepard murder, the “rape” by the Duke lacrosse team, the recent Ferguson shooting, and on and on.

The second half of the film centers more on the emotional impact of the murder on the Genovese family. It is her tortured brother Bill who is most affected, and he is our guide back into history, but the shrapnel emanating from her death did damage to every member of the family (both parents suffered early strokes and Kitty’s father died very young). On the hopeful side, as he deconstructs the fable, he revives his sister, replacing the myth with a living, breathing neighborhood barmaid who had roots in the neighborhood, including a female lover.

A must see, the film will instill in you a healthy reserve and skepticism of anything you hear in the heat of the moment.  Or, it should.

 

I watched this documentary on Monday night, after Anthony Weiner’s final on-line transgression resulted in the announcement of his separation from his wife, Hillary Clinton handler and confidante Huma Abedin.  The documentary shadows Weiner during his run for the New York City mayoralty, a run he made after resigning from Congress when he was busted for sending a dick pick to a young girl.  The ignominy of that act was exacerbated by the facts of Weiner’s lying about the incident (he was hacked, it might not be his junk, forces opposed to him were at play, “”Maybe it did start being a photo of mine and now looks something different or maybe it is from another account”) and his unfortunate name.

But come back he did, and as relayed by the documentarians, he returned with verve and passion.  Until he got busted again, this time sexting under the nom de plume “Carlos Danger” with a sad, grasping, soon-to-be porn star named Sydney Leathers (the scandal is notable as much for its bizarre nature as the silly names of its participants).  This unfolds before our very eyes, and it is often difficult to watch.  After this second humiliating revelation, Weiner opts for an aggressive, charge forward “this is what we do“ approach, as if to keep moving is to delay facing up to the consequences of his actions.   But you can see him harden and crack, in contentious interviews and encounters with voters.  Abedin, a beautiful, stoic woman, also becomes more brittle, but she retreats inward.  When the camera catches her watching Weiner desperately prattle on, a look not so much of disgust as disbelief is on her face.  The campaign staff, all young and committed to Weiner, are rattled, and you feel for their predicament.

The documentary also illuminates a few other aspects of this entire farce that merit comment.  First, even with all the drama and pain of Weiner’s relationship with Abedin, there is an intimacy between the two that is undeniable, making this national joke a bit harder to laugh at.  The revelation of real love in what you cynically presume is a marriage of convenience is quite unexpected.  Additionally, Weiner and Abedin evince a certain cynicism of their own in the way they operate politically.  It seems perfectly natural to them when Weiner monitors her fundraising calls to friends or uses their child as a shield-in-a-stroller, or she engages in strategic musings to keep his campaign afloat.  But it feels grubby and sad.   Also, the media comes off as nothing short of vile.  Their glee and faux moralizing actually engenders sympathy for Weiner, which, given his hubris and recklessness, would seem impossible.   When Weiner becomes unspooled after being baited by the likes of MSNBC dimwit Lawrence O’Donnell, it’s hard to determine who comes off worse.  At least, for me and Weiner.  There is a  charming moment when Weiner looks back at Abedin after re-watching his interview with O’Donnell and imploringly asks who got the worst of it.  She replies unequivocally that Weiner was loser of the exchange, a fact he can’t quite grasp.   Frankly, to me, it was a close call, but the unctuous O’Donnell was not running for office.   The crazed Weiner was.

Ultimately, what I liked most about the documentary is it didn’t portray Weiner as tragedy.  He is not presented as some promising wunderkind undone by his excesses and a vicious press corps.  While in post-campaign crater sit-down interviews with the filmmakers, Weiner looks beaten, emaciated, like a recently released hostage . . .

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. . . sad as he looks, you don’t feel that something grand has been lost.  He’s just a guy with a persistent fetish in the wrong business.

 

I was in school in Philadelphia from 1982 to 1984, during the mayoralty of Wilson Goode, who had taken over from the dictatorial former police commissioner and mayor Frank “I’m gonna’ be so tough as mayor, I gonna’ make Attila the Hun look like a faggot” Rizzo (Rizzo had once bragged that his police department could invade a country, and having seen them in action, I believed it). At that time, the Philadelphia police department was in an intractable standoff with a weirdo cult – MOVE – a back-to-nature, but armed-with-guns, community-based but plague-on-the-surrounding-community organization that melded hippie-life, black militancy and making their neighbors (largely, middle class blacks) miserable. The cops and MOVE had tangled once before, in 1978, leading to a siege where a police officer was killed and numerous cops and fire fighters wounded. Nine MOVE leaders and other disciples received life sentences as a result, but the remainder of the organization’s adherents moved to another neighborhood in West Philadelphia, where the entire scenario played out again years later. I clearly remember the local news reporting on police-MOVE clashes when I was in Philly, but until I saw this documentary, I had actually convinced myself I was in the City of Brotherly Love for the final confrontation.  I was wrong. By then, I had transferred schools and sat in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where the only assault was olfactory, a combination of a dog food plant and turkey slaughter.

Mayor Goode decided he’d had enough of MOVE plaguing yet another neighborhood (MOVE’s parenting was questionable, they had built a row house on Osage Avenue into a fortress, they menaced the neighbors and in particular, blasted obscenity from loudspeakers with regularity at all hours).  The cops came in to serve warrants on several MOVE members, they resisted, gunfire ensued (MOVE shot, and the police responded, if not in kind, as they unloaded 100,000 rounds into the house), another siege ensued, only this time, after a long period of time where they doused the MOVE house with water hoses, the police dropped an incendiary device on their house. And they let it burn. And it did, eventually engulfing the neighborhood, destroying 65 houses and killing 11 of 13 MOVE members, including 5 children.

This documentary is comprised solely of archival footage from the news, the public hearings that took place after the events (two of my former law partners were involved, one as the then-D.A. and the other as a member of the commission), and depositions taken in connection with litigation.  It is riveting, almost dreamlike, and you can’t even imagine that what you are seeing could possibly occur. But it did (and actually, again in the 1990s with the Waco stand-off), and the rendition is gripping, With the exception of some discordant editorializing at the end of the documentary in the aftermath section, it is also fair. On Netflix streaming.

It’s difficult not to compare this Academy award-nominated documentary about singer Amy Winehouse with Montage of Heck, the documentary on Kurt Cobain. Both tell the stories of young popular artists who were undone by drug abuse and depression. Both individuals suffered childhood ruptures and significant medical problems (Winehouse suffered from bulimia while Cobain had serious stomach issues). Both killed themselves, Cobain actively, Winehouse as close as you can without actually pulling the trigger.

The comparisons, however, end there. Cobain’s raw talent was nowhere near that of Winehouse. Winehouse’s voice was so powerful, nuanced and unique, it was staggering, and as evidenced by the documentary, she was a beautiful lyricist as well (thankfully, as she sings, we get to see her lyrics in print). Winehouse also comes off as extremely sympathetic, a sweet and vulnerable girl too fragile for this world (pardon the cliché), someone desperately looking for unconditional and protective love in the hard environs of celebrity. Conversely, Cobain was angry, spit at his success and pretty much made drug addiction a career goal, a decision very difficult to pigeonhole into tragedy.

Director Asif Kapadia uses the ample footage of Winehouse to guide us through her rise and fall (the advent of camera phone video gives us the paradox of Winehouse plagued by paparazzi but constantly videotaped even in private), and while he maintains a veneer of dispassion, he ties her self-destruction in part to a passive mother, an absent and then craven father (it is almost unbearably painful to watch him arrive in St. Lucia as she convalesces from an overdose with a camera-crew for his own reality TV show), an opportunistic boyfriend (if you have even an atom of chivalry in your bones, the moment you meet the creepy, clingy Blake Fielder is the moment you want to beat him senseless) and the cruelties of the press. Indeed, Kapadia is so skillful in communicating his thesis that my own bullshit meter senses oversimplification, and in pressing his case, he flirts with casting Winehouse as victim, when, in fact, she was a willing driver of the ills that befell her (she died of alcohol intoxication at 5 times the legal driving limit). Still, the film as portrait of an artist remains vibrant even if the thesis is hokum. Winehouse’s unfairly or accurately maligned father may have said it best, “Half of me wants to say don’t go see it. But then the other part of me is saying maybe go see the videos, put your headphones in and listen to Amy’s music while they’re watching the videos. It’s the narrative that’s the problem.”

I loved Tower Records and so did my father, a classical music nut.  His apartment was littered with the ubiquitous yellow bags and his visits to its D.C. location (the store was a few blocks from his apartment) were long meanders through the aisles and aisles of inventory.  Colin Hanks has done an admirable job of evoking the nostalgia of Tower, which rose from a small shop selling singles in Sacramento to an international conglomerate in a matter of thirty years.  In the process, he recounts not only an incisive story about the music business from a retail and merchandising standpoint, but of a family business, where all of the early stock boys and clerks who got stoned and drunk in the back grew to become VPs and store and district managers.  The fall –  a combination of technology, overreach and a bit of profligacy – is sad, but not tragic.  Every one of the individuals interviewed extols the organization, its singularly decent and quirky founder Russell Solomon, and the positive impact working there had on them.