Saul Leiter's TAXI

Saul Leiter's TAXI (American, 1923-2013)
Why is this such a great photo? What stands out to you? Certainly the colors demand our attention. The wall in the background is orangish-red complimenting the reddish-orange paint on the cab, which in turn reflects off the dashboard of the car from which the picture is taken. Add a flash of brilliant yellow and viola you have a color palette rivaling the most dazzling of any desert sunset.  


What about the photo’s action? Why do we seem to be moving? Is it that our perspective is slightly behind the car we’re looking at- like we’re trying to catch up? Everything changes if we’re ahead of the car, looking back.  What about the man’s hand?  Maybe he’s trying to find something to hold on to or he’s pointing while yelling directions. The entire photo is different, stagnant even, without this hand. We're simply next to a car stopped in traffic. What about the back window in brilliant silver? Hints of a rocket ship? An overstatement maybe, but we can't see through the glass, which does cause a blur of light and speed.

What about the man being dressed in a suit? This too influences our impression. An important person pointing or holding on to something or both?  Not only does the photo change entirely if the cab is empty, it changes if the person is dressed casually. Then it’s the weekend or just a tourist perhaps.  With our photo here, it’s a workday: the streets are bustling and we have an important person with an important place to be!  

Also, you can’t ignore the the camera’s exposure which puts a quarter of the photo into darkness.  The cab driver in silhouette adds mystery, forcing us to imagine this person. Also, notice  the black space in the bottom left corner that extends across the entire bottom of the photo. This space not only provides an entry point into the photo but also a place where we can sit (hide?) and observe. The photo would be cluttered and claustrophobic without this black space. 

Upon first glance, this photo seems like just an abstract blur of color. Upon second, you notice how the photo changes entirely if even the smallest of detail were different.    

Dick Johnson is Dead

 Kirsten Johnson's film- Dick Johnson is Dead is an ode to her father who is not only nearing the end of his life but also showing signs of Alzheimer's. In order to cope with her father's mortality and get ahead of things so to speak, she stages various scenarios through special effects and clever editing where her father dies or is outright killed. When I first started watching Johnson's film, I couldn't help but think of James Keach's 2014 documentary Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me which follows Campbell on his final tour and well into the throws of Alzheimer's. Keach's film was cringeworthy and, like the tour itself, seemed exploitive at times. 

While Dick Johnson is Dead seems to start in this direction, it actually veers down a different path entirely.  About 15 minutes or so in, a crew member talks about the death of his own father which prompts a tender moment where Dick talks about the death of his wife. At this point, we realize the slapstick irony of the film's premise is secondary to what the film's actually about: the portrait of a kind and sensitive soul. A point illustrated even clearer when Dick talks about the childhood shame he had towards his own body and in particular, his deformed feet.  We see a closeup of his feet as he describes this shame. What's illuminating is the way he describes it which is similar to how an elderly person often describes such things- not with the shame once felt, but with a sort of curiosity or amusement, almost as if it happened to someone else. I say all of this to say, don't let the premise of Dick Johnson is Dead turn you away (or draw you in too much). The film is more about Mr. Johnson living than dying.   

My Octopus Teacher

 

While the film's title may be clumsy, Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed's film My Octopus Teacher is graceful and poetic. I'll end my superlatives there to simply say- Watch this film. Once you do, I'd then recommend Jane and March of the Penguins which work as excellent companion pieces. 

Craig Foster is our soulful guide and narrator in My Octopus Teacher who immediately puts us at ease. Connoisseurs of Science Fiction say the genre at its best tells us more about the present than the future. Do great nature documentaries tells us more about being human than the animals or environments depicted? Ehrlich and Reed's film helps one, compels one, to consider his or her personal life and it's span along with one's own struggles and endurance and, at times, triumphs. It also reminds us how finite yet sublime we and our world actually are. 

2020 Critics Choice Awards for Documentary Filmmaking


Every year at this time when the Critics Choice Awards come out, I look forward to catching up on films I missed during the year. Particularly this year, it was hard to pay attention to any buzz generated as nearly all the festivals were virtual. Over the next few weeks, I will watch or rewatch each of the Best Documentary Features and make comments and comparisons. 



BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Athlete A (Netflix)
Belushi (Showtime)
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (Netflix)
Dick Johnson is Dead (Netflix)
Feels Good Man (Wavelength Productions/PBS Independent Lens)
The Fight (Topic Studios/Magnolia Pictures)
The Go-Go’s (Showtime)
Gunda (Neon)
Mr. SOUL! (Shoes in the Bed Productions)
My Octopus Teacher (Netflix)
The Painter and the Thief (Neon)
A Secret Love (Netflix)
The Social Dilemma (Netflix)
Time (Amazon Studios)

BEST DIRECTOR
Garrett Bradley, Time (Amazon Studios)
Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, Athlete A (Netflix)
Kirsten Johnson, Dick Johnson is Dead (Netflix)
Victor Kossakovsky, Gunda (Neon)
James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (Netflix)
Dawn Porter, John Lewis: Good Trouble (Magnolia Pictures)
Benjamin Ree, The Painter and the Thief (Neon)

BEST FIRST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Robert S. Bader, Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes (HBO)
Chris Bolan, A Secret Love (Netflix)
Melissa Haizlip, Mr. SOUL! (Shoes in the Bed Productions)
Arthur Jones, Feels Good Man (Wavelength Productions/PBS Independent Lens)
Elizabeth Leiter and Kim Woodard, Jane Goodall: The Hope (National Geographic)
Elizabeth Lo, Stray (Magnolia Pictures)
Sasha Joseph Neulinger, Rewind (Grizzly Creek Films/PBS Independent Lens)

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, The Truffle Hunters (Sony Pictures Classics)
Roger Horrocks, My Octopus Teacher (Netflix)
Kirsten Johnson, Dick Johnson is Dead (Netflix)
Victor Kossakovsky and Egil Håskjold Larsen, Gunda (Neon)
Scott Ressler, Neil Gelinas, and Stefan Wiesen, The Last Ice (National Geographic)
Gianfranco Rosi, Notturno (Stemal Entertainment)
Ruben Woodin Dechamps, The Reason I Jump (Kino Lorber)

BEST EDITING
Don Bernier, Athlete A (Netflix)
Eli Despres, Greg Finton, and Kim Roberts, The Fight (Topic Studios/Magnolia Pictures)
Lindy Jankura and Alex Keipper, Totally Under Control (Neon)
Helen Kearns, Assassins (Greenwich Entertainment)
Victor Kossakovsky and Ainara Vera, Gunda (Neon)
Eileen Meyer and Andrew Gersh, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (Netflix)
Charlotte Munch Bengtsen, The Truffle Hunters (Sony Pictures Classics)

BEST SCORE
Ari Balouzian and Ryan Hope, Feels Good Man (Wavelength Productions/PBS Independent Lens)
Marco Beltrami, Brandon Roberts, and Buck Sanders, The Way I See It (Focus Features)
Tyler Durham, Sven Faulconer, and Xander Rodzinski, The Last Ice (National Geographic)
Peter Nashel and Brian Deming, Totally Under Control (Neon)
Daniel Pemberton, Rising Phoenix (Netflix)
Jeff Tweedy, Long Gone Summer (ESPN)
Jeff Tweedy, Spencer Tweedy, and Sammy Tweedy, Showbiz Kids (HBO)

BEST NARRATION
David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet (Netflix)
David Attenborough, Narrator
David Attenborough, Writer
Dick Johnson is Dead (Netflix)
Kirsten Johnson, Narrator
Kirsten Johnson, Writer
Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds (Apple)
Werner Herzog, Narrator
Werner Herzog, Writer
Mr. SOUL! (Shoes in the Bed Productions)
Blair Underwood, Narrator
Ellis Haizlip, Writer
My Octopus Teacher (Netflix)
Craig Foster, Narrator
Craig Foster, Writer
Time (Amazon Studios)
Fox Rich, Narrator
Fox Rich, Writer
Totally Under Control (Neon)
Alex Gibney, Narrator
Alex Gibney, Writer

BEST ARCHIVAL DOCUMENTARY
Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes (HBO)
Belushi (Showtime)
Class Action Park (HBO Max)
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (Netflix)
MLK/FBI (Field of Vision/IFC Films)
Mr. SOUL! (Shoes in the Bed Productions)
Spaceship Earth (Neon)

BEST HISTORICAL/BIOGRAPHICAL DOCUMENTARY
Belushi (Showtime)
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (Netflix)
Howard (Disney+)
John Lewis: Good Trouble (Magnolia Pictures)
Mr. SOUL! (Shoes in the Bed Production)
Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (Netflix)
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind (HBO)

BEST MUSIC DOCUMENTARY
Beastie Boys Story (Apple)
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan (Magnolia Pictures)
The Go-Go’s (Showtime)
Laurel Canyon (Epix)
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (Magnolia Pictures)
Other Music (Factory 25)
Zappa (Magnolia Pictures)

BEST POLITICAL DOCUMENTARY
All In: The Fight for Democracy (Amazon Studios)
Boys State (Apple)
John Lewis: Good Trouble (Magnolia Pictures)
MLK/FBI (Field of Vision/IFC Films)
The Social Dilemma (Netflix)
Totally Under Control (Neon)
The Way I See It (Focus Features)

BEST SCIENCE/NATURE DOCUMENTARY
Coded Bias (7th Empire Media/PBS Independent Lens)
Fantastic Fungi (Moving Art)
Gunda (Neon)
I Am Greta (Hulu)
The Last Ice (National Geographic)
My Octopus Teacher (Netflix)
Spaceship Earth (Neon)

BEST SPORTS DOCUMENTARY
Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes (HBO)
Athlete A (Netflix)
Be Water (ESPN)
A Most Beautiful Thing (50 Eggs Films)
Red Penguins (Universal Pictures)
Rising Phoenix (Netflix)
You Cannot Kill David Arquette (Super LTD)

BEST SHORT DOCUMENTARY
Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible (ESPN)
(Directors: Kristen Lappas and Tom Rinaldi. Producers: Craig Lazarus, José Morales, Lindsay Rovegno, Victor Vitarelli and Ben Webber)
The Claudia Kishi Club (Netflix)
(Director and Producer: Sue Ding)
Crescendo! (Quibi)
(Director: Alex Mallis. Producers: Matt O’Neill and Perri Peltz)
Elevator Pitch (Field of Vision)
(Director and Producer: Martyna Starosta)
Hunger Ward (Spin Film/Vulcan Productions/RYOT Films)
(Director and Producer: Skye Fitzgerald. Producer: Michael Scheuerman)
Into the Fire (National Geographic)
(Director: Orlando von Einsiedel. Producers: Mark Bauch, Harri Grace and Dan Lin)
My Father the Mover (MTV Documentary Films)
(Director: Julia Jansch. Producer: Mandilakhe Yengo)
The Rifleman (Field of Vision)
(Director: Sierra Pettengill. Producer: Arielle de Saint Phalle)
The Speed Cubers (Netflix)
(Director and Producer: Sue Kim. Producers: Evan Krauss and Chris Romano)
St. Louis Superman (MTV Documentary Films)
(Directors and Producers: Sami Khan and Smriti Mundhra. Producer: Poh Si Teng)

MOST COMPELLING LIVING SUBJECTS OF A DOCUMENTARY (HONOR)
Dr. Rick Bright – Totally Under Control (Neon)
Steven Garza – Boys State (Apple)
The Go-Go’s – The Go-Go’s (Showtime)
Judith Heumann – Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (Netflix)
Dick Johnson – Dick Johnson is Dead (Netflix)
Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jamie Dantzscher – Athlete A (Netflix)
Fox Rich – Time (Amazon)
Pete Souza – The Way I See It (Focus Features)
Taylor Swift – Miss Americana (Netflix)
Greta Thunberg – I Am Greta (Hulu)