Documentary

The Business of Being Born (2008, Abby Epstein)

Watching The Business of Being Born, one has to wonder about the structure. It starts as an investigation into the way hospitals deliver babies in the United States (the responsibility is not entirely with the hospital, of course; the film opens discussing Manhattan mothers scheduling their cesarean sections). But the narrative changes course once director Epstein discovers she’s pregnant.

This development comes about halfway through the film, which ends soon after Epstein delivers. Given she’s not the subject of the documentary, it’s surprising how much of her private moments she includes. One’s never seen Michael Moore with his shirt off (I hope). But in the final few scenes, Epstein talks about working on the film and it suggests it may have gone somewhere quite different if she weren’t, you know, taking care of a baby.

So there are two films here. One is an inspiring, enthusiastic look at the connection between mother and child. It’s beautiful. Great music from Jason Moss and Andre Pluess–just a lovely experience.

But the film Epstein doesn’t finish is a lot more… useful. The startling rate of cesarean sections in the United States is something even the OB/GYNs interviewed for the film are mortified over. These same OB/GYNs dismiss the idea of midwifery and home births, which are statistically (taking the cesarean into account) safer.

The film is definitely worth seeing (even with an awkward, disconnected epilogue).

One has to wonder, however, if executive producer Ricki Lake affected her quirky hat obsession.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Abby Epstein; director of photography, Paulo Netto; edited by Madeleine Gavin; music by Jason Moss and Andre Pluess; produced by Epstein, Netto and Amy Slotnick; released by Red Envelope Entertainment.

Featuring Abby Epstein (Filmmaker), Paulo Netto (Abby’s Boyfriend and Filmmaker), Tina Cassidy (Journalist and Author of Birth), Robbie Davis-Floyd (Medical Anthropologist), Ina May Gaskin (Midwife), Nadine Goodman (Public Health Specialist), La Juana Huebner (Parent), Gregor Huebner (Parent), Cara Muhlhahn (Certified Nurse Midwife), Michel Odent (OB/GYN and Researcher), Mayra Vazquez (Parent), David Radzinski (Parent), Catherine Tanksley (Midwife), Julia Barnett Tracy (Parent), Van Tracy (Parent) and Ricki Lake (Actress and Producer).


You Will Believe: The Cinematic Saga of Superman (2006)

There’s no director or writer credited for You Will Believe and without a host, the “documentary” sort of ambles through the history of the Superman film series. Given the contentious history, it goes far in bringing everyone into it… but it doesn’t actually ask any questions. There’s only one moment when it directly refutes something one of the interviewee’s states and it’s almost an aside.

A lot of time is spent talking about Richard Donner’s exit from Superman II. There’s a part when the producer, Pierre Spengler, says Donner was fired for crap-mouthing Spengler in Variety–it’s on record, they show the newspaper–yet Donner never talks about that incident. Instead, he says he was fired out of the blue.

So as a “he said, she said” between Donner and Spengler and Ilya Salkind… it’s kind of a draw. Maybe if the Donner recut of Superman II had been good, he’d get more of my support.

And it is Richard Lester who takes a lot of blows here–and he didn’t participate. Lester’s Superman II stuff is superior to Donner’s and some of Superman III does work. Yet Lester gets hung out to dry… even by Salkind and Spengler.

The lack of focus is really unfortunate, because the making of these films clearly deserves a better look than a DVD “bonus” puff piece.

Also, whoever picked Peter Guber as an interviewee is a twit. Guber’s freakishly off putting, not to mention having nothing whatsoever to do with these films.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Edited by Michael Fallavollita; produced by Constantine Nasr; released by Warner Home Video.


Good Hair (2009, Jeff Stilson)

I don’t write a lot of responses to documentaries on The Stop Button. There are many reasons for it, with the primary one being I’m not sure what constitutes a documentary film. But Good Hair is definitely the kind of documentary I respond to here on The Stop Button.

I first heard about it on Elvis Mitchell’s “The Treatment,” when he interviewed Chris Rock about it and Rock talked about how it was hard to get funding together, since the film’s about a feature of black culture and one, as the Rev. Al Sharpton points out in the film, specific to black culture (though the film does bring up weaves–hair extensions–being undiscussed when white women use them).

Talking about Good Hair on its documentary merits alone presents a certain difficulty. While the film follows Rock through his investigation into the business side of black hair products (the majority of the companies making the products are no longer black owned), it’s really about him and his daughters. It’s kind of like Foreskin’s Lament (Foreskin’s Lament is Shalom Auslander’s memoir about growing up as an Orthodox Jew and, more to the point, deciding whether to circumcise his own son. Read more about it here.).

Actually… it’s exactly like Foreskin’s Lament.

Rock’s decision at the end of the film isn’t particularly surprising, but it does make some of the interviewees seem rather vapid and shockingly callous. There’s no Charlton Heston moment here per se, but Nia Long comes real close.

A lot of Good Hair is played as a comedy (the joke, often, being on the interviewee or subject). With some more Foreskin… it really could have transcended the comedic documentary.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jeff Stilson; written by Chris Rock, Stilson, Lance Crouther and Chuck Sklar; directors of photography, Cliff Charles and Mark Henderson; edited by Paul Marchand and Greg Nash; music by Marcus Miller; produced by Jenny Hunter, Kevin O’Donnell and Stilson; released by Roadside Attractions.


Religulous (2008, Larry Charles)

As we waited for Religulous to start–my wife had confiscated my iPod touch for her own purposes–I read an article in The Onion about the coming election. The sixty million people voting for one candidate will not talk to any of the sixty million people who are voting for the other candidate. That–along with a couple George Carlin jokes I’ll save for later–sums up the Religulous experience. It’s very funny, but it’s preaching to the choir. The whole point Maher eventually gets to is to rile up his choir so they’re actually audible (this choir being the people who don’t think thermonuclear war to bring about armageddon is a good idea–in other words, people who aren’t Kirk Cameron fans).

But Religulous starts out with much loftier ambitions. The film starts as Maher somewhat listless floundering through his own experiences–as a half Jew, half Catholic–with religion. He brings his mother and sister out (Maher obviously inherited a lot from his mother) and talks to them about his upbringing. It’s all very searching–especially when Maher ends up in a “truckers’ chapel” asking questions about Jesus. The truckers are respectful of Maher, even though he is making them appear simple. After this sequence is done, he even comments on how the religion makes the nicest people seemingly babble incoherently (I’m paraphrasing).

The tone quickly changes though, while Maher interviewing some more Christian figures–subtitles appear on screen to point out their mistakes–including a U.S. senator (a Democrat, presumably because no Republicans would talk to him), an amusement park Jesus and an “ex-gay” pastor. It’s all very funny, but it’s not really telling anyone anything they don’t know. Maher’s personal search for answers has ended. Now it’s just about silly religious figures. Maher never handles the subject with the tenderness Aaron Sorkin does in “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” for instance.

There’s great stuff–I never knew Jesus was a remake of the Egyptian God Horus or the Mormon thing about God living on some planet somewhere (very “Star Trek”). There’s some funny Scientology stuff, but at the halfway point, Maher turns his focus entirely on the Middle East. He talks to an anti-Zionist Jew, a bunch of Muslims and concludes the world’s going to end if the atheists, agnostics, and non-nutso faithful don’t start standing up for sanity.

George Carlin already “told” Religulous in a couple jokes. First, he was Catholic until he “reached the age of reason.” And second, “Certain groups of people – Muslim fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists, and just plain guys from Montana – are going to continue to make life… very interesting for a long, long time.” Maher’s just packaging those ideas in a feature-length effort. I’m wary to even call it a documentary, since it’s certainly propaganda. He has his favorites (the Catholics come off very well and Zionist Jews are not interviewed). He ends the film with fear-mongering. There’s a point to the film and it isn’t discovery, it’s revelation. Except Maher’s just revealing fundamentalists are nutty–the guy from the Human Genome Project comes off about as well as Charlton Heston did in Bowling for Columbine–and his audience already knows they’re nutty. It’s a pageant.

The most interesting thing about Religulous isn’t even a part of the film–the process. It’s barely addressed how Maher’s making this documentary, but given how the conclusion he reaches seems to be a result of the process… it would have been insightful.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Larry Charles; written by Bill Maher; director of photography, Anthony Hardwick; edited by Jeff Groth, Christian Kinnard and Jeffrey M. Werner; produced by Jonah Smith, Palmer West and Maher; released by Lionsgate.


Behind the Planet of the Apes (1998, Kevin Burns and David Comtois)

I thought the Planet of the Apes festival could use a capstone, since it’s certainly not for sure I’ll make it through enough of Tim Burton’s remake to post about it. And the fiancée has no interest in that one, so it’ll be a while before I get around to it. There are good films to watch before it. I rented Behind the Planet of the Apes a little bit confused about its origins. I remember it (it aired on AMC and I watched some of it), but it’s not in the new Apes box set from Fox, so I figured it was an independent documentary. As it turns out, it is from Fox, which gives it great access to lovely conceptual art (something I can’t ever get enough of), interview subjects, and clips. There are lots of clips. Behind the Planet of the Apes summarizes every one of the movies, spending the most time on the first and then gradually less and less on the other films.

As an actual documentary, Behind is a joke. My review posts of the films make it clear I was never an Apes fan so I really wanted Behind to explain the “phenomenon” to me. It did (the Apes films were intended for kids), but it never went further. Obviously there were audience and critical reactions to these films, but Behind only makes off-hand references. The main force is the summarizing, along with a lengthy look at the production of the first film (but, sadly, nothing on post-production). Had Behind just covered the first film, I imagine it would have been more interesting and a more cohesive experience. The film ends with a brief discussion of Fox’s marketing campaign to tie in with the TV series, but nothing about the producer’s 150 page production idea guide he had for the first film. Because there’s never any substantial reference to the actual impact of these films (the film historian simply advertises the films for Fox), it feels like no one ever saw them before this documentary presented them, twenty-five years later. The producers talk about the cultural impact, but it’s not evident. I don’t expect a lot from a promotional documentary, but it really plays like an infomercial.

All complaints aside, the film does present some diverting information about the making of the films and filmmaking in general. The art director, William Creber has a lot of interesting stuff to talk about and some of the directors have things to say, but they hardly get any screen time. I think the first time I watched it, I hadn’t seen Planet of the Apes in recallable memory, which made it mildly compelling (seeing a bunch of films in summary) and I did remember that factoid about Conquest filming at Century City. However, having just watched all the films, this promotional documentary has brought me no closer to understanding why Apes has such a following. It does nothing to explain what I’m “missing,” which leads me to wonder if I’m not missing anything….

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Kevin Burns and David Comtois; written by Brian Anthony, Burns and Comtois; director of photography, Cory Geryak; edited by Dustin Ebsen, Steve Rasch and Comtois; produced by Shelley Lyons; released by 20th Century Fox.

Hosted by Roddy McDowall.


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