Last year, two documentaries made their debuts on television and had more impact on me, and many other viewers and critics, than most movies in theaters. They were Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares, which appeared originally on the BBC and had limited distribution in the US at film festivals and a few theaters, and Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, which was released on DVD the same week it premiered on PBS last fall. These long (3 to 4 hours) films, masterfully directed and edited, covered fascinating subjects with depth and feeling only rarely achieved in fictional/dramatic features. They both ended up in the top 5 of my year-end best list.
We seem to be experiencing something similar this year: two 4-hour documentaries have premiered recently that far outshine anything I have seen in theaters in 2006: Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke began airing on HBO in August, and Ric Burns’s Andy Warhol was on this past week on PBS. Both are exhilaratingly well done.
Spike Lee’s monumental look at Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, subtitled A Requiem in Four Acts, should be seen by every thinking, feeling person – and a few unthinking, unfeeling governmental officials should be forced to watch it endlessly. You may think you don’t want to sit through four more hours about Katrina — You are wrong.
From the first few minutes, Lee recreates the terror, the tragedy, the anger, and the gallows humor that surrounded those horrific days last year. And he does it primarily by just listening…simply letting dozens of ordinary people tell their stories to the camera, along with additional interviews with historians and elected officials. The accompanying clips from news footage take on much more weight and meaning with the cumulative power of each of these stories.
The effect is an emotional mosaic, a rich and powerful picture of New Orleans and its citizens. It packs quite a wallop; you can expect to feel shaken afterward. Lee avoids political cheap shots for the most part. When he does edit one sequence so President Bush repeats, over and over, to FEMA Director Michael Brown, “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie,” it seems like the perfect way to handle that regrettable line. The film could be faulted for letting Mayor Ray Nagin off too easily – his plain-spoken charm is not refuted directly by the other voices, even that of historian Douglas Brinkley, whose recent book on the subject makes it clear he sees Nagin as self-serving and ineffective to a near-criminal degree.
Terence Blanchard, who is interviewed and shown in an emotional visit with his mother to their ruined family home, contributes a beautiful, elegiac score, as he has done for several of Lee’s dramatic features. The film also uses a considerable amount of both vintage and recent New Orleans music, to bittersweet effect.
The full title of the Ric Burns film is Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film. (All four of the documentaries I mention here have colons and subtitles, and all could do without them, but this is surely the most redundant.) It is a very different type of work, but equally extraordinary. Like Scorsese’s Bob Dylan film, it takes a biographical approach to a cultural icon of the 1960s. There’s a great deal of footage available, and the subject is intrinsically very exciting visually – the story of a graphic artist who changed both art and society.
The film might benefit from some contrarian voices. It takes the point of view that Warhol was the greatest and most important artist of the second half of the 20th century (Picasso owns the first half), and it makes a good case for this. You actually begin to understand how it could be that paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans really were revolutionary. But there are critics, such as Hilton Kramer and others, who think Warhol ruined art, made it trivial and silly and shamelessly commercial. The filmmakers should have allowed this viewpoint to be expressed, even if only to refute it.
But the sweep of the film is amazing anyway. Warhol was a supremely odd person and a genius, and his story is fascinating. The paintings and later the experimental underground films (many with a homoeroticism that was viewed as pornographic at the time) give your eyes and your mind plenty to feast on. The freak-show atmosphere that developed in Warhol’s studio, The Factory, is skillfully evoked, as is Andy’s infamous indifference to the many drug casualties among his hangers-on. And the attempted assassination that transformed his last 20 years makes a powerful climax.
The only movie I’ve seen this year so far that comes near When the Levees Broke and Andy Warhol for sheer intensity and power is United 93, and it is more docudrama than drama. (If you are one of those people who avoided seeing United 93 in a theater, and if you have any interest in movies as art, you need to get over yourself and rent it right now. It’s an astonishing movie, period.)
When the Levees Broke and Andy Warhol continue to be repeated on HBO and PBS. The Warhol film can also be pre-ordered from PBS on DVD. However you manage to see them, don’t miss two of the very best movies of the year.