Movie Reviews: Some Notable Documentaries you may have Missed




The U.S. vs John Lennon

Why would the president of the United States imagine a British rock ‘n’ roll singer to be his primary obstacle to re-election?

In David Leaf and John Scheinfeld‘s investigative documentary, “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” former FBI agent Wesley Swearingen suggests that “the problem was not with his music, but with his friends.”

It is a valid, if incomplete, point. Lennon’s financing of people the government was trying to incarcerate, such as John Sinclair and Bobby Seale, did not ingratiate him to the Nixon administration. But neither did his penning of songs such as “Give Peace a Chance,” which threatened to replace “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as the national anthem of the Vietnam years.

This exhaustive account of Lennon’s years from 1966 to 1976 reveals an unpleasant truth about government paranoia, and the lengths to which the highest office in the land will go to squelch the dissent of a radicalized culture.

The first half of the film is a history lesson set to Lennon’s music. The familiar 1960s images include atrocity photos from Vietnam and films of the 1968 police riots in Chicago. The second part focuses on Lennon’s 4 1/2-year battle against deportation. Letters from J. Edgar Hoover to John Haldeman are displayed as proof of government interference with the investigation. Tellingly enough, Nixon lost interest in the Lennon case after his re-election.

Leaf and Scheinfeld interview an impressive range of subjects, including Mario Cuomo, Angela Davis,Ron Kovic, G. Gordon Liddy, George McGovern,Jack Ryan, Seale, Tom Smothers and Gore Vidal.

Much of the film’s political content, including the Amsterdam bed-in and the concert for Sinclair, has been covered elsewhere. What is ultimately so special about this film is its handling of the relationship between Lennon and wife, Yoko Ono. The happiness of this creative couple, as they grow, share and experiment together, is undeniable. Shining through the bureaucratic harassment of the singer who was vilified for changing his tune from “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to “Revolution” is the indefatigable energy of young people in love.


The Trial of Darryl Hunt

This documentary could be shorter. Then again, so could the jail term served by Darryl Hunt for a crime of which he eventually was exonerated. Convicted without evidence or witnesses for the rape and murder ofDeborah Sykes, a 25-year-old white woman, the 19-year-old black man served 19 years in prison before the North Carolina judicial system accepted his innocence. Even when another man confessed to the crime after a DNA match, the courts were loath to vindicate him. This is a complicated tale that exposes how a credible case can be built upon perjuries and fabrications. Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg , who spent 10 years on the project, document Hunt’s battle for justice with clear-sighted patience, never attempting to dramatize that which does not conform to any kind of logic. Most of the scenes could never be played in a fictional narrative, as the mounting injustices would seem ludicrous within the conventions of courtroom drama. The final shock is Hunt’s own response to his ordeal. He seems to have no bitter or vengeful impulses. Instead, he accepts his fate as a living testimony against judicial partiality.

Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea

In California’s Imperial Valley, 50 miles south of Palm Springs, lies a rotting oasis in the middle of the desert that was created by an engineering mishap. The Salton Sea, once a tourist destination for the international set, is today the world’s greatest sewer, spitting dead fish and birds onto its toxic shores. Still, a handful of residents await the restoration of this fallen paradise, even as the last businesses close their doors. “Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea,” narrated by John Waters and featuring some of the most oddly outspoken eccentrics since “Vernon, Florida,” is both a history lesson on the birth and death of an American city and a portrait of people who refuse to give up on a dream. It is also a grass-roots ecological tract made up of equal parts science, folklore and kitschy nostalgia. Its cast of characters includes Hunky Daddy, a Yugoslavian freedom fighter who has found Eden in a beery haze; Leonard, the builder of Salvation Mountain, an ecclesiastical answer to the Watts Towers; and several welfare families who find the low-rent, crime-free environment preferable to the ghettos of Los Angeles. The soundtrack by the Friends of Dean Martiniz bridges the retro fantasy and the contemporary nightmare of the area’s landscapes and lifestyles.

In the Pit

In Mexico City, where there is plenty of money in corruption and honesty will get you only beans and eggs, hundreds of anonymous workers labored for more than three years to put the upper deck on the Periferico freeway. From the high girders to the excavations, misery finds plenty of company among the workers who prefer the perils of the job to the threat of hunger. Juan Carlos Rulfo‘s bleak documentary profiles just a few of those who toil pitiably to make an honest living. “One day we will see God, but who knows when,” one of them philosophizes. Another recounts the folk belief that the devil requires at least one soul for each bridge that is built. The film is as gritty as a long day’s work under the hot sun. In one sequence, as beams of iron move into position without showing the men operating the machinery, the freeway appears to be constructing itself. The last moments, an aerial shot along 10 1/2 miles of road, is narrated by the voices of workers who wonder what they will do when the job is completed. Life on the freeway is hell, but what comes next for these workers might be worse.


The Cats of Mirikitani

On the surface, Jimmy Mirikitani is a homeless artist who draws pictures of cats for Manhattan tourists. Beneath this surface lives a grand master whose dream of fusing Japanese and Western art was deferred by 3 1/2 years in a WWII internment camp. FilmmakerLinda Hattendorf met Mirikitani in the winter of 2001. When the collapse of the twin towers enveloped Soho in a cloud of toxic smoke, she invited the 80-year-old artist to stay with her. Her film is a record of their months together, during which time she helped him qualify for Social Security benefits and find housing. The film takes a big misstep when Hattendorf attempts to draw parallels between Mirikitani’s story and the post-9/11 persecution of Arab Americans. His individual history is more compelling than her generalized speculations on the continued U.S. persecution of “enemy aliens.” In its best moments, “The Cats of Mirikitani” captures both the tragedy and transcendence of his life, from the Sacramento-born, Hiroshima-raised youth who returned to the States in 1937 rather than join the Japanese Imperial Army, to the proudly self-sufficient man who struggled through New York’s fierce winters until gaining recognition both as an artist and a human being.






3 thoughts on “Movie Reviews: Some Notable Documentaries you may have Missed

  1. I have missed so many notable documentaries in my life, Bill, I really must try to catch up with a couple of these. ‘Salton Sea’, and ‘The Pit’ both look very interesting indeed.
    Best wishes, Pete.


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