Feasting on New Documentaries

I managed to catch 25 films at the Seattle International Film Festival in May and June--my idea of heaven! There is significant overlap with the earlier Portland International Film Festival, but SIFF runs twice as long so there is plenty of reason to make the investment in a trip to Seattle to see things that may have only a short theatrical release. This week I'll cover the documentaries I saw, and I'll cover the remaining feature films next week--and where I can, I'll let you know where you can find them. There's something for everyone.

Many of the best films were profiles of people worth knowing about. My favorite was "David Crosby: Remember My Name," in which the most notoriously hedonistic and troubled member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (and the various other configurations in which they performed) reflects on the life he has lived hard. I really hope that Crosby is as honest and likeable as he comes off here; even while he acknowledges what an often insufferable friend and bandmate he has been and how he has alienated everyone he has every played with, Crosby comes off as relentlessly real and doesn't make excuses. It is a compelling window into the world of the '60s and '70s when their music was breaking new ground¬, full of interesting stories (like how Joni Mitchell communicated that she was breaking up with Crosby) and beautiful music that stands the test of time. And Crosby, now 78, still tours and write songs and sings like an angel. He's the classic example of an artist whose spirit shines through time and his own failures. The film opens theatrically this month.

I knew nothing about the famous bandoneon composer and musician Astor Piazzolla and little about tango music before seeing the documentary exploration of Piazzolla’s life. “Piazzolla, the Years of the Shark” worked remarkably well in opening his story and also in helping me understand why I should care—so much so that it motivated me to seek out his music. The film makes good use of archival footage and recordings made available by Piazzolla’s son, and presents a compelling picture of what shaped this driven and confident change maker--the son of devoted parents who had immigrated to Argentina from Italy--who pulled tango music into a new direction. Its subject matter, though quite worthy of broader attention, makes a U.S. theatrical release unlikely, but I hope it will become available online.

For the second time (the first being “Life Itself,” the inferior Roger Ebert documentary), a film critic has become the subject of a biographical documentary. “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” examines the life of the critic, who wrote for The New Yorker from the late 1960s into the 1980s. One of the few women to write film criticism in a market still dominated by men, Kael was an iconoclast who shaped popular culture with her sometimes merciless analysis. There is a lot to admire in her incisive writing and her clarity; she was definitely used to being the smartest person in the room and exercised an outsized influence on American film culture. On the other hand, having broken into a man's world, Kael does not come off as someone who was mindful to open space for other voices. As a film geek, I found much to enjoy in this film; as an intersectional feminist, I was not inspired.