documentary

Homme Less: Follow his Bliss, Expect his Truths

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The documentary film Homme Less, to me, wasn’t about being homeless. I had this discussion on the way home after seeing the film with a friend. She expressed her frustration with main character Mark as he roams around New York City in 200 dollar shoes and eats at fancy restaurants, but sleeps on rooftop buildings because he doesn’t have a home. He looks pretty good compared to all the other homeless men in New York City that the film captures as well. Men who are skin and bones, without shoes and shirts. But I think the film urges us to be frustrated with Mark and his self deprecation and also frustrated with the city, with the systems and the situations that people often get themselves into.

Despite the film’s title hinting towards the homeless issue, the documentary is unlike one I’ve ever experienced. It takes us behind the scenes of a life that seems good, a man that seems to have it figured out. Except this man, like the rest of us is complicated and so is his life. It’s full of anxiety, fun, sadness, and a cold loneliness that’s captured within a few hours. The film opens with these beautiful NYC scenes and jazz music that reoccurs throughout and when we first meet protagonist Mark and get to know his situation: sleeping on the rooftop of his friend’s apartment, showering at the YMCA and ironing his clothes before acting or photographing gigs, he really does seem to have this strange city life figured out. No his systems are not normal or expected, but they work for Mark as he saves his money by not paying rent. One of my favorite parts of the film is during the early stages of following Mark when he tells the camera he’s happy most of the time. It’s quiet after as he walks down the street while we wonder if happiness can mean living so minimalistic and alone. And then Mark almost whispers and emphasizes his happiness most of the time.

Then come the heartbreaking truths as we follow Mark day after day. The human condition as I say often is the strangest, truest and most interesting aspect of life. Mark is a walking study. We judge him and analyze him and wonder why he does the things he does. I too like my friend was frustrated because I saw his raw talent and his vivacious personality. Why is he limiting himself? Why isn’t he finishing projects or following up with people who could connect him to a steady job? Because he does not want to, because that would bore him? I’m not sure what the answers are and maybe Mark doesn’t know either. This is his condition. His human, conflicted condition.

There is so much truth to this film and one of the reasons I think is because of the friendship between filmmaker Thomas and Mark. Mark has no problem facing the camera and telling him how it is. Like how he’s obsessed with sex because he’s been deprived for so long, how he’s so scared his friends and family will find out the truth about him. At one point he faces the camera—my favorite part in the documentary—and tells us to lock our doors because he’s going to try and sleep on our couch. He’s talking to us, making us laugh and including us in on his deepest secrets.

Even though we see the many ways Mark holds himself back and breaks himself down, the film also points to the unfairness and realities about high price city living and of course this reoccurring theme of the American Dream. Even if Mark chooses to get a job and a cheap apartment (if cheap exists in NYC) would he make ends meet? As director Thomas stated during a Q&A after the film, Mark has it all: he’s white, male, and good looking so why isn’t he making it in the big apple? Once again the answers will vary depending on who you are and what you think after seeing Mark’s story unfold. It’s a film that has you talking, has you thinking. I wanted to shake Mark and hug Mark and hang out with Mark. He’s a fascinating human and the beauty of this piece lies somewhere different; it’s in the importance of one man and what he offers to the universe and what it’s offered to him.

I hope everyone gets to see this film at a festival where Thomas can answer questions and talk about the film because even more is revealed and even more questions are answered. And despite the film focusing on success verse failure, Thomas pointed out this fear of failing that all creative people feel, but in the end we have to take the leap and follow our passions. This led me to wonder: could Mark have done better? Summoned more courage and leapt farther and more willingly? Or did he give up? Did life’s demands swallow his passion to succeed? Or maybe there’s still time, which I think there is. Mark has succeeded in a lot of ways, whether he thinks so or not, but there’s still a chance to face and deplete those nightmares the film recognizes that’s held Mark back and that tend to hold many of us back.

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Life Itself: The Experience of Memories

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I finished Roger Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself last spring. There was only one thing I knew about Ebert prior to reading his book: he was known as one of the best film critics. The memoir was filled with early and late memories, a life so full and exciting, even though I didn’t know the man at all. However, after finishing I felt I like I truly knew Ebert and after seeing Steve James’s documentary that mimics the memoir, I feel like I know the prominent people in Ebert’s life as well like friend Gene Siskel and wife Chaz.

There are many differences between the memoir and documentary, but this is one of the things that sets the two apart. The talking head interviews that feature Ebert’s past colleagues, friends, and family are intimate and reveal a different side of him. We don’t just have Ebert telling us how he feels; instead it’s almost like a conversation. Snippets from the book are read as voice-over and in the next scene the exact person he was talking about will tell their side of the story. These interviewees also aren’t afraid to tell us what they think, they aren’t afraid to reveal the sides of Ebert that were not so charming.

However, if viewers really want a more personal look into Ebert’s life, reading the memoir is the way to go. A lot of the interior monologue throughout the novel was written while he lay in the hospital bed, unable to eat and drink, so unlike the film where we see the pain on Ebert’s face or imagine what he may be feeling, we read about it in Life Itself (although the gory details aren’t a huge part). But again, this is another thing that sets the film apart from what we may have learned through Ebert’s writing. We get to see the physical aspect of his life with cancer and all his surgeries. It’s hard to believe the man whose writing strength was so present and film criticisms were still on point was the same man unable to speak or communicate like the rest of us. It’s hard to imagine all those ideas were circulating in that mind, but could only be communicated in certain ways.

The Life Itself documentary shows us how much mental and physical strength it takes people like Ebert and his family to carry on. We see what it means to truly support and love someone through the very different relationships between Ebert and Chaz and Ebert and Siskel. Most of all, I truly recognized the lack of entertaining film criticism now that both Ebert and Siskel are gone. The documentary has clips from the Siskel & Ebert show throughout and I wanted to keep watching and hearing the arguments about the different films they had seen because there is such a lack of film discussion on television today. This winter, I have witnessed many broadcasters admit to not seeing any of the “big season films” right before they interview a star or feature a snippet from one of the Oscar nominated films. The entertainment side of the news focuses instead on who wore what at the latest award shows or what the Kardashian’s next season will look like.

If you care about film, you’ll find a way to discuss it, but when Ebert and Siskel were around it seemed the public who watched TV didn’t have a choice. Film was present, it was debated, it was alive and important no matter who you were. Film was made cool and not just the films that had explosions and special effects. It seems so simple: entertainment and education from listening to two people analyze a movie, but why now, has it disappeared? Perhaps the show’s legacy holds too high of a standard, but don’t you think Roger Ebert would want us to carry on? To not let new films pass by without discussion? And hopefully the documentary will do to others what it did to me. It opened my eyes to truths I hadn’t seen but also gave me hope through all those people who were inspired by Ebert that the film industry and critic community is not something depleting but relative and climbing.

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1: All Sides of the Story

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Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 is a documentary I knew would be depressing and perhaps unveil truths regarding issues that I hadn’t acknowledged, but that still didn’t prepare me for the heartbreak I felt while watching the Oscar winning short for 2014. Nor did I expect the adrenaline rush that kept me anxious with anticipation for more than half the film. I didn’t realize until now I was either on the brink of tears or nervous about the outcome of the featured hotline phone calls.

Yes the documentary has viewers thinking, feeling, sympathizing with veterans who reach the crisis hotline with a literal cry for help, but what I think of during these intense conversations are the victims on the other side. One of the featured responders explains to the camera, “Talk to any Vietnam veteran. Their orders were to shoot anything that moves.” He then poses questions: can you imagine what that must be like? To get that order and try to fit in with your unit and shoot anything that moves, but then it’s a family? These veterans are in a pain we can’t imagine, but this is the first film I have seen that focuses on the guilt veterans experience during war/postwar, although it’s seen slightly in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty when innocent children are found in Osama bin Laden’s home and are surrounded by their family’s dead bodies. These phone calls made me think about those in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam who saw their loved ones killed. Who do they get to call for help? Is there anyone to soothe their vivid memories? The documentary invites us to think about the PTSD that may triumph veterans’ lives, but also the realities of the other side that often go unnoticed.

What’s most interesting about this short is the absence of a narrator or even filmmaker. Documentaries usually end with a call to action and in some cases have the creator in the lens, pointing the finger, telling you how they feel, what is wrong and what needs to change. Instead, the camera is floating either outside the hotline headquarters with the American flag waving in the wind or indoors where the counselors tell a one sided story by answering hotline phone calls where most of the conversations featured are not men who just want to talk but are about the end their life and need someone to convince them otherwise. This comes with a lack of talking heads, which I didn’t necessarily mind. The counselors seldom sit down in front of the camera and tell us how it feels to hold such responsibility. We see it as their eyes gloss over when they hang up the phone or when they rest their head in their hands and wait for another coworker to help them cope with the contagious sadness.

Like most documentaries, there’s a lot said here. Much more that only 40 minutes worth, but the positive thing about the length is it gives us the chance to infer what issues need to be recognized without being too redundant. And it’s clear the issues are not only regarding veterans who need mental assistance and stabilization, but also about war, youth, America, and what this country means to so many people, especially those who have served in the military. The film doesn’t hit us over the head with a message, but creates many and injects us with compassion by the only visible people in the documentary: the counselors. Their occupations and entire beings reveal a humbleness and quiet emotion which contraries the film’s loud truths.