Should the Oscars Judge Documentaries on Cause or Craft?

I didn’t get to listen to this episode of “The Brian Lehrer Show” on the State of Documentary Film until after I’d written my “Kings of Pastry” review. Turns out, guest Matt Zoller Seitz (of Salon) also had something to say about the fact Frederick Wiseman has never received an Oscar (he also mentions the Maysles, noting they were finally nominated in 1974). Lehrer also mentions Pennebaker when addressing Direct Cinema, and this leads to Seitz reiterating that the Academy is always behind on what’s going on with the documentary mode. That’s why it’s surprising that “Exit Through the Gift Shop” was nominated (but not surprising why it will lose). Perhaps Banksy will be honored down the line if he continues making docs?

The initial discussion on the episode, which also features Slate‘s Dana Stevens, is what documentaries should be judged on, cause or craft. Entertainment value is added in there, too. I have to admit that while the Academy had gained a reputation for honoring films based on their cause, particularly in the days when it seemed to prefer Holocaust films and stuff like “Born Into Brothels,” but recently they’ve also been awarding stuff with greater storytelling craft, like “The Cove,” which is still a cause film, and “Man on Wire,” which almost lacks an issue altogether. But it is true, they don’t necessarily look at craft, not in the way of seeing what’s fresh and new to the mode. But then, do they really do that with any of their categories?

For my vote for and predictions of the doc Oscars, see my Doc Talk column at Cinematical.

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Review: “Kings of Pastry”

As Oscar weekend begins, it’s worth noting, as many bloggers like to do, how many great filmmakers have never won Academy Awards. Documentary legends Frederick Wiseman and DA Pennebaker are among them, and each released new films last year. But they were both considered “light” works for their talents. I nevertheless consider Wiseman’s “Boxing Gym” to be one of the best docs of 2010, while Pennabaker’s latest, “Kings of Pastry,” is definitely on the insubstantial side of his career. At 85 years old (you wouldn’t know it, if you’ve seen him in person recently), he’s at least still working. But I don’t think I’d recommend it to people who aren’t total foodies or Pennebaker fanatics, and even then it’s likely too unrecognizable in style to his direct-cinema classics that even devotees may be a little disappointed.

Penny seems mainly a co-director of the film (as IMDb credits him), somewhat secondary to wife Chris Hegedus, who can be heard a few times from behind the camera. The two were Oscar-nominated as a team back in 1994 for “The War Room” (screening on the Documentary Channel this weekend) and haven’t done a whole lot of major work together since — though Hegedus has done great, timely collaborations with other filmmakers, like “Startup.com” (co-directed by Jehane Noujaim) and “Al Franken: God Spoke” (co-directed by regular cinematographer Nick Doob), which I listed as one of the best of the 2000s. I guess it’s a shame she still hasn’t won an Oscar, as well.

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Documentary Channel Presents Oscar Marathon This Weekend

Since Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar is pretty lacking in the documentary department, The Documentary Channel comes to our rescue this weekend. Or yours. Unfortunately, I don’t get the network (Cablevision be damned). I wish, even if it would mean I got nothing else done the next few days besides catching up on old docs. The channel’s marathon of Oscar-nominated shorts and features starts tomorrow at 4pm with the 2004 short “Hardwood” and continues through Monday, ending with the 1978 short “Gravity is My Enemy.”

Here’s the trailer/ad:

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Trailer: “Battle for Jerusalem”

This isn’t a trailer for a finished film, and it’s nearly 10 minutes long. Director Liz Nord (“Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land”) is working on finishing “Battle for Jerusalem” and is sharing this footage in order to solicit funding. Here is the doc’s synopsis:

“Battle For Jerusalem” follows five young, Jewish artists and activists who strive to revitalize Israel’s capital in the midst of an escalating conflict for control of the city between the growing ultra-Orthodox and the majority moderate communities. Against many odds, these committed citizens are working to keep the city vibrant and religiously tolerant, resulting in a burgeoning cultural renaissance.

The film has already been successful at crowdsourcing financing through IndieGoGo, but continued, needed donations can be made at the “Battle for Jerusalem” website here. Watch the ‘background trailer’ below.

“Exit” Wins Eddie, Forecasts Oscar Success

Following their win at the Cinema Eye Honors last month, Exit Through the Gift Shop editors Tom Fulford and Chris King picked up the Eddie for best editing of a documentary last night. As I’ve always said, it’s really the editing that makes a great doc, and while I don’t love Exit (I like it) I can assume why it is as good as it is has a lot to do with Fulford and King shaping the story out of Thierry’s initial pile of tapes (surely a thankless assistant deserves recognition for logging all that material) and Bansky’s amateur direction (amateur as in first time, not weak). So kudos to them!

Now it seems more likely Exit will get the Oscar for Best Documentary (Feature). Of the last five Academy Award winners in the category, only one did not first win an Eddie — Taxi to the Darkside had not received a nomination from ACE, so Sicko won the Eddie in 2008. The stats going further back, however, show only 6 out of the last ten Oscar winners pregaming with an Eddie win.

I still expect Exit to lose, and not just because its title kind of sounds like Taxi’s. But I also still want it to win, and not just because it is edited well. See my Oscar prediction at Cinematical for more about that.

Review: “Norman Mailer: The American”

Last night I attended a special screening of Joseph Mantegna’s Norman Mailer: The American, part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s bi-monthly Independents Night series, which presents NYC premieres of new American documentaries. And my main take-away with the experience was: what an antithesis of the audience for a Justin Bieber documentary!

Yes, leave it to me to compare Justin Bieber: Never Say Never with Norman Mailer: The American, but the latter is the first doc I’ve seen theatrically since the former and I just couldn’t help thinking about them together. For instance, Never Say Never is about a kid who hasn’t really lived much yet and his biographical concert film is more broadly about the zeitgeist of the last couple years. Meanwhile, the Mailer film is about a man who lived a very long and very full life, and his bio ends up more broadly being about the zeitgeist of a great many years. In a way, at least for now, Bieber represents the 21st century as much as Mailer represents the 20th.

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Trailer: “Cinema Verite”

“Cinema verite, right? Whatever happens happens”

That’s the sound bite to leave with from this trailer for HBO’s Cinema Verite, which dramatizes the making of the pioneering reality series (then still thought of as a documentary series) An American Family. Directed by American Splendor‘s Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the movie  stars Tim Robbins and Diane Lane as the Loud parents, Thomas Dekker as gay hero Lance, James Gandolfini as producer Craig Gilbert and Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins as future Oscar winners Alan and Susan Raymond.

All this does is make me want to finally get to watch the original series, which isn’t officially commercially available.