Watch: Robert Greene’s Short Doc “Goodbye Engineer”

Filmmaker Robert Greene (“Kati With an I”) would like to share a gift of sorts this Father’s Day. “Goodbye Engineer” is a 20 minute documentary commemorating the passing of Greene’s grandfather, Robert Sr. (the filmmaker is a III), who died of lung cancer June 11, 2010. The film features the voice, over the phone, of grandmother Dee Greene. She tells of meeting her husband and their life together right up to his last morning as home movie and other archival footage (and some new shots, too) illustrate the somber story. “It’s personal and emotional and all that so be prepared,” Greene wrote of the short. Even with preparation it’s pretty devastating in the end.

The film is also a very sad reminder, particularly through its inclusion of a bit of a 30-year-old “20/20” news story on the first ten years of the War on Cancer (and the National Cancer Act of 1971), that it’s been four decades and we’re still without a cure. Sure, there is some great medical magic going on, like the sort that kind of ‘cured’ my own father’s cancer by removing and rearranging some organs, but even then his after effects (combined with other complications) have been unpleasant enough to keep him from attending my wedding last weekend (also June 11).

Anyway, never mind my own personal and emotional story for right now and instead watch Greene’s film after the jump. And happy father’s day to all dads, living or not.

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Doc News: Elton John; “Big River Man”; DocPoint NYC

– HBO Documentary Films has picked up Cameron Crowe’s “The Union,” which documents the collaboration of Elton John and Leon Russell, which does make it sound like an advertisement at worst, a making of film for an album at best. Having made its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival last month, the cable outlet will give the rock doc its TV premiere in January 2012. Crowe, who was a music journalist before becoming a filmmaker, finally dove into documentary this year with a double dose. His other new rock doc, “Pearl Jam Twenty,” arrives to fans-only delight this fall.

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On HBO Tonight: “Bobby Fischer Against the World”

I may have been a little harsh in my headline for my review of “Bobby Fischer Against the World” over at Spout. It’s really not a bad film, just not as focused or pointed as it could have been, I guess. I still found most of Fischer’s story very interesting, mostly thanks to the people telling it through the interview material. If you have HBO and love docs you’ll find some enjoyment in it tonight, 9pm (and subsequently On Demand through 9/11 if you miss the premiere). Here’s an excerpt from my review:

It’s also an interesting doc to watch after either (or both) “The Tree of Life,” with its simplistic dealings with Heideggerian ideas (which someone like Fischer must have shared, even if he didn’t read the philosopher, and I’m not just referring to their mutual Antisemitism), and “X-Men First Class,” which relates to Fischer’s 1972 World Championship win against Boris Spassky in that they both involve exploitation of the Cold War for popular entertainment (in the X-Men universe, were there also evil mutants at play in Reykjavik that summer?). More than a decade before “Rocky IV” and years prior to the 1980 Olympic hockey game between the U.S. and USSR (depicted in “Miracle”), the East vs. West tension played out over a chess board.

Check out the UK trailer, which I posted recently, here.

Doc News: Ken Burns Tourism; Colin Hanks Reaches Goal; Netflix Removes “Death Scenes”

– Any documentary fans looking for summer vacation ideas? Well, as was announced last fall, Ken Burns is now involved in the tourism industry with a company called Tauk. Through the partnership, the filmmaker has produced a series of “filmed narratives” called “Stories by Ken Burns” which coincide with special Burns-inspired trips (titled) “Crafted by Tauk & Ken Burns.” One involves places featured in his “Civil War” series while another, based on his “National Parks” series, takes you through the national parks of the southwest. One-day-only trips called “Ken Burns Events” are also offered, one tied to “Civil War” (which happened in May) and another based on his “Jazz” series. It’s kind of like Alamo Drafthouse’s Rolling Roadshow in a way, bridging cinephiles with special cine-tourism opportunities, yet these are more about pre-existing significance as opposed to locations turned famous by films.

Check out a trailer/ad for the tours and events after the jump.

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Doc News: Federal Judge Labels Documentary Filmmaking a Hobby; Freetown Christiania; YouTube

– Here’s the most ludicrous thing you’ll read all day: federal tax court judge Diane Kroupa has decidedly stated that due to documentary film’s purpose to “educate and expose,” non-fiction filmmakers may not be allowed to make a profit on their “work,” which the IRS will therefore instead consider a “hobby.” There is no ruling yet, but according to International Documentary Association executive director Michael Lumpkin (via the IDA’s magazine and website), Kroapa raised the question in an Arizona court back in March whether or not Lee Storey (“Smile ’Til It Hurts: The Up with People Story”), or any other documentary filmmaker, should be allowed to deduct business expenses accrued during production.

This is surely the scariest thing to happen to the doc community since the recent federal order for Joe Berlinger to hand over raw footage tapes from his film “Crude.” Both cases broadly kill documentary’s qualifications as journalism (the IRS allows print investigative journalists to make a profit), but this news confuses me more. If documentaries can’t be profitable, then can’t they at least have the tax benefits of a non-profit organization? And also, if they’re not allowed to make a profit, will major studios and distributors lose what minor interest they have in the form? So many questions to think about, but the only answer I keep coming up with is that Kroupa apparently needs to watch more documentaries. While it still hurts the greater consideration of docs as journalism, we need her to know docs aren’t all and only about information and awareness. [via Kartemquin Films]

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Trailer: “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest”

After the poster for “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” hit last week, I knew the trailer couldn’t be too far off. Of course, Sony (or was it just Yahoo!?) got the film’s recognizable actor-turned-director, Michael Rapaport, to introduce the ad, because stars can sometimes sell audiences on documentaries. Sure, the members of A Tribe Called Quest are stars in their own right, but Rapaport’s goofy face will have you smiling and drawn in before you even spot Q-Tip, Phife and Ali Shaheed Muhammad on the screen (following or intercut quickly with some more famous people like Common, Ludacris, Questlove, Pharell Williams and Beastie Boys). By the time the “Can I Kick It?” beats explode, you’re probably already hooked.

But if not, let me remind you all that this is not just a typical music biopic and being a fan of Tribe or any hip-hop is not required. The drama of this group, through its back story and more direct, current documentation, is must see stuff for anyone who enjoys movies. Rapaport has an inquisitive eye in doc-making I wouldn’t have pegged him for, and the result is one of the best non-fiction films of the year. Check out my review from Sundance for more praise and watch the trailer for the film, which opens July 8, over at Yahoo! Movies.


Can a Narrative Film Be Remade as a Documentary?

In my latest Doc Talk column at, I ask the question, “Can a narrative film be remade as a documentary?” Inspired in part by Hal Ashby’s “The Landlord” and Martin Scorsese’s “Public Speaking,” as well as Scorsese’s confirmed future collaboration with Lars von Trier for a new “The Five Obstructions” project, the post also involves Werner Herzog, “American Teen,” “The Parking Lot Movie,” “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” “The King of Kong” and “Page One: Inside the New York Times.” Also: minor thoughts about new releases “American: The Bill Hicks Story,” “The King Speaks” and “Rejoice and Shout.” Here’s a teasing snippet:

But here is a novel idea that might also work in a reciprocal way: remaking narrative features as documentaries. Actually, I should stress that it should be fiction films, since narrative features can include works based on true stories, which wouldn’t be too unlikely or difficult. For instance, Werner Herzog could have technically made the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly after making the dramatic version, Rescue Dawn, as opposed to vice versa.

Read the rest at and then share some possible fiction films that could have also worked as a documentary in the comments section.

Doc News: “Connected” Acquired; CIA-Produced Film Discovered; “Superheroes” on HBO

– Tiffany Shlain’s “Connected” (formerly subtitled “An Autoblogography About Love, Death & Technology”) has been acquired by Paladin four months following its Sundance debut, according to indieWIRE. The distributor will release the doc in the fall, beginning with a bow in San Francisco this September ahead of the usual NYC/LA opening. I saw the film in Park City, where I was impressed with its ability to balance a personal first-person story with an informative exploration of, well, everything. At the time I wrote a note about it being like a sequel to “We Live in Public.” Mix in the ambition, if not necessarily the levels of achievement, of “Sherman’s March” and “The Tree of Life,” and I’m maybe still with that note.

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Trailer: “General Orders No. 9”

The (appropriately timely) comparisons to Terrence Malick are obvious even without the pull quote from Hammer to Nail‘s Michael Tully or the acknowledgement from /Film’s Russ Fischer (on whose post I saw this trailer). Just look at the award-winning, visually poetic cinematography and listen to the pensive voice-over narration from William Davidson, who sounds like a drawling Emilio Estevez (son of “Badlands” star — but not narrator — Martin Sheen). The film in question is titled “General Orders No. 9,” and it’s the longtime effort of first-time filmmaker Robert Persons. Perhaps he’s inspired by Malick, but I might be more inclined to think about another disciple, David Gordon Green, whose earlier work seems more similarly interested in the rusting decay of the changing Southern American landscape.

The “tone poem” style documentary, which made its way through the festival circuit in ’09-’10, is also being likened to the work of Godfrey Reggio (“Koyaanisqatsi”), but I’d place its kinship even before that with his city symphony predecessors. “General Orders No. 9” isn’t about just one city, though, so let’s call it a South symphony film. It additionally seems like both the perfect companion and the very antithesis of something like “Sherman’s March.” As much as I hate to say it, I kind of understand why the doc currently has an embarrassing 3.4/10 rating at IMDb. It must be really fresh and wonderful.

I literally just marked June 24 on my calendar, because that’s when “General Orders No. 9” opens at Brooklyn’s awesome reRun Gastropub Theater (playing through June 30 only). Join me there for the first showing. You’ll want to after viewing the trailer after the jump.

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Doc News: “Life in a Day” Special Release Date; SnagFilms on Roku; RIP Adolfas Mekas

– This July 24, one year following the date all footage was (or should have been) shot for Kevin Macdonald’s user-generated doc “Life in a Day,” the film will be released to select U.S. cinemas. Now, that is a sunday, but due to the anniversary occasion, this sort-of soft opening will happen for a one-night event, in which participating filmmakers (aka contributing camera-persons) will take part in a live, interactive Q&A, courtesy of Cinedigm Digital Cinema Corp. Then, the documentary, which was produced by Ridley Scott, will officially open in theaters that Friday, July 29.

Having been skeptical going in, I have to admit I was very pleasantly surprised by this film, which I jokingly coined “YouTubisquatsi.” In my review from Sundance I also called it a “spellbinding montage” with a “gradient spectrum of moods and tones, tropes and answers” that will be experienced differently by each of its viewers. I highly recommend seeing it on the big screen.

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