Ken Burns

Robin Williams Teddy Roosevelt

As with any Ken Burns documentary, PBS’s The Roosevelts (having finished its second of seven two-hour episodes last night) features a trove of archival material including photographs, documents, newspaper headlines, excerpts of diaries and books reads by actors ranging from Meryl Streep to Billy Bob Thornton, and new footage from the preserved estates of the title characters. Yet what dominated yesterday’s entry (which takes place roughly between 1901 and 1909) was silent film footage of the United States’ 26th President, often brought to life for a sound-sync audience through music or even foley effects. While Burns’s films are known for their archival display, they don’t always contextualize how certain information is made available at certain points in history. Yet as The Roosevelts promises to cover over a century of ground between 1858 and 1962, the way information spread is a story that will inevitably be told, explicitly or implicitly. Between the early days of the moving image alongside the rise of industrialization in the late 19th century to Hollywood’s important role in rallying Americans during WWII, the story of how media develops in turn shapes how history is known.

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Joe-Berlinger-Crude

With Earth Day coming up next week, it’s the time of year to highlight documentaries dealing with our planet and its well-being. In other words, we’ve got environmentalism films to recommend. For our first list devoted to this theme, I’m interested specifically in the low points, the damage that’s been done to the earth, some of it ongoing and some of it remedied. These docs look at disasters like pollution, oil spills, changes to eco-systems and more. And they aren’t all necessarily issue films devoted to making a difference. Most are simply a look at what’s been done. All are necessary works to remind us, maybe affect us, but also to stimulate us in other ways, too. Below are 12 nonfiction features — a few of them Oscar nominees and a couple of them outright masterpieces — from Werner Herzog, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Noriaka Tsuchimoto, Joe Berlinger, Ken Burns and other great filmmakers who know how to create a feeling in us, whether or not they’re also communicating direct information about these disasters. Where known and available, I’ve noted how you can watch each one. Before the Mountain Was Moved Robert K. Sharpe‘s Oscar-nominated 1970 feature is about the effects of strip mining in West Virginia. The primary focus is on the people living in an area where private homes are being damaged by the mountain top removal process and their attempt to either sue the coal company or at least get them to stop being “bad strippers.” It’s […]

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joan rivers a piece of work

March is Women’s History Month in the U.S., and while we’ve already honored the occasion with a feature on women’s personal films, it’s about time for a list of great documentaries offering stories of significant women and events. Sadly, it’s not as easy to find a lot of worthy films as it was for our Black History Month equivalent in February. There aren’t as many exceptional docs on the women’s movement as there are on the African American Civil Rights movement. The crop is sure to grow, however, not just on efforts to present the history of feminism but also to showcase important women in history, such as Alice Guy-Blache, an early filmmaking pioneer whose life is the subject of an upcoming doc from executive producer Robert Redford. Another expected to be out this year is on computer language heroine Grace Hopper. And the work that Women Make Movies is doing to support films about women is always increasing and improving. It’s not that there is lack of great docs focused on women. In fact, there are tons with women subjects, but not of a historical nature. The following films are about women who’ve made strides toward gender equality or who’ve made some sort of momentous achievement independently of any movement. READ MORE AT NONFICS

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KenBurnsWorldWarZ

World War Z is not a very faithful adaptation. By placing it during the war, director Marc Forster and star Brad Pitt have fundamentally altered Max Brooks‘ after-the-fact oral history. Which is understandable. They wanted a big-budget, globe-spanning adventure, and that’s hard to squeeze out of a guy traveling the world calmly speaking with survivors. The movie is out this weekend (Rob’s review), and we couldn’t help but wonder what it would have looked like if it were a little more faithful to the book. So we turned to our old pal Sleepy Skunk to make a video that imagines what Ken Burns‘ version of World War Z would have been like. For all of you aching for a zombie documentary, here’s a small piece of alternate history.

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The Central Park Five

Editor’s note: The Central Park Five begins a limited roll-out today, so here is a re-run of our Cannes Film Festival review, originally published on May 27, 2012. The Cannes official selection usually includes a couple of interesting documentaries to cleanse the pallet of all the high-art and fiction, and this feature-length portrait of the infamous New York rape case certainly offered something more for those film fans who like to get their factual kicks, from director/producer trio Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. For those whose who are not familiar with the film’s story, The Central Park Five case chronicles the 1989 rape of a white female jogger, who was discovered badly beaten and barely alive in Central Park. Five black and Latino youths from Harlem, just 14 to 16 years old, were subsequently taken in for questioning, and under coercion and pressurized circumstances confessed separately (or implicated one another) to their involvement in the beating and rape. Their confessions were contradictory, and certain details of the evidence didn’t corroborate their guilt, but the five were charged and sent to prison regardless, serving between 6 and 13 years for a crime they maintained never to have committed.

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The Central Park Five Trailer

The form and aesthetic of Ken Burns’ documentary work has become so well-known and so well-defined at this point that there are probably people out there working in the audiovisual arts who know how to use the “Ken Burns effect,” but have no idea where the term came from. From the breakthrough doc, Brooklyn Bridge, that launched his career, to his big documentary series that defined it, like The Civil War and Baseball, Burns has continuously proven himself to be an icon of the documentary filmmaking game. So when a new trailer for one of his movies comes out, you pretty much know what to expect. The only real questions are going to be, “What’s this one about? What new subject is he going to be poring over archival documents to research?” This time around Burns has made a film (alongside co-directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon) called The Central Park Five, which details the conviction and incarceration of five teenagers who were wrongly accused of committing a rape in Central Park back in 1989.

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One plus one equals three. It’s a fascinating idea in its simplicity and in its wrongness, but it’s the key to Ken Burns‘s work. According to the iconic documentary filmmaker (and sometimes Community homage subject), that’s the math that adds up to his storytelling success. The director is now the subject of a short documentary (because art has a sense of humor) from Sarah Klein and Tom Mason called Ken Burns: On Story (via The Atlantic). In it, they ask the central question of storytelling’s nature, and he answers with a little fuzzy math. Check it out for yourself:

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Culture Warrior

Editor’s Note: With Landon still celebrating Marcel Pagnol’s birthday, Cole was left to write this week’s entry. Please don’t riot. Every so often, The History Channel will play The Planet of the Apes, and it freaks me out. In recent years, the station has lost the meaning of its name completely, but a few years ago, I genuinely worried that someone would stumble upon the movie in progress, see the logo at the bottom, and be convinced that there was a time in Earth’s history that we were ruled by simians. There’s no proof, but considering that people have tried to rob banks with permanent marker all over their faces as a “disguise,” it seems possible that at least one person would be confused by a non-fiction station about our past playing a fictional movie where Moses pounded his fist into the sand in horror. Maybe there’s no real danger of that, but it still displays a certain power that movies have. They, like all stories, are how we share with each other. From person to person, from culture to culture, movies provide a certain shared sentience. A great story, told well, can transport and give insight into What It’s Like, especially in a world where photography and audio recording are relatively new technologies. The hitch is that there are still limitations to the art. The camera always lies, so even as we grasp toward understanding, it’s easy to be misled when it comes to experiences we have no personal […]

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Culture Warrior

I often find that, as a devotee to cinema and little else, I understand history through cinema. After all, cinema can take me to places I’ve never been and times I never lived with a particular sensory gestalt that’s simply not quite the same in other art forms. This is not to say that I make the mistake of substituting cinema for history, or treat cinema the same way I would treat a credible historical annal. But cinema, especially narrative fiction, has a fascinating capacity to represent subjective experiences and particular perspectives of history. By considering history through its cinematic representation, we may not become authorities of chronology, but rather understand emotions and experiences associated with lived events. Few movies claim to be comprehensive authorities of historical representation through cinema (and yes, selection, while problematic is essential for historical writing as well, but cinema simply provides yet another layer of artifice). Some films are canonized as such (anything from Saving Private Ryan to Ken Burns’s documentaries), but even as these are incomplete historiographies, they are in a sense “complete” biographies of thought, reflection, interpretation, and emotion.

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This week, on a very special episode of Reject Radio, we talk with sex symbol and film legend Angie Dickinson, discuss the parasitic relationship between studios and theaters, talk Bellflower‘s marketing strategy, and play a game we’re calling “Co-Directors.” Former assistant theater manager, massive film fan, and creative director at Rock Sauce Studios John Gholson explains how studios and theaters work together. He also makes a sex comedy featuring Andy Griffith seem just as enticing as it is in real life. Angie Dickinson has starred in over 50 films, played iconic roles from Rio Bravo to Ocean’s Eleven, and she was kind enough to spend some time talking to us about working with Sam Fuller and Frank Sinatra, creating her characters, and how movie-making has changed. FSR’s own Culture Warrior (and one of the Talking Heads) Landon Palmer braves a segment where we come up with directors we’d like to see work together, pitch a project for them, and figure out if it has a chance of getting made. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Murder sounds like it could be a massive hit. Plus, our very own Jeremy Kirk matches movie news wits with Peter Hall from Hollywood.com. Who will triumph at the sound of the correct answer bell and who will be forced to narfle the garthok? Loosen up your tie and stay a while. Listen Here: Download This Episode

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‘The War’ is Hell, As It Should Be

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published: 11.21.2014
D
published: 11.21.2014
B+
published: 11.19.2014
C+
published: 11.19.2014
B-, C


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