by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

DOC NYC 2021 — Dispatch 2: Listening to Kenny G, Ascension, Attica

Credit: HBO

Listening to Kenny G

Saxophonist Kenneth Bruce Gorelick aka Kenny G was, at one time, possibly the most well-known jazz musician in the world (he was Bill Clinton’s fav) and still remains the best-selling instrumentalist of all time — two embarrassing factoids that seem impossible to reconcile — partly because his music has become so ingrained within popular culture. His playing style and signature sound, which long-time hater Paul Metheny once christened as “lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling”, has touched the lives of millions of listeners, yet has also become synonymous with the type of tunes heard at a doctor’s office. It’s calming, but has a slight pulse; it’s inoffensive, but still technically proficient enough to warrant a listen — the sort of sound that lulls one into a passive state. Gorelick’s not the greatest saxophone player in the world, but he’s certainly sold more records than whoever is — which makes a lot of people justifiably very angry. His fame has been fueled by a sorta “love him or hate him” mentality that sharply divides critics and listeners, a strict dichotomy that becomes the central crux of Penny Lane’s Listening to Kenny G

Lane’s documentary isn’t interested in making qualitative assessments of the man’s art — if anything, it’s a bit too defensive of it on the basis that since others like it, there must be some merit; a faux-populist sentiment that reinforces the hegemony. Rather, Listening positions it within a context to provide some baseline validity to the strongly-worded sentiments being launched in either critical direction, largely attributing Gorelick’s early success to the ingenious PR tactics Clive Davis employed to secure his radio play — the nebulous quality of his music allowed push on R&B, Pop, and Jazz stations — with Kenny himself noting that this initial marketing pushed him as a sort of racially ambiguous performer. When pressed elsewhere on the privileges his white skin color has afforded him within a Black art form, Gorelick admits he hasn’t given the subject much thought — though he is willing to concede it has “probably” helped him. This eventually becomes the work’s more interesting internal conflict and throughline: that amidst a discourse on cultural racism and artistic gentrification, Gorelick seems blissfully unaware (or is generally lacking in any interpersonal awareness) of the many ways that his mere presence is something of a microaggression. He truly believes that he deserves all the recognition he’s received because he practices for three hours a day; in his mind, this is hard work paying off, end of the story. When visiting his old high school, he’s asked to leave some words of wisdom for the students; he writes on a wall to “practice, practice, practice,” an obsessive attitude he brings to his other hobbies (golf and aviation being the big two), all of which he treats with this same completionist mentality. He doesn’t care about following traditions or respecting history — most cogently presented when he explains the rationale behind that post-mortem Louis Armstrong collab, which resulted in the aforementioned Metheny tirade — and is still around today because he’s willing to play into the joke, all while continuing to successfully maneuver through correct distribution and media channels (that hot guest appearance on that Ye track, which is further expounded on here, anyone?). It’s in these moments where Lane fulfills the titular promise of her work: by making the act of listening to Kenny G — musician and human being — a singularly probing practice in and of itself.

Writer: Paul Attard


Credit: MTV Documentary Films

Ascension

Civilization’s pursuit of unfettered growth has often clashed with its purported foundations of equity, and the result is frequently expressed and interpreted through images of cutting absurdity, each juxtaposing the vanity of grand developmental movements within sobering frames of underdevelopment. This absurdity usually underscores satire, civilization’s sharpest bulwark against tyranny; lately, however, even satirists find themselves floundering between the increasingly blurry worlds of fable and reality. Modern China offers a prime example of this uneasy imbalance at work, its myriad contradictions having surfaced through recent decades of economic modernization and globalization to glare, unabashed, at the recalcitrant onlooker. Its 1.4 billion citizens are, relative to Western standards, culturally homogeneous and politically acquiescent; each of them, nonetheless, faces similar obstacles in the pursuit of success, measured in no different terms from their global counterparts but scaled against far greater heights. The gaokao, China’s college entrance exam, pits adolescents against one another in a do-or-die battle for the chance to live beyond gruelling mediocrity. For those who can’t do, teaching isn’t a safety net they can fall back on.

Ascension, Jessica Kingdon’s documentary of modern China, surveys this silent majority, left in the wake of a national dream to behold the signifiers of its unkept promises. Comprising factory operators, aspiring influencers, security personnel, laborers, hospitality workers, and so on, China’s urban working class are privy to their country’s unceasing transformations, witnessing in real time the latter’s affective and awesome malleability: as pragmatic producer, consumer, competitor for and against the West, and as idealistic defender of traditional beliefs and values. The symbiosis between capitalist practice and cultural patriotism finds its strongest articulation in the many trenchant portraits Kingdon distills out of her sociological project — female workers are shown handling ever-sophisticated sex dolls meant for export with wry disinterest; participants in a hospitality seminar are taught the number of teeth to display when smiling; and social media presence, most pervasively, embeds itself within their national consciousness, invoked as the lifeblood of corporate triumph and internalized as normal, apolitical distraction from the rude tedium of working-class life under authoritarian rule. The onlooker’s dispassionate gaze over Ascension’s more grotesque proceedings accords it an air of drollery reminiscent of Roy Andersson, and its cross-section diversity recalls the quietly sweeping strokes of Wang Xiaoshuai’s Chinese Portrait. But more than anything else, Ascension critiques the leviathan state of ruthlessly impersonal materialism imposed by reformist technocrats upon ordinary people, and succeeds where obstreperous satires have failed precisely because of its documentarian framework. Its Mandarin title relays a sorrowful spectacle of development undertaken without nourishment, blindly entreated as ideological mantra for the Chinese Dream; “a featherless phoenix” that proves “inferior to a chicken,” as succinctly put by one. The grating success behind this mantra owes itself, perhaps, to China’s “empire of signs,” a phrase first coined by Roland Barthes in his analysis of post-war Japan but strikingly relevant to the present-day codification of desires and hierarchies within its neighbor’s screen-saturated and polysemous realities. Neither didactic nor restrained, Kingdon’s mesmerizing film uncovers to considerable chagrin the face of a nation’s stoic realism, mounting noble remediation on a grossly inequitable system all but guaranteed its slow descent toward resignation.

Writer: Morris Yang


Attica

Most people’s familiarity with the Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971 is strictly limited to Sidney Lumet’s 1975 crime drama Dog Day Afternoon, in which Al Pacino’s amateur bank robber can be heard bellowing the famed prison’s name as police threaten to swarm his location. Stanley Nelson’s new documentary Attica attempts to rectify that injustice, shedding light on the five-day riot that saw 29 individuals dead by its endpoint. Nelson wastes no time in setting the scene, throwing the viewer straight into the events that resulted in the 1,200+ inmate population wresting control of the facility from its heavily-armed guards, with 42 correctional officers and civilian workers taken hostage in the process. Realizing they were occupying a rare place of power, the men banded together and attempted to instigate wide-reaching changes within the institution, one nationally known for its poor living conditions and reliance on brute force to maintain order. These individuals were not seeking ridiculous demands — well, not entirely. As several of the former inmates admit, perhaps seeking amnesty through government-funded plane rides to the shores of Cuba was a little far-fetched. But at the end of the day, these men simply wanted to be treated like human beings, afforded the tiniest bit of compassion and dignity. Each of the inmates interviewed deliver their own horror stories of the conditions they endured, how a doctor’s inspection of a head wound consisted of merely administering another severe blow to the affected area, or how the guards would routinely beat and torture those prisoners they found especially problematic — i.e. Black. Make no mistake, Attica is nothing if not a portrait of the systemic racism that allowed a place like Attica to exist in the first place, and operate in the horrendous manner in which it did. The inmates discuss how they had to work together if they ever hoped to get out of the dire situation in which they found themselves, various races and religious backgrounds putting aside their differences in the name of human rights, while the predominately white men of power outside of the facility’s walls conspired to end the situation as quickly as possible, human life be damned; the irony is certainly not lost on Stanley. The prisoners knew that harming the hostages would be a death sentence, and so they did everything in their power to ensure their safety. Negotiations were ultimately held between the rioters and high-ranking officials, with an official observation committee — individuals sympathetic to their cause — brought in to ensure fairness. What ultimately resulted was as shocking as it was inevitable, as state troopers seized control of the facility through deadly means, deploying pepper gas before riddling the captive crowd with thousands of bullets, killing ten hostages and 19 inmates in the process.

Much like his searing 2006 documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple, Nelson manages to take a sensationalistic news story known mostly as a broad-strokes myth and find the human story within. The eyewitness accounts of inmates, news reporters, officials, and family members who were present both inside and outside the walls of Attica lend the proceedings an immediacy that is impossible to shake. Unfortunately, as was also the case with Jonestown, Nelson presents the material in the most pedestrian way possible, a series of talking head interviews and archival footage that is expertly edited together, but does little to distinguish the film from a million other news programs and documentary features clogging the airwaves on a 24/7 loop. Still, there’s no denying the sheer power of some of the footage presented here, especially in the film’s final 30 minutes, as the siege of the compound is shown and detailed with shocking bluntness. The prisoners, humans, were only seeking basic decency; for those that survived, what they received was torture and degradation. Video footage and photographs show rivers of blood flowing over walkways, men forced to strip naked and parade around as they are mocked and ridiculed in imagery that recalls the Holocaust, racial epithets hurled with wild abandon. Screams of, “White power!” fill the air following the assault, while President Richard Nixon himself discusses with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller how the Black man must be “suppressed.” News reports herald the uprising as “Black-led,” while the prisoners were accused of killing the hostages — a fact later refuted by the New York medical examiner, who insisted they died by gunshot wounds from the officer’s guns. It’s easy to label a film like Attica as timely in this day and age of BLM and ACAB, but it also serves to shine light on an injustice that has been largely forgotten, and misrepresented when not. How can we learn from the mistakes of our past if they are scrubbed from our cultural consciousness? That’s precisely what those in power bank on; luckily, filmmakers like Nelson are out there trying to right such wrongs. The frustration, then, is that his sobering discourse lands with enough power to wish that he had used the film medium in a more distinctly cinematic way.

Writer: Steven Warner


Credit: IFC Films

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

In 1982, a young Robert B. Weide wrote to his literary idol with a proposal for a documentary. Twenty-five years later, the writer Kurt Vonnegut died as the result of a head injury — he was 84 years old, and, following a traumatic career in the U.S. Army during World War II, spent 50 years writing, eventually becoming one of the most ubiquitous names in American literature. So it goes. In the decades between these events, Weide and Vonnegut developed a deep and unusual friendship that eventually became woven into the fabric of both artists’ work, and resulted in Weide’s long-awaited documentary, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

The documentary proceeds in mostly linear fashion, following Vonnegut’s childhood, his time at war, and his writing career, and were it not for Weide’s presence and phenomenal access, the film would probably have not been any more remarkable than a simple A-to-B biography. Weide himself even bemoans the cliché of the filmmaker who becomes a part of his own documentary, but here it is an inextricable component, as instrumental to the film as Vonnegut himself, and doesn’t come across as even vaguely gimmicky. Weide, as the fanboy turned friend, becomes the emotional core of the film, and his adoration of Vonnegut is deeply felt. Weide’s unprecedented level of access provides the film with an intimate look at Vonnegut, delving into both his public face and the very real grief and trauma behind that self-image. The film isn’t limited to mere speculation, with stark moments of contrast taking center stage — one particularly affecting pairing is the laughing, morbid Vonnegut joking about the ignoble deaths of his wartime comrades in opposition to the author solemnly discussing the death of his beloved sister, all sense of dark humor vanished. It’s a tension that inhabits Vonnegut’s work, and Weide reflects it perfectly, probing behind the curtain into the source of his iconic satirical sensibility. 

Despite Weide’s valid concerns over the friendship intruding on the film, it is exactly this tension that keeps the documentary riveting. Weide leans into the tension, refusing to separate the art from the artist both narratively and visually, stylishly combining Vonnegut’s illustrations with intimate home videos, and carefully examining the coexistence of Vonnegut’s personal and creative lives. Given his intense personal relationship with his subject, it’s a testament to Weide’s artistic integrity that Unstuck in Time remains so impartial, treating its subject with empathy and compassion, but never indulgence. The film is equally as comfortable admitting that Vonnegut was often an absent or intimidating father figure as it is venerating his artistic genius and the love and fondness with which his children remember him. As a portrait, Unstuck in Time is unafraid to be whole, and despite the film’s intense personal inflection, never serves as apologia for an undeniably complicated man.

Writer: Molly Adams


Three Seconds — A Lengthening

In 1938, David Kurtz traveled from New York to Europe with his wife and three friends. Their gallivanting lasted six weeks and involved sightseeing in numerous countries: Holland and France, Belgium and England, Switzerland and Poland. Equipped with a brand new 16mm camera, Kurtz shot 14 minutes of black-and-white and Kodachrome color film, three of which were of a small, predominantly Jewish town in Poland called Nasielsk. Bianca Stigter’s Three Minutes — A Lengthening begins with this exact footage, and no sound is heard beyond the hum of a projector. The images are incredibly ordinary: everyday people out in the streets, many of whom are excited by the novelty of a camera, which is no different than what’s seen in several other films from the early 20th century. After these scenes end, it’s revealed that this is more than documentation of a fun vacation; it’s some of the only existing footage of one of many Polish towns destroyed in the Holocaust.

Glenn Kurtz, the grandson of the amateur filmmaker who captured these important images, is the reason Stigter’s documentary exists. The similarly titled Three Minutes in Poland, a book published in 2014, details the painstaking and inspiring trek that led to the revelations also unveiled in this documentary. We learn the names of specific people onscreen, of the text written on a grocery store sign, of the types of trees lining the town’s cobblestone streets. Hats signify specific social statuses, and the coat buttons come from a local, successful factory. Every detail of the film is put under a microscope, and every trail is followed until an ostensible dead end is reached. Despite the inclusion of audio interviews, Stigter makes the crucial decision to source the entirety of the film’s images on the titular three minutes. Indeed, a “lengthening” is exactly what occurs: she zooms in on specific parts of a frame, repeats certain scenes, and pauses on specific moments for emphasis. This reduced visual palette keeps us in the same mindset as when Glenn Kurtz was unearthing this information, but also keeps the focus on the people in this town, making it feel as alive as possible; a cut to a talking head would’ve been disruptive if not outright disrespectful.

Three Minutes is a film that succeeds simply because of its source material. The story here is miraculous in more ways than one: the discovered footage would’ve been impossible to preserve had it been found even a month later, and the fact a random person was able to identify an ancestor after viewing the video when posted online is remarkable. There’s little sense of the film feeling like a mystery to be solved, though; it’s far too cut-and-dry in presentation to be more than mere storytelling. This is ultimately fine as the repeated viewing of these limited images goes hand in hand with the reality of loss that permeates the film. The most harrowing passage involves an account of the Nazis coming to Nasielsk, whipping the Jewish people, holding them in the synagogue, and forcing them on trains that would lead them to Treblinka. That all we see is a slow zoom-in on the town square where part of this took place is enough, albeit less impactful as a visual accompaniment than is intended. Still, this is nowhere as misguided as when the film waxes poetic or philosophical. The most befuddling moment involves a knowingly manufactured dialogue between narrator Helena Bonham Carter and Glenn Kurtz; it overexplains implicit ideas about the three-minute film and our experience of it. Even odder is how brief these instances are, feeling puddle-deep in their explorations as to render them superfluous. The upside is that they never steer the film off its core focus: Three Minutes ultimately serves as an adept filmic take on the book it’s informed by, functioning as an important, loving memorial.

Writer: Joshua Minsoo Kim

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