In her 1977 essay collection On Photography, Susan Sontag argued that the abundance of photographic images in our culture had begun to engender “a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world.” Photography promises safe access to worlds — certainly the glamorous, dangerous, and debauched ones — we may never directly engage with. Access stands out as the strength of D.W. Young’s newest documentary, Uncropped, which features the intrepid, American photographer James Hamilton as its subject. A self-described “arranger of chaos,” Hamilton boasts an impressive CV and a plethora of friends. Through Hamilton’s works, Young treats the viewer to a vivid parade of places and faces, capturing the breadth of a dynamic oeuvre. Through Hamilton’s connections, the director finds license to expand Uncropped’s focus, broadening its concerns to highlight not simply a remarkable man, but a remarkable era of artistic expression that has since faded away.
Hamilton’s photography and professional journey provide the documentary’s chronological structure. His pictures enlivened the pages of numerous publications, namely Crawdaddy! magazine (1969-71), The Herald newspaper (1971), Harper’s Bazaar (1971-73), the Village Voice (1974-93), and the New York Observer (1993-2008) — all outlets where he served as a staff photographer. Whether Hamilton was photographing rock music legends, models at Halston fashion shows, mayoral candidates, or massacred students from the Tiananmen Square protests, his penchant for balancing formality and pathos was his works’ unifying principle. According to Uncropped’s range of guests, it’s what established him as one of our most influential observers of culture. They laud his easygoing nature, his eye, and his empathy in testimonials littered throughout, their appraisals of his abilities never academic, instead breezily casual in the way conversations at a 30-year high school reunion might be. A mystique forms around Hamilton’s work due to how reverently his companions and former colleagues speak of it. The onus is on the viewer to examine the photographic montage — while Kathy Dobie commends Hamilton’s appreciation for “the choreography of urban life” or David Lee admires Hamilton’s “almost clinical, but… not detached” approach to flash and framing — and conclude for themselves to what degree they concur. This contemplative, curatorial mood dimensionalizes Uncropped, rescuing it from purely being a neat, if inoffensive, march through Hamilton’s greatest hits.
The documentary bears an unmistakably nostalgic mood as well. As almost everyone involved, Hamilton included, looks back in time, a fixation on the differences between the past and the present reveals itself. Back then, Hamilton claims, people avoided the camera, which made the candids he caught all the more amusing. He suggests that nowadays, in our content-heavy era of surfaces and styles, people who spy a camera are more likely to pose. Back then, Richard Goldstein explains, from the ‘70s to the ‘90s, aesthetic and journalistic integrity were locked in an intense, productive dialectic because the writers and artists ran the show. Nowadays, it’s the C-suite and venture capital philistines who call the shots while the Arts sections shrink more and more. New York City used to be a hub of dynamic “unmanageability”; now, those avant-garde and bohemian energies have been irrevocably commodified. Workplaces and meeting spaces like the Village Voice, says Sylvia Plachy, once thrummed with the spirit of cross-pollination. She then laments the advent of the computer and the ensuing digital age, how it made fewer things feel personal and hands-on, how we’ve collectively grown more siloed and self-absorbed, “sanitized, cleaned, and dead.” Essential elements of our artistic and cultural heritage have been lost, Uncropped seems to argue, elements that the work of James Hamilton — known for the rough, raw textures the use of contrast lent to his photos — in a sense enshrines. The film never gets lofty in making the case for Hamilton’s cultural significance — he is not feted or deified. Uncropped, like its subject, retains an accessible humility that makes for unpretentious viewing. Though the pictures may depict bygone times, Young chooses to elevate their fascinating eccentricity rather than drown them in sentimentality.
It’s a bit unfortunate, then, that, for a documentary brimming with such rich material, it never graduates to the caliber of essential viewing. To return to Sontag, she believed a consequence of photographs granting us constant, titillating access to seemingly everything was a flattening of “the meaning of all events.” Significances fail to be distinguished. Uncropped says and shows a lot, but in the dazzling churn of its images and anecdotes, we rarely sit with the weight of an insight before the next sequence usurps its place. The film’s briskness is a double-edged sword, the source of its informal pleasantness as well as its lack of satisfying substantiality. Partially this is the fault of the broad focus, this “uncropped” portrait of a man and several eras, scenes, and institutions aiming for totality while rarely digging below the surface level. Then there is the rigidly linear, conveyor belt-style storytelling, which feels curiously misaligned with the ethos so many of the guests espouse: a countercultural sense of life that is unruly and joyfully bizarre. Instead, what’s notable is Uncropped’s conventionality, which provides guardrails rather than a compelling framework for the storytelling. An anesthetizing sameness sets in, muting the film’s best qualities if never spoiling them. Uncropped is an amusing love letter to a relatively unheralded creative and the worlds where he made his name, but a different lens may very well have resulted in a better, greater film. — TRAVIS DESHONG
Silver Dollar Road
In short, Silver Dollar Road, like many contemporary documentaries, adds very little to the print journalism they are based on. In fact, the film has some frustrating gaps that could have been filled with additional investigation… Silver Dollar Road is a story of a revolting miscarriage of justice, as well as racism, that barely cloaks itself beneath the rule of law. But the larger story, the long history of the white establishment plundering Black wealth, is one Silver Dollar Road is not entirely equipped to tell… [Previously Published Full Review] — MICHAEL SICINSKI
To view history through the lens of the present frequently engenders all kinds of catharsis, from the moral smugness of the studio biopic to the intelligibility of unknown worlds for genuine, personal curiosity. This obsession with rendering the past clearer quickly extends to the literal: reconstructing dead pixels, embalming grayscale with imagined color, situating the viewer at an imagined, omniscient vantage point from which all its proceedings play out, unencumbered by subjectivity. Naturally, such obsession inevitably belies its illusory stature, and works as intended for many not aware of — or unbothered by — this circus act. But consider, then, a kind of antithesis to historical narrativization: what if the present day were to be filmed through past eyes? Oskar Alegría’s third feature, the quasi-onomatopoeically titled Zinzindurrunkarratz, undertakes precisely this task; setting out with an old Super 8 camera once belonging to his father, Alegría retraces its owner’s footsteps some 41 years prior in the Andia mountains of Basque, Spain. Delivering food and other necessities periodically to the region’s many shepherds, Alegría’s father was like a companaje, or companion, to many of them.
The camera of Zinzindurrunkarratz, likewise, accompanies the viewer along a jog through the filmmaker’s memory, although this memory isn’t particularly faithful, because it isn’t particularly real. Having salvaged some home movies from its reels, Alegría notes that the camera can no longer record sound, given the changes in Super 8 film stock from four decades ago. Midway through celebrations on New Year’s Day 1981, the old footage cuts abruptly, forever eliding something Alegría’s grandfather was about to say; this elision, however, serves as fodder for recreating the visuals of yesteryear. “The last image is this salmon-pink still. This is our starting point,” the director remarks, and heads down the path his father took through the valleys and their shepherds, most of whom are long gone. Accompanied by a donkey named Paolo, he captures the verdant, bucolic landscapes — and snippets of a way of life all but shuttered to the archives — in complete silence; sounds, sometimes corresponding to the visuals, are recorded separately and then interjected sporadically onto the dreamy film stock.
The juxtaposition of these “silent images” and “blind sounds” may justifiably be perceived as little more than dialectical exercise, although Zinzindurrunkarratz’s pilgrimage of history and memory stands out insofar as its fragmentary structure reflects an unconventional methodology. Its presentation is twice removed, first by the dissonance between temporal and filmic mediums, then by the separation of image and sound, each materializing nearly always in the other’s absence; the resultant footage is less than rhapsodic, and sometimes even frustratingly disjointed. At the same time, the film achieves a remarkable simplicity because of this. Its title roughly stands for three disparate natural sounds — “zinzin” after the valley winds, “durrun” for the echo of falling stones, and “karratz” from the sound of lightning striking — and calls to mind José Antonio Sistiaga’s 1970 …ere erera baleibu izik subua aruaren…, an equally radical work of hand-painted celluloid whose nonsensical title draws from Basque phonetics. “More difficult than never arriving is always being at the beginning,” muses Alegría on the uncertainty and openness of his experimental journey, but this is a film about nomadism and the ephemeral after all — so why should it not be? In inventing the lost gestures of a time no longer, Zinzindurrunkarratz comes closest to finding them. — MORRIS YANG
While it’s easy to imagine a version of this film in which the consistent back-and-forth between reality and performance may become so overwhelming that it becomes hard to separate one from the other, Four Daughters is most remarkable for its ability to maintain a clear distinction between the two. But it’s not just a form of Brechtian intellectualism; the emotionality, so crucial to a film like this, is present throughout… [Previously Published Full Review] — DHRUV GOYAL
Symbols are like Alfred Hitchcock’s (flawed) definition of drama — “life with the dull bits cut out.” Their universal appeal derives from prioritizing a familiar amalgamation of lived experiences over intimately, uniquely personal ones. In effect, they embody what’s traditionally perceived as “important,” forgetting that the value of this importance is different for everyone because of their unimportant (“dull”) bits.
This tension (or lack thereof) between the symbolic and the personal is at the heart of director Tamara Kotevska’s The Walk. Its painfully evident parallel narrativization — a minor complaint also leveled against her otherwise memorable 2019 beekeeping documentary, Honeyland — even promises that the film intends to do something with its puppet/person dilemma. Initially, the film’s juxtaposition of the wonderfully elaborate construction of a three-and-a-half meter tall puppet Amal, “walking” from the Syrian border in Turkey across Europe in search of a home to represent the journey of millions of migrant and displaced children, and the heartbreaking reality of Asil — a young Syrian refugee in Turkey mourning her separation from her homeland and family — poses a thorny question for The Walk’s well-intended but arguably oversimplified humanitarian gesture: can a symbolic puppet really represent the whole spectrum of pain experienced by one person, let alone millions of displaced people?
Besides a moment or two of genuine deliberation, the film’s answer is strongly affirmative. The parallel tracks mostly rhyme: Asil’s voice becomes Amal’s, and Amal’s acceptance in the different European countries she’s traveling to corresponds with Asil finding her bearings in Turkey. It’s poetically harmonizing in a way that doubles as a glowing advertisement for The Walk‘s humanitarian project. Cynicism aside, this approach can still be immensely moving. Person and puppet — a representation of millions of displaced people’s individual pains — can cover each other’s visible scars through their shared pain (the film ever so briefly evokes this in a haunting moment, when ghost-like whispers of presumably dead or lost refugees seem to become another voice of Amal) without sacrificing the personal nature of it.
The Walk, unfortunately, doesn’t manage to do this. Its overly glossy images play out like a unionizing montage that Kotevska and editor Martin Ivanov surely intended as an artistic statement: an aesthetically pleasant bringing together of an otherwise divided, fractured world. Noble as that intention is, the impact is quite the opposite. The film’s necessitated sameness of life experiences, despite its feeble attempts at personalization, undermines the wide-ranging spectrum of experienced life. Amal becomes Asil, and likewise for her two puppeteer operators, Mouaiad and Fidaa; both refugees have profoundly moving personal stories that the film barely develops. Aphorisms like “home is defined by the people around me” replace actualities. Interesting lives without the dull bits, that is, manufactured, “important” drama, take over life itself — crucially defined by those very dull bits. — DHRUV GOYAL
A Disturbance in the Force
A Disturbance in the Force shares one notable thing in common with its subject: both are largely unnecessary, but also fairly amusing. There aren’t any surprises in store structurally or stylistically, and for hardcore fans, this likely maxes out as a remedial but amiable time-killer… Ultimately, the best compliment one can pay A Disturbance in the Force is that what’s included is so tantalizingly stupid that plenty of viewers are likely to go seek out its inspiration as soon as the credits roll… [Previously Published Full Review] — MATT LYNCH
There’s no denying the contemporary trend to “narrativize” otherwise fact-based documentaries, filmmakers shaping reams of footage into something resembling the three-act structure of the average mainstream narrative film (recent Sundance favorites All That Breathes and Against the Tide spring immediately to mind). It’s an understandable mode, as more filmmakers of more challenging work like Frederick Wiseman remain a largely niche concern, while even more demanding figures like Wang Bing barely get U.S. distribution at all. Grasshopper Republic deserves some credit, then, for its willingness to unmoor or otherwise flummox viewers, even if it can’t help but occasionally contort itself to fit this narrativized mold. Still, the noticeable lack of narration and absence of talking heads allow for a certain degree of (very welcome) sensory immersion. If this isn’t quite at the level of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan or De Humani Corporis Fabrica, it’s far more engaging than another HBO-produced PowerPoint presentation or a bloated Netflix true crime serial.
Directed by Daniel McCabe and photographed by McCabe, Michael McCabe, and Michele Sibiloni — the film is inspired by her book of photography, Nsenene — Grasshopper Republic follows a group of trappers in Uganda who seek to catch huge numbers of the winged insects and sell them as a delicacy in nearby cities. It’s an elaborate, demanding job; while McCabe and his crew filmed footage over the course of three years, the film is condensed into one single, seemingly linear season. Men prepare their equipment, loading generators onto trucks and driving deep into the jungle. Once there, they must haggle with the local landowners and farmers for permission to set up traps on their land. It involves high-powered lights designed to attract the grasshoppers, which the farmers are convinced will damage their crops. Once the lights are set up, a series of large tin drums is arranged in a semicircle, with long sheets of corrugated steel sticking out of the openings. The idea is that the insects will hit up against the steel sheets and then slide down into the drums. Once full, the drums are emptied and their contents ready to be bagged and sold.
McCabe and crew film these proceedings with a patient, methodical eye; there is no “main character,” although we begin recognizing some of the same faces after a while. Snippets of captured dialogue are the only contextual information that the audience receives, and certain subjects are brought up but not followed through on — do the lights actually damage the crops? And what’s causing the skin condition that plagues some of the trappers? Interspersed throughout the film is an entirely different but parallel story, that of the grasshoppers themselves. Accompanied by an eerie, ambient electronic soundtrack by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (best known for his work under the moniker Lichens and his collaboration with Ben Rivers and Ben Russell on their 2013 film A Spell To Ward Off the Darkness), we see grasshoppers hatching in laborious detail, like a nature documentary rendered with the moody atmosphere of a horror film. Grasshopper Republic is full of animal-related interstitial moments, as the camera briefly follows chickens, dogs, other insects, and the birds that congregate to feast on the grasshoppers. Ultimately, the film is an effort to capture an entire ecosystem, one not only natural, but also man-made (one of the first images in the film depicts wads of cash being exchanged in slow motion). Abstraction abounds, as distant shots of cityscapes become nocturnal digital chiaroscuro or when swarms of grasshoppers fill the frame and become akin to digital noise or a kind of Tony Conrad-esque flicker film. It’s equal parts beautiful aesthetic object and anthropological study, a window into an entire world that most of us know nothing about, or will ever experience in person. All in all, that’s a fairly stunning achievement. — DANIEL GORMAN
Reminiscent of Jennie Livingston’s 1990 cornerstone, Paris Is Burning, but also close to its NYC-bound contemporary The Stroll (directed by Zackary Drucker and Kristen Lovell), Kokomo City takes its title from Kokomo Arnold, the famed Blues musician and crooner of “Sissy Man Blues,” which appears on the soundtrack. Though on occasion sparse with commentary on its supporting characters — predominantly the men who are trans-attracted and openly so — Kokomo City proffers a bold and necessary glimpse of some of the individuals we give short shrift to, knowingly or otherwise… [Previously Published Full Review] — MORRIS YANG