The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography
A portrait of a friend clocking in at a slender 76 minutes, Errol Morris’s The B-Side is a decidedly minor work for a filmmaker who’s saved a man from the electric chair, investigated Abu Gharib, and gone toe-to-toe with two former Secretaries of Defense. In fact, it doesn’t really look of feel all that much like a Morris film – it’s formally looser and less urgent. But those modifications are appropriate to the subject at hand, and it’s got a warmth and intimacy that’s often missing from his major works. And when he gets to the meat and potatoes, he’s dealing with familiar topics here: the shifting tides of technology, the relationship between the surface and the soul, the ability of the camera to tell the truth. And when his subject says, of an old photo of her parents, “They never looked young, but now they look young,” it’s as casually poetic as anything in Gates of Heaven.
Director Alison Maclean (Jesus’ Son) immerses us in a year-long intensive acting conservatory program (the kind of school where students tell people who live nearby that they’re studying at “The Institute,” and don’t have to say more), telling most of her story through the eyes of Stanley (James Rolleston), a sweet, naïve country kid who learns quick. He finds a girlfriend outside the program, whose family is embroiled in a local controversy, and the way Maclean intersects these storylines is surprising, and surprisingly effective. It falls apart a bit in the third act and it’s got one of those endings that plays better in theory than execution, but it gets a lot right about these programs – the particular discomfort of those acting exercises, the dysfunctional family dynamics that can take root in these small cohorts, and the way little romances not only happen, but seem inevitable. And she gets many of the details of young romance just right as well, resulting in a keenly observed and sensitively acted little drama.
I Called Him Morgan
The teacher recalls that when his student told him that she’d been married to a jazz musician named Lee Morgan, his face gave him away. “You know the story too,” she observed. “The story” was how, one chilly night in February 1972, the wife of the acclaimed jazz trumpeter approached him after a gig in a New York City club and shot him dead – but that’s only part of the story, as revealed in this riveting documentary from director Kasper Collin. Drawing on interviews (beautifully shot by cinematographers Bradford Young and Erik Vallsten), archival footage, and an interview with Mrs. Morgan recorded a month before her death – an interview that’s more like a last testament – Collin tells a fascinating story of music and crime, but also asks difficult questions about debt, faith, and responsibility.
Dawson City: Frozen Time
This cinematic excavation story from writer/director/editor Bill Morrison pulls a clever bait and switch right off the bat: it begins as a conventional documentary, explaining how a treasure trove of long-thought-lost silent movies were unearthed in the title city (up in Yukon territory, in Canada), with dramatic discovery footage and talking-head interviews. And then that style is abandoned altogether, in favor of dreamlike music, on-screen text, and films of both newsreel and narrative stripes. Most surprisingly, Morrison decides to tell not just the story of the films (though there’s plenty of that – and not just of film as an art, but film as a substance), but of the place they were found, and the people who inhabited it. In other words, the three hundred-plus movies rescued from the ground are just the hook; this is the story of a modern city, and beyond that, a microcosm of contemporary urban life.
Karl Marx City
When the wall came down separating East and West Germany in 1989, a people’s way of life was inalterably changed – and suddenly questions sprang forth anew. This documentary by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker shines those questions, of reconstruction, recovery, and secrecy, through a personal prism: Epperlein’s father committed suicide years later, and in investigating and exploring his death, she found herself asking questions about his life, his past, and his rumored involvement in the German Stasi. Combining her own new interviews (in crisp, striking black and white) with declassified surveillance tapes and German propaganda films and state TV broadcasts, the filmmakers construct a meticulous inquiry into not only the logistics of this surveillance state, but the mindset that motivated it.