J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

Food, Inc.

Posted by J on December 11, 2009

“Our food has changed more in the last 50 years than it has in the last 10,000.”  So begins Food, Inc., a short and incomplete documentary about industrial food production and the alternatives to it.  This is not, if you think these labels are somewhat negative, a “green” or environmentalist video essay.  It is at least trying to raise the question, “Do you know where your food comes from?”

Of course most people don’t want to envision the slaughterhouse, nor is the slaughterhouse in and of itself an evil.  Obviously the cow or the chicken has to be killed.  But Food, Inc. is concerned with how the cow or the chicken is raised and then turned into food.  The image of a farm environment does not correspond with reality, the movie says.  As it points out, most packaging at the supermarket implements a pastoral fantasy of a red barn, a older, friendly farmer, and green and golden fields.  And yet almost every cow or chicken these days is raised in a controlled environment in which bacteria (e.g., E coli) can be easily transmitted.

The movie ranges through a host of subjects, some of which are not directly on the topic of food production.  And yet it does not talk about most food production.  No mention is made of fruits and vegetables, or anything in a brightly colored box.  Mostly the subjects are meat and poultry and corn. The movie points out that corn is used in a majority of foods and grocery products.  It is subsidized so heavily that beef and poultry corporations can buy corn below the cost of production, which they feed to their animals.  This is a problem, the movie argues, because cows (for example) are meant to eat grass and yet corn-fed cattle are particularly susceptible to E coli.

Here is one place where the movie strays and neglects to give much information.  One advocate for food safety, a mother whose child died from an E coli infection due to the consumption of a hamburger, is featured prominently.  She tells her story, there is much pathos for her dead son’s story, and yet we do not see or hear the number of E coli infections and the likelihood of contraction.  We know that she, the advocate, is lobbying Congress — and is up against corporate interests which supposedly dominate Congress — but we do not come close to understanding the full scope of this issue.

Yet we do learn that food production is centrally controlled by a handful of multinational corporations, whose end goal is profit and the means to get there is increased efficiency and, if that doesn’t fully work, control of food legislation passed in Congress and state legislatures.  Monsanto comes off particularly poorly.  Owner of a patent for genetically modified soybeans, Monsanto strictly enforces its legal right to be the sole manufacturer of soybean seeds.  Farmers, then, must buy seeds from Monsanto every year, rather than save seeds from one year’s harvest and use them in the next.  Here it is apparent that Monsanto enjoys the federal government’s monopoly privilege and reaps the rewards, while farmers have mostly lost the understanding of how to save and engineer their own seeds, and when they try to, they face Monsanto’s wrath in the form of a lawsuit.

Just as shady, though not directly related to the topic of food production, are food corporations’ use of illegal immigrants.  Once again enjoying government privilege, these corporations are never raided for widespread use of illegals (who are paid rock bottom wages).  Instead the illegals themselves are captured 10-15 at a time, at their own residence, even if they’ve worked for their company for decades, so as to not interrupt production in the factories and to avoid a P.R. mess.  The movie argues that NAFTA caused a flood of cheap, subsidized U.S. corn into Mexico, which put millions of Mexican corn farmers out of business, causing them to relocate to the United States.

Food, Inc. is clearly on the side of “organic” food production, which, using only one example of a Pennsylvania farmer, is supposedly just as efficient but safer and more wholesome.  This farmer is perhaps the star of the movie, uttering such profundities as,”A culture that just uses a pig as a pile of protoplasmic inanimate structure, to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human can foist on that critter, will probably view individuals within its community, and other cultures in the community of nations, with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling type mentalities.”

Unlike most expose documentaries, this one actually ends optimistically.  We are encouraged to know what we are eating, to buy organic, to start a garden, and if nothing else, to ask why we do what we do.  Perhaps that’s the ultimate value of watching Food, Inc.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence: 6

Morality: —


Posted in Documentary, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Man on Wire

Posted by J on January 24, 2009

Man on Wire is about a group of misfits who help Phillip Petit wirewalk across the Twin Towers.  Back in the early ’70s, 200px-man_on_wire_ver2this group planned for months to sneak a ton of equipment into one of the Twin Towers, then rig it up one night so that Petit could perform his tightrope act.  The movie is about nothing else than this, but it makes every single detail grandiose.  There are even codenames for members of the group who do not need codenames.  Mark’s codename is “The Australian”, while Dave, a man who smoked pot every day for 35 days, has the codename “Donald.”  Maybe it’s just us, but “Donald” should never, ever be a codename.

The  movie spends most of its time building up to Petit’s stunt.  Petit initially dreamed up the event while at the dentist’s office, apparently so delusioned by tooth pain that he thought walking across the Twin Towers would be cool.  From there, Petit performs little stunts in preparation for his big day.  He walks across the towers of the Notre Dame cathedral.  He flies to Australia and walks across two points on a bridge.  It’s funny how much stock footage there is of Petit and his group, but that points out how self-conscious they are about what they are doing.  Essentially they pulled an elaborate prank, which they filmed as much of as they could.

The movie romanticizes everything about Petit’s stunt.  Problem with that is, though it was risky, it was not necessarily beneficial or wise.  Petit goes on and on about how beautifully subversive and poetic he was back in the day.  Sneaking past guards, hiding under tarps on the roof of one of the Twin Towers, staking out the building — this is all part of his great plan.  But this reminds us of a great moment in Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, in which Herzog points out that after the Age of Exploration, when the whole world had been explored, people started trying to do “stupid” tricks that they thought were heroic.  Like pogojumping for a week straight in Antarctica.  Petit essentially performed one of these stupid tricks, an elaborate circus act that took much skill, and talks about it as if it were a poet’s dream.

This movie has been nominated for Best Documentary for 2009, solely on the basis of visual storytelling and editing.  Surprisingly, there is no mention of 9/11 and the collapse of the towers.  The movie also has one brief scene of near-pornography near the end that completely snuck up on us.  Petit waxes poetic in the fact that, after his stunt, he engaged in the “pleasures of the flesh” with his girlfriend.  The movie re-enacts this moment because we obviously need a visual clue to help us understand what he means.

Entertainment: 7

Intelligence: 2

Morality: 0

Posted in Documentary | 2 Comments »

Encounters at the End of the World

Posted by J on November 25, 2008

200px-end_of_the_world_post1Yes, there are people in Antarctica.  Encounters at the End of the World is a documentary about them, sort of.  Actually it is more or less about director Werner Herzog’s mystical spin on Antarctica, the “end of the world” where all lines of the globe converge on the South Pole.

Herzog uses this documentary — which, he declares, will not be about penguins — to peer into the world of science projects on the Earth’s southernmost continent.  Why do people even bother to live here, and what are their dreams?  Herzog does a fine job of getting Antarcticans to open up about what they think the world and the universe mean.

There is a double meaning in the title, of course, which implies that Herzog thinks that we’re living in the end times. Sound familiar?  For all the fun made of Christians who believe in the rapture, there are plenty of other groups — scientists and materialists included — who are doomday mongers themselves.  In Antarctica we meet a few, including a team of scientists who watch the giant bug sci-fi flick Them! just for kicks.  Several ruminate on humankind as a species and the fragility of all life on Earth.  If all life is headed toward extinction, humans will be extinct, they reason.  With global warming climate change, volcano eruptions, and meteor showers coming in the future, humankind is going to bite the dust.  With such a grim view, one wonders how these people even bother to live (and that includes Herzog himself).

In a movie that demands a mention of God, we get none.  Herzog shows us amazing pictures of life teeming under a frozen ocean.  He explores the ice chimneys on Mount Erebus.  He shows us a penguin who, perhaps in a fit of madness, leaves his colony and heads towards the interior of the continent and certain death.  But God is nowhere to be found here.  The only gods to be found are images of Hawaiian spirits found on a multi-million dollar neutrino machine.  The scientist who operates the machine says that neutrinos are almost like little gods, spirits who go in and out of his nose.

Almost all of the people in Antarctica, it seems, are listless wanderers, ex-hippies who came to the ice continent in search of meaning.  This is not exactly true, but the tiny settlement of McMurdo — Antarctica’s largest town — contains plenty of rogue individuals with graduate degrees in linguistics, physics, and geology who all appear to want something as unique as they can find.  In a land where the sun is up for 24 hours during the summer, they’ve found it.

This movie would be an excellent text for a worldview class.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 6

Morality: see above

Posted in Documentary, Pretty Good | 2 Comments »

Who are the DeBolts?

Posted by J on August 29, 2008

We once encountered a female who openly celebrated the fact that she was having no more than two kids.  She was normal, middle-class, friendly-looking, and happy to announce to complete strangers that she would no longer reproduce.  Her car even featured the vanity license plate, 2ISENUF.

She would’ve fainted had she seen this short documentary.  The DeBolts have nineteen children.  Many of them are physically handicapped.  Yet for the DeBolts, nineteen is not enough.

Who are the DeBolts? was a TV documentary that aired in 1977, and it subsequently won the Academy Award for Best Documentary that year.  By today’s standards, it is not a great documentary.  There is neither a narrative arc nor a single charismatic personality we are supposed to attach ourselves to.  It is much closer in style to a high school educational film than it is to a Michael Moore project.  Modern viewers could get bored.

At the same time, it does positively depict the daily life of a huge family.  Mostly, it celebrates the DeBolts.  The family seems to have one water balloon fight after another, right after they run and laugh in a park.  No family can operate so well, it appears.  But the movie’s point is simply that a huge family can be normal and fun, too, to counter the prejudices of the kinds of people we mentioned in our first paragraph.

It does help that the DeBolts, from all appearances, are rich.  But they obviously foster in their children a can-do attitude.  Many of the DeBolts are adopted from other countries, some of them can’t use their legs, one of them has no legs and arms, and a few received their injuries during the Vietnam War.  All of these children seem to flourish once they enter the DeBolt household, and so we watch scenes of the handicapped children perform chores and happily interact.

There is no sign of Christian faith or any religious practice in the DeBolt household, but it is still a wonder why this documentary is not promoted to death by Christian adoption agencies and pro-family groups.  It might have the power to change perceptions about what is possible in child-raising, especially for those with special needs children.  It certainly makes the 2ISENUF license plate look extremely foolish and selfish.

Posted in Documentary, Poignant but Boring | 1 Comment »


Posted by J on August 29, 2008

You may find a good review of this documentary here. In case the link disappears one day, we’ll preserve the text below.  The reviewer’s comments point out a sharp flaw in the narrative logic of modern documentaries.  A hero is needed; in the case of IOUSA, it’s comptroller general David Walker.  In the case of other documentaries, it is the documentarian himself, ala Michael Moore.

The problem with this is that the hero ought to be a prophet, speaking fundamental truth to the problem raised in the documentary.  However, prophets are always hated in the age in which they appear, so we are not likely to find them as stars of a movie or in a panel of experts on television (especially when they are funded by billionaires on the Council of Foreign Relations).

Walker may be a nice man, but when we have seen him he never strikes at the root of the problem, which is a prophet’s job.  The trouble is not necessarily government debt itself.  The government has always been in debt because it has a monopoly on force, which guarantees the coerced payments of all taxes so as to generate guaranteed yearly revenue.  The more fundamental problem is that the government has a monopoly on money, which it controls through legal tender laws and the Federal Reserve system.  It therefore has another option for dealing with debt: inflating the money supply by creating new money.  In this case the value of money is simply diluted, which makes its debt worth less than it once was. This of course is theft by any definition, but very few today are willing to call it for the eighth commandment violation it is.  So it will probably happen.

This is not even close to the whole story, but it is a few sentences of more useful information than you’re likely to find in I.O.U.S.A.  The reviewer had a good recommendation.  The last chapter of Empire of Debt is a better, more informative introduction to the problem of United States’ government debt.


From the link above:

Writes Stephen Fairfax: “The film was billed as inspired by Empire of Debt, but it is an extraordinarily poor and biased rendering of a very good book. While Bonner and Wiggins provided a thoughtful and entertaining exposition of the entire problem of excessive debt and credit, the movie focused entirely on government debt. Watching it, one would not know the private sector exists at all. The only significant examples were an American scrapyard contrasted with a new Chinese compact fluorescent lamp factory.

“Before the movie started, a debt clock marked the ever-increasing $55 trillion debt figure calculated by Mr. Walker. But the first 3/4 of the movie focused almost exclusively on the on-budget federal debt and the ratio of national debt to GDP. Why a ratio of two politically rigged and entirely suspect numbers is a useful indication of anything was never discussed. There was some heavy-handed posturing about Clinton and the ‘surplus.’

“I checked the index of the book; gold was cited 23 times, government debt 19, David Walker only once. The movie offered a hagiography of Mr. Walker, complete fixation on government debt, and no meaningful mention of gold. The highlight was a brief snippet of Jon Stewart using a few deft questions and his keen insight to force Alan Greenspan to admit that his policy of low interest rates favored Wall Street and hurt savers. Even that was largely muted by the decision to show Mr. Greenspan denying that Fed decisions can influence markets, placed several minutes later where the lie was considerably less obvious.

“The book offered several options for dealing with the debt; the movie had only one: more government. The post-movie ‘town hall’ was as silly and even worse than I feared. It took only a few minutes before new taxes were proposed under the guise of “forced savings.” More than once, the worthies on the stage opined that if several of them were to huddle, they could solve this problem. Of course, their solutions invariably included taking more money from one or another out of favor group. Once again, even so much as the possibility of market solutions was never acknowledged, let alone discussed.

“The notion that government is the source of this problem and unlikely to be the solution was never raised. The book made this point clear, the movie carefully ignored it. The movie focussed exclusively on the problems of paying this government debt; the book explored other, more realistic options, such as repudiation and inflation. The book explored the enormous malinvestments, misallocation of resources, folly, and harm caused by the same policies that allow such a monstrous pyramid of debt and credit to be created in the first place. The movie studiously ignored any mention of the harm these policies have caused to civil society.”

Posted in Documentary, They Spent Millions on This? | Leave a Comment »

Jesus Camp

Posted by J on August 19, 2008

A reader emails:

“Dear J&C.  I wanted to get your thoughts on the fascinating documentary Jesus Camp.  You don’t seem as stupid as the people in this movie, but do Christians really want to take over America?  It seemed like everyone was a walking contradiction.  What these people are trying to do is frightening.”

Dear reader,

As the Joker in The Dark Knight says, “Why so serious?”  You are frightened because a bunch of kids got hyperemotional during a glorified pep rally in the boondocks?  You are scared of the kid with the rattail haircut and the kitsch shirt that says “Jesus” in place of the Reese’s Cups logo?  You are quaking about a religious movement led by women, children, and men in Hawaiian shirts?  We know delicate women who have more self-control in the presence of rodents.

This documentary that you think is “fascinating” tells you nothing more than what you can hear in thirty seconds on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.  You have now witnessed an hour of Pentecostal zaniness, but you have mistaken that for what the movie tags as a broader evangelical “culture war.”  FYI, evangelicals are not necessarily Pentecostals.  James Dobson is not a Pentecostal.  Neither was D. James Kennedy.  Some evangelicals are goofier than others, but very few are as emotionally and intellectually goofy as what you see in this documentary.   Remember, most of the people in this movie are children.

And did it seem as stupid to you as it did to us that this movie’s anointed voice of reason for the “liberal” position was an AM talkshow host?  Soundbytes from a talkshow were in dialectic with kids preaching at a Pentecostal service?  Good grief, we have not felt this braindead since our peers in high school made us suffer through Jim Carrey’s schlock.  You could’ve called this movie “Dumb and Dumber,” though we’re not sure if the kids or the liberal Christian talkshow host deserve the dishonor of the latter adjective.

Yes, the obese, Pentecostal preacher lady seemed to contradict herself when she complained about Christians being unwilling to give up food for God.  That’s people.  They are walking contradictions, usually.  The acclaimed scientist and finite being with limited knowledge, Richard Dawkins, regularly asserts his certain knowledge that an infinite, omniscient being does not exist.  You should ask Richard the finite being how he can know this for sure, since, after all, he is neither infinite nor omniscient.  But Dawkins speaks and the crowd goes wild.  Lots of people join his fan club, and NPR longs for him to breathe into its microphones.  This deserves explanation, too, we think.

You asked if Christians want to take over America.  Actually, every church proclaims an idea like that every week, usually in the form of the Apostles’ Creed, where it says that Christ reigns at the right hand of the Father and will come to judge the living and the dead.  This is not news; this creed, you might have heard, is quite old.  But if you think the Christian takeover has progressed in any way lately, you must admit that it’s a weird sort of takeover.  Notice in the movie the massive “Adult Superstore” sign right outside the bowling alley the kids were at?  Even liberal progressives fifty years ago would’ve been raging to get rid of that store.  But today most everybody tolerates it.  Go into any grocery store and look at the magazine rack near the checkout counter for further proof.

As for the love the people in the movie show George W. Bush, you really should pity them.  After some limited influence in the 1980s, evangelicals have been Republican party lackeys ever since.  You realize the Republicans controlled all three branches of government recently but didn’t enact the theocratic revolution you’re quaking in your boots about?  In fact, just the opposite happened. Those in control are far more concerned with the preservation of global capital markets and the perpetuation of democratic revolution throughout the world than with bringing Christian theocracy — whatever that is — to this country.

Even Bush himself has publicly denied the central doctrine of the people in Jesus Camp (if they have doctrines at all).  He has said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  Yet evangelicals believe the words of Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except by Me.”  You must admit that the people in this movie are so terribly ignorant about the pronouncements and actions of the President they love that, really, they have no clue about politics.  As the younger people we know would say, they have no freaking clue about anything to do with politics.  Those are people you are scared of?

We presume that you believe in democracy.  Is it wrong for these evangelicals to have the right to vote?

Answer wisely, because you should be scared of one thing.  Demography tends to be destiny.  In the end, people who have kids, especially lots of kids, beat the people who have no kids.  It’s the biological principle of fitness.  Follows from the theory of natural selection.  And yes, Christians and Muslims and people who probably aren’t like you are having lots and lots of kids.  One day, they will be voters.

So eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow will indeed be scary.



Entertainment: 2

Intelligence: 0

Morality: —

Posted in Documentary, They Spent Millions on This? | Leave a Comment »

For All Mankind / In the Shadow of the Moon

Posted by J on May 23, 2008

We now bring you two documentaries on the Apollo missions. Do not watch both — they cover the same ground — but it might be worth watching one. You have your choice in style and presentation. For All Mankind (1989) is about how it feels to go into space, while In the Shadow of the Moon (2007) is about how it felt to the astronauts to go into space.

This difference is important, and perhaps culturally revealing. In the Shadow of the Moon features the Apollo astronauts on camera, telling their stories and occasionally hamming it up. It is a standard presentation of celebrities. You, the viewer, can live vicariously through their experiences. But they, the celebrities, are the mediators between you and that experience. The movie’s focus is thus doubly on them. It is about 1960s space exploration, but it is also about personality and national heroes.

For All Mankind is not about personality. The film is entirely narrated by interview clips with Apollo astronauts, but they do not appear on camera and you do not know who is speaking. The entire film is comprised of these interview clips and original footage from the Apollo missions. The filmmakers made the most of that footage. It is suffused with color, edited well, and glorious. With no personas in the way, the movie’s point is to draw the viewer into the making the trip to the moon, circa 1969. Augmenting this voyage is a score composed by Brian Eno, which might put off some people with its New Age sound. We once remarked that Enya’s music is supposed to sound like waterfalls in outerspace, which is the vibe of this movie’s soundtrack.

We enjoyed For All Mankind better than In the Shadow of the Moon, but it is a matter of taste. Both movies are laudatory about government space agencies that used up a whole lot of capital (it is amazing, for instance, to see how much debris is destroyed or discarded at a spaceship launch). Both movies praise NASA and John F. Kennedy (who’s presented as a prophetic lord in both) for taking the high-risk gamble of sending American pilots to the moon. And both movies have the same narrative arc: they start with spaceship takeoff, discuss orbiting the earth and weightlessness, and then spend most of the time describing Apollo 11’s moon landing. Best of all, both are almost completely harmless — a nice relief from all the immoral junk peppered throughout everything we’ve attempted to watch lately.

Posted in Documentary, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

The King of Kong

Posted by J on April 11, 2008

One of the words that gives us a little prick of annoyance each time we hear it is “all-time.” Typically it’s used to bestow historical significance on something that isn’t significant at all. As in “The Greatest Pop Songs of All-Time,” whose ranks — so we’re told — include songs by ABBA and the BeeGees. Even the idea of “the greatest movies of all-time” rings hollow, since “all-time” is in this case only a one hundred year span, hardly any time at all.

So what would it mean to have the highest all-time score on Donkey Kong? The pursuit of this record is the subject of The King of Kong, a documentary so amazingly edited that it’s hard to believe that parts of it aren’t scripted. After all, who cares about Donkey Kong? As it turns out, more people than you think.

The two main competitors for the world’s highest Donkey Kong score are Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe. You’ve never heard of them, but the video-game world knows them well. Mitchell, the long-time record holder and the epitome of a slimy hypocrite, is probably the best video-game player in the world. In contrast, Wiebe is a pathetic but likeable suburbanite, who has not succeeded at much until he decides to start playing Donkey Kong. Thus Wiebe spends hours upon hours in his garage, as his poor wife and children look on him forlornly. And then one day Wiebe breaks Mitchell’s record. He becomes a news item briefly, but then “official” video-game referees come along to inspect his Donkey Kong machine. And from there begins a host of unexpected complications.

The King of Kong is, if nothing else, an excellent morality play. Wiebe comes off as a humble protagonist against the antagonistic Mitchell, who is a master manipulator of people and rules. Yet there always lingers the question for Wiebe: why are you doing this? The movie includes Wiebe’s family in interesting ways, including his wife, who tries to be a sympathetic helper at the same time that she doesn’t grasp the Donkey Kong obsession. The other people in this movie are just as intricate to its development. Walter Day is the recognized referee of video-game scores, an oddball and bubbly nice guy who gets wrapped up in the politics of the Donkey Kong score. And then there is Brian Kuh, a man who retired at 30 to play Donkey Kong professionally in an arcade. He’s no good at it, but he’s a Billy Mitchell minion. Mitchell in fact has a number of minions, and while you will constantly ask yourself “Why do they do his bidding?” you’ll then be close to understanding why this is an excellent morality play.

We highly recommend this as one of the best documentaries we’ve ever seen.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 8

Morality: — (see review; though there’s one spot that you’ll want to avert your eyes at. When Roy Awesome is introduced, be prepared to avoid one photograph shown.)

Posted in Documentary, Great | 3 Comments »


Posted by J on February 14, 2008

250px-helveticaspecimenchsvg.pngHelvetica is a fundamental part of your everyday life, a hidden but ever-present communicator. It appears on almost all street signs, in advertisements, and in the vast majority of corporate logos. There’s a great reason for its popularity: it’s sleek, clean, and neutral. Helvetica is easy to read and easy to see from a distance, which is perfect for advertising. As the world’s font, it’s a beneficial font for communication and civil order.

Or is that all really true? Helvetica the documentary explores this question, letting professional type designers do the answering. What is revealed in those answers is a key point that we all ignore everyday: type is a designed artform. Someone has to make letters, and someone has to make them look a particular way for a particular purpose.

This leads us to more interesting questions about Helvetica. If type is an artform, and a particular typeface emerged out of a particular culture and era, what messages might that typeface convey? What does our use and acceptance of Helvetica tell us about us? Answers vary radically. The interviewees in Helvetica claim that it’s capitalistic, socialistic, fascistic, utilitarian, wonderful, boring, and the one type that might not be improved upon. One jokingly mentions the irony of Helvetica’s rise to dominance in the Vietnam-war era and its persistance through the Iraq war. Is Helvetica–in its design–the great, signifying type of the era of global superpowers and multinational corporations?

As it turns out, different generations of type designers think differently about it. The structure of Helvetica is in three parts, according to the generation of designers interviewed: the oldest are in the first-third of the movie, the rebels second, and the up-and-comers last. Those older designers, who started in the 1950s and ’60s, the era of Helvetica’s initial design and rise to ubiquity, are still amazed at Helvetica’s “modernist” look and utility. But the next generation of designers do not appreciate it at all. They cannot stand its dominance, and part of their reaction to it (at least in the ’80s and ’90s) was to create “postmodernist” and “grunge” typefaces, which are best found today on album covers and European and West-Coast magazines from that era. The latest generation of designers, however, have made their peace with Helvetica, but use it in weird instead of sleek ways. We should note, Helvetica‘s structure here is not entirely successful; the opening half-hour (the best part of the movie) lays out the issue and several questions, but then repeats them throughout the rest of the movie.

Now the movie misses a point or two. Helvetica is not as universal as it could be. As children of the P.C. age, we know Arial and Times New Roman just as well as Helvetica. Linotype (the company that owns Helvetica) made a crucial mistake by not partnering with Microsoft. The default font for Windows since version 3.1 has been Arial, which is much uglier than Helvetica. Nor will Helvetica probably last in an age where anyone–for $1500 bucks–can become a type designer. Not only might someone improve upon Helvetica’s appearance and utility, but with the possibility of so many designers, a variety of types might begin to be used for particular places and functions.

Still, though the movie is a little long, it got us thinking. Even better, it got us noticing, which for us is one of the roads to learning.

Entertainment: 5
Intelligence: 8
Morality: — (fine, just a couple of choice words)

Posted in Documentary, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Rescue Dawn / Touching the Void

Posted by J on February 8, 2008

Incredible but true stories tend to make good movies. They are hard to screw up. If we took the barebones material of Rescue Dawn, for example–a German-born, Vietnam-era pilot shot down in Laos, captured by Vietcong, held prisoner with several others in a dense jungle, all planning to escape while starving and suffering from temporary dementia–we could only fail by adding too much to it. Like making it a hokey morality tale that prominently involves a swelling John Williams score.

As it is, Rescue Dawn doesn’t have enough added to it, though. Up until its conclusion, we waited for a push that it never quite gave us. The story of Dieter Dengler is almost solely about Dieter’s survival and unfailingly upbeat attitude during his trial. This attitude keeps him alive–in contrast to his other fellow prisoners–but what does Dieter learn? There are no character transformations or internal revelations that provide us, as attentive watchers, with meaning that can transform us.

This is not to disparage a good movie, but to say how a good movie just barely missed being far better. We’re tempted to argue that Rescue Dawn needlessly keeps us focused on the material world. The movie foregrounds the harsh reality of POW life and jungle escape–hunger, scum, bowel movements, vines, maggots, leeches. These are unsettling, but they’re all trumped when Dieter catches and attempts to eat a live snake. Dieter’s escape is providential and transcendent–fulfilling Dieter’s earlier request to God to save him–but the final scene concludes with a puzzling koan from Dieter to his Navy buddies: “Fill what is empty, and empty what is full.” This has no relevance unless Dieter means his stomach.

Touching the Void goes one step beyond Rescue Dawn in this regard, which makes it as moving as it is gripping. Sadly, while it’s a story of a kind of captivity and survival, it’s central turn is a moment of denial of God. In this way it is an anti-conversion narrative, though this is not necessarily due to the filmmakers’ prejudice and does not detract from the great lessons the movie has to offer.

Touching the Void is fundamentally a documentary, with reenacted scenes from the original story. This story is of mountain-climbing: two young Brits in the early 1980s (Joe Simpson and Simon Yates) decide to scale a previously unclimbed mountain in Peru, Siula Grande. The strength of Touching the Void is the two climbers’ ability to relate their stories, which they tell on-camera as they look directly at the viewer. What happens is best left untold here–you will thank us later for saving it. We can say that one of the climbers faces one of those ethical hypotheticals–like what would you do if you and another person were stranded on a raft in the Pacific without food–that never occur in day-to-day life. The other climber faces the consequence of his friend’s choice.

Dieter, Joe, and Simon are all admirable, but only Joe and Simon leaves us with afterthoughts long after the closing credits (indeed we’ve seen Touching the Void twice and the last time well over a year ago). Dieter smiles his way through Laos, but the other two–especially Joe–help us see others with pity and thankfulness. Most importantly of all, they remind us of grace given to us.

Rescue Dawn
Entertainment: 8
Intelligence: 5
Morality: 6 (some language)

Touching the Void
Entertainment: 10
Intelligence: 7
Morality — (one brief scene of language)

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