it’s halloween time. that part of the year where we all flirt with, confront and indulge in a little darkness, a little fake danger, a little harmless faux-monstrousness.
it’s also the time of haunted houses – places set up to frighten you. and people pay a lot of money to be deliberately and repeatedly scared as much as possible by actors covered in fake blood or wielding chainsaws with no chains.
but there are some haunted houses, which are put on by christian organizations, which take it to the next level.
they are called ‘hell houses’ and they show what happens to people who commit certain sins or who abandon god. it’s really funny, actually.
kids who do drugs, people who have just about any kind of sex, people who worship satan or those who have forsaken god, are all depicted in the worst possible way and getting the worst possible punishment for their crimes.
i believe i went to a hell house when i was very little. it was in palmetto, florida, in a creepy old house that’s behind a car dealer that was still there the last time i visited florida. the only part i remember was a girl who was having a ‘back door’ abortion. i remember her , behind glass, crying and yelling. from the neck down she was all prothesis. a big, bloated belly, with blood all over it. there was a person who looked like a zombie with some apparatus at work between her legs. this was obscured by our access (which is why i think this particular exhibit was behind glass, so we couldn’t cheat the angle), and the girl howled in agony about how sorry she was.
outside the building they handed out religious tracts. i remember being really scared – so scared i wouldn’t even take the literature. i might have told my aunt ‘i never want an abortion’ or something silly, because i remember everyone laughing and laughing at my unintentional funny. i was probably in 2nd grade.
that hell house was only put on the one year, i think. i remember we’d ride our bikes by months later and wonder aloud what was going on in there now. we all had diabolical theories of the evil that must still be going on. i never saw that building used for any other purpose, ever.
anyways – all this is in service to introducing the documentary hell house to those who are unaware.
it’s a simple film, with no real point of view. there’s not an intense narration informing how you should think or feel about what you are seeing. events and people are portrayed just as they seem to be, and you are allowed to make your own inferences.
it follows the buildup to putting on the annual hell house in cedar hill, texas by the trinity church/assembly of god.
no part of the process is spared. from confessional type interviews which are starkly revealing, to the actual working of the hell house itself: writing, casting, staging, building sets, and all the squabbles and drama that would go into putting on any show, religious based or not.
hell house is an important and beautiful documentary, not so much because of it’s look or anything artistic – but simply because of it’s honest portrayal of it’s well meaning, earnest subjects.
it’s something that everyone should see, whether you are religious or not. it was made in 2001 but it’s always been in my top 10 of all documentaries.
searching for sugar man is a great documentary on a perfect subject. jesus ‘sixto’ rodriguez is a mexican-american singer/songwriter from detroit.
he was a kind of day laborer and street angel who left an indelible effect on just about every person he ever came in contact with. his music was like a hybrid of bob dylan and van morrison. deep lyrics. smooth, sweet singing style. melodies that stay with you, haunt you even. messages that impact you.
he got the attention of a couple of motown-related producers (it being detroit, after all) and got a record deal. he put out a couple of albums in 1970-1971. they didn’t sell and he was dropped from the label.
he went back to mostly working and largely forgot about music as a vocation.
but some bootlegs of his music made it to south africa, where in the brewing anti-apartheid era his songs helped usher in a generation of young people ready for change.
some record companies there begin to license his music from impresario clarence avant, who had signed rodriguez to his record deal in the first place. over the years, it’s estimated that he sold over 500,000 records in south africa alone. this all happened without rodriguez knowing because, well, it’s the music business. they just kept the money and rodriguez had no idea of his overseas fame.
and about 25 years later, some of these young people are now journalists and professional adults. they have heard rumors from the beginning of their exposure to him of his death, his suicide even. they resolve to find out who their hero was and what happened to him.
what they find is an amazing talent with an angelic, shy temperament. the story unfolds in a deliberate fashion, building to a most satisfying and endearing conclusion.
this is a great documentary. not because i adore and identify with it’s subject, though i do. it’s great because, using very little set design or anything fancy, save for a couple of brief animations, they create a film that is not just in love with rodriguez, but in love with film, itself. through the editing, the positioning of the interviews, the few file photos they have to work with and the interspersing of sixto’s great songs, film maker malik bendjelloul has created a labor of love that is a perfect work of art all it’s own.
it’s hard to believe that this is his first film, his first real….anything cinematic. adoration of his subject and simple, honest film making techniques create a narrative that is compelling and irresistible.
i’ve been listening to rodriguez constantly for about a month now. at least once a day i listen to all of cold fact. i knew the story inside and out already and yet the film was a revelation. the impact of this film on people who aren’t familiar with him is even greater.
when the film reached it’s conclusion, in a theater with about 40 attendees, almost no one moved until the very end of the credits – always a good sign.
in a small way, i can relate to rodriguez. like a lot of people, i have these high minded ideas and art i want to pursue. some of it is actually finished, and behind me. some is right here on this computer. not many have paid attention, and maybe i mostly think it’s not that good. i’ve worked mostly manual labor my whole life, harboring this part of me, expressing it when i can and doing it when time and energy permits.
i don’t know that i’d deal with people tracking me down, a quarter century later, to tell me i was ‘more famous than elvis’ in their country because of my work as admirably as rodriguez did. can you imagine?
after his brief music career, he just moved on with his life. went to college. worked. raised three daughters.
i don’t think rodriguez ever expected anyone to come looking for him. i don’t think he cared. obviously the money wasn’t important to him. but he did enjoy the recognition, after all that time.
i think some part of this film will touch so many so deeply because they, too will see themself in his story: earnest, poetic, genuine, worthwhile, unappreciated. having the world shake you by the collar and remind you that you are adored and acknowledged reaches into the quietest part of even the most restrained ego.
his story speaks to a true love of art and craft. his honesty and idealism make him appear somehow holy. he’s this gentle soul, with loving daughters, whose wistful self expression will linger on your mind like one of his beautiful songs.
below, listen to his song forget it:
and then, listen to the very catchy song i wonder:
this isn’t so much a documentary as it is a collection of clips. still, because i was always a huge spalding gray fan, i could and will watch it again and again. this was my third viewing.
spalding gray did monologues. these are kind of like one man shows where he recounted stories from his life and often would interview various people, famous and not famous. he would just ….. talk. he was a true genius, a tortured soul, a bit of a miscreant but all-in-all and interesting and decent guy.
i remember back when he died, i was running a news-based website. i posted this article, which is not easy to read because the website it’s hosted on has so many pop-up ads. it was written while he was still missing, and just ‘assumed’ dead. as it turned out, he had killed himself by jumping off a ferry in new york city.
spalding gray was a great writer, a good performer and a decent actor.
his life was put off track in 2001, when he and his wife were broadsided in a horrible car wreck in ireland. he never quite recovered, and it was enough to sour him on existence altogether. but before that, and in between becoming aware enough to adorn his own ideas to the stage, he spun yarns and created works that informed a generation of young writers, film makers and story tellers.
he is the type of persona that the average person might know little about, but i assure you – the writers and people who do fill your lives with content are all blissfully aware of this strong, quiet genius.
i loved spalding gray and i miss him. the film features a wonderful piece of music or two from his son, which accompanies the trailer below.
“any military commander who is honest with himself over those he’s speaking to will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power he’s killed people, unnecessarily – his own troops or other troops through mistakes, through errors of judgement… a 100, or 1000′s or tens of thousands of people”
the full title for this masterpiece of a documentary is: the fog of war:eleven lessons from the life of robert s. mcnamara. the film is structured around them. the lessons herein are as follows:
1. empathize with your enemy
2. rationality will not save us
3. there’s something beyond ones self
4. maximize efficiency
5. proportionality should be a guideline in war
6. get the data
7. belief and seeing are often both wrong
8. be prepared to reexamine your reasoning
9. in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
10. never say never
11. you can’t change human nature
this film is a shatteringly patient masterpiece of deconstruction. errol morris got a lot of attention with the thin blue line, though gates of heaven has proven itself more re-watchable. i’ve read that some people call fast, cheap and out of control his first, ‘great’ film, but i find a brief history of time and mr death endlessly watchable, too. go ahead, put them on a loop in my house. i’d hardly complain.
but let’s talk about fog of war. this film is an in-depth examination of the vietnam war vis-a-vis the outlook of the former secretary of defense during much of the conflict, robert mcnamara.
as with many of errol morris’ films, the fog of war uses an amazing integration of archival footage and meticulous editing which, combined with special effects, makes for a very effective narrative all it’s own. additionally, the film is well served by philip glass score, as usual with morris’ work.
robert mcnamara was 85 years old when he was interviewed for this film. during the vietnam war he had spent 7 years as the secretary of defense. after that he spent 13 years as head of the world bank.
the ‘lessons’ in the movie are gleaned through various moments in mcnamara’s eventful life. his middle name, by the way, is strange. yeah – robert strange mcnamara.
he was involved in world war 2 under the legendary general curtis lemay. lemay was famously parodied by george c scott in kubrick’s dr. strangelove. mcnamra was a ‘brain’ and helped crunch numbers. lemay was obsessed with the loss of his men vs how much of the ‘enemy’ that soldier could be credited with killing and how much damage they could do. mcnamara helped lemay figure out how they could truly get the most ‘bang’ for the buck.
lemay said to mcnamra that if they’d lost the war, they’d all have been prosecuted, that he and mcnamara were behaving as war criminals – firebombing cities in japan before the nuclear bombs were dropped. lemay recognized that what he was doing would be regarded as immoral – if the united states lost.
in the film, mcnamra wonders aloud: “what makes it immoral if you lose and moral if you win?”
but they did win. and after world war 2, mcnamara would transfer from the world of academia to the ford motor company. after studying the success of the volkswagen he helps brings out the falcon at ford, which is a huge success.
after a while, he starts to wonder about car accidents? he finds that every year 40,000 deaths from car wrecks occur and that a million injuries also occur. he wonders if this can be abated. after some research he fixes on padded instrument panels and seat belts, which were new at the time. he saves lives and helps nurse the ford motor company back to life. he is promoted to president of the ford motor company. he is the only non-ford family member to hold this post as this point.
this turns out to be a brief stint as president of ford. he quits when president kennedy calls and wants him to be secretary of defense.
quickly he finds himself embroiled in the cuban missile crisis. to hear him tell it, it was largely his and former ambassador tommy thompson’s guidance that helped kennedy avoid a third world war. “rational individuals came close to total destruction of their societies!”, he exclaims. mcnamara does not back away from this reality.
‘it was luck that saved us from nuclear war’
mcnamara on the cuban missile crisis
in jan 1992, 30 years after the cuban missile crisis, mcnamara had the chance to sit down with castro. castro confides that 162 warheads were already on cuba during the crisis. not only that, but castro tells mcnamara that he recommended that they be used, even though he knew cuba would be destroyed in the response. mcnamara emphatically says: ‘that’s how close we were’
this is where hawkish guys like mcnamara get their ideals from. it’s not based in some madness that makes them war crazy. they know the fallibility of reason and they know how negotiation can break down. they understand the ‘fog of war’, even though they may be caught up in it. they think they are making the best decision based on what they know. it just turns out that, in vietnam…..they were almost all the wrong decisions. mcnamara isn’t a bad man, as many of his detractors might assert. he’s just a smart guy who made some wrong decisions based on the information he had at the time. but all those decisions were made with the best intentions of keeping us and our way of life intact, as silly as that sounds.
“if we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause we’d better re-examine our reasoning”
watching this film, i find it hard to dislike or even distrust mcnamara. he seems very forthcoming. well, as forthcoming as someone whose ‘mistakes’ have cost so many lives can be. i don’t fault him for this. he walks a tightrope in this film.
featured in the film are many recordings of him talking with the presidents kennedy and johnson. in the recordings, mcnamara seems to want to minimize our military exposure throughout. with kennedy this is a shared view. but after kennedy’s death, he’s largely overridden by the joint chiefs and president johnson.
in the end, there were 3,400,000 vietnamese killed and 58,000 american troops were dead. and nothing in vietnam changed.
the film has a couple of revealing, emotional parts. one is when mcnamara talks about the kennedy assassination. he was the one to pick the spot where kennedy would be laid to rest. he comes to tears as he recounts telling jackie about the spot he picked and learning that president kennedy himself had been there and remarked upon the same location’s beauty.
another telling moment is when mcnamara recounts the self immolation death of norman morrison, a quaker who was anti-war. this happened outside mcnamara’s office. mcnamara seems to have admiration for morrison’s beliefs and even for his commitment and action. he gets teary again at this point, when describing that morrison had initially set himself on fire while holding his daughter. the daughter was thrown off and, though her father burned, she survived and is alive today. this seemed especially important to mcnamara.
“we saw vietnam as an element of the cold war. not, what they saw it as – a civil war …we were wrong”
the lessons noted above are useful and revealing. many of these lessons seem to have been learned by mcnamara in hindsight, having acted only in the context of the moments during the war. on reflection, one gets the impression he sees a different path and regrets not having taken it. the lessons he provides would have surely caused him to take a different track when he was secretary of defense.
they seem simple.
empathize with your enemy – what does the other man want, and why? why can he not have it? can we both have what we want?
rationality will not save us – mere reason and negotiation often will not solve a problem. if you think this is not true, think of certain members of your family or people in your life. if you’re honest, you might agree.
there’s something beyond oneself – seeing the world separate from your point of view, and through the lens of the fact that you are a small part of the proceedings can really give you proper perspective
maximize efficiency – why spend energy (and in his case, lives) that you do not have to?
proportionality should be a guideline in war – in the second world war (and in the film), mcnamara makes use of this by comparing cities they were firebombing in japan to the proportional city in the united states. this gave them perspective on the impact of their actions. i don’t know if this is a rule just for war. it seems in life this consideration can make for a fresh outlook on a variety of scenarios
get the data – whenever possibly, quantify, study and run the numbers. try to understand what is happening from a purely scientific point of view, apart from your emotions
belief and seeing are often both wrong – belief is a form of conclusion. when you come to a conclusion you often cease to think critically about the matter at hand. and as to seeing, well, we all know that eyewitness testimony is notoriously suspect with respect to accuracy and truth
be prepared to reexamine your reasoning – always be ready to rethink the problem through, no matter what it is. how do you know you arrived at the just and proper conclusion? what can rethinking hurt?
in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil – in the context of war, this makes perfect sense. but does this also follow for day-to-day life? think of situations where you lied to your children, or did something that, at the time seems utterly necessary to maintain peace and order or the like, even though you know that it’s ‘wrong’ to do the thing.
never say never – except, of course, when it comes to never saying never. circumstances have a way of changing that aren’t always convenient for your ideology or outlook. are you prepared to digest new truth and move forward? or will you cling to a tree in your front yard during a hurricane?
you can’t change human nature – this one is self evident, or should be.