Doc Talk: Catching up with the Criterion Channel; organizing Walmart workers

Peter Greenaway, in Angela Carone's documentary about the filmmaker
Peter Greenaway, in Angela Carone's documentary about the filmmakercourtesy Criterion Channel

Who knows how Orson Welles might have responded to the ongoing, gaslighting “fake news” phenomenon. But judging from his last completed feature film, “F for Fake” (1973), he might have found it diabolically amusing. Opening the documentary in a magician’s guise, Welles makes clear from the start that all film is illusion, and this film is therefore an illusion about illusions. So take nothing for granted and doubt everything you see.

Among the subjects Welles focuses on is Elmyr de Hory, a notorious art forger who sold his fake canvases to museums and collectors who should have known better. He chats with the novelist Clifford Irving, who discusses de Hory’s chicanery while, as it turns out, he himself is working on a notorious scam, a phony biography of Howard Hughes.


Nor does Welles spare himself, taking responsibility for his own indulgence in “fake news” avant la lettre, the 1938 “The War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. He saves the most devious chicanery for last and then ends by citing Picasso’s claim that art is a lie that makes us see the truth. But as we are now painfully aware, the same is not true of politics.

“F for Fake” can be seen on the Criterion Channel with Samuel Fuller’s “The Baton of Arizona” (1950), starting Nov. 29.

Go to www.criterionchannel.com/f-for-fake.

Forever Greenaway

One of most impish, arcane, perverse, and affable of directors, Peter Greenaway remains prolific at 77, though not quite as high profile as he was in the 1980s, with acclaimed films such as “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (1982) and "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” (1989). Those two features and several others can be seen in the “Directed by Peter Greenaway” series on the Criterion Channel, which also includes a short introductory documentary with a long title, Angela Carone’s “A Compendium of the Fascinations Obsessions and Opinions of Peter Greenaway” (2016).


The compendium includes such chapter headings as “Painting,” in which Greenaway remarks that he originally wanted to be a painter but “paintings didn’t have soundtracks;” “Nudity,” of which he approves; and “Zoos,” in which he claims that the first things that he visits in any city are the train station, the cathedral, and the zoo. The last-named is a key motif for his characteristically enigmatic “A Zed &Two Noughts” (1985), which also draws on two other obsessions explored in the compendium — “Twins” and “Symmetry,” plus another that is not, decomposition.

As for opinions, he counts Jean Renoir, Sergei Eisenstein, and Alain Resnais among the handful of truly great directors in the history of cinema. But not D.W. Griffith, his bête noire, who introduced narrative into movies, which Greenaway insists is “the worst possible thing you could do!”

Go to www.criterionchannel.com/directed-by-peter-greenaway.

‘Sea’ plus

Anyone with an interest in Japanese culture and cinema is familiar with the scholar, author, and filmmaker Donald Richie (1924-2013), “Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film and how we know it,” writes Paul Schrader in his introduction to the 2005 edition of Richie’s “A Hundred Years of Japanese Film,” "we most likely owe to Donald Richie.”

Richie also wrote travelogues, and one of his best known is the 1971 book “The Inland Sea,” a poetic, puckish meditation on the history and culture of the title body of water, a strait dividing the major Japanese islands of Kyūshū, Honshū­, and Shikoku. In 1991 filmmaker Lucille Carra made a documentary based on the book, also titled “The Inland Sea,” touring the same locations, with voice-over narration provided by Richie himself.


Among the sites visited are a garish reproduction in gilt and lacquered plywood and plaster of an ancient temple which had been constructed in 1936 by a munitions manufacturer. “When kitsch becomes this grand,” says Richie, “it becomes art.” And when his boat passes an island and a more modest, more elegant temple is suddenly revealed he says, “The greatest beauty is always accidental.”

For a rewarding twin bill you might watch “The Inland Sea” along with Wim Wenders’s similarly gnomic, quirky, and profound “Tokyo-Ga” (1985).

“The Inland Sea” is available from the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD.

Go to www.criterion.com/films/28747-the-inland-sea.

“Tokyo-Ga” and the short “Chambre 666” are available on DVD from Amazon.

Go to amzn.to/335Hb2N.

A scene from "Dear Walmart"
A scene from "Dear Walmart"© 2019 Michael Blaine and Kiley Kraskouskas

State of the union

Like latter-day versions of Sally Field’s unionizing rebel in “Norma Rae” (1979), the workers in Kiley Krasouskas and Michael Blain’s “Dear Walmart” began in 2011 to covertly meet to form the nationwide OUR Walmart movement — the letters stand for Organization United for Respect — to fight for decent wages, hours, benefits, and employment security from the retail giant.

As the film notes, the Waltons, who own the chain, are the richest family in the country, with a fortune of over $100 billion. Yet as Bernie Sanders points out in a news clip, they are also indirectly the nation’s biggest welfare beneficiaries, because the government pays for the Medicaid, food stamps, and affordable housing their underpaid employees rely on in order to survive.


Krasouskas and Blain cross the country to profile activists in the grassroots campaign. They include a single mother in Port Arthur, Texas, who says she finally stood up for her rights because her children were starting to believe that their poverty was the normal state of things. She resisted her store’s efforts to cheat her out of hours. When others followed her example she was fired. Now she is an organizer for OUR Walmart.

Another single mother employed by Walmart had taken time off after a miscarriage. She was refused paid medical leave. Weeping in frustration in a store restroom, she was approached by another employee, who whispered to her about the organization. Now she is one of their spokespersons.

With wildcat strikes, community outreach, national gatherings, and online conversations, the group has both made gains and suffered setbacks. The minimum wage for full-time employees has increased, but so has the number of part-time workers who are still underpaid and without benefits. Undaunted, the workers of Walmart unite; they have nothing to lose but the exploitation of a retail chain.

“Dear Walmart” is available on DVD, digital, and all major platforms, including Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, and Vimeo.

Go to www.dearwalmart.com.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.