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Beethoven as inspiration; dogs as art; babies as burdens

Jonas Brodsky in "Moonlight Sonata."HBO

Like a well-crafted piece of music, Irene Taylor Brodsky’s “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements” achieves structural elegance, personal intimacy, and universal significance. In this interwoven study of three cases of deafness — that of her son, of her father, and of Ludwig van Beethoven — she shows how their stories resonate with each other and reach a bittersweet resolution.

Brodsky’s father, Paul (the subject along with Brodsky’s deaf mother of her 2007 documentary, “Hear and Now”) had been born deaf and spent much of his childhood in a special school. He refused to be limited by his disability and became a successful engineer and inventor (one of his inventions is a communication device for the hearing-impaired). He was the first to introduce his daughter to filmmaking. Now an octogenarian, he is finding that his mental acuity has begun to decline.


As an infant Brodsky’s son Jonas had seemed to escape the family’s genetic trait of deafness but by the time he was a toddler it was clear he was losing his hearing. He was fitted with cochlear implants and, after adjusting to them, aspired to learn the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” when he became aware of the composer’s own deafness.

Beethoven’s story is familiar but still astounding, and Brodsky’s film relates with evocative animated interludes his anguish at his inexorable hearing loss and how he wrote the sonata as a way of coming to terms with it. She also touches on the mystery of how the composer was able to create such monumental works as the Ninth Symphony and the late quartets without being able to hear them performed. When Jonas arrives at an impasse in learning the sonata, his instructor reminds him of how Beethoven had to listen to his inner voice when composing it. Jonas removes his implants and tries to play it again. At last he is satisfied, and we hear it as he does — in silence.


“Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements” debuts on HBO Dec. 11 at 9 p.m. and on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.

Go to www.hbo.com/documentaries/moonlight-sonata-deafness-in-three-movements.

Kobe the poodle at the beach, from "Well Groomed."Cattle Rat Productions

Coats of many colors

Not a few pet owners will confess to adorning their charges with funny hats or other accessories from time to time, but the four competitive creative dog groomers profiled in Rebecca Stern’s “Well Groomed” have taken this practice to extremes. With hair dye, bangles, paint brushes, and clippers they have transformed their inexplicably docile poodles (no animals were harmed or even mildly annoyed in the making of this film) into brightly colored, elaborate living sculptures and objets d’art. In some cases the dogs end up looking like balloon-animal versions of themselves.

Stern follows the progress of four women (most creative groomers are women) from across the country as they prepare for the big competition in Hershey, Pa. Angela, a legendary champion who teaches classes in grooming and sells a line of products, is shaping her pet’s fur into a composite of wild animals including a coyote and a bighorn sheep. Adriane, a frequent competitor, plans an Alice in Wonderland scenario for her dog, featuring Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. The paradoxically named Cat hopes to adorn her miniature poodle with dinosaurs in a design she calls “Jurassic Bark.” And newbie Nicole has her hopes pegged on a barnyard/henhouse motif.


Though the subject seems to call out for the dry irony of early Errol Morris documentaries or the absurdist parody of Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show” (2000), Stern opts for respectful curiosity and empathy. In a poignant scene, one of the women fails to even place at a preliminary match. “You got nothing,” she says sadly to her bewildered, gaily bedecked, still desperate-to-please pooch. “I thought you did good.” Later she muses, “Art is subjective.”

The HBO Sports presentation “Well Groomed” debuts Dec. 17 at 9 p.m. on HBO and on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, and partners’ streaming platforms.

Go to www.hbo.com/documentaries/well-groomed.

Director Maxine Trump, in "To Kid or Not to Kid"

Maternity leave

It’s rare that parents are asked why they have children. Yet it’s common to ask someone — almost always a woman — why not.

Filmmaker Maxine Trump had been pondering a decision to go childless when she encountered this attitude. In her documentary “To Kid or Not to Kid” she investigates the stigma attached to this choice. She interviews a woman who in 1974 lost her teaching job after stating on “60 Minutes” that she didn’t plan to have children. That was 45 years ago, but she also interviews a 25-year-old in the United Kingdom who today can’t get her request to be sterilized approved by a judgmental male medical bureaucracy.

Trump also speaks with women who have had children and are ambivalent if not downright regretful about doing so. One says that she was looking forward to having a child but after giving birth realized she had made a mistake. She wrote an article about her experience and the response was withering and hateful, but her now grown-up daughter supports her opinion. Another mother is bitten by her toddler while being interviewed. “This is ultimately a very selfish thing that doesn’t make you special,” she says.


Those scandalized by such opinions might want to tune out after the funny montage of female comedians riffing on the subject that Trump includes early in the film. “I love kids,” says Sarah Silverman, one of the comics. “But I also really love what I do. Which is anything I want all of the time.”

“To Kid or Not to Kid” can be streamed on Amazon and iTunes beginning Dec. 16.

Go to www.tokidornottokid.com.

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