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DOC TALK

Revisiting three film greats; revealing trouble in North Dakota

From "No Home Movie."
From "No Home Movie."Courtesy Criterion Channel

In the series “Directed by Chantal Akerman,”The Criterion Channel celebrates the achievements of the great Belgian auteur, who would have been 70 on June 6. Included among the nearly 20 features and shorts are her breakthrough masterpiece, the feminist “domestic epic,” “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975), and her last film, the austere, affecting documentary, “No Home Movie” (2015).

Not much happens in “No Home Movie.” Akerman meets and chats with her mother, Natalia, a Holocaust survivor, sometimes visiting her at her mother’s tidy and comfortable home in Brussels, sometimes chatting via Skype. Like most of Akerman’s films, it consists of everyday moments that are edited and shot to take on an epiphanic, eulogistic quality. The sometimes banal conversations hint at unresolved issues or lingering tragedies from the past. Obvious but unremarked is the decline in Natalia’s health. Mundane details take on enigmatic import, such as a chair overturned in the small patch of her mother’s backyard, or a dead tree braving winds in a desert shown in the film’s opening shot.

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That windy desert image returns at the end, but the tree is gone.

Natalia died in April 2014. Her daughter committed suicide on Oct. 5, 2015. She was 65.

No Home Movie” and other Akerman films can be streamed on the Criterion Channel beginning June 7.

Go to bit.ly/2U15YUf.

Orson Welles as a boy, as seen in "The Eyes of Orson Welles."
Orson Welles as a boy, as seen in "The Eyes of Orson Welles."Courtesy of Janus Films

Overflowing Welles

The Criterion Channel pays its respects to another filmmaking giant, with Mark Cousins’s documentary “The Eyes of Orson Welles” (2018). Like “No Home Movie,” it is about an intense relationship, in this case Cousins’s longstanding, one-sided adoration of the subject (Welles died in 1985, at 70), which began when Welles’s “Touch of Evil” (1958) threw “a rope to me” 40 years earlier, when Cousins saw it on TV as a boy.

Now he has uncovered a box of Welles’s sketches, artwork, and other ephemera and uses them — plus interviews with Welles’s daughter, Beatrice, interviews with Welles, archival photos and footage, and a rich selection of clips from Welles’s films — to trace the filmmaker’s motif’s, obsessions, and aspirations over a six-decade career. The story takes him to Welles’s teenage idyll in Ireland (Cousins is from Belfast) when he rode the countryside in a donkey cart and ended up in Dublin. There, as Cousins puts it, he “brags his way into” the Gate Theatre. He ponders Welles’s brilliant breakthrough with “Citizen Kane” (1941) and his increasing difficulties as he makes such masterpieces as “Macbeth” (1948), “Othello” (1951), and “Chimes at Midnight” (1965).

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Cousins calls attention to how visual motifs, compositions, architecture, and set design shaped Welles’s cinema as much as did narrative; and how faces, artwork, and places from his past inspired his imagery. This emphasis brings into focus overlooked films like “Mr. Arkadin” (1955) and “The Trial” (1962). Cousins also emphasizes Welles’s political activism and commitment, starting with his pointedly political stage productions in the 1930s. Especially relevant for today is the radio show Welles broadcast in 1946 about a Black World War II vet who was beaten and blinded by a South Carolina police chief. The chief’s identity was not yet known so Welles addressed him in the program as Officer X.

Officer X was finally identified. He was charged with a misdemeanor, tried, and acquitted.

While Cousins’s voice-over directly addressing Welles’s can get cloying (“Quite a lot has changed since you died . . . something called the Internet has come along”), the film does bring fresh eyes to one of cinema’s greatest, and most stymied visionaries.

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“The Eyes of Orson Welles” can be streamed on the Criterion Channel beginning June 8.

Go to www.criterionchannel.com/the-eyes-of-orson-welles.

Bruce Lee, filming "Big Boss."
Bruce Lee, filming "Big Boss."Courtesy Bruce Lee Family Archive.

Lee way

Fire would seem a more appropriate element for the legendary actor and martial arts expert Bruce Lee, who died in 1973, at 32. But as indicated by its title, “Be Water,” Bao Nguyen’s illuminating, adulatory profile, Lee identified with a more placid element. As a youth in Hong Kong, furious that his martial arts training had run into an impasse, Lee took a boat out to sea and punched the water. Then he realized that water was the essence of his discipline — it was a substance that seemed weak but could penetrate anything.

Lee nonetheless had to struggle to penetrate the entrenched racism and stereotypes of Hollywood. The film begins with clips of a 1960s screen test in which Lee’s photogenic charisma and astounding physical skill and speed (with a bewildered, elderly studio person as a mock sparring partner) dazzle the suits. But the best they could come up with was the role of Kato, the lethal chauffeur on the 1966 TV show “The Green Hornet.”

Though Kato developed a cult following, the show was short-lived. Undaunted, Lee developed another series idea, about a Shaolin monk and martial arts master who roamed the West, aiding Chinese immigrants and others in need. That became the 1972 series “Kung Fu,” and when the producers cast David Carradine in the role of the protagonist, Lee knew that it was time to move on.

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Back in Hong Kong he made three films that broke local box office records. Hollywood took notice and cast him as the lead in “Enter the Dragon” (1973). The film would go on to gross $91 million, the equivalent today of $521 million. Shockingly, Lee died of a brain edema 10 days before the premiere.

One of the film’s interviewees suggests that had Lee lived longer he would not have achieved such legendary status. Maybe he was a martial arts version of James Dean. But after watching this film, it seems more likely that he would have gone on to far greater achievements, not just on the screen, but also for the cause of social justice.

“Be Water” can be seen June 7 at 9 p.m. on ESPN and available on ESPN+ immediately after airing.

Go to https://es.pn/3gQDJRX.

From "My Country No More."
From "My Country No More."Courtesy OVID.tv

Dry wells

Oil brought sudden prosperity to North Dakota between 2011 and 2016. But as seen in Rita Baghdadi and Jeremiah Hammerling’s concise and compelling “My Country No More” (2018) it also brought about environmental and social damage that will endure long after the fossil fuel corporations leave with their spoils.

The filmmakers visit the town of Trenton, once a neighborly and supportive community with a population of around 1,000. Oil prospectors show up, offering big bucks to landowners for ranches that had been in their families for generations. Some embrace the opportunity and sell their land and sometimes take jobs with the oil company. Some sell but regret it as they see how promises made to preserve the land are broken for short-term gains. Others resist. The community is threatened by internal divisions as well as external pressure. Empathetic and intimately observational, the film puts faces to the conflicts among people, profits, and progress.

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“My Country No More” can be streamed on Ovid TV beginning on June 9.

Go to search.ovid.tv/cart/coming_soon.


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