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Examining tragedies from Pearl Harbor to Sid and Nancy

Sad Vacation: The Last Days Of Sid And Nancy.
Richard Mann Image courtesy of MVD Entertainment Group
Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen in “Sad Vacation: The Last Days Of Sid And Nancy.”

Dec. 7 marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the US Naval and Army base at Pearl Harbor. Perhaps no other traumatic event — not even 9/11 — has shaped the American consciousness as much.

Even now, the event stirs visceral responses. And in his “Remember Pearl Harbor” documentary, Tim Gray captures much of that initial shock and horror. Illustrated with archival footage and described in interviews with survivors, many now in their 90s or older, the film details the devastation of the base and surroundings. Casualties included four of the eight battleships of the US Pacific fleet docked there, the destruction of 188 warplanes, and the deaths of 2,403 servicemen.

Gray does not speculate much about the reasons why the base was so unprepared for Japanese aggression, but focuses on the personal stories and the details of the attack itself. Narrated with gravitas by Tom Selleck, the film eloquently opens with a shot of the shrine to the USS Arizona, a walkway arching over the submerged hulk of the battleship in which 1,102 sailors remain entombed. From there, visitors can see the drops of oil, the so-called “black tears,” that still rise to the surface, a reminder of the day that will live in infamy.

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“Remember Pearl Harbor” airs Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. on WGBH’s World Channel.

For more information go to www.worldchannel.org/programs/episode/remember-pearl-harbor.

Pistol whipped

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Danny Garcia’s documentary “Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy” raises many questions about Sid Vicious (nee John Simon Ritchie) — bass guitarist for the archetypal punk rock band the Sex Pistols — and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, whom he was accused of murdering in their room at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan.

Like, why would so many famous people stay at such a crummy place?

The film opens with a track shot down the grimy hallways of the hotel, which looks as appealing as an air raid shelter, ending at room 100, where Spungen was found stabbed to death. In its long history, the hotel welcomed such distinguished guests as Mark Twain, Arthur C. Clarke, Simone de Beauvoir, Patti Smith, and Leonard Cohen. But after Spungen died on Oct. 12, 1978, it would forever be remembered as the place where Sid and Nancy spent their last days together.

And what a grind of misery, addiction, self-destruction, and abuse those days were. In addition to newly released grand jury documents, Garcia introduces a colorful cast of talking heads to tell the story. They include former members of fabled British and American punk bands of the period and various hangers-on and friends of the tragic pair. They relate how Sid and Nancy were exposed to drugs at a young age: She was given phenobarbital as a child for behavior problems.; his mother was reportedly a heroin addict.

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After Spungen’s death, Vicious was indicted but released on bail. He died, at 21, of a heroin overdose in February 1979. The film claims that his mother administered the drug that killed him.

Sid definitely comes off better in the recollections of those interviewed. Some say he was really a nice kid until the groupie Spungen arrived in London to lure him away from the band like a low-rent Yoko Ono. Others, however, point out that Vicious was a violent, suicidal, and obnoxious substance abuser before they met. Nonetheless, most characterize Spungen, in the words of one who was there, as “a whiny, horrible, vampiric woman.”

Certainly she had problems — one person suggests she might have had borderline personality disorder. But then, apparently, so did Vicious. Pictures of Spungen with bruises and blackened eyes are held up as proof that he was a serial abuser.

In addition to clarifying details of the crime and its aftermath, Garcia’s film provides a comprehensive introduction to the chaotic culture, assaultive music, and grotty anarchy of the original punk scene in New York and London in the ’70s. Maybe it will encourage some to watch Alex Cox’s brilliant feature on the subject, “Sid and Nancy” (1986).

“Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy” can be seen at the Regent Theatre in Arlington from Friday through Dec. 15.

For more information go to www.regenttheatre.com/index.php

Two great docs reprised

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If you missed the previous screenings of Craig Atkinson’s “Do Not Resist” or Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire at Sea,” two documentaries that have grown in urgency and relevance, here are two more opportunities to see them.

Combining on-the-ground footage of the demonstrations last year in Ferguson, with investigations into how and why every local police force has become equipped with enough military hardware to fight a war, “Do Not Resist” does not make you feel confident about the future of civil rights in America.

“Do Not Resist” screens Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Paramount Center. The event is free and the director will be present to answer questions.

For more information go to web.emerson.edu/brightlights .

Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire at Sea” confronts the plight of refugees from Africa and the Middle East unflinchingly and with subtlety and irony. Shot with disarming detachment and edited with potent understatement, the film tells the parallel stories of the two populations on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa: the native islanders who live in self-contained isolation and the detention centers holding the multitude of refugees, thousands of whom have lost their lives, who seek passage to Europe from their devastated homelands.

“Fire at Sea” screens at 7 p.m. on Monday and on Dec. 12 at the Harvard Film Archive.

For more information go to hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2016decfeb/fire.html.

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