November 2, 2011

DOC NYC 2011: Critic's Notebook

by Vadim Rizov


[DOC NYC begins tonight at the IFC Center in Manhattan, and continues through Nov. 10.]

Undefeated follows a North Memphis high school's 2009-10 football team overcoming years of losses, a lack of funding and general institutional disregard. We see a player break down in tears after learning an anonymous local millionaire he's never met will bankroll his higher education: no matter where he's accepted or if injuries destroy his athletic career, he has four guaranteed, paid-up years to get a degree. That's a logical echo of the earlier intervention of volunteer coach Bill Courtney, the white, relatively patrician owner of a lumber firm who got involved with Manassas High's barely maintained football program through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Courtney figured out how to raise $15,000 in necessary supplies, coaching and expenditures for free, this in a country where the sport is big business even on the collegiate level. For many young black men, going pro is a concrete aspiration within reach, though the odds are stacked against them: the Southeastern Conference (merely one division of NCAA college football) broke a billion dollars for the 2009-10 fiscal year, while the NFL reported $8.5 billion in revenue for 2009. Leaping from one to the other is unlikely; a 2001 NCAA report concluded only 2% of college players go pro. Still, it's startling that in a sports-crazed nation, the North Memphis school district can't scrape together funding for its football-loving youth.


"Interesting fact about recessions: they end," a local billboard reads, but the area looks boarded-up and left for dead regardless of the wider economic climate. Businessman Courtney's voluntary intervention would gladden the heart of Texas Republican Ron Paul, who declared in a September debate that he missed "the early 1960s," when "the churches" took care of the sickly poor. "We've given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves and assume responsibility for ourselves. Our neighbors, our friends, our churches would do it." Another way of putting it: not only are public schools grievously underfunded, but they can't even offer functioning athletic programs to kids depending on them, (foolishly or not). Ron Paul would love Courtney's work.

Similarly, anyone despairing over the lack of religion in public schools should be heartened by the coach's pre-game prayers (a staple of high school athletics in the south, separation of church and state or no). Courtney's a believin' man with an unquestionably sincere investment in his team, who opened his house to player O.C. Brown for part of every week to make sure his star tackle player got properly tutored; the parallels to The Blind Side (and attendant accusations of unconscious racial paternalism or worse) are obvious. Directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin don't shy away from raising the question of whether Courtney solely cares about Brown's raw-meat potential as a player, though it's not as blunt as the man himself, who recently told Memphis newspaper Commercial Appeal that the students "accepted me with more love than they ever would have been accepted in my peer group." (Sadly, the documentary omits the players' awesome nickname for him: "Big Daddy Snowflake.")


One of many post-Hoop Dreams docs, Undefeated uses sports drama as a pretext for examining young men counting on professional athletics to save their lives. To that end, it marginalizes the game itself, and what little on-the-field footage there is telegraphs the outcome: generically upbeat when winning, pensive and Friday Night Lights-y when losing. "Football doesn't build character, football reveals character" Courtney tells his squad (quoting NFL Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy), not referencing the sport so much as the discipline necessary to sit through a lengthy session of game footage analysis without disgustedly yelling "You gay!" and starting a fight with another player who has jokily hogged an armrest. The pugilist in question has just come back from 15 months in juvenile prison, the angriest on a team of dispossessed young men.

As a documentary clearly built from hours of gained trust, no access seems barred. The Memphis soul organs help build atmosphere before a third act that tries too hard to prolong suspense (given that most of the season's games are outright skipped, it's too late to try to stretch out The Big Championship Game without stopping the film dead). But sometimes reductive and pushy presentation doesn’t wipe out thorny complexities: when coach Courtney tells the aforementioned player that his college education has unexpectedly been taken care of, he can't just deliver the life-changing news. He first delivers an off-putting, ill-timed lecture about diligence, past conversations about character building, and the necessity of righteous living—all before finally letting him know about the money. The area's primary mover-and-shaker for delivering up more grist for the athletic mill, Bill Courtney proves a good man who effectively got this kid a free education, but does that give him the right to be smug about it?

Into the Abyss

More than an advocacy documentary but less than a fully-formed Werner Herzog film, Into The Abyss relies on the director's eccentric persona to lure viewers in for a grim examination of triple homicide and capital punishment. In deference to such seriousness, Herzog's face doesn't appear in Into the Abyss. Nonetheless, his ghostly impression's seen on the glass wall separating prisoner and visitor, his voice and interrogatory methods impossible to confuse for anyone else's, and who else would give chapter divisions titles like "Time and Emptiness"? Abyss wants to eliminate the automatic giggles the director's stentorian voice and penchant for affected statements about Life and Nature can raise, but removing his head from the frame can't stop Herzog from being Herzog. Why did he bother?

In 2001, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett of Conroe, Texas were arrested for killing three people; they were trying to steal Sandra Stotler's Camaro. Perry got the death sentence, while Burkett was given life in jail, parole only possible after 40 years. Aside from mundane/eerie police video of the crime scene—ranging from an blood-stained garage to a dark forest at night where the bodies were dumped, with title cards and ominous, codeine-slowed, minor-chord synths—the bulk of the film is made up of interviews. Despite conflicting testimonies about what happened (Perry claimed innocence), Herzog's less interested in the specifics of the case than spending time in the company of all concerned. Having unambiguously declared his opposition to the death penalty at the start, the director allows the prisoners, family members of those killed, death-row priests and police officers their say, their testimony largely and generously uncut.

Into the Abyss

It's worth noting that at film's end, Herzog (normally a fantastically empathetic interviewer) commits an astonishing, rare gaffe. He's interviewing Burkett's wife, who fell for him while working on his appeal and—despite not being allowed to have any more contact than a brief kiss at the start of visits—is now pregnant. What must have happened is obvious, but Herzog just won't let it go: in a misguided attempt at levity, he keeps prodding her as to how this happened exactly ("You always hear about people smuggling contraband, but how do you smuggle contraband out of it?") while she squirms in visible discomfort.

Avoiding those kinds of lapses of taste (an ever-present peril caused by the gap between Herzog's usual working methods and the literally deadly seriousness of the subject) means letting all the testimony play at length, but despite the obviously powerful emotions involved, not every single minute rivets. The trade-off is that Into the Abyss succeeds at being more than just another expression of Herzog's personality; when he shuts up, remarkable things can come out of his subjects' mouths. The climactic testimony of Fred Allen—a corrections officer who panicked and quit after presiding over the controversial execution of Karla Faye Tucker—is as powerful as a personal appeal gets. It's hard to argue with a man who, after witnessing over 125 deaths, was suddenly hit with such visceral repugnance that he forfeited his pension midway through his working life. His testimony is sober, direct and free of flourishes (or rather, free of Herzogiana). During such moments, the Teutonic iconoclast successfully keeps his giant personality at a distance before it pops up again, mostly amusingly (the florid chapter divisions help compartmentalize) and only troublingly towards the end. Despite trying to disappear, Herzog remains the unavoidable subject.

Charlotte Rampling: The Look

Angela Maccarone's Charlotte Rampling: The Look begins with a zoom into the British actress' face, her turning visage growing closer in step-printed slow motion. It's a hackneyed gesture, but the effect works: STARE INTO THE REMORSELESS EYES OF ONE OF OUR MOST INTIMIDATING ACTRESSES AND QUIVER. Rampling's best known for her sexually intense roles, at least one landmark per decade. In 1966's Georgy Girl, bratty pretty-young-thing flirtatiousness gives way to premature pregnancy, 1974's The Night Porter cast her as a shorn-haired Holocaust survivor playing S&M games with her guard, and 1986's Max Mon Amour had her sleeping with a chimpanzee (Rampling: "a perfect non-speaking relationship").

For Rampling, striking looks were an advantage she consciously used to break into acting, candidly discussed here. There's no getting around how hyper-sexualized her career has been, which dominates most discussions about her. The Look broadens Rampling's public dimensions: she discusses poetry, critic Pauline Kael and whatever else crosses her mind, insisting on a more nuanced persona. Eschewing straight footage of the actress talking about her parts, Maccarone pairs her with nine conversational partners to discuss a set topic. Not everyone's up to the challenge: a discussion about "age" with Paul Auster has the novelist thuddingly observing that despite his appreciation for more mature women, "it's not like looking at a 17-year-old girl." Noted.

Charlotte Rampling: The Look

Generally, these friends, family members and distinguished acquaintances offer a welcome catalyst. When interviewed alone, Rampling falls into a thespian's typically fuzzy thoughts on Acting, Being, Emotion and all the rest. Bantering with others, Rampling's charisma and presence assert themselves. Chatting with photographer Peter Lindbergh, she forces him to become the subject for once and watches him wilt before submitting to his camera, effortlessly switching on that titular Look. ("Get out of the eyeline," she politely commands the crew.) With director Barnaby Southcombe, she runs through a series of acting exercises—the two repeating the same banal phrases back and forth with microadjusted inflections—before curtly admitting she never liked this kind of work.

The Look fails to note that Southcombe's not just a director but also her son (irritatingly, it doesn't identify anyone onscreen until the end credits). Despite the affectation of openness, this is an actress examining her public and professional life while rigorously walling off her interior. In some ways, it's her "authorized" biography, the officially approved counter-balance to an ex-friend's controversial book about her gossip-fodder relationships, discreetly omitted here. Always comfortable and in control, Rampling is as hypnotic on her own terms as in her movies.

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Posted by ahillis at November 2, 2011 2:30 PM