June 27, 2012
The most frustrating aspect of being a film fan is not being able to see the movies you read about. So when a remarkable home movie becomes available, grab the opportunity to see (or record) it.
This Saturday morning, June 30, at 2:15 a.m. Eastern time, Turner Classic Movies is showing Multiple SIDosis, a 1970 short by the amateur filmmaker Sid Laverents. The occasion is a rare screening of Laverents’ remarkable autobiographical film The Sid Saga (1985–2003), a four-part account of his career as a vaudeville performer, salesman, aviation engineer, and amateur filmmaker. (Turner will be broadcasting the first three parts along with the short.)
The term “amateur filmmaker” may seem demeaning today, but when movies started, everybody was an amateur. By the 1920s, the film industry was over 30 years old, with established production and distribution processes. An alternate system of educational and instructional films had developed as well. The home movie market was also an important source of revenue for Kodak. Amateur films, an offshoot from home movies, became an increasingly respectable niche. They were shown in film clubs and art galleries, and were celebrated in magazines like Movie Makers and Creative Art.
“Amateur films” became a catchall phrase that included a wide variety of titles, from documentaries to fiction and animation. Literary adaptations (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1928), abstract experiments (The Life and Death of 9413 A Hollywood Extra, 1928), landscape essays (Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther, 1939)—all were “amateur” not because they lacked artistic merit, but largely because they were difficult to see in commercial theaters.
Born in 1908, Sid Laverents had lived several full lives before he bought a Bolex 16mm camera in 1959 to film a vacation in Canada. He screened his footage for the San Diego Amateur Film Club, founded in 1949. Over the next few years Laverents made industrial and promotional films, as well as Snails (1966), an educational film that was purchased by the California Department of Education for use in classrooms.
In 1964 Laverents filmed The One-Man Band, which recreated his vaudeville act and acted as a sort of warm-up for Multiple SIDosis. A dazzling display of double-tracking, the film shows Laverents playing the pop chestnut “Nola” on banjo, ukulele, bottles, jaw harp—all at the same time. Through double-exposures, up to eleven Sids appear on the screen, an effect achieved in camera rather than with an optical printer. Trust me, it’s an incredibly complicated maneuver, and one mistake means you have to start all over again.
Like Alfred Hitchcock, Laverents loved solving technical problems, but Multiple SIDosis is much more than a puzzle film. An inveterate performer, Laverents was also a canny one, and he learned over the years how to entertain a wide variety of people. He went to the trouble to invent different characters for each musician in Multiple SIDosis, changing his hair, clothes, even donning Mickey Mouse ears at one point.
Multiple SIDosis was named to the National Film Registry largely because of Melinda Stone, an amateur film expert. “I just started hounding people, calling the Smithsonian, calling the Getty, just anybody I knew who had an interest in folk-film culture,” she said later. Film preservationist Ross Lipman oversaw the restoration and blow-up to 35mm of both Multiple SIDosis and the first three parts of The Sid Saga. Laverents succumbed to pneumonia in May 2009.
Robbins Barstow was another amateur named to the National Film Registry, for his movie Disneyland Dream (1956). Born in 1920, Barstow started making movies at the age of twelve. When he was 16 years old, and already a member of the Amateur Cinema League, he made Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge, a 12-minute film that showed his grasp of composition, editing, and structuring scenes.
A husband and father of three, Barstow worked for 34 years as a director of professional development for the Connecticut Educational Association. He also continued to make movies. Disneyland Dream came about as the result of a 3M “Scotch Brand Cellophane Tape” contest, for which his son Danny won the family a trip to California. Barstow built a narrative structure around the trip, then filmed it as a story, not as a travelogue, turning his family into characters and inserting shots that commented on their behavior.
Barstow shot on 16mm until 1985, when he switched to 8mm and then to video. When converting his old 16mm films, he added soundtracks and narrations. Over seven decades he amassed more than a hundred productions.
Disneyland Dream was named to the National Film Registry in 2008. By that time Barstow had been championed by Northeast Historic Film and Home Movie Day, among others. Barstow died in 2010 at the age of 91.
Many of his films are available at the Internet Archive, an invaluable resource that has a large collection of home movies. Among these: works by railroad buff Fred McLeod, watchmaker Stanley Zoobris, and Wallace Kelly, whose Our Day was also named to the National Film Registry.
June 22, 2012
The statistics about sexual assault in the military are shocking. The Department of Defense reported 3,158 cases of assault in 2011. Less than half of these were referred for possible disciplinary action, and only 191 military members received convictions. The Department estimates that less than 14% of victims report assaults, suggesting that the actual number of attacks approaches 19,000 per year.
While the numbers come from the Department of Defense, we only learn about them in the documentary The Invisible War, released today by Cinedigm/Docurama Films. Written and directed by Kirby Dick, The Invisible War is an old-school expose, one that shines a light on material that some would prefer remained hidden.
You might wonder why we need The Invisible War at all. Sexual assault in the military is not a new topic. In 1991 the major television networks gave extensive coverage to the Tailhook scandal, during which more than 100 aviation officers were alleged to have assaulted over 80 women. PBS devoted an episode of Frontline to the incident.
In 1996, the Army brought charges against 12 officers for sexual assault of female trainees at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Again this received widespread media coverage, as did a 2003 scandal at the U.S. Air Force Academy. More recently, attorney Susan Blake and sixteen plaintiffs filed a lawsuit over sexual assaults at the Marine Barracks in Washington, DC, and other locations.
And yet The Invisible War catalogues a subsequent series of rapes and sexual assaults in all branches of the armed forces, and gives pretty conclusive evidence that they are largely ignored. In numerous interviews, victims describe how they were pressured and at times threatened not to report assaults, or found themselves charged with adultery while their attackers went free. According to the filmmakers, a third of servicewomen were too afraid to report assaults because their commanding officers were friends of the rapists. A quarter of the time, the commanding officer was the rapist.
How has the Department of Defense responded? According to Dick, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw the film on April 12. A few days later, he announced changes in how sexual assault cases will be prosecuted. And early this June, Major General Mary Kay Hertog, who has voiced her support for the new initatives, was replaced as director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO).
Dick has directed several documentaries, including Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997) and Outrage (2009), which dealt with closeted politicians who support anti-gay legislation. He is a deliberately provocative filmmaker, “a brilliant generator of indignation” in the words of New York Times critic A.O. Scott. An earlier generation might have referred to him as a muckraker.
Outrage generated controversy, with several reviewers refusing to name the politicians Dick outed. When the film failed to receive a nomination at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s 21st GLAAD Media Awards, the director complained that the organization was “playing into the same philosophy that has kept the closet in place in politics for decades.”
Sometimes Dick’s methods can backfire. In This Film Is Not Yet Rated, perhaps his most widely seen project, Dick attacked the ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America, the organization responsible for classifying movies as P, PG, etc. In the film he hired a private eye to stalk MPAA members, a stunt that served no purpose other than to bring him publicity. Dick took troubling factual shortcuts, implying that ratings boards in other countries are more lenient than the U.S. when the opposite is frequently true. He also tried to bait the board by submitting his own work for review.
Similarly, in The Invisible War Dick ambushes former SAPRO director Dr. Kaye Whitley during an interview by asking for statistics and definitions. And he uses a time-honored “60 Minutes” trick of focusing the sweat on the face of another interviewee.
But how fair does The Invisible War have to be? Twenty years of sexual scandals have done little or nothing to change military policy. The testimony of the victims is appalling, but frustrating as well in the face of so much inertia. Dick amazingly finds bipartisan agreement, with both Democratic and Republican representatives calling on camera for reform.
Earlier generations of filmmakers also dealt with social issues in the military. I recently wrote about John Huston’s Let There Be Light, which dealt with shell-shocked WWII veterans. Movies like The Reawakening (1919) and Heroes All (1920) did the same for WWI vets. Frank Capra oversaw The Negro Soldier, a groundbreaking documentary about the role of race in the armed forces.
The Invisible War continues this tradition, with some Internet updating: a website, Invisible No More, that lets you participate in reform.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
June 20, 2012
With the release this Friday of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, this week’s most overhyped buzz word will be “mash-up.” In music, a mash-up combines two separate songs into a new work. On an episode of TV’s “Glee,” for example, Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” merges with Blondie’s “One Way or Another.” I cherish the 1961 single “Like Long Hair” by Paul Revere and the Raiders, which turns a theme from Rachmaninoff’s C Sharp Minor Prelude into a raunchy rock instrumental. Frank Zappa was expert at finding unexpected connections. At a Mothers of Invention concert he once promised, “We’re going to butcher two of your favorite songs,” then had his musicians play Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and Them’s “Gloria” at the same time.
The most famous video mash-up may be Robocop vs Terminator by AMDS Films, which has been seen millions of times around the world. YouTube is the repository of choice for fan mash-ups, like the many Buffy vs. Twilight entries. (Buffy vs Edward: Twilight Remixed has been seen over 3 million times.) There you can also find examples of re-cut trailers like a version of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining by Robert Ryang that makes the horror film look like an upbeat family comedy.
Seth Grahame-Smith, a screenwriter and producer who grew up on Long Island and Connecticut, gets credit for initiating a cycle of mash-up novels with his 2009 work Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is the first of his novels to reach the screen, and it follows what has become the formula with the genre.
First, the all-important title. Like a “Wheel of Fortune” answer, it must combine two elements that are thought of as unrelated. Jane Austen and zombies, for example, or Lincoln and vampires. Tim Burton, director of Frankenweenie and Dark Shadows as well as a producer on this project, wanted to option the novel before Grahame-Smith had even finished it. “It sounded like the kind of movie I wanted to see,” Burton said in the film’s press notes.
Second, capitalize on popular trends, notably vampires. In fact almost all of the current crop of mash-up novels rely on horror elements, because who wants to read Abraham Lincoln: Geneticist or Abraham Lincoln: Financial Advisor?
Third, go downscale rather than highbrow. Reviewing Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, New York critic Sam Anderson noted that “the sea-monster subplots, considered independently, rarely rise above pulp clichés,” and that reading the original in tandem “sadly diminished” the mash-up.
This formula isn’t limited to mash-up adaptations. Snakes on a Plane relied on the same principles, and was even sent back for reshoots when executives determined the first cut wasn’t vulgar enough.
“Lincoln’s life story is an archetypal superhero origin story,” Grahame-Smith said in the film’s press notes. “He’s as close to an actual superhero as this country’s ever seen.” It’s hard to argue with the author’s approach, at least from a financial standpoint. Grahame-Smith is currently adapting Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and his 2012 novel about the Three Wise Men, Unholy Night, for the screen, and contributed to the screenplay for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who was born in the former Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Bekmambetov made educational films and commercials before turning to features and television miniseries. His Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006), based on a fantasy novel by Sergey Lukyanenko and released here by Fox Searchlight, depicted a battle between supernatural forces that took place in a contemporary version of Russia. In them Bekmambetov perfected a style of hyperkinetic action as illogical and pointless as it was exciting. (Production has not yet started on Twilight Watch, the third part of the trilogy.)
Mash-up films like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter—with a hero already known to virtually every United States citizen merged with consumer-approved horror elements—are a marketing department’s dream. So much so that you’d think someone would have tried it before. Which is why Fox publicists desperately hope no one mentions Cowboys and Aliens.
Oddly enough, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn’t even the first film to use bloodsuckers in the Civil War. In 1993′s Ghost Brigade, aka The Killing Box, aka Grey Knight, the North and South have to join forces to defeat zombies who are massacring the troops.
Here are some earlier films we might call mash-ups today:
Sherlock Holmes in Washington. Victorian-era sleuth Sherlock Holmes finds himself in the corridors of power searching for missing microfilm in this 1943 mystery. Universal released three Holmes films set in World War II, all starring Basil Rathbone and featuring anti-Nazi story lines. Would Abraham Lincoln have as much success fighting the Axis as he did with the undead?
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. A mash-up for the ages, this film came about because Universal had both the vaudeville comedians and a stable of monsters under contract. Costello reportedly said, “My five-year-old daughter can write something better than that” when he first saw the script, but he has some priceless jokes in a story about two baggage clerks who accidentally help Dracula revive the Frankenstein monster. When the lycanthrope Lawrence Talbot warns Costello that he will turn into a wolf when the moon rises, the comedian replies, “You and twenty million other guys.” The film was successful enough to lead to four more monster teamings.
Forbidden Planet. Filmmakers have always turned to Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about repurposing older material, for inspiration. Anthony Mann’s Western The Man From Laramie used plot elements from King Lear, for example. The Oscar-winning West Side Story placed Romeo and Juliet on New York streets. The Boys From Syracuse reworked The Comedy of Errors, while Kiss Me Kate is a musical updating of The Taming of the Shrew. The MGM science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet was a pretty clever adaptation of The Tempest, a play that author Tony Howard argues is also the basis for the excellent 1948 Western Yellow Sky.
The Valley of the Gwangi. This 1969 Western with special effects by stop-motion expert Ray Harryhausen pits cowboys against dinosaurs some 40 years before Cowboys and Aliens. The film may not have the most credible plot line, but for a while it was an underground favorite on college campuses. Not to be confused with lower-budget efforts like Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula (1966) or Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966).
“Second City TV” I know, not a film per se, but the writers and performers on SCTV masterminded a series of brilliant mash-ups during their sketch comedy series. Among my favorites: “Play It Again, Bob,” in which Woody Allen (Rick Moranis) tries to persuade Bob Hope (Dave Thomas) to appear in his next film; “Bowery Boys in the Band,” in which Robin Williams tries to hide his alternative lifestyle from his fellow gang members; and a scene in which Floyd (Eugene Levy) from “The Andy Griffith Show” asks a favor from The Godfather (Joe Flaherty).
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June 15, 2012
In honor of Father’s Day, you could watch some of the noble parents who have appeared in film over the years. Perhaps the heroic lawyer Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Or the benignly cranky Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride (1950), remade with Steve Martin in 1991. Maybe Life With Father, filmed in 1947 with William Powell as the dyspeptic but loving stockbroker Clarence Day. Or even A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), which won James Dunn an Oscar as the suicidal Johnny Nolan.
Or maybe you find the whole idea of Father’s Day—generally believed to have been invented by Sonora Smart Dodd in 1910, but popularized by merchants like the Associated Men’s Wear Retailers in the 1930s—just another a moneymaking ploy. If that’s the case, a less-than-stellar Dad might be more entertaining.
Movies and television are filled with bumbling, inept dads, like the henpecked Harold Bissonette W.C. Fields played in It’s a Gift (1934), or Arthur Lake as Dagwood in his long series of “Blondie” movies, or our reigning champion, Homer Simpson. Adam Sandler, who already starred in Big Daddy, takes the lead in That’s My Boy, released today to cash in on Father’s Day.
But a darker strain of stories stretching back to the Greeks shows fathers in a different light. More recently, Eugene O’Neill had an ambivalent relationship with his father, the actor James O’Neill, while Tennessee Williams presented a monstrous Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Weak or downright bad fathers abound in the works of Dickens and Faulkner, and in their film adaptations. Alfred Hitchcock’s father once had him locked as a child in a jail cell, an experience that colored many of the director’s subsequent films.
Here are some more bad movie fathers:
1. People Like Us (2012). In Alex Kurtzman’s film, loosely based on real events, hot-shot salesman Sam Harper (played by Chris Pine) has been estranged from his father Jerry for years. When Jerry, a former record producer, dies, the deep-in-debt Sam expects a helpful settlement. Instead, he learns that Jerry had a separate family, and that his stepsister Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a single mom and recovering addict, is getting the money he needs. Both siblings have bad memories of their father, which may explain why they are in such terrible shape as the film begins.
2. The Kid With the Bike (2011). Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, this small-scale movie focuses on Cyril (played by Thomas Doret), an eleven-year-old living in an orphanage in Belgium. Cyril keeps trying to contact his father Guy (Jérémie Renier), unwilling to accept that he has been abandoned. Few scenes are as cold and heartless as one in which Cyril finally confronts Guy in a restaurant. As an actor, Renier gives an admirably detached performance that adds to the film’s poignancy.
3. Five Easy Pieces (1970). A countercultural touchstone, Bob Rafelson’s film shows why classical pianist Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) ends up a working in an oil field: it’s Dad’s fault. A scene in which Nicholson battled a diner waitress over a chicken salad sandwich helped make him a superstar, but the film inexorably circles back to his crippling relationship with his father. Nicholson, who told one reporter that he does not know who his biological father is, encountered another fearsome parent in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
4. My Darling Clementine (1946). John Ford’s great Western is ostensibly about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and the Gunfight at O.K. Corral, but once you see the film you will never forget Walter Brennan as Ike Clanton, a villain for the ages. Whether rustling cattle, whipping his sons for failing him or shooting a rival in the back with a shotgun, Brennan’s Clanton is a father to be feared and obeyed. Brennan plays him perfectly, without a shred of decency or honesty.
5. There Will Be Blood (2007). Playwright Rob Potter reminded me of this 2007 film by Paul Thomas Anderson. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar as Daniel Plainview, a prospector who cheats and murders his way to oil wealth, with Dillon Freasier as his hapless son. Potter cites this dialogue from Plainview: “Drainage! Drainage, Eli! Drained dry, you boy! If you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and I have a straw and my straw reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake—I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!”
6. Star Wars. Do these films still need spoiler alerts? When writing Star Wars, George Lucas was enamored of Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which asserted that a specific hero myth has figured through many cultures. Campbell and TV reporter Bill Moyers even discussed how Lucas used the book in a scene filmed at Skywalker Ranch. The second and best episode to be filmed, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), is suffused with an almost Biblical sense of destiny. Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill) is fated, or doomed, to confront his nemesis Darth Vader, a villain so evil he thinks nothing of destroying entire planets.
There must be other bad dads lurking in movies. What are your favorites?
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
June 13, 2012
Pixar’s new release Brave is being singled out for, among other things, having the studio’s first female lead character. For years writers have been criticizing Pixar and its parent company Walt Disney for holding onto outdated gender attitudes: helpless princesses, evil witches, etc. After Disney’s 2009 feature The Princess and the Frog underperformed at the box office, the company renamed its “Rapunzel” feature to Tangled in an attempt to attract a wider (read: “male”) audience.
It didn’t help Pixar’s reputation with feminists when Brenda Chapman, the original Brave director, was replaced by Mark Andrews well after production started. (Chapman still receives co-director credit.) But it’s not like DreamWorks or other studios have gone out of their way to let women direct animated features. I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is an industry problem or just a reflection of society. But film has been blessed with some extraordinary women animators. Here is a brief list:
1. Lotte Reiniger. Credited with directing the first feature-length animated film, Reiniger was born in 1899 in Berlin. Fascinated as a child by acting and movies, she worked on an animated sequence in The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918) and other films. Reiniger earned recognition for her use of cut-out silhouettes that she would move frame by frame. Capitalizing on a German fascination with “shadow plays,” a technique stretching back to the time of the Egyptians, Reiniger began work on a project in 1923 drawn from the 1001 Arabian Nights. Released in 1926, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a delicate, whimsical, enchanting film built around tinted silhouettes, with some sets and figures constructed from wax, soap, and sand. After a screening in Berlin and a premiere in Paris, the film became an international hit. Reiniger continued making movies until 1979′s The Rose and the Ring. The Adventures of Prince Achmed has been beautifully restored for this Milestone release.
2. Janie Geiser. A world-acclaimed puppeteer, Janie Geiser was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1957. After attending the University of Georgia, she formed her own puppet company, whose work she began to document on film. Gradually she began to experiment with animation techniques to make stand-alone films like The Red Book (1994). Geiser’s films combine cut-outs, dolls, graphics, newspapers, and other items to form a collage of animation effects. She uses collage for the soundtracks as well, layering snippets of dialogue, industrial sounds, and music to form dense, elusive aural clouds. Geiser teaches at CalArts, and is the co-founder, with Susan Simpson, of Automata, a Los Angeles-based organization devoted to experimental puppet theater, film, “and other contemporary art practices centered on ideas of artifice and performing objects.”
3. Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Born in South Korea in 1972, Nelson grew up in Los Angeles. An encounter with a storyboard artist at California State University, Long Beach inspired her to try a career in animation. After working on direct-to-video and cable projects, Nelson was hired by DreamWorks as a storyboard artist, where she worked on Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Madagascar, and the first Kung Fu Panda. Her accomplishments on that film convinced DreamWorks executives to give her Kung Fu Panda 2, a project that took three years to complete. “There aren’t a lot of female story artists, and it’s baffling to me,” Nelson told LA Times reporter Nicole Sperling. “There are a lot of kids in school that are female and I wonder, where did they all go? People have brought it up, asking me, ‘What did you do?’ I don’t really know. I puttered along, did my thing and gender has really never been an issue.”
4. Helen Hill. Animator, documentary filmmaker, activist, teacher, wife and mother, Helen Hill completed 21 short films that explored the full range of animation, from stop-motion with models to painting directly onto celluloid. She was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1970, and began making Super 8 movies at the age of eleven. Hill studied animation at Harvard’s Visual Environmental Studies Program and later at the California Institute for the Arts. After obtaining her masters, she joined her husband Paul Gailiunas in Nova Scotia, where he was attending medical school. When he received his medical degree, they moved to New Orleans.
Hill loved film as a medium, studying filmmaking methods and learning how to process stock. Her Recipes for Disaster: A Handcrafted Film Cookbooklet has become a standard resource for alternative filmmakers. In shorts like Scratch and Crow (1995), Hill’s exuberant drawing and surreal sense of humor captivate viewers. Many of her films are available from the Harvard Film Archive, which preserved her work after it was damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
5. Sally Cruikshank. One of the first countercultural films to break through to a mainstream audience, Quasi at the Quackadero enlivened many midnight screenings when it was released in 1975. It was written, animated, and directed by Sally Cruikshank, a New Jersey native who attended Yale Art School on scholarship. She finished her first cartoon, Ducky, at Smith College, then enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute. She found inspiration from the Fleischer Brothers and Walt Disney as well as experimental filmmakers, and by combining these two traditions, made films that were anarchic as well as accessible, filled with memorable characters and bizarre gags. Cruikshank went on to animate some twenty pieces for “Sesame Street” and contributed animated sequences to feature films like Twilight Zone: The Movie (1982). She offers this DVD collection of her work.
There are several more female animators I hope to discuss in the future, including Mary Ellen Bute, Faith Hubley, Vicky Jenson, Lorna Cook and Danielle Ash.
June 8, 2012
Through the weird synchronicity that haunts film scheduling, several movies about musicians will be released shortly. There’s Rock of Ages, the latest Broadway musical adapted to the screen, with Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta Jones and other stars slumming their way through 1970s rock warhorses. Two documentaries—Neil Young Journeys and Searching for Sugar Man—present careers in music as a sort of cautionary tale, with life on the road serving as either doom or salvation.
I asked Jason Beek, drummer in the Eilen Jewell band, how accurate movies about musicians on the road were. In film, the road changes you, for better or worse depending on the plot you’re in. One way or another, narratives have to end, while in real life musicians keep plugging away without the reversals, betrayals and epiphanies that Hollywood demands.
Eilen Jewell draws from rock, country, jazz and blues, paying tribute to the past while building a uniquely modern sound. She put her band together in 2005, with her husband Jason on drums, Jerry Glenn Miller on guitar and Johnny Sciascia on bass. The band plays 150 to 175 shows a year, usually traveling in a 15-person van. “We are ‘on the road,’ away from home, in a van or on a plane for seven months out of the year,” Beek told me.
“We try to limit our travel to the daytime,” Beek explained. Driving between gigs can be relatively easy in the Northeast, where venues can be a couple of hours apart. “But we have been on tours where we have to drive as many as eight hours. We really try to limit our travel to no more than six hours on a gig day.”
What goes wrong on the road? “Mistakes happen with promoters, people get lost, wrong info, loose ends,” Beek said. “We travel with an upright bass internationally and that is always squirrelly.” The drummer told about how the group was delayed while leaving the United Kingdom. “7 a.m. and I’m arguing with the head of the airport about how they had no problem letting the bass into the country, but now it is too heavy to fly out? We had to have our driver ferry it over to Ireland for the next shows.”
Since so many articles cite Almost Famous among the best rock films, I asked Beek his opinion. “Eilen and I didn’t see Almost Famous,” he answered. “Johnny our bass player says he didn’t like it, and Jerry our guitar player said it was ok.
“I think you’ll find at least as many opinions about rock movies as there are musicians,” he went on. “For example, I thought recent films like Ray, Walk the Line and Cadillac Records were entertaining if only because my musical heroes were being portrayed on the big screen.”
Beek pointed out how Hollywood tends to reduce and simplify facts and ideas. “Both Walk the Line and Ray followed a formula about a dramatic childhood event, addiction, recovery and then a happy ending,” he said. “Some musicians I know think those films are totally worthless as far as telling it like it is—whether how hard it can be on the road or whether they got the facts straight about a particular artist.”
Separate genres of music have their own cycle of road movies. For pop, you can go back to the first musical to win a Best Picture Oscar, The Broadway Melody, in which two naive sisters on tour fight over an oily leading man, or The Good Companions, a British film adapted from J.B. Priestley’s comic novel of clueless musicians touring the hinterlands of England. Later films like Blues in the Night presented the road as a place of peril, especially regarding romance.
Jazz films tend to take a dim view of the road. It helped lead Charlie Parker to heroin in Clint Eastwood’s biopic Bird, and left Dexter Gordon’s character a wreck in ‘Round Midnight, although traveling was a more benign plot device in The Glenn Miller Story.
Country music loves cautionary tales, so the road brought nothing but trouble to Gene Autry in The Old Barn Dance, Rip Torn in Payday, Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Willie Nelson in Honeysuckle Rose, Clint Eastwood in Honkytonk Man and Burt Reynolds in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. One of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s pet projects has been a biopic about Hank Williams, who famously died in the back seat of a limousine on his way to a concert in Canton, Ohio. Schrader told me a scene in which a delirious Hank is handcuffed to a dressing room cot backstage in an attempt to prevent another drinking spree.
More recently, Walk the Line showed the temptations of the road in vivid terms, as Johnny Cash engages in drunken hijinks with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins while June Carter looks on disapprovingly. And Crazy Heart won Jeff Bridges an Oscar for playing a country musician who uses the road to avoid responsibility.
Dozens of films were set in the world of rock’n'roll, but films specific to touring took a while to emerge. One of the first, A Hard Day’s Night, is also one of the best. According to film historian Alexander Walker, when The Beatles signed their film contract, the studio prohibited them from being seen drinking alcohol and chasing girls. Director Richard Lester made that a theme of the movie, with the boys disappointed again and again in their efforts to drink or chat up girls.
Studios rarely treated rock music seriously until Light of Day (1987), written and directed by Paul Schrader, with Michael Fox and Joan Jett as a brother/sister rock act. It helped that they actually sang and played their instruments, something that didn’t happen in movies like Eddie and the Cruisers and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
Concert documentaries can provide a better insight into touring. In Dont Look Back, directed by D. A. Pennebaker, Bob Dylan tours England, meeting an adoring public, fawning fellow musicians and a hostile press. The chilling Gimme Shelter, directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, follows The Rolling Stones on an American tour that culminates with a murder at Altamount. And could touring be any more hellish than in the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap?
Neil Young Journeys is the third feature director Jonathan Demme has made about the musician. Most of the film is devoted to concerts Young gave at Toronto’s Massey Hall in May 2011. Demme also shot Young at his childhood home and touring northern Ontario in a 1956 Ford Victoria. Approaching his fiftieth year as a professional musician, Young is as passionate as ever, despite the obvious rigors of the road. Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing it on June 29.
Searching for Sugar Man, another Sony Pictures Classics release, comes out in July. It opens in South Africa, where musicians and journalists explain how Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter from 1970s Detroit, was so influential in battling apartheid. Without giving too much away, the film shows just how harsh and unforgiving the music industry can be—although it has a twist that is both uplifting and heart-rending. Searching for Sugar Man answers a dilemma every artist faces: How long can you struggle against rejection before giving up?
So do any movies get the road right? Steve Rash’s The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey, made touring seem delightful as Holly made his way from Clovis, New Mexico, to New York City. Of course, Holly’s story had what screenwriters consider a golden ending: death by plane crash. (Lou Diamond Philips played Richie Valens, who died in the same crash, in La Bamba.)
Tom Hanks, an avowed Eilen Jewell fan, chose That Thing You Do! as his directorial debut. A knowing tribute to the one-hit wonders who supplied a steady stream of hits to Top Forty radio, That Thing You Do! recreated the package tours that dominated the mid-sixties, with giddy newcomers and jaundiced veterans thrown together on bus rides to perform at county fairs.
In the meantime, do not miss the opportunity to see Eilen Jewell, a first-rate songwriter and a wonderful singer, and her crack band. They are appearing tonight at Manhattan’s City Winery and with luck will reach your town soon. Here’s the title song from her third full-length album, Sea of Tears.
June 6, 2012
Upgraded to Blu-ray, the John Wayne Western Hondo has just been released by Paramount Home Media. Hondo sold over a million units when it was released on DVD in 2005, but the Blu-ray boasts a new 1080p high definition transfer as well as many extra features.
If you’re familiar with Wayne’s classic Westerns, like Stagecoach, Red River, and Fort Apache, Hondo may come across as a change of pace. Based on a Louis L’Amour short story (which the author later turned into a best-selling novelization), Hondo stars Wayne as a mysterious, at times menacing Civil War veteran and widower who becomes the sole protector of single mother Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page in her feature film debut) and her young son Johnny (Lee Aaker).
Set in the deserts of New Mexico, the film is surprisingly forward thinking in its attitude towards women, Native Americans, and the frontier in general. Filmed in color and 3D in Mexico, Hondo made excellent use of cutting-edge technology—even if cinematographers Robert Burks and Archie Stout were often ill-at-ease with 3D effects. (An excellent article by Bob Furmanek and Jack Theaston on the new 3-D Film Archive site shows how involved Wayne and studio head Jack Warner were in the technical side of the filming.)
Hondo features a number of actors and filmmakers familiar from Wayne’s Westerns, like the garrulous Ward Bond and screenwriter James Edward Grant, both of whom are profiled in Blu-ray extras. James Arness, later the star of TV’s “Gunsmoke,” has a small role.
Like many of his contemporaries, Wayne started taking more control over his career in the 1950s as the studio system faded. With his partner Robert Fellows, Wayne formed a production company that would evolve into Batjac. Director John Farrow, an Australian native, had worked for Wayne’s company earlier that year on the thriller Plunder of the Sun. (Farrow married actress Maureen O’Sullivan; their daughter Mia has enjoyed an extensive acting career, appearing as Christopher Walken’s wife in the upcoming Dark Horse. And as a bit of trivia, biographer Tad Gallagher wrote that John Ford directed two of the shots in Hondo.)
Choosing projects entailed a lot more risk than simply accepting studio assignments, but it also gave Wayne the chance to take on more nuanced characters than those he portrayed in some of his earlier films. Hondo is a suspicious, close-mouthed character, someone who doesn’t want to get involved in the problems surrounding him. His relationship with Angie is a difficult one—which Geraldine Page emphasizes in her performance.
Wayne’s son Michael took over Batjac in 1961. As well as producing movies, Michael oversaw the company’s complicated holdings, which included copyright and distribution rights to Hondo, The High and the Mighty, Islands in the Sky, and McLintock! I spoke with his widow Gretchen Wayne this week, and she went over the specifics of how zealously her husband protected the Batjac films. She also took over the responsibility of running Batjac after Michael died in 2004.
Gretchen Wayne oversaw the Blu-ray upgrade, as well as a complete restoration of the 3D version of Hondo, which she has screened at the Cannes Film Festival, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and other venues. She praised the new Blu-ray restoration. “Has it been on television? Yes,” she said. “Has it looked as good as it does now? Absolutely not. What you’re going to see here is a newer film, and you’ll see it in enhanced widescreen.”
She agrees that Hondo was an unusual role for Wayne. “It’s a little more intellectual than his other films. There are a lot more subtleties, more tension. And more respect for the Indian nation,” she said. “And then there’s some dialogue that the average woman today would shudder at, like when Geraldine Page says, ‘I know I’m a homely woman.’ But she’s so strong in that part—she got an Academy Award nomination for what was her first starring role.”
I wondered if John Wayne’s screen persona can still connect with an audience today. “Well, it’s interesting,” Mrs. Wayne replied. “I’ve got a 26-year-old granddaughter in the advertising business, and all her friends know who John Wayne is. They watch his films on their iPhones, which drives me crazy. You go to all the trouble to make a film that will look good in a theater and these kids are watching them on telephones!
“But they are connecting to him. His films are on all the time. Their fathers watched them, or their grandfathers. Or their mothers will talk about them. He’s a hero—just ask anyone in the military who John Wayne is. If writers or directors today want to give you a character with civility, honesty, and patriotism, they will give you someone like John Wayne.”
Mrs. Wayne met her future husband when she was fourteen, so she was intimately familiar with the Duke for several decades. She described him as a gentleman, someone respectful to women, and polite to the point of shyness. “He didn’t bound into a room all boisterous,” she said. “In front of me and my sisters-in-law, I never heard him say a vulgar word in all those years.”
What would get Wayne mad was a lack of professionalism on his movie sets. “My husband told me that when they went on location, the Duke was the first one there in the morning, and the last one away at night. He expected the same from everyone, particularly his own family. He meant it when he said, ‘Sun’s up, where are you?’ He couldn’t stand to waste time, it was like burning money.”
Wayne is an iconic figure, perhaps the most recognizable Western star and a potent cultural symbol. Growing up, it was easy for me and my friends to dismiss him as old-fashioned compared to anti-heroes like Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino. With hindsight, I recognize how difficult many of Wayne’s choices were, and how honorably he treated his audience.
Today many viewers tend to lump Wayne in with more straightforward action stars instead of giving him credit as an actor. In his best films Wayne shows many different personalities: the conflicted boxer in The Quiet Man; the bitter, aging rancher in Red River; the homesteader who sacrifices his happiness in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; and the grim, driven vigilante in The Searchers. It’s notable that in many of his films, like The Quiet Man and Angel and the Badman, Wayne plays men wary and suspicious of violence.
Mrs. Wayne singled out these films as favorites, as well as The Shootist, where “I thought he gave one of his best performances ever. It was touching to us, the family, more perhaps than to other people because we knew how sick he was.” Appropriately, The Shootist incorporates footage from Hondo to explain Wayne’s character’s background.
Mrs. Wayne pointed out that Angel and the Badman provided the template for the Harrison Ford vehicle Witness, and many of today’s action stars evoke Wayne, consciously or not. Hondo gives you the chance to see the real thing, one of the screen’s most memorable heroes at the height of his fame.
Today Google celebrates the opening of the first drive-in theater in 1933 with a doodle. Four years ago, Smithsonian.com celebrated the 75th birthday of the distinctly American innovation with a story about the history of drive-ins and the man who started it all, Richard Hollingshead. While the idea of watching movies outside wasn’t entirely new, explains Robin T. Reid, in the article, Hollingshead, a sales manager in his father’s auto parts company, focused the idea around the automobile. His key invention was a ramp designed for each parking space that allowed every viewer to see the screen (as shown in this diagram from an August 1933 edition of Popular Science).
Here’s an excerpt from Reid’s article detailing how Hollinghead’s idea evolved from a pair of sheets nailed between two trees to the American icon the drive-in theater is today:
“He first conceived the drive-in as the answer to a problem. ‘His mother was—how shall I say it?—rather large for indoor theater seats,’ said Jim Kopp of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association. ‘So he stuck her in a car and put a 1928 projector on the hood of the car, and tied two sheets to trees in his yard.’
“Hollingshead experimented for a few years before he created a ramp system for cars to park at different heights so everyone could see the screen. He patented his concept in May 1933 and opened the gates to his theater the next month.”
On June 6, 1933 in Camden, New Jersey, people paid 25 cents per car, plus 25 additional cents per person, to see the British comedy Wives Beware, starring Adolphe Menjou and Margaret Bannerman. A year later, the second drive-in, Shankweiler’s, started in Orefield, Pennsylvania. While a few other theaters sprung up, it was not until the early 1940s, when in-car speakers hit the scene, that the concept really spread. Fast forward to 1958 and the number of drive-ins peaked at 4,063.
Their early success was relatively short-lived, however. As Reid explains:
“The indoor theaters were more flexible about scheduling… and could show one film five or six times a day instead of only at night. So to sell as many tickets as possible, the movie studios sent their first-runs to the indoor theaters. Drive-ins were left to show B movies and, eventually, X-rated ones. And being naughty helped some drive-ins survive.”
Land prices also contributed to the decline of the drive-in. As cities grew, plots of land that had formerly been on the outskirts of town suddenly became valuable. Today roughly only 400 drive-ins remain in the United States. Although, as the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association reported, there are approximately 100 more worldwide with new drive-ins popping up in China and Russia.
June 5, 2012
This weekend, Snow White and the Huntsman, a twist on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale, hit theaters with a star-studded cast: Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron and the Twilight trilogy’s Kristen Stewart, among others. But, what would the Grimms think if they were around for the premiere? Smithsonian.com’s K. Annabelle Smith spoke with Jack Zipes, one of the most prolific authors in fairy tale and folklore studies, about the newest of the mainstream fairy tale adaptations.
There seem to be a lot of fairy-tale-themed television shows and movies coming out—“Once Upon a Time,” Mirror Mirror, Jack the Giant Killer, Snow White and the Huntsman—what’s your initial reaction to this influx?
First, it’s a mistake to say that there is a recent surge—there has been interest in fairy tales since the 1890s. All of this spectacular talk is not really a new interest in fairy tales, but a new way to exaggerate and embellish productions that cost millions of dollars. What’s new is the hyping—films that are just absolutely mindless can make it seem like you are going to be sent into a world that will astonish and delight you for a couple of hours while you eat your popcorn.
What’s your opinion on the adaptations that have come up over the years?
We have every right and should adapt tales because society changes. But the Grimms would flip over if they were alive today. They were better known during their time as scholarly writers; they were in the pursuit of the essence of story telling. By collecting different versions of every tale they published, they hoped to resuscitate the linguistic cultural tradition that keeps people together—stories that were shared with the common people. In these adaptations you can gain a good sense of whether artists are writing to make money or to celebrate themselves. As critics, we owe it to our culture to dismiss 95 percent of the stuff we see.
What from the original versions of fairy tales seems to remain?
We don’t really know when fairy tales originated. I’ve tried to show in my most recent book, the Irresistible Fairytale, that in order to talk about any genre, particularly what we call simple genre—a myth, a legend, an anecdote, a tall tale, and so on—we really have to understand something about the origin of stories all together. What the Greeks and Romans considered myths, we consider fairy tales. We can see how very clearly the myths, which emanated from all cultures, had a huge influence on the development of the modern fairy tale. These myths are not direct “Snow White” tales but already they have the motif of jealousy and envy of a woman that one character wants to kill. In any of the Greek myths that involve female goddesses, you see the same thing: Who’s more beautiful? Who is more powerful than the other? These themes—jealousy of the mother or stepmother regarding the beauty or power of a younger, mortal woman—are what drive “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Fairy tales have changed a lot—so much so that if children heard the original versions today, they might be surprised. What might people find shocking about the originals?
The Grimm collections were never intended for children. Not because kids were excluded, but because the division we make today of children’s literature didn’t exist then. The idea of protecting children from tales with violence didn’t occur until the earlier part of the 19th century. In [the original] “Cinderella,” birds peck the stepsisters’ eyes out after the girls cut off their heels and toes to try to fit their feet into the glass slipper. In the 1812 and 1815 editions of “Children’s and Household Tales,” there is a story in which children pretend to be butchers and slaughter the child who plays the part of the pig. The Grimms didn’t eliminate sex and violence, but they sugar coated some of it in later editions. In the 20th century version of “Red Riding Hood”, for example, the wolf never gets to eat Grandmother. That would be considered indecent.
What about the Brothers Grimm? Why do you think their name has remained a staple in American storytelling?
The Grimm tales stick because they were good artists—consummate writers, even if they made [the stories] easier to digest over time. It’s not their sexism in “Snow White”, it’s the sexism of the time. The way children were beaten to adhere to moral guidelines, the way women are portrayed [in the fairy tales] were ideas that were a product of the era in which they were written. When the Grimms began gathering the first versions of “Snow White” before it was published, it was a tale about a mother who is jealous of her daughter and wants to have her killed. The Brothers Grimm went through seven revisions and by the second edition in 1819, Wilhelm Grimm began embroidering the story, making it more sexist. He has Snow White saying ‘I’ll be your good housekeeper’ to the dwarves; he changed the mother to a stepmother. It changes a lot.
What was your first reaction to Snow White and the Huntsman?
This movie represents a backlash to the feminist movement. “Once Upon a Time,” Mirror Mirror—those shows and films focus on women and their conflict with one another. What the heck is going on in contemporary fairy tales? Women are not dominating the world; they are not evil. Why are we redoing the Grimm tales in a retroactive way that doesn’t understand the complex problems women have today? These films have nothing to say to the world today.
What message do you think comes through with the female characters?
There is always a touch of faux feminism, or false feminism. Snow White becomes a warrior, but we still have this glorification of the virgin princess.
Why do you think these stories have stood the test of time?
Fairy tales in general stick because they are relevant to us in adapting to society. The tales help us understand complex topics like child abuse, rape, even sibling rivalry. They tend to offer a counter world to our perverse world where things are resolved or, at least, a sense of justice occurs. We come back to these tales because they help us navigate our way through the world. Almost all the modern fairy-tale films and prose fairy tales have strayed far from the originals, and hey, that’s all right. The question is whether the adapters make a new work of art that provokes us to think and dream and want to make the story our own.
June 4, 2012
Folk music lost a legend with the passing of Doc Watson on May 29. Justly famous for his flatpicking expertise, Watson influenced a generation of guitarists, including Bob Dylan (who said his playing was “just like water running”) and Ry Cooder, who wrote this reminiscence in Wednesday’s New York Times.
Watson had close ties with Smithsonian Folkways Records, as you can learn in Wednesday’s Around the Mall posting Remembering Doc Watson, Folk Guitar Hero (1923-2012). It includes links to his albums with Clarence Ashley and Bill Monroe, as well as a clip of “Deep River Blues” from the Smithsonian Folkways instructional DVD Doc’s Guitar: Fingerpicking & Flatpicking, produced by Artie Traum’s Homespun Music Instruction.
Watson played a key role in the folk music revival of the 1960s, not just for his singing and playing, but for his eclectic taste. Purists of the time tended to slavishly recreate songs they learned from Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music. Watson embraced everything: jazz, blues, country, rockabilly, pop. He gave equal weight to all genres, and found inspiration in both traditional songs and Tin Pan Alley concoctions. He helped listeners find a common thread across musical boundaries.
The guitarist recorded for a number of labels, including Vanguard, Capitol and Sugar Hill, and appeared on innumerable radio and television shows. Many of these can be found on YouTube, and like the Smithsonian Folkways link above, are mostly excerpts from larger pieces. Like “Old, Old House,” a clip from the 2008 Appalshop documentary From Wood to Singing Guitar.
The definitive Doc Watson documentary has yet to be made, and it can be frustrating catching glimpses of his performances instead of learning more about what he was like as a person. Three Homespun instructional DVDs—Flatpicking with Doc, Doc’s Guitar, and Doc’s Guitar Jam—show a more unguarded portrait of the musician.
Another good source of Watson material is Stefan Grossman’s Vestapol Videos and DVDs. Doc and Merle Watson In Concert (1980) has footage of the musicians at home. Doc Watson–Rare Performances 1963-1981 assembles clips from TV shows like “Hootenanny” and “Austin City Limits.”
It can be difficult to find folk musicians like Watson on film, the occasional “Austin City Limits” notwithstanding. It’s been over a decade since PBS offered American Roots Music, a somewhat cursory overview of “Blues, Country, Bluegrass, Gospel, Cajun, Zydeco, Tejano and Native American” styles. Public television’s American Masters series has devoted episodes to Phil Ochs and Joni Mitchell. But the genre has yet to receive the treatment it deserves.
Rural music was treated with more respect back in the 1920s, when movies were beginning to switch from silent to sound. Warner Bros. introduced its Vitaphone sound system to the public on August 6, 1926, with a program of eight short films. The only popular, as opposed to classical, title was Roy Smeck, “The Wizard of the String,” in “His Pastimes.” Smeck, whose career extended into the 1960s and beyond, played the banjo, ukulele and Hawaiian (or slide) guitar. Warners released His Pastimes on its Jazz Singer box set.
Country and rural acts appeared in a number of musical shorts of the period: Otto Gray’s Oklahoma Cowboys, The Rangers in “After the Roundup,” Oklahoma Bob Albright and His Rodeo Do-Flappers, etc. Watson told journalist Dan Miller that he switched from the Maybelle Carter “thumb lead” style of playing to flatpicking because of Jimmie Rodgers. “I figured, ‘Hey, he must be doing that with one of them straight picks.’ So I got me one and began to work at it. Then I began to learn the Jimmie Rodgers licks.” “The Father of Country Music,” Rodgers filmed a short for Columbia Pictures in Camden, New Jersey, The Singing Brakeman, in October, 1929.
In the 1930s and 1940s, “singing cowboy” movies gave a platform for rural artists like Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Jimmie Davis. Similarly, “Soundies,” a precursor of sorts to music videos, could star Merle Travis or Spade Cooley. Bob Wills, another Watson favorite, appeared in over a dozen features and shorts during the period. Pete Seeger appeared in an educational short, To Hear Your Banjo Play (1947), directed by Irving Lerner and Willard Van Dyke.
Genuine folk music became harder to spot in movies during the 1950s, perhaps because a younger generation was turning to rock and roll. Fans could spot Merle Travis singing “Re-enlistment Blues” in From Here to Eternity, but often rural music was the subject of derision, as in A Face in the Crowd.
Watson’s emergence, along with the rise of individuals like Dylan and groups like Peter, Paul & Mary and The New Lost City Ramblers, helped burnish folk’s reputation. Suddenly folk musicians were everywhere on TV. Film caught up later with the Oscar-winning Bound for Glory (1976), a fanciful biopic about Woody Guthrie, and the genre was gently roasted by the Spinal Tap gang in A Mighty Wind (2003). The next Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, recreates the 1960s MacDougall Street/Greenwich Village folk scene.
It’s a treat to see Johnny Cash perform in the otherwise mediocre Hootenanny Hoot (1963), but it seems to me that filmmakers of the time rarely captured the essence of folk music. One exception is John Cohen, a musician with The New Lost City Ramblers, photographer and writer as well as a documentarian. The High Lonesome Sound (featuring Roscoe Holcomb) and in particular Sara & Maybelle: the Original Carter Family present folk music the way it should be heard. If you can find his DVD, grab it.
This is a very abbreviated overview, one that leaves out whole swaths of performers and musical styles. Les Blank, for example, has made excellent documentaries about Louisiana and Tex-Mex music, and filmmakers like D A Pennebaker have dug deep into Americana music. There’s always more to learn, one of the best lessons listening to Doc Watson taught me.