Category Archives: Film

“THE KING AND I”— Beautiful on Blu Ray

the king and I

“The King and I”

Beautiful on Blu Ray

Amos Lassen

One of the best examples of stage-to-screen adaptation, “The King and I” is quite a show. However I must note that the 50th Anniversary release on Blu Ray has a major fault— the score! Has been trimmed. 20th Century-Fox spent lots of effort and money to bring this Rodgers and Hammerstein hit to the very wide CinemaScope 55 screen, and the various artists who worked on the project certainly put a stunning vision of the show up on that wide screen. Production and costume design are gorgeous, the orchestrations are beautiful and in magnetic stereo (re-engineered for Dolby 5.1) and the cast is simply perfect. At the last minute, the studio scrapped their original idea to road show the picture in 55mm, and some filmed numbers were dropped to shorten the overall length. This always hurt and it does not matter what the excuses for cutting are because it means that the show becomes incomplete. “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Western People Funny”, and maybe “My Lord and Master”, “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” and “I Have Dreamed’ have been cut in places.

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Widowed English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) travels to Siam after she is offered a position to tutor the children of the King (Yul Brynner). Once in Siam, Anna and the King clash on matters of politics, ethics and the heart…two very different individuals who manage to still find the very best in each other. This magical movie has never looked or sounded better.

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Extra features include the pilot episode of the “Anna and the King” TV series starring Samantha Eggar and Brynner (with optional commentary by Eggar); vintage performances from the “General Foods” Rodgers & Hammerstein TV tribute (Patricia Morison and Brynner). Several new featurettes and rare MovieTone news segments.

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The show premiered on stage in 1951 (and has been performed tens of thousands of times since) and it tells a timeless story about tradition vs. modernity, Eastern vs. Western culture and men vs. women. This story was first written as the first-hand account of Anna Leonowens’ experiences in Siam in the mid-19th Century, where she had been hired by King Mongkut to teach his many children, in his hopes to push Siam into the modern age. Deborah Kerr totally embodies the strong-willed but emotionally fragile young widow Anna Leonowens; she makes Anna into a character with whom we identify and sympathize. We are on her side with her in all disputes, from demanding that she be given her own house in which to stay as part of the original deal, to calling King Mongkut to task for enforcing double-standard sexual laws that were outdated and demeaning to women even at that time.

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Yul Brynner commands the screen in every scene he’s in. You simply cannot look away. His King Mongkut is someone who wants to change Siam for the better, yet struggles to cling to many of the same traditions that he slowly begins to realize is partly responsible for holding Siam back. His heartbreak by film’s end is emotionally gut wrenching. Brynner’s performance is brilliant and won him a very well deserved Oscar for Best Actor. Deborah Kerr gives a wide-ranged performance that spans all emotions throughout the course of this film. She was deservedly nominated for Best Actress.

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This film would have given us enough t to chew on just in the complex relationship between our two principals alone and there are two spellbinding subplots, one of the forbidden love between Tuptim (Rita Moreno) one of King Mongkut’s many wives, and Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas), and the visit by the British Ambassador Sir John Hay (Alan Mowbray) whom King Mongkut wants to impress with how civilized he, and the Kingdom of Siam, is. Then there is the “play within the play”—the hypnotic Siamese theater performance of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s epic American tale of oppression and cruelty, ”Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Anna’s young son Louis (Rex Thompson) provides us with an effective sounding-board onto whom Anna reveals the kind of feelings about the situation that she cannot express to the King, a deeply conflicted man who agonizes at the prospect of losing centuries-old Siamese traditions, even as he expresses himself as one who wants to help his country modernize.

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The film has great period costumes in both Eastern and Western traditions, a huge, ornate set used for the Palace and great music. Add a wonderful cast and we see how it has endured for as long as it has and will continue to do so.

“IMMORAL TALES”— Four Erotic Stories

immoral tales

“Immoral Tales”

Four Erotic Stories

Amos Lassen

Walerian Borowczyk’s portmanteau film. “Immoral Tales” brings us four erotic stories from different historical eras.” The Tide”, is set in contemporary times, and concerns a student and his young female cousin stranded on the beach by the tide, secluded from prying eyes. Fabrice Luchini as a 20-year-old boy using his seniority to impose his desires on his 16-year-old cousin (Lise Danvers). “Therese Philosophe” takes place in the nineteenth century, and concerns a girl (Charlotte Alexandra) being locked in her bedroom, where she contemplates the erotic potential of the objects contained within it. She becomes sexually worked up by the stations of the cross (and a mucky illustrated tract), before falling victim to a malicious vagrant.

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“Erzsebet Bathory” is a portrait of the sixteenth-century countess who allegedly bathed in the blood of virgins. Paloma Picasso rides into a Hungarian village and rounds up all the suitably pulchritudinous females for a ritualized sequence of bathing, frock ripping and eventual slaughter. She bathes in their blood before making love to her female squire, who then betrays her to the King’s men.

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“Lucrezia Borgia” is about an incestuous fifteenth-century orgy involving Lucrezia, her brother, and her father the Pope. This shows a carnival of power, corruption and hypocrisy as Lucrezia (Florence Bellamy), the Pope, and various holy lackeys indulge in cackling murder and blasphemous three-way fornication, while a preacher who denounces their regime is burnt at the stake for his troubles.

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The world we see is brutal and troubling world , a place where the urge to power and the sexual drive are hopelessly entwined; where authority is corrupt and murderous and innocence or righteousness is doomed. We see delight in perversity and an emphasis on anti-clericalism and a delight in the blasphemous. The film is incredibly seductive, a sensual world where everything is sexualized. The carefully chosen objects decorating his sets and locations are there to be stroked, fondled and played with; the elaborate costumes are there to be elaborately removed. There is little dialogue because it is the visual that takes precedence.

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Borowczyk is a bit playful – we sense a knowing smile on his face as if he knows we are watching his films. playing around his lips as the outrage hits home. Sexuality in his films is overwhelming and dangerous and often twisted, but it’s also natural and human and obviously a source of immense pleasure. Often he intercuts his scenes of carnality with on-looking animals and uncaring nature, as if they are sitting in judgment, wondering how we let something so simple get so messed up. We too sit in judgment.

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Special features include:

-New high definition digital transfers of two versions of the feature, the familiar four-part edition and the original five-part conception including the short film The Beast of Gévaudan (which later became the feature The Beast)

-Uncompressed Mono 2.0 PCM Audio

-Optional English subtitles

-Introduction by Borowczyk expert Daniel Bird

-Love Reveals Itself, a new interview program featuring production manager Dominique Duvergé-Ségrétin and cinematographer Noël Véry

-Obscure Pleasures: A Portrait of Walerian Borowczyk, a newly edited archival interview in which the filmmaker discusses painting, cinema and sex

-Blow Ups, a visual essay by Daniel Bird about Borowczyk’s works on paper

-Theatrical trailer

-Reversible sleeve featuring Borowczyk’s own original poster design

-Illustrated booklet containing new writing on the film by Daniel Bird and an archive piece by Philip Strick

“VAN MORRISON: ANOTHER GLORIOUS DECADE”– -The Story Continues — Under Review Part 2

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“Van Morrison: Another Glorious Decade”

The Story Continues – Under Review Part 2

Amos Lassen

After he had been on hiatus for several years, Van Morrison suddenly reappeared in the late nineteen seventies Van Morrison reappeared. He had gone from being one of the big stars in rock and roll and while he was gone music moved to a new place. His return required transformation and he managed to do just that— while je as motivated he was also “garrulous and confrontational”. In the following years, Van Morrison was on a journey and he wanted to find independence as artist and explore spirituality in his music. This film chronicles that journey.

The film is made up of rare archival material, live and studio footage and brand new interviews with many of those who worked with Van across the decade that this journey took and we get a peek into the world of a musician who is very private. What we see is both surprising and enlightening.

“THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO”— The 1980s: Drugs, Sex and Being Weird

the last days of disco

“The Last Days of Disco”

The 1980s:  Drugs, Sex and Being Weird

Amos Lassen

“The Last Days of Disco” looks at the “last days” at a disco palace, where drugs, sex and weirdness ran rampant. The story focuses on a group of friends who frequent the disco and each other. All the characters are searching for something to make their lives more fulfilling— some for everlasting love and some are just want something different. As the disco is closed, they all wonder can disco ever really be dead?

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Set in Manhattan during the 1980s, Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) is a domineering and highly opinionated graduate of Hampshire College who convinces her socially inept classmate Alice (Chloe Sevigny) to room in a cramped railroad apartment with Holly (Tara Subkoff). Then she introduces her to the dynamics of dating and fitting in at a fashionable disco. Soon Alice finds herself testing herself in relationships with Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), a lawyer; Des (Chris Eigeman), a manager at the disco; and Josh (Matt Keeslar), a greenhorn prosecutor in the Manhattan DA’s office. While Charlotte explores a romantic relationship with Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) who works at an ad agency, Alice struggles to move ahead in the publishing industry.

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Writer-director Whit Stillman leaves nothing unsaid as the characters talk about dating, disco, sex, work, play, sanity, hymns, drugs, ethics, and much more.The young advertisers, lawyers, editorial assistants, and nightclub managers we meet here belong to precisely the sort of social milieu which it has long been fashionable to talk about. This Gen-X cynicism practically dominated popular culture in the United States. A pervading attitude in those days was to regard money and those who had an abundance of it with skepticism and, in more extreme cases, contempt.

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The characters receive ample allowances from their parents, earn substantial incomes at an early age, frequent expensive and exclusive nightclubs., and say without a trace of self-awareness or irony that “sending all your shirts out for laundering” is “a great moment in life.” The characters who are defined by their privilege as much as by their apparent obliviousness about the implications of it, are not so vapid or self-absorbed after all, or in any case pretty sympathetic. They’re neither condescendingly skewered nor carelessly romanticized—rather, while they are gently mocked they are also loved.

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The film takes disco music, as well as the fleeting subculture as its object of wide-eyed study and reclamation, and it does this with intelligence. Josh, a manic assistant district attorney in his 20s, considers himself “a loyal adherent to the disco movement,” which he sees as something of a social revolution.

What I find interesting here is that pop-culture scholar and historians will tell you is that disco music and disco clubs were heavily tied to gay culture in the late ’70s, creating a safe space for marginalized voices—black, queer, transgender, etc.—to meet, mingle, and dance outside the confines of the heteronormative status quo. The irony that we see here is that it was when the straight, white middle-class began crowding out the clubs that the “movement” became just another co-opted product, which, importantly, is the group the film follows through to the end of the era. People who felt like they’d stumbled into something exclusive and cool were hopelessly ignorant of the scene and are those who effectively ruined it. There is no accusation and we get a gently damning, portrait of a very particular period in pop culture history a brief time when yuppies were cool and got into cool clubs.

I see the movie as a look at privilege that so many were not privy to. It is not a perfect movie but it is totally interesting.

“SHORT SKIN”— A Problem

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“Short Skin” (“I dolori del giovane Edo”)

A Problem

Amos Lassen

Ever since childhood Edoardo has been suffering from phimosis, a penis malformation that prevents him from experiencing sexual satisfaction. Now at seventeen, he starts to feel some pressure from the outside world— everyone around him talks and thinks about sex: his friend Arturo is so obsessed with losing his virginity that is willing to pay for it, Edoardo’s parents, encourage him to declare his love to Bianca and even his little sister Olivia is looking for a good partner for the family dog Teagan. Edoardo’s lack of confidence begins to change when he meets a new girl, Elisabetta, and the unexpected approach of Bianca. Forced to come out of the shadow he was hiding in, Edoardo tries first to solve his problem with clumsy strategies.

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Phimosis is a congenital inability to retract his foreskin. This means that any form of sexual activity is physically as well as emotionally challenging. Edoardo is terrified of having an operation and turns instead to creams, condoms, and even an octopus. His life is one of trepidation as he struggles to overcome obstacles.

When Edoardo is examined, both by his parents and doctor, his naked behind fills the frame, putting us within eye level of the examiner. Yet director Duccio

Chiarini never implicates the audience as voyeurs, but instead as participants in his story. The body is treated biologically as opposed to an expression of voyeurism and sex is a biological experience is inadvertently made through Edoardo’s little sister’s (Bianca Ceravolo) obscene obsession with finding their female dog a mate in order to have puppies. This places Edoardo’s insecurities and shame outside of the emotional spectrum and so it becomes an easy feat to overcome – if he is willing to take that risk.

Edoardo lives in Pisa and has been suffering since childhood from phimosis. The wellbeing of his malformed penis is of great concern for the entire family, with both his parents (Michele Crestacci and Bianca Nappi) and even his little sister Olivia participating in inspections of Edoardo’s penis. The director says that there are parts of the film that are autobiographical. The film smartly mixes humor and drama, and has a lesson or two about courage, improvisation and overcoming one’s insecurities.

As for Edoardo, he is morose teenager who is as thin as a broomstick but has a huge heart beating in his chest. His actions and commentaries are governed by extraordinary common sense, even when all those around him do or say things that may hurt their loved ones. We see an impressive performance as the youngster who needs to overcome fear, pain and the unknown in order to reclaim his future.

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“Short Skin” is an interesting and relevant cinematic experience. It is greatly helped along by the ensemble of actors, who give very natural performances. It goes where other films hinted but did not dare.It’s not only Edo’s condition that troubles him, it’s the fact that he’s trying to find meaningful relationships in a world where everyone around him appears superficial in matters of the heart. We explore the multiple barriers that keep Edo from overcoming his life’s challenges. He knows that he must stop letting his fears keep him from taking action before these obstacles become insurmountable. He has a justifiable, physical reason for being uneasy about losing his virginity and the solution is going to have to be surgical.

Edo is understandably shy, but the film is certainly not shy at all about showing young people’s bodies, including Edo working on his penis and this is both a fresh note and a possible discomfort for some viewers.

 

“THE BEAST” (“LA BETE”)— A Wedding?

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“The Beast” (“La bête”)

A Wedding?

Amos Lassen

When two fading, elderly aristocratic French gentlemen convince a young woman to marry the boorish son of one of the men sight unseen we learn that the boy has not been baptized, and due to some odd addendum to a will, only a particular cardinal can perform the ceremony. Lucy (Lisbeth Hummel) arrives with her aunt to the country estate and then waits around until the cardinal shows up. She hears of the legend of a great beast ravishing a beautiful young woman named Romilda de l’Esperance, and after an extremely uncomfortable dinner, she goes to bed and dreams that she is de l’Esperance. That is basically the plot.

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There’s a fairly erotic yet humorous scene with the young woman dreaming. Director Walerian Borowczyk seems to be trying to say something about the desperation of fading aristocracy and how the female of the species will always be drawn consciously, or not, to the beast in all men and how taming that beast for one’s pleasure is tantamount to destroying it. While I am quite sure that this was not meant to be a comedy but it surely comes across like one. It opens up with a long and quite graphic sequence in which two horses are seen mating while their trainer casually observes them from afar. (This actually once caused the film to be banned). It is a could idea to look at the trainer’s facial expression and his body movement and recalling them later  could be quite beneficial.

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After the mating sequence, the viewer is introduced to the young and beautiful Lucy and her aunt Virginia Broadhurst (Elisabeth Kaza) who are on their way to meet the trainer, Mathurin de l’Espérance (Pierre Benedetti). As requested in her late father’s will, Lucy is to marry Mathurin in a special ceremony that will be blessed by Cardinal Joseph de Balo. She has never met her future husband, but his eloquent letters have convinced her that he is the right man for her and she can barely wait to meet him.

Lucy also cannot wait to see her future home. She has read a book by the famous Countess Romilda de L’Esperance (Sirpa Lane) in which she insists that the house is haunted. A lot could change in two hundred years, but was the Countess telling the truth?

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The film is quite shocking but has a great sense of humor and it is both poetic but very sarcastic, unapologetic and also forgiving. The original short story is broken down into multiple pieces that appear in different parts of the film. Though it is easy to tell that some of the explicit sequences were meant to test the viewer’s patience and this is due to the director’s sense of humor. The cast is excellent and watching this reminds us of how films once were.

“FAMOUS NATHAN”— A Business that Went to the Dogs

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“FAMOUS NATHAN”

A Business  that Went to the Dogs

Amos Lassen

I doubt that there are many people who do not know who Nathan is—it is one of those names that we automatically associate with hot dogs. This film is a portrait of the life and times of filmmaker Lloyd Handwerker’s family and the creation of an empire built on dogs. In 1916 Nathan and Ida Handwerker began Nathan’s. It has taken thirty years to make this documentary that interweaves decades-spanning archival footage, family photos and home movies, an eclectic soundtrack and never-before-heard audio from Nathan: his only interview. There are also interviews with people who have worked at Nathan’s. Nathan’s Famous is an iconic eatery and institution in New York City (Coney Island).

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Lloyd Handwerker has sent thirty years researching the story of both his grandfather and the family-run business. The film contains never-before-heard audio recordings of Nathan describing his upbringing in a poor village in Poland, emigration to New York, and details of creating and running Nathan’s for over forty years. Nathan’s is the prototype for fast-food made with quality, love and care and it is also a story of labor and a chronicle of the people who spent their lives working for Nathan’s. Filled with nostalgia, this is more than a typical documentary conventional in that we feel the spirit that was and in many cases still is uniquely Nathan’s. The archival footage of Coney Island is wonderful.

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By using simple interviews and clips, director Lloyd Handwerker shows how his grandfather came to this country from Poland in 1912 and established Nathan’s Famous hot dogs at Coney Island four years later. We learn of the entrepreneurial genius of Nathan’s as well as some interesting dealings with his family, and his grandson’s attempts to figure out the recipe to his own lineage.

In the film we take a walk in the New York city that was and see how Nathan’s was the place to be at Coney when Coney was the center of the world. The interview with Nathan himself is quite moving especially when he says three times that “Angels covered me up,” with and each time with a little more emotion. The interview took place in 1974 just a few years before his death. We see and hear hilarious and teary-eyed reflections from relatives, ex-employees, and longtime regulars who take us back to a time when families were frightfully tight-lipped, when kids didn’t know how their relatives truly felt about one another. I love seeing Nathan talk his sons into coming into the family business and after they did he did not always approve of the way they did things. One son had so overextended the business that it was sold to investors in 1987. Another son tried to created a rival restaurant but it failed.

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It took over twenty years for Handwerker to bring his feuding father and uncle out of their shells on camera and what he see is fascinating and staggering., with many a pregnant close-up. Handwerker decided to conceal the dates of his footage so it is the varying color stock that gives an idea as to when scenes were shot. This helps to give the film a sense of timelessness and we understand that the very same rise and fall of Nathan’s could essentially happen today and to anyone. The interviews are, ultimately, about hot dogs but what really comes out of them is an intimate and charming narrative, with many scene-stealing characters and Coney Island legends.

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We learn that Nathan’s hired minority workers when it was controversial to do so and that it was quality work and productivity that drove Nathan’s hiring practices above all else. We hear that Nathan’s would bribe the local cops to not enforce double parking laws outside the crowded restaurant and that Nathan pulled the open condiments from the counters because of public fear that someone would put LSD in the mustard.

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“Famous Nathan” is a portrait of a family and a look at the spirit of a bygone era. While we would not think that a film about a hot dog restaurant that eventually evolved into a national chain would be the fascinating cinema but it is and it is also total entertainment.

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The DVD from Film Movement also has a short film, “And They Call It Summer” by Paolo Franchi and it tells the emotional story of an unconventional relationship, full of passion and perversion, between a man with a tormented psyche and the woman who tries to ease his pain.

“SIR IVAN: I AM PEACEMAN'”— A Man on a Mission”

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“Sir Ivan ‘I Am Peaceman'”

A Man on a Mission

Amos Lassen

Sir Ivan Wilzig is Sci-Fi Channel’s Mr. Mitzvah and Peaceman of the Peaceman Foundation, a private nonprofit supporting many charities dedicated to fighting hate crimes and treating the victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. Sir Ivan is an eldest son of multi-billionaire Siggy B. Wilzig who was the very first Auschwitz survivor to come to the US after WWII and who ended up taking over two publicly traded firms, an oil company, and a bank, while never forswearing his wide-ranging philanthropic interests.

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Sir Ivan studied and received a law degree and for 20 years he sat on the board of his father’s bank but then turned his back on his career. He made a record of “ For What It’s Worth” in his own unique style of rocktronica and the proceeds went to the Peaceman foundation. Sir Ivan has personally seen that many soldiers are treated for PTSD.

But there is another side to Sir Ivan and that one is responsible for the 12,000 square foot Castle, a piece of architectural and designer art, having sprung up in the Hamptons where he throws charity parties and it is there that he has hosted celebrities, fire breathers turning the water of the pool into a lake of fire, and musicians belting out techno-flavored “Hava Nagila”.

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Sir Ivan’s chihuahua, Chiquita, runs around in a cape that matches his. Sir Ivan lost 59 of his relatives to the Nazi regime and now, he is working to reduce violence in the world and prevent something similar from ever happening again. This film is part of his story.

We see him surrounded by a harem of gorgeous girls as he throws New York’s wildest and sexiest parties at his Castle. In doing so he is spreading a message of peace, love, and understanding, through his music and his charity work.  Director Jim Brown has focused on Sir Ivan in this 54-minute documentary.

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The film explores the many surprising details of Sir Ivan’s life and philanthropy and takes us into parties that range from a sensual Gala at Miami’s World Erotic Art Museum to the annual all-night summer benefit extravaganza at the Castle. We also get a look inside the studio while he records his hit songs and music videos, and at the body casting for the Castle’s centerpiece nude dragon sculpture.

Sir Ivan’s father is a conservative Holocaust survivor and was a successful banker. His mother was less conservative and founded the Erotic Art Museum in Miami. Ivan had been pressured to go into the family business, but chose to become an electronic music artist and philanthropist himself. His worldwide success, including many singles on the major club charts, is testament to his spirit and talent. His extreme lifestyle with and message of love has made him a quirky celebrity throughout Europe and the world.

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Bonus materials include five music videos and additional Hamptons party footage.

“I DREAM OF WIRES”— The Modular Synthesizer

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“I DREAM OF WIRES”

The Modular Synthesizer

Amos Lassen

Robert Fantinatto & Jason Amm’s documentary is about the rise, fall and rebirth of the machine that shaped electronic music: the modular synthesizer”. We begin with an exploration of the history of the synthesizer and how innovators like Robert Moog developed the first room-sized prototypes. We see the meteoric rise in popularity of the synthesizer and the phenomenal resurgence of the high-end modular synthesizers being used today by a whole new generation of musicians, many of them at the forefront of EDM (electronic dance music). Not only is the synthesizer exotic, it is probably the most misunderstood instruments in the world of modern music. It is so expensive that it has been unaffordable for most musicians and, in fact, it looks like it belongs in a space ship and not on a concert stage. It was the synthesizer and its descendants that revolutionized music so much so that it is hard to think of what music today would be without it.

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This documentary looks at the mystery surrounding the modular synthesizer and explains to us where some of our favorite sounds originated. One critic said that the film is “a love letter to an arcane and archaic piece of machinery which nonetheless continues to inspire wonder from listeners and fetishistic devotion from proponents and practitioners”, many of whom participated in the creation of this documentary. We hear from Morton Subotnick, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode, Erasure), Gary Numan, Chris Carter (Throbbing Gristle), Deadmau5, and others who talk about the allure of electronic music and the joys of creating it.

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Jason Amm (records ad releases Solvent music and also composed the soundtrack here) co-wrote the screenplay that traces the entire history of electronic sound generation. We begin with Columbia University’s Electronic Music Center in the 1950s where Robert Moog, then a physics undergrad with a knack for building DIY theremins, created one of the first modular synthesizers. Then we move ahead some ten years and go to California where Don Buchla created his own analog synthesizers and sequencers for the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Buchla’s designs, unlike Moog’s, did away with a piano-inspired keyboard and the western twelve-tone scale it facilitated. Buchla’s synthesizers favored complete tonal freedom and sequencing parameters that recalled recent and contemporaneous experiments with tape loops and repetition by experimental composers such as Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley.

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We see many rare classics along with the people who are keeping them alive. I am amazed at how much there is to be learned here. The soundtrack to the film uses modular synths and is a feast of wonderful sounds and music.

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DVD Extras (66 minutes) include: • Extended Interview with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails 4 Shorts (Modular Synth 101 / Solvent: Making the Soundtrack / Modulars Made in Canada / Vince Clarke Studio Tour) • 3 Music Videos from Solvent and musicians including Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Gary Numan, Carl Craig, Morton Subotnick and Vince Clarke (Erasure) talk about their passion for the modular synthesizer and how it influences their music, while new EDM artists including Clark, James Holden and Factory Floor discuss why they’ve embraced its sound and physicality. Innovative companies including Modcan and Doepfer reveal how they planted the seeds that now have grown into a major cottage industry.

“BRADDOCK AMERICA”— The End of the Steel Belt

“Braddock America”

The End of the Steel Belt

Amos Lassen

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Braddock, Pennsylvania has been the home to key events that have greatly shaped American history but today she is trying to reinvent herself and stay relevant. Directors Gabriella Kessler and Jean-Loïc Portron’ give us a workmanlike exposé that is as direct and unpretentious as it’s the people of Braddock.

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Braddock was once a manufacturing giant but what we find there today are abandoned houses gone to seed, near-empty churches, and dynamited buildings. Through with archival footage, we see the enormous steel mill that once offered the men of Braddock, Pennsylvania and their families a ladder to the American dream. This documentary captures the story of the town as it was experienced by a number of its residents. The stories they tell, usually addressing the camera directly, becomes an oral history of a golden era for America’s working class—especially those who were white and male. We feel the emotions of the people as they talk about the thriving town they remember and the values and hard work that made them feel like part of something bigger than themselves (the mill, one man says proudly, made two-thirds of the steel needed on the Western European front during WWII.) The lack of title cards to identify the speakers adds to the film’s emphasis on the community rather than the individual. The interviews are informal and this gives them an appealingly impromptu, unrehearsed feel.

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We hear and see frequent reminders that this lost world was no paradise. One of the few African Americans interviewed says that his father never talked about his work in the mill, probably because of what African-American men had to go through there. A policeman remembers that his grandmother wouldn’t hang out the wash to dry on days when the wind was blowing from the factory, since the air was so dirty then. Another man says he chose not to work at the mill because he saw too many friends’ lives get “swallowed up” by it. Yet there is a mood of nostalgia for the postwar economy that worked so well for hardworking people in Braddock—and, by implication, other towns like it across America.

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What is most poignant is the film’s exploration of the conservative and communal strands in human nature that make us cling to our communities even as they collapse around us. One woman explains why she doesn’t want to leave Braddock for some city where she’ll be a stranger among strangers: “I want to stay here, where I feel like I’m part of what happens.”

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Those townspeople interviewed tell variations of a theme of abandonment by industries and distant government but we do not hear from the outside agencies who are blamed for this. One woman lectures a crowd about the hospital company which closed the town’s hospital but left open two in Pennsylvania towns with lower utilization rates, which the woman claims is proof that the company lied about low utilization rates being the reason for the closure. She says that this unfairly forces Braddock residents to travel to Monroeville for the nearest hospital (Monroeville is just three miles away). The demolition of the hospital is shown without comment, although the loss to the company of a once-valuable asset would have been an interesting analysis and the fact that another hospital company didn’t buy it could have been a sub-story of its own.

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It is generally felt by the people still in Braddock that the owners of the steel mills acted reprehensibly in closing the plants and that the directors weren’t worthy of the money they made after following the industry trend toward global production. If there were a few shots of a now-inactive factory in Braddock. Then we could be reminded that it was just the workers that lost but the owners as well. I think that a more thorough examination should be part of the film instead of just the gripes from the citizens.

b7It is impossible not to feel the tension that is still there between the human desires of the people and the corporate hunger for greater profits, regardless of the human cost involved. That is the real tragedy behind the collapse of our manufacturing economy.