By Juan Barquin
By Amy Nicholson
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Travis Cohen
By Juan Barquin
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Amy Nicholson
By Juan Barquin
Comic Book Confidential
Hollywood doesn't measure up. At least not when it comes to bringing to life comic book superheroes and their hyper-reality plot lines. The big-budget spectacles just don't compare to the old-school comics -- once sold for a dime and found rolled up in many a young boy's pants pockets.
After watching Ron Mann's 1988 documentary Comic Book Confidential, it becomes difficult to be convinced that any pretty boy hot-list actor can capture the essence of, say, Spider-Man, like the toon's creator Stan Lee does while narrating an episode of his monumental 1960s action strip.
Lee's rendition of Spidey's inner turmoil about women and money woes casts a humanistic light on a larger-than-life pop icon whom Americans assume they understand. The reading is just one of several such artist-narrations in Mann's documentary that reveal behind-the-panels insight about landmark strips in the genre's history.
Mann reaches back to the first modern comic books and interviews the artists and publishers who helped make the colorful pages the premier forum for iconoclastic thought and expression in America. The film features an interview with comic book innovator Robert Crumb, who recounts his early days drifting in a drug-infused daze in San Francisco before finding his voice in the counterculture strips that made him famous in the early 1970s. Also featured are comic stalwarts Jack Kirby, Harvey Pekar, Lynda Barry, William Gaines, and about a dozen others.
Outside of collectors, few people may realize that comic books and their producers, from their inception, were original targets of moralists and government censors. Confidential delves into the initial arguments in the Thirties and Forties that claimed the spectacular tales offered nothing but immorality and lewdness to America's youth. Mann digs up footage of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency that led to industry censorship boards, which then sanitized the popular strips of any sensational or sexy content.
But despite the temporary setback, the true-crime tales and superheroes survived to bring an even edgier front to the youth of America. Soon Mad magazine emerged, and with it a phalanx of underground cartoonists.
The documentary brings viewers up to date with more recent comic book raves Love and Rockets, Maus, Zippy the Pinhead, Ernie Pook's Comeek, Big Baby, and Raw. One of the most humorous segments features Bill Griffith, the creator of Zippy, shopping for Ding Dongs while dressed as his demented creation. Very weird indeed.
Comic Book Confidential is a powerful and thought-provoking film that takes a superhuman swipe at the banality of mainstream Hollywood and Madison Avenue-dominated culture. It is one of three documentaries directed by Mann to be screened Friday. His other films, Twist (about the evolution of rock and roll dance) and Grass (delving into the history of the recreational use of marijuana in the Twentieth Century), will also be featured.
My Father's Camera
The world according to your Uncle Harry or Aunt Phyllis will never be what you see on CNN.
Professional television chroniclers of our times dispense a package known as "news" and give viewers a general idea of what may be happening at a certain period of time. But what is broadcast is often far from a complete picture. To piece together a full depiction of a period, with textures, tastes, clashing ties, and bad hairdos, one must mine attics and storage closets to dig up canned documentary gold -- home movies.
Toronto director Karen Shopsowitz breaks open her treasure trove of family films to explore how amateur footage shot on road trips and at birthday parties is as important to capturing human history as the national news. In doing so she makes a strong argument that those jumpy family reels contribute to popular culture.
Shopsowitz tackles the theme by delving into the films shot by her father, Israel Shopsowitz, a Toronto merchant who had a penchant for capturing scenes with his Super 8 camera. Her father's crisp films of 1950s carnivals, train stations, and Shopsowitz's sister Shelly's bat mitzvah offer an entrée into a homemade era shot in vibrant Foto-Color.
Camera explores the history of home movies starting with the first 16mm cameras in the 1920s, marketed to the globe-trotting elite, and then goes into the postwar baby-boom era, when an entire generation literally grew up in front of the lens. Shopsowitz then moves from family footage to personal depictions of historic events. She interviews, for instance, soldiers who brought their cameras along during the invasion of Normandy. The segments offer a window to what D-Day really looked like to enlisted men battling the waves to get ashore -- a view that newsreels could not capture.
There is also homemade footage of Ku Klux Klan marches in the deep South, mutilated WWII airmen recovering in a Canadian retreat, and a member of Duke Ellington's band documenting white-supremacist graffiti while on tour during the 1940s.
The documentary is contextualized by insightful interviews with several film critics, academics, and archivists who help support Shopsowitz's thesis. The interviews at times become pedantic, and the piece begins to feel like it belongs in a Filmmaking 101 class rather than a film festival. However, the sedate tone is leavened by playful sequences shot by the filmmaker using her father's camera, as well as the unique images from long-lost personal collections.
Camera embraces home movies as important artifacts of popular culture without lingering in the nostalgia that inadvertently surrounds family flicks. Its bottom line emphasizes the importance of a personal perspective of the world, no matter how quirky or controversial the images may be.
There is always potential for drama when an expatriate returns to his or her homeland. Think of what happened when Electra returned to Troy or Oedipus emerged from the wilderness to take his rightful place as the ruler of Thebes. Blood flows, governments topple, and taboos are shattered as the gods have their way with the silly mortals who dare challenge their destiny.
While dramatic effect does not live up to Greek standards when exiled Cubans return to Havana, the social and political tensions simmering beneath the trip home are just as vibrant. And when the personal realm of a homecoming is layered into the narrative, there is untold potential for a gripping emotional tale that rings universal.
Miami filmmaker Rhonda Mitrani attempts to tell such a story in her short documentary film Cuba Mia, depicting Mitrani and her family's trip back to La Isla along with a group of fellow Cuban Jews, returning after decades in el exilio. The group is seen peering out the windows of a tour bus as a Cuban guide shows them the layout of a modern and decrepit Havana. Then there are interviews with the travelers, who share their family histories and memories of their former homes. The exiles climb the walls of their old hangouts to get a look at the empty swimming pools of their childhoods, and then wax emotional on how a certain wall remains exactly as they remembered it.
More compelling are the segments that address the history and current state of Cuban Jewry. A day trip to the once-opulent synagogue in Havana and community center, which lies forgotten in shambles, serves as the anchor to an examination of this intriguing and often-overlooked culture. Mitrani, however, falls short of exploring the subject in a gripping and incisive manner.
The exiles' trip is interesting at first, but after each traveler's reunion with long-lost relatives and old neighbors is shown in the same flat tone, Cuba Mia becomes repetitious and tedious. Mitrani keeps her film in the realm of the personal and does not delve into more poignant aspects of the Miami exiles' journey. As a result the film is encumbered by a weepy nostalgia, which can be found just as easily at any cafecito stand in Miami.
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