The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we’ll choose three nonfiction films – classics, overlooked recent docs and more – that will reward your time.
‘Film About a Father Who’ (2020)
In “Film About a Father Who,” the director Lynne Sachs sorts through her feelings about her elusive, problematic dad, Ira Sachs Sr. The movie, which mixes film and video formats, brings together footage that Lynne shot over more than 30 years along with other material from her filmmaker brother, Ira Sachs Jr. (“Love Is Strange”), and Ira Sr. himself.
Right from the start, Ira Sr. sounds like a bit of a flake. Lynne, explaining what her dad did for a living, calls him “a hippie businessman, buying land so steep you couldn’t build, bottling mineral water he couldn’t put on the shelves, using other people’s money to develop hotels named for flowers . ” He also seems to have been a serial compartmentalizer. That trait may have been harmless enough when it came to extravagances (he owned twin Cadillac convertibles and kept one secret), but it caused a great deal of drama for his family. Lynne interviews some of the women Ira Sr. had been involved with and the many children he fathered, including two grown half sisters Lynne didn’t know about until 2016. Did she have suspicions, you might ask? Lynne suggests that Ira Sr.’s secret-keeping led her and her siblings to adopt a stance of what she calls “complicit ignorance.” And Ira Sr.’s mother, called Maw-Maw by Lynne, only complicated matters when she was alive, because, Lynne says, she “could not take the constant flow of people that she was supposed to, quote, ‘love,’ in the way that we’re taught to love family. ”
In interviews, Ira Sr. nevertheless comes across as a genial lug – maybe fun at parties, but surely a handful to have as a father or a partner. “Film About a Father Who,” whose title was inspired by Yvonne Rainer’s “Film About a Woman Who,” is a consideration of how one man’s easygoing attitude yielded anything but an easy family dynamic as it rippled across generations. The movie runs only 74 minutes, but it contains lifetimes.
Some documentaries aim to impose order on the world. “Leviathan,” by contrast, revels in abstraction and disorientation, as Dennis Lim noted in 2012 when profiling the filmmakers for The New York Times. The co-directors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, a group that merges the academic discipline of ethnography with the artistic possibilities of filmmaking, shot it during six trips aboard a Massachusetts fishing trawler. But it’s hardly an exposure or elucidation of the fishing industry. It opens with a quote from the Book of Job and unleashes a furious torrent of images in which it’s often difficult to know which way is up or even whether it’s day or night.
As the title implies, the human presence is something of a secondary concern next to the monstrous churn of the sea or the clanking, threatening chains of the boat’s equipment. The waterlogged, slicker-wearing fishermen aren’t identified until the closing credits; their voices are often barely possible to understand (the distortions of their words suggest Charlie Brown’s teacher fed through some sort of metallic feedback), and their routines are never explained.
In interviews, the filmmakers noted that they sought to surrender some of their agency to the elements. Waterproof cameras get dragged underwater like a fishing net or pulled above the surface to skip along with some hovering seabirds. They slosh around on the floor with the day’s catch, as much a part of the detritus as the ginger-ale can that rattles around in a pile of shells. Shooting at ultra-close-range from boot height or at odd angles, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor offer perspectives on the way the boat looks and sounds that seem untethered from where our eyes would naturally dart for meaning. It’s so vivid that at times, you swear you can smell the ship as well.
‘The Velvet Underground’ (2021)
Todd Haynes doesn’t exactly reinvent the rock-band-biopic documentary in “The Velvet Underground,” but there are times when he seems pretty close to it. The title is in some ways a misnomer: The focus isn’t so much on the band as the Warholian cultural ferment of the 1960s that the group grew out of. (It’s more underground and less, uh, velvet.) Dedicated to the memory of Jonas Mekas, who appears, and featuring excerpts from films by him and film-artist contemporaries like Bruce Conner, Stan Brakhage and many others, Haynes’s movie is as interested in picture, sound and sensation as it is in recording history.
The copious use of split screen evokes Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls,” a work that places imagery from two projectors side by side while the soundtrack alternates between the film strips, allowing viewers to draw connections. In a similar spirit, Haynes is devoted to capturing the cultural crosscurrents that shaped the band and its members.
John Cale, one of the band’s founders, speaks of the influence of experimental musicians like John Cage and La Monte Young on the music he was making. Later, offering a fan’s perspective, the musician Jonathan Richman talks about hearing “overtones that you couldn’t account for” while seeing the Velvet Underground play. The film critic Amy Taubin draws a link between Warhol’s silent films – meant to be played at the slower-than-standard speed of 16 frames per second – and the avant-garde music scene: “It was all about extended time.”
Haynes’s film doesn’t avoid standard biographical details. There are tales of Lou Reed’s prickliness and a long section about what happened to the band after its game-changing (if famously not best-selling) first album. But you don’t have to be interested in the music, or music at all, to appreciate “The Velvet Underground” as a movie.