Category Archives: Documentary

The Social Dilemma

Social media dominates our lives more and more. The Social Dilemma is a persuasive documentary that looks at some of the ways sites such as Facebook may be manipulating us, even beyond what’s obvious. The doc features a panel of speakers, mostly tech industry insiders or ex-insiders.

The main point of The Social Dilemma isn’t really that controversial. The algorithms of sites such as Facebook are designed to target, influence, and reinforce certain patterns in users. While the most obvious example of this is retargeted advertising, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Retargeting, if you’re not familiar with the term, is when you click on a link, say for a product on Amazon, and then you suddenly start seeing ads for that product everywhere you go.

The retargeting principle also applies to things like YouTube videos as well as the types of posts you interact with on Facebook. In areas such as politics, this contributes to the so-called echo chamber effect. People get increasingly categorized and segregated into subcultures and see fewer and fewer alternative or opposing viewpoints. As the film points out, it’s actually profitable for these sites to do this, as people are creatures of habit. If you’re addicted to conspiracy videos, for example, it makes sense to encourage you to watch more of these. You’re also more likely to click on ads and just spend more time on the sites, which is part of the plan.

The Social Dilemma dramatizes the algorithm process by Anthropomorphising AI into actual people who scheme to manipulate an unstable teen into staying online, which leads to tragic results. The movie avoids getting overtly political, so there’s no tangible movement or group he joins. But the implication seems to be that social media sites may encourage people to join extremist groups and possibly turn into terrorists, school shooters, and such.

The main points made by The Social Dilemma are hard to dispute. At the same time, I’d advise watching this doc with a healthy degree of skepticism. For one thing, what we have here are powerful, influential people warning us about other powerful, influential people. In some cases, the two groups overlap quite a bit. The film’s narrow focus is on social media but some of the underlying issues apply equally to the mass media in general -which certainly includes Netflix.

If we’re talking about manipulation, the film itself uses a fair amount of it to make its points. The creators and the people they interview are clearly part of an elite intellectual class whose views are constantly heard in books, TED Talks, conferences, and docs like this one. Jaron Lanier, declared the “Founding Father of Virtual Reality” has become one of the official spokespeople for exposing the dangers of the digital age. Tristan Harris worked at Google, Jeff Seibert, at Twitter. Shoshana Zuboff is the author of the popular book, Surveillance Capitalism.

So what are the solutions they are proposing? While the movie isn’t putting forth an actual plan, the implication seems to be that we need more regulation and oversight. There’s also the option of unplugging, of course. Towards the end, it’s mentioned that several top executives of social media companies don’t let their own kids use these sites.

Slate published an interesting critique of The Social Dilemma by Pranav Malhotra, where he points out that the film overlooks many key issues such as privacy and how social media depends upon and contributes to economic inequality. He also points out that many scholars and other experts not directly affiliated with the tech industry don’t get a voice. There is a sense here that we’re supposed to trust these tech industry reformers to clean up the damage they’ve done.

With a documentary on social issues, you always need to consider the source as well as what’s being said between the lines. This is most certainly not something put together by an indie filmmaker. It’s a slick production, complete with a website that tells you how to organize, promote it, and take further action. Okay, nowadays, even a kid who made a $1500 doc would most likely have a website and links to more content. But, in this case, it’s Netflix, and the creators are well-connected with the corporate media. So it’s worth questioning their motives.

The Social Dilemma can be seen as a severe critique of the social media age but equally as a pre-emptive action to ensure that entrenched forces remain in control of the narrative.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

John Edward Szeles, better known as The Amazing Johnathan, is a high-profile renegade magician who’s appeared in numerous venues as well as in movies and various celebrity shows. In 2014, Johnathan was diagnosed with a heart condition called cardiomyopathy and given a year to live. Several years later, however, he was still around. Director Ben Berman decided that an infamous magician on borrowed time would be a good subject for a documentary.

Of course, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary turns out to be a lot less straightforward than the above introduction suggests. It seems that it’s not enough to make an ordinary documentary these days. It helps if there’s an air of mystery and a heavy dose of “meta,” where the documentarian and his work is at least as important as the alleged subject. Exit Through the Gift Shop comes to mind, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, while not quite as fascinating as that one, has some similarities.

There are a few twists in the doc that it’s probably better not to reveal. One, however, must be mentioned. As the filming got underway, several other documentary makers began to surface. One, allegedly, was the production company behind hits such as Man on a Wire. Then another, and yet another, documentary maker appeared, turning Berman’s own doc into a kind of hall of mirrors.

At this point, Berman, as well as the viewers have no idea what’s really going on. Is Johnathan playing him (and us) or is he himself being used by multiple filmmakers cashing in on his impending death. Speaking of which, is he even sick at all?

One backstory is that Szeles is a heavy drug user, which possibly explains his heart condition. In fact, if he really uses meth every day, it truly is a miracle that he’s still alive. At one point, Berman offers to take meth with Szeles as an act of “Gonzo journalism.” He goes as far as to consult with a lawyer on the possible legal ramifications. This episode is an example of how the doc drags in spots. In 2019, it isn’t really shocking or necessary for authenticity to watch people take drugs. Yet this is treated as a major ethical and aesthetic issue.

There are other places where the action slows or feels repetitive. While it’s interesting to contemplate who’s telling the truth and what’s really going on, most doc viewers have already seen this kind of thing before. Just as Berman doesn’t know how far he can trust Szeles, so the viewer is in the same position in regards to him. Do we even know, for example, that there really are multiple documentary makers? The main focus is on the notorious second group. Berman doesn’t let us see or hear anything they do, either for his own purposes or because they don’t want to be filmed.

There’s one scene, in a Vancouver theater, where the second doc is allegedly playing, but we don’t get to see any of it, only a sparse crowd that includes an actor Berman pays to crash and ask a question. If we want to get in the spirit of suspicion and paranoia, there’s little evidence that this doc actually exists. Of course, I haven’t taken the trouble to research it and perhaps others have verified it. The point is that the whole film puts one in this state of mind where everything can be doubted.

Whatever other docs may or may not have been made, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary has obviously broken through. It was showcased at Sundance, has been shown in art theaters and is now on Hulu. I’d recommend this film to anyone who’s fascinated in The Amazing Johnathan and/or who can’t get enough of murky doc/mocs where it’s never quite clear what is and isn’t real. It’s not my favorite example of this genre but it did hold my interest.

Bill Murray Stories on Netflix

The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man is a documentary on Netflix about a curious phenomenon involving the comic actor who’s reinvented himself as a kind of trickster guru over the last decade.

“Bill Murray sightings” have been reported for many years. These are seemingly random incidents where Murray appears in unlikely places such as a kickball game, a college dorm, or at a random party. Filmmaker Tommy Avallone sets out to document these sightings and find out if they are real or simply bizarre urban legends.

These aren’t like typical celebrity sightings. Murray is always alone and simply blends into the local culture. As Avallone discovers, many of these stories are true. The documentary has footage from several of these events as people are shocked and overwhelmed to have a star in their midst.

You can look at Bill Murray Stories in a number of ways. On one level, it’s a study in the modern obsession with celebrity. Several of the interviewees have almost religious awe at having met Murray, saying how the experienced transformed their lives. This is touching yet also a bit disturbing.

On the other hand, Murray seems intent on providing inspiration and positive energy without the usual celebrity fanfare. Even if these encounters do make the celebrity gossip columns, Murray doesn’t really need the exposure at this point. He seems to be having a good time as he elevates the environment.

We’re also reminded that many of Murray’s films such as Razor’s Edge, Groundhog Day, Caddyshack and even Meatballs have a transformative message. In a strange way, Murray truly seems to be a latter-day Zen master who is now wandering the world inserting himself into the lives of ordinary people.

There’s also a clip from Coffee and Cigarettes, one of my favorite Jim Jarmusch films, which is a series of semi-improvised sketches with odd pairings of celebrities having random conversations. In one scene, Bill Murray plays himself pretending to be a waiter, referencing the whole Bill Murray Sighting phenomenon.

Possible Spoiler Alert: Bill Murray is never directly interviewed in this film. All the footage is taken from previous “sightings” and public appearances (such as one Murray made at a Comi-Con festival). This, however, is actually part of the appeal of Bill Murray Stories. If Avallone had full access to Murray, it would just seem like another insider piece. Instead, it’s more like a doc you might catch at an indie film festival.

Fyre on Netflix

“The Greatest Party That Never Happened”

The Netflix documentary Fyre looks at the infamous Fyre festival of 2017. What was meant to be a game-changing super luxury music festival for privileged millennials turned into a disaster.

While much of the blame can be attributed to organizer Billy McFarland (one of his associates labels him an “operational sociopath”), it was really a group effort that required the complicity of influencers, marketing agencies, and, not least, the people who gullibly bought the exorbitant tickets on faith.

Fyre is interesting on many levels. Far more than just a failed event, it speaks to a crucial aspect of contemporary culture: the obsession with social media and influencers and the obsessive need to be associated with celebrities and glamour.

One darkly amusing segment at the end shows how McFarland, out on bail after the collapse of Fyre, was able to con people on the festival’s mailing list yet again with a bogus “VIP Access” scam that promised imaginary meetings with Taylor Swift, a private dinner with Lebron James, and discounted tickets to Burning Man and Coachella.

What really SOLD people to pay as much as $250,000 for a Fyre ticket? It obviously wasn’t the opportunity to hear great music or even lounge on the beach. You can do that for a fraction of the cost. To really get the idea, you need to watch the original promo video for the event.

They recruited some of the world’s top models along with scenes of pristine beaches, private jets, and yachts to appeal to what MacFarland says in one of the doc’s most revealing comments:

“We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser.”

What’s so incredibly significant about that statement is that it applies to so much of the modern media, advertising, and social media landscape. TV commercials and magazine ads were doing this decade before the internet. What’s different is that now they can package more than mere products.

Fyre: A Lifestyle App

At the beginning of the doc, it was pointed out that Fyre was meant to be more than just a one-off festival. It was supposedly going to be a platform for matching people (presumably ones with lots of disposable cash) with amazing experiences. Macfarland was also involved in another gimmicky endeavor: Magnises, a metallic black card that was meant to be an even more exclusive version of the American Express Black Card. Like the Fyre Festival, Magnises crashed due to lack of substance.

All of McFarland’s projects from Magnises to Fyre to the post-Fyre VIP Access were blatant attempts to exploit the public’s (it would be unfair to confine it to the easy target of millennials) fascination with celebrity, wealth, and glamour.

Lord of the Flies Meets The Beach in 2017?

One disturbing aspect of Fyre goes beyond the intentions of the promoters and organizers and relates to how the festivalgoers themselves behaved. Granted, they had good reason to be disappointed, angry, and even scared. What had been promised as a luxury resort atmosphere resembled a refugee camp, with hundreds of tents lining the beach.

We see how their mood transforms from exuberant to skeptical to outraged. This is perfectly understandable. What’s unfortunate is how this quickly degenerated into what one observer called a “looting mentality.” The scene became a nightmare that evoked some of the most dystopian novels/movies set on beaches from Lord of the Flies to The Beach.

One festivalgoer, without apparent shame, admitted how he and his friends destroyed neighboring tents to make them uninhabitable, all so they wouldn’t have close neighbors. This type of reaction doesn’t bode well for civilization if any major catastrophes ensue.

Equally interesting was the reaction on social media from the general public -in other words, people not suffering at the festival. The reaction was hardly sympathetic. On the contrary, there was widespread hilarity and exuberance. The prevailing attitude was that it served these spoiled rich kids right for spending so much money on a luxury excursion. There’s was definitely an element of class envy going on here.

The Dot Com Collapse, Blockchain and Castles in the Air

The way McFarland and co-conspirators were able to sell the Fyre concept is reminiscent of other internet-related phenomena. While fast-talking scammers have always been able to con the gullible, it’s now much easier to create the appearance and framework of substance even when none exists.

In 2000 there was a collapse of internet companies that threatened the demise of the digital age in its infancy. While this is sometimes conflated with the post-9/11 economic slump, the internet bubble actually started to burst in 2000.

It turned out that many companies were built on nothing but vague concepts. Many were running at a loss. Of course, it’s well known that Amazon, now one of the world’s wealthiest companies, went for many years losing money. However, the majority of businesses that start out losing money don’t turn into Amazon: they simply fade away.

Now, almost 20 years later we have several new developments that make it even easier to create castles in the air: social media, online video, and smartphones. The Fyre Festival was able to construct such a castle by creating a glamorous video and hiring some models and influencers.

The blockchain and cryptocurrency are also producing all kinds of vague and untenable companies. Following the rise of Bitcoin, hundreds of new cryptocurrencies were (and continue to be) released, enticing speculators to invest. Apart from cryptocurrencies, many businesses are using the blockchain concept in realms from publishing to online security.

When McFarland gets out of prison (he’s currently serving a 6-year sentence) it wouldn’t be surprising if he starts a blockchain company. This isn’t to say that the blockchain and cryptocurrency don’t hold real potential. The point is, they can easily be used to create promising yet impractical businesses (or outright scams in some cases).

The Fyre Festival, like McFarland’s other schemes, points to how much of modern society is built on vague and shaky promises. It may be significant that the virtual space where so much data is stored is called The Cloud.

A Society Obsessed With Images

Last year, I read and reviewed a modern classic of sociology, The Image, by Daniel J. Boorstin. This book from 1961 identifies many of the key movements that would morph into contemporary social media/influencer culture. Another prescient classic that dealt with this type of issue was The Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord in 1967. Both of these pre-internet thinkers identified the emerging trend of a society where people are obsessed with appearances, images, and celebrities (i.e. people whose images are worshipped).

The Fyre Festival was indeed a pipe dream but one that was irresistible to people immersed in an image and celebrity-centric culture.

Wild, Wild Country on Netflix

This podcast, which runs about 14 minutes, contains the following blog post (more or less) with some additional comments:

Wild, Wild Country, a 6-part documentary, directed by the Way brothers and produced by indie film director Mark Duplass, is about the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh cult that was established in Oregon in the 1980s. I was interested in watching this as I read several of his books and knew people who were followers (though no one who actually lived on the commune). Before I started watching, I didn’t even realize it was a doc; I assumed for some reason that it was a dramatization. The doc turned out to be more interesting, mainly because several of the principle players were interviews.

Rajneesh, who later become known as Osho, died quite a few years ago so all we have are clips of him speaking. Osho was known mainly for his advocacy of open sexuality and for his blatant materialism, expressed among other things by his large collection of Rolls Royces. But was he materialistic or mocking materialism with his excessive wealth? This is one of the many questions that are hard to answer. It’s worth noting that Osho has been called a trickster guru along the lines of other controversial spiritual leaders such as George Gurdjieff, whose name comes up briefly here as well.

Strangely, Osho is really a background character in this documentary. Most of the focus is on his secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, who turns out to be the character who really makes the whole movie fascinating. Sheela is a notorious figure who was accused of several criminal acts, including the poisoning of the entire town of Antelope, Oregon and attempted murders of rivals within the group. There are a couple of other higher-ups who were living in Rajneeshpuram who give extensive interviews as well.

In many instances, Sheela comes across like a textbook psychopath -charismatic, without remorse, and a natural leader. Her obvious love of the camera and willingness to talk at length are what really make Wild, Wild Country so interesting to watch. Those looking for a more in-depth exploration of Rajneesh/Osho’s philosophy would do better reading some of his books.

A couple of other figures are also prominent in the doc. Swami Prem Niren (like many in the group, he’s an American who took on a Sannyasin name), the group’s attorney for many years. He is clearly conflicted about many events and is brought to tears several times at memories of better days in the movement. Another is Catherine Jane Stork, an Australian woman who joined the movement and spent time in prison along with Sheela for attempted murder. Stork is the only interviewee who seems to have truly repented and left the movement behind.

Considering that it’s a documentary about a religious movement that’s generally labeled a cult, Wild, Wild Country is about as balanced as you could expect. The shocking events, which are well documented, are shown alongside the fond recollections of former members who still find much of value in their years under Rajneesh.

As much as anything else, this film is about sociology and culture; about what happens when you have two radically opposed subcultures living alongside each other. Rajneesh, and really Sheela, chose a remote rural community of Antelope Valley, Oregon, whose citizens were mostly elderly, insular and very conservative. You couldn’t possibly have more of a mismatch between a group following a Tantric Indian guru and a disapproving community of conservative Christians, many of whom probably disapprove of much of modern mainstream culture much less free love, polygamy, and anarchy (one of the recurring themes in Osho’s discourses is to distrust all traditional authority).

How you react to this film will, of course, depend on your own background and biases. Even if you see merit in Osho’s teaching, however, it seems clear that Sheela was a ruthless and power-hungry character. This also brings up some interesting issues about the nature of power and radical movements in general. Arguably, it’s people with those characteristics who are most likely to seize power in any institution. It’s just more noticeable in a cult because it’s operating outside the norms of society. We don’t notice the pathology of mainstream authority because it’s right in front of us.

Apart from the excesses and corruption within the group/cult, there’s little doubt that the locals in Oregon, and later higher up faction within the U.S. government, were determined to oust the Rajneeshees one way or another. When Sheela and others refer to themselves as an oppressed religious community, they have a point. At the same point, it’s instructive to note how quickly the leadership within the group sank to the same level, or even lower in some cases, as its opponents.

The story of Rajneesh and Rajneeshpuram is very complex, involves many people, some no longer living (most notably, the guru himself). This documentary is certainly not the whole story. Another of Osho’s disciples, who doesn’t appear in the doc, wrote her own book that tells, believe it or not, a far more damning picture of both Osho and Sheela. In a recent article, Satya Franklin claims that Sheela, true to style, manipulated the filmmakers into giving her control over the project. Somehow, I find this fairly easy to believe.

Take hold of your own life. See that the whole existence is celebrating. These trees are not serious, these birds are not serious. The rivers and the oceans are wild, and everywhere there is fun, everywhere there is joy and delight. Watch existence, listen to the existence and become part of it.”


Speaking of cults, ever wonder if all of society is really a cult? I explore this and other possibilities in my book, a collection of essays called Beyond The Cultoid, available on Kindle and as an audiobook on Audible.

Obey Giant Review

Obey Giant, a documentary currently on Hulu, covers the career of street artist Shepard Fairey and explores some of the movement’s influences and history. Fairey is best known as the creator of the iconic Obama Hope posters that were seen everywhere during the 2008 campaign. He’s also featured in Exit Through the Gift Shop, another documentary (some say mockumentary) about the even more famous street artist Banksy.

Obey Giant gets its title from one of Fairey’s widespread use of pro wrestler Andre The Giant’s image in his early work. Later, he began to use the word “obey” in his stickers and stencils, inspired by the sci-fi cult classic They Live (where advertising signs contain subliminal messages such as “obey” and “consume” that are only visible with special glasses).

One thing that makes Obey Giant more entertaining than the average documentary is that the director, James Moll, stays out of the way and lets Fairey (along with other characters involved in his life) do all the talking without inserting unnecessary interview questions or voiceovers. The film discusses the artist’s early influences, mainly 70s punk rock and skateboarding and concludes with a look at his legal problems after being sued by the AP and a photographer for allegedly stealing an image for his Obama poster.

Fairey’s popularity, along with that of Banksy and other street and graffiti artists, reveals the growing acceptance of this type of art (which doesn’t extend to authorities, who arrest Shepherd just before his biggest opening at a Boston museum). As with Banksy and Exit Through the Gift Shop co-creator Thierry Guetta, people are willing to line up around the block for his openings, a somewhat strange and paradoxical phenomenon for artists who made their reputations as outlaws who work under the cover of darkness and anonymity.

People have wildly conflicting views of street art, of course. Depending on your cultural and political leanings, you might see it as a vibrant form of rebellion or out-and-out vandalism. As Fairey points out, however, he only covers vacated buildings, something also done by big brands without legal consequences), Obey Giant provides a fascinating look into this world. Personally, I admired Fairey’s commitment and willingness to take risks (not only legal but also placing his art in dangerous places) while feeling a bit skeptical at some of his political views.

His “Obey” campaigns were based on the They Live premise that there’s a sinister subtext to everything put forth by mainstream culture (an idea Fairey eloquently explains early in the film) yet he seems a bit naive in thinking that certain political candidates such as Obama aren’t part of this manipulation. Political views aside, the film is close to flawless in letting its subject reveal what makes him tick. Nor does it (or Shepard himself) shy away from admitting his own insecurities and periods of self-doubt, as when he admits to lying about the photograph he used for the Obama poster.

One thing that stuck out to me is the fact that Banksy’s name is not uttered once in the whole film. Exit Through the Gift Shop is referenced, Banksy is listed as the director and Fairey talks at length about his contentious relationship with Thierry Guetta. However, Banksy’s name is never spoken out loud. A minor detail to e sure, but considering how many other artists are mentioned in the film the commission seems deliberate for whatever reason.

Regardless of how you feel about street art, Obey Giant provides insight into a popular and controversial type of art. It also gets into the lively debate about digital age issues such as fair use, copyrights and the anarchistic notion that art and ideas belong to everyone. Fairey isn’t 100% on the anarchist’s side, at least from what he says here. His argument with the Obama photo is that he transformed the image to the extent that it falls under the category of fair use (the case was ultimately settled). Obey Giant is one of the better documentaries of recent years and is recommended to anyone interested in art, culture, and countercultures.

The Institute -Blurring Art, Myth and Reality

The Institute (2012) -Directed by Spencer McCall

The Institute is another entry in that emerging genre that lies on the borderland between documentary and mocumentary. In the tradition of fascinating yet frustrating docs such as Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Institute relays a story that obviously has some elements of truth, yet it’s impossible to determine how much of it was re-enacted or even fabricated for the film.

In this case, the subject itself is so nebulous and deliberately confounding that separating fantasy (or, in this case, a game) from reality is a futile enterprise. Yet, that very ontological quandary could very well be the whole point of The Institute -as well as the game upon which it is based.

The Institute is about a city-wide role playing game/social experiment/art project that was (presumably) carried out in San Francisco between 2008 and 2011. It involved a cult-like organization called The Jejune Institute, presided over (allegedly) by a Scientology-like leader. Participants were drawn in after seeing cryptic flyers around the city. Those who followed up were led to a building where they watched a video explaining the Jejune Institute’s vague but noble objectives. Participants were assured, for example, that their view of the world would be utterly transformed. Even more grandiose claims were made, as the Institute allegedly had possession of inventions and formulae that would solve all of humanity’s problems.

Those participants who chose to continue (we can assume that there were many dropouts) were drawn into an increasingly complex and murky scenario where the line between game and reality were collapsed. To make matters even trickier, viewers of the film have another layer of ambiguity to decipher -reality/game/film.

At first, it seems fairly straightforward that the film is simply documenting an extremely ambitious art project. Interviews with the game’s creators, such as Jeff Hull, indicate that it was a long term, open-ended and extremely creative project that encompassed multiple locations, many players and several overlapping plots.

Yet by the middle of the film, viewers will no doubt begin to wonder how much of this really happened as reported. For one thing, this game would have required substantial funding. For another, certain scenes and incidents seem to have been filmed during the time of the game, long before the movie was made. Does this indicate that the documentary was, from the start, a key aspect of the project? Or that some of these scenes were filmed for the movie and were re-enactments or utter fabrications? It’s impossible to say.

One of the bizarre yet interesting plot lines of the game involved making players immediately distrust the very Jejune Institute that had supposedly recruited them into the game. The Institute’s leader was labeled a fraud, someone who had betrayed the cause of “divine nonchalance.” The latter is revealed as the mystical quality that was, once again I must insert the word allegedly, discovered by a mysterious teenager named Eva who disappeared shortly after revealing her discoveries. Eva’s father was said to have been the inventor of some of the Institute’s inventions.

Divine Nonchalance, as the term implies, can be understood to mean going through life in a way that’s open to endless possibilities. It could also be compared to the Taoist concept of Wu Wei, or acting without effort. One image connected to the concept in the film is the tarot card, The Fool -the character who fearlessly stands at the edge of a precipice.

It’s almost impossible to describe the “plot” of The Institute without getting mired in uncertainty and confusion. What’s interesting is that, if you’re open to it, it can motivate you to ask some very basic questions, such as “what is reality?” Parts of it reminded me of Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy, a cult classic that involved (among many other things) warring secret societies, where you never knew exactly who the good guys and bad guys were. Wilson was also part of a movement/pseudo religion called Discordianism, which certainly could have been an influence here as well.

Those who are left with questions after watching The Institute might Google some of the people and terms from the film, such as Jejune Institute and Eva Lucien (Eva-Lucien -get it?). In fact, the Journals of Eva Lucien are available for sale online. Yet such a casual search will not prove whether these entries and characters preceded the film.

The Institute will fascinate some, bore/confuse/confound others and be of mild interest to still others. If you like to ponder the borders between fiction and fact and suspect that films such as The Matrix are not mere science fiction, The Institute may be just what you’ve been looking for. It’s available on Netflix streaming right now.

Radio Unnameable: The Singular Career of Bob Fass

Note: This review has recently been re-published on Devtome.

Radio Unnameable (2012)
Directors: Paul Lovelace, Jessica Wolfson

This is a documentary about Bob Fass, an underground celebrity not widely known outside of certain circles. I must confess that his name was only vaguely familiar to me prior to seeing the film. This was a good thing in a way, as it allowed me to learn all about the subject from the ground up. Fass is the kind of character who, even if you’ve never heard of him, you have certainly heard of many people and events where he played a central role.

The name Bob Fass will be familiar mainly to New Yorkers who tune their dial to the independent radio station, WBAI, which is owned by Pacifica Foundation. WBAI’s slogan, according to their website, is Free Speech Radio, and they have traditionally featured many controversial and offbeat programs, such a Democracy Now!

Pacifica has had its share of controversy in recent years as it has undergone various changes in leadership and faced financial hardship. Currently, there are rumors that Pacifica is about to sell out (literally!) to corporate radio giant Clear Channel.

Fass, whose program was called Radio Unnameable, was the creator of free form radio. As the name suggests, this meant that his program was a completely open-ended affair where guests and callers could discuss anything under the sun. These often ended up being radical and controversial topics, but they were just as often random and personal stories.

Part of the uniqueness of Radio Unnameable was its time slot -the wee hours from midnight to 5 a.m. This fact alone tended to skew his listener base to the unconventional. There is something about the late night hours that makes people drop their usual filters.

Fass was at the hub of many iconic countercultural events of the 1960s. Arlo Guthrie’s famous Alice’s Restaurant was introduced on Fass’s show in 1967. Other guests included Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsberg, Judy Collins and Abbie Hoffman.

All of this and more is captured in this quite thorough documentary, which is sure to appeal to Fass’s fan base as well as those not yet familiar with him. Many of the events portrayed in Radio Unnameable are long forgotten by most people (those who knew about them in the first place). For example, Fass helped to organize a “Yip-in” at Grand Central Terminal which started off like an exuberant party but degenerated into police-instigated violence.

Watching this, we are reminded that in the pre-Internet days, radio played a pivotal role in keeping people informed and connected. Parallels are drawn to Twitter, as several of the events portrayed are analogous to the type of flash mobs that now rely on social media for their momentum.

The amazing thing about this man is that he began broadcasting in 1963 and is still at it today. After being thrown off the air for several years, he was reinstated by WBAI, albeit on a part time basis –the current WBAI schedule lists his show on Friday from 12 to 3 AM.

The young documentarians Lovelace and Wolfson provide a healthy sense of perspective to Fass and his story. While they obviously admire him, they also don’t fall into the trap of relegating all of this to a bygone era. They are aware of how internet activists and the Occupy Movement, for example, use similar tactics. This places Fass in a contemporary context as well as an historic one, which is certainly where he deserves to be.

For more information about this film, see: Radio Unnameable

Related Blogs

    Craigslist Joe

    Note: an edited version of this review was recently published on Devtome.

    Craigslist Joe (2012)

    This is a fun and uplifting documentary about the experiences of Joe Garner, who spend a whole month traveling the country without any money -relying entirely on Craigslist postings for rides and shelter.

    If the point of this movie is to prove that anything is possible (in a good way) on Craigslist, or in the contemporary U.S., then it doesn’t quite live up to its goal. On the other hand, it’s still quite entertaining and rather inspiring to watch Joe on his journey, which is a kind of modern day vision quest.

    As much as I enjoyed Craigslist Joe, I couldn’t forget the presence of the camera. Although we never see or hear the cameraman, his existence takes away some of the documentary’s credibility. While it would be difficult to make a documentary (or any film) without a camera, in this case it creates a never addressed artificiality, as everyone interacts with Joe as if he was alone when we know that he isn’t.

    In quantum physics, there is something called the Observer Effect, where the mere presence of an observer effects the outcome of an experiment. The same is often true with documentaries. We are never entirely sure if the people who welcome Joe into their home so freely would have done so without his cover story that he was making a movie.

    This is a relevant point, as he discusses early on about his need to discover if people have become disconnected in today’s high tech world. Yet, people today are also media obsessed and often willing to do almost anything to be filmed. Additionally, the camera also establishes Joe as a respectable member of society, rather than another (potentially dangerous) individual living on the fringes.

    Additionally, Garner is not just a random person making a low budget indie film. He has quite a bit of Hollywood experience. See: IMDb Joseph Garner. Zach Galifianakis is actually listed as the film’s executive producer. So, like many documentaries, Craigslist Joe may not be exactly what it appears at first.

    Despite all of that, however, Craigslist Joe still manages to succeed at showing how connections can be quickly fostered on the road. While Joe might be a little overdramatic at times (as he makes clear, he has a comfortable life and family to help him if he really needs it), he still manages to touch the hearts of many of the people he meets along the way.

    What I liked best about Craigslist Joe is that it’s a road movie that’s a celebration of spontaneity and breaking free of deeply ingrained assumptions.

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      Tales From the Script (2009)

      Tales From the Script (2009) is a documentary about screenwriting in Hollywood. Aside from aspiring screenwriters, it should be quite fascinating to anyone who’s intrigued by the whole movie-making process.

      The format is quite familiar, and simply shows one screenwriter after another giving his or her perspective on the craft, with no signs of an interviewer. So many modern documentaries follow this model and it has advantages as well as drawbacks. We get to hear many points of view, but it means that the feedback on every issue is scattershot more than in depth. I suppose modern attention spans are deemed too short for old fashioned interviews or dialogues that last more than a few seconds.

      As might be expected, the writers tend to focus on the many absurdities of life in Hollywood and how the industry keeps writers in a relatively powerless position. Much of this material is already pretty well known, not only among industry insiders but to anyone who’s seen films such as The Player (which, oddly enough, is not mentioned here).

      For example, the writer’s original script might be rewritten dozens of times. Actors and directors may change lines, and in some cases the final product bares little resemblance to the writer’s first draft. There is also a segment that laments the modern preference for franchise type movies, often based on comic books, rather than traditional character and story based scripts.

      Tales From the Script, of course, is only talking about mainstream Hollywood here and doesn’t mention the growth of low budget independent movies, many of which are written, directed and produced by the same person (or small group).

      Even if the insights aren’t exactly earth-shattering, it’s still great to hear from so many legendary screenwriters. After all, the public seldom gets to see them and in many cases probably wouldn’t even recognize them. Unlike actors and directors, writers generally remain behind the scenes.

      Many of these writers spend a lot of their time griping about their low place in the hierarchy of filmmaking. Yet they also appreciate how fortunate they are to be in the enviable position of making money doing what they love.

      Some of the screenwriters featured in Tales From the Script include William Goldman, Paul Schrader, Allison Anders and John Carpenter.

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