Documentary Films

Reviews: Ex Libris & After Midnight

After Midnight

by Craig J. Clark

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman, 2017)

Got a lot of time to fill? Then Frederick Wiseman is your man. Over a career stretching back more than half a century – from 1967’s Titicut Follies (filmed at the Massachusetts State Prison for the Criminally Insane) to 2018’s Monrovia, Indiana (filmed after Wiseman’s visit to Indiana University in 2017) – Wiseman has directed dozens of fly-on-the-wall documentaries on all manner of communities and institutions, both public and private. Of those, a whopping 42 are streaming on Kanopy and the majority have a running time of at least two hours, with a handful clocking in at more than three.

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.

The sound of a projector is heard as an old 8mm home movie is projected on to a screen.  They show a young father playing with his children, making faces at the camera, laughing and enjoying his life.  The camera pulls back behind an older couple watching the film from their couch.  Then a close up. The older man is biting his upper lip then asks, “Who is that?”  “That’s you honey” comes the reply. A pause then, “Oh, there I am.”  And he laughs.  Another pause, “Who’s that with me?”  “That’s your daughter.  Your first daughter Debbie.”  And so begins this 2014 documentary on the life of Glen Campbell, now in his 70’s, struggling with Alzheimer’s and preparing to go on one last farewell tour. 

Atomic Café

In the early 60’s I remember going through atomic bomb drills in school.  We were dutifully herded by our teachers down to the depths of Roger’s Elementary school here in Bloomington, past the furnaces, and seemingly below the floors to the area in which we were to remain until the radiation levels dropped enough for us to come out.  I can still remember the big storage cans of water stacked along the walls and under stairwells marked with the Civil Defense emblem.  I assume, though I can’t really remember seeing them, that there were food rations that were available for us to eat as well.  Along with the television advertisements for cereal, candy and toys we saw public service announcements with “Burt the Turtle” teaching us how to “duck and cover” if we should ever see the flash of an atomic bomb.   How naïve these advertisements and steps seem today when more accurate information about atomic blasts and radiation is common knowledge.   We know for example that we can’t survive an atomic blast by hiding inside of a refrigerator.

The Way We Get By

The Way We Get By is a documentary that starts out focusing on the work of the “troop greeters” in Bangor, Maine.  This group of senior citizens goes to the Bangor International Airport at any hour of the day or night to greet outgoing and incoming US troops. Oddly enough, Bangor is the main departure and return point for those serving overseas . The greeters, some retired military themselves, offer service men and women a warm welcome, snacks and free cell phones to call their loved ones. Those arriving at 3 am receive the same enthusiastic greeting as those coming at  11 am, rain, sleet or snow. This seemingly small gesture has a big impact on those returning from overseas, many unsure of how they would be received or concerned about returning to life in the US.

But there’s another layer to the story, one that’s possibly even more touching- that of the lives of the greeters themselves. Focusing on three of the senior citizens the film becomes a study of aging, loneliness, and the universal search for a sense of purpose in our lives.

Always Heard, Never Known

This is the story of a band that everyone has heard and yet most people don’t even know their name.  They played on more hit records than Elvis, than The Beach Boys, than The Rolling Stones or the Beatles ….combined.  They were responsible for the driving beat of the Motown hit factory.   The riffs you remember to so many songs were arranged and performed by them;  yet  if I mentioned some of their names, James Jamerson,  Richard Allen, Joe Messina, to name a few there would be no flash of recognition in your mind.

Brain Games

National Geographic has produced three television episodes on the biology, psychology and other interesting parts of the human brain. Each episode has several tests to follow along with on the screen. After completing each test the viewer learns why the human brain behaves in the way that it does. There is no need to feel embarrassed about what we don't know since this is a characteristic of all human beings. It seems that we all have blinds spots and things that we miss in our every day interactions. It turns out that the reality that we construct is an illusion and is filled with many gaps and misunderstanding. Each fifty minute episode focuses on a different aspect of reality and how our brains work to construct them. Towards the end of the program there are a few suggestions to help you improve your long term memory.

My Life as a Turkey

What would you do if someone left a puppy or a kitten on your doorstep? I imagine most people would adopt it, put it up for adoption or take to the nearest humane society for safe shelter. Now consider what you would do if someone left a bowl full of (fertilized) wild turkey eggs on your doorstep. This happened to a Florida man named Joe Hutto.

This is the unexpected but fascinating documentary story about Joe Hutto's experience of raising sixteen turkeys from birth to adulthood. Joe allows himself to be imprinted upon and thus become the full-time mother of all sixteen turkeys. As is the case with all nature documentaries, some of them survive and some of them don't. Some of them are friendlier than others and they all have very different personalities. The ending will leave you a little shocked and sad but don't let that frighten you.

This is a one hour PBS nature-film presentation. This film is rated PG. The library has one copy on DVD.

Buck

Buck is a documentary about legendary horse trainer Dan "Buck" Brannaman, the modern day horse whisperer and inspiration for both the book and film alike. His horsemanship skills are legendary because he can train a horse to do just about anything in nearly ten minutes without touching the horse.

 

Nature: A Murder of Crows

You can always count on the PBS Nature series to be interesting and have beautiful videography. But I was especially captivated when I recently watched A Murder of Crows. It didn't sound that interesting- a documentary about crows, but when I read the description of crows as "apes with feathers" I was intrigued. I had no idea how intellligent these birds are.
 

Post Mortem: The death investigation crisis in America.

Everything is not what it seems. I guess I watch too much tv. I've always been under the impression that forensic investigations and death investigations were done in a highly scientific and professional manner. As it turns out, the reality is that throughout most of America the position of Coroner is an elected position. This means that the person doing the investigation could have little to no experience at all which could then lead to a

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