Back Row Thoughts – I’ve Got a Little List, Part 2

It’s Christmas Eve, and while soon I will engage in my annual tradition of watching It’s a Wonderful Life, I figured now was as good a time as any to knock off a few more entries on this year’s Documentary Feature shortlist. To recap, of the 15 films up for the award, three have had individual reviews over the course of 2021 (Flee, The Rescue, and Summer of Soul), and in Part 1 of this series, I went over three more. That leaves nine to go. This edition will check three more off the docket. Enjoy!

The Velvet Underground

Just like Edgar Wright with The Sparks Brothers, director Todd Haynes helms an insightful, deep dive documentary into one of the most influential musical acts of all time. Now, I’m not as big a Velvet Underground fan as I am of some other groups, but what little I know I’ve always enjoyed (“Venus in Furs,” “Heroin,” “Sweet Jane,” etc.), so just like with Sparks, I was primed to see what this film could teach me while also giving me just some brilliant music, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Haynes is a noted fan of the avant-garde, with one of his earliest projects, Velvet Goldmine, being made in tribute to Lou Reed and other icons of the era. Even his more conventional films like Carol highlight the nontraditional in very loving ways.

That same affection is shown here, chronicling the “magical accident” that led to viola player John Cale meeting Lou Reed and recording together, along with Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, with heavy influence from pop artist Andy Warhol, including the eventual addition of Nico. It really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime sets of circumstances that brought them all together, at the height of the avant-garde and beat movements, that made this band – and its music – possible.

What struck me most was Haynes’ presentation style. While Reed was the face of the band because of his unique voice and deeply poetic lyrics, Haynes makes sure that everyone’s the face at some point. Quite literally, he splits the screen (sometimes in multiple places) to show the energy and frenetic pace of 1960s New York alongside film of each band member just staring at the camera while their voiceover plays (either modern-day or archival). It’s a brilliant touch, because it speaks to the hectic nature of the era, daring you to expand your mind in a drug-free way by challenging you to take in all the disparate images and internalize them in a way where you can still comprehend the message.

As for the music, I really enjoyed learning about the drone harmonics techniques that the group developed with other musicians and artists over the course of their evolution. While there isn’t anything novel about the band’s eventual trajectory (discord with Reed, breakup, individual reconciliations), the journey itself was still well worth the time.

Grade: B+

In the Same Breath

You knew it wasn’t going to be possible to get through the year without a COVID documentary. Well, we’ve got two here. The first is In the Same Breath, directed by Nanfu Wang, who previously made the Oscar shortlist with her first film, the provocative Hooligan Sparrow. In that entry, she looked at how the Chinese government works to suppress sex workers and whistleblowers who expose corruption and sexual crime. Here, she’s tackling similar ground, surreptitiously hiring cameramen to film inside hospitals, documenting the pandemic response on the ground versus the propaganda presented by the ruling regime.

To the surprise of no one, it turns out China’s reaction to the coronavirus was not great. As Wang brings up multiple times, the only mention of the coming horror show on news broadcasts on January 1, 2020 was a one-line story that several doctors had been “punished” for spreading rumors about a new form of pneumonia. Months into the process, as cases skyrocket, information is being closely guarded and embargoed by the powers that be, and media events are staged to make it seem like the crisis is well under control when it very much is not. Of the more damning moments is an anonymous cemetery worker noting that the official death count is probably only 10% of the real number.

To further the point, Wang contrasts this with America’s response a few months later, which was largely the same, with one big exception – the public reaction. In both cases, government officials went out of their way to make it seem like the virus was no big deal (for some reason she keeps repeating the same clip where Dr. Anthony Fauci said masks weren’t needed, a statement he quickly recanted when new information became available to him), but the difference was in how free speech affected the discourse when it came to misinformation. On China’s side, there basically was no free speech, and Wang notes instances where journalists “disappeared” for reporting their news. In the U.S., where free speech is sacrosanct, the public squares were turned into battlefields for the willfully ignorant, spouting the party line with aplomb because they were inconvenienced and wanted to go out to a bar again.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, but Wang never really goes anywhere with it, only momentarily positing on what true freedom really is, having lived here and in China. The pieces are there, dots to connect, but she seems to limit herself to just admitting her own shortcoming in initially believing the people who told her not to worry, even though she had to rush her husband and child out of China before Wuhan went on lockdown. We have one country where the government lied, but the people could say nothing, and another where the government lied, and the people who could say something bought into the bill of goods they were sold.

And again, it’s really distressing that Wang kept coming back to the same snippets in media as if they were the same thing. Fauci said in one interview on 60 Minutes that masks weren’t necessary, but then became an advocate as the science uncovered more information, and even openly defied the Trump administration to deliver facts, even at risk of his job and his life as Trump and his acolytes threatened him. She appears to take his one mistake as evidence of complicity in the coverup, yet never plays the actual clips from Trump himself where he admits he was always downplaying the pandemic. And then she puts it up beside multiple news clips in China where anchors are literally reading a scripted report prepared by the government. These instances are not comparable in proper context, and I think Wang misses that in the quest to make her film seem more profound and literary.

Grade: B-

The First Wave

Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts, A Private War) gives us our second look at the pandemic, this time through the eyes of New Yorkers for the first 100 days, where COVID hit the hardest and fastest in this country. Unlike In the Same Breath, there is nothing informative about this film. This is more in the vein of last year’s shortlisted documentary, 76 Days, where we simply observe the raw emotion of the frontline workers and the patients as they fight to survive. It’s meant much more as a time capsule than a cinematic essay.

And trust me when I say, this movie does not spare the harsh moments. You will watch people die in this movie. You will watch people brought to their absolute breaking points, both through the continuing healthcare crisis and the exasperation of minority communities in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. There are foreboding moments, like a father being intubated for a second time while his children watch Mufasa’s death in The Lion King, but none are so powerful as a doctor breaking down twice – once in the halls of the hospital, once on the streets during a protest – screaming, “I’m tired!” over and over again. The anguish is palpable.

But there are also moments of hope. Heineman’s crew (who had to work in rotations using an open conference room to change into PPE gear and sanitize their equipment) find the rare beacons of light through the fog. The hospital where they filmed (Long Island Jewish Medical Center) began a tradition of playing “Here Comes the Sun” for anyone regaining consciousness after being on a ventilator. A baby born via emergency C-section when his mother was infected becomes the poster child for a group of nurses, their collective prayer for a better future. A physical therapist lovingly busts a patient’s balls as he recovers. “Holy shit, you’re taller than me,” he laughs as the man stands for the first time in months. The same “tired” doctor – Dr. Nathalie Dougé – talks a young, unmasked man at a Floyd protest away from a confrontation with police, and as he walks away, she constantly repeats, “Your family cares about you. They don’t want to see you hurt” until he runs back into the frame to tearfully embrace her.

The fly-on-the-wall style doesn’t relent in its mission to curb stomp your heart, but it’s crucial to keep going all the way through, because as Nufang Wang’s film shows us, there are still so, so many stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, angry, racist, ignorant, stupid, stupid, crazy, violent, stupid people out there that still deny this is even happening. And they can’t be allowed to win. If they do, there’ll be a whole lot more scenes like the first five minutes of this movie as opposed to the last five minutes.

Grade: A-

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these films? Which do you think are most important? How tired are you of COVID? Let me know!

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