Film Reviews Of Bill Cunningham: New York; The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg And The Pentagon Papers, And The Cats Of Mirikitani
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/9/12
I recently watched three biographical documentaries. Two of them were vanity documentaries on men of little accomplishment and artistic skill, while the other one was a near-great political documentary on one of the most important American heroes of the last fifty years. The three films were, in order of viewing, Bill Cunningham: New York; The Most Dangerous Man In America, and The Cats Of Mirikitani.
Bill Cunningham: New York is a 2011 documentary that has been wildly overpraised. It is an interesting little film, and the director shows promise, in some scenes- especially in those of the titular New York Times photographer in action, and in some bravura editing sequences, and some shots by cinematographer Tony Cenicola- a staff photographer for the Times, but the film is as vacuous in its exploration of Cunningham’s life as Cunningham’s vainglorious pursuit of fashion is. In a sense, this film most reminded me of George Hickenlooper’s 2003 documentary on LA disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer, Mayor Of The Sunset Strip. In both film’s, the subject of the film is an aging hanger on in the world of celebrity. Yes, Bingenheimer is the more pathetic individual, in the sense that he has no talent and is just a fame addict. But, while Cunningham is claimed to be a style maven, and pretty good with his man on the street level photography, and also claims he cares nothing of celebrity, only fashion, that claim- itself, reveals much of the nullity of Cunningham’s existence. At least Bingenheimer had friends and pursued a reluctant female.
Even worse is that first time director, Richard Press, never probes deeply into Cunningham’s life, despite filming for close to a decade. Late in the film he asks if Cunningham is gay or has had a sexual relationship, and Cunningham replies he has not. He also expresses diffidence on the matter of his religious views. So, here the film has a subject that is an octogenarian, religious virgin, if the subject is to be believed, who is obsessed with the nihility of fashion (as a former milliner)- a cultural dross maven- to be generous, and one with no real inner life. Yes, this may be true, but even this is not pushed- not once does the film speak to family nor friends from youth. It’s as if Press is content to let his film be as shallow as its subject claims to be, and plays it to safe to be a genuine journalistic document (perhaps because the Times underwrote the film, according to several online sources?). He rides a bike about the city (his 29th Schwinn- the prior ones all stolen), lives in a rent controlled Carnegie Hall apartment and is evicted, with a handful of remaining artists, but we see his home is really a hovel, filled with filing cabinets of photographs, and a bed squeezed in between them. It also lacks a bathroom and kitchen. In one particularly funny scene, culled from a 1989 profile of Cunningham, he stumbles to even express why fashion is important, falling back on the claim that fashion is an armor to protect people from life’s harsh realities. Ok, but even this is not explored, so the 85 minute long film becomes a mere series of images of the vapid socialites, celebrities, and oddball street people Cunningham fritters his existence on. These folks include Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour, his neighbor, Editta Sherman, a centenarian photographer, associate of Andy Warhol, and the Duchess of Carnegie Hall, where she also lived, author Tom Wolfe, and socialites Brooke Astor and David Rockefeller.
I’m not stating that Bill Cunningham: New York need be larded with scandal nor personal failings, but it needed more substance to go along with its interesting premise and professional level technical proficiency. Is Cunningham a blank slate, is he as pathetic as Bingenhgeimer? We never know, for the film is all surface. At least in Mayor Of The Sunset Strip, Hickenlooper lets us know his subject is vapid. Here, we are given fluff on fluff, and it simply does not stick. That stated, with a worthy subject, Press has all the tools to produce a documentary of substance, rather than a vanity documentary that almost plays out as an infomercial for the New York Times.
After the frivolity of Bill Cunningham: New York, I turned to a 2009 film, The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg And The Pentagon Papers (whose title comes from Henry Kissinger’s claims on its subject), I had little knowledge of, save that it was on Daniel Ellsberg, the man behind The Pentagon Papers, a 7000+ page series of documents which blew open the coverup over the unjust origins of the Vietnam War. Ellsberg was a man my father (who hated Presidents Johnson and Nixon) loved, but, while knowing of the scandal, in brief, it never really hit me in detail, as I was a small child during that heyday.
This is a fascinating film that, if like me, one has little or no detailed information on, plays out like a spy thriller. The film is narrated mainly by Ellsberg, so one gets only his viewpoint, but given the decades of slag heaped upon him by Right Wingers, allowing the man his own forum is hardly extreme. In substance, the film this most reminds me of his Errol Morris’s great The Fog Of War, which centered on Ellsberg’s former boss, Kennedy and Johnson Administration Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Like McNamara, Ellsberg was an initial true believer in the war, and a Cold Warrior. And, like McNamara, he eventually felt what he had done to engage the war was wrong. The difference is that Ellsberg immediately tried to rectify his error, while McNamara needed decades to try and set his record straight. It follows an almost chronological account of the Pentagon Papers tale, with a slight diversion on Ellsberg’s pre-governmental life- notably his military service, and the death of his mother and sister in a car accident cause when his father fell asleep at the wheel. By 1967, Ellsberg was part of a Rand Corporation think tank team that was preparing a true history of the lies told by Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, that got America into the war, and by 1969 he had copied the papers, with the help of his children, and presented them to congressmen and Senators who did nothing. By 1971, he leaked them to the New York Times, then Washington Post, and many other papers, who defied court injunctions. This led to increased paranoia in President Nixon, which led to the plumbers, Watergate, the break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, and the eventual resignation of Nixon under a cloud of impeachment. Chilling, as usual, are the tapes where Nixon spews bigotry and contempt for Jews, anti-war protestors, and the lives of the Vietnamese, whom he’d just nuke, if it were a viable option. Ellsberg and a Rand Corporation co-worker, Anthony Russo, who photocopied the documents, stood trial for espionage, yet were both let go after a mistrial was declared. What is odd is how, decades later, there are still people who declare Ellsberg a traitor, and guilty of treason, when any objective glare at the facts reveals it was all the Presidents, from Truman through Nixon, who were guilty of- if not outright treason, then being traitors to the best interests of the nation, due to their own macho impulses over not wanting to ‘lose’ Indochina to Communism, which they did, then regained bloodlessly, making the whole of the wars in that region one of humanity’s greatest losses of life, time, materiel, and human dignity. And Ellsberg exposed all that, yet it still took four years for the war in Vietnam to end; a testament to the utter sloth of the American public who, decades later, would not turn on the Iraq War, after its premise was utterly rent. Ironically, it was on the strength of the so-called Pumpkin Papers of Alger Hiss that Richard Nixon’s rose to power, so it was fitting that his own demise came via The Pentagon Papers, and his own psychoses.
The 92 minute film lacks the visual razzle-dazzle of the Morris documentary, and this, and the straightforwardness of its structure mark it a notch below that film. That stated, there are a few animated sequences and special effects that delineate this film (a deserving 2009 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary) as the work of professionals of the top order, and co-directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith deserve high marks across the board. The film’s soundtrack, by Blake Leyh, never intrudes and only enhances the film, and the cinematography by Vicente Franco and Dan Krauss is steady and not detracting. The only talking head in the film that seems superfluous is that of historian Howard Zinn who, whatever you think of his views, is underutilized here. Instead of providing good background information on certain things, is, instead, used merely as a cheerleader for Ellsberg; quite a wasted opportunity.
The Most Dangerous Man In America thrives on its focus on one man and his ethics, its fast pace, and on target claims, and this lifts the film near greatness, but a conventional technical style, and the waste of Zinn, unfortunately, stops it short of achieving it.
The Cats Of Mirikitani suffers from no such woes, as it’s not even close to being a great film. Like Bill Cunningham: New York, it’s a strictly vanity documentary, and on a person barely involved in the arts. It follows documentarian and director Linda Hattendorf- a noted film editor, through a year or so of her life, meeting a mentally ill octogenarian Japanese-American street artist named Tsutomu ‘Jimmy’ Mirikitani, who was born in Sacramento, California, in 1920, grew up on Hiroshima, Japan, moved back to the U.S. as a young man, and was interned during World War Two at Tule Lake. This seems to have been the defining event of his life as, aside from his drawings of cats, the internment camps seem to be his obsession.
Yet, why the film? It’s clear that Jimmy is mentally ill, has little real artistic talent, and has no real understanding of art. Is it not his art, then, but his sad tale of woe, from his interment, to the destruction of Hiroshima by the atom bomb, to his mental illness and homelessness? If so, well, I can recall many a more interesting life of a homeless person than Jimmy’s. So why did Hattendorf focus on this all too typical homeless man, for 74 minutes worth of filming, culled from a year and a half period from before 9/11, to scenes of 9/11, and through the following year of 2002? Perhaps because he claims he was Jackson Pollock’s cook? Perhaps it was because he turns out to have been a distant relative of doggerelist Janice Mirikitani, who has a cameo in the film’s end credits? As if having a bad poet as a relative is somehow, oh?, interesting? Whatever the reason, the film is painful to watch, at times, but not for Jimmy’s life, but for Hattendorf’s utter failure to understand the narrative impulses of art, and the structural necessities of film. The camera too often watches Jimmy simply putter around her apartment, muttering insanities to himself, or follows her trying to get him into a senior citizens living complex. Eventually, due to the machinations of the film, for, as a vanity documentary, this film ‘makes’ its own ending, rather than simply letting it unfold, Jimmy travels back to his internment camp, rediscovers his family, and finds out that the American citizenship that he thinks he was forced to sign away was reinstated to him in 1959 but, apparently was either lost in transit, or returned due to his not having a permanent address.
While this is all nice, and the parallels between the early post-9/11 Era’s treatment of Moslems and the World War Two treatment of Japanese-Americans dovetails well, the film is surprisingly lifeless, and FAR too long. This film, which ran on PBS, in its POV series, is really a half hour film bloated to thrice its length. Filmmaker Hattendorf has good instincts, in some aspects, in finding a tale that has worth, but she seems to have utterly no ability to mold the film without actually interfering in Jimmy’s life, and, at film’s end, even though not a homeless person any longer, he does not seem any happier. Plus, we never get an in to Jimmy’s mind as to what drives him to draw his cats, nor anything, for that matter.
Technically, the film looks like what it is: a home movie on steroids, as little of merit can be claimed. The Cats Of Mirikitani is simply a waste of many things; don’t add your time to that list.
In sum, Bill Cunningham New York and The Cats Of Mirikitani are well meaning but ultimately pointless films that do not enliven heart, body, nor mind, while The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg And The Pentagon Papers, while not perfect nor great, does all three. See the film about a man worth remembering; forget the rest.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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