Bright Lights Film Journal

Illuminating the Interior: The DOC NYC Festival Debut

Boasting Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, fest sets a high standard

Any access documentary filmmakers have to big screens deserves support, but the inaugural DOC NYC promised much more. Guest appearances by Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and a tribute to Kevin Brownlow, along with some 40 films, galas, conversations and panels offered audiences an alternative to mainstream fare. The festival arrives at the right time: American documentaries in particular offer a better reflection of the state of the nation than anything at the multiplex.

Of the few films I was able to see by press-time, The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan, directed by Henry Corra, deserves special mention. Picking up on journalist Richard Linnett’s eleven-year research, Corra, who also shot the film, delves into Nolan’s open-ended case. Last heard from by his wife in 1967, and only two weeks shy of discharge, Nolan is rumored to have defected to the Viet Cong. Visiting Viet Nam in 2005, Dan Smith, a white Viet Nam vet who didn’t know Nolan, heard from two young men that the black American he had seen was “McKeenly.” The sighting serves as impetus for Nolan’s brother, Michael, to join Smith in a trip to Viet Nam and Cambodia to locate McKinley or at least some trace. The trip is fraught for all concerned (Smith at one point notes that the war “took too much out of everybody”), not least McKinley’s stepson, who joins the party for part of the trip. Corra uses short bursts of archival footage — bombing raids and their lethal aftermath in Viet Nam; Martin Luther King speaking of his “disappointment” in America about the war; RFK shaking supporters’ hands shortly before he was shot; the Black Panthers; and campus protests — the rapid, familiar visuals as evocative as pop music from the era. The portrait of McKinley that emerges resembles a Graham Greene character: the permanent outsider, befriended for use and ultimately betrayed. Yet each piece of information begs more questions than it answers. Corra misses none of the mixed feelings of the participants, capturing the frustration and exhaustion of their efforts. The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan goes some way to revealing the complexities of how the war in Viet Nam shaped — and continues to shape — America.

Less satisfying was Puppet, David Soll’s chronicle of the conception and execution of Dan Hurlin’s 2009 tabletop puppet show, Disfarmer. Tracing the two-year preparations, Soll gives a sense of the odds against which the production comes together. The puppeteers juggle other jobs with rehearsals, subsistence wages and ego. Soll intersperses shots of Hurlin’s first puppetry, including, as an infant in 1955, appearing in an early family show. He also interviews other puppeteers and various academics about the state of puppetry in general, which seems (primarily in New York) to be on the upswing. Among the academics are Eileen Blumenthal, author of Puppetry: A World History, and Victoria Nelson (The Secret Life of Puppets). Both women’s comments touch on the cultural and religious aspects of puppetry, an art sometimes raised to a kind of priesthood elsewhere, though still (mostly) relegated to the children’s corner in the States. Experienced live, Hurlin’s work is distinctive, original and compelling, but it’s less engaging on film. And then Soll can’t quite decide what kind of film this is, a record of a performance or a look at puppetry in general. By the time it culminated in the Disfarmer performance, it seemed to have overshot the mark.

Also suffering from a certain level of repetition was Lost Bohemia, directed by Josef Birdman Astor. Nothing wrong with the premise: Astor set out to document his neighbors, the several artists who lived in the living/working studios above Carnegie Hall, built originally for the use of painters, composers, dancers and actors. From their sawtooth skylights to the cathedral ceilings and sprung wood floors, each of the original 160 studios was unique. Over the past 50 years, the household names who passed through included Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Mark Twain, Paddy Chayefsky, Isadora Duncan, Rudolf Nureyev and George Balanchine, to name only a few. In the course of Astor’s shooting, the Carnegie Corporation moved to evict as many residents as it could, decimating the unusual atmosphere of the building. Among the denizens was ballerina Star Szarek, perpetually 25 (though actually 85), who camped out in the hallways, the stair rails her barre; actress Jeanne Beauvais; photographer and sometimes model Editta Sherman; and Donald Shirley, a concert pianist, all of them residents of more than 50 years and well into their own third age when the corporation decided to oust them. There is also the Poet (who never appears on-camera, only in messages he records on Astor’s answering machine), who talks about the kind of community you can’t buy “and I hope you can’t sell.” Ultimately, it’s hard to know if such a New York-centric film will have resonance beyond the city, but in any case Astor did well to document the last denizens of the studios, whose very inflections and expressions (looking at one of his record albums from the 1950s, Donald Shirley asks himself “what kind of a brand new fool are you?”) have been nearly lost in the more homogenized city under the Giuliani/Bloomberg regimes.

Errol Morris’s Tabloid belongs with his best work. American — and former Miss Wyoming — Joyce McKinney was a British tabloid sensation in the late 1970s in a case that involved kidnapping, bondage and the Mormons. She was touted as both virgin and whore, depending on which tabloid readers followed. Morris always does best with ambiguity and, particularly, with the peculiarly American ability to let fantasy set life’s course. McKinney gives her own rationally irrational version of events, blithely noting in her little-girl delivery that the quest for the man of her dreams involved hiring a pilot and a bodyguard. Morris brings in journalists who covered the story, an ex-Mormon (who notes that McKinney’s lover would have been wearing a set of “sacred underwear”), and, ultimately, the South Korean doctor who manages to clone (you knew it would get to cloning, didn’t you?) one of McKinney’s favorite dogs, Booger. McKinney’s tale mixes Hollywood, Disney, leather restraints, cinnamon massage oil, canine multiples and celebrity. Relying on fewer tricky shots than in his recent films, Morris lets the story unspool in all its goofy glory, begging questions about reality — for McKinney and for us — that he wisely leaves ambiguously unanswered.

Unsurprisingly, Werner Herzog makes spectacular use of 3D in Caves of Forgotten Dreams. Discovered in 1994, the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave in southern France has the oldest known example of human image-making, dating back more than 30,000 years. Herzog begins outside, calling attention to the Wagnerian setting, the forbidding cliffs and nearby Pont-D’Arc natural bridge a kind of gateway to the ancient world. (The public is barred from access to the cave, though there are plans to build a replica amusement park.) Nestled in the cliffs is the surprisingly narrow steel door that leads to the caves themselves. Jagged speleothems, the fossilized bones of a horned ibex and of many bears surround the narrow walkway. As the camera travels along the undulating walls, the 3D conveys something of the walls’ surface, which features incisions and a form of etching, the effect to convey a kind of three-dimensionality. The animals themselves are superb. Along with the more familiar grazing animals, the Chauvet caves feature predators — lions, bears, owls among them. Open mouths and a stretched-out posture convey movement, and additional legs are used to show movement and life.

Ernst Reijseger’s florid score occasionally threatens to drown out the visuals, but there are also eloquent sequences in which the only sound is a human heartbeat. Although the eccentricities of those he encounters are less flagrant than usual, Herzog adds to the invaluable varieties of human experience to which all his films attest. And this includes his own deadpan commentary, about, for example, the meager efforts of one of the researchers to emulate Cro-Magnon spear-throwing: “I don’t think you would have hit a horse.”

Even when access was easier (before the cliffs shifted to lower the cave), daylight never reached all the way in. Some form of manmade light, torches initially, was always necessary to illuminate the interior. Herzog dances light over the stunning and sophisticated images, replicating the ancient flicker, gently suggesting that these images are a first gesture toward cinema. Without sentimentality and with his customary wryness, Herzog shows the fundamental place, in human history, of the play of shadow and light. The DOC NYC could not have found a better way to inaugurate this welcome festival.