05/06/15 5:54am
by |
05/06/2015 5:54 AM |
photo courtesy of Alan and Susan Raymond

The Seven Five
Directed by Tiller Russell
Opens May 8

The Police Tapes (1977)
Directed by Alan and Susan Raymond
May 12 at IFC Center

You can extrapolate how staggering the contents of The Police Tapes were for WNET’s audience in 1977 from the amount of screentime filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond give over to the sociological mini-lectures of police commander Tony Bouza, who reassures liberal viewers about the systemic causes of urban crime rates in language that will make you wonder why MSNBC hosts don’t have him on speed-dial.

Over three months of ridealongs in the 44th precinct—one of multiple station houses nicknamed “Fort Apache” during the Bronx-is-burning era—the Raymonds gathered footage of little old ladies brought in for axe assaults, the splayed-out victims of unsolvable shootings, strung-out rapists and all manner of tweakers. It’s indeed enough to stretch the empathy of others than the exhausted, mustached Nixon voters in blue—whose responses range from bemusement or callousness, to an aggravated “Aw, shaddup” at the crowd gathered at the scene of a stabbing, or a sinister “Nobody did nothing” when a detainee’s boyfriend asks about her bruises. When the cops describe the “animals who are out there,” their sense of their own worldliness, and the suggestion of nobody-understands ranks-closing, makes the film timely all over again.

The Police Tapes, photo courtesy of Sundance Selects

A more emotionally involved heir to Wiseman’s Direct Cinema masterwork Law and Order, The Police Tapes traded 16mm for Portapak—it was a pioneer of the rough-and-ready digital look that would become shorthand for immediacy and trustworthiness in subsequent nonfiction and “reality” media. As another effect of the technology at its disposal, the movie straddles the watershed when unmediated image capture transformed from an undertaking and a revelation into a cultural and cinematic presumption. The new doc The Seven Five is not a pure compilation film, but its scene-setting relies on plentiful archival footage, taken with slightly more advanced cameras than those used by the Raymonds, of another recent urban “war zone”: this time, East New York during the crack epidemic.

In the interviews conducted for the film, disgraced ex-NYPD officer Michael Dowd comes off as another Jordan Belfort, someone who takes his nominal rehabilitation as license to dine out on tall tales from his more debauched days, when he graduated from lifting drug money off crime scenes to selling intel to dealers. (The time he pulled up to the station house in a red Porsche, shit, man!) Director Tiller Russell gives plenty of rope to digressive, self-mythologizing anecdotes from Dowd, his former partners (in uniform, in crime), and sleazy-funny former dope kingpin Adam Diaz. They’re good enough storytellers that Russell thinks he’s making Goodfellas, complete with classic-rock cues, cocaine paranoia, temptation, and masculine codes of friendship and omerta. But Russell (who actually layers canned gunshot sounds over Diaz’s smirking nonresponse to a question about a disappeared adversary) misses the big picture: not just about the era’s widespread police corruption, but about its significance. In Dowd’s testimony before Mayor Dinkins’s Mollen Commission, intercut throughout the film, he emphasized that cops, who have to trust each other when venturing out together in areas the cops of The Police Tapes would agree are jungles, don’t rat on other cops. That’s not a homily about personal honor, it’s the mindset of an institutional culture that looks after its own at all costs. A title card emphasizes that Dowd didn’t name names, not that multiple international investigations into him were dropped before his eventual arrest. For a documentary about the lack of accountability within a hermetic urban police force, this feels pretty irrelevant to the current context.

04/22/15 6:29am
04/22/2015 6:29 AM |
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Directed by Albert Maysles
Opens April 29

With and without his brother David, the late, great filmmaker Albert Maysles returned again and again to artists of all shapes and sizes. While it can be misleading or facile to identify a documentarian with what he shoots, it’s hard to miss a degree of identification going on between portraitist and subject, from Gimme Shelter and its explicitly reflexive editing scene to Maysles’s multiple biographical sketches of musicians and other artists through the 1980s and 90s. He kept circling the creative process in terms of accumulation, negotiation, receptivity—all qualities crucial to his practice of Direct Cinema—and even the bittersweet Salesman with its art of the spiel must have felt familiar to a cameraman in motion who would very often be the new person in a strange room.

The link, and bond, between director and subject grows poignant with Iris, which together with the Amtrak travels of In Transit—Maysles’s official final credited work, screening in the Tribeca Film Festival—reads as a valedictory farewell journey to a rich life and towering career. A fashion innovator and storied interior decorator, 93-year-old Iris Apfel hasn’t ceased her mockingbird activity of assembling outfits from cross-cultural costume and fabric, the rattle of her signature chunky accessories audible even before the film’s first image hits the screen. Giant glasses—a counterpart to Maysles’s own signature frames—suggest someone who doesn’t want to miss a thing (rather than the eccentric-socialite look that uninformed observers might assume). But after headlining a last-minute Met show in 2005 despite retiring over a decade earlier, Apfel has entered a phase of tributes, teaching, taking stock: The “sage” has spoken, she jokes at one event covered by the 87-year-old director, who late in life himself only took on more new adventures with the founding of the Maysles Documentary Cinema.

Beside the public appearances and events, Iris shows Apfel at her crazily cluttered Park Avenue home—every room as absurdly busy and colorful with detail as a magazine shoot; it’s an ecosystem as much as the Hamptons house of Grey Gardens, though this rampant organic growth is a tad more curated. As befits a roving marketeer and expert bargainer, Iris is a maven at snap judgments, nearly as ear-catching as her outfits are arresting, even if you want to see even more of her in action putting together each assemblage rather than listen to her narrate them. Likewise, there’s a little of the praise chorus endemic to fashion documentaries (among others), while the use of montage varies between vivid, glamorous tours of Iris’s travels with her husband and business partner Carl, and more conventional sequences (not helped by bouncy catwalk music, kept almost apologetically muted in the mix).

Iris’s greatest concern at the time of the doc isn’t what she’ll wear next, but her 100-year-old husband’s health, though Maysles and his editor take care not to let this be the drama. But those intimations of mortality are present in the film’s very portrait of Iris, repeatedly seen selecting clothes to let go and donate to the Peabody Museum or to sell off from her vast Long Island storage loft. The racks upon racks, in rooms upon rooms that suggest an apartment going on forever off screen, only evoke all that remains in Iris that won’t be passed along, the impossibility of summarizing a person’s cornucopia of experience. The camera dwells at one point upon a closed box of clothes, the perspective like that on a toe-to-head look at a coffin. “You don’t own anything. You just rent,” Iris quotes a friend.

In the heyday of Direct Cinema, the strength of cinema at portraying the passage of time was newly felt as the electricity of the fleeting instant—the moment, the attention to the wavelet in the news that betrays the movement’s origins in television newsmagazines. What Maysles, compassionate but steadfast, has also been able to recognize are the other life streams at work as time goes by. Besides the work of Frederick Wiseman, a countering force to the prevalence of big, outlying names such as JFK or the Rolling Stones has been Maysles and his ability to show the strain and the grace of it all. That is an awareness and a wisdom that never goes out of style, and with the film’s final shot, Maysles sits down, for one mightily well-deserved rest.