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 Louisiana Gumbo (and some Lagniappe) 
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The Films of Helen Hill

Part 2: Madame Winger Makes a Film

While her films are well regarded, it's likely that Hill's greatest and most lasting
impact was as an educator and activist. Over the years, she taught at various
colleges and art cooperatives around the US and Canada, and in New Orleans
she taught animation at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and the
New Orleans Film Collective, which she co-founded. For the benefit of those
she couldn't teach personally, she made this film - a handmade guide to
handmade films, made using the techniques it teaches.

Madame Winger Makes a Film

Langiappe
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In addition to this film, Hill also created and self-distributed a DIY
guide for DIY films (made very much in a DIY style, out of spiral-bound
photocopies). It's a thorough text, full of instructions, illustrations,
suggestions, and inventions, and interspersed with the kinds of jokes and
friendly notes that make Hill's work so accessible. If anyone is interested,
the book can be viewed in its entirety in the PDF linked below.

Recipes for Disaster: A Handcrafted Film Cookbooklet

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Fri Aug 04, 2017 12:26 pm
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The Films of Helen Hill

Part 3: The Florestine Collection

Hill's final film was inspired by an incident that happened one Mardi Gras, when
she discovered a treasure trove of hand-tailored dresses abandoned on a curb.
This prompted her to find out who had made the dresses, which led to the making
of this film, which combines animation with documentary research. Unfortunately,
she was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina, which forced her and her husband, Paul
Gailiunas, to flee the city with their newborn son. When they returned, they found
their Mid-City home flooded and most of their possessions irreparably damaged,
including many of her film materials and some of the dresses she had found.

In spite of the setback, they began to rebuild their lives, and she continued work on
the film. But on January 4th, 2007, before the film was finished, an armed intruder
broke into their home, shot Helen Hill dead, and wounded her husband. She was one
of six people murdered in New Orleans on that day alone, in a rash of post-Katrina
violence, and the assailant was never found. A few years later, Gailliunas finished the
film as a tribute to his wife
, taking her raw footage and working their life story into
her original conceit. While his contributions aren't as elegant as hers, it's still a deeply
personal document eulogizing over the compounding tragedies triggered by Katrina,
and expresses a terribly ambivalent love for the city.

The Florestine Collection

Lagniappe
Helen Hill's films on Vimeo

The rest of Hill's films can be viewed at the Vimeo channel dedicated to her work. The
best of those I haven't featured are the slight but charming Rain Dance (with music by
Gailiunas), Mouseholes, and Scratch and Crow (accepted into the National Film Registry
in 2009). Her legacy lives on in New Orleans (I learned about her after watching an
avant-garde film series that included Rain Dance), and her death was memorialized
on the second season of the show Treme.

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Paul and Helen (in the middle) with their pig Rosie and friend Becka Barker in Halifax.

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Mon Aug 07, 2017 8:25 am
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Grand Guignol Double Feature

In an unplanned twist of events, I watched Interview with a Vampire and
Cat People in the span of a week, with friends providing a running commentary.
Both are bloody tales about supernatural transformations, so I paired 'em up.

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Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles | Neil Jordan | 1994

As an admirer of Jordan's other films, like Mona Lisa and The Company of Wolves
(which has some thematic overlap), I was hoping he might do something interesting
with the source material, buuuuuuuut this is just two hours of laughably morose
homoeroticism. It has a few redeeming qualities: Kirsten Dunst's child vampire
is simultaneously vivacious and chilling, and Jordan goes all out with some indulgently
gothic set dressing. It's also fun to see New Orleans depicted through the ages,
including the rarely visualized 1700s. But the plot just treads along listlessly, and
it lacks the thematic richness of The Company of Wolves.

(I'll have to read some Anne Rice for this thread someday, but I'm trying to put it off.)


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Cat People | Paul Schrader | 1982

With this film, Schrader employed one of the few methods for creating a decent remake:
twist the concept on its head. Where Lewton's original established enduring horror tropes
with its shadowy suggestiveness, Schrader's remake turns the subject matter into a
brash, psychosexual thriller. Everything implicit is made explicit, which makes the film
almost entirely ridiculous -- but the blunt, fever-pitch conviction of the film gives it an
earnest intensity. It's gorgeously shot, pairing baroque New Orleans interiors with the
weird, garish colors of a giallo film, and Nastassja Kinski would make any film more
gorgeous. Her eyes command the screen.

It was especially fun watching this with my friend Casey, who loves the film and espoused
his enthusiasm over nearly every shot. He told me about the time he discussed the film
with a coworker, who revealed something he'd never told anyone before: rather than
giving him "the sex talk" when he turned ten, his father just sat him down and put this
film on. Perhaps the most baffling parenting decision I've ever heard about, and one the
guy is still coming to terms with, apparently.

Lagniappe
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Talking about Cat People and The Company of Wolves brought to mind one of my
favorite pieces of local folklore. The Loup Garou (often called rougarou) is a Cajun myth
derived from our French ancestry about a werewolf who prowls the swamps, picking off
lost travelers and children who wander too far from home. Unlike most werewolves, a
man can become a Loup Garou for a simple transgression, like missing mass too often.
Rather than changing on full moons, most stories have them transforming every night,
and the curse is passed along not by biting someone, but by compelling them to draw
blood. Other variants suggest that the curse wears off over time, but if one speaks about
it to anyone, it can become permanent. These tales reinforce the Cajuns' Catholic and
communal values.

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A courir de Mardi Gras costume in the style of a Loup Garou.

Nowadays, the Loup Garou is very much a part of local culture. The phrase "faire
rougarou" or "making the rougarou" can refer to restless sleep or nights spent making
mischief. The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans has a Loup Garou mannequin in their
Louisiana wildlife exhibit, and a local distillery makes a brand of rum dubbed Rougaroux,
in honor of the beast.

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Audubon Zoo's Loup Garou, dressed up for Mardi Gras.

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It's also become a theme in local art. Its most famous manifestation may be George
Rodrigue's Blue Dog, an art phenomenon that took hold in the 90s thanks to ad
campaigns by Absolut and Xerox. It depicts an uncanny blue dog with staring yellow eyes.

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Ostensibly inspired by the rougarou, though it looks more like a corgi (Rodrigue owned a corgi named Tiffany).

But my favorite art piece based on the Loup Garou legend was a one man theatrical
performance produced by local theater company Mondo Bizarro. Loup Garou,
according to their site, was "[an] environmental performance that uses rigorous
physicality, poetry, music and visual installation to investigate the deep interconnectedness
between land and culture in Louisiana." It was performed outdoors, at sunrise and sunset,
in City Park, and it's possibly my single favorite piece of theater. I watched it four times in
the span of two weeks. I've included a short excerpt below, and a photograph of their Loup
Garou, Nick Slie, one of the city's most talented actors.



Image

(Source 1)
(Source 2)

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n. 1. Long and tedious talk without much substance; superfluity of words.


Wed Aug 16, 2017 1:16 pm
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Aw, I remember <3'ing Interview when I last watched it... which of course, was 15 years ago, when I was 14 and had barely watched any movies in an "adult" manner, so maybe I need a bit of memory cleanse on it soon.

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Sat Aug 19, 2017 1:20 pm
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You may want to leave that memory untouched. The movie is kinda fun (I enjoyed ribbing it with my friends), but despite its self-serious attitude, it doesn't have much depth.

On the plus side, if you watch Mona Lisa or The Company of Wolves (or even The Crying Game, which holds up remarkably well), you may get a lot out of them.

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n. 1. Long and tedious talk without much substance; superfluity of words.


Sat Aug 19, 2017 4:56 pm
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Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son | William Alexander Percy | 1941 | 348 pages

It's odd that I've chosen to write about a book that only mentions Louisiana in passing,
that mostly takes place in the delta country around Greenville in northwest Mississippi,
but the entire Mississippi Delta shares strands of a common culture, and this book and
its author are closely tied to other books I've reviewed for this thread. This is the
autobiography of William Alexander Percy, uncle of Walker Percy -- and after his father's
suicide, his adoptive parent -- and the son of LeRoy Percy, whose legacy is chronicled
in detail in Rising Tide. His recollections paint a revealing portrait of the Southern
aristocrat who embodies the contradictions of the Old South: its dignity and intellectual
prosperity, its warped and antiquated ideologies, a worldview that is beautiful and
repugnant and all but forgotten.

Two sides of Will Percy loom large in this book: his experiences and his opinions. The
former provides the book's best material; even the most sentimental passages have
their charm, and at its best, it's an engrossing book. His prose is mellifluous and rich,
strongly colored by a classical education, often saturated with romanticism but utterly
lucid when it needs to be. His accounts of helping his father combat the racist
demagogue James Vardaman, serving on the front lines of WWI, driving the KKK out
of Greenville, and coping with the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River are bracing and
fresh; his reflections on youthful memories and growing old, though of a softer hue,
have moments of real beauty. But for a modern reader, his views make him a
difficult pill to swallow. Though he speaks fondly of black southerners and despises
racist vitriol, he also celebrated a paternalistic form of white supremacy, employed
sharecroppers on the land that he owned, and blamed the moral decay of the modern
world on the decline of his class. Yet it's these clashing qualities that make this such
a valuable and fascinating document.

Here we have a sensitive and generous man, a closeted homosexual, world traveler,
friend of luminaries like Langston Hughes and William Faulkner, aware of his limitations
yet attuned to the splendor and fragility of the world -- who openly advocated for black
disenfranchisement and considered Southern gentry a morally superior social order. It's this
complicated figure who appears in Rising Tide, which views the man with some compassion
while castigating his failure to rise and meet the demands of his role as the chairman of the
Flood Relief Committee during the flood that devastated his hometown. It's this figure
who manifests in Binx Bolling's aunt in The Moviegoer, widely acknowledged as a
proxy for Will Percy, who goes on a haughty diatribe near the end of the book. This
parallel became apparent when I stumbled across the phrase "common as hell" in his
autobiography, a phrase peppered throughout the aunt's monologue, which Walker Percy
must have heard so many times growing up that it cemented itself in his mind. William
Alexander Percy is a model representative of the South's irresolvable conflicts, and in this
book he demonstrates that even at its most gracious and thoughtful, our Southern
aristocracy was fatally flawed.

Lagniappe
Though best remembered for this book, Will Percy also published a considerable amount
of poetry during his lifetime. For lagniappe, I've decided to share a short poem by him and two
excerpts from the book.

Overtones

I heard a bird at break of day
Sing from the autumn trees
A song so mystical and calm,
So full of certainties,
No man, I think, could listen long
Except upon his knees.
Yet this was but a simple bird,
Alone, among dead trees.

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On the making of turtle soup:
Quote:
Finally that dreadful head would come out long enough for Willis to whack it off with
the ax, at which the rest of the turtle would walk off hurriedly, as if the incident were closed.
Even this was not the climax of the gory horror -- Willis still had to break off the top shell.
When this was accomplished, before your startled eyes lay the turtle's insides, unharmed,
neatly in place, and still ticking! They did not seem to miss the head, but acted like the works
of a watch when you open the back. It was the nakedest thing I ever laid eyes on, and usually
while you were watching, fascinated, the whole thing walked off, just that way, and the cook
would almost faint. Turtle soup indeed! I don't miss it and I hope not to meet up with it
unexpectedly in elegant surroundings.


On collecting memories "like a jackdaw in the garden":
Quote:
For the place I have won here and there, early and late, though a good place and a proud
one, was never first place in any life, and what was mine to possess utterly and sovereignly,
without counterclaim, was only the jackdaw pickings of my curious and secret heart. When your
heart's a kleptomaniac for bits of color and scraps of god-in-man, its life hoardings make a pile
glinting indeed, but of no worth save to the miserly fanatic heart. Now is the time, now when
the air is still and the light is going, to spread my treasure out.


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From his introduction to the book, Walker Percy wrote:
And about him I will say no more than that he was the most extraordinary man I have ever known and that I owe him a debt which cannot be paid.

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n. 1. Long and tedious talk without much substance; superfluity of words.


Sat Feb 24, 2018 4:21 pm
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New Orleans, Exported

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The Life of P. T. Barnum | Written by Himself | 1855

I haven't actually read this book, but a friend who read it recently gave me her
copy with a passage marked. It doesn't deal with New Orleans, but involves
an encounter Barnum had in my modest hometown while conducting a steamboat
tour of the south. It's a bit lengthy but makes me proud to call St. Francisville home.

Quote:
There was an alarming and yet somewhat ludicrous scene at St. Francisville, Louisiana.
During the evening performances, a man attempted to pass me at the door of the tent,
claiming to have paid already for admittance. He was slightly intoxicated, and when I
refused him, he aimed at me with a slung-shot. The blow mashed my hat, and grazed the
protuberance where phrenologists locate "the organ of caution." Perhaps this fact had
something to do with what followed.

The rejected party retired, and in a few minutes returned with a frightful gang of his
half-drunken companions, each with a pistol, bludgeon, or other weapon. They seemed
determined to assault me forthwith. Calling upon the Mayor and other respectable citizens,
(who were then in the "theatre,") I claimed protection from the mob. The Mayor declared
his inability to afford it against such odds, but immediate violence was restrained by his
intercession.

"We will let you off on one condition," said the more moderate of the ringleaders. "We will
give you exactly one hour, and no help, to gather up your 'traps and plunder,' get aboard
your steamboat, and be off! Hurry up, for you have no time to lose. If you are on shore
one moment more than an hour, look out!"

He looked at his watch, I looked at the pistols and bludgeons; and I reckon that a big tent
never came down with greater speed. The whole force of the company was exerted to its
utmost. Not a citizen was allowed to help us, for love or money; and an occasional "Hurry
up!" kept every muscle at work. Our "traps and plunder" were tumbled in confusion on the
deck of the vessel; the fireman had gotten up steam; and five minutes before the hour was
out, we were ready to cast off our cables and depart.

The scamps who thus hurried us from the village had certainly a streak of both humor and
honor. They were amused by our diligence; escorted us and our last load, waving pitch-pine
torches; and when the boat swung into the current, they saluted us with a wild "hurrah!"

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Ma`crol´o`gy
n. 1. Long and tedious talk without much substance; superfluity of words.


Fri Apr 13, 2018 5:08 pm
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Macrology wrote:
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Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles | Neil Jordan | 1994

As an admirer of Jordan's other films, like Mona Lisa and The Company of Wolves
(which has some thematic overlap), I was hoping he might do something interesting
with the source material, buuuuuuuut this is just two hours of laughably morose
homoeroticism. It has a few redeeming qualities: Kirsten Dunst's child vampire
is simultaneously vivacious and chilling, and Jordan goes all out with some indulgently
gothic set dressing. It's also fun to see New Orleans depicted through the ages,
including the rarely visualized 1700s. But the plot just treads along listlessly, and
it lacks the thematic richness of The Company of Wolves.

(I'll have to read some Anne Rice for this thread someday, but I'm trying to put it off.)


I've read several of her books, they're actually pretty good. The book of Interview is infinitely better and the Lestat books, in general (at least the first 3 or 4) are very enjoyable.
However, The Witching Hour is almost certainly my favorite of hers, a novel about a multi-generational family of witches in Old New Orleans Society.


Sun Apr 15, 2018 2:20 am
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Stu wrote:
Aw, I remember <3'ing Interview when I last watched it... which of course, was 15 years ago, when I was 14 and had barely watched any movies in an "adult" manner, so maybe I need a bit of memory cleanse on it soon.

It doesn't hold up very well. The problem is that it takes so long to get through the first two acts (which, honestly, could have used another 10 minutes to flesh out, but the studio didn't allow the run-time) that the whole third act is sprinted through and therefore has little consequence.
It is also, almost certainly, Brad Pitt's worst performance ever. It is as if Keanu Reeves jumped right out of Coppola's Dracula to played the part.


Sun Apr 15, 2018 2:23 am
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An unconventional double feature: two versions of the same film. The film is
Bertrand Tavernier’s In the Electric Mist, a procedural thriller based on local
writer James Lee Burke’s novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead. The
version distributed in the US was cut by the producers, while the international cut
was made by Tavernier himself. I'll refer to the US version by the English title and
Tavernier's version by its French title.

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In the Electric Mist | Bertrand Tavernier | 2009

I watched this having forgotten that a director’s cut existed, so I took this version
at face value. On its own, it isn’t a bad film. It possesses a strong sense of place,
a familiarity with its characters, and some delightfully off-kilter interludes. The cast
and score are both pitch perfect and abounding in local talent. But it also suffers
from a confused structure with dangling plot threads, and its pace and tone are
surprisingly conventional for a Tavernier film. That these flaws resulted from
producers recutting the film makes a lot of sense, but not knowing that, it felt like
a solid made for TV movie.

Of course when I was reminded that Tavernier had his own version, I sought it
out -- but I had to import a disc from France. I couldn’t even find a version online.

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Dans la brume électrique | Bertrand Tavernier | 2009

I waited several months before watching Tavernier’s cut, to come at it with fresh
eyes. Consequently, I wasn’t always sure which scenes were new or how the editing
was altered, but whatever adjustments Tavernier made, it certainly resulted in a
better film. Its pace is far more leisurely -- closer to the cadence of its characters,
their speech, their way of life. The characters have more room to breath (plus Goodman
gets more screen time, always a good thing). The familiarity with its setting and milieu
feels even more firmly rooted, and the past looms larger in this version: Robicheaux’s
alcoholism, the murder he witnessed at 17, his time in Vietnam. There’s a real
world-weariness here that the other cut only glances at. It also brings greater lucidity
to a complicated plot, although this was my second viewing, which probably helped too.

Tavernier’s version is easily the way to go, even if the other version isn’t bad. But
paired, they make a fascinating case study in structure, pacing, and editing, because
I don’t know that I’ve seen a recut film that so thoroughly changed my overall
impression. Most alternate cuts add a scene or two, change an ending, alter sounds
cues (as in Touch of Evil, a comparable film in many ways), but as I understand it,
the two versions of In the Electric Mist were built independently from scratch. It’s the
difference between seeing the work of someone who doted on the film and bled for it,
and someone who’s just getting a job done.

Lagniappe
Something that’s in both version, but which I didn’t fully appreciate until the second
watch, is the way the film integrates the post-Katrina economic landscape of Louisiana
in the midst of a burgeoning film industry. James Lee Burke’s novel was written in
1993, and while his original plot also involves a movie production, the tax credits that
Louisiana inaugurated in 2002 make that element even more topical for a film released
in 2009 that benefited from those very credits.

Image
(Source)

From 2010 to 2015, Louisiana surpassed the production rate of every other state,
including filmmaking capitals California and New York. A few of the higher profile films
and shows made using the tax credits include Jurassic World, Trumbo, American Horror
Story
, Midnight Special, Treme, True Blood, Killing Them Softly, the Jump Street movies,
Looper, Killer Joe, I Love You Phillip Morris, and two Best Picture winners, The Curious
Case of Benjamin Button
and Twelve Years a Slave. New Orleans is referred to as
Hollywood South. Output slowed down after a cap was placed on the incentives, losing
some work to Georgia’s competing incentives, but there’s still a steady stream of productions here.

Image
Is Louisiana's Film/TV Tax Credit Program Working?

While the incentives have fueled the local economy and boosted tourism, they’re also a
burden on the state’s budget
, bringing in only 25 cents for every dollar spent, and many
have accused out of state filmmakers of carpetbagging. With that in mind, the film
production subplot from In the Electric Mist takes on a metatextual dimension, criticizing
how the film industry capitalizes on these new laws, namely their exploitation of Louisiana’s
lack of unionized labor, their preference for importing talent, and their tendency to dine
and dash with local communities. This makes the film’s sensitivity to Louisiana’s culture
and people, especially its prevalent use of local actors, music, and source material, acts
of apologia, possibly even protest.

Image

Some of the local performers featured are blues guitarist Buddy Guy, Pruitt Taylor Vince
(who also appeared in Angel Heart), Louis Herthum, Adella Gautier, and Tony Molina Jr.
(a local actor and teacher who died just last year). Not to mention John Goodman, who
lives in New Orleans and occasionally heckles my tours as we pass his house.

_________________
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n. 1. Long and tedious talk without much substance; superfluity of words.


Wed May 16, 2018 7:15 am
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Macrology wrote:
What I love most about Blank's films is their humility. They are
content to capture the daily rhythms of life without indulging in
dramatic conflict or visual adornment and almost always within
the span of an hour. His unassuming formal approach mirrors his
modest subject matter. His films are windows into the distinctive,
undiscovered corners of American life, where he finds endless cause
for the celebration of culture and character through food, music,
and story. Often, between their earnest simplicity and their rhythmic
flow, his films achieve a sort of poetry.

Since the release of this box set, I feel that Blank has fast become my favorite documentarian filmmaker. It sneaks up on you, because his films are seemingly so modest and unassuming, but they always linger fondly with warmth and humanity. The social immersion and empathy are crucial, but beyond that is his commitment to pure joy, uncoaxed and unadulterated. And, of course, always for pleasure. The man even makes polka fascinating.


Wed May 16, 2018 9:09 am
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Jinnistan wrote:
Since the release of this box set, I feel that Blank has fast become my favorite documentarian filmmaker. It sneaks up on you, because his films are seemingly so modest and unassuming, but they always linger fondly with warmth and humanity. The social immersion and empathy are crucial, but beyond that is his commitment to pure joy, uncoaxed and unadulterated. And, of course, always for pleasure. The man even makes polka fascinating.


He's definitely up there for me as well. When it comes to Criterion boxsets turning me onto the work of a documentary film maker though, Allan King still reigns supreme.


Wed May 16, 2018 10:16 am
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crumbsroom wrote:
He's definitely up there for me as well. When it comes to Criterion boxsets turning me onto the work of a documentary film maker though, Allan King still reigns supreme.

I've only seen Warrendale and one of the better, sweatier Orson Welles interviews. Alas, he does not eat his shoe though, so Blank still gets the trophy.


Wed May 16, 2018 10:45 am
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