Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The revenue-sharing offerings between film distributors and indie theaters continue, so let’s take a quick look around. The Grand Illusion provides a platform for a batch of Alejandro Jodorowsky films, including his culty classics and also a new documentary, Psychomagic, A Healing Art.
The Northwest Film Forum has documentary profiles of the Chinese artist Maleonn (Our Time Machine) and the U.S. artist Matt Furie, whose cartoon character Pepe the Frog inadvertently became a meme for assholes (Feels Good Man).
Scarecrow itself is benefiting from distribution of The Keeper, a tale of love and soccer in post-WWII England.
And SIFF has a bunch of tie-ins, including a restoration of the 1951 film adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son, a fascinatingly odd movie shot in Argentina. Wright himself stars as his doomed hero Bigger Thomas, a casting decision that apparently came out of necessity rather than logic. These days it’s being re-framed as a film noir, which makes a kind of sense.
Here are a few thoughts on a couple of SIFF-benefiting documentaries, both profiles of worthies from the worlds of music and science.
Herb Alpert Is… / Oliver Sacks: His Own Life
Having watched documentaries about Herb Alpert and Dave Grusin recently, I’m getting the strong sense that the cultural influence of Andy Williams may have been underestimated all these years. Grusin was Andy’s accompanist and TV musical director in the early days, and one of the first clips we see in Herb Alpert Is… has affable Andy presenting the very young Alpert to a TV audience. (Stay tuned for a definitive Claudine Longet documentary.)
In the Andy Williams clip, Herb Alpert is fully, and very likably, himself: shy, self-effacing, handsome, talented. Herb Alpert Is… carries many of those same qualities; if it feels like an authorized biography, with very few rough patches, it nevertheless fills in the basics of Alpert’s musically bountiful life. There are no skeletons in the closet, it seems, and even Alpert’s setbacks are unfailingly portrayed as opportunities for healthy growth. You hear plenty of snippets from Alpert’s joyful work with the Tijuana Brass, proper attention to his disarming #1 vocal hit “This Guy’s In Love with You,” and somewhat less focus on his later successes. There’s also a lot on Alpert’s interest in painting and sculpture.
The talking heads are varied, from the expected (Burt Bacharach, Paul Williams, Quincy Jones) to the not (Billy Bob Thornton, Questlove). One of the most charming threads is the unfolding of A&M Records, which Alpert created with Jerry Moss, an important label that took over the old Charlie Chaplin studio in the 1960s and became a homey, artist-oriented safe space. (Alpert describes going into an RCA recording studio early in his career and feeling neutralized by the “medicinal” nothingness of the place.) More than anything, the movie engagingly captures Alpert’s introverted gentleness, a mode that serves to highlight the extroverted expressions that came out of him when he put his trumpet to his lips and let the Tijuana Brass issue forth.
There is little reason Oliver Sacks: His Own Life needed to be anything other than a standard-issue profile of a famous and fascinating person, and in fact it also feels like an “authorized” bio. But it has one interesting aspect that carries great power by the time we get to the end. The film begins with Sacks sitting in a room with a group of friends; he acknowledges that they are making a movie, and he speaks of the autobiography he just sent off to the publisher—but notes that the book does not contain the newest development in his life, a diagnosis of inoperable liver cancer, which will be fatal in a few months.
So here is Sacks, who wrote about death and strange diagnoses throughout his medical practice, convening a movie about his own life and its end. What follows is a summary of his sometimes extreme experiences (amphetamine addiction, 36-hour nonstop motorcycle rides to see the sun rise over the Grand Canyon, a decades-long period of celibacy), punctuated by his comments as a man facing imminent mortality.
If you’ve read Sacks before, the stories of his gay identity and the cases that became Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat are familiar territory, but compelling nonetheless. And then we reach a certain point in the film and he is gone: Our host, our narrator, who began the movie by welcoming us with news of his life, has suddenly left the room. The sense of absence is strong, and the movie leaves behind a powerful sense of an artist’s voice being stilled—however much he described himself as an “observer,” Sacks was a writer with a capital W. This movie is scribbled notes for an uncompleted draft.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.