Do Americans really understand Socialism? That question kicks off a new documentary about the early 20th century socialist politician Eugene Victor Debs. Born in 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs grew up in a prosperous household but it wasn’t until he left school at an early age and entered the workforce that he began to comprehend the plight of his fellow working man. He fought tirelessly, sometimes at the cost of his own health, against the growing economic disparity between the wealthy and the working class that began in post Civil War America. He was highly influenced by Karl Marx but also by everyday people. Debs was a gifted orator, traveled the country proselytizing for socialism and amassed millions of fervent supporters. He campaigned for president several times, starting in 1900 and ending in 1920 when he was arrested for radicalism. To this day Debs holds the title of being the only presidential candidate imprisoned for his campaign platform. He was released from prison after 6 months and archival footage of the day of his release is included in the documentary. He continued to fight for his cause until his health failed him and he passed away in 1926.
Directed by Yale Strom and released by First Run Features, American Socialist chronicles the life and times of this little known figure in American politics. Economists, professors, scholars and writers offer their insights into Debs and socialism. I was interested to learn that socialism peaked in 1912, that during the agricultural crisis of the early 20th century Oklahoma was the most progressive of the Southern states in contemplating socialist politics and about how capitalism inherently clashes with Christian beliefs. But the focus of this film is truly Eugene V. Debs. It offers a look at the socialist movement,the history of labor activism and the fight against income inequality through the lens of Debs’ life.
Debs Red Special Band in Front of Train 1908
Socialist Party campaign poster 1904
What drew me to this documentary was this line from the film’s marketing copy:
“Bernie Sanders inspired a generation – but who inspired him?”
As someone whose politics align very closely to Sanders, I was curious to learn more about the man who influenced him. Bernie Sanders so admired Debs that he created his own documentary about Debs’ life and hung a portrait of Debs in his office. However I didn’t learn any of this from American Socialist . The film only showed a brief clip of a Bernie Sanders speech but offered no information about how the two political figures were connected. At 1 hour and 40 minutes I felt like a good 20 minutes could have been tacked on to explore Debs’ legacy, his influence on Sanders, and how democratic socialism is part of the political landscape today.
All around the world, children, on the cusp of puberty, go through a rite of passage. These rituals symbolize their transition into adulthood, a journey that’s only just beginning. Deep in the woods of Minnesota, this rite of passage is deer hunting.
Cold November follows the story of Florence (Bijou Abas), affectionately nicknamed Flor, a 12 year old girl who is about to hunt her very first deer. Her mother Amanda (Anna Klemp) and grandmother Georgia (Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding) have been preparing her for this moment. She learns how to properly use and care for a hunting rifle, a family heirloom, how to dress for the hunt, what to do in the look out spot, how to shoot the deer, and what to do with a deer or buck once it’s been killed. In the midst of all this Flor gets her period, another sign that womanhood is just around the corner. For this family and their community, deer hunting is not for sport; it’s for survival. The process is treated with respect and the animal is not a trophy, rather a means to feed the family. It’s a ritual passed on from one generation to the next and in this matriarch this is a treasured tradition. Visiting Flor and her mom are aunt Mia (Heidi Fellner) and uncle Craig (Karl Jacob). The couple are going through their own transition as they deal with the loss of their daughter Sweeney. We follow Flor as she prepares for her first hunt, how she deals with frustration on multiple hunts that result in no kills and what happens when she finally gets the opportunity to use all the knowledge and training she’s acquired but has to do it all on her own.
In his director’s statement, Karl Jacob writes “I hope to challenge the stereotype that the hunting ritual is an inherently male practice. I grew up in a similar situation to Florence, where my mother, aunts, and grandmother played a huge part in my life and had also gone through this hunting experience as young women.” Jacob’s character Craig is the only male character in the film. This is truly a story about women. Three generations in a matriarch and how they prepare their youngest for the life ahead. The female perspective is highly valued and respected in the story. Flor’s first period is a significant moment in the story and it’s given time. Foreshadowing the hunt in the future, Flor has to deal with this change all on her own.
The movie is spare and beautiful. It gives itself room for the characters to have their moments and for the story to live and breathe in its own world. There is no rush to get anywhere but its also expertly paced. I loved the cinematography especially the bright colors of the hunting clothes against the stark backgrounds. It reminded me of Track of the Cat (1954) where Robert Mitchum wears a bright red coat against a muted color palette of the backwoods during winter. My only minor criticism with Cold November is that I didn’t care for the one scene when the camera shoots from inside a deer carcass looking out. This felt unnecessary to me.
In order to truly appreciate the film, you must be comfortable enough to watch the women handle dear carcasses. You won’t see the moment of death nor will you see the animal suffer. In one scene you’ll hear a buck call out in pain but its quickly shot to put its out of its misery. The film makes an effort to show respect for the deer and the hunt. Craig reveals to Flor how he thanks the animal after a kill. Flor’s mother Amanda talks at length about how they use the meat for sustenance, how not to kill more than you need and not letting the animal suffer. If you are vegan, vegetarian or a member of PETA, you probably won’t want to watch this film. I’m an omnivore and I have enough respect for the cycle of life and the killing of animals for meat that I know when to criticize the process. For example, I refuse to eat veal and salmon because of what I believe are unethical farming/hunting methods. Cold November treated hunting for deer and the consumption of venison with great respect which I appreciated.
Cold November won the 2017 Memphis Indie Film Festival Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature. It began as a Kickstarter project and is now available on iTunes, Vimeo and Amazon Prime.
This is a fantastic indie film with wonderful performances, stunning cinematography and a great care for its subject. I highly recommend you give Cold November a try.
I cry every time I talk about Mister Rogers. Every. single. time.
It doesn’t matter the context. The tears well up in my eyes. I struggle to hold them back but I always fail. To say that Mister Rogers had a big impact on my childhood is an understatement. He continues to have an impact on me decades later as I’m well into my adult years. Fred Rogers passed away in 2003. 15 years later we need him now more than ever.
Directed by Academy Award winner Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) is a new documentary chronicling the life of the beloved host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers. Told through interviews, clips from the show, home video footage, news footage and more, audiences get a closer look at the man whose TV presence impacted generations of children. The talking heads in the movie are members of Fred Rogers’ close circle. These include his wife, his two sons, actors from the show, guests from the show like Yo-Yo Ma and a few others who knew him well. This gives the documentary a level of intimacy that would not have been attained if outsiders like academics, professionals, cultural historians had been included in the mix. We learn about Rogers’ early years and how his path towards becoming a Presbyterian minister was put aside when he saw a need to help children through the medium of television. Fred Rogers transformed into Mister Rogers, a gentle, caring and patient screen presence who encouraged kids to feel good about themselves and also guided them through some of the more difficult aspects of growing up and life in general.
Fans of the show will recognize many familiar faces including David Newell (Mr. McFeeley), Betty Aberlin (Lady Aberlin), Joe Negri (Handyman Negri) and Francois Clemmons (Officer Clemmons). There are even members who worked behind the scenes including floor manager Nick Tallo who had some great stories to share. They speak at length regarding important and ground-breaking moments in the show and what Fred Rogers was like to work with. Fans will also appreciate how the documentary goes into detail how Mister Rogers used puppets and the land of make believe to convey important messages to children when a direct approach would not be as effective. We also learn how events and cultural moments of the last half of the 20th century affected children and in turn how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood addressed those concerns.
The show was ground breaking. Where other television programming for children was fast-paced, flashy, goofy and often violent, Rogers and his team had something special. The pace was slow and methodical but with not a wasted minute. Mister Rogers was always transparent with children, whether it was on his show or in person, about the format of television, what was real about it and what wasn’t. I remember one episode from the 1980s where Rogers takes viewers behind the scenes and show all the particulars of the set and introduces us to Johnny Costa, the pianist who played the music to the show. In another episode, Negri leaves his dog with Rogers to dogsit. Rogers is very clear with viewers that the set isn’t his real home and that he has a wife and children in a real home elsewhere. I always appreciated this about him. He could have relied on the smoke and mirrors quality of television. He chose honesty instead.
We like to put Fred Rogers in the mold of modern day saint but he was a much more complicated man than that. He was very vocal in his dislike for television. It took him years to accept actor Francois Clemmons’ homosexuality. Rogers had an obsession with his weight, always keeping it at 143 because that number represented the words I Love You. In his later years, especially after he retired, he got depressed, wouldn’t see the doctor for the stomach ailment that eventually turned into the cancer that killed him and he doubted the impact he had on people and whether he could still have an impact.
I knew I would get emotional watching this film. I thought it would be for the many reasons that the memory of Mister Rogers makes me cry. A couple a years ago I spent an entire year watching one episode of the show per week (a local PBS affiliate would air an episode from the early 1980s every Saturday morning at 6 am). I would record it, watch it and cry. I’d cry from happiness of seeing Mister Rogers again and from the pain that nostalgia brings with it. I cried from the loss of those early years, the loss of my childhood and the loss of my father. Every episode would bring a flood of emotions. Even as a kid I was never interested in the land of make believe and I would get upset when the trolley showed up in Mister Rogers apartment because I knew he’d be gone for a little while. I really just wanted to spend time with him.
When I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor I cried for a very different reason than I had expected. This surprised me. We live in an era in which dirty politics, mass shootings, bullying, and cruelty dominate our society. Mister Rogers was the embodiment of kindness. True and unadulterated kindness. He always told us “ I like you just the way you are.” In 2018, that kindness doesn’t seem to exist any more, a point brought up in the documentary and reflected on by Rogers’ wife Joanne. We live in a divided culture and we are cruel to each other on a daily basis. 15 years after his death we need Mister Rogers’ brand kindness more than ever. We need him to tell us to look for the helpers. We need him to remind us that “it’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.” We need him to tell us it’s okay to be mad, sad, glad and that it’s okay to work through our emotions. We still need Mister Rogers and we get a little bit of him through this film.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) is screening in select theaters now.
When Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type in the 15th century, the world changed forever. The printing press ushered us out of the Dark Ages into the Age of Enlightenment. Fast forward today’s Information Age and we still have much to thank Gutenberg for how the printing press revolutionized the world. For centuries, letterpress, a form of of pressing ink into paper with the use of engravings carved into wood, metal, linoleum or zinc cut plates, was the standard for creating books, newspapers, magazines, brochures, pamphlets, posters and many other forms of printed words on paper. Over the years, the craft of letterpress was fine tuned byartisans who learned how turn type into an art form. Unlike today’s flash in the pan technology which quickly becomes replaced or obsolete, letterpress machines were improved upon in such a way they became timeless. A machine from a century ago could still function the way it was intended if handled with care. With the birth of offset printing in the mid-Twentieth Century and the advent of computers, letterpress became obsolete. But a group of letterpress printers who value the art and craft of the process are keeping it alive and hoping to pass on their knowledge to the next generation.
Co-directed by Andrew P. Quinn and Erin Beckloff, Pressing On: The Letterpress Film is a love letter to this art form. It asks the question, why is there still a love for this obsolete technology? The documentary seeks out to answer this with interviews of letterpress printers, both professionals and hobbyists who honed their craft, appreciate the process and ultimately find joy in it. The film revels in the romanc and nostalgia of this form of graphic design. The beat up blocks, the machinery, the colorful designs, the beautiful typography are all part of a long tradition handed down from generation to generation. The interview subjects hail from mid-west and mid-Atlantic. We hear from people who operate independent presses whether at established shops or out of their garage. We learn about the long tradition of Hatch Show Print in Tennessee which made concert posters a collectible art and the Hamilton Museum which keeps the history of letterpress alive. I was particularly taken with the interviews with hobbyist Dave Churchman who collected, you could even say hoarded, letter press equipment. He passed away in 2015 and within the film we also hear from his son who was left in charge of the vast collection his father left behind.
There is a “pressing” need to pass on the knowledge of the art of letterpress to the next generation so it won’t be lost. Today we can appreciate the unique aesthetic of letterpress as a form of graphic design (everything you do in your Adobe Suite is influenced by letterpress!) but can we save the process? When the master printers pass on, who will carry their torch?
Pressing On: The Letterpress Film is a sensitive and reflective documentary that is clearly in love with its subject. It’s joyful about the form but melancholy about the future. If you have any interest in the history of technology, in graphic design or even in what drives people to pursue their passion, I would highly recommend watching this film.
A timely story for the #MeToo era, Beauty Mark (2017) explores the ramifications of sexual abuse and how the cycle affects multiple generations. Written and directed by Harrison Doran and inspired by a true story, Beauty Mark follows Angie (Auden Thornton), a down-on-her-luck single mom as she struggles to make ends meet. She’s the primary caretaker of her Autistic son Trey (Jameson Fowler) and has to deal with the prejudice that comes with raising a mixed race child. She’s also taking care of her addict mother Ruth Ann (Catherine Curtin) who refuses to work and can barely stay sober enough to take care of her grandson. When their home is condemned by the local authorities, Angie must secure the funds for a down payment for an apartment. Haunted by the memory of former pastor Bruce (Jeff Kober) who sexually molested her when she was 5 years old, she fights back hoping that suing him help her get the money she needs to keep her family off the streets. She reaches out to other victims but when faced with a system that protects abusers and driven by the urgency of her situation, she gets help from her stripper friend Lorraine (Laura Bell Bundy). Can Angie fight back or will she have to give in?
“It’s not about sex. It’s about power.”
Star Auden Thornton delivers in her performance of the sympathetic and complex Angie. There are two distinct phases in Angie’s story line. There is one of an overworked mom at her wits end, searching for a way to fight back. Thornton’s physical appearance contrasts greatly to the second phase when she breaks down from sheer exasperation and finds a job as a stripper. There are several heartbreaking scenes throughout the film that linger long enough to give viewers a sense of the desperate circumstances Angie is dealing with. I was particularly impressed with Catherine Curtin as the strung out grandmother who is both a pathetic and repulsive figure. I enjoyed her performance in Victoria Negri’s film Gold Star. Curtin is a modern-day Shelley Winters and one to watch.
Beauty Mark is an engrossing movie with a poignant message. It’s a warning, a call-to-action but most importantly a candid look about a serious problem that’s been swept under the rug for far too long.