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The Spy Behind Home Plate

“He was a man apart… different from the others.”

Moe Berg was an extraordinary human being. The son of immigrant Jewish parents, he developed prowess as a baseball player, studied at Princeton, received his law degree at Columbia, traveled the world, spoke over 10 languages, was the star of the trivia show Information Please and just happened to be a spy for the U.S. government during WWII.

Aviva Kempner’s documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate paints a portrait of the human phenomenon that was Moe Berg. A catcher with a 15 year career in the Major Leagues, Berg went against his father’s wishes to pursue his baseball dreams. From those early days he already showed potential for a future career as a spy. He used Latin and Sanskrit to create secret codes for his fellow baseball players so they could communicate without informing the other team. Berg was part of a diplomatic mission to Japan, led by Babe Ruth, to train Japanese players and share the mutual love of the sport in an effort bridge the growing divide. Berg, the quintessential polyglot, spoke fluent Japanese and hung around in Japan then traveled to Asia and already started gathering intelligence photographing and filming in areas that were forbidden by the local government. During WWII, he was recruited for the OSS Operational Group. He had proven his chops with his fluency in a variety of languages, including German. 

A man of the world, Moe Berg was the epitome of brain and brawn. We learn about his extraordinary life through interviews with family members, experts, historians, filmmakers, athletes, sports columnists and figures as well as archival footage and photographs. This documentary is multi-faceted, much like the man himself. It’s a satisfying combination of baseball and WWII history but works on its own as a biographical documentary about a fascinating subject. The film gets a bit muddled with all of the details during Berg’s time in the OSS but those who are well-versed in military history will find much to enjoy here. Film buffs will appreciate the variety of clips from classic war movies included in the documentary.

The Spy Behind Home Plate is presented by The Ciesla Foundation. It released in theaters Friday and there are screenings nationwide through July and August. Visit the official website for information on screenings.

The Lavender Scare

On April 27th, 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order #10450. This order enabled his administration to orchestrate a witch hunt seeking out anyone in the federal government who might be homosexual. These employees were either encouraged to resign or outright fired. They were also denied employment in other branches and sectors of the government. Homosexuals were deemed a “security risk” and denied clearance. They were often threatened with exposure and coerced to name names much like the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era. This persecution, known as the “lavender scare”, continued for over four decades until the Clinton administration ended the ban. In the years in between, tens of thousands of employees lost their jobs. Careers ended and lives were forever changed. However in the midst of the Cold War paranoia of the lavender scare, the seed was planted for the gay rights movement. What originally was intended as a moral crackdown helped spur a rebellion against oppression.

Director Josh Howard’s new documentary The Lavender Scare examines a dark time in the history of our government and our culture. The film was inspired by David K. Johnson’s non-fiction book by the same name. Talking heads include Johnson himself, other historians, former government employees who were victims of the bans, their family members and even their persecutors. Notable figures include Joan Cassidy, who served as a captain in the Navy Reserve, and Frank Kameny, an astronomer turned activist. Kameny is by far the most interesting subject in the film. Known as the grandfather of the gay rights movement, he was the first person to fight back against the ban and organized a protest outside the White House in 1965.

“It’s a story that’s both tragic and triumphant. It tells of the heartbreak of those who lost their jobs and their careers – and even their lives – as a result of the government’s brutal tactics.
But it is uplifting as well. It shows how the policy of discrimination stirred a sense of outrage and activism among gay men and lesbians and helped ignite what was to become the gay rights movement.”

Director Josh Howard

Howard’s documentary is an interesting mix of first and second hand accounts, FBI files and other written documents as well as plenty of context about the era of the lavender scare. It’s narrated by Glenn Close and features the voices of Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, T.R. Knight and David Hyde Pierce.

I do wish there was a bit more information about the post WWII when the LGBT community moved to Washington D.C. in search of government work. There were some other bits of history I wanted to know more about (Kinsey Report findings, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, etc.) but I felt like the documentary did a surface level look and not a deep dive. There was perhaps too much going on and it lost focus. However, this film serves as an important primer on a lesser known aspect of our government’s history. The Lavender Scare doesn’t leave us in despair but fills us with hope that this dark history is behind us and we can learn from it for a better future.

The Lavender Scare released in NY and Los Angeles this month in time for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Visit the official website to check out dates for future screenings. It will have it’s nationwide PBS premiere on June 18th.

We Believe in Dinosaurs

I had first heard about The Creation Museum by way of the Duggars. You remember them. The Quiverfull family who had their own hit show on TLC that went from 17 to 18 to 19 Kids and Counting. It was eventually pulled off the air when their oldest son was involved in a sex abuse scandal and a spin-off show eventually replaced it. On one episode of the 18 Kids and Counting, the Duggar clan visits said museum and I was both fascinated and horrified by what I saw. The fierce protection of their literal interpretation of the book of Genesis meant that dinosaurs had to be explained and Darwin’s theory of evolution had to be debunked. Led by Ken Ham, the president and founder of Answers in Genesis, the museum’s sole purpose is to prove that the Bible is scientifically accurate.

A new documentary, We Believe in Dinosaurs, directed by Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross visits Petersburg, KY, home of The Creation Museum and the center of a turbulent battle between creationists and pro-science communities. Shot over the course of four years, it chronicles the building of the Ark Encounter, a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark. In addition to interviews with creationists who work for the museum or support its cause, the documentary also follows two outspoken critics. First there is Dan, a pro-science geologist who has had a lifelong fascination with dinosaurs. Then there is David, a former creationist with a lifelong membership to the museum whose Christian beliefs have evolved away from the psuedo-science of creationism. The events in the documentary lead up to the unveiling of the Ark Encounter and the consequent protest. As a whole the film serves as a portrait of a rural conservative town that has a complicated relationship with the Creation Museum and the economic growth that it promises to bring but ultimately fails to.

I’m impressed by how We Believe in Dinosaurs takes a balanced approach to this subject matter even though it’s clear that this is a critique on creationism. We hear from both sides which is quite extraordinary as the creationists are very protective of their ideology. Ken Ham is not interviewed but several others are including a lecturer, one of the artists working on the Ark Encounter and a pastor who orchestrates a protest to the protest.

“The film echoes the present political climate as Americans stare across a divide at one another, science growing ever more politicized and truth dependent on one’s worldview. Given this highly polarized state of affairs, we understand that WE BELIEVE IN DINOSAURS will not convert creationists to the truth of evolution. However, we do believe the film will spark a vibrant dialogue about the thorny intersection of belief, religion, and science, penetrating the cultural “bubbles” in which so many Americans seem to exist.”

–    from the directors’ statement by Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross

As someone who grew up in a Christian denomination that promoted a problematic interpretation of Genesis, I felt closest to David. I wanted to hear more from him. In fact, this would have been a better documentary had David been the center of the story. He’s an in-between figure; someone who’s been on both sides of the creationist vs. science debate and can offer a unique perspective. It would have grounded the story and made it more relatable.

We Believe in Dinosaurs opens up a dialogue about America’s problematic relationship with science. It’s a difficult subject to broach and will make some viewers angry. Where it lacks in storytelling it makes up for in starting the much needed conversation that we’ve all been avoiding.

We Believe in Dinosaurs had its world premiere at SFFilm.

Riplist

They say celebrities die in threes. They die the way the rest of humanity dies but their fame elevates the awareness of their passing and casts a wider net for mourners. We’re despondent over the deaths of people we may have never met in real life. These deaths come as a shock, even when our favorite celebrity is of advanced age or has known health problems. It puts us in a vulnerable place. It puts us face-to-face with our own mortality. For some people, they decide to take back some of the control death has over us with celebrity death pools. The gamification eases some of the grief if we know its coming.  

A group of friends who refer to themselves as “Riplisters” come together every January to create a draft of the 15 celebrities they believe will die within that calendar year. Each participant has their own draft, or “Riplist”. The selection process is long and involved. The participants negotiate, research and strategize. Eligible celebrities can come from all different walks of life whether they are actors, musicians, athletes, royalty, politicians, etc. Whomever gets the most right on their Riplist wins a trophy and bragging rights. The participant with the fewest correct has to draft first the next go around. Some celebrities seem like a sure thing but other deaths elude the riplisters. 

Writer/Director Mike Scholtz’s new documentary Riplist chronicles the participants in this group and focuses primarily in the drafting process. As a classic film enthusiast, I was particularly interested in Matt, a film critic who owns over 4,000 movies and knows all the Oscar winning films and can recite them chronologically from memory. Other participants are mostly men but there is one woman, Christie, whose parents were morticians and now works as a death investigator. A few of the subjects are profiled and there are some frank discussions about mortality. Ultimately the Riplist is a way for them to process the idea of death. But they can take things too far. They research which celebrity is in hospice or as one subject says “who’s circling the drain.” They congratulate each other when one of their picks dies. They claim they’re not rooting for people to die but the gamification of the whole process makes it seem that way.

“The game of life is fun. Why can’t the game of death be fun?”

Some of the classic film related people mentioned

  • Olivia de Havilland
  • Jerry Lewis
  • Elizabeth Taylor
  • Kirk Douglas
  • Robert Osborne
  • Norman Lloyd
  • Baby Peggy/Diana Serra Cary
  • Don Rickles

“I do enjoy it. I don’t know why but I do.”

However for me what these Riplisters were doing left a bad taste in my mouth. And I’m one of the most morbid people you’ll meet. Death fascinates me and if you were to look at my browser history you may back away cautiously and run in the other direction. However, I dread the day that my favorite classic film stars, many of whom are in their 80s, 90s and 100s, pass away. I don’t like to think about it. I will never write an obituary in advance. I would never participate in a death pool. I want these people to live as long as humanly possible. Hoping someone dies so you can win a game just seems flat out wrong. It’s asking for bad karma.

With that said, I believe it’s important to explore the different ways people deal with death. And while the film’s subject matter is quite heavy, Scholtz takes a lighter approach that will relieve viewers of some of the inevitable tension that would have otherwise been overwhelming. The documentary has fun with the lower third, the subjects are interviewed in interesting places, for example a grocery store, taxidermist’s lab, cemetery and mausoleum. There are some reenactments which are a bit hokey but that also adds to the fun.

Essentially Riplist is a dark comedy with a healthy mix of gravitas and humor. It presents a difficult subject in an approachable way. For my fellow classic movie fanatics however, the ones who are praying their favorites won’t be dying anytime soon, Riplist is your next horror film.

Riplist is part of IFFBoston’s Documentary Features series.

Instant Dreams Poster

Instant Dreams

“The digital dark ages took over our lives…”

Edwin H. Land in The Long Walk

In 1947, Edwin H. Land introduced his invention to the world. The Polaroid camera would revolutionize photography. Inspired by his young daughter, who just couldn’t wait to see a photo that was just taken, Land decided he would develop the technology that would shorten the time gap between the shutter click and the final product. With Polaroid technology it would reduce the time to just one minute.

Fast forward to 1970, when Land was filmed for the short documentary The Long Walk in which he narrates a helicopter tour of several Polaroid facilities in Massachusetts and discusses at length the company’s new technological advancements and his predictions for the future. Land envisioned a day when we would have a portable camera, the size of a wallet, that would be used as regularly as the telephone.

In 2008, the bankrupt Polaroid announced it was no longer producing its trademark film stock. Although Polaroid still exists today, in a new iteration after the brand had been sold, and re-sold, it’s a shadow of its former self. What was once revolutionary is now obsolete in the rapidly changing landscape of the digital age. Have we lost the magic of Polaroid forever?

“It felt like I was confronted with the death of a friend.”

Photographer Stefanie Schneider
Scientists at work on developing Polaroid technology for the Impossible Project

Directed by Willem Baptist, Instant Dreams is a moody and atmospheric eulogy to a lost technology. It’s a quirky documentary that explores the importance of Polaroid as both art and science. The subjects in the film feel the profound loss of Polaroid. Scientist Stephen Herchen can be seen in the film trying to reinvent the lost formula of Polaroid for the Impossible Project. Other subjects include photographer Stefanie Schneider who uses the last of her Polaroid stock to capture her unique aesthetic and Christopher Bonanos, a Polaroid historian.

Instant Dreams captures the essence of Polaroid through its poetic approach in storytelling and visual artistry. If you’re looking for a more traditional documentary on the history of Polaroid, this isn’t it. It does require some patience from the viewer and it won’t be to everyone’s taste. 

Instant Dreams is my cinematic ode to that longing for magic, mystery and a celebration of the dreams of the future that are interwoven with this medium.”

director Willem Baptist

Instant Dreams opens in NYC and L.A. and 10 other North American cities today. Visit the official website for more information.

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