Category Archives: Watch Instantly

Film reviews from my Netflix Instant Watch Queue

Bill Cunningham New York (2010)

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My wife and I have been skipping over this movie in our Instant Queue for a while.  Finally, we were looking for something to watch with our fifteen-year-old daughter, who is obsessed with New York and photography.  What a pleasant discovery!  If eligible, I look for it to be nominated for an Oscar this year.

The best documentaries are the ones that leave you feeling like you’ve had a religious experience – that you’ve either just encountered a holy person or experienced a conversion to some new cause or idea that had been previously unexplored.  The best documentaries transcend the subject matter and touch another place altogether – that spiritual place.  And so it is with Bill Cunningham New York, a delightful documentary directed by Richard Press about the octogenarian New York Times photojournalist who comes across as a monastic figure whose sanctuary is couture.

Prior to seeing the picture, I didn’t know Bill Cunningham’s work, but being a longtime reader of the New York Times, I was aware of his street photos, which have been a regular feature in the Style section for over thirty years, and the tension between ubiquity (he’s a respected sage in the fashion industry) and anonymity (he’s a discreet man who shuns the spotlight and money in order to enjoy guiltless freedom in what he does) is at the core of the movie and the man.

Cunningham was born and raised in Boston, and retains the distinctive accent where Central Park becomes Central Pahk.  After dropping out of Harvard, he moved to New York, where an uncle who worked for Bonwit Teller, the high-end department store, took him in and got him a job as a stock boy.  Cunningham’s interest in fashion worried his family, who no-doubt feared that he was gay.  Finally, tiring of his family’s pressure to get a “straight” job, Cunningham moved out of his uncle’s place in 1949 and found an empty space on East 52nd street where he set up a hat shop and designed under the name William J.

After a hitch in the army, Cunningham came back to New York where he began his career in journalism.  He got on with Women’s Wear Daily, and was given carte blanche to write about whatever interested him.  When WWD wouldn’t publish a piece he’d written about Courreges, the French designer, he quit.

In the 60’s, Cunningham worked for the Chicago Tribune in their New York office.  In 1966, he met a photographer named David Montgomery.  When Cunningham expressed an interest in taking pictures, Montgomery gave him an Olympus Pen-D half frame camera and told him to use it like a notebook.  Thus equipped, he entered a new phase of his career.

Cunningham took Montgomery’s advice to heart, and it was during this time, as he was getting acquainted with the camera, that he had an epiphany.  He wrote about this moment in a 2002 piece for the Times – “I realized that you didn’t know anything unless you photographed the shows and the street, to see how people interpreted what designers hoped they would buy.  I realized that the street was the missing ingredient.”  That realization, that the street was where fashion was worked out, led to an obsession with the streets of Manhattan, which became a kind of laboratory for Cunningham, who documented the daily fashion experiments, looking for patterns.

In the 70’s, Cunningham started taking photographs for the Times, but it wasn’t until 1978 – after a chance encounter with Greta Garbo and a nutria coat she was wearing – that he landed his current gig, covering the streets and the galas and the shows – the Bill Cunningham holy trinity of fashion.

 Bill Cunningham New York is a mixture of talking head interviews, decades old archival footage of Cunningham, and present day coverage of the man on his daily rounds.  Amazingly, Cunningham – nearly 80 at the filming of the picture – still gets around Manhattan on his trademark bicycle, moving from street corner to street corner to capture a few frames of some article of clothing or an accessory that catches his eye.

The man who emerges from all of this attention is a purist completely uninterested in industry politics, self-promotion, or celebrity.  For him, it’s all about the clothes…of others.  Cunningham lives a Spartan existence.  His apartment is a tiny studio at Carnegie Hall that has no kitchen or bathroom (he showers and takes care of other business in a common bathroom in the hallway).  He sleeps on a makeshift cot.  The rest of the living space is occupied not with furniture and art, but filing cabinets filled with prints and negatives – his experiments.

Cunningham dresses conservatively, and could easily be mistaken for a retired professor or accountant but for his trademark blue smock.  Some years ago, he stumbled across the smock – designed for institutional use – in a department store section devoted to uniforms.  It’s a light jacket that Cunningham favors for its many pockets (to hold film and other paraphernalia) and rugged construction (his camera, which dangles from his neck like a giant medallion, is hell on coats).  It looks like something Chairman Mao might have favored.

Cunningham has stripped his life down to the essentials so that he can devote as much of himself as possible to the documentation of what people are wearing.  He’s that rare person who, early on, discovered his calling, and has let nothing distract him from it.  Seeing him at Carnegie Hall Towers, once can’t help but view him as a kind of secular monk and Carnegie Hall as his monastery.  Cunningham and his elderly neighbors, nearly forgotten artists from the mid-twentieth century, are as delightfully anachronistic as an encounter with a Franciscan monk or the Amish.

The difference with Cunningham is that, though he may not be of the world, he’s definitely in the world.  We see him in the offices of the Times, playfully bantering with co-workers.  We see him in Paris at a major show, where a young gate-keeper keeps in out on the sidewalk until an older co-worker pushes her aside, declaring Cunningham to be “the most important man on earth.”  We see him on the street, dialed in like method actor or ballplayer, looking for that thing.

Bill Cunningham New York has blown the cover of its subject, but his loss of anonymity is our great gain.

Click HERE to listen to Bill Cunningham’s weekly “On The Street” audio feature.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011)

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Let me start off by saying that when Conan O’Brien was kicked to the curb by NBC, I was with Team Coco.  I’ve got nothing against Jay Leno, but Conan O’Brien is as funny as it gets as far as the late night guys go.  And that includes Letterman.

That said, I’m kind of confused about Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, a documentary about O’Brien’s Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, which was his reaction to the split from NBC.  In return for something like $40 million, he had to stay away from TV for six months.  The film has the familiar characters – O’Brien, Andy Richter, and even the Masturbating Bear – and much of the manic energy of both of his previous late night shows, but what’s missing is the humor.  Maybe that’s the point – the tour was fueled as much by anger as it was by a need to be in front of an audience.

What we do see is O’Brien bitching and moaning about everything from NBC to Jay Leno to burning himself out with too much “ON” time and not enough down time while on tour.  It’s O’Brien being human, but there’s also a sense of it being a different kind of performance than being the funny guy.  There are no real talking head interviews.  It’s shot in the direct cinema style of D.A. Pennebaker, a la Don’t Look Back, the documentary about Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.  But unlike Pennebaker’s classic, I didn’t feel like Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop added up to much.

O’Brien’s a hardworking man, for sure.  The tour, which consisted of 44 shows, wound all over the lower 48, with very little time off for the cast and crew.  Even on days off, O’Brien usually arranged an impromptu show or entertained fans – often to the point of losing his voice.  The tour was a wild success, seeming to sell out in every town, with loyal fans waiting and waiting to get some time with the object of their obsession.  Through it all, O’Brien smiles for the fans, then kvetches in private.  I just don’t know which was fake and which was real.

Watching Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, I was reminded of Otto von Bismarck who supposedly once said “Laws are like sausages.  Better not to see them being made.”  Perhaps the same applies for carefully orchestrated comedy tours.

Phyllis and Harold (2008)

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In our youth-obsessed culture, something awful happens to people of a certain age.  We take away their humanity.  Once white hair and wrinkles achieve a certain critical mass, we tend to think of the individual as a mute, taxidermied version of a once vital family member who gets only minimal attention.  And when a couple makes it to this stage, they’re looked upon as cute and cuddly – we assume happiness and harmony.

Not so with Phyllis and Harold, a captivating documentary by Cindy Kleine.  It’s an unflinching portrait of her parents’ marriage of nearly 60 years that was anything but a storybook romance – and couldn’t be told until after the death of her father.

It opens slyly with a scene of Phyllis and Harold Kleine in the kitchen, going about their day-to-day routine.  They bicker.  They tease.  They’re cute.  And then, there’s a cut to Kleine, who addresses the camera and tells us that for as long as she can remember she’s been trying to figure out who these people are and why they were together.  The answers unfold as a kind of 20th century suburban tragedy.

Harold emerges as a kind of World War II era everyman – a dentist version of the guys on Mad Men – confident and primed for success in the upper end of the post-war middle class, determined to provide his wife and two daughters with all the material comfort he can afford.  He exhaustively documented his family’s life, taking photographs and home movies of daily events and the globetrotting vacations he lavished on his wife.  His version of their life together is a happy one.

Phyllis has a different take altogether.  From her first words, Phyllis paints a picture of regret, of having settled.  It’s a naked confession that blows the movie wide open and turns it into something completely other than what I expected.  The source of regret is an affair with a married man that began before she married Harold, but carried on into their first years as husband and wife.

Kleine interviews her parents separately, and what is striking is how alike they view the facts of their marriage, but how differently the meaning.  Their interviews are intercut to a chilling effect – underscoring how people so close for so long can yet be miles apart.

Phyllis ended the affair after five years, unwilling to walk out and unable to live with the stress of a double-life.  “I didn’t see how you could build a building on such a hurtful relationship – all the hurt we would inflict,” she said.  The man “disappeared to California.  But I never stopped thinking about him.”

Harold, oblivious to the affair, focused on his career and a string of real estate investments, while Phyllis decorated the house and focused on their social life.  Their housekeeper took care of the girls and was a source of comfort in the midst of their parents’ constant battles.  The Kleines come across as a family in a David Sedaris story.  Phyllis systematically turned her daughters against her father through the use of secrets – withholding information from Harold that would anger or hurt him – so that, despite her emotional distance, the three were unified by a common enemy.

I would have liked to have heard more about Harold – gotten his side of the story – but I understand why Kleine gave a pat explanation for him and pushed him to the background.  Secrets.  That, and her mother’s interviews are mesmerizing.  There’s a confessional quality to them that borders on the voyeuristic to watch – her emotions ranging from shame and regret to pure joy as she reflects on her true love.  It’s a rare glimpse into an aspect of marriage that’s almost never explored this honestly.

Harold never learned of his wife’s secret.  He died during the making of the documentary, alleviating his youngest daughter of the burden of what to do with such hurtful material.  And with him out of the way, the daughters help orchestrate a reunion with the man who siphoned off so much of their mother’s attention over the years.  It made me want to know more about Harold – what he did to make it so easy for his daughters to discount the betrayal and facilitate their mother’s wishes.

It’s easy to judge, but I’m betting we all walk around with secrets, shame, and guilt that we never confess.  Cindy Kleine has given us a document of one woman’s unrepentant confession, and though it may be painful to watch, it’s impossible to turn away.


Candyman: The David Klein Story (2010)

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This weekend, my wife and I wanted to watch something with our daughters, ages 11 and 7.  The image of a Jelly Belly jellybean caught my attention, and I used this delightful movie to introduce the kids to documentaries.  They loved it.

Candyman David KleinEarly in Candyman, the wonderful documentary from Costa Botes, David Klein, the inventor of Jelly Belly gourmet jellybeans makes an admission – “I regret the day I came up with them, I really do.  Why?  Because they ruined my life.”  For the rest of the story, we learn how that could be so – how the invention of a candy that revolutionized the industry – and made millions of dollars – could be seen as a curse to the man who should have become Willy Wonka incarnate.

In the early 70’s, David Klein graduated from the UCLA law school.  He was a brilliant student, but forsook the law for his true passion – candy.  He threw himself into the business, applying the same brilliance that catapulted him to the top of his class to the sale and distribution of candy and nuts.  Before long, he was a fixture in Southern California, an honest, hard-working man, who not only sold candy, but also dreamed up new products.

In 1976, the Jelly Belly was born – and should have died a quick death – but Klein’s chutzpah, mixed with hard work and serendipity, combined to overcome the initial obstacles and become a cultural phenomenon when Ronald Reagan made them a staple of his White House.  In all of this there was Klein, tirelessly (and shamelessly) promoting the product for anyone willing to cover it.

It’s often at the moment of our greatest achievement that the seeds of our destruction are born, and such is the case with Klein.  Around the time of the Reagan endorsement, demand for Jelly Bellies was such that there was a one-year wait-list.  Klein’s manufacturing partner wanted to expand their factory, but without ownership of the Jelly Belly trademark, financing was iffy.  The CEO called a meeting to attempt to buy the company from Klein, and in a decision that, from the comfort of my couch, is insane, Klein sold out for 4.8 million dollars – without a lawyer present to represent him.

At the time, Klein was young and had an elderly partner that was ready to retire.  He figured there would be other genius ideas, but to-date, they haven’t arrived.  Instead, Klein sank into depression, having sold off his baby at a ridiculously under-valued price.  It’s a fascinating piece of storytelling.

Candyman could easily be seen as tragedy, but for the spirit of its subject.  Klein’s son Bert co-produced the movie, which explains the volume of home movies, photographs, and interviews with family and friends that exude a labor-of-love quality.  What emerges is a kind, honest, resilient family man who has spent his career putting others first, even to his own detriment.