Friday, July 19, 2024
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Three Great Documentaries to Stream


The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we’ll choose three nonfiction films — classics, overlooked recent docs and more — that will reward your time.

Stream it on the Criterion Channel.

What better way to celebrate the summer than with a summer-set documentary essential to the proliferation of the term “cinema-vérité,” one of the major concepts in nonfiction filmmaking? Except that cinema-vérité as presented in “Chronicle of a Summer,” the pioneering work from the anthropologist Jean Rouch and the sociologist Edgar Morin, means something different from what it has come to connote today. “Chronicle of a Summer” doesn’t belong to the “direct cinema” school associated with filmmakers like the Maysles Brothers (“Grey Gardens”), who sought, with varying degrees of success, not to involve themselves in the action while the camera was rolling, or with Frederick Wiseman’s filmmaking methods. (Although Wiseman never asks questions, he always resists labels like “cinema-vérité” or “observational cinema”; he prefers the term “movies.”)

In “Chronicle of a Summer,” the filmmakers are on-camera presences. At the start, Rouch asks whether it is possible to record as natural a conversation as they might get without a camera present. In an early section of the film, Marceline, who assists the filmmakers in addition to serving as one of their subjects, approaches Parisians and asks about their lives, opening with the simple query, “Are you happy?” (Gordon Quinn, a founder of the Chicago documentary production company Kartemquin Films, would recycle this line of questioning in his 1968 film directed with Gerald Temaner, “Inquiring Nuns.”)

Eventually, “Chronicle of a Summer” settles on a group of major characters, who are shown interacting with one another. The movie also periodically diverges from its interrogative mode to follow their lives. After Angelo, who works in a Renault factory, describes the monotony of his routine (when not working, he says, “The rest of the time, you spend sleeping, and you sleep so that you can work”), “Chronicle of a Summer” shows an alarm clock ringing and Angelo waking up and going to the factory. Onscreen, Morin himself introduces Angelo to Landry, a student from the Ivory Coast whose insights open a window on racism in France and colonial attitudes in Africa. Other figures we get to know include Mary Lou, who speaks openly of her apparent depression (for her, cinema-vérité becomes something akin to cinema-therapy), and Marceline, a Holocaust survivor who wrenchingly shares memories of her father.

At the end of the film, Morin and Rouch host a screening for the subjects, who deliver a mixed verdict on the project, although the scenes with Marceline in particular get singled out as a strength. “Either our characters are blamed for not being true enough,” Morin notes in summation, “or they’re blamed for being too true.”

Stream it on the Criterion Channel and Max. Rent it on Google Play and Apple TV.

The Paris 2024 Olympics are almost upon us, but thanks to “Tokyo Olympiad,” the 1964 Olympics in Japan look as fresh today as they would have 60 years ago. This documentary, which credits Kon Ichikawa (“Fires on the Plain”) as a “supervising director,” was an official production made in collaboration with the organizing committee for the Tokyo Olympics. But this wide-eyed exegesis of the games is also a genuine movie, and it takes such advantage of widescreen cinematography that to recommend streaming it — as opposed to seeing it on a gigantic screen — is unfair. Bear in mind that the Olympics couldn’t be seen at this scale on the TVs of 1964.

You could spend as much time pondering the lens choices as you can the athletics, and it’s that kind of ancillary interest that makes “Tokyo Olympiad” more than just a sports movie; in its attention to movement, speed and physical grace, it is in some ways closer in feel to a ballet picture. Although the bulk of its three hours are given over to the athletic events, “Tokyo Olympiad” devotes time to the pageantry, the crowds, the Cold War politics and the sportsmanship. When the runner Kokichi Tsuburaya takes the bronze in the climatic marathon, the announcer notes that “he fought well,” setting a record for his personal best.

Sometimes, the voice-over waxes philosophical (“Before they start the race, the runners’ expressions become so tense they almost look sad”) or provides details on the athletes’ lives that seem unthinkable by the standards of sports careers today. (We learn that pole-vaulting gold medalist Fred Hansen is in dental school and “studying the elasticity and resilience of glass fiber.”) One segment follows Ahmed Issa, a runner who represented Chad in its first Olympics as an independent country. Ichikawa and company turn a cycling event into an occasion for a jazz-scored interlude. The 50-kilometer walking race — in which participants must put one foot on the ground before lifting the other — becomes inevitable grist for comedy.

Stream it on Tubi. Rent it on Amazon, Apple TV, Fandango at Home and Google Play.

In keeping with this month’s theme of summer heat, or at least heat, consider “We Kill for Love.” It’s tough to keep a straight face when recommending a nearly three-hour documentary on the wave of direct-to-video soft-core erotica that crested in the 1990s and just as quickly subsided. But if this outsize opus, directed by Anthony Penta, frequently overreaches when it grasps for substance, any pack-rat cinephile will appreciate the archival impulse. How could titles that once filled the shelves at Blockbusters nationwide get so thoroughly memory-holed in the internet era? Is it true that many of them never even turned up on DVD? What is it like to see excerpts from them now, in an essay documentary that sometimes plays like a peep show correlative to Thom Andersen’s “Los Angeles Plays Itself”?

Content-wise, the movies themselves probably don’t offer more insight into America’s secret wants and desires than their mainstream counterparts, to say nothing of the entire history of film noir. “We Kill for Love” cheats a bit by devoting time to widely analyzed hits (“Fatal Attraction,” “Basic Instinct”) and even medium-defining classics (“Double Indemnity,” “Psycho”). Some of the symbols it unpacks — like the use of a red car to represent desire and ownership — are hardly unique to soft-core. But part of the thesis here is that home video, which enabled viewers to bring this kind of movie into the home, could subsidize an entire industry of seedy knockoffs. Monique Parent, part of this subculture’s alternate galaxy of stars, recalls working so prolifically in the 1990s that she can’t always remember which movie is which.

And it is in chronicling this history of those actors and companies that “We Kill for Love” is most distinctive and often funny. “My heart left acting in 1986,” says Andrew Stevens, who appeared in such titles as “Night Eyes” and “Illicit Dreams.” “I didn’t quit acting until 1992.” There is also potential for serious scholarly exploration: The author Nina K. Martin suggests that direct-to-video efforts showed a lot more interest in women as human beings than the thrillers that filled the multiplex.


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