My Strange Email To Ken Burns

Ken Burns is a Red Sox fan, I am not...

Dear Ken Burns

I started writing this email three times while watching part 2 of the Tenth Inning and deleted each one because I thought I was being ridiculous, but screw it.  I’m a graduate student at Columbia College Chicago on the Documentary Film Track, so I really do know a thing or two about  doc films.  I was 13 years old when the original Baseball documentary came out and I have been looking forward to the 10th Inning since the moment I heard you working on it years ago.

Literally, and I mean this as a compliment, I would fall asleep to the Baseball doc series on VHS since I watched it so many times.  I am not only a big documentary fan, but calling myself fanatical about sports would be an understatement. Really, I am trying to follow not only in your footsteps, but the footsteps of Steve James, Errol Morris, the Maysles Brothers and countless more.

D'oh!!!

All that being said, wtf?  I know you’re a Red Sox fan, but the 2003 Cubs get 2 minutes tops in the 10th Inning?  Okay, okay!  I get it, but do me a favor.  Years from now, after the Cubs are 2015 World Series Champions, I may or may not be known by the general public, but when you do another sequel in 2020 or 2025, please look me up.

I’m sure this email will be long lost by then and no interns will want to dig it up, but trust me, put this one aside.  When the Cubs in fact do it, I will email you again.  I’m a third generation Cubs fan.  I have stories about 2003 that will really get to the heart of the 2003 NLCS that you completely skipped because you were too busy having Red Sox fans such as Mike Barnicle and Doris Kearns Goodwin gab about past heartbreak and a bunch of other crap.  My brother and college roommate might be the ones with the Cubs tattoos, but someone needs to tell the story the right way.  Again, this is all in reaction to watching Dave Roberts and the juiced up David Ortiz winning the 2004 World Series, so maybe I’m being a bit of a sore loser right now.

I’m glad it wasn’t Sammy, the acne faced Kerry Wood, or the Rocky Mountain calfed Mark Prior that made it finally happen for us.  We’ll get it done soon and when we do, you will remember this email when you need an interview.  Hopefully by that point, you will know me as a colleague and it won’t be hard to look me up when you shoot the 11th Inning.  In the meantime, go Rays, Rangers, Padres, and even the Giants, because as a Cubs fan, you want the teams who never won one to get it done, and as for the Giants, it’s been long enough San Francisco, you are starting to get to know our pain.

Thanks,

R. Patrick Lile

As a Cubs fan, this one stings, but for some Chicagoans, it's a bigger deal than 2004!

P.S. You should have used Livan Hernandez and the fact he escaped Cuba through Mexico and ended up winning the 1997 World Series MVP in his first full year to cap your chapter on Latino players.  I literally yelled at the tv when you didn’t mention this.  And speaking for my White Sox friends…really, just a still frame of Bobby Jenks and a few others to tell the 2005 story?  Just a reminder, 1917 was longer ago than 1918 you freaking Mass-hole!!!  You freaking self-centered East Coaster!  Seriously, I’m usually not this critical, but when talking baseball, I get emotional.

ESPN’s 30 for 30

By R. Patrick Lile

For years, ESPN had been relatively absent from the sports-doc scene, but after the 2008 release of Dan Klores’s Black Magic, ESPN saw an opportunity to make a statement. Black Magic examined the struggle for civil rights told through the eyes of basketball players at Historical Black Colleges and Universities. This four-hour documentary resembled something closer to Eyes on the Prize than any previous documentary shown on ESPN. Yes, basketball plays an extremely important role in the film, but the sports angle is merely a vehicle to talk about a social movement that changed the United States.

After the film’s broadcast, ESPN.COM columnist, Bill Simmons, thought the network had to continue to push outside their normal comfort zone and make sports documentaries that explored more than just box scores and highlights. Instead of ESPN hiring a director to create a film that was cooked up by some network executive, they would seek out some of the most renowned filmmakers and television personalities to make the films of their choosing. The gamble was: if ESPN gave full artistic freedom to these documentarians, then the end product would be personal and transcend the world of sports. The 30 for 30 series would be thirty stories “detailing the issues, trends, athletes, teams, rivalries, games and events” over the last thirty years, since ESPN’s birth in 1979.

Nearly a year later, the series has aired nineteen of a now scheduled thirty-two docs and the series has covered everything from rotisserie baseball, to NFL marching bands, to the dangers of BMX biking. Like with any documentary, it helps to have an interest in the subject in order to maximize your viewing experience. In other words, if you are a fan of documentary films, but have absolutely no interest in the world of sports, 30 for 30 is certainly not appointment television. On the other hand, some of the films in the series have been so incredible that whether or not you know what a cross-over dribble means or whether you are as clueless as I am when watching rugby, the films still manage to transcend the world of sports and touch a nerve in nearly any viewer. As I have watched each film in the 30 for 30 series, I try to approach my viewing from both the sports fan’s perspective, as well as from a documentarian’s stance. I’ve tried to breakdown the series for those that aren’t sports nuts, but are looking for a good doc to watch. Otherwise, a new film in the 30 for 30 series premieres every Tuesday through November 9th with all films available on iTunes for $5.

THE BEST – By Order of Air Date

Muhammad and Larry – dir. Albert Maysles

Captured on film by Albert Maysles – the Babe Ruth of documentarians – was the first signs of Muhammad Ali battling Parkinson’s Disease. In 1980, Albert and his late brother, David, shot and edited the training sessions of the former champ, Ali, as he came out of retirement for one last shot against the young champion, Larry Holmes. The fight is a blood bath as Holmes destroys Ali from the opening bell until his corner throws in the towel in the 10th round. Because of the fight’s depressing outcome, showing a hero being destroyed, no distributors were interested in the Maysles’ film back in the early ‘80s. Now three decades later and re-edited, the footage is priceless, as we bare witness to the beginning of a heroes end.

Without Bias – dir. Kirk Fraser

Fraser’s film chronicles the 1986 death of college basketball star and newly drafted Boston Celtic, Len Bias. While basketball plays a very important part in this film, Len Bias’s death transcended sports in a way that no other athletes death had ever before. For most people growing up in the mid-80s, the name Len Bias meant one thing: Cocaine Kills. Bias’s cocaine overdose led to federal mandatory sentencing for drug possession cases that effect the courts to this very day. While Muhammad and Larry is a tragedy of a hero breaking down, Without Bias is a tragedy of a young man who became an example of the perils of youth.

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson – dir. Steve James

Filmmaker Steve James tells a story more about his hometown of Hampton, Virginia than he does about former NBA All-Star, Allen Iverson. In 1993, Iverson, then the top high school basketball player in the country, was convicted for his part in a racially charged fight at a Hampton bowling alley. What unfolds is a story of race and how it has separated a town that was founded as a port-of-call for 17th Century slave ships.

The 16th Man – dir. Clifford Bestall, Lori McCreary, and Morgan Freeman

Essentially, the true story of the film Invictus. In 1995, South Africa was host to the Rugby World Cup, the first major international event on South African soil since the end of apartheid. With racial harmony in the country being far from reality, President Nelson Mandela and the South African Rugby team formed a bond that would bring the entire country together. This film shows the true spirit of sports, how a silly game can bring an entire country together.

June 17th, 1994 – dir. Brett Morgan

The day O.J. Simpson made a run for it. Told with no narration and only with archival footage, Morgan cross-cuts O.J.’s white Bronco chase with the day’s other sports headlines: a pivotal NBA finals game between the Knicks and Rockets, Arnold Palmer’s final round at the U.S. Open, the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup parade and the start of the first FIFA World Cup on U.S. soil. This would be the day that Simpson would cease being a sports icon and become a notorious celebrity of a different kind.


The Two Escobars – dir. Jeff and Michael Zimbalist

Colombian soccer player Andres Escobar was a leader for his highly touted Columbian World Cup Soccer team. Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar was a hero to many of Columbia’s poor, but a murderous tyrant to many others. The Two Escobars details the dangerous world that both men lived and died in and how Colombian soccer and drugs intersect. The uplifting power of sports captured by The 16th Man is far removed in this film, as we see how stupid human beings can be when it comes to a silly game.

GOOD SPORTS DOCS – worth a view if you area bit more into sports

The Band That Wouldn’t Die – dir. Barry Levinson – The story of the Baltimore Colts Marching Band continuing to play despite having lost their football team in 1984.

Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?dir. Mike Tolin – The birth, life and death of the United States Football League. Also, Donald Trump as the bad guy.

The U – dir. Billy Corben – Two hours of the showboating and dirty play of the University of Miami football team. If you have no interest in college football, stay far away from this one.

Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks – dir. Dan Klores – Reggie was a thorn in the side of Knicks fans and he loved to play the villain. Operatic at times, Winning Time is a fun doc for NBA fans.

Guru of Go – dir. Bill Couturie – This one almost made my BEST list, but I think you either have to be a college basketball fan or at least remember the death of Hank Gathers to really enjoy this film as much as I did. Gathers was a phenom and led the country in scoring and rebounding as a junior at little Loyola Maramount. In his senior year, he tried to play through a heart condition, but ended up collapsing and dying during a game.

The Birth of Big Air – dir. Jeff Tremaine, Johny Knoxville and Spike Jonze – I had low expectations for this one going in, but when Mat Hoffman ramps his bike 30 feet in the air and ruptures his spleen as he crashes to the ground, you have to be mesmerized.

OKAY SPORTS DOCS – for die-hard sports fans only

Jordan Rides the Busdir. Ron Shelton – A puff-piece that looks back on Michael Jordan’s one season playing minor league baseball.

Kings Ransomdir. Peter Berg – The 1988 trade that sent Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the L.A. Kings.

Straight Outta L.A. – dir. Ice Cube – How gangsta rap and L.A. Raiders gear became synonymous with one another.

Silly Little Game dir. Adam Kurland and Lucas Jansen – The birth of the first rotisserie baseball league by some of New York’s most successful book editors.

Run Ricky Run – dir. Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni – An examination of how Ricky Williams turned his back on the NFL. Was it depression, anxiety, or his love of smoking weed?

The Legend of Jimmy the Greekdir Fritz Mitchell – A look at controversial football oddsmaker, Jimmy the Greek.

Under the Rug and On the Horizon: The Providence Effect Review

Directed by: Rollin Binzer
Length: 1 hour 32 minutes
Development to Distribution: 3 years
Shot on: Sony PDWF800

I wish I had good things to say about The Providence Effect. It’s so rare to see a doc that tackles the subject of education in America head-on, especially one that purports to hold answers to the system’s many woes. The private school the film focuses on, Providence St. Mel’s in Chicago’s beleaguered West Side neighborhood of East Garfield Park, fully lives up to the hype too. Beyond boasting a 100% college acceptance rate for graduating seniors, the communal aura of commitment to education that permeates the teachers, students, and parents is palpable. Then these same dedicated individuals transferred their teaching model in an attempt to recreate this wild success in the newly minted public Charter school Providence Englewood, thereby potentially shedding light on a winning strategy for public education at large. Considering this solid premise, how does The Providence Effect manage to so thoroughly fail?

It doesn’t help that the doc can’t hide its lack of inspiration in terms of its craftsmanship. Nothing about this film takes any risks whatsoever, never budging from the worn-in formula of show and tell. The film does a good job balancing time between all the various students and teachers and the major “subjects”, but there is really only one character. Only the school’s founder Paul Adams III is fleshed out enough for us to see what ultimately motivates him. Too bad his and every other interview is composed entirely of fielding softball questions. Even when the various subjects do grow animated during an interview, the static Mid-CU framing and banal, even lifeless soundtrack work to dull the effect.

The strongest and most cohesive point of the doc is that Providence St. Mels owes its success to the culture of hard work, commitment, and mutual accountability that has and continues to dominate the mindset of everyone that steps into that building. I believe this is a valuable lesson; I’m confident that such a holistic attitude will play a central role in the winning strategy for education reform, whatever that ends up being. Perhaps achieving and sustaining this culture “isn’t rocket science” at Providence St. Mels, but the film fails to show how their day to day strategies trump their public school counterparts that are in many cases equivalent if not identical. In 92 minutes the film manages to dole out precious few specifics concerning the Providence “effect”, but makes ample time for self-congratulatory pats on the back. Generalizations and warm, fuzzy platitudes fly left and right while the doc struggles to pin down what this school does so differently. “We have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to violence… and gang-related activity” the principle at one point remarks, but then never goes any deeper. So are we to believe that all of the other schools that struggle with violence have a “three-strike” policy? Is there really a High School out there that doesn’t emphasize discipline or dedication to studiousness?

Unfortunately this documentary has even graver problems to answer for beyond the limp inspiration and infomercial approach to penetrating the subject matter. The Providence Effect feels like the interlude between two other films that actually matter, the fluff that gives your brain a rest before diving back in. One the one end, the explanation for how Providence St. Mels was transformed by Paul Adams III from subpar to superstar is relegated in the film to his gloss-over explanation that essentially amounts to “Veni, Vidi, Vici”. How was he able to turn it around in “one or two” brief years? That sounds like the making of a great documentary, but apparently it wasn’t really worth diving into.

On the other end is the question of the success of Providence Englewood Charter School. Remarkably, this is never shown in any kind of thorough manner. If the conceit of the film amounts to the belief that Paul Adams III and Co. are on to something that everyone should take a hint from, isn’t the entire point then to gauge the possibility that their model could be successfully duplicated? How can the film be silent on these details and still maintain what, in this light, is the arrogant disposition of “it’s not rocket science”? What does it really matter to public education reformers if a private school in a rundown neighborhood excels, especially when it isn’t tethered to local property tax revenue?

Perhaps this huge gap in the film is simply a product of the very recent arrival of Providence Englewood Charter School, and it’s just too early to tell if it can achieve the same outstanding success of its forerunner. But then why not wait to make the doc until it is clear either way? As is, the resulting feeling upon seeing the credits roll is worse than that of the garden variety, lazily shaped doc: the entire thing just feels like a waste of time.

The Fruits of our Labor: Food Inc. Review

Food, Inc. Trailer from TakePart on Vimeo.

Directed by: Robert Kenner
Length: 1 hour 34 minutes
Development to Distribution: 6 years
Shot on: Panasonic HDX900 & HDX200

The most prevalent metaphor employed throughout the film is that of a veil: one fashioned by the food industry giants to be drawn between the consumer and the source of their food. But as Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) points out, at least once a month a news story emerges that allows a peek behind the veil. Food Inc. is an attempt to tear the veil down altogether, through a collection of poignant stories and factual insights into the dangers of our modern efficiency-driven food production machine. This is not to imply that the film simply contains a redundant collection of such news stories. Kenner and Co. have done their own investigating and applied a fresh analysis to both well-known and obscure phenomenon. In fact, he includes such a wide array of information damaging to the food mega-corporations that he must have had a whole squad of First Amendment attorneys peeking over his editor’s shoulder. The film’s second food conscience Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) bluntly notes that these companies have “legions” of lawyers and aren’t afraid to sue even when they know they can’t win, just to make an example out of you.

For those of you who’ve been living under a rock the past 40 years: cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals are already genetically mangled creatures at birth before they are subjected to various intensities of torture throughout their brief lives, only to be unceremoniously killed for the grocery and fast food joint alike. But the real value of Food Inc. lies in its more subtle points. Given the methods of standardization in breeding and processing cattle, the burger you eat can paradoxically contain the flesh of thousands of cows and yet still lack any meaningful diversity. In a wide high-angle shot of a supermarket, the same points is made about an astounding array of products. Do the tens of thousands of items contained in a single supermarket represent variety if so many rely on chemically re-constituted corn starches as a key ingredient? So while advertising depicts rolling fields and idle farm animals, the reality is increasingly a matter of new ideas envisioned in a lab then realized in filthy, crowded, mechanically controlled conditions. It’s too bad the film is almost bereft of representatives of the corporations driving food production in this direction, since one can sense Kenner doing his damndest to be as fair as possible. Then again, their intentional silence is the best evidence for his thesis of the “veil”.

The closest the film gets to representing the positives of corporate farming is summarized by one character: we can make a ton of food very cheaply and on very little land-what’s so bad about that? In addition to the gross abuse of animals, the agonizing stories of a mother who lost her only son to E-coli in his fast food burger helps answer the question. In another scene, a taped court deposition in a frivolous lawsuit shows a man beaten and broken by the invasive abuses of a corporate powerhouse. As he answers the plaintiff lawyer’s questions, the look of defeat on his face foreshadows his fate: he folds and ends up being put out of business. All of these human moments in the film feel very authentic and compete tightly for sympathy with the depicted animal suffering.

This gets at the richest insight of the film: business and economics drives everything. Capitalism is not going away, at least not quickly enough to affect the kind of change that desperately needs to happen now. The idea proffered by Food Inc. that every purchase is a vote for a candidate product is a powerful one, and will probably be the key to changing how food is produced in America. In one section a family is shown making a big order off the dollar menu at Burger King, then later shown at a supermarket lamenting their inability to afford any of the produce. I find this scene frustrating, because it’s true but not the whole truth. Sure, in a food to dollars ratio, cheap burgers may beat apples and oranges every time. But that doesn’t mean that fast food is your best option for eating cheap, even if you’re simply looking to maximize your calories. The implication of the scene leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

A doc that tries to tackle the problems with our food industry has arguably bitten off more than it can chew. Thankfully, Food Inc. chooses to gloss over or ignore many still important issues (“food deserts”, NAFTA, imported produce, etc.) so it can pay enough attention to those topics it decides to stick with. I wish the film was longer to offer more analysis, but still I think Kenner made the right decisions on what to focus on with one exception: the exact use of the term “organic” and its manipulation for marketing and advertising purposes. Although the film is awash with plenty of examples of the opposite of “organic”, it never tries to directly define what “organic” means. All the subtleties of the term’s meaning are left vague and obscure, and never is it mentioned that not all organics are created equal. Nor is it revealed that industrial machinery, some fertilizers, and even a few pesticides (albeit a very limited few) are still allowed on organically labeled foods. Finally, nothing is mentioned of how similar terms or logos that hint at organics (“free range”, “sustainably harvested”, the big “O” found on some Safeway brands, etc.) are not submitted to the same regulations and can easily be used to confuse and trick consumers. Considering the explicit attention given to individual consumers voting with their dollar, uncovering the specifics of the now ever-present term seems pretty crucial. Ultimately this essential gap in coverage is not enough to seriously compromise the message of the film though.

I’ve avoided discussing the craftsmanship of the film up to now because it seems so translucent. It’s simplicity is such that you are easily sucked in and soon forget that you’re staring at a screen. Aside from some inventive visuals at the beginning, most of the footage is straight verité. The modest use of motion graphics may not be too creative, but they do effectively express ideas and facts in visual terms. Although the film is explicitly broken up into topically labeled chapters, it still feels like it organically unfolds as one whole. It never struck me as awkward that certain characters are in every chapter while some are briefly in one. And despite the ubiquity of such key characters, the ideas about new ways of growing, consuming, and living are the stars here. And yet the film is rarely judgmental and never preachy, a rare trait for a film that attempts such a topic.

Sony’s DSR-300 vs. PD-170

If you’re a Doc student taking a production class beyond Doc I, you have two camera options: the Sony DSR-300 series and the PD-150/170. They are both rock solid cameras in their class, and deciding between the two isn’t always easy. I’ll gloss over the differences in each camera line since they are relatively minute in the grand scheme of functionality. Although these two camera series end up featuring many of the same capabilities, studying their differences will betray their roots: the DSR-300 was modeled around higher end DVCAM cameras (the DSR-500WS) and then stripped of abilities to lower the cost, while the PD-170 could be thought of as a beefed up consumer camera (ala the VX-1000) with most image parameter controls that a professional requires while still retaining remnants of its “point and shoot” ancestors.

Image Quality
Both Cameras produce fine quality, standard definition interlaced images recorded at a 4:3 aspect ratio at 60i onto mini-DV or DVCAM tapes, although it’s important to note that the 300 can accept the longer format DVCAM tapes. Forget about Sony’s marketing hoo-ha claiming “800 lines of TV resolution” on the 300. What you’re actually getting is 768×494, compared to the 720×476 on the PD-170. The relatively small difference is certainly not nominal, but it’s not too significant either: in a side-by-side comparison you may be able to tell the difference but over the course of an entire documentary the discrepancy is easily forgettable. Both utilize 3 CCD chips, but neither the 300’s ½ inch nor the 170’s 1/3 inch chips are arrayed for 16:9 aspect ratio. The 170’s widescreen is an anamorphic setting, so it squeezes the image horizontally so that when run through a digital signal processor it will display properly on widescreen TV’s in the right setting. The guide frame setting is something of a mystery to me: presumably it exists to help framing for cropping into 16:9 later in post while actually shooting in 4:3, but the box it creates is centered and does not actually encompass the full and exact aspect ratio. Perhaps it’s just there to tell you where the center of the frame is? I did not find it useful. The 170 claims to have a 30p setting, but this is sadly more marketing hoo-ha, and the camera is actually just pushing together 60 interlaced frames into 30 progressive frames (plus, this feature is unavailable in widescreen).

Image Control
Both cameras tout great color saturation even when using gain in low light conditions. The 300 edges out the 170 in low light performance (a minimum lux rating of .5 vs. 1, respectively), but both are obviously superb in this regard. This has much to do with their fantastic gain controls, where the 300 again beats the 170 with a max of 36 dB versus 18 dB. That said, the 170 can still keep pace with the 300 by producing noise free images all the way up to around 14 dB, where both start to falter. Both are capable of iris control to the tune of 12 f-stops between 1.6 and 11. Each has a passable auto exposure feature, but only the 300 is capable of programming and saving exposure settings, very useful for situations where, say, you need to follow a subject outdoors on the fly. The 170 is capable of shutter speeds between ¼th to 1/10,000th of a second while the 300 can only perform at 1/60th to 1/2,000th of a second. So while I wouldn’t count on being able to capture a bullet in mid-flight on either camera, the 170 gives you some more options if you want to incorporate blur effects. The 300 has four ND filters to the 170’s two, but both sets are quality and you should be fine in most settings with either camera (unless shooting in the Fortress of Solitude). Both have quick automatic white balancing (as well as a few pre-sets, in case you’re desperate), but only the 300 features manual adjustment of color temperature by degrees, for a mathematically precise exposure. In terms of tendency towards vertical smear, wherein lights or other reflecting objects create a vertical column of light that can run across the entire frame, the 300 wins by a hair, although most of the time it seems too close to call. Not everyone considers the ability to smear with a certain degree of control a bad thing, but neither camera really gives you the option anyways.

Physical Design and Layout
The 170 definitely provides a good selection of digital and analog connectors on its casing by featuring three RCA connectors, an S-Video, and 4-pin iLink. But, the 300 goes above and beyond the call of duty with: two RCA’s, S-Video, 6-pin Firewire, Genlock VBS input, a BNC output for monitors, a VTR/CCU for external device control, and multiple jacks for TC in/out. Both cameras have dedicated rings for focus and for their 12x zooms that are ridged for grip (though a knob mounted on the zoom would be nice on the 170). Both sets of rings have almost the perfect amount of drag, other than the 170’s slightly-too-tight focus. The 170’s auto-focus is exceptional for a camera of its class, and you will rarely see it noticeably focus hunt. The 300 does not have an auto-focus, but attaining a sharp focus is easy on its razor sharp, 23,000 pixel viewfinder, further aided in black and white for stark contrast. The eyepiece can be flipped up to expose the viewfinder and the entire mounting can be slid laterally to accommodate shooters of all shapes and sizes.

At 12.6 lbs fully loaded, the 300 is of average weight for shoulder mounted cameras, but if you’re not used to running and gunning for hours on end, it can weigh you down. However, it does feel very evenly balanced and it features a gel-pad shoulder rest. The zoom, VTR, and manual/auto iris can all be controlled with the right hand while holding the camera steady, freeing the left hand for a whole other host of controls clustered around each other for easy reach: ND filters, audio boost, gain, white balance, and zebra settings . Many of the rest of the controls are only accessible through the switches on the flip-out side panel that hides them, meaning that you’ll have to unhoist if you want to adjust them. For some reason Sony didn’t think it was necessary to include the battery life on the viewfinder, but other than that I was impressed overall. In general, the 300 feels very natural when having to juggle adjusting focus, zoom, framing etc. on the fly.

The 170 is a solid brick of a handheld camera at almost 4 lbs. fully loaded, making it almost as tiring to operate for hours on end off a tripod as the 300. This problem is slightly exacerbated since the placement of the handgrip is slightly behind the center of gravity. As a result the 170 is naturally front heavy, and this problem is worsened with the wide-angle lens attached. These relatively minor handling issues aside, the 170 is expertly designed for a hand-held operation or use on a monopod. Like the 300, most of the critical options for image control have their own buttons, but their location on the camera has been adapted around hand-held use, albeit with less success. Localizing the white balance, shutter speed, audio levels, gain, and AE shift around a central jog wheel is simple and effective, but I’d rather have some of those settings on the same side as the LCD screen up the body of the camera, like the iris and ND filter switches. As is, you must either crane your neck back or flip the camera down and lose the shot to adjust other settings. The auto/manual focus switch is in this easy to reach space though, including a push-auto button right underneath.

Learning Curve
I can’t think of a single critical image control without a dedicated button on the 300 (even the skin tone and viewfinder have their own switches and knobs). This is a plus since its menu system can be clumsy and counter intuitive thanks to mediocre organization and poor navigation with the jog wheel. Getting used to the menu intricacies contributes much to a pretty steep learning curve. Mastering the additional goodies also contribute considerably, such as the “free run” preset on a chosen master camera that designates a synched time code for all others connected to it. Or the system for indexing and marking scenes while shooting. Or the Edit Search function that will let you go straight to the end of the time code so that there are no gaps. These features, combined with the phenomenal life of almost 3 hours on its best battery and the capability to use the large format 184 minutes tapes, make the DSR-300 the easy winner for shooting multi-camera setups if you happen to be shooting an event, conference, or multi-subject dialogue.

On the other hand, the PD-170’s learning curve is noticeably easier, thanks to previously mentioned features (like autofocus), a more streamlined menu system, and a handful of additional automatic digital effects that, in my opinion, are not really suitable for professional use. To name a few: a fade out video transition, a ghosting trail effect, and a glitchy double-exposure mode, all of which could be accomplished with more precision in post. The 170 can also take still images and hold up to 988 of them on their 64 MB Memory Stick flash cards, but the image quality is a joke compared to even the cheapest consumer cameras or even phone cameras (a little over 1/3 megapixel). Still, I could see it being useful if you wanted save a shot composition on a medium that could immediately be transferred to a hard drive.

Audio
The audio control options and physical configuration for the 170 average out to be good but ultimately not impressive given the competition of not just the 300, but other dual XLR input equipped DV cameras that sample at 48k. In the end, it comes down to the fact that the breakout box isn’t as impressive as it sounds on paper. Having the channel controls for both audio lines up and removed from the rest of the camera body sounds great, but how often are you going to need to change between mic and line on the fly or switch on and off the phantom power? I’ve read other testimonials claiming that this design eliminates noise created by the motor drive of the tape deck, but I can’t think of a single time when I’ve noticed such a disturbance in cameras where the XLR inputs are housed close to the deck (like on the Panasonic DVX-100). The 170’s audio control might be above par if the adjustor for audio levels was moved from the back jog wheel and given a set of dedicated controls, preferably in an easy to reach place, like the breakout box. Having a microphone holder that will accept other shotgun mics than the included one is definitely a step up from a built-in microphone, but hopefully you won’t have to rely on a mic mounted on the camera at all, making this something of a moot point.

The audio support for the 300 is fantastic comparatively, everything that you’d want from a professional camera. There are three XLR inputs plus a mounted mic, but the camera can still only record onto 2 channels at once and the third input is at the front of the camera, whereas the other two are conveniently located at the very back of the camera. That said, the button for switching between lines is reasonably accessible and so I still count this as a valuable asset. More importantly, the level controls have a dedicated button for each channel and a general boost conveniently located in the front left cluster of controls on the camera.

Conclusion
These two cameras really are two different birds with two different personalities, although you may have trouble distinguishing between footage captured by either one. The 170’s no slouch, but the 300 has a clear, but perhaps trivial for some, edge in general perks and image control characteristics. These pro’s come at a cost though, and if you were thinking about purchasing either camera you can count on paying at least a few of hundred more for the 300’s (Sony has discontinued selling the 300’s and third party prices vary). The discrepancy of the sheer size of each camera will play a role in how much attention you want to attract while shooting in public, as well as how much shooting on sticks versus on the move you’re looking at. Whatever your preferences, both cameras deserve to be perused first if you’re not sure what is best for your next shoot.

In Order Not to Be Here (2002)

Deborah Stratmans \
In Order Not to Be Here is the inspired, award-winning vision from Chicago-based experimental filmmaker and artist Deborah Stratman. Rife with creepiness, In Order feels like a bad-dream—or a leaked surveillance video from a lurking shadow government—it’s a dreamy, objectively-haunting, quasi-surveillance video. It’s also a film that poses many questions, one being the inevitable query of categorization: docudrama or experimental narrative?

In Order opens with an aerial, infrared intelligence video of a k9-team, who is in the midst of a hunt; following radio command from a offscreen surveyor, the dog-team slogs through darkness to capture an unknown figure.

A more subdued middle-passage succeeds this gripping opening, shifting focus to an indexing of familiar suburban imagery (e.g. fast-food, fences, street-lights); alas, we confront the bleak reality of our consumer-driven milieu—and, yes, it’s also a reminder that we know the characteristics of a McDonald’s building far too well (!).

A memorable chase scene book-ends this and, again, Stratman experiments with the aerial point of view camera. In fact, Deborah employs a handful of experimental film techniques throughout, including modified usage of the Kuleshov Effect, which proves to be sharply effective in a small number of instances, the most notable being audio from a news report (or quasi-news report) detailing a fire, which plays over this concluding chase, and, in turn, bestowing new meaning upon the image—altering a unknown runner into a fleeing arsonist, adding a sense of suspense and story.

Subversive and soigne, subterraneous and shadowy, In Order Not to Be Here is trenchant proof that Deborah Stratman is a trail-blazer clearing her way to the forefront of contemporary experimental film.

Deborah will screen and discuss her newest work, an 55 minute experimental doc, O’er the Land (2008), on 4/15/09, part of Viva Documentary’s Winter Film Series. Deborah’s doc, The BLVD (’99), examines Chicago’s the subterranean street-racing culture, and will screen at viva doc on 4/7/09).

Deborah Stratman’s website, Pythagoras Film

Bullfight in Okinawa

Chris Marker’s Bullfight in Okinawa is a bizarre, 4 min documentary that introduces viewers to Japan’s subterranean past time of bullfighting. Part of Markers five-film “Bestiary” series, Bullfight employs observational documentary techniques and, in particular, Marker’s camerawork is impressive — tight framed shots, free-hand pans, and quick zooms all contribute to the film’s urgent sense of tension — and, if it weren’t for the suspense inducing music, this short-gem would be damn close to pure objective documentary cinema.

Be sure not to miss this short, hidden-gem — it’s only four minutes long, and is quite the bizarre spectacle — witness the primal rage of two seemingly bull-trainers as they shout at fighting bulls.

This film is part of the Viva Documentary 2009 film series.

Playing with Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze (2008).

Tuesday, April 21st

5:15pm @ the Michael Rabiger Center for Documentary Film.

1104 S. Wabash RM 407, Chicago, IL

Bigger, Stronger, Faster

In honor of the the end of the NFL season and the beginning of February, I want to share some video that I captured at True/False last year. Some of you may have heard me raving about a film called Bigger, Stronger, Faster, about America’s obsession with steroids. Well, I was going through some footage from my trip to the festival and it turns out that I shot a little bit of the intro and Q & A from the screening.


Bigger, Stronger, Faster intro True/False from Viva Documentary on Vimeo.

It was interesting to watch this clip now that a year has passed and I can find the DVD at Blockbuster, the public library or online with Netflix. It was great to see a young guy without a bunch of films under his belt be treated so well because he was willing to share such a personal story with the world. It didn’t hurt that the film made some poignant arguments about the place that steroids holds in American society but I think it was director Chris Bell’s willingness to put his story and his family’s story on the line that made this film so so compelling.

Here is another clip from the Q & A. If you haven’t seen the film yet, it might be nice to check it out before opening this next clip.


Q+A from True/False 2008 – Bigger, Stronger, Faster from Viva Documentary on Vimeo.

One the things that grabs me in this film is the familiarity of the opening. He starts off in a very personal / experimental form of showing us home videos with first person voice over but shifts to archive from our collective American memory to show how he has grown along side us. His commentary over moments in sports history, pop movie icons and recent political scandals puts us into his shoes for events that we witnessed ourselves so that we can see sports and entertainment from the perspective of a wide-eyed kid with dream of being a pro wrestler.

When we meet the present day Chris Bell, it’s understood that he is bitter about the world of professional sports but it’s intriguing that he still has a love for sports. I think that’s the ultimate reason that we’re willing to use him and his family as a mirror for our culture’s relationship with steroids. A father that sets a good example but let’s you live your own life, a mother who loves unconditionally and three brothers with completely different ways of coping with steroids in their lives.

We’re at that point where we need to come to terms with how we really feel about steroid use in the entertainment industry and in professional sports. It’s true that letting athletes use performance enhancing drugs would set a bad example for our youth but shouldn’t we hold actors and models to the same standards? Isn’t setting unrealistic expectations just as dangerous?

It isn’t the athletes as much as it’s the audience. Imagine how many players would make it through an NFL season without taking something for pain or weight loss. Would you pay for season tickets if your favorite player was allowed to sit out because of back pain or arthritis? Our expectations are unnatural so how can we expect them to be achieved naturally?

I, for one, would still buy a ticket knowing that all those things that society deems unethical are just par for the course. It might make me a bad person but know that I won’t be the only one there.

Film Review: Free Voice of Labor


As a white middle class citizen of the United States I have heard more subtle, passive prejudice towards Jewish Americans then any other group. Even in progressive universities I will strike up a conversation about wealth distribution and, what I can only assume is the modern day “Jewish Question,” will come up. This stereotype holds that Jewish Americans control large amounts of economic wealth in the United States and around the world, linking the Jewish heritage directly to the social ills of capitalism. This is obviously not a new judgment. But does it hold any truth? Whatever that means.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s two documentary filmmakers Steven Fischler and Joel Sucher exploring the history of Jewish Anarchism in the United States made the film Free Voice of Labor – The Jewish Anarchists. They focus on a group of self-proclaimed Jewish Anarchists who published a Yiddish newspaper Freie Arbeiter Stimme. Publication of this labor friendly periodical started in 1890 and went until 1977. During this time the publication featured poets, social critics, fiction writers, and a wide range of other authors who wrote creative and thought provoking material.

The film starts and ends with interviews from old, grandma and grandpa looking anarchists. This is not the usual image that comes into mind when one mentions a person who may call themselves anarchists, often being portrayed as violent, irrational, and militant in their beliefs.

Anarchy is often used to describe something with negative connotation. “If he gets elected we will fall into anarchy,” one might say when referring to a politician they do not like. But these film subjects are not “bomb throwers.” The subjects of this film and the filmmakers go out of their way to make this clear.

The film starts by examining the reasons why one might be an anarchist. For the revolutionaries in this film their struggle was given to them, most being immigrants in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Coming to the United States where the streets were said to be “lined with gold” was nothing but disappointment. Instead of gold they found long hours, low wages, and uncompassionate employers.

Unlike the other major revolutionary movement of the time, Marxism, these anarchists hold that no authority should have control over another body or mind, calling for a true democratic system not controlled by government, wages, or forms slavery. They are pacifists in this film and it shows not only though the subjects saying so but thought their social activities. The film highlights the unity that these people have, putting on dances and holding art and literature to the highest degree of respect.

The film puts faces on an ideology. By doing this the filmmakers can create empathy in the viewer, letting them relate not to an anarchist but a human being. This exploitation of emotion may allow for a better understanding of the ideology at hand, but this is not a constant. Anarchism is highly bastardized in the United States, which wouldn’t be a problem if the United States were full of well-informed citizens. Where is one going to learn about anarchism? In the books of the public education system? I think not. The choice to put human faces on this ideology may create an effect of better understand.

This method can also be used against the viewer, to decrease understanding of a topic by bombarding the viewer with faces and the personal affairs of the subjects, drawing attention away from issues and concepts. This is seen in the media coverage of politicians; Sarah Palin has a funny voice and totes her child around for the cameras but what does this tell me about her stance on gay-marriage? The answer has to be a solid nothing.

While I hold not doubt that there are Jewish capitalists it is absurd to suggest that they are capitalists because they are Jewish, any one can be a capitalist no matter if they are a Middle Eastern women, a Latin America man, a Jewish senator or an African American Mr. President. This film can be looked at as a historical piece, showing the working mans struggles that penetrate race, ethnicity, and religion. Lets put these silly notions of belief behind us, thank the leftists of the past for weekends and watch Steven Fischler and Joel Sucher 1980 documentary Free Voice of Labor – The Jewish Anarchists.

Watch the film online here.

Christo’s Valley Curtain (1974)


Christo’s Valley Curtain (1974)
A Film by Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Ellen Hovde, 16mm, color, 28 mins

Two years ago, a Christmas gift introduced me to a photograph of a giant, orange curtain:  The curtain spoke to me with its warm aura and summery temper, seducing me, raising questions, generating fantasies, and leaving me wanting more.  This was more than just an ordinary curtain — it was the valley curtain, a grand idea turned community-art-project from Bulgarian-born New York artist Christo, whose bold vision verified the positive effects art has on community, society, and the human spirit.  

Hanging a big curtain has a big impact.  

Bridging the quarter-mile valley of Rifle Gap, Colorado, Christo’s self-funded Valley Curtain project, put a small community to work by providing paying wages to the jobless.  Cristo’s project was quite ambitious, considering the project cost $775,000 and the curtain was only to hang for a mere 24 hours.

Nevertheless, it’s safe to say the Valley Curtain project was worth every penny.  In a cooperative effort to drape nine tons of orange, nylon-polymide fabric from four steel cables, suspended at 365 feet, completion was met with glowing achievement. 

Nominated for an Academy Award, Valley Curtain is a compelling twenty-eight minute documentary from renowned documentarians Albert and David Maysles, whom authentically capture the enthusiasm of all individuals involved with the curtain.  Shot on 16mm film, Valley Curtain is composed of warm imagery; sunlight floods through and illuminates the orange fabric as it flaps in the wind against a vibrant, blue-sky backdrop, successfully preserving the timeless beauty of the valley curtain, and, accurately archiving the sunny moral of the artist and his workers during a generally cheerful experience.

Inherent pacing prevents the film from ever lagging and allows Valley Curtain to move along briskly.  Truly a visual story, the Maysles Brothers allow the story to unfold by way of Christo’s enthusiasm, and, through the candid behavior of the participants, who experience significant changes stemming from being part of creating art.  Accompanied by strong, blossoming imagery, Valley Curtain is a flawless portrait of an artist that is not to be missed.

—Andrew Rosinski

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