One had hoped that the passage of over half a century from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s would provide a view of how far we’ve come as a society… not how far we might plunge backwards into Jim Crow era issues of racially demarcated voter suppression, unequal justice, scare-mongering, police violence and vigilantism. Let’s hope when we look back at 2020, it’s as the Shit Year in which those and other evils peaked before being beaten back.
As a result, the celebratory new documentary Mr. Soul!, which is available through the Roxie, CinemaSF, Rafael@Home and BAMFA’s virtual cinema programs as of today, is perhaps more plaintive in effect than its filmmakers intended. Sure, African Americans are far more prominent in popular media than they were in 1968, when sole Black movie star was Sidney Poitier and the few TV representations (sitcom Julia, action series I Spy, etc.) still smacked of cautious tokenism.
It was then that a former dancer and general arts entrepreneur named Ellis Haizlip helped get on-air a live-from-New York “Negro entertainment talk show” called Soul! that wound up running on PBS for five years. It was green-lit amidst a concerted effort to use public television to heighten minority profiles and encourage interracial understanding. By 1973, however, the Nixon White House sought to squelch voices of difference and dissent—so Soul! (not solely) lost its funding.
In the interim, however, it had provided something so extraordinary it’s remarkable the program has been so little-remembered until now. Aiming to be “true to the Black experience” at a particularly politicized moment in which real, sweeping change seemed not just possible but necessary, it cast a much wider net than something like the later Soul Train. Melissa Haizlip and Sam Pollard’s documentary does indeed draw on incredible musical clips from the likes of Al Green, Patti LaBelle, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Billy Preston, Earth Wind & Fire, and others, for many of whom the show offered their first TV exposure.
But the 130 or so episodes also had room for The Last Poets and Nikki Giovanni; a two-hour tete-a-tete with James Baldwin; community heroes like Poitier and Muhammad Ali; emerging black choreographers; politically controversial leaders including Kathleen Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and Louis Farrakhan; feminist as well as church figures; groovy video-art visual innovations; avant-garde jazz and roots musics; extensions of the umbrella to Puerto Rican artists and other “brown” people; plus a lot of serious talk. Much of that talk was led by the self-effacing Haizlip himself, who was hardly a born televisual “host” type, but appointed himself to an on-camera role in the same spirit of earnest inquiry that he operated as Soul’s co-producer.
A great deal of the archival footage excerpted in Mr. Soul is exhilarating. Yet there’s a sadness to the show’s rediscovery as well, because 2020 America seems just as much in need of its community forum and empowerment messaging as 1968 did, for almost exactly the same dismal reasons.
Other music-centric documentaries new to streaming are Other Music, a star-studded remembrance of the badly missed titular NYC record store; and Vinyl Nation (playing CinemaSF and Rafael@Home), about the surprise popular rebound of that format amidst an otherwise decimated landscape for physical entertainment media (CDs, DVDs, etc.). Venturing into other creative fields, Werner Herzog’s latest Nomad (in Roxie Virtual Cinema and Rafael@Home) has the fabled filmmaker examining his affinities with a fellow globe-trotting adventurer, the late English novelist and journalist Bruce Chatwin. House of Cardin (playing the Roxie, CinemaSF and Rafael) celebrates the career of the still-active, 98-year-old French fashion designer whose innovations have encompassed everything from clothing the Beatles to hiring multiethnic models and (for better or worse) the “branding” of myriad products and services worldwide.
A very different kind of versatile creative personality is the actor, producer and endearing goofball at the center of You Cannot Kill David Arquette, which charts his return to the scene of a “crime”: Professional show wrestling, where he promoted his tie-in comedy Ready To Rumble twenty years ago, somehow becoming the “most hated man” in the pseudo-sport. This new documentary documents his return to prove himself in the ring—a seemingly jokey proposition that by all accounts actually turns out to be rather poignant.
Amongst more politically angled documentaries, a can’t-miss is the arrival of Feels Good Man, about the San Francisco comics artist whose creation became (to his horror) a favorite far-right meme. Austrian filmmaker Herbert Sauper’s Epicentro (at CinemaSF) takes what feels like a last, nostalgic pulse-taking of Fidel’s Havana—physically decaying but still full of cultural life—before what seems an inevitable eventual return to external capitalist exploitation.
And finally, there’s the re-release (available through the Roxie) of expatriate US director Robert Kramer’s 1989 Route One/USA, itself a look at a similar world—an East Coast of small towns and rural landscapes drained spiritually and otherwise after years of Reaganomics. This four-and-a-quarter-hour slice of melancholy nonfiction Americana is a major work that was hard to access even during its miniscule original release, so if you were looking for another elusive Satantango-type celluloid mountain to climb during quarantine, here ya go.
Among new narrative features, a couple imports take viewers well off the familiar beaten paths, literally as well as figuratively. Originally given the somewhat better title Boyz in the Wood, Get Duked! is music video director Ninian Doff’s very funny comedy about three “young delinquents” (and one homeschooled naif) dumped in the Scottish Highlands for a camping weekend that’s meant to be improving, in an Outward Bound, straighten-up-and-fly-right-
These would-be urban gangbangers are hardly up to roughing it, let alone the unexpected perils of some demented aristos (Eddie Izzard, Georgie Glen) bent on “culling the weakest animals for the good of the herd”—in other words, hunting chavs for sport in order to make Britain lighter and whiter. Add hallucinogenic drugs, hiphop posturing, Keystone-like local cops, plus a smidge of The Wicker Man, and Get Duked! (which is new to Amazon Prime) easily rates as one of the year’s smarter exercises in dumb fun.
Likewise finding a bit more adventure than desired is Panos (Prometheus Aleifer) in Minos Nikolakakis’ mythologically inspired Greek fantasy Entwined. On the rebound from some murky personal tragedy, he’s accepted a post as the new (perhaps first-ever?) doctor in a remote village where the locals are not, to put it mildly, very welcoming. They whisper of a “cursed girl” living in the woods, whom he soon meets. His impression of Danae (Anastasia Rafaella Konidi), who suffers from an odd, bark-like skin condition, is that she simply needs medical care—and rescue from an apparently abusive domestic situation. But she doesn’t want to leave. And Panos, to his distress, soon finds that the forest won’t let him leave, either.
This lyrical supernatural tale, built on equal degrees of doomed romance and malevolent fairy-tale horror, merits credit for refusing to stick with any particular genre’s conventions. It’s offbeat and often visually lovely, yet also a bit dull, with too much riding on lead performers who don’t bring a lot of charisma (or even physical allure) to the table. As predatory-tree-spirit movies go, it’s more poetic but not half so much fun as the recent thriller The Wretched. Not to mention such so-bad-they’re-good golden oldies as 1990’s The Guardian (a movie so bad that Exorcist director William Friedkin neglected to mention it in his career memoir) or 1957’s inimitable walking-tree-stump drive-in horror opus From Hell It Came. Entwined opens in some virtual theaters today, then goes to major VOD platforms Sept. 8.