Aspen Times Weekly: What’s Up? Docs
Teller, the silent, shorter member of the magic duo Penn & Teller, recently made his debut as a documentary filmmaker. He directed “Tim’s Vermeer,” a portrait of an inventor who believes he has discovered the mysterious technique behind the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, then sets out to prove it by painting a Vermeer of his own. With his latest accomplishment, Teller thinks he has gained some insight into the world of documentaries:
“If everyone followed Walt Disney’s lead and called them ‘true-life adventures,’ they’d be more popular,” he said in an interview last month with The Aspen Times. “’Documentary’ makes it sound like something dry and dull.”
Teller is onto something as a filmmaker. “Tim’s Vermeer,” which was included in Aspen Film’s recent Academy Screenings program, is a fascinating story, well told. But as a spokesman for documentaries, his thinking seems to be outdated.
Look at the Wheeler Opera House. Three years ago they launched Monday Docs. The series was intended to bring back films that had proved popular at the Wheeler’s MountainSummit festival, and also to help keep MountainSummit, established four years ago in partnership with Mountainfilm in Telluride, in the minds of the public. But Monday Docs has quickly surpassed its original purpose. There are enough high-quality documentaries, and enough of an audience for them, that Gram Slaton, the Wheeler’s executive director, is scrambling for dates for all the “true-life adventures” he’d like to screen.
“I had many more to choose from than I had space for,” Slaton said of this year’s Monday Docs series, which opens Jan. 27 and is presented in partnership with Aspen Film and Mountainfilm. “They just kept coming and coming and coming. We’ve tried to find more space for them, so added a couple of Mondays. It’s moved from becoming a recap to booking those feature-length docs that get released too early for MountainSummit and Aspen Filmfest, and too late for Mountainfilm.”
The Wheeler released this winter’s Monday Docs program, expanded to seven screenings, a few weeks ago, and already it needs an update. One film — “The Armstrong Lie,” about bike racer Lance Armstrong — has been added to the schedule; another title is being strongly considered. This is on top of the screenings earlier this month of “The Crash Reel,” a documentary about snowboarder Kevin Pearce that was presented outside the Monday Docs series. In addition, the documentary “Bloody Couloir,” about a wheelchair skier, is being presented by an outside organization on Monday, Jan. 20 at the Wheeler.
The Wheeler is also bringing back its Rock Docs series. The series, which debuted last year, focuses on documentaries about music. (Not included in the series was “Celebration Day,” the Led Zeppelin concert film that was shown last week as part of the Wintersköl activities.) Slaton points to the film “20 Feet From Stardom,” a documentary about female back-up singers, as a film that in the past he would have put in the Rock Docs series. But the movie had a standard release in Aspen in the fall, and also showed at Academy Screenings.
“Two, three years ago, we could have shown something like that because no one would have seen it. Now these kinds of docs are just becoming mainstream,” Slaton said.
Thanks to documentarians like Michael Moore, whose provocative films “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Bowling for Columbine” drew broad audiences, and movies including “March of the Penguins” and “An Inconvenient Truth,” which racked up blockbuster attendance, moviegoers have become far more receptive to documentaries — no matter what they are called.
“It used to be a specialty item you ran in its own festival — MountainSummit, Mountainfilm — with maybe a few in Aspen Filmfest, as another flavor in that festival,” Slaton said. “Now it’s gotten to the point that docs are part of the general release schedule, showing in multiplexes. ‘20 Feet From Stardom’ is a perfect example.”
Driving the boom is a combination of technological, sociological and cinematic factors. On the technology side, the expense of creating good-looking footage is nothing like the barrier it was to producing a film than it had been since the birth of filmmaking. Teller said that, even a few years ago, he couldn’t have made the high-quality video he needed to make “Tim’s Vermeer” viable. Cinematically, filmmakers have learned that documentaries really can be told with a sense of adventure. And a good portion of the public seems to look at movies not as an escape from reality but a way to embrace it.
“These days, docs feel like the best stories out there,” Slaton said. “If you look at what ran in Academy Screenings, many of them were based on true stories: ‘12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Mandela,’ ‘Dallas Buyers Club.’ I think people are just hungry for real stories, told really well. The art of documentary storytelling has grown by leaps and bounds over the last five years.”
Slaton doesn’t limit his doc watching to what he sees in the Wheeler. “I love them. I watch them at home. If there’s a good doc, I’ll watch it over anything else,” he said.
Here’s what’s coming to the Wheeler:
• “Stories We Tell,” Jan. 27: Actor-director Sarah Polley turns the camera on herself, and on her family, with all its character, complications and secrets. “Stories We Tell” unfolds partly as a mystery, partly as an outstanding home movie, and partly as an intimate psychological examination and revelation. It has won a Canadian Genie award, as well as honors from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle.
• “Thomas Keating: A Rising Tide of Silence,” Feb. 3: Director Peter Jones offers a touching portrait of Father Thomas Keating, founder of the Snowmass Monastery, an important figure in the Centered Meditation movement, and an international figure in spirituality.
• “The Armstrong Lie,” Feb. 10-11: Director Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson”) was hired several years ago to make a portrait of cycling champ and part-time Aspenite Lance Armstrong’s return to racing. After the doping scandal, and finally Armstrong’s confession, the project was revived with a very different take on its subject. Slaton believes Aspenites will flock to the Wheeler: “I think, in this town, it can run for two days,” he said.
• “Uranium Drive-In,” Feb. 17: Telluride filmmaker Suzan Barza’s last film, “Bag It,” was a light-hearted take on the serious issue of plastic. This time the subject matter is serious and so is the tone. “Uranium Drive-In” looks at the proposed uranium mill in tiny Naturita, which will provide jobs to the struggling town but has also alarmed environmentalists. Barza does a magnificent job of taking in both sides. Screenings at Mountainfilm packed the festival’s biggest venue. Barza will be in attendance for a Q&A following the Wheeler screening.
• “Salinger,” Feb. 24: After writing the iconic “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Franny and Zooey” and “Nine Stories,” writer J.D. Salinger spent most of the rest of his life ducking the public. Screenwriter Shane Salerno spent much of his life — 20 years, reportedly — chasing down those close to Salinger as research for this documentary. It is said to be the most authoritative look at one of America’s most reclusive figures.
• “Antarctica: A Year on Ice,” March 3: New Zealand photographer Anthony Powell spent 15 years, including nine winters, creating a masterful visual document of life on the loneliest continent.
• “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” March 17: There really was no one like the funny, insightful, well-connected social commentator, the late Gore Vidal, as this portrait by Nicholas Wrathall firmly convinces viewers.
• “Maindentrip,” March 24: An examination of the Netherlands teenager Laura Dekker, and her determination to sail solo around the world.
• “Muscle Shoals,” Jan. 29: The well-made story of a recording studio in a small Alabama town that drew Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and many more, and earned an international reputation in the process.
• “The Porchlight Sessions,” Feb. 5: It’s not yet in release — in fact, it’s still being edited — so Aspenites will get a preview look at the story of how bluegrass music emerged out of Appalachia, and its continuing expansion. Among the featured musicians are old-schoolers Peter Rowan and Del McCoury, and rising stars Chris Thile, Mumford & Sons and Trampled by Turtles.
• “Good Ol’ Freda,” Feb. 19: A profile of the fifth (or sixth or seventh or whatever) Beatle, Freda Kelly, a shy Liverpudlian who worked as secretary for the band through the entire existence of the Beatles.
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