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Documentary Touchstones  

Michael Fox The pioneering and innovative films that paved the way for the contemporary documentary are well known yet rarely shown. Beginning with Nanook of the North, this screening-and-discussion class surveys several canonical works of lasting power and influence, concluding with a formative work by modern master Werner Herzog. The discussion will encompass such perennial issues as documentary ethics, the line between current events and history, the use of metaphor and poetry, and our evolving relationship to images. Oct. 23 Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922) An Inuit hunter and his family struggle to survive in the harsh conditions of Canada’s Hudson Bay region. Enormously popular upon its release, Nanook remains a milestone for its pioneering use of narrative techniques: a defined central character, structured and shaped scenes, and dramatic pacing (alternating action and calm). Robert Flaherty (1884-1951), arguably the first documentary filmmaker, also made Moana (1926), Man of Aran (1934) and Louisiana Story (1948). Oct. 30 Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) 68 min. A day in the life of a city from dawn until dusk. After an opening statement, there are no words (neither voice-over nor titles), just dazzling imagery kinetically edited—a celebration of the modern city with an emphasis on its buildings and machinery. Soviet director Dziga Vertov (1896-1954), pseudonym of Denis Arkadyevich Kaufman, developed the kino-glaz (film-eye) theory that the camera is an instrument—much like the human eye—that’s best used to explore the actual happenings of real life. Nov. 6 The Plow That Broke the Plains (Pare Lorentz, 1936) and The River (1938) “is a record of land... of soil rather than people -- a story of the Great Plains; the 400 million acres of wind-swept grass lands that spread up from the Texas panhandle to Canada. Born in West Virginia, Pare Lorenz (1905-92) was a film critic in New York when he was asked to set up a Federal film program in 1935 that would effectively highlight the problems of American agriculture. Nov. 13 Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1934) Employing 30 cameras and 120 assistants, Riefenstahl recorded the 1934 Nazi Party Congress and rally in Nuremberg, depicting Hitler simultaneously as a man of the people and a Wagnerian hero. Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) was a dancer, actress, filmmaker and photographer. Nov. 20 Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1956) Commissioned to mark the 10th anniversary of the liberation of the camps by the Allies, this half-hour work remains the most powerful condemnation to emerge from the postwar era. A legendary figure, Alain Resnais (1922-2014) created some of the most important films of the postwar era in a career spanning 70 years. Dec. 4 Primary (Robert Drew, 1960) Primary documents John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey campaigning in Wisconsin on the eve of the 1960 presidential primary. As an editor at Life magazine, Robert Drew (1924-2014) specialized in the candid still picture essay. As a Nieman Fellow he worked out theories for filmmaking based on candid photography in motion pictures. This class will view the films with some lecture and discussion. More details on the films and filmmakers, and other supplemental materials will be provided. Michael Fox is a San Francisco journalist and critic who has written about movies for more than 40 publications since 1987. He hosted KQED's "Independent View" and wrote the "Reel World" column in SF Weekly for a decade. Fox has sat on juries, moderated panels and contributed program notes for the San Francisco International, Mill Valley, United Nations Association and Cinequest film festivals. Fox is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.