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The Documentary Edition
On The Velvet Underground, content, and form
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Jeff here. No film seems to have excited the New York City filmgoing obsessed—a group that has waited eighteen months to fill dark, subway noise-laden rooms—than Todd Haynes’ documentary, The Velvet Underground. Yes, it’s currently in your living room on Apple+, but not for us. For us, it’s at Film Forum, where a woman a few seats over relayed her story of seeing a Kurosawa retrospective WITH Lou Reed in the late 80s. Can’t get that in your living room. (Well, you can, but you’d have to invite that woman over.)
What is so stunning about the film is how intimate the experience feels. The filmmaker’s decision to rest the faces of his subjects on screen for extended periods of time had a near-hypnotic effect. You find yourself studying Lou Reed and John Cale as younger men. You find yourself searching their faces for clues to a puzzle that’s never been solved, and you're sure as hell not going to be the one to solve it.
Why is this interesting?
I’ve always thought great documentaries fall into two categories: content and form. The content docs captivate you with information. Alex Gibney is the master of this form (Enron, Client 9, Going Clear, etc.), but the binge-worthy, true crime doc drug—of which I must admit an addiction—has elevated the medium from high art, coffee shop conversation to pop culture phenomena. (Tiger King felt like the most talked-about documentary in the history of the country.)
The form docs are a trickier enterprise. Whether it’s Errol Morris’ interrotron locking into the eyes of Robert McNamara or DA Pennebaker’s fly-on-the-wall witnessing Elaine Stritch’s cast recording breakdown or Barbara Kopple’s penetrating look at the coal miners of Harlan County, the form docs seem to change the way we look at the world by changing the way that world is framed for us, the viewer. (Great recent examples are 2019’s American Factory and Minding the Gap.) Put succinctly, the great content docs are grounded in what is being presented on screen; the great form docs in how it’s presented.
The great music docs almost exclusively fall into this latter group. Behind the Music episodes are not great documentaries, entertaining though they may be. The Sparks Brothers was an intriguing look at an intriguing band, and History of The Eagles was endlessly entertaining, but ultimately those films are limited by how much the viewer actually cares about the work the band produced. (In both the aforementioned cases, my level is somewhere near zero.) The truly great music docs—The Last Waltz, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Stop Making Sense—captivate you with the originality of their storytelling.
Velvet Underground doesn’t fit the mold. It’s relatively straightforward in its structure, yet never feels that way. The film seems to live on the fringes of linearity, just as the band lived on the invisible fence dividing the frail concepts of "pop culture" and "subculture".
This is not a documentary about a band. It is a documentary about art; about artists; about a particular time in a particular place; about the ephemerality of greatness. And most importantly, these themes are stylistically addressed as if the artists themselves had a hand in the filmmaking. This is not just a documentary about The Velvet Underground. It is a documentary of The Velvet Underground. As far as documentaries go, this is that rare achievement that fits comfortably in both the great content and form categories. (JH)
Color of the Day:
Of all the brands to accidentally leave out of yesterday’s WITI, I feel most ashamed for not including Financial Times salmon. I was properly ridiculed in WITI Slack for my oversight. A few other good ones people mentioned: Bianchi Celeste, navy blue, and Louboutin red. (NRB)
This weird xtra normal video (remember that?) apparently caused quite the stir in the world of Google engineering a decade ago. It’s about the difficulties in getting work done at the company as an engineer. (NRB)
Per thinking tools and Steven Johnson, another one of his ideas called a “spark file” (just a text file you right random ideas in) was the inspiration for a recent post of mine on adapting the format for product ideas. (NRB)
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Funding climate action. Philanthropy can be a powerful source of funding pitched at addressing societal problems: in 2020, US-based grant makers alone disbursed nearly $64 billion. How much of that targeted the climate-change challenge? Just $320 million. That's not enough, given the scale of the problem and the urgent need for climate action. A new article goes deeper on how philanthropy can step up, especially in three focus areas.
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)
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