Some classics, and the greatest docs you never saw

HAVE YOU ever noticed just how many feature-length documentaries have been made and released in the past decade? It’s quite stunning, really.

This explosion in documentary filmmaking can mostly be chalked up to two factors: the digital revolution (which suddenly allowed “broadcast-quality” sound and visuals to be captured for a miniscule fraction of the cost of traditional 16mm or 35mm celluloid film), and –once again—the digital revolution (which allowed for low-budget and big-budget docs alike to receive international distribution online, something which most never received in the past, no matter how incredible they were).

However, there was a time, right up until the late 1990s, when taking an independent documentary film from inception to theatrical release took a tremendous amount of money, effort and luck in order to reach fruition. Back in those days, it was nearly impossible for someone to come up with the finances, equipment and crew required to shoot and post-produce even the most bare-bones, full-length docs – especially if their subject matter was even remotely out of the interests of mainstream viewers.

As a result, scores of worthwhile docs which actually did get completed never wound up with any meaningful distribution, and many remain essentially “lost” and unseen to this day.

Unearthing some of those forgotten treasures of non-fiction filmmaking was the idea behind the Psychotronic Film Society’s occasional showcase “The Greatest Documentaries You Never Saw,” which occurs every couple of months as part of the PFS’ ongoing Wednesday night series of marginalized or underappreciated world cinema at the Sentient Bean Coffeehouse.

Because the goal is to have audience members arrive without any preconceived notions of what sort of documentary they will see, the exact titles and specific details of each carefully curated selection remain a secret until showtime. However, they all share these common denominators: these titles are respected and acclaimed by other documentary filmmakers (and may have won industry awards); they focus on unusual or unconventional subject matter; they are extremely difficult to find and view otherwise.

This can be said of the “Mystery Doc” being screened at the Bean on Jan. 29 was the very first directorial effort by a documentarian who would go on to become one of the most revered and influential independent auteurs of his generation, and this extremely strange look at the inhabitants of a small community just a few hours from Savannah is a gem which has never been released on DVD, Blu-Ray or digital streaming anywhere in the world. Showtime is at 8 p.m.

The following Wednesday, Feb. 5, the PFS salutes charismatic and odd Japanese leading man Joe Shishido, who recently passed away at the age of 86 after enjoying decades of cult stardom among fans of peculiar foreign cinema. Known for both his surgically enhanced cheekbones (no, seriously) and for his roles in a handful of somewhat avant-garde comedic crime flicks from the 1960s, he is perhaps best loved for his portrayal of the main protagonist in director Seijun Suzuki’s bonkers take on the hard-boiled hitman genre, 1967’s B&W masterpiece of inscrutability “Branded To Kill!”, in which Shishido plays a contract killer on an almost absurdly ridiculous mission.

Hilarious, thrilling and perplexing all at once, “Branded To Kill!” brazenly thumbed its nose at established norms of linear storytelling and logical plot and character development, with the result being a bizarre, sexy action flick that’s as hard to follow as it is impossible to ignore.

In fact, it was so odd and ahead of its time that the studio who financed it (Nikkatsu) reportedly terminated the director’s longstanding contract immediately afterward! The PFS will screen the full, uncut version of this feature in the original spoken Japanese, with English subtitles. 8 p.m. showtime.

On Jan. 30, a few blocks away from the Bean at Trustees Theater, SCAD’s Cinema Circle continues its “Trendsetters” series of movies which made a tremendous impact on the fashion world (or which serve as a phenomenal salute to important movements in fashion), with a rare public screening of director Sophia Coppola’s 2006 historical drama “Marie Antoinette,” starring Kirsten Dunst, “The” Rip Torn and Steve Coogan.

This post-modern take on the final days of the titular Queen’s reign before the commencement of the French Revolution blends contemporary elements with pitch-perfect recreations of the design and fashion of those times. Visually reminiscent of 1970s period pieces by the likes of such celebrated directors as Ken Russell (“The Devils”), it did not fare well at the box office, but was awarded the Oscar for Best Costume Design., and has earned a small but loyal legion of fans worldwide.

The film will be introduced by both SCAD Fashion History professor Julie Johnson Olson and SCAD Film & TV Sound Design Professor David Stone, who will also lead an audience Q&A afterwards on the making of the film, with a particular emphasis on its usage of both fashion and production design to replicate the time period depicted. 8 p.m. showtime.

Heading out to the Southside, on Feb. 1 the AMC Savannah 11 multiplex behind the Savannah Mall offers a live, high-definition simulcast of The Gershwin Brothers’ famed 1935 African-American-centric opera “Porgy and Bess,” courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera House. The story of a disabled homeless person panhandling on the streets of Charleston, S.C. (and the drama which unfolds around his love for a woman whose life is endangered due to her associations with violent characters), it was overlooked for decades before both a 1959 big-screen adaptation and a 1976 revival brought the acclaim it now enjoys.

This new staging at the Met is said to hew far closer to the Gershwins’ original intentions than many of the countless subsequent productions which have been mounted since its debut. For those unfamiliar, this show marks the premiere of “Summertime,” which is now considered an American Standard. This performance runs close to four hours in length. Showtime is at 12:55 p.m. If you miss this live simulcast, an encore will be shown on Feb. 5 at 6:30 p.m.

Out at the historic Mars Theatre in the small, nearby city of Springfield, Ga., Jan. 30 marks that cozy venue’s final screening of the recently released reboot of the Doctor Dolittle franchise. Simply branded as “Dolittle,” this latest attempt at making a buck off the old tale of a physician who winds up with the ability to understand and converse logically with all manner of animals stars Robert Downey, Jr. (for some reason sporting a Johnny Depp/Jack Sparrow vibe) and has received mixed reviews from adults. Kids, however, will probably enjoy it. At least, certain types of kids. 7 p.m. showtime.

Moving back downtown, local film organization CinemaSavannah continues its annual tradition of showing a collection of many of this year’s Oscar-nominated short films. For most of us, this is the only opportunity we’ll ever have to see any of these critically praised shorts on the big screen, as their creators intended.

CinemaSavannah founder Tomasz Warchol personally selects which of these short films (in the categories of animation, documentary and live action) he feels will be most appreciated by local viewers. This event takes place at downtown’s Savannah Cultural Arts Center near the Civic Center.

If you are driving to this screening, make sure you factor in some additional time to find a nearby parking space in a public garage or on the street, as there is no dedicated parking lot onsite. 7 p.m. showtime, and Warchol reminds potential attendees that –for matters of expediency– cash is always preferred at the box office over credit cards.

Speaking of CinemaSavannah, that organization received a big boost a few weeks back when their one-show-only engagement of South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho’s latest masterpiece “Parasite” filled the SCAC to capacity. I’m told a few handfuls of folks were turned away from that screening as there was simply no more room at the inn.

However, on Feb. 4, SCAD is now showing “Parasite” for the second time (the first was as a pre-release sneak preview during its most recent SCAD Savannah Film Fest), as part of its Arthouse Series of recent, acclaimed indie and/or foreign films at the Lucas Theatre.

This creepy, anxiety-filled “blackhearted comic thriller” about the social tensions which arise between two Korean families –one extremely wealthy, one essentially destitute– blends elements of physical, almost slapstick humor with genuine dread, and is currently viewed as the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards (it’s the first South Korean film ever nominated for any Oscars, including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay).

If you’re familiar with Bong Joon-Ho from his earlier features, such as “The Host,” “Mother,” “Snowpiercer” and others, you already know what a phenomenally gifted and visionary filmmaker he is. If you are unfamiliar with his work, “Parasite” might be a great introduction. 7 p.m. showtime.

click to enlarge All About Eve
All About Eve

And finally, on Feb. 6, the Tybee Post Theater presents a single showing of 20th Century Fox’s classic 1950 suspense drama “All About Eve,” starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter. The tale of a legendary Broadway actress who finds herself unexpectedly challenged by a disturbingly aggressive fan, it received a whopping 14 Oscar nods and took home six of the little gold men at the 1951 ceremony, including Best Picture.

It’s so beloved and revered a motion picture that when the U.S. Library of Congress formed our National Film Registry and began preserving what experts deemed the most “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” movies in this country’s history, “All About Eve” was in the very first batch they approved. In fact, no less a cinema luminary than the late, great critic and author Roger Ebert opined that the incredibly esteemed Davis’ portrayal of the aging Broadway star Margo Changing was “her greatest role.” This is a great opportunity to catch a bona fide slice of Hollywood history. Showtime is at 7 p.m.

Until next week, see you at the movies, be kind to those around you, and don’t forget to turn off that cell phone.

Jim Reed directs the Psychotronic Film Society of Savannah.

About The Author

Jim Reed

Jim Reed is director of the Psychotronic Film Society.
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