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page created: 9/11/02

Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

Note: There is no techno-babble this week. Aspect ratios and the problems of film grain are dwarfed to no importance whatsoever when placed in the same column as one of the new releases.

Don't Look Now9/11: The Filmmakers' Commemorative Edition

Films are Personal

They affect each individual differently. I know, when I look back on those that have affected me in some way - in any way - rather than being simple entertainment, that they are special.

One of those films, directed by (imho) one of the giants of world cinema, Nick Roeg, is Don't Look Now*. While putting together this piece, I stopped by IMDBPro to check his credits and was reminded that one of the enfants terribles of the cinema is now 74, and like Tony Harvey, who directed The Lion in Winter*, I wait for his next film.

I screened two new DVD releases this evening. The first was Don't Look Now*. The other was a documentary, which I passed on when it was broadcast on television. I wasn't really ready to view it. I tried it tonight and found that I still wasn't prepared.

There are documentaries and there are documentaries. Some, like the work of the Maysles Brothers, are documentaries but are somehow in control of at least a bit of what occurs around them.

Others, like Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will*, billed as "the document of the Reich Party Day," isn't really a documentary at all. While not fiction, it is a totally controlled production, down to movable camera locations and multiple takes of Hitler, its star, performing for Ms. Riefenstahl's camera.

Robert Gardner's Dead Birds comes to mind, as somewhere between the two.

But 9/11*, the second film which I screened, made by a team of French filmmaking brothers, Jules and Gedeon Naudet, who had set about to do a simple documentary of a rookie firefighter, will most assuredly go down in history as one of the pinnacles of actuality/documentary filmmaking.

And I wasn't prepared to see their work on a 110-inch screen.

Nick Roeg trained as a camera operator and then cinematographer.

Check the credits for David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia and you'll find his name nearby that of Peter Newbrook. He did brilliant work as second unit photographer.

He moved on to cinematographer working on films like The Masque of the Red Death, the most (possibly the only) beautifully shot of the Roger Corman PoePix. Then came Nothing But the Best, and portions of Dr. Zhivago*.

Roeg photographed one of the film's memorable sequences - that of Yuri's mother's funeral. When I screened portions of the film with Freddie Young, who is credited for its cinematography, he pointed out that he had not shot that sequence, at the same time crediting Roeg with its brilliance. Even Lean, in discussing the change of cinematographers on the film, spoke of the situation as a creative conflict, never once denigrating Roeg's talent or input to the film.

Continuing in the mid 60s, Roeg photographed A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum*, Fahrenheit 451* and Far From the Madding Crowd, directed by John Schlesinger, which was blown up to 70mm for roadshow engagements. And then Roeg blossomed. In order, he directed and photographed Performance, Don't Look Now*, and The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Stress is something that is definable as one views a film.

It sneaks up on you as you watch Don't Look Now*. This is a thriller of the first degree. It is a film that was not made by either group decisions or by proxy. This is a Nick Roeg film, pure and simple, and Paramount has created a beautiful DVD, giving us the film, as it should look, proper film grain and all.

Don't Look Now* is the perfect example of a film created by someone at the top of their craft, in control of their actors, their story and their camera.

To me, Don't Look Now* is a must buy: an absolute necessity to the film library of any adult who loves film. For those who haven't seen it, I'm not going anywhere near the storyline. For young filmmakers or would-be filmmakers: get this DVD, watch it multiple times…and learn from the best.

As for 9/11*, it becomes much more personal. I'm certain that there are many who simply aren't ready for it. I found it extremely painful to watch.

Living in New York as I do, one cannot move very far without coming into contact with someone who either lost a family member, friend or business associate on September 11th. I was sitting thirty or so miles north watching the morning news when it all began. Someone in my son's dorm had turned on the television at school in Florida, as he was about to leave for class. The phone rang with the greeting "What the f**k is going on up there?!"

One of my best friends is with a brokerage firm which had offices in both Connecticut and in one of the World Trade Towers. I don't believe that I'd screen this for him. He lost over twenty friends and associates; at least one of whom he is certain went out a window.

So what can one say about Paramount's release of the documentary by the Brothers Naudet? It is bravura filmmaking. Brought on by simple fate.

On the commentary, one of the filmmakers explains that while he wanted to help in some way, he was not a trained firefighter, nor could he lend medical assistance. But he knew how to point a camera and keep the lens clean. And he placed himself in harm's way to try to document the horror brought on by a lunatic fringe of society, which felt that they too, had God on their side.

I'm thankful that there was some discretion in what was photographed (or edited), as no one, except those who will take pleasure from this film, needs to see or hear more. This is one of those cases in which what we do not see is sometimes more horrific than what we do. One's stress level must be in overload as this film is viewed.

But 9/11* is and will be one of the documents of our time, representing our time to future generations. It is a film made by documentarians very much in the wrong place at the wrong time. More for those outside of the New York area than those who have been too close to the events of September 11th, this film places you in the center of the horror, of the bravery, of the confusion and brings it home very much in the first person. And as a testament of and to the New York Firefighters who were the basis of the intended documentary, all of whom made it back to the house at the end of the day, no finer film has ever been created. It goes directly to the hearts of all of those involved.

Unless you were directly involved in the events of September 11th, in which case it is understandable that viewing this film may be an impossibility, 9/11* is a documentary which should be placed on a shelf for that time when it can be taken down and played.

9/11* reminds me of a comment made by Abel Gance, director of Napoleon. When he was re-cutting some of his earlier footage into a new version of the film in 1970, he began to pull old rolls of film from rusted cans and unwind the nitrate strips, which he had made some 45 years earlier. He found the grain, the silver particles on the film, to be akin to grains of wheat one might find in an ancient Egyptian tomb. Throwing those grains to the wind might well yield new plants, thousands of years after their entombment. In a like way, the old strips of nitrate could be reproduced, allowing them to live again.

There are few filmed documents outside of 9/11* and the Zapruder film, which will have a value hundreds of years in the future. 9/11* is gutsy, brilliant, seat-of-the-pants, guerilla filmmaking at the highest level, and an unfortunate record of our time.

Robert Harris


* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD.

Don't forget - you can CLICK HERE to discuss this article with Robert and other home theater enthusiasts online right now at The Home Theater Forum. And speaking of that, thanks to the HTF's Ron Epstein for the picture of Robert seen in the column graphic above.

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