The Hunley, the latest installment in Ted Turner's campaign to re-create the entire Civil War, tells the story of the first successful military deployment of a submarine -- depending, that is, on how you define success, since in its brief career the machine killed four times as many of its own crew as it did the enemy. (C'est la guerre.) Armand Assante, that moody, broody, ethnically adaptable international everyman, adds Confederate Lieutenant George Dixon to a store of roles that already includes Odysseus, John Gotti, Bugsy Siegel, Mike Hammer and Napoleon; an actor who can somehow underplay and overact at once, he is so charged with manliness that, even at twice the actual age of the character he is portraying, one can imagine no better candidate to attempt to break the Union blockade of Charleston. Director and co-writer John Gray (who also helmed TNT's engrossing The Day Lincoln Was Shot) sees The Hunley as "a classic movie formula about a rag-tag unit of men who come together, each with his own set of problems and differences, which they are able to overcome and accomplish something that has never been done before, and take their place in history," and though he means it as a recommendation, it also indicates how close the picture drifts to parody; you may note also how easily "classic movie formula" inverts to "classic formula movie." But when the male bristling and bonding is left ashore, and the sub -- a cramped iron cigar, powered by hand crank -- gets swimming, and the special effects get effective, the movie is convincing, scary, horrible fun. (Pretty accurate, too, my limited research tells me.) The always-welcome Donald Sutherland, as Dixon's superior officer, does not break a sweat -- but when was that ever his style?
Jessica Yu's The Living Museum, now airing on HBO, concerns the arts program at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, in Queens, New York; its director, Dr. Janos Marton; and several star inmates. A motley and engaging crew (the good doctor included), they might as easily have been dreamed up by a screenwriter as by providence, though had they been they would not speak half so coherently. Pathology and therapy are not so much the issues here as are perception and identity -- allowing incarcerated patients to reconceive themselves as working artists and helping them learn, in Dr. Marton's words, "how to transform your vulnerability into your weapon through art." If he doesn't quite go so far as to state, as sentimental filmmakers sometimes do, that crazy people are really the sane ones, he does find them "extremely blessed with creative potential," and is on this score as given to hyperbole as some of his more delusional charges. The only difference between the Living Museum and the Museum of Modern Art or the Whitney, he says, "is that we are better, we are more interesting, because we are more honest."
Honesty, of course, only goes so far: Who'd sit through a film about, er, nutjobs who produced a lot of honest crap? Happily, if that's the word, there's an abundance of talent at Creedmoor, and where there's not exactly talent, there's a free yet disciplined connection of mind and hand that's nearly as impressive. Yu, whose Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, about a writer who lives in an iron lung, won an Oscar, has framed their creations well; her handsome film judges no one, is sympathetic to and respectful of the work, listens attentively and looks carefully. Would we all treated our fellows so well.
Of course, in our modern 10MB-of-free-Web-space-with-your-account world, we are all potentially the proprietors of our own galleries of flotsam, jetsam and effluvium. (My accountants, coincidentally.) Doug Block's documentary Home Page begins as an investigation of Internet diaries and those global villagers who have opted to let it all hang out online; but quickly it turns into a kind of running profile of colorful Web celeb Justin Hall (then at Swarthmore, and the author of the compulsively revealing Justin's Links From the Underground) and his friends and associates on the ethereal frontier, with the 43-year-old Block's own midlife crisis forming an inchoate descant throughout. It will tell you a thing or two about cyberpublishing, c. 1996, but what it demonstrates more thoroughly, perhaps not by intention, is the seductive energy of the young -- their pierced and tattooed splendor, their uncashed futures and fluid sexuality, their precocious success and creepy candor, their headstrong naiveté and fatal self-absorption -- and its effect on the filmmaker himself. (And in turn upon his patient wife, for whom the term long-suffering might have been coined.) It's all pretty diverting. If nothing else, it demonstrates just how much can be accomplished with a Hi-8 video camera; though I bemoan the passing of the film standard -- celluloid still imparting, to my eye anyway, the gloss of art -- that is a prejudice the children of century 21 will find laughably quaint.
Before the Earth went virtual, people had actually to physically travel to experience the world beyond their window. This absurd, primitive practice was made markedly more civil by the Fred Harvey Company, which built rest stops, hotels and eateries along the Santa Fe line -- as celebrated in The Harvey Girls (Judy Garland, Ray Bolger) and less tunefully in a new documentary on the woman perhaps most responsible for the public face of the tourist's Southwest, Mary Jane Colter: House Made of Dawn. Shortly after the turn of the century, Colter went to work for Harvey, designing and decorating some of their most important buildings -- including, on a local note, the restaurant and lounge at L.A.'s Union Station -- creating a highly refined, learned and empathetic pop architecture out of rough native materials and Hopi and Hispanic construction techniques and decorative traditions. Even though located in the actual West, there is an element of virtuality about these places -- artificial constructions that offer a directed, Disneylandian experience, built to convey the authentic essence of the land on which they only lately sat. Some, like Hermit's Rest, at the Grand Canyon -- where most of her buildings are found -- have a programmatic backstory; for "realistic" atmosphere, Colter built in cracks, hand painted soot, sandblasted wood to simulate weathering and carefully constructed the appearance of randomness. The film, written and directed (with a structural debt to Ken Burns) by Karen Bartlett, who writes for such magazines as The Craftsman Home Owner, is neither perfectly organized nor executed, but the little list of complaints I've drawn up seems to me on reflection hardly worth publishing. All in all, it's a deserving subject well explicated, with nice old pictures out of the archives and nice new ones of the old places, beautifully shot (on film, I might note) by Sean McLin.
A different sort of Western monument, and one much better known, is the subject of Lourdes Portillo's Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena. Coming as it does under the auspices of public TV's P.O.V. series, and not of Behind the Music, it is concerned less with the tabloid details of the assassinated singer's life than with her transformative effect on her community -- in the local, the racial and to some extent the musical sense. Corpus stands for Corpus Christi, her hometown, but also for the power of saintly relics -- no little time is spent at the gravesite, interviewing pilgrims -- and for the way in which Selena's success made glamorous the Latina body. (One woman, not a fan, buys a Selena keychain because it was "the first time I saw a Chicana on a keychain that wasn't the Virgin of Guadelupe.") Portillo (Oscar-nominated for the 1985 Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo) had never heard of Selena before her death, and her film is animated by an ingenuous curiosity: "Home movie" is apt, not only for that reason, and for the actual home movies it incorporates, and for the fact that a community is a family as well, but also for its patchwork juxtapositions of scenes and voices (family and fans, deep thinkers, a drag queen, and numerous young aspirants to what might be called Selena: The Next Generation). Corpus flits quickly from post to post, yet it gets across not only the outlines of the life and the range of influence, but something of the size of the talent, and of the tragedy.
© Robert Lloyd 1999 and 2011