A documentary or two (or three, even!) courtesy of downloads from Epix Vault on Demand:
Under the Gun (2016) – On December 14, 2012, with the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT that left 20 children and six adults dead, I convinced myself that this would be the time when this country was going to tackle its gun violence problem. I even wrote on my Facebook page: “If not now…when?”
I’m always struggling to keep my natural-born pessimism from rising to the fore when I write reviews like this but it soon became clear that other than a few “thoughts and prayers” it was going to be business as usual where America’s love of gun violence is concerned. The issue is addressed head on in Under the Gun, a 2016 documentary written, directed, and produced by Stephanie Soechtig, whose previous films include Tapped (2009—an expose on the bottled water industry) and Fed Up (2014—on the obesity epidemic). Former network news anchor/Today Show host Katie Couric executive produced Gun, as well as serving as its narrator.
The Sandy Hook massacre serves as a starting point for this riveting documentary, which also touches on the events that occurred in Aurora, CO in July of 2012 (James Holmes’ mass killings in the Century 16 movie theatre) and the Isla Vista, CA rampage in May of 2014 (Elliot Rodger’s shooting spree near UC Santa Barbara). Family members of those killed describe their awakening into activism, and it’s their personal stories that make Gun effective viewing; I had a great deal of difficulty watching poignant footage of Jessica Ghawi—one of the victims in the Aurora murders—as she attempts to stay upright on an ice rink in high heels (she was just starting out as an intern in her chosen field of broadcasting)…she seems so eager and full of promise.
Under the Gun is scrupulously fair (though if you stop to think about it…is anyone out there pro-gun violence?) and presents an even-handed examination of organizations like the National Rifle Association; Richard Martinez, the father of Isla Vista victim Christopher, may have harsh words for the NRA but is also honest when he notes that all of us are to blame due to our inaction in holding our craven politicians accountable. (Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights kind of get a pass, with Gun choosing to focus on the NRA’s transformation from huntsman-sportsman club [the NRA was in favor of the 1968 gun control legislation passed in the wake of the MLK/RFK assassinations] to lobbyist for gun manufacturers.) Two moments in the film really made me do a double take; Couric addresses a group of gun owners in a seated-chair setting and asks them how many of them are carrying guns right now. Everyone present raises their hands. (What, did they think Katie was packing?)
The above photo was Gun’s other memorable moment (providing me with the only laugh in the movie)—a responsible gun owner managing to shoot himself in the leg whilst on a target range (“I just f**king shot myself…“). NRA gundamentalist Wayne LaPierre likes to say: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun” but I liked the response of Tom Diaz, author of Making a Killing: “The problem is people are not sorted out into good people and bad people. Everybody has the potential for some kind of conduct…whether it’s anger, depression, fear…sudden mental disorder…to do something bad with a gun.” (Mark Kelly, astronaut husband of shooting survivor/former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is even more blunt: “And a lot of these folks who carry a gun are not very well-trained…so what often happens is the good guy with the gun turns into the moron with a gun.”)
Altman (2014) – “No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have,” observed Robert Altman as he accepted an honorary Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 2006. “I’m very fortunate in my career…I’ve never had to direct a film I didn’t choose.” The 2014 documentary Altman (directed by Ron Mann) provides an exhaustive look into the storied career of the innovative maverick whose cinematic oeuvre includes such motion picture classics as MASH (1970) and Nashville (1975).
One of the highlights of this documentary is that several of the actors and actresses—among them Michael Murphy and Sally Kellerman—are asked to define the term “Altmanesque.” Altman covers Bob’s career from his first motion picture credit (as co-scribe of the story for the 1948 film Bodyguard with Laurence Tierney and Priscilla Lane) to his work for Kansas City’s Calvin Company, working on employee training films and industrials. His feature film directorial debut, The Delinquents (1957), got him noticed by Alfred Hitchcock, where he directed a couple of episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents…and then it was off to a fruitful career in television direction, where Bob rode herd on such shows as The Millionaire, Bonanza, Route 66, and Combat!
Altman was let go from Combat! after tackling one of the series’ finest hours (“Survival”)—Bob remembers that he was told not to do the episode so he waited until The Powers That Be were out of town and then did it anyway—and eventually grew tired of TV’s cookie cutter grind (he remarked to the press that the Kraft company’s Mystery Theatre was “as bland as their cheese”). Given the opportunity to tackle an assignment on a Hollywood film (1968’s Countdown), he earned the enmity of studio boss Jack Warner because of his trademark overlapping dialogue technique. MASH would be the movie that put Altman on the map, allowing him to make many of the most remarkable films of the 70s including Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971—which vies regularly with MASH as my favorite of Bob’s films), The Long Goodbye (1973), and so many more. The director never stopped being busy during the 1980s but it wasn’t until 1992’s The Player that he had another big box office smash. (Altman remarks in the documentary that he believes the HBO series on which he worked with G.B. Trudeau, Tanner ’88, is his best work; he’d win an Emmy Award for his direction on that program.)
Supplemented with home movies, on location footage, and reminisces from Altman via past interviews on outlets like The Dick Cavett Show, Altman is a valentine to his fans and is highly recommended for those who continue to defend Gosford Park (2001). (I’m sorry, folks. Just don’t care for that movie.)
The Revisionaries (2012) – In the Lone Star State, fifteen members of the Texas State Board of Education decide what the next generation of schoolchildren across the U.S. will be taught in classrooms. How is that possible? I hear one of you ask. Since Texas is home to one of the largest classroom populations in the country, it is in the best interest of textbook publishers to adhere to whatever standards these politicians decide upon…otherwise some companies won’t be selling many books that year.
If news like this startles you—regardless if you do or do not have kids of school age—you’re not alone. In The Revisionaries (2012), these fifteen school board members duked it out in 2009 and 2010 to decide whether or not creationism (or as the fundies cleverly title it, “intelligent design”) will be included in science texts (spoiler alert: it passes) or that the next history book your kid cracks open will sing the praises of Ronald Wilson Reagan’s “restoring national confidence” during his Presidency (spoiler alert: it will). The cast of characters in Revisionaries includes Kathy Miller, the president of the Texas Freedom Network (a grassroots organization leading the fight for progressive issues in the non-progressive-with-the-exception-of-Austin state), and Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer and author of One Nation Under God: How the Left is Trying to Erase What Made Us Great (I’m guessing you can figure out what side Cynth is on).
The focus of Revisionaries is on Don McLeroy, a genial dentist and Sunday school teacher made chairman of the Texas State Board of Education by then-Governor Rick “It comes in threes” Perry. Director Scott Thurman goes out of his way to be even-handed in his treatment of Don, and even sympathizes with his creationist opinions. I, on the other hand, do not have to be that charitable…and while I watched the documentary kept asking why Thurman kept treating a guy who believes the Earth is only 6,000 years old with kid gloves. The yin to McLeroy’s yang is SMU professor of anthropology Ron Wetherington, an expert in the field of evolution who boasts that despite their disagreements the two of them get on rather famously (despite McLeroy’s assertion that “Someone has to stand up to the experts”).
Wetherington makes the common liberal mistake of humoring a guy who believes man and dinosaur shared Earth at the same time (in other words, The Flintstones was a documentary); Don McLeroy is free to believe in any absurd theories he chooses (in one scene he asserts to his Sunday school pupils that it was entirely possible for all living species to occupy Noah’s ark) but I would strenuously argue that this does not give him and his ilk carte blanche to peddle that horseshit to non-Texas schoolchildren. (In another sequence he addresses a Tea Party rally and blasts college professors for turning institutions of higher learning into “left wing seminaries.” You do know, Don, that they have schools that don’t teach that sort of thing—hell, lawyer Dunbar went to two of them [Regent and Liberty Universities].) A portion of the film also covers McLeroy’s unsuccessful bid for re-election to the school board (he’s defeated by someone not-so-bringing-the-crazy) but the outcome is bittersweet in that much of the damage has already been done.