Sunday, August 19, 2007
2006 in Review: #4
The box-office success of nonfiction works by directors like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock has led to an upswing in documentary production. Most of those films are as thematically unchallenging as they are aesthetically uninspired, but a few major filmmakers have contributed to the form as well. The two best documentaries I saw in 2006 were Dave Chappelle's Block Party and When the Levees Broke. Dave Chappelle's Block Party, directed by Michel Gondry, documents a free street concert given by Chappelle in fall 2004, between his $50 million Comedy Central payday and his well-publicized breakdown. Here, Chappelle proves to be a funny and gracious master of ceremonies, and his hand-picked lineup of hip-hop all-stars is daunting: Mos Def, Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Common, even the (briefly) reunited Fugees. But what prevents the film from being a straightforward concert movie is the way Gondry and his editors shuffle back and forth in time between the show and the preparation stage- at one point, the film actually cuts from Chappelle telling a joke to the crowd to rehearsing it with the band (complete with Mos on drums). Like Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock, Block Party is a cinematic celebration of a community that was as glorious as it was short-lived.
When the Levees Broke also deals with community, but unlike the community of Dave Chappelle's lock Party, New Orleans was supposed to last. Following the cataclysmic floods of September 2005, Spike Lee took a camera crew down to the Big Easy to survey the damage and interview the survivors. Made for HBO, When the Levees Broke is an angry film, one that's unafraid to point fingers at those whose negligence and incompetence led to the tragedy. But Lee himself treads lightly, never allowing his style to dominate, and the anger of the film comes from the interviewees, to whom Lee shows real empathy. When the Levees Broke is more than four hours long, approaching the disaster from practically every angle, from the history and culture of New Orleans to the appalling conditions in the Superdome, to exploring the circumstances that led to the tragedy. But in the end, this movie is about people- those who survived only to see their lives ruined, those who aided in the rescue and cleanup, even those who may have been at fault. When the Levees Broke takes the anonymous residents of New Orleans from the news and given them back their names and voices, culminating in one of the most moving end credits sequences I've ever seen, a roll-call of all the film's interviewees that I wouldn't dare spoil.