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Get Schooled by These Timeless Film History Docs

Challenge your perspective with these documentaries on filmmakers, their tools, the histories they encapsulate, and the cultural context of their work.

From France to Taipei, film evolves and alters the cultural landscape around it. Some films and filmmakers leave an even deeper influence behind. Look behind the scenes with five documentaries that explore what goes into becoming a legendary filmmaker.

Tokyo-Ga (Wim Wenders, 1985)

Beloved explorer Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, Alice in the Cities) was mystified by the work of late Director Yasujiro Ozu (Late Spring, Tokyo Story). So, the German director went searching through the streets of Toyko for evidence of Ozu’s legacy in this hybrid travel diary and filmmaker portrait.

This is not a passive or nostalgic reflection by Wenders. He found cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta, who collaborated with Ozu for more than twenty years, and requested a demonstration of their fixed-camera filming process, complete with the same model of heavy Mitchell camera the pair used on their final shoots. Actor Chishu Ryu sits embarrassed as Wenders gushes about his respect for the longtime Ozu lead. (He once watched two Ozu films featuring Ryu on the same day, Wenders says, and never before had he felt such respect for the actor.)

The methodical nature of Ozu’s process, on all fronts, comes through clearly, thanks to Wenders’s narration. Here, fans of Wenders can catch a glimpse of him as a studious fan, which will delight those who love his films for their Ozu-inspired economy.

The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing (Wendy Apple, 2004)

This one is a must for storytellers of all mediums. Directors and editors behind iconic films take the focus off scripts and sets to mine the cutting room instead — a place full of drama and high stakes.

There’s no shortage of frank speech and admitted secrets in this documentary, which is ideal watch-party material for opinionated movie lovers. Actors who strong-armed their way into cutting rooms are named and sometimes maligned. Quentin Tarantino explains why he specifically sought out a female editor for Reservoir Dogs, his first film (he wanted someone to “nurture” him through the process rather than compete with his ideas, he says.) That editor, Sally Menke, then speaks about her decisions.

The history of editing technology and its influence on film grammar finds a place here, too. Joe Hutshing, who edited JFK, reveals how the striking scene in which Lee Harvey Oswald walks into the Texas Theatre came about. Director Oliver Stone kept pushing for more chaos in the edit. Hutshing was using a three-quarter-inch linear editing system. He finally just started banging on keys with abandon to produce what we see in JFK.

Unsung editors like Dede Allen (Bonnie and Clyde) and Carol Littleton (E.T.) break down trends and accepted norms of editing across different eras. The Cutting Edge is as fun to watch as it’s a justice done to editors everywhere and their marriage-like relationships with directors.

Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema (Chinlin Hsieh, 2014)

The island of Taiwan remained under martial law from 1949 to 1987. At the time, it was the longest-lasting regime of martial law anywhere in the world. It left Taiwan in a state of diplomatic isolation that finally gave way to an organized push for democracy in the late 1970s.

Young filmmakers in the 1980s took the baton from writers in the renewed Nativist Literature movement and fed Taiwan’s cultural identity with films about people, their values, and their perspectives. Flowers of Taipei shows how these films and their politics influenced global cinema.

The work of Edward Yang (Taipei Story, That Day on the Beach) and Hsiao-Hsien Hou (“The Coming of Age” trilogy, A City of Sadness) from 1980 to present is passionately discussed by film historians, programmers, and critics from Venice to Japan. Excerpts from films — like Hou’s Millenium Mambo — with all its restlessness and longing, will draw you into the poetry of Taiwanese cinema if you haven’t yet entered its gentle spaces.

Flowers of Taipei compares the modes and motives of Taiwanese New Wave directors to those of filmmakers around the world. It’s a rich study of how different cultures have experienced freedom and preserved history through narrative film.

See the full version here.

Mr. X: A Vision of Leos Carax (Tessa Louise-Salomé, 2014)

Visually haunting and full of context, this documentary on the elusive French Director Leos Carax (Mauvais Sang, Holy Motors) is worth your time just to hear an awed Denis Lavant speak at length about what it was like to embody Carax’s visions of torment.

Lavant played the lead in all but one of Carax’s films, acting as a surrogate for the director and his experience of the world. Carax’s disdain for interviews makes this film a rare document. The director speaks in voiceover or behind sunglasses, most notably about his penchant for Godzilla and how he constantly feels like an impostor. Other filmmakers and critics connect Carax’s particular sensibilities to silent comedy, the French New Wave, and even the origins of the moving image.

The most important thing about Mr. X — it doesn’t impede upon Carax’s air of mystery or insistence on privacy. The style of the film sustains his mystique. Interview subjects sit in the shadows as fractured projections of light and images dance on their skin, keeping the tone even between excerpts.

Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)

When you crave something more philosophical than informational, Cameraperson is a wonderful expression of questions asked by filmmakers since the dawn of the medium.

Johnson meant to share her personal history as a documentary cinematographer (Fahrenheit 9/11, Citizenfour, Derrida) with this essay film. Her work resonates in candid moments from all over the world. Many of them were recorded before or after formal interviews for different projects and rescued from the killing floor. Viewers can imagine the impact of documentary-making over the last twenty-five years on the subjects being filmed. They speak freely to the camera as they navigate the complications of Johnson’s presence.

That camera is both a ticket inside and a clumsy buffer between her and the space — a hospital, a locker room,  the middle of a crosswalk on a busy street in New York City. “Nothing wrong with being close, keeps everybody warm,” one subject says when Johnson apologizes for being in the way.

The role of the documentary in the world is potent in Cameraperson. It’s more than a portrait of a cinematographer. It just might be a portrait of every cinematographer.

Cover image via Flowers of Taipei.

Looking for more film history and documentary inspiration? Check these out.

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