Armchair Cinephile

Armchair Cinephile

John DeFore on DVD

Quests, portraits, and vicarious kicks

One documentary genre that never seems to get old is the Quest Movie - the film in which a curious soul strikes off to answer a question, find something, or accomplish a task. Almost always, the filmmaker's personality plays a big part in the film, which is unusual in other documentaries but works perfectly for these.

The object of the quest can be monumental, as in the recent IMAX feature Ghosts of the Abyss (just released in expanded, non 3-D form by Disney), where James Cameron explores the Titanic's carcass. Or it can be as ephemeral as a 30-year-old novel that nobody read: Mark Moskowitz' moving Stone Reader is a captifying detective story where the filmmaker hunts for a man who wrote one book and disappeared. Moskowitz' gumshoe journey is compelling, but the film also becomes an ode to the joys of reading, one guaranteed to make you yearn for a book that once affected you deeply.

Rosanna Arquettte went on a different sort of hunt with Searching for Debra Winger, in which she uses the eponymous actress' early retirement as a way to engage dozens of her peers in a discussion of what an acting career does to a woman. It's an angle rarely presented to Entertainment Tonight - Arquette's perceptive subjects talk not only about the unusual ways acting threatens a personal life, but the ugly realities of aging in Hollywood.

The old Granddad of this group of docs is Sherman's March, Ross McElwee's truly one-of-a-kind 1986 film in which he sets out to revisit a chapter of the Civil War but winds up chronicling his own very screwed-up love life. McElwee is like a Southern Woody Allen, plagued by nightmares of nuclear holocaust and a sucker for women with, er, extreme personalities. He travels the South, experiencing everything through a camera's viewfinder, and suffers a hyperbolic string of erotic setbacks and misfires. Some will find the movie too long, but the sheer number of encounters is part of the point; each of Ross' diversions makes the film's eventual punchline more effective.

Another sort of documentary wants to make the filmmaker's journey invisible and instead put you into an experience. Step Into Liquid does a lot of that, quite beautifully. There's nothing deep about this worldwide surfing travelogue, but Dana Brown's crew captures some of the most thrilling wave-riding footage ever shot. The coolest trick here is when the camera rides underwater just behind the wave, looking from tranquility out into the violent crest the surfer is navigating.

Ghosts of the Abyss

Stone Reader
(New Yorker)

Searching for Debra Winger
(Lions Gate)

Sherman's March,
War Photographer,
A Perfect Candidate
(First Run Features)

Step Into Liquid


Easy Riders,
Raging Bulls
(Shout Factory)

Absolut Warhola
(TLA Releasing)

Growin' a Beard,
Live From Shiva's Dance Floor
(Aspyr Media)
Armchair Cinephile



Tranquility isn't an option in War Photographer, a haunting film about a man who runs into the world's most dangerous war zones and comes back with images that are simultaneously shocking and beautiful. Much of the film is shot with a tiny digital camera affixed to James Nachtwey's own camera, so that we are practically riding on his shoulder as he encounters mass graves, grieving families, and battle zones. Unlike some movies of this sort, War Photographer manages to be as effective emotionally as it is viscerally.

From horror to gallows humor, A Perfect Candidate makes us part of the campaign team of one Oliver North, an ultra-conservative ex-Marine who - not content to shame the nation in the Iran-Contra scandal - runs for the Senate in 1994. It would be a funnier movie if the filmmakers didn't show how many of our fellow Americans were rooting for this sleaze, but I guess you can't blame the filmmakers for the frightening mental state of the union.

Rounding out the doc scene this month: Derrida, a portrait of one of the most influential philosophers around; Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, about the too-short New Hollywood explosion; Absolut Warhola, a quirky look at the Eastern European relatives of Andy Warhol.

Also, Austin's Aspyr Media has entered the DVD field with two eccentric short films: Growin' a Beard is a cute film about Shamrock, Texas' decades-old beard-growing contest, where would-be leprecauns are challenged by a hirsute youngster from out of town. And Richard Linklater's 20-minute Live From Shiva's Dance Floor presents the unique viewpoints of Manhattan's Timothy "Speed" Levitch, a tour guide who would like NYC to turn Ground Zero into a "joy park" where buffalo graze in an open field. Levitch is the sort of love-him/hate-him philosopher Linklater observes in Slacker and Waking Life, and he certainly doesn't disappoint here: His mind is as wild as any of the terrain explored in the documentaries above, and Linklater dives in like a surfer catching a really wicked wave. •

By John DeFore