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Summer Sneaks

The nonfiction wave

Surfing legends. Behemoth corporations. Bill Clinton. Everyday heroes. The summer landscape is also awash in documentaries.

May 09, 2004|Stephen Farber | Special to The Times

Since summer has been certified as the silly season for movies, documentaries are definitely swimming against the current. But last year, three documentaries -- "Spellbound," "Capturing the Friedmans" and "Winged Migration" -- played through the summer and drew surprisingly large audiences. This summer, the wave of nonfiction will continue to swell. More than a dozen docs of surprising diversity are poised to offer a conspicuous alternative to moviegoers tired of sequels, remakes and special-effects marathons.

"In the summer, Hollywood releases its popcorn movies," says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, which distributed "Capturing the Friedmans." "In the fall, the studios put out their prestige pictures, and they spend tens of millions of dollars promoting them. So a company like ours tries to find another time to release a more idiosyncratic, serious film. The summer is wide open."

Almost every weekend between now and the end of August, at least one documentary will compete with the latest Hollywood spectacle. Only one of these seems an obvious summer movie: "Riding Giants," which opened this year's Sundance Film Festival, is a celebration of surfing legends, made by the same filmmakers who produced the skateboarding saga "Dogtown and Z-Boys."

The rest are all over the map. Rich McKay's "Broadway: The Golden Age" surveys musical theater history through interviews with top players such as Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, Elaine Stritch and Angela Lansbury. A different brand of pop music is highlighted in "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" (from acclaimed directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky) and in Bob Smeaton's "Festival Express," the chronicle of a 1970 music tour billed as Canada's answer to Woodstock. Meatier social issues rise to the forefront in Peter Gilbert's "With All Deliberate Speed," a study of the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which ended segregation in this country.

Several of the documentaries, following the lead of "Bowling for Columbine" and "The Fog of War," were made by left-wing filmmakers in crusade mode. Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry's "The Hunting of the President," for example, decries what it regards as the 10-year campaign to destroy Bill Clinton. "Control Room," from Egyptian director Jehane Noujaim, challenges the Bush administration's view of the Iraq war by focusing on the Arabic-language Al Jazeera network and its very different take on the invasion. Most ambitious of all is "The Corporation," an epic Canadian documentary directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott that exposes how some huge corporations foul the environment, manage the news and displace workers.

Are these documentaries merely preaching to the choir? Maybe, but open-minded viewers of all political persuasions will find that they contain revealing and disturbing sequences. "The Corporation" features a riveting segment on how the Monsanto Co. pressured Fox News to tone down its story on a growth hormone that might have represented a health hazard.

For those who view these movies as left-wing propaganda, Disney is offering an alternative: "America's Heart and Soul," a more traditional tableau of plucky U.S. citizens. Director Louis Schwartzberg has crafted the kind of movie that might show at the American Pavilion at a world's fair, filled with inspiring or endearing vignettes about New Orleans jazz musicians, Latino salsa dancers, a blind mountain climber and the founder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream.

Perhaps the most interesting of the summer offerings are those with personal testaments that follow in the tradition of recent documentary hits such as "My Architect: A Son's Journey." In "My Sister Maria," actor and director Maximilian Schell composes a loving tribute to his sister, actress Maria Schell, who was a huge star of European films in the 1950s and then made a brief splash in Hollywood (in movies such as "The Brothers Karamazov," "Cimarron" and "The Mark") before fading into obscurity.

"Bukowski: Born Into This" is another tender reminiscence of a cult figure, Los Angeles poet and novelist Charles Bukowski, who had his own brief flirtation with Hollywood when one of his books, "Barfly," was made into a movie. Bukowski also attracted a series of high-profile admirers, including actors Sean Penn and Harry Dean Stanton, musicians Tom Waits and Bono, and director Taylor Hackford, who all appear in the film. Director John Dullaghan spent seven years on the project and emerged with a full-blooded portrait of the struggling artist as a true modern hero. This is not to say that Dullaghan whitewashes his subject; we get a sense of Bukowski's cantankerousness and self-destructiveness. But the film also does justice to his writing by including generous excerpts that are scintillating enough to send viewers racing to their nearest bookstore.

Taken together, these documentaries represent a rich potpourri, and they will test the tenacity of the public's newfound passion for truth as well as fiction. Magnolia's Bowles, who is releasing "Bukowski" and "Control Room," is cautiously optimistic. "There's a residual effect when people have a good time at the movies," he suggests. "They want to see more films like the ones they enjoyed."

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