Reviews by Ken Burke
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews. Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up. Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
This statement above is my standard disclaimer to warn readers that what they’ll encounter in my reviews may contain more information on the films under exploration than they care to know just yet; however, the commentary in this posting concerns a couple of excellent documentaries (one was an Oscar nominee for 2014 releases, the other certainly good enough to be considered for the 2015 final choices) which simply reveal what their subjects are about in a good bit of what might be called “encountering-detail” where there’s no dramatic revelation at the end, just a lot of extensions of the initial premise through the run of the films. Therefore, I doubt that your future experience of the docs noted here will be in any way bothered by my statements; rather, I just hope that I’m encouraging you enough to seek out both of these whenever and however you get the chance.
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado)
Although there are plenty of uplifting and thoughtful words within the statements made in this well-crafted-doc, the old adage about a picture being worth 1,000 of them not only works in the philosophy of semiotics but also in our experience of The Salt of the Earth. (Not to be confused with another conscience-awareness-presentation, the great Hollywood-conformity-rejecting/independent-spirit/Communist-sympathizing/critique of racism, capitalism, and patriarchy—including among the social reformers in the story being presented—radical statement for its time to be found in the classic film of almost-the-same-name, Salt of the Earth, made by industry Blacklisters Herbert J. Biberman [director; one of the original Hollywood Ten outcasts], Michael Wilson [writer], and Paul Jarrico [producer], along with a couple of the principal actors, Rosaura Revueltas and Will Geer). Therefore, I'll keep my words to a minimum so that you can concentrate on this small sample of the marvelous images to be found in this compelling work by Wenders and the Salgado, father and son.
The elder pictorialist worked his way around the world for the purposeful intention of not only crafting stunning images but also documenting the travails of people at the mercy of the elements—but, more the human elements than what accosts us from nature. Some of his most gut-wrenching-pictures depict people in Africa (such as the one with the paragraph just above) uprooted from their homes, starving from lack of nutrition or near- (if not post-) death from cholera brought on by war-induced famine and disease. Others show the brutal impact of man upon nature, as with this shot of oil wells in Kuwait set aflame by retreating Iraqi soldiers during the Gulf War of 1990-1991.
A native Brazilian (born in Almorés, Minas Gerias, on February 8, 1944), Sebastião Salgado now lives in Paris but still travels extensively, as he did for this doc so that Wenders could learn from their experience what the younger co-director had been doing with his father for quite some time, traveling to the far reaches of the globe in search of capturing the essence of a location, a situation, and the impact of that environment on the people who live there, but only after living among them for awhile to better understand their perspective and needs, not just to snap a powerful group of photos then head out on another assignment. Thus, from his photographic beginnings in 1973 (when his first shot was of his wife and life partner, Lélia Wanick Salgado) until today, he—at times accompanied by son Juliano—has traveled to over 100 countries to experience and visually-transcribe the complex, varied nature of human existence, especially in its most difficult aspects (with insights likely honed from a previous career in economics, which he set aside for his life in editorial imagery).
Wenders and the younger Salgado had an enormous catalogue of still photos from the oeuvre of Sebastião to work with, along with existing documentary footage of previous expeditions, so to round it all off they included commentary from the photographer shot in a darkened room where his incredible shots were projected onto a semi-transparent mirror so that the documentary camera (positioned behind the projector) was looking at both the enlarged image and Sebastião sitting behind it; in this manner, he could talk in real time about what we see while directly facing the documentarians' camera himself, then when a light is added to his location he becomes visible to us with his narration as if peering through his photo without the need for a post-production superimposition or dissolve. (This is a device essentially borrowed from theatre where a translucent scrim can be put between audience and actors so that when the space behind it is in darkness there can be lit action in front of it or even images projected onto it, then when the front light/projection is turned off with the area behind the scrim now lit you can get the sense of action occurring in another location entirely—Orson Welles used this as an economical strategy when making the rapid transition from outside to inside of Charles Foster Kane's bedroom as he lay dying in the mysterious opening scene of Citizen Kane ).
their lives as far as possible. And he feels empathy for them. He does this job for the people, in order to give them a voice. ... I think that Sebastião offered real dignity to all those people who found themselves in front of his lens. His photographs aren't about him, but about all those people!" Juliano Salgado extends those comments about his father with: "[F]or 40 years he found himself in extreme situations, that he has witnessed humanity confronting some terrible events. ... I'd seen him live with Indians and the Papuan people. He sees people and does not judge them. He puts himself on the same level as them, no doubt because he too comes from a tiny, very violent village in a remote part of Brazil, cut off from the world. I think the people he photographs are sensitive to the benevolence of his viewpoint." Although, I might add that Sebastião Salgado also demonstrates remarkable ability with lighting, composition, and the impact of the visual encounter purely from an abstract design standpoint, no matter his content, as illustrated with this marvelous "architectural iceberg" shot.
However, Sebastião's constant encounters with the misery of the world encouraged him to make a positive difference for our planet in addition to the "exposure" he was bringing through his photo books and expositions, so in 2004 he began his Genesis project, an ongoing series of landscape, wildlife, and human community photos that celebrate the existing beauty of the Earth and those who still live in a more pristine manner regarding their interchanges with nature, continuing centuries-old-patterns-of-life in cooperation with the land and waters. A further extension of this concern for honoring and re-invigorating the planet began in 1998 with Sebastião and Lélia's project of reclaiming over-farmed family land in Brazil's Atlantic Forest, turning the area into a nature preserve; in conjunction with this, they founded Instituto Terra, an environmental NGO (non-governmental organization) focused on reforestation, conservation and education. The Salt of the Earth immerses us in all of this information in a reasonable 109 min., never becoming preachy or boring, instead celebrating a vision of renewal in the midst of calamity, reveling in the power of images—including those collected stunningly in the package of a documentary film—to remind us of the integrated horror and wonder that constitutes our lives on this ever-more-burdened-planet. Finally, although I’m not doing my usual structural analysis template for this stirring doc it still deserves its own Musical Metaphor so I’ll offer up “Nights In White Satin/Late Lament” (from the Moody Blues’ 1967 Days of Future Passed album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMqE6hZdH24, because this vocal pair speaks (to me at least) of the beauty, mystery, and agony of life all swirled together in a manner that recalls for me the haunting visuals of Sebastião' Salgado (I wish the visuals of this music video were more dynamic, but they’re best I’ve found backing the original recording which I’ve chosen over more current concert versions given that those offer a lineup of musicians just too different from the ones who made the band famous).
The Wrecking Crew (Denny Tadesco)
Another documentary, this one about a group of unknown-to-the-outside-world-but-terrifically-famous studio musicians in early ‘60s-mid-‘70s L.A. who provided the sound (but not the singing) on an enormous number of hits, so this is a nice nostalgic trip of long-after-the-fact-interviews and cuts from Top 40 records. No particular insights here, but lots of great tunes.
OK, back to Carol Kaye for a minute (shown here with guitarist/bassist Bill Pitman, like Tommy Tedesco a well-respected-session-player), not because she was the only woman in the group generally understood as the Wrecking Crew but because she contributed so many memorable riffs with her “bottom-end-instrument” (probably first noted by the general public in the hands of Brian Wilson, later to be made famous by the virtuosity of Paul McCartney with what had often been relegated to the status of a background instrument). Kaye contributed a lot to Beach Boys hits, from “Help Me, Rhonda” on into the Pet Sounds sessions (note the 3rd and 4th suggested links for The Wrecking Crew below, after you finish this stunningly-brilliant-official-review-text), leading to a very successful career for a time (while she doesn’t name him directly, her chronological markers in a couple of comments note that in the mid-to-later-1960s she was making an annual salary higher than President Johnson), although like her other Crew mates her contributions weren’t recorded on album jackets nor did anyone outside of the studio-musicians-in-crowd even know who she (or any of the other Wreckers) was. As noted in the film, sometimes these studio-pros would provide such an effective showcase for some singers that a performing group would be recruited to go on the road to promote a hit single or a hastily-produced-album, but they were merely imitating what had been concocted in the studio with vocalists and the Crew, although faux groups such as The Monkees at least learned to play their instruments sufficiently to fake competency on their tours. By the mid-1970s, though, the impact of the Beatles/Stones/Crosby, Stills, and Nash, etc. popularity of musicians who truly did most everything for themselves (writing, singing, instrumental work, as well as concerts) began to undermine the need for such a dependable, tight group of studio wizards so they soon found their careers falling on increasingly harder times (personal problems sometimes hit hard as well; Blaine notes how he had to sell most everything he had—big house, fine cars, the whole “uptown” identity—in order to pay off a divorce settlement). As times continued to get tough for these former kings of the inner chambers, one sums it up with a bitter joke: “What do you call a trombone player with a pager?” “An optimist.”
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.