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Reviews for September 30th, 2009

An American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank’s “The Americans”

Directed by Philippe Séclier.

In English and French with subtitles. This marginally fascinating documentary explores the black-and-white photographs found in Robert Frank’s photography book, The Americans, published back in 1958. Born in Switzerland where he and his family found safety during World War II, Robert eventually immigrated to the United States in 1947 in order to pursue his passion for photography. The more he spent time in the U.S., the more he grasped the bleakness of everyday life, especially the poverty and racism that existed there during those times. Basically, the land of opportunity turned out to be not so great and ideal after all. Robert photographed the bleakness with his camera and, in turn, those photos became part of The Americans. Each photo essentially told an honest, yet harsh story about everyday life that wasn’t particularly pleasant or beautiful to look at. Not surprisingly, many critics gave negative reviews of his photographs. Director Philippe Séclier travels around the United States to revisit the precise locations where Robert snapped his photographs and to compare those locations in the photographs to what they appear like today. He even succeeds in locating a man who was part of a photograph when he was a little boy. It’s kind of silly when Séclier asks the man to recall the time when the photo was taken over 50 years ago, which is too long ago for him to remember. The interviews with a variety of experts, such as artist Edward Ruscha, publisher Barney Rosset, and a few curators all help to shed light about what made Robert’s photograph so meaningful to this very day and how each photo showed the problems of poverty and racism with such starkness. It would have been interesting to explore more about Robert’s background and to explore the overarching question, “So what?”, even further. American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank’s “The Americans “ ultimately manages to be a mildly engaging documentary that’s occasionally insightful, but not quite thorough and illuminating enough to make a truly strong impression. Preceding this 60-minute documentary, there’s a 14-minute documentary, In the Street, by filmmakers Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb and James Agee, filmed during the the 1940’s. It efficiently and effectively captures images from the streets of a poor New York City neighborhood where its inhabitants, young and old, black and white, go about their daily activities, such as playing in front of fire hydrants, walking a dog, flirting with a girl, staring out the window while smoking and other small details. Those details may seem petty at first, but as a whole, they make up the true and brutally honest lifestyle of the poor. By the end of the 14 minutes, you'll be able to get a general feeling of what it's actually like to live there. There’s no dialogue, but none is needed because the images themselves speak louder than words while the accompanying musical score helps to enhance the tone.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Lorber Films.
Opens at the Film Forum.

The Horse Boy

Directed by Michel O. Scott.

This profoundly moving documentary follows Rupert Isaacson and his wife, Kristin Neff, as they travel all the way to Northern Mongolia in an attempt to heal Rowan, their 5-year-old son who has suffered from autism, a neurological disorder. His parents admit that they’ve tried many different forms of treatments and pharmaceutical medications from a variety of sources, but to no avail. When Rupert discovers that Rowan suddenly calms down from his autism-induced tantrums while riding on a neighbor’s horse, Betsy, he does more research about horses and learns that Northern Mongolia is the place where horses had evolved. He and his wife decide to travel to Mongolia to meet with shamans who would hopefully heal Rowan’s autism. Once they reach the country, they set out by horseback to meet up with many different shamans. It’s a spiritual journey for them as much as it’s also physical given that they’re in such unfamiliar territory with unpredictable results. Will the trip be truly worth it or a waste of time? Director Michel O. Scott wisely incorporates breathtaking and heartfelt footage from the journey itself along with interviews with a woman suffering from autism as well as autism experts, who claim that they don’t know the causes of autism. It would have been interesting to explore further, i.e. through interviews with neurologists, the scientific reasons why riding horses affects Rowan’s neurons in such a way that he no longer goes into tantrums and is finally able to associate with other kids around his age. Also, what do the autism experts and Rowan’s parents think about the fact that many concerned parents, activists and doctors, such as Dr.Gary Null, have been speaking out about autism’s links to adjuvated vaccines which contain toxins, such as thimerosal and unlabeled, hidden MSG in the form of processed free glutamic acid that's in hydrolyzed gelatin? (Please click here to read an article about the cover-up of hidden MSG.) More footage and interviews post-trip might have been illuminating as well. Nonetheless, The Horse Boy still manages to be a well-edited, profoundly engrossing, inspirational and thoroughly captivating documentary.
Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Zeitgest Films.
Opens at the IFC Center.

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