Saturday, April 16, 2011


Three strong films today. The first was "Bobby Fischer Against the World" (8), apparently the first documentary about the enigmatic chess genius. Director Liz Garbus has a wealth of archival footage to work with, and also assembles a fascinating mix of people who knew Fischer, ranging from his brother-in-law to Henry Kissinger, and including chess competitors, officials from the Iceland world championship match between Fischer and Boris Spassky, Fischer's bodyguard, personal trainer, and photographer, and an assortment of friends, all of whom he eventually alienated. Although the Glenn Gould documentary from last year ("Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould") went deeper than this one, it's an often mesmerizing exploration of Fischer's unique personality and the significance of his achievements (quite easy to follow for someone who doesn't understand the game of chess), and it opens lots of opportunity to ponder the inner workings of a mind that could achieve such heights and yet also wreak such havoc and ultimately decompensate so tragically.

"Page One: Inside the New York Times" (7.5) offers unprecedented access to the inner workings of this bastion of the institutional press, during a time of great turmoil and change. The film follows the paper's newly formed media desk for an entire year that includes rapidly evolving "new media," the unfolding WikiLeaks controversy, and industry cutbacks. The film covers such a broad array of subjects that it feels a bit unfocused at times, but it does give you a fly-on-the-wall perspective that allows you to watch the development of a few key stories and gives a rare inside look at the interaction between writers and editors. I was a little disturbed by the predominance of white male subjects, but a Times editor who appeared at the Q&A afterwards indicated that that was really a product of who agreed to cooperate. (I hope that's true; there do appear to be a number of highly placed women and a few minorities around, but none of them talk on camera.) The most compelling figure--and worthy of a documentary all his own--is the venerable columnist and sometime movie blogger David Carr, who is bold and funny and versatile enough to thrive in both the old and new schools of journalism. (There's a great scene where he deftly cuts an arrogant new media guy down to size.) Overall, the sheer work and professionalism on display makes a compelling case for the essential contributions of traditional journalism to an informed public.

The best film of the day was "The Interrupters" (8.5), another fine piece of work by Steve James (whose previous work includes "At the Deathhouse Door," "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson," and "Hoop Dreams"). Few filmmakers have such a knack for spotting and telling stories with real heart; this one had everyone on their feet at the end and you could sense the urge for a giant group hug. James spent a year following three of the "violence interrupters" who work with CeaseFire, an organization in Chicago that aims to reduce gang violence. Though not a focus of the film, its founder and executive director, Gary Slutkin, provides a compelling backdrop for the story of CeaseFire's work; an epidemiologist who spent his early career working on reversing infectious disease epidemics like cholera, tuberculosis, and AIDS, Slutkin explains that infectious diseases like the plague used to be treated as the fault of their victims, until epidemiologists learned to arrest the behaviors that spread the disease. Using the same basic principles, CeaseFire treats violence as an epidemic that must be stopped by interrupting the behavior that spreads it. The "interrupters," all former gang members, many of whom served long prison terms, understand the streets and the people caught up in the cycle of violence, and seek to offer them the means of stopping. Often this means first agreeing with them about all of their grievances and then convincing them that the person who backs down is actually the stronger one. It's something to watch (and nowhere near as mechanical as it sounds), because the scenes they enter are often so volatile and dangerous. But these people understand the dynamics of violence from the inside, and also understand where it leads. The amount of access James gets is remarkable, and is a testament not only to his skill as a filmmaker but also to the force of anger that so overcomes people that even the presence of a camera doesn't temper it. An absorbing and inspiring window into a powerful form of peacemaking.

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