Stream these three great documentaries
By Ben Kenigsberg
‘News From Home’ (1976)
One of the great New York movies is also one of the most deceptively simple. In “News From Home,” Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman juxtaposes seemingly ordinary scenes from the city with voice-over of letters that her mother, Natalia, wrote while Akerman lived there. Although it’s never explicitly clarified in the film, the letters are read by Akerman, and what we hear is a pointedly one-directional exchange, with Natalia repeatedly asking her daughter to write more. Akerman’s side of the correspondence is referenced but never quoted.
During and in between the letters, we see almost Hopper-esque snippets of life in New York in the 1970s: shots of parking lots and greasy spoons, of cars and of buildings, of an industrial sprawl on the West Side and of bustling midtown streets. The city is photographed at sunrise and at sunset, from sidewalks and from subways, where passengers sometimes look toward Akerman’s lens quizzically.
The director’s most famous film, “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” first shown in 1975, is a cinematic landmark for its use of duration, which it uses to sensitize viewers to minute changes in the routines of a single mother (Delphine Seyrig) in Brussels. “News From Home” also plays with time, setting up a subtle asynchrony between Akerman’s lengthy, real-time takes — early on, she treats viewers to multiple stops of a downtown ride on what is now the 1 train — and the gaps between each of Natalia’s dispatches. Although the footage isn’t labeled with dates, the lack of outerwear indicates that it was filmed in the summer. The anecdotes in the voice-over, and Natalia’s pleas (“Please don’t let so much time pass. Your letters are so important to me”), by contrast, suggest that events in Europe are racing by.
Through the disjunction between the narration and the street scenes, Akerman in effect divides viewers’ attentions the way hers were presumably divided. Moviegoers have to choose between presence and distance, between living in the moment and longing to learn more about what’s far away. From minimal ingredients, “News From Home” emerges as one of the most poignant and personal of all experimental nonfiction films.
(Stream it on the Criterion Channel and HBO Max.)
‘American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince’ (1978)
When it’s shown in revivals, Martin Scorsese’s hourlong documentary “American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince” is frequently paired with “Italianamerican,” the director’s loving portrait of his parents.
“American Boy” is also, at least in part, a kind of home movie; in between chapters, it shows amateur footage from the childhood of its subject, Steven Prince — a road manager, raconteur and occasional actor perhaps most recognizable as the gun salesman from “Taxi Driver.” But the bulk of the movie unfolds over a single night in January 1977 in Los Angeles at actor George Memmoli’s house, where Prince is able to hold court.
Before Prince shows up, Scorsese, who appears onscreen throughout, learns that the camera only has two minutes of film left in it — hardly enough time for any story that involves Prince. We’ll soon find out what that means. Prince arrives, playfully tackling Memmoli as he enters and grappling with him at length. Then, with some prompting from his assembled friends, he begins to tell one frightening (and often frighteningly funny) tale after another.
We learn how Prince met a domesticated silverback gorilla. How Prince avoided going to Vietnam. How during a period of road managing when he was hooked on heroin, he would never take flights longer than four hours. How he gunned down a would-be robber at a gas station whose body landed “between ethyl and regular.” How, to save an overdosing woman, he used a Magic Marker to pinpoint the injection spot and, with a stabbing motion, plunged an adrenaline needle straight into her heart. That last bit is immediately recognizable from the homage it received in “Pulp Fiction,” which re-created the incident pretty faithfully and even reused some of Prince’s words.
His reliability is never really established, but in a way, who cares? “American Boy” is more or less a one-man show that manages to be as frenzied, horrifying and absurd as Scorsese’s “After Hours” (1985).
(Stream it on the Criterion Channel.)
‘Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda’ (2018)
It’s not easy to show how any artist’s mind works onscreen, let alone the mind of a composer, whose imaginative process involves sound but not necessarily anything that would be visually interesting. Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto may be an exception.
Stephen Nomura Schible’s portrait depicts him as a man who sees music everywhere. As the film shows him listening intently in the woods, he talks in voice-over of wanting to mix the world’s sounds with instruments in a “sonic blending that is both chaotic and unified.” At the start of the movie, he plays a piano that survived the 2011 tsunami in Japan. Even on a normal piano, he seems to be as focused on the wires as he is on the keys. At one point, he discusses how pianos don’t really fall out of tune, as he sees it; rather, the materials, which have been shaped by industry, are trying to return to a natural state. Elsewhere, he makes a sonic collage that includes words spoken by Paul Bowles. (He wrote the score for “The Sheltering Sky,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1990 film of Bowles’ book. During “Coda,” he’s shown working on the score for “The Revenant.”)
The documentary captures Sakamoto shortly after the musician received a throat cancer diagnosis, as he considers how much he should keep working. He says that no matter how much time he has left, he knows he wants to compose more music that he “won’t be ashamed to leave behind — meaningful work.” “Coda” is disarmingly good at showing how his ideas, his ear and his activism go hand in hand.
(Stream it on Mubi. Rent it on Amazon and Apple TV.)