Archive for the ‘documentaries’ Tag

Voices from the Basement Heard at the Charles River Museum of Industry   1 comment


Recently, I joined a sold-out crowd at the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham, Massachusetts for Waltham Film Factory’s showing of the documentary, Voices from the Basement. The museum, filled with antique typewriters, vintage lathes, and classic cars, is the perfect setting for this look at what was the hub of the bargain universe for decades, Filene’s Basement. It seemed right to watch a film about the former retail giant in a former textile factory.  The film, a tribute to the retailer, tells the story of a place that became a landmark and even a way of life for throngs of Bostonians. Filled with historic footage from the Downtown Crossing shop, the film chronicles the opening of the Basement in 1908 to its closing in 2007 and is a fascinating look at retail history and Edward Filene’s radical corporate philosophy.

Filene’s original Downtown Crossing, Boston location

Edward Filene, the son of founder William Filene, opened Filene’s Automatic Bargain Basement in 1908 as a way to sell overstocked merchandise from his father’s main store in the unused basement. As the store gained popularity, buyers began purchasing high quality goods from other large department stores from all over the country and marking it way down for quick sale. That meant the stock was always fresh and consumers could buy designer goods at a fraction of the original prices.

A packed house in search of inexpensive, but not cheap suits

The automatic part came from the method of automatically marking down merchandise according to a fixed schedule. Filene had other new ideas too. He wanted to keep his employees healthy, so he opened a clinic across the street from the Downtown Crossing location. Sick workers could receive company-sponsored medical care years before any other business owners even considered it. Basement employees ran a store newsletter and the Filene’s Coop Association allowed workers to voice their opinions on store policy. Filene also started a credit union for his employees. This business-as-social-experiment also encouraged employees to stay on for fifty years or more. People started in the stockroom and worked their way up to the sales floor. Employees were fiercely loyal to the company.

A poster depicting the schedule of markdowns

The concept that hard work and ability led to promotion added to the store’s reputation as an egalitarian business. The wide range of shoppers cemented it. Everyone shopped there. The Boston Brahmin browsed next to waitresses, moms, and students.

Bargain hunters sift through the bins.

If you were a savvy shopper, you frequented Filene’s Basement. If you were a female savvy shopper, you got used to changing in the middle of the sales floor. Another of the idiosyncrasies of Filene’s Basement was the lack of dressing rooms for women. I can remember going to the store as a child. My mom would grab wraparound skirts in a larger size for us. We’d put them on over our clothes so we could try on pants and skirts under them without exposing ourselves. Brides-to-be grabbed deals during the yearly Running of the Brides event. There’s a funny edit during that part of the film that shows footage of the Running of the Brides cut with scenes from the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Celebrities like Boston Mayor Tom Menino, actress, Estelle Parsons, reporter, Mike Wallace, Governor Mike Dukakis, and Boston broadcasters, Peter Mehegan and Carl DeSuze wax rhapsodic about the virtues of Filene’s Basement. They’re not the only ones. Voices from the Basement features longtime employees as well; many expressing their love and gratitude to managers and staff members who cared about their customers and each other.

Filene’s clock on Washington Street, Boston

After the film, director, Michael Bavaro and executive producer, Dr. Susan Edbril answered questions and listened to audience stories about their memories of the iconic hole in the ground. There were some great ones. A former marketing executive with Filene’s Basement recounted that once, when she was working, the fire alarm sounded, but no one would leave. They didn’t want to lose the bargains they’d found. Seeing this fun piece of Boston history in such a historic place was a lovely experience.

The Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation and the Waltham Film Factory will screen the film Voices from the Basement again on Wednesday, March 1. Tickets are on sale here.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (2015)   Leave a comment


PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT tells the story of a woman born into a wealthy family who decides to collect art.  It doesn’t sound terribly exciting until you learn that she promoted and supported Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, Motherwell, and Pollock.  She had affairs with or married Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Samuel Beckett and many others.  She created galleries in London and New York and a museum in Venice which bears her name.  Without her efforts at the start of World War II, many works of art and artists themselves might have been lost to the Nazis.  She may have been a fascinating character, but all we learn about her is that she loved to collect modern art and lovers.  All anyone in the film says about her personality I that she’s odd and a black sheep.


Shades of Venice

The film touches on the eccentricity of the Guggenheim family as well.  According to the film, Peggy’s sister, embroiled in a contentious custody hearing, pushed her two kids off the roof of a New York skyscraper.  No one pressed charges.  Aside from her unbalanced sister there’s Peggy’s father, Benjamin, whom she adored and who died on the Titanic, famously giving up his seat on a lifeboat to another passenger.  Peggy’s uncle Solomon, founded the Solomon R. Guggenhein Museum in New York City.


Uncle Solomon’s garage.

I enjoyed PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT although the film does less to enlighten us on the life and personality of the subject and more to name drop artistic and literary giants of the twentieth century.  That said, it was fun seeing Picasso and Max Ernst clowning around and Jackson Pollock smiling as he straddled a huge canvas on his Long Island lawn.  That lawn, the house on it, and the food Pollock ate subsidized by Peggy Guggenheim, by the way.


Mural by Jackson Pollock

Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the granddaughter-in-law of fashion writer Diana Vreeland, directed the film as a survey course on the life of Peggy Guggenheim.  I left knowing more about Peggy, but not a lot more.  Whether the subject and her friends balked at saying much about her or Vreeland just wanted to whet our appetite is unclear.  It does seem that a Jewish woman who smuggled valuable modern art out of Paris as the Nazis marched in and who had a headboard designed for her by Alexander Calder warrants a more exciting treatment.


Peggy and friends under her Calder headboard.

I saw PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT at the 2015 Provincetown International Film Festival.

The Wolfpack (2015)   4 comments

wolfpack poster

The six Angulo brothers and their younger sister live in an apartment on the lower east side of Manhattan.  Since they rarely venture out of their apartment, they learn about the world outside by watching and reenacting movies.  They painstakingly transcribe dialogue and recreate props and costumes from their favorite films and act them out in their cramped apartment.


The Angulos’ cardboard and duct tape Batman

That part is fun.  Then, there’s real life.  The boys live with their mom and dad, too.  Dad, part cult leader/part drunken asshole, decided years ago that the kids would be home-schooled and rarely, if ever go outside.  Dad only goes out for groceries and wine.  Mom, who drank the Kool-Aid years ago, rarely goes out herself since her husband has the only key.  Neither he nor his wife has a job.


The boys watching a film in their apartment.

The kids, the oldest of whom is about 18, sport thigh-length hair because Dad says so.  They seem remarkably well-adjusted despite their veal-like upbringing.  The boys are bright, curious, and articulate.  Most people would have gone out of their tree a long time before this, but they’re resourceful, loyal, and quick to smile.  First time director Crystal Moselle hit the jackpot with THE WOLFPACK.  According to Moselle, she ran into the six boys during one of their rare field trips into the world.  She befriended them and they invited her into their home to film.  The family makes for a fascinating subject.  Even footage of their making dinner and watching movies entertains.  As harrowing as the kids’ lives are, they maintain a positive outlook and there is hope.  When one of the older boys goes over the wall one day, it opens the door for the others to follow.  Soon they’re walking down the street together and even going to see a movie.


A happy excursion

THE WOLFPACK documents the lives of children deprived of the normal social interaction they need to learn and grow and how resilient kids are.  It also shows that power-crazed idiots shouldn’t have children.

Highly recommended.


I saw THE WOLFPACK as part of the 2015 Provincetown International Film Festival.

Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)   Leave a comment


Based on the book Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star written by Tab Hunter and Eddie Muller (film noir guru), TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL chronicles Hunter’s life from his childhood through his early years as a matinee idol and pop singer to his foray into B films, dinner theatre, and John Waters.


That face!

Along the way, Hunter struggled with his homosexuality, religious conflicts, and family duty.  He worked with the biggest stars of the day and tells some good stories, but he doesn’t gossip.  Hunter talks about his own life, but leaves his friends alone.  He does share some interesting truths about the studios of the 1950s.  When a tabloid threatened to break a story about his homosexuality, the studio came to his rescue.  After he broke with Warner Brothers, he was on his own.  What’s funny is that the squeaky clean image Hunter portrayed on screen is a near reflection of his own life.  He just happens to be gay.  In spite of the scandal, Hunter remained popular.  Always conflicted about his sexual orientation and religion, Hunter finally accepted himself and rediscovered his faith.  He also discovered his love for horses. TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL is an entertaining look at the taboos of 1950s America and how they shaped the lives, careers, and films of that era.  It’s also a refreshing story of a sweet, wholesome guy.


I saw TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL as a part of the 2015 Provincetown International Film Festival.

Grey Gardens (1975)   2 comments


Dig those wacky Beales! Funny, twisted, and often heartbreaking, Grey Gardens allows us to intrude into the lives of former Bouvier family socialites, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Little Edie Bouvier Beale. Living in tony East Hampton, New York in the family’s once grand seaside mansion, the two recluses live in filthy squalor with a gang of cats, raccoons, possums, and goodness knows what else.

Little Edie 1972

Documentarians Albert and David Maysles (Salesman, Gimme Shelter) gained the trust of the two women which allowed them unprecedented access.


They tell stories, laugh, sing, dance, and berate each other on camera. Depending on your mood, the film can be a depressingly hard watch or an uplifting look at the unkillable spirit of Little Edie.


Bound by familial duty, the time she lived in, and her own fears, Edie never made it out of her mother’s sight. She never married or had a career and later Edie rarely left the confines of her shabby house.

Big edie

As a slice of life documentary, Grey Gardens works because we really see how the Beales live. As a peek into the insular Bouvier/Kennedy clan, it’s a weird, guilty pleasure. It makes me wonder if I should be watching. Do you remember those old Sally Struthers ads begging you to save the starving children in Africa? How many takes do you think they did before they gave the kids a sandwich and shooed flies off them? Grey Gardens makes you want to shoo away the flies…and buy the stars a couple dozen litter boxes. Good stuff.


Wicker Kittens (2014)   Leave a comment

kitten wicker

Have you ever wondered what intrigue lurks behind the calm façade of the average middle class home? According to the makers of Wicker Kittens, in some cases, it’s competitive jigsaw puzzling. You heard me. What Spellbound (2002) did for spelling bee contestants, and Wordplay (2006) did for crossword puzzle aficionados, Wicker Kittens does for jigsaw puzzle speed demons.

The film follows four teams of competitive puzzlers as they talk about their love of jigsaw puzzles, show us their vast collections, and prepare for the largest jigsaw puzzle competition in the country. By day, the people sell insurance, raise kids, one is legislator from Iowa, but for fun they do jigsaw puzzles…lots of jigsaw puzzles.

They get together in kitchens and dining rooms, spread the pieces out, and strategize. Do we sort? Edges first? They’re all business too. The chatting and snacking go on before and after the puzzling, but not during. The only conversation is puzzle-related. They move quickly and efficiently in teams of four. The teams highlighted in this film work like well-oiled machines. They also have fun. Competitive and focused, these teams want to win, but they’re never rude or mean-spirited about it. They’re just really nice people who have taken a casual leisure activity to the next level.

Director Amy C. Elliott (World’s Largest) made a pleasant documentary about pleasant people. No one gets killed or has an affair. No one is even impolite. Elliott doesn’t poke fun at them either. It’s not a snarky commentary, but a true documentary. She stands back and observes people enjoying their hobby and getting genuinely enthusiastic about it. The title, by the way, refers to the fact that so many jigsaw puzzles involve kittens in baskets.

I enjoyed Wicker Kittens. It showed me something I never knew existed. It’s a slice of the lives of people I will probably never meet and it’s done well. Often amusing, but never tongue-in-cheek, Wicker Kittens was a pleasant way to spend 52 minutes. It could have gone longer, but director Elliott wanted to leave us wanting more. She succeeded.

I saw Wicker Kittens as part of the Independent Film Festival of Boston 2014.

table kittens

The Donner Party (1992)   Leave a comment



Written and directed by Ric Burns, Ken Burns’ brother, The Donner Party chronicles the journey and trials of the ill-fated pioneers who left the midwest in search of the promised land in California.  Burns uses actors Eli Wallach, Amy Madigan, Frances Sternhagen, Lois Smith, Timothy Hutton, and writers David McCullough and George Plimpton to read the words written by the Donners, the Reeds, the Breens, and the rest of the group that made Truckee Lake famous.  The story, one which starts with such promise and ends, for some, with such tragedy becomes even more dramatic when told in the participants own words.  Fortunately for us, many of the 87 who started the trek from Springfield, Illinois in 1846 kept diaries and wrote letters describing their journey.  The actors do a lovely job with the material and the historians interviewed describe the events with obvious knowledge.   Then there’s the story itself.  That so many things can go so wrong for a single group of people strains credulity and yet we know it to be true.  The families, their wagons, and their cattle drove 2500 miles through rough terrain, believed the advice of Lansford Hastings and took an untried shortcut (which added 125 miles to their trip) and missed traversing the Sierra Nevadas in clear weather by one day.  During their ordeal, some emerged as heroes and heroines, risking their lives to rescue the dying or bolster their hopes. Some showed cowardice and savagery, murdering their comrades.  Some members of the party resorted to cannibalism to survive, and as ugly as that sounds, it’s certainly better than murder.   Burns does an admirable job  telling the pioneers’ stories, but I wish he had delved a bit more deeply into the backgrounds of his subjects and their lives after their return to civilization.  That could be nit-picking though.  I’m a bit of a Donner Party nut.

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