1964 — Michael Apted started making the most profound documentary series in the history of cinema


Dan Winters/NY Times

Apted, now 78, is ready to wrap it up.

To spend time with a child is to dwell under the terms of an uneasy truce between the possibility of the present and the inevitability of the future. Our deepest hope for the children we love is that they will enjoy the liberties of an open-ended destiny, that their desires will be given the free play they deserve, that the circumstances of their birth and upbringing will be felt as opportunities rather than encumbrances; our greatest fear is that they will feel thwarted by forces beyond their control…

❝ These are the tensions that have animated and shaped the “Up” programs on their way to becoming the longest-running documentary film series of all time…The first film was conceived as a special one-off episode of a program called “World in Action.” The mid-1950s saw an end to the BBC’s monopoly on terrestrial broadcasting, and “World in Action” became the flagship current-affairs program of a Manchester-based commercial upstart called Granada Television.

RTFA. I’ll not try to knock-off a precis of this documentary. It has stepped back into the lives of the children every seven years for about five edited minutes each time. It is the record of a changing society.

Where to watch – Years Of Living Dangerously

Dangerous environment

Director and producer of films like Terminator, Titanic and Avatar, James Cameron has made a 9-part documentary on the environmental challenge climate change presents. The Years of Living Dangerously debuts Sunday night, April 13th, on Showtime. If you don’t subscribe to Showtime the debut will be available on YouTube.

Click on the graphic above to check out your choices.

Thanks, Mike

83-year-old jewel thief — busted again!

An 83-year-old career criminal who says she has stolen jewelry the world over has been arrested on charges of trying to steal a $40,000 ring in California.

Doris Marie Payne, who was the subject of a documentary, “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne,” was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of felony larceny, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said.

Payne “was implicated in a jewelry theft” at a jewelry store in Palm Desert, Calif., Oct. 21, the sheriff’s department said in a news release.

She was released from prison this year after serving 2 1/2 years of a 5 1/2 year sentence for stealing an $8,900 ring from a department store in San Diego.

She told a Los Angeles Times reporter for a story published in 2008 she was in her late 20s the first time she stole a diamond and has lost count of how much jewelry she has stolen…

Payne, who was being held on $45,000 bond, is also to be the subject of a feature film

I hope she’ll make enough from the film to retire, eh?

James Cameron dives to the deepest point in the oceans


Daylife/AP Photo used by permission

Hollywood director James Cameron has plunged nearly 11km (seven miles) down to the deepest place in the ocean, the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific.

He made the descent alone in a prototype submarine called “Deepsea Challenger”, taking around two hours to reach the bottom.

Once he reached a depth of 10,898 metres, his first words up to the surface were: “All systems OK.”

His craft is kitted out with cameras and lights so he can film the deep.

This is only the second manned expedition to the ocean’s deepest depths – the first took place in 1960. The earlier descent was made by US Navy Lt Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard…

Before the dive, the Titanic director told the BBC, that making the descent was “the fulfilment of a dream“.

He said: “I grew up on a steady diet of science fiction at a time when people were living a science fiction reality…People were going to the Moon, and Cousteau was exploring the ocean. And that’s what I grew up with, what I valued from my childhood…”

Cameron spent the last few years working in secret with his team of engineers to design and build the craft, which weighs 11 tonnes and is more than 7m long. He describes it as a “vertical torpedo” that slices through the water allowing him a speedy descent.

The tiny compartment that the filmmaker sits in is made from thick steel, which is able to resist the 1,000 atmosphere of pressure he will experience at full ocean depth.

The sub has so many lights and cameras that it is like an underwater TV studio – with Mr Cameron able to direct and film the action from within…It also has robotic arms, allowing him to collect samples of rocks and soils, and a team of researchers are working alongside the director to identify any new species. He says that science is key to his mission.

Bravo, James Cameron! We’re all watching for a safe return.

Here’s the National Geographic website – and here’s the Twitter stream.

Meet the Eyeborg

Rob Spence, a Toronto-based film-maker, lost his right eye in a shooting accident on his grandfather’s farm when he was a teenager. Now 36, he decided some years ago to build a miniature camera that could be fitted inside his false eye. A prototype was completed last year, and was named by Time magazine as one of the best inventions of 2009. He calls himself “the Eyeborg guy”.

The eye contains a wireless video camera that runs on a tiny three-volt battery. It is not connected to his brain, and has not restored his vision. Instead it records everything that he sees. More than that, it contains a wireless transmitter, which allows him to transmit what he is seeing in real time to a computer.

The current model is low resolution, and the transmitter is weak, meaning that Mr Spence has to hold a receiving antenna to his cheek to get a full signal. But a new higher-resolution model, complete with stronger transmitter and a booster on the receiver, is in the works. He says: “Unlike you humans, I can continue to upgrade…”

As a film-maker, Mr Spence wants to use the camera to record “truer” conversations than would be possible with a handheld camera. “When you bring a camera, people change,” he says. “I wouldn’t be disarming at all. I would just be some dude. It’s a much truer conversation.”

His subjects would only become aware that they were being filmed after the conversation was over. Then he would give them a chance to sign, or not sign, a release form permitting him to use the footage.

He says: “There’s ethical issues with that, but I am a filmmaker. “If you’re averse to it, that’s fine, don’t sign the release form. I won’t put you in the documentary.”

The ethics may turn out to be bullshit; but, the documentary might be fun. Maybe even useful?

Ginsberg’s Howl finds a way onto film


A violent ghost from my past appears at the end

On 7 October 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Allen Ginsberg brought the house down with a performance of his hallucinatory new poem, Howl. Among other things, this epic work in four parts dealt with drugs, mental illness, religion, homosexuality – the fears and preoccupations of a generation.

Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were both in the audience. Ginsberg was 29 years old. Also present was the future choreographer and film-maker Yvonne Rainer. A teenager at the time, Rainer still clearly remembers that night: “Ginsberg, quite drunk, clean-shaven, in black suit and tie-less white shirt, holding a jug of rot-gut red wine, intoning and chanting the poem.” Back then, the beats were in thrall to the jazz world; Ginsberg himself explained his poem as akin to “bop refrains”.

Eight years ago, film-makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman received a call from Ginsberg’s estate asking them to make a documentary about Howl. With the 50th anniversary of the poem’s publication (and subsequent obscenity trial) approaching, the estate wanted the best. Epstein and Friedman have, between them, won Oscars and Emmys for a lifetime of work including The Times of Harvey Milk, about the first openly gay man elected to public office in California; and The Celluloid Closet, based on Vito Russo’s book about screen depictions of homosexuality. Ginsberg’s estate knew the pair could deliver an in-depth documentary on time and on budget; plus, they were queer enough to understand the social pressures that formed the poet.

Had things gone as planned, the film would have been released in 2007, and it would have been a documentary. Instead, the hybrid drama that is Howl has its world premiere…on the opening night of the Sundance film festival. Epstein and Friedman ended up overshooting their deadline by three years, losing themselves completely in what turned out to be a mad project, struggling to create something worthy of Ginsberg’s incantatory work.

RTFA. I’d want to see the movie anyway. It’s about an important period of my life. I won’t bore you with the differentiating details.

It’s as relevant today as then. After all, the political dragons haven’t changed. They have as much power over government – how we all get to live and learn – as they ever have.

I attended readings by both Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg in NYC. Powerful, outstanding, challenging to a society constipated with conformity.

‘Arctic unicorns’ in BBC documentary

A BBC team used aerial cameras to film the creatures during their epic summer migration, as they navigated through cracks in the melting Arctic sea ice. They believe the footage…is the first of its kind.

Narwhal are sometimes called “Arctic unicorns” because of the long, spiral tusk that protrudes from their jaws.

The BBC crew headed to the Arctic in June 2008, to film the tusked animals’ summer migration. At this time of year, temperatures begin to rise above freezing and the thick sea ice starts to melt, creating a complex network of cracks that cover the white expanse.

Every year, thousands of narwhal use these narrow fissures to travel thousands of kilometres, from the south of Baffin Bay to the high Arctic fjords.

Justin Anderson, who produced the programme, said: “Even though they are quite large animals, the area we had to cover was enormous – the size of Scotland.

“It is like finding a needle in a haystack.”

Delightful. I await the arrival of this documentary on U.S. television.

For the Honda brand, a cinematic stroke

With the automotive industry battling an economic downturn, is it the right time for a carmaker to introduce another installment in a corporate image campaign that carries the theme, “The power of dreams”?

The American Honda Motor Company believes so, bringing out this week three short films — a k a long commercials — to be watched online. The so-called webisodes, each about seven minutes, will be available…at a Honda Web site under the rubric of the “Dream the Impossible documentary series…”

One webisode is scheduled be shown at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, where American Honda Motor is the automotive sponsor. Plans call for the short to run before “Mary and Max,” which is to be the first movie screened at the festival…

The Honda ads are particularly interesting because campaigns like it — seeking to burnish a longstanding corporate image, rather than sell products in the short run — are often the first casualties when consumers slow or stop spending.

“It’s not advertising optimism,” Carey said. “It’s authentic documentary-film optimism.”

I often get chuckles over people writing about the advertising game. You can’t help sounding like the people you’re writing about. It’s infectious. Like some kind of communications virus,

The Honda ploy? Well, it’s worked before for BMW. Ritchie ended up with Madonna and BMW ended up with a broader, younger customer base.

Buy a Mac, get One to One training, win an Emmy Award

In one of those improbable stories that sounds like a Hollywood script, a Burbank, CA elementary school teacher won an Emmy Award for his first attempt at filmmaking.

Larry Newman, a band director at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Burbank, won the award for a film called “Children’s Music Workshop: 2007 All Schools Honor Orchestra,” in the category of Outstanding Achievement in Children/Youth and Music Programming.

Newman had no previous filmmaking experience, and said that he “just purchased a high-definition camera and went to the Apple store for weekly lessons on Final Cut Pro.” The film focused on the annual concert at UCLA of 130 students who are enrolled in Newman’s Children’s Music Workshop program, and particularly on nine students in the Burbank Unified School District.

Bravo, Larry Newman.