Filmed more than 25 years ago, long before weight lifting was considered healthy and fashionable, this dramatic 16mm film introduced the world to professional muscle men. These misshapen guys were assumed to be outright freaks, whose fandom was fringe and tiny. But I was surprised how much appreciation for bodybuilding as art and sport I gained in just one watching. But most fascinating is the film's focus on an unknown young champion from Austria, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose ambitions and manipulations are naked and unbounded. Looking back now from his later destiny as governor of California and international movie star, this classic documentary is doubly mesmerizing.
1976, 85 min.
Directed by: George Butler II, Robert Fiore
In the pre-dawn of the WWII, an ambitious outdoorsman convinces President Roosevelt to fund an elite army corp who are expert in mountain skills -- to compliment US water and amphibious forces. They round up all the ski bums, mountain climbers and wilderness die-hards in America at that time, long before such activities were mainstream. Among those who respond to this call is sierra club founder-to-be David Brower. The soldiers camp and train in Colorado, near the then unknown Aspen. They develop the snowmobile, the snow cat, early versions of modern camping, and modern ski techniques. Then off to the Alps in Italy where the US mountain unit defeats Nazi troops in a key mountain battle. Then they return to the US to invent the ski industry, Nike shoes, and run most of the ski resorts in the West. What holds all this together is the intense camaraderie of these outdoor fanatics. As one old soldier said, "This wasn't an Army unit. It was a fraternity."
Fire on the Mountain
1996, 72 min.
Directed by: George Gage, Beth Gage
A sophisticated New York City filmmmaker meets a homeless woman in Central Park, and finds her to be unusually smart, vivacious, and seemingly happy to camp year-round with her dogs. How does she get by with so much enlightened contentment? It's soon obvious the attractive woman is certifiably crazy, operating on another plane of reality. Voices tell her she is Jupiter's wife. But rather than flee, as any sane person would do, the filmmaker decides to unravel her story. He does this by taking her irrational claims as coded messages which he learns to interpret from her outrageous clues. He uses his investigative skills in New York to piece together her submerged life, and he then tells the fascinating story she is no longer capable of telling. It is a remarkable achievement. Although he tries to help her, in the end she returns to the park. But the film completely changed my understanding of what the voices say to the afflicted: they are a code that tries to explain. In the middle of the film you'll want to bail because you are completely focused on someone's derangements, but its worth hanging through to the conclusion as the filmmaker completes his amazing decipherment.
-- KK [recommended by Jonathan Steigman]
1995, 78 min.
Directed by: Michel Negroponte
Of all of David Attenborough's famous and fabulous surveys of life, this one on the life of birds is his best -- perhaps because Attenborough loved birds the most. His look at winged creatures is quirky, intelligent, deep, and memorable. It nicely serves as a brilliant short course in ornithology, or as a mesmerizing way to keep restless young tamed for hours because he reveals one amazing thing after another. You can find nature films round the clock on cable; this series is simply in a class by itself, worth re-watching many times. Extreme Birds is how I think of it.
The Life of Birds
1998, 540 min. (3 disc series)
Presented by: David Attenborough
A weird form of evangelism that is slowly gaining among fundamentalists. Churches in the midwest construct vast "hell houses" to scare visitors to Jesus. Originally begun as a response to Halloween haunted houses, these elaborate stagings, crammed with theatrical effects and high-school actors on October 31, try to outdo each other in their ultra-realistic depiction of sin and horror. This documentary follows one church as they embark on another year of creatively presenting depravity -- a labyrinth of rooms each seeded with a different sin (suicide, drug addiction, prostitution) realistically reenacted. Innocent kids scare themselves sick by how realistic they've made their own hell. The film works because it is sympathetic to those possessed by their enemy, and because it doesn't overdo the obvious irony that hell houses are so spooky in concept that they scare in the wrong direction. On the other hand, nobody creates such amazing haunted houses like they do.
2001, 86 min.
Directed by: George Ratliff
You simply have to see this one to believe it. A weekend fisherman in Oklahoma crawls along the bottom of a creek, head submerged under the muddy water, wiggling his fingers in dark holes and crevices. When a huge catfish hiding in the muck swallows his hand, the man yanks the 70 pound beast up out of the water, suckered to his fist. It's call noodling and your average Okie redneck thinks this insanity gives rednecks a bad name. The noodlers think its the only fair way to fish. The filmmakers decide to hold the first national Noodling Contest for cash, which brings to light more noodlers than anyone knew about. After a while, sticking your hand into a dark underwater hole to let a monstrous fish bite it seems like a perfectly reasonable way to fish.
-- KK [recommended by Matt Vance]
Directed by Bradley Beesley
2001, 57 min.
Available from the Okie Noodling webiste
Also from Amazon