A Double Dose of Documentaries

I love to watch documentaries in a theater on the big screen, where the camerawork can be seen in all its glory and any subtleties of technique are more noticeable. According to some documentary websites, the popularity of this mode of filmmaking has increased, and the advent of DVD has made it more financially viable.

Despite the increase in documentaries, the exhibition and distribution of nonfiction films is spotty. The most lucrative exhibition opportunities exist in the broadcasting market, particularly on public television and cable channels, though filmmakers who make deals in this market find themselves shackled by the tastes and limits of the broadcasting industry. In terms of a theatrical release, docs are generally distributed by small companies, or by the filmmakers themselves who work hard to get their labors of love shown. Few have the money for marketing campaigns, and movie reviewers seldom write about them, let alone advocate for them, preferring to write yet another piece on the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Though mainstream theater chains rarely exhibit feature-length documentaries, doc fans who keep their eyes open know that alternative venues, such as cinematheques, university film programs, museums, small film festivals, and arts centers frequently show nonfiction films of all types.

I am fortunate that my job at Facets Multi-Media allows me to see documentaries I might not otherwise hear about. Nonfiction films are frequently part of the program in our cinematheque, and we often release them on DVD either on our own label or through our distribution partners. Recently, I caught two documentaries that actually made me feel joyful after watching them—something I can’t say for most Hollywood films that I see.

BILL WITHERS NEAR THE BEGINNING OF HIS CAREER

Still Bill just finished its run at Facets. A documentary about 1970s rhythm-and-blues singer Bill Withers, the film focuses on the singer’s life now, though it does offer some information about his childhood and his early days in the business. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, his songs will: Withers wrote and recorded “Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” “Grandma’s Hands,” and “Just the Two of Us.” With his clear voice and well-tuned ear, Withers is best remembered for his easy-going singing style that nonetheless evoked emotions that listeners could relate to.

At the age of 45, Withers walked away from performing onstage and touring. “I got tired of being somewhere else,” he admitted in an interview. The film shows him to be a devoted family man, with a wife and two well-adjusted children, which seems to provide a logical explanation for his decision.  However, problems with the music industry, including a label that fell apart around him and execs who offered ridiculous suggestions for material, clearly were factors as well.

Still Bill does not linger on these issues, or even on the past for that matter. Instead, filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack chronicle Withers today, offering a portrait of a talented artist who finds fulfillment outside the entertainment industry. Though the claim that “this film reveals the man/group behind the music,” is made so often that it has become a cliché in rock-umentaries, Still Bill does leave viewers with a lasting impression of the real Bill Withers without prying into areas that are none of our business.

BILL WITHERS TODAY

Withers grew up a stutterer, and in the film’s most touching sequence, the singer is honored by a school in New York City attended by children who severely stutter. The students and their teacher confess their admiration for him and call him an inspiration. When they sing for him, he is moved to tears. Withers is one of those few entertainers who understands that the real reward of fame and recognition is the chance to make a difference in peoples’ lives. Though confident and self-assured, Withers is down-to-earth enough to attend his high-school reunion in his hometown of Slab Fork, West Virginia, a tiny, rundown coal camp. He hangs out with an old friend named C.V., whom he has not seen in decades. Nonetheless, the two old friends speak as though they had just seen each other the day before. Baker and Vlack also shoot Withers collaborating in his home-studio with Latin recording artist Raul Midon and with his talented daughter, Kori Withers, to show that he has not abandoned music—only the cutthroat recording industry that often gets in the way of the music.

Still Bill does not push the conventions of the documentary format, nor will it be remembered for significant or unique content. But, it does boast decent camerawork that is as anchored and calm as its subject, and the filmmakers make smart use of an effective voice-over technique. In some scenes, a voice-over of Withers recalling some aspect of his past history or career can be heard under footage of him today going about his daily business. The voice-over works as a counterpoint to the images, expanding on his intended meaning. It’s a way for the filmmakers to subtly “comment” on Withers’ life without literally doing so.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9Q2DFms1tA]

In my wild, impetuous youth, I worked as an editor for a number of publishing companies. Though I am dating myself, I am proud to say that I worked in publishing during the days when edited manuscript was sent to a typesetter to be laid out on long strips of “hard copy.” This was sent to the book designer who applied glue to the back of the hard copy, then cut and pasted it onto “boards” that represented the pages of the book. I remember many times when we discovered a typo on the day the boards were due to the printers, and it was too late to send to the typesetter for corrections. The book designer and/or the editor painstakingly cut out tiny letters from the left-over scrap of hard copy with sharp X-acto knives and pasted them with skill and precision on top of the misspelled words on the boards. All editors from back in the day have horror stories about cutting out a single “e” or “a” in 12-point type and carefully placing it on the boards in order to make a last-minute correction. My experiences made me aware of the beauty of different type fonts as well as the relationship of kerning and letting to the readability of text. Computers changed publishing enormously, rendering hard copy, typesetters, pica sticks, and X-acto-knife-wielding editors obsolete.

All of these memories came flooding back as I watched Typeface, a documentary about wood type, typography, and the Hamilton Wood Type Museum by Justine Nagan, a member of Chicago’s Kartemquin documentary filmmaking group. A Chicago fixture, Kartemquin has been producing documentaries as a way to better understand society and the human condition for over 40 years. Since 1966, the group has been making nonfiction films that examine and critique society’s issues, problems, and contradictions by focusing on the stories of real people. The group’s most widely acclaimed film, Hoop Dreams, became their greatest commercial success, but Kartemquin’s other films are equally as well crafted, relevant, and dedicated to capturing the human side to their subjects. Justine Nagan serves as Kartemquin’s executive director, but like most of the group’s employees, she also makes films.

SIGN IN HAMILTON WOOD TYPE MUSEUM

HISTORIC POSTERS PRINTED FROM WOOD TYPE

Typeface makes wood type and letterpress artistry look cool, even sexy. Wood type is exactly what the words imply—pieces of type made out of wood. With hand tools, each letter in a font is cut out of wood, because the wood holds the ink well and new letters are easy to make. Before offset printing, all type for posters, handbills, advertisements, and other materials were set with wood type, which was carefully inked by hand and then run through a press. Craftsmen selected a font, arranged each letter of each word—and set the kerning, or the space between each word—and then mixed the ink. The texture of the ink added a richness to the words while the occasional flaw in the wood-cut letters added a human dimension. Today, graphic artists work entirely on computers to produce printed material, which, without the texture in the ink or the flaws in the type, pales in comparison.

Typeface is not a History Channel-style documentary about wood type, because that is not Kartemquin’s style. Instead, it revolves around the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in tiny Two Rivers, Wisconsin, also known as the town that invented the ice cream sundae. Located in the old Hamilton printing factory—one of the biggest printers in the country at one time—the museum houses thousands of pieces of wooden type in hundreds of fonts produced since the factory opened in 1880. One person refers to the collection of type as the “fabric of America,” because specific fonts actually reflect the tastes and styles of certain decades. The museum is a melancholy repository of the old and the new, the past and the future. Former employees of the Hamilton printing factory volunteer at the museum, showing young generations how to cut and finish type. Though their hands are old and stiff, the speed and deftness with which they work are reminders of a lost age of American skilled labor. When these craftsmen die, so will this skill—another hand-craft lost to the computer age. This melancholy hangs over the film, even during the scenes in which letterpress artists are shown using the wood type at the museum to create works of fine art. Once a month, the museum hosts printmaking workshops in which the country’s finest letterpress artists hold classes and teach young graphic designers the joys of actually handling type and mixing ink.

A CLOSE-UP OF THE HANDS OF RETIRED HAMILTON EMPLOYEE NORB BRYLSKI AS HE RUNS ONE OF THE TYPE-CUTTING MACHINES.

Two Rivers has always been dependent on the Hamilton factory. In the past, Hamilton Printing was the primary employer for the area; today, townsfolk hope the factory’s current incarnation as a museum will draw tourists in the future. The human impact of loss weighs heavily on the film—the loss of industry and its effect on the town in the past, the loss of craftsmanship in the face of the computer age, and the potential loss of the museum if it does not attract a sufficient amount of tourists. The emphasis on the human component is a Kartemquin hallmark, and Typeface upholds this tradition admirably.

LOOK AT THAT GORGEOUS SAN-SERIF TYPE!!!

Like Still Bill, Typeface offers no astounding techniques, earth-shattering contributions to the documentary format, or life-altering revelations, but its straightforward cinematography by Tom Bailey and editing by Liz Kaar served the material well. For example, the use of a simple close-up worked wonders in showing the subtleties of the different fonts. Likewise the texture of the ink on the completed posters after pressing was clearly visible in numerous close-ups; even mixing the slick ink in close-up made its “goopiness” downright sexy.

Still Bill does not have a distributor, though it is playing here and there around the country. The filmmakers are depending on their website to not only get the word out but also to make a profit from their venture by selling DVD copies of their documentary (See Stillbillthemovie.com). Typeface is booked in several arts centers and universities around the country, from Seattle to Sarasota. To see if Typeface is playing at a venue near you, check out the film’s page on the Kartemquin website. If you like documentaries, you’ll appreciate the warmth and humanity of Still Bill and Typeface.

14 Responses A Double Dose of Documentaries
Posted By moirafinnie : February 22, 2010 2:46 pm

I will try to find a way to see Still Bill soon. “Ain’t No Sunshine” was a song I vividly associated with the summer it was released and Bill Withers sounds like such a great guy, worth encountering on film and in life.

I saw Typeface last year and thought it was wonderful, making me far more conscious of the reasons that certain fonts are appealing to me. I have two relatives who are graphic artists, so I corraled them into seeing it as well. Both have been lucky enough to have had some experience working with real typeface and printing techniques in the past and use it in their art work, so I suspect that the skill involved in traditional printing won’t be allowed to disappear entirely.

Thanks for writing about these docs.

Posted By moirafinnie : February 22, 2010 2:46 pm

I will try to find a way to see Still Bill soon. “Ain’t No Sunshine” was a song I vividly associated with the summer it was released and Bill Withers sounds like such a great guy, worth encountering on film and in life.

I saw Typeface last year and thought it was wonderful, making me far more conscious of the reasons that certain fonts are appealing to me. I have two relatives who are graphic artists, so I corraled them into seeing it as well. Both have been lucky enough to have had some experience working with real typeface and printing techniques in the past and use it in their art work, so I suspect that the skill involved in traditional printing won’t be allowed to disappear entirely.

Thanks for writing about these docs.

Posted By debbe : February 22, 2010 3:02 pm

so interesting. sorry i couldnt comment about last week’s post… it got away from me and the subject was very close to home…. i loved it. i used to work for an art school that started its own letter press… there was something “old school” about it but the students got to get a true feel for type and text and there is something valuable there. still. without dating ones self. so many things to look at. i saw valentine’s day when i was in los angeles. seriously. how did that script get through development? as you write everyweek… quality isnt often a requirement for movie goers. or some movie goers. its astounding. i liked moirafinnie’s comment- bill withers sounds like a good guy in film and in life… thanks for writing about these two movies.

Posted By debbe : February 22, 2010 3:02 pm

so interesting. sorry i couldnt comment about last week’s post… it got away from me and the subject was very close to home…. i loved it. i used to work for an art school that started its own letter press… there was something “old school” about it but the students got to get a true feel for type and text and there is something valuable there. still. without dating ones self. so many things to look at. i saw valentine’s day when i was in los angeles. seriously. how did that script get through development? as you write everyweek… quality isnt often a requirement for movie goers. or some movie goers. its astounding. i liked moirafinnie’s comment- bill withers sounds like a good guy in film and in life… thanks for writing about these two movies.

Posted By Goldie : February 22, 2010 5:29 pm

I first fell in love with type on a junior high field trip. Growing up in the middle of nowhere, just visiting an urban area was exotic enough. I was the editor of both my junior and senior high newspapers. The interest in words was already there, but inspiration was slim. Little did I realize that on our excursion that day to a newspaper in a neighboring city I would have my first experience with typesetting that would shape much of the rest of my life. Granted, it was metal type and not wood, but to see those typesetters build a page was incredible. I asked for and got to walk away with a proof pressed die page. It inspired me to learn to read backwards so I could proof a page if I ever got lucky enough to work in a paper when I grew up. While the proof die is gone, the impression it left on me remains. I love the process of setting type such as was done with the wood and metal varieties. Long live words and those who lovingly make them beautiful on a page.

Posted By Goldie : February 22, 2010 5:29 pm

I first fell in love with type on a junior high field trip. Growing up in the middle of nowhere, just visiting an urban area was exotic enough. I was the editor of both my junior and senior high newspapers. The interest in words was already there, but inspiration was slim. Little did I realize that on our excursion that day to a newspaper in a neighboring city I would have my first experience with typesetting that would shape much of the rest of my life. Granted, it was metal type and not wood, but to see those typesetters build a page was incredible. I asked for and got to walk away with a proof pressed die page. It inspired me to learn to read backwards so I could proof a page if I ever got lucky enough to work in a paper when I grew up. While the proof die is gone, the impression it left on me remains. I love the process of setting type such as was done with the wood and metal varieties. Long live words and those who lovingly make them beautiful on a page.

Posted By Paul Segedin : February 22, 2010 6:02 pm

30 years ago I worked in the type storage department at Commerce Clearinghouse in Chicago. They published tax and legal guides that were stored on lead slugs in this massive warehouse. We stored and retrieved the slugs for the printing presses. Occasionally we would drop one and the pieces would need to be reassembled by hand.

Posted By Paul Segedin : February 22, 2010 6:02 pm

30 years ago I worked in the type storage department at Commerce Clearinghouse in Chicago. They published tax and legal guides that were stored on lead slugs in this massive warehouse. We stored and retrieved the slugs for the printing presses. Occasionally we would drop one and the pieces would need to be reassembled by hand.

Posted By Lisa Wright : February 22, 2010 11:26 pm

I would love to see Still Bill and am so sorry I missed it at Facets! I am SO interested in seeing both of these films as I’m familiar with Bill Withers’ songs and became a graphic designer because I fell in love with fonts! I know a little bit about how hard the music business can be from a father who was a music producer and record promoter back in the 60s and I applaud Mr. Withers for keeping his wits about him. It can be quite stunning how quickly a field can change and this certainly was true in the print industry. I learned keyline and paste-up in college just a few years before it would be an obsolete task , but I remember well, some of my mentors and teachers resisting the computer at first… though now we’ve all succumbed. Thanks for writing about these 2 films that sound well-worth seeing!

Posted By Lisa Wright : February 22, 2010 11:26 pm

I would love to see Still Bill and am so sorry I missed it at Facets! I am SO interested in seeing both of these films as I’m familiar with Bill Withers’ songs and became a graphic designer because I fell in love with fonts! I know a little bit about how hard the music business can be from a father who was a music producer and record promoter back in the 60s and I applaud Mr. Withers for keeping his wits about him. It can be quite stunning how quickly a field can change and this certainly was true in the print industry. I learned keyline and paste-up in college just a few years before it would be an obsolete task , but I remember well, some of my mentors and teachers resisting the computer at first… though now we’ve all succumbed. Thanks for writing about these 2 films that sound well-worth seeing!

Posted By pau1ke11y : February 24, 2010 10:20 am

I remember sitting with you, Becky, Grundt, and others, looking through reams of junk type for ways to piece together sentences that we had to put onto boards that WERE going out in 20 minutes. Oh, and the type was justified. I can’t remember her name, but there was a keyliner who was always calm, always upbeat, and could handle any of that nonsense. Great post (as always) Suzi. -pk

Posted By pau1ke11y : February 24, 2010 10:20 am

I remember sitting with you, Becky, Grundt, and others, looking through reams of junk type for ways to piece together sentences that we had to put onto boards that WERE going out in 20 minutes. Oh, and the type was justified. I can’t remember her name, but there was a keyliner who was always calm, always upbeat, and could handle any of that nonsense. Great post (as always) Suzi. -pk

Posted By jbryant : February 27, 2010 5:01 pm

Both sound great, but I’m particularly interested in Still Bill. I’m a big fan (I used to sing “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Use Me” back in my band days. He’s such a unique songwriter and performer and I’ve really missed hearing new music from him, but he seems to be quite happy with the way things have gone, so good for him.

Posted By jbryant : February 27, 2010 5:01 pm

Both sound great, but I’m particularly interested in Still Bill. I’m a big fan (I used to sing “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Use Me” back in my band days. He’s such a unique songwriter and performer and I’ve really missed hearing new music from him, but he seems to be quite happy with the way things have gone, so good for him.

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