When video killed the radio star, '80s rockers inundated televisions with a male fantasyland where hourglass-figured nymphomaniacs outnumbered their idols ten to one. Capturing more than 160 of these images, communications professor Sut Jhally produced the critique Dreamworlds: Desire/Sex/Power in Rock Video. It was passed around women's studies and communications departments before attracting the gaze of MTV's lawyers, who cried copyright infringement and demanded that Jhally recover each tape. He refused, claiming protection under fair use laws allowing anyone to co-opt others' creations for educational critique, and MTV backed down. But Jhally was just rearing up.
In 1991 he founded the Media Education Foundation, a nonprofit that has steered dozens of documentaries on race, gender, politics, consumerism, and the media itself into thousands of classrooms. The latest offering, Freedom of Expression, has Ivy League law professors and media critics expounding on copyright law's encroachment on America's cultural output. What saves the film from visual monotony--most commentators are filmed in front of bookshelves or potted plants--are the pop-culture clips embedded throughout.
2 Live Crew's spoof of Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" exemplifies the 1994 Supreme Court decision that parody, even poorly done, is worthy of legal protection, while a scene from the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom in which a cell phone ringing to the Rocky theme--the moviemakers paid $2,500 to use it, after talking the price down from $10,000--highlights the ridiculous lengths to which corporations will go to keep their products under lock and key, and the pains artists and educators must take to avoid costly litigation. -Kristen Mueller
(Koch Lorber; on DVD)
Suicide remains an enormous taboo, rarely discussed publicly and widely forbidden--which is what makes Eric Steel's elegiac documentary The Bridge all the more engrossing. During 2004, Steel and his crew propped up their cameras on or near San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and captured nearly all of the 24 fatal leaps that took place that year. Imagine enjoying a pristine, picture-postcard view of the famous bay when, all of a sudden, you witness a distant splash beneath the bridge: Instantly, the landscape goes from tranquil to macabre. Is it unethical for the film crew to observe people killing themselves? Does the movie perpetuate the bridge's status as the world's most popular suicide destination? Maybe. But The Bridge is laudable for its sensitive examination of human anguish, interspersing stories of survivors, friends, and family members who have experienced this most sorrowful of killers. -Anthony Kaufman
(First Run Features; on DVD)
L'Iceberg tells the tale of Fiona, a haggard fast-food employee who deserts her family in search of an iceberg after a chance encounter with a walk-in freezer. By way of refrigerated truck, she lands in a European port town and boards the aptly named Le Titanique to sail toward fate--an icy undersea mountain and an Inuit coast guard" named Nattikuttuk. Despite the fanciful plot, L'Iceberg is an exercise in restraint. The camera never zooms, swoops, or pans. Dialogue is sparse. The actors' theatrical antics--parting the air as if it were ocean waves while they perch on a boat's bow, rolling themselves up in tinfoil like baked potatoes express more than mere words could while humorously punctuating this fantastic flight from normalcy. -Kristen Mueller
(Creative Arson Productions; on DVD)
The members of the Danielson Famile are unabashedly Christian, wear nurse uniforms, and create music to heal through the "Good Word" in an ever-evolving project that's a combination of indie rock, devotional music, freak folk, and family variety show. The documentary Danielson: A Family Movie is a gently revealing look at the group, never quite penetrating the mystery behind their smiling faces. Founder Daniel Smith himself seems to exist most fully, and perhaps exclusively, in the context of his family and collaborators (including singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens). Smith is the opposite of the standard auteur; he is the center, yet he is humble and content to disappear into the whole. And even for skeptical audiences, the music itself, in all its strange, unironic glory, transcends the message. -Katje Richstatter
(First Run Features; on DVD)
Considered enemies of the state, railroaded by the U.S. justice system, and declared guilty of crimes they did not commit, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in 1927, but their story resonates powerfully today. Peter Miller's penetrating investigation into the famous murder case that centered on the two Italian anarchists--"terrorists" of the 1920s--reveals the bogus evidence against them and the xenophobia and jingoism that contributed to their deaths by electric chair. Borrowing clips from Giuliano Montaldo's 1971 classic movie of the same name and structured like a historical courtroom exposé, the film also shows Sacco and Vanzetti--via letters read aloud by actors John Turturro and Tony Shalhoub--as thoughtful and passionate champions of the dispossessed. While the staid storytelling may not live up to the duo's revolutionary ardor, Sacco and Vanzetti painfully conveys the all-too-frequent evisceration of the nation's ideals during wartime. -Anthony Kaufman