Tonight at Silverdocs: Plimpton and Papp
Some of the best films at this year's Silverdocs center on the fraught, fascinating lives on people involved in the business of creativity—including two of tonight's offerings, Plimpton! and Joe Papp in Five Acts. Check them out, or any of the dozens of films we reviewed here, and return later in the week for films about Ai Weiwei, Wayne White, and Marina Abramovic.
Update, June 21: D'oh. These are Thursday's screenings, and it is Wednesday. Find every day's reviews here.
In the era of Snooki and16 and Pregnant, it’s difficult to imagine a time when expecting young women were secretly shuttled away to remote group houses where they could grow huge, give birth, and immediately have their babies taken away from them, all without—gasp!—the neighbors finding out. In A Girl Like Her, director Ann Fessler has dozens of such women tell fragments of their stories anonymously, identified only at the very end by photos from their youth. Their experiences are similar: They took fooling around a bit too far, got knocked up, infuriated their parents, and felt indescribable sorrow at being forced to surrender their children, sometimes without ever seeing them. But collectively, these play-by-plays have a power—becoming pregnant before marriage or even high-school graduation wasn’t exactly a rare occurrence, and the way with which it was dealt in the 1950s and ’60s had lifelong emotional consequences. The film is quietly devastating, using vintage footage to depict the stories and frame them with the beliefs of the time, including an “educational” video that instructs, “All things considered, it’s the girl who sets the level of conduct on a date.” The most heartbreaking sentiments, though, come from the parents of the unwed mothers. As one woman says, the idea forced upon her was that “the worst possible thing that could happen would be if the child ended up with me.”—Tricia Olszewski
What do Tom Cruise, Hosni Mubarak, and neo-Nazi radio host Hal Turner have in common? They’ve all felt the wrath of Anonymous, that diffuse, much-publicized group of hacktivists with a penchant for anarchy, government accountability, and plastic Guy Fawkes masks. Director Brian Knappenberger peers behind the masks (a surprising number of “Anons” appear in the film bare-faced and using their own names) in the impressively thorough We Are Legion, which follows the group’s fascinatingly rapid development from a crackpot, 4chan-centered meme factory to—thanks to its involvement in the Occupy Wall Street movement and its delivery of “digital care packages” during the Arab Spring—an increasingly visible political force. It’s a glowing portrait, and anyone looking for a critique of some of Anonymous’ more problematic attributes—its lack of a clear political agenda, its penchant for antagonistic trolling—will find the film one-sided. Still, its detail makes We Are Legion a vital study of what it means to be an activist in a digitizing world.—Lindsay Zoladz
Oh, how droll, how amuuuuuusing it must have been to play...oh, what’s the damned thing called? Ah yes, quarterback with the, ah, the Detroit...Lions! Thank you, George, thank you. Anyway, it sounds sooooo fascinating, so delightfully brutal. It’ll be splendid, I can’t wait to read the book, I just loved the one about baseball. Your stories are always so...interesting, George. Say, is that Gore Vidal over there? With Norman Mailer? I heard him say the mostwicked thing at Gay Talese’s last Sunday. Have you seen Bobby lately? I’ve been dying to have a stay at Hyannis this summer. Oh, how’s the magazine, dear George? I adored the Cheever interview, so fascinating. Oh, why I’d love another, George. Did I ever tell you you throw the best parties?—Jonathan L. Fischer
This PBS/American Masters co-production suffers no dearth of famous talents willing to say admiring things about its subject, theater producer and Shakespeare in the Park founder Joseph Papp. Martin Sheen, James Earl Jones, and Kevin Kline are among the talking heads who line up to praise his conviction and work ethic; Meryl Streep recalls that when her first child was born, the director elbowed his way into the delivery room before her husband could. Papp wanted to make theater accessible to everyone. In his mid-30s he began staging free performances of Shakespeare plays in parks (and sometimes on flatbed trucks) in neighborhoods not served by traditional playhouses. Central Park’s outdoor Delacorte Theatre became a permanent home for his free summer Shakespeare productions, which are still running 50 years later. In 1967, he founded the Public Theater, nurturing several shows—Hair and A Chorus Lineamong them—that went on to become, to his surprise, Broadway smash hits. He poured the profits from these unlikely crowd-pleasers back into the public, turning his focus to transgressive work from playwrights like Ntozake Shange and David Rabe. In the 1950s, Papp was a Communist Party member who refused to name names; in the ’80s, he was a First Amendment advocate who refused NEA grant funds when they came with content-regulating strings attached. Directors Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen keep things moving at a brisk clip, packing four eventful decades of theatrical history into 84 minutes. The cost Papp paid for his workaholism (the wife who survived him was his fourth) gets some mention, but not until 1987, when Papp was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the same time his son Tony was diagnosed with AIDS, does true misfortune seem to catch him. If the film seems a bit slick and light on insights into Papp’s character, maybe’s that because he didn’t live in his head. If you want to know the man, look at his work. Papp, who died in 1991, left plenty of it behind.—Chris Klimek