Highlights of the documentaries featured in FilmScene’s FLAM series

As a treat to lovers of the arts this holiday season, FilmScene, in collaboration with the Bijou, Mission Creek and Little Village, is presenting the FLAM series, a week-long celebration of re-release and new release documentaries about literature, art and music (FLAM — get it?) with specially priced series passes. The FLAM series begins at FilmScene on Friday, Dec. 12, and all films are limited engagement.

In many ways, the series is a survey of the various approaches to documentary film, and several of the films are framed as specific directors’ conceptions of what should pass as documentary films. Here are a few highlights:

Rome, Open City

Friday, Dec 12 at 4:00 p.m.
Saturday, Dec 13 at 4:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Dec 17 at 6:00 p.m.


The series opens with the Janus films restoration of a modern classic, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), a film which cinema luminary and sayer of outrageous things, Martin Scorsese, declared to be “the most precious moment of film history.” He may not be wrong: Rome tells the story of a few members of the Italian resistance to the occupation and their assorted political and personal struggles. Using both constructed sets and actual footage from decimated Rome in the aftermath of World War II, the film is both a poignant reflection on those Italians not entirely sold on the Thousand Year Reich and an early modernist effort at defining the limits of documentary filmmaking.

National Gallery

Sunday, Dec. 14 at 1 p.m.
Thursday, Dec. 18 at 5:30 p.m.


Also part of this series is Frederick Wiseman’s very entertaining National Gallery (2014), a documentary vaguely involving the titular London museum. While we tend to think of museums, at least Western ones, as staid, unchanging repositories of the artistic documents of our civilization places where we can see the greatest hits of Western civilization, Wiseman’s film very effectively reminds us that museums are also workplaces and a sort of open forum for the development of ideas about what that civilization really means. He shows us one of the premier facilities for the display of art as the subject of ribald jokes by assorted patrons; as the site of a political protest; as the site of very specific vandalism; as the site of behind the scenes, life-drawing classes of the male nude; and as a place where all the staff seem pretty happy to report to work every day. We see academic discourses on Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting techniques as well as high level curators overseeing the hanging of lights on a Renaissance triptych and lamenting the degree of shadow from the heavy frame.

One curator describes the efforts of the lighting technicians as ‘heroic.’ Perhaps a few months of war time in Italy would have changed his assessment of heroism, but nonetheless we are made aware of the degree of planning and labor involved in displaying art so that the viewer will not notice any of this planning and labor. Wiseman’s method is highly observational and episodic; we go from scene to scene without any narration or musical score, so that the film feels like a series of conversations about art that we drift between, eavesdropping in much the same way that we might overhear other patrons talking as we walk through an actual gallery.

His film gives us a portrait of the museum that emphasizes change and the role of people interacting with art, not just displaying it. So much so that Wiseman’s title becomes something of a pun — the National Gallery should be seen as a collection of people — both from the U.K. and beyond — as much as a collection of paintings.

20,000 Days on Earth

Friday, Dec 12 8:30 p.m.
Monday, Dec 15 5:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Dec 16 9:30 p.m.


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Other films of note in this interesting series include Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days on Earth (1973), an inventive sort of auto/biography about a 24-hour period on the 20,000th day of Nick Cave’s life. Nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, much of the film’s focus is on the nature of memory and the creative process through the very specific lens of Cave’s music and other writing, but it suggests that this process is as much one of absorbing influences as it is about actual inspiration. We see Cave in therapy, hanging out with friends, interacting with his family and performing live. Fans of the Bad Seeds or The Birthday Party will appreciate extended appearances by both Warren Ellis and Blixa Bargeld.

Burroughs: the Movie

Sunday, Dec 14 at 4:30 p.m.
Monday, Dec 15 at 7:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Dec 16 at 5:30 p.m.


Perhaps the most traditional documentary in this series is Howard Brooker’s film about the truly bizarre William S. Burroughs. Burroughs: the Movie (1983) is both newly restored and newly rediscovered, after apparently being lost for some 30 years and only recently tracked down by the director’s nephew. Burroughs talks about his life and career as well as his somewhat unconventional hobbies (heroin addiction, shooting things) in compelling and candid ways with the filmmaker and other luminaries of the New York art world in the 1980s.