The Outsider (2021)


The work continues even when the direction is unclear.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Michael Shulan, Alice Greenwald, Bob Garfield (narration), Clifford Chanin, David Handschuh, Michael Kimmelman, Michelle Breslauer, Norm Dannen, Lou Mendes, Joe Daniels, Jan Ramirez, Lynn Rasic, Michael Frazier, Melissa Doi, Phillip Kennicott, Tom Hennes, Amy Weisser. Directed by Steven Rosenbaum and Pamela Yoder

 

The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, is something that has left an indelible mark on America and all Americans. Regardless of political affiliation, skin color, religious background, gender or ethnicity, we all feel pain and sorrow at the thought of that heinous day. It remains a sore point that in some ways requires a certain amount of sensitivity.

When it was decided to create a memorial and museum at Ground Zero, there was a certain amount of hand-wringing at the thought of a tourist attraction on what is, to many, sacred ground (then again, ask a Lakota what they think of the Mount Rushmore gift shop). One of the people that the board of executives for the proposed museum contacted was Michael Shulan.

Shulan, a writer, had an empty storefront near Ground Zero in which he had taped a photo he had taken of the Twin Towers. That seemed to strike a chord in other New Yorkers as others began to post their own pictures there as well. Soon, Shulan was curating an impromptu art exhibit. He became, quite unintentionally, the world’s leading expert on images taken from 9-11.

Shulan was something of a novice when it came to setting up a new museum; other members of the board were not, including Alice Greenwald, the chairman of the board. Alice, who had helped put together a Holocaust museum in New York, had her own ideas of how the museum should be. Shulan saw it as a place that asked questions rather than provide answers; Greenwald saw it as more providing the latter.

This fly-on-the-wall documentary goes behind the scenes of the conception and design of the memorial, and follows along with the construction. We see the board grappling with which images to include and which might be too graphic. We listen to the heartbreaking 9-11 call of Melissa Doi, and watch them also consider how much of it to make available.

These types of issues are fascinating, but we spend an awful lot of time on the office politics of putting this museum together. We never get a sense of how reliving 9-11 every day for years affects those in charge with curating the memorial to it. For some reason, the filmmakers chose initially to make Shulan their focus, but as the film goes on he becomes less and less a part of the proceedings. We get a sense of his frustrations (and the film title refers specifically to him, after all) but he fades out of focus somewhat unaccountably.

The movie is kind of insular, and it doesn’t help that Bob Garfield’s narration makes this look and sound more like a story on 60 Minutes. While the aspect of being privy to meetings and discussions about important issues gives us a sense of how decisions were arrived at, we never really get much in-depth discussion with the principals to add any sort of nuance to what we are seeing. So while the subject might be intriguing, it feels like the filmmakers didn’t really do any kind of follow-up once the meetings had adjourned. This was never going to be an easy task and it was never going to please everybody – but that doesn’t mean a documentary about the process had to do the same.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating backstage look at how office politics basically color everything.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the images might be too disturbing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing 9/11 images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shulan left the museum board on the day it opened to the public in 2014.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet;  Metacritic: No score yet,
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Museum Town
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Show

Man in Red Bandana


Welles Remy Crowther believed we are all connected as one human family and we are here to care for and help each other.

(2017) Documentary (Verdi) Gwyneth Paltrow (voice), Barack Obama, Jefferson “Jeff’ Crowther, Alison Crowther, John Howells, Welles Remy Crowther (voice), Ling Young, Harry Wanamaker, Judy Wein (voice), Honor Crowther-Fagan, Kelly Reyher, Gerry Sussman, Richard Fern, Chris Varman, Ed Nicholls, Eric Lipton, Ron DiFrancesco, Donna Spera, Paige Crowther-Charbonneau. Directed by Matthew J. Weiss

 

There are heroes that we know about, those who are rightly praised and their stories oft-repeated. Then there are the heroes we don’t know about, people who should be household names but aren’t but still in all fit the definition of heroism to a “T.”

Welles Remy Crowther is one such. He is one of thousands who perished on September 11, 2001 in the World Trade Center – in his case, in the South Tower. What he did in his last hour of life has been enough to grab the attention of President Barack Obama, who recounted the young 24-year-old equities trader’s story at the dedication of the 9/11 Museum in New York City and has already been the subject of a documentary short on ESPN.

Crowther was the son of Jefferson “Jeff” Welles, a volunteer firefighter and his mother Alison and grew up in Nyack, New York. He was athletic, lettering in ice hockey and lacrosse in high school and playing varsity lacrosse at Boston College. After graduating, he got a job at Sandler, O’Neil and Partners on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. However, as he confessed to his father a month before the attack, he was considering a career change, one that he actually made – after he died.

After the United Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower, Crowther made his way down to the 78th floor where the plane had impacted. He found several survivors there, all frozen in fear and panicking in the dense smoke and flames. He was able to discover the one clear stairway left and guided those survivors to it, making three separate trips up and down the stairs. He was in the lobby, within sight of safety, preparing to return to the 78th with firefighters who had the rescue equipment needed to bring those who were unable to make the stairs on their own when the tower collapsed. His body wouldn’t be recovered until the following March.

He’d left a haunting voice mail message for his mother before the second plane hit, assuring her that he was all right. After that, he called his college roommate John Howells to let him know he was going to get out but the young man’s nature was not to abandon those who needed help. He always carried a red bandana – a gift from his firefighter dad whom he idolized and who carried an identical blue one – and he wore it on this occasion to filter out the smoke and dust. He took it off only briefly but survivor Ling Young, one of the ten (at least) that is positively known that he rescued that day, clearly saw his face and would later identify him to his mother but we’ll get to that more in a moment.

His family was understandably devastated; when his funeral was held, there had been no remains recovered to that point so an empty casket was buried. This was hard for his mother Alison to accept so she went on a quest, pouring over news photos, print articles and documentaries, trying to find some mention, anything, that would tell her something about how her son died. Years later, the New York Times did a comprehensive article on the timeline of the disaster, organizing it by towers and by groups of floors. Reporter Eric Lipton was assigned the area where Welles had been and noticed that several survivors had reported being guided out by a man in a red bandana. Alison knew immediately that this was her son. She contacted survivors Judy Wein and Young and both of them were able to identify Welles from pictures that Alison had.

The documentary was directed by first-time filmmaker Matthew Weiss, who had heard Welles’ story from Jeff Welles, who had worked in the bank Weiss uses. Weiss’ inexperience shows in a number of places; the movie feels padded a bit towards the end as all the monuments and tributes to Welles are listed and shown. The re-enactments are a bit sketchy as well. Paltrow’s narration is surprisingly bloodless; she has always been a very emotional actress so I was surprised when the narration sounded  a bit too much like she was reading it without caring much about the words.

But Weiss also took an inspiring story and brought it to life. The animated graphics he used to explain how the planes impacted the building, why the impacts brought the Towers down and where Welles Crowther went in that last hour are informative albeit simple. It’s a shame Weiss didn’t have the budget for more elaborate animation but on the flip side they may have detracted from the film. Simple is generally better even when it comes to films.

The interviews with Welles’ family are understandably emotional. You get a real sense of the devastating effect his passing had on them, on his friends and on the community at large. Clearly he was well-liked by just about everyone who knew him; high school hockey teammates (one tells of a pass that Welles made to him so that he could get the first goal of his varsity career and afterwards retrieved the puck so he could keep it), and work colleagues. He didn’t seem to have a steady girlfriend however; at least none were interviewed here although being a handsome and likable young man I’m sure he had his share of girlfriends. The movie doesn’t give too much of a sense of Welles’ personal life beyond his sports achievements and his love for firefighting and desire to become one.

One of the reasons Welles’ story isn’t better known may be that he “only” saved ten lives; the media loves big numbers over smaller ones after all but at the end of the day he gave his life for people he didn’t know at the cost of his own and despite the fact that he could have continued down the stairs with the first group and easily have saved himself. That he chose to return at least three more times is mind-blowing. I can’t think of anything more heroic than that. For his heroism he was the first man to be honored as a firefighter in the Fire Department of New York City posthumously and in several memorials to fallen first responded he is listed as a firefighter there. What is particularly moving about this is that when his father was cleaning out Welles’ apartment sometime later, he discovered applications for the FDNY that Welles had partially filled out. This was the career change he had discussed with his dad before he died.

There is a great deal of 9/11 footage here of the planes hitting the building and the towers collapsing, some of it unseen before now. Even though sixteen years have passed as of this writing since that terrible day, for some the images may just be too traumatic and trigger feelings that may bring back a whole lot of pain. Those who have difficulties still in watching 9/11 footage or seeing images from that day should be advised that this may be difficult for them to handle.

This is far from perfect filmmaking and some critics are really taking Weiss to task for not producing something more polished. I can understand their gripes but they are at the end of the day, it is the story and not always how it’s told that is important. This is a story that every American should know; hell, this is a story that every human should know. Welles Remy Crowther represents the best in all of us. He is a true hero in an era where they are desperately needed.

REASONS TO GO: The film is extremely inspiring. The graphics showing how the planes brought the tower down were informative. The background music is effective without being overpowering. You feel like you really get to know the parents. The survivor stories are extremely detailed.
REASONS TO STAY: This may still be too traumatic for those who are especially emotional about the fall of the Twin Towers.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are fairly adult and there are some disturbing images and re-enactments of 9/11.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The charitable trust founded by the Crowthers to honor their son can be reached (and donated to at) here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 9/11: The Falling Man
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: The Mummy (2017)

God Knows Where I Am


Some of the beautiful imagery used in the film.

(2016) Documentary (BOND360) Joan Bishop, Lori Singer (voice), Caitlin Murtagh, Kathy White, Brian Smith, Matthew Nelson, Doug Bixby, Lora Goss, Wayne DiGeronimo, Stephanie Savard, Judith E. Kolada, Paul Appelbaum, Kevin Carbone, James E. Duggan, Thomas Scarlato, E. Fuller Torrey, Jennie Duval. Directed by Jedd Wider and Todd Wider

 

In 2008, the decomposing body of a woman was discovered in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. Her shoes were neatly at her side. Nearby two notebooks full of journal entries told the tale of her stay in the farmhouse. She was identified as Linda Bishop, a woman diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder who had walked out of a New Hampshire mental hospital and walked to the farmhouse where she would die of starvation.

This film by veteran documentary producers Jedd and Todd Wider, a brother team best known for their work with Alex Gibney, utilized Bishop’s own words from her journals (spoken by actress Lori Singer) as well as interviews with her sister Joan, her daughter Caitlin, her close friend Kathy as well as psychiatric and medical professionals that treated her, the police officer and medical examiner working her case as well as the Judge who committed her.

The Wider brothers choose to build a story, slowly adding details that complete the picture. We meet Linda as a young woman, charismatic and full of life. We discover her love for the outdoors and nature, and discover that she’s smart, articulate and knowledgeable about the world around her. She gets married, has a daughter, gets divorced but is by all accounts a wonderful mother who is virtually inseparable from her daughter who adores her.

And then the mental illness begins to rear its ugly head. A job as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant is quit because she believes the Chinese mafia is out to get her. This prompts the first of several relocations with her puzzled daughter. Soon it becomes apparent that Linda is incapable of caring for herself, much less her daughter. Caitlin is sent to live with relatives and Linda alternates between lucidity and delusion, depending on how vigilant she is in taking her medication. The problem is that Linda doesn’t believe that she’s ill; as her paranoia deepens, she begins to believe that Joan, one of the last advocates that she has, is out to get her pittance of an inheritance left to her when her dad had passed away. For that reason, Linda refuses to allow Joan power of guardianship, a crucial event which essentially blocks Linda and the rest of the family from getting much of any information about Linda’s care and treatment at all. They aren’t even notified when she’s released. As a result, nobody notices she’s gone while she’s slowly wasting away on a diet mainly of apples she’s picked in the woods and rain water. By that time, Linda had alienated her daughter and her own friends. Only Joan still stood by her and one gets the sense that it was a burden for her.

The movie originated in a story in The New Yorker written by Rachel Aviv who is a producer on the documentary. It is a poignant tale and for the most part it is told well here. The filmmakers for some reason decide to leave some crucial information out – doubtlessly to make it more impactful when it is revealed near the very end of the movie – but I don’t think they’re successful in that matter. We mostly can guess who “Steve” is and his role in the story and as he s mentioned many, many times in Linda’s journal, it gets a bit frustrating.

The cinematography here is absolutely breathtaking. Gerardo Puglia fills the screen with bucolic farmhouses, still winter landscapes and beautifully lit apple trees at sunset. Singer who most will remember from the 1984 version of Footloose reads Bishop’s words with extraordinary depth and even the thick New England landscape does nothing to rob Bishop of her character.

The title is an ironic one; it is taken directly from Linda’s journals in which it is used as an expression of faith. Linda knows that God is aware of her; He knows where she is and will take care of her in the end. However, it can also be construed to be an expression of being lost and there are few souls who were more lost than Linda Bishop was.

The filmmakers very much believe that the mental health care system in this country is badly broken and in all honesty it’s hard to argue with them. In our zeal to protect the rights of the patient we sometimes forget that they often are unable to make informed decisions on their own. The tale of Linda Bishop is a sad one; even in her last days she had a sense of humor and a bluntness that is refreshing and one can only wonder what she would have been like had she continued to take her meds. There’s one certain thing she would have been had she done so – alive.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The story is truly heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The identity of Steve, who is mentioned throughout, is withheld until the very end which gets frustrating.
FAMILY VALUES: The theme, having to do with mental illness, is adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won a special jury award at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil and Daniel Johnston
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: For Here or to Go?