REVIEW: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

1 05 2017

Norman Lear is, to borrow a term used by the President to describe Frederick Douglass, being recognized more and more these days. But unlike the abolitionist hero, Lear is still alive! Luckily for us, his work and enormous contributions to shaping American society by revolutionizing the sitcom are receiving their proper due. Lear himself is not content to go gently into that good night, either; the nonagenarian just kicked off a podcast this month!

A few years ago, however, Lear penned a memoir, and documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady came along for the book tour. Their observations on the journey form the backbone of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.” It’s definitely a puff piece, though the halo is dim enough that it falls short of hagiography. Their film lands somewhere in Sunday morning news magazine segment territory, just at a feature length, which is a fine place to reside.

Ewing and Grady assemble an impressive array of talking heads to interview, ranging from obvious contenders such as comedic peer Mel Brooks and famous showrunners like Lena Dunham and Phil Rosenthal (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) to some genuinely surprising faces like George Clooney. For those who want to understand Lear’s importance and don’t have the time to binge-watch “All in the Family,” this documentary will provide an important primer to his historical importance and continued relevance. Ewing and Grady aren’t pushing the documentary form like Lear stretched the TV sitcom, though that’s hardly an issue. B

REVIEW: Detropia

6 09 2012

Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive” has been a common rallying cry – okay, closer to a scream – on the campaign trail for Vice President Joe Biden.  I am not going to comment on the validity of the statement because to do such would only introduce a political debate into an aesthetic evaluation.  However, I will refer you to Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary “Detropia,” which shows the American automotive industry on life support and Detroit rotting around it.

The filmmakers provide a harrowing look at the detrital conditions of the city; at times, I caught myself wondering if their establishing shots were new footage or stolen from some horror film set in a decaying Motor City.  Ewing and Grady cut a cross a broad swath of post-recessional Detroit experience, ranging from the government to the business owner to the artist all the way down to your average citizen.

Everyone has an opinion, everyone has a spin, and everyone has a story.  Some people are there because of their pride, some are there to maintain order, some are there as opportunists to seize a bargain or fill a niche.  Though each subject comes from an entirely different point of view and frame of reference, they can all agree that Detroit is a fallen colossus, a sinking ship of which they are among the last to abandon.

“Detropia” is a devastating portrait of that city, and it twists a knife in the wound of the economic downfall in a way that really stings.  While “Up in the Air” and other similarly zeitgeist-tapping films merely graze the surface, Ewing and Grady use the power of documentarian veracity to make the rotting carcass invade all our senses.  Though they disappoint on a simple storytelling level by not following each story to completion and thus leaving a number of loose ends hanging, they serve up a slice of life that is searingly real … but deny us the last bite.  B