This week, Netflix self-reported that in the first 28 days after its release, more than 48 million people watched their new show Ratched, an origin story of the character Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. In the wake of this news, I would also like to “self-report” that I have a million dollars and can dunk a basketball.
Obviously this number is unverifiable, but if anyone reading believes that 48 million people watched Ratched in its first month, or even that 48 million people had heard of Ratched in its first month, then please reach out: I have an exciting business opportunity I’d like to tell you about. No one watched Ratched. It barely exists. Presumably Netflix is just lying to you because they’re embarrassed and they think you’re stupid enough to believe them.
But don’t worry. We here at the Popula Film Club don’t think you’re stupid, and we would never lie to you. Instead, we’ve handpicked five great movies that are not spin-offs or reboots of anything, and that are available for streaming on platforms which don’t require you to fund dishonest megacorporations with a vested interest in obscuring film history.
City Hall (dir. Frederick Wiseman, 2020)
via Film Forum ($12 rental)
This is not the first time I’ve been occasioned to recommend a Wiseman joint for the film club, and hopefully it won’t be the last. Each of the nonagenarian documentarian’s many efforts is a carefully observed portrait of a little world: a meat plant, a missile silo, a school for the deaf, a school for the blind, etc. Thanks to Wiseman’s seeming omnipresence of access and generous editing style, these films always prove eye-opening as to the existence of a common good, in one way or another.
There’s really no way of pitching Wiseman’s latest, City Hall, that won’t make it sound daunting: it’s four and a half hours of fly-on-the-wall footage of the people of Boston’s City Hall doing their jobs, having meetings, and serving constituents. This may sound like homework, but it’s really a miraculous invitation. Watch as a fluorescent-lit zoning board hearing is almost alchemically transformed into a piece of drama as deeply engaging and heart-wrenching as anything you’ve ever seen actors do.
I should also mention that in conjunction with the release of City Hall, Film Forum has been bringing out an old film from the Wiseman vaults every Wednesday, and two of them-—a look at The American Ballet Theatre company and the United States Sinai Field Mission—are available now. These Wiseman classics are accompanied by interviews with the man himself, conducted by his filmmaking acolytes Errol Morris, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and others. These older films are not easy to come by in high quality online, so be sure to enjoy them while they’re all dusted off for the public eye!
Film Forum is a legendary theater for alternative and independent films in Greenwich Village, New York City.
Dark Water (dir. Hideo Nakata, 2002)
Via NightFlight Plus ($5/month subscription, free trial offered)
I know a lot of people whose most formative, can’t-sleep-for-weeks horror movie experience was Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002), in which a bunch of hot people watch a video tape that later kills them. Much of The Ring’s atmospheric creepiness was ascribed to its permeating moisture: it rains in every scene, and the ghostly little girl who haunts the main characters drenches her surroundings with wet hair. This is an attribute clearly cribbed from the original film, Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998), which was so popular as to launch a craze of Japanese horror remaking in the west.
Nakata, not to be outdone by his American copycat, decided that his next big scary movie would be the wettest one ever made. Dark Water asks the question: what if an overstressed woman desperately trying to retain custody of her only daughter in a rough divorce from a rich asshole moved into an apartment so haunted that it was never dry?
Giving as much time and attention to the social drama as the scares, Dark Water is perhaps too much of a downer for a bonafide Halloween-night viewing. But it certainly represents a refinement of the lastingly-creepy style that made Nakata a global sensation after Ringu.
NightFlight Plus is a streaming platform that specializes in full episodes of 80s punk variety program Night Flight, plus underground, cult and horror films.
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (dir. Kazuo Hara, 1987)
Via DOCSVILLE ($5/month subscription)
Here’s one of those non-fiction films so sublime that it’s hard to process as a document of reality. Anti-establishment crank Kenzo Okuzaki, a 62-year-old veteran of Japan’s World War II campaign in New Guinea, attempts to find and hold accountable whoever caused the deaths of two comrades in the moments immediately after the war’s end. This is no wishy-washy doc mission statement; rather, it is the singular obsession of Okuzaki, a man who has just been released from prison for: killing a real estate broker, plotting to kill the former Prime Minister, and distributing pornographic images of Emperor Hirohito (also, slinging pachinko balls at him in his palace).
Thus Okuzaki—fueled by PTSD and all manner of long-festering guilt—sets off on his mission to track down and interrogate surviving members of his regiment to find the truth about his fallen peers. Director Kazuo Hara said about the adventure, “I love Hollywood action films, and I wanted Okuzaki to act like an action star. I want to make action documentary films.” So imagine Roger & Me if Michael Moore had been directed by someone who was hyping him up to beat Roger to death.
For all its plain absurdity, The Emperor’s Naked Army is not an easy watch. It’s graphic, often terrifying, and grows increasingly grim, as Okuzaki is not merely exploited for thrills. He’s a survivor of real horrors, and the close observation of his grieving, fighting, and panicking for justice in a world where atrocities are readily forgotten is nothing less than harrowing. Watch once and remember forever, or your money back.
Docsville (f.k.a. Yaddo?) is an online streaming service that offers a broad selection of classic and contemporary international documentaries.
Raising Cain Re-Cut (dir. Brian De Palma, 1992)
Via Press Play Video Blog (Free)
Brian De Palma’s many films are critically polarizing as a result of their frequent ridiculousness. But even for diehard admirers, his 1992 film Raising Cain proved hard to love. John Lithgow carries the picture by acting alongside himself as three different kinds of insane person, and Frances Sternhagen shows up as a concerned psychologist for one of cinema’s finest walk-and-talks, but the film lacks structural cohesion and a certain building tension that one can usually depend on De Palma to deliver.
Flash forward twenty years. We’re in the Netherlands, where filmmaker and De Palma loyalist Peet Gelderblom reads an interview in which De Palma expresses regret over having screwed with Cain’s chronological timeline, and disappointment with the final result. So Gelderblom sources an original draft of the script and gets to work rearranging the film so as to restore to it a greater sense of spiral. His recut goes up on Indiewire’s video blog, is officially recognized by De Palma as a director’s cut, receives an official release, oh captain my captain, and happily ever after.
Press Play Video Blog was Indiewire’s video essay vertical, which published critical and educational content for free via Vimeo.
Out-Takes From The Life Of A Happy Man (dir. Jonas Mekas, 2012)
Via Re-Voir ($5 Rental)
I won’t try and eulogize Jonas Mekas—who passed away at 94 last year, leaving a giant hole in the heart of New York film culture—other than to say you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has done more to cultivate independent, avant garde, and experimental film in the United States. As figurehead of Film Culture, the Film-Makers Cooperative distribution network, and the experimental film haven Anthology Film Archives, he’s something of a saint to movie people all over the world. His penultimate film, Out-Takes From The Life Of A Happy Man, is a testament to why.
In his film Walden, Mekas says, “I make home movies, therefore I live. I live, therefore I make home movies.” Out-Takes is a visual poem, composed of scraps of those home movies that were left on the cutting room floor after the assembly of the many other film diaries he made throughout his life. Piano improvisations by Auguste Varkalis provide accompaniment to the fluttering images of Mekas’ family and friends, all suffused with light and love. At times Mekas also chimes in with questions and statements about life, films, and the nature of memory. Ideally this film would be experienced in a traditional theater environment, but just do the best you can. When someone arranges for their life to flash before your eyes, it’s worth taking seriously.
Re-Voir is a video label that publishes and distributes contemporary and classic experimental films.
The Popula Film Club brings you worthwhile options to stream, chosen with a view to quality, and to withholding as much money as possible from the oligarchs and monopolists of Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and the like.