Dream of Life: An Elegantly Impressionistic Portrait of Patti Smith

Dream of Life: An Elegantly Impressionistic Portrait of Patti Smith

Patti Smith: Dream of Life, directed and mostly shot by Steven Sebring, is an elegantly impressionistic portrait of the punk godhead, Patti Smith, which was created over a heroic period of 11-years. The film has barely begun before Patti has offered forth a life’s worth of headline news, a strategy that allows Mr. Sebring and Ms. Smith, who is as much a collaborator as a subject, to fill the next 100 or so minutes with fragmented beauty and song.

For the most part, the film is a song of life, alternately joyous and elegiac, warm and vibrantly present, a mosaic of moods and moments from one woman’s richly lived time on earth. Against the odds and other punk rockers’ self-destructive tendencies, Ms. Smith didn’t die young or succumb to the usual rock clichés.

Patti Smith: The Early Years

Patti Smith was born in Chicago in 1948 and grew up in Woodbury, New Jersey. After graduating from high school, Patti did a brief stint as a factory worker, which convinced her to move to New York City to pursue a life in the arts. Soon after her arrival, she connected with the young photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met while working at a book store. This was a close friendship that she maintained until his death in 1989. In 1969 she went to Paris with her sister and started doing performance art. When Smith returned to New York City, she lived in the Chelsea Hotel with Mapplethorpe, and they began frequenting the then fashionable Max’s Kansas City and CBGB nightclubs.

She helped put New York’s punk-rock landmark CBGB on the map. She organized The Patti Smith Group and in 1975 released her debut album, Horses, to critical acclaim. Produced by John Cale, the album was described as an original mixture of exhortatory rock & roll, Smith’s poetry, vocal mannerisms inspired by Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison, and the band’s energetically rudimentary playing. In 1976, Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas oversaw the Patti Smith Group’s second album, Radio Ethiopia, and the result was a more bombastic guitar-heavy record, tempered by the title cut, the height of Smith’s improvised free rock.

Grief and Mourning

After an almost nine-year hiatus, Smith returned to recording with the 1988 album Dream of Life, the work of a more mellow, but still rebellious songwriter. Smith’s comeback album was co-produced by her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, with songs that included her call-to-arms, People Have the Power.

Patti Smith: People Have the Power

In 1994, her husband died of a heart attack at age 45. A month later, her younger brother (and former road manager), Todd, also died of a heart attack. Her longtime friend Robert Mapplethorpe had already died of AIDS in 1989. Determined to carry on as a tribute to the encouragement her husband and brother had shown her before their passing, Smith performed a string of opening dates with Bob Dylan in late 1995 and issued the intensely personal Gone Again in 1996. The album offered a potent mix of songs about mourning and rebirth, reflecting Smith’s belief that the beauty of life survives death.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life

But another eight years would pass before her second artistic comeback, marked by a trio of acclaimed albums released in quick succession, which found her fighting her way out of a period of intense personal grief stemming from the loss of several of the most important people in her life. The documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Dream of Life: An Elegantly Impressionistic Portrait of Patti Smith (Part 1)

Dream of Life: An Elegantly Impressionistic Portrait of Patti Smith (Part 1)

Behind the Lens: Filmmaker Steven Sebring and Patti Smith (PBS Documentary)

Read more about Dream of Life in the New York Times here.

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The 10th anniversary of 9/11: The StoryCorps 9/11 Series

The 10th anniversary of 9/11: The StoryCorps 9/11 Series

Public Television’s StoryCorps oral history project is premiering The StoryCorps 9/11 Series, three new animated films commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The three-minute animated short films by the Rausch Brothers animators were created to preserve the memories of those who lost loved ones that tragic day. While the films are presented in a vintage cartoon-style, they carry deeply emotional heft due to the tragedy inherent in their stories. They are simple works, befitting the everyday lives that were nonetheless changed forever nearly 10 years ago. A major reason that 9/11 is such a tragedy is that it happened to people not unlike you or me, and these films do an amazing job of crystallizing that central truth.

The StoryCorps 9/11 Series: John and Joe

John Vigiano Jr. was a firefighter and his brother Joe was a police detective. On September 11, 2001, both Vigiano brothers responded to the call from the World Trade Center, and both were killed while saving the lives of others.

The StoryCorps 9/11 Series: John and Joe

The StoryCorps 9/11 Series: Always a Family

On the morning of September 11th, Michael Trinidad called his ex-wife, Monique Ferrer, from the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower to say a final goodbye.

The StoryCorps 9/11 Series: Always a Family

The StoryCorps 9/11 Series: She Was the One

Richard Pecorella remembers the love of his life, Karen Juday, a secretary for Cantor Fitzgerald, who was killed in the World Trade Center attacks.

The StoryCorps 9/11 Series: She Was the One

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Never Sorry: Who’s So Afraid of Ai Wei Wei?

Never Sorry: Who’s So Afraid of Ai Wei Wei?

Never Sorry is a fascinating 17-minute documentary short film about China’s renowned dissident artist Ai Wei Wei by freelance filmmaker Alison Klayman, who spent several months documenting his work and life, as well as capturing his many provocations and scuffles with the government. So who’s really so afraid of Ai Wei Wei? Well, the Chinese government for one. Ai Wei Wei is China’s most famous contemporary artist, acclaimed for his solo exhibitions the world-over.

Much to the Chinese government authorities’ chagrin, Ai Wei Wei has vociferously used his fame to speak his mind. A prolific blogger and tweeter, Wei Wei often publishes angry writings against injustice, corruption and abuse, which the Chinese censors invariably take down.  Most famously, after assisting in the design of China’s renowned 2008 Olympic Stadium (the Bird’s Nest), Ai Wei Wei publicly repudiated the project and the whole Olympic buildup as a preposterous fraud to put on a “good face” for the international community.

A mere 5 days after the PBS television airing on March 29th of this short film, Ai Wei Wei was detained by police at Beijing airport, and proceeded to vanish. No word was given about where he was taken, only a vague statement from authorities that he had committed “economic crimes.” His associates and lawyer were also targeted and disappeared. A global outcry went out, blasting the Chinese government for what was deemed a politically motivated move; however, the protests appeared to have no effect. Youth culture began to assert itself, and based on the title of this short film, stencil graffiti and light tags imaging Ai Wei Wei went up all around Hong Kong and mainland China, in spite of extraordinary risks.

After 43 days of silence, Ai Wei Wei’s wife was finally allowed to visit him on May 15th. She has confirmed that he had not been maltreated and appeared to be in good health, but his imprisonment does not look as though it will be overturned any time soon. So for the time being, Ai Wei Wei is now China’s best known detainee.

Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry

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Tattooed Under Fire: Fort Hood, War Experiences Inked on the Body

Tattooed Under Fire: Fort Hood, War Experiences Inked on the Body

American’s are deeply saddened by the shooting tragedy at Fort Hood, an attack by Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan on Thursday that killed 13 people and wounded 30 others on the Texas base.  Fort Hood is the largest U.S. military facility in the world and a major center for soldiers being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.  It also houses the Army’s Warrior Combat Stress Reset Program, which helps soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress when they return.  In both cases, upon deployment and return home, soldiers attempt to deal with serious emotional issues and many seek tattooing as a way to express them or even see the process as therapy.

Tattooed Under Fire is a documentary directed by Nancy Schiesari, a film that follows the young men and women at Fort Hood who seek solace at the tattoo studio, confessing fears, expressing anger, sharing secrets and relaying personal stories about the war.  Watching clips from the film now, seeing young, buzz-headed men and women describe their motivations for getting inked with caskets and corpses, one can’t help but to begin getting a feel for the intense experiences that become material for their body art.

The film was created long before Thursday’s mass shooting; isn’t a retroactive explanation for the shootings on Thursday.  But the film may nevertheless offer some insight into the tragedy in its depiction of the stress and anguish of military duty, of the horrors of war even in the relative comforts of home.  As one soldier explains, “The more times I go over, the more of Iraq’s going to come back with me.”

Tattooed Under Fire will begin airing on PBS stations starting November 8th.  It airs on Texas’s television station KLRU, which co-produced the documentary, at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, November 10th.

Tattooed Under Fire: Fort Hood, War Experiences Inked on the Body

Viewers can read more about this riveting documentary here.

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