An Ode to the City Symphony (so to Speak)

The ferry arrives in the opening moments of Manhatta.

The most interesting periods of documentary history are the transition periods of adopting and adapting new technologies. The late 1800s saw the Lumiere brothers’ cinematograph capturing and projecting moving images from the backpack-size device.

The 1930s saw the experiments with spoken words on the soundtracks. Sometimes they were recorded on location, but more likely they were recorded in a studio and dubbed in later.

Perhaps the most cited era, the 1960s saw a convergence of technologies enabling lighter, quieter cameras and synchronous sound, thus seemingly allowing access to more intimate spaces than before and capture of more spontaneous moments.

More recently, animation techniques, interactive technologies, and augmented reality technologies have proven fertile grounds for further experimentation.

One of the more intriguing eras for me was the 1920s and the experiments with editing — Dziga Vertov, in particular. His montages in Man with a Movie Camera create a precise, poetic world through image juxtaposition and pacing.

This montage style inspired others in documentary and fiction. From documentary in this era emerged the city symphony. As the name suggests, the city symphony combines images of metropolises with orchestral music toward providing a snapshot of these urban locales, which still were somewhat new even then.

Beautiful framing of this bridge in Manhatta.

Along with Man with a Movie Camera revealing multiple Russian cities, other famous city symphonies include Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), Etudes sur Paris (1928), and Rien que les heures (1926). My favorite from this genre and era is Regen (Rain, 1929), by Joris Ivens. The shadowed bike against the puddle is one of the more famous documentary images.

During a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art recently, I found a piece of this documentary history tucked to the side of one of the exhibits. Showing in a tiny booth with seats for a few was Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921). The about 10-minute short ran on a loop.

Manhatta is one of the first city symphonies. Its images show the modern city of Manhattan, including the skyscrapers, the city streets, the ferry, bridges, railyards, and other aspects of urban life. Some intertitles borrow from Walt Whitman, enhancing the poetic feel of the piece.

As much as Manhatta is about locations in the city, it is also about the people in the city. They crowd onto the ferry, stepping off en masse after the gate releases. Individuals walk the sidewalks of a cemetery, while others contemplate grave markers from the benches. They walk on bridges and streets. Workers build the next skyscraper, with shots starting close on them and moving further back, shrinking them against the city’s dominating skyline.

Almost everyone, even children, wears a hat. Why don’t we wear hats anymore?

A worker helping construct the next spire in the skyline.

The skyscrapers offer a sight to behold. A title reads, “High growths of iron, / slender, strong / splendidly uprising / toward clear skies.” A camera perched on a roof slowly scales down the tall skyscrapers toward the shorter buildings below. Another shot almost lovingly pans up a tall building. In most of the images, the camera remains still, thus making the few instances of camera motion even more pronounced.

These thematically organized images offer a portrait of the city that almost feels timeless. Some visual elements certainly date the images, including the cars and the clothing styles, but they almost feel like today’s city as well, with their crowds, construction, views, and activities.

Overall, Manhatta was a neat find within the museum. It was nestled in a modern exhibit that included painted walls and framed images that blended seamlessly, and, perhaps, timelessly.

Moving toward a Minimalist’s Approach to Social Media

Minimalism suggests that owning fewer things frees your mind and improves your life. Minimalism gurus have similar stories about previously owning a huge house, an 80-inch television, 250 bags, and 75 pairs of shoes before discovering minimalism and offloading it all. Some gurus now own 220, 156, 73, 42, or some other randomly small number of things. Their lives fit in their backpacks, and they are happier than they have ever been.

Despite all the shows, blogs, books, podcasts, and other media about decluttering and minimizing your life, the point of minimalism is quite simple. It is not about the quantity of items or the race to remove them. It is about a mindfulness, or an awareness, surrounding the items you own and why you own them.

Social media represent the opposite of minimalism and the mindfulness that accompanies it. They encourage mindlessness with their checking, sharing, liking, reacting, posting, retweeting, and reblogging activities. They encourage you to add, friend, or follow people — both the famous-for-being-famous and the less-than-famous like your high school sophomore crush. Studies claim people check their phones more than 150 times per day, which averages to about six times per hour. Apps encourage this checking behavior through notifications.

Why? These sites depend on engagement to grow and thrive as marketplaces. In 2016 Facebook faced (ha!) a conundrum when people stopped sharing much less original content — a significant enough drop that caused revenue declines. The site responded by encouraging people to share more anniversaries and “on this day” posts, though this manufactured nostalgia reminded people of some pretty painful memories and drew some backlash.

Admittedly, at one time or another I have or have had accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Academia.edu, Flickr, Instagram, 500px, Pinterest, ello, Medium, Tumblr, Vimeo, Vine, WhatsApp, and (*gasp*) MySpace. I left most of these sites, but each for different reasons. Facebook’s changing newsfeed, interface, and policies, for example, reminded me of going to a pharmacy for headache medicine and the pharmacist insists on athlete’s foot powder. ello offered almost no features when it started. LinkedIn displayed no content of use to me. Academia.edu pestered me to upload copyrighted content I didn’t own. Ultimately, I left most of these sites because their investment overshadowed their minimal return value.

Blogging requires some degree of a social media presence, but I seek a minimalist approach, not a maximalist one. One extreme says eliminate social media altogether, like Cal Newport describes in his book Deep Work, yet Newport still maintains a blog with comments. One minimalism guru lists six social media accounts across five sites as part of his promotion strategy. Reading that post felt overwhelming to me, but then again I am not a multi-million-selling book author who makes a living on my expertise.

These extremes, though, show why mindfulness about social media when blogging is more important than minimalism about social media when blogging. The quantity matters little. The intention matters most.

While I am still developing the social media strategies to accompany this blog, the following steps have helped me start to hone them in a more mindful way.

1. Set goals and stick to them.

The best blogs have a mission or a goal to them. That goal becomes the foundation for decisions about everything from post content to FAQs. It also informs which social networking sites that might best boost your blog.

2. Clear your phone.

Remove all social networking apps from your smart phone. I used an app called Realizd to track my checking habits, and I found that having the apps so readily available encouraged their too-frequent checking. Removing the apps frustrates the compulsion to check for a while, and then it eventually becomes more normal not to check.

Try turning off all notifications as an interim step to deleting the apps altogether.

3. Develop a social media schedule.

Schedule a time — each day, each week — to sit down and check social media. Be intentional in the sites you want to check and why you want to check them. If short on time, for example, check Twitter. If you have a longer time period, check a site that offers more reading than scrolling.

Avoid checking social media or email first thing in the morning, though. Take offline time for you, get in a workout, or schedule a writing or reading task instead.

4. Plan and schedule social media posts.

While social media largely encourage spontaneous activity, planning social media posts helps tame them and your time. This planning includes what messages, of course, but it also includes what networks, times, and frequency. Developing a calendar can simplify this process even further.

That said, do allow for some spontaneity, such as sharing a popular post as it makes the rounds.

5. Choose social networks carefully.

Choose social networks because they contribute something to your blog and its development, not because it feels like everyone has an account on them. For a long time, Facebook and Twitter used to be the assumed starting points that everyone needed. Now with more than 200 sites to choose from, careful curation is key.

6. Use social listening tools to hone your online presences.

Social listening means paying attention to what others say about your blog topic online. It offers several advantages in blog development, and multiple tools make social listening quite convenient.

11 Sites about Documentary You Should be Reading

The landscape for documentaries and writing about them has changed immensely during the last 20 years. Back then, only occasional news stories or infrequent emerging blogs wrote about them. A respected resource, DocumentaryFilms.net took off when it became a collective blog. The writers behind The Documentary Blog drew a following. Christopher Campbell ran an independent documentary blog before moving to the now-defunct Documentary Channel.

Of course, times change. News sites now regularly cover cinematic documentaries and some festival favorites. Sites about documentary fade or stop as their writers pursue other projects. The Documentary Blog’s last update appeared in January 2014. Documentaryfilms.net last saw participation in 2011.

But great writing dedicated to documentary is out there. In no particular order, here are 11 sites and blogs that cover documentary on a regular basis.

1. What (not) to Doc

What Not to Doc is from Basil Tsiokos, a festival programmer, festival director, and documentary producer. This frequently updated blog offers information about new releases and overviews of documentaries in major festivals around the world. Releases covered include multiple media and venues, such as cinemas, festivals, streaming, and broadcast.

2. Nonfics

Nonfics is dedicated to documentary reviews, interviews, and in-depth commentary. It regularly features lists of the best documentaries to check out on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Nonfics is part of the Film School Rejects group. Christopher Campbell is editor and one of the key writers.

3. The NFB

The National Film Board of Canada provides a national voice in Canadian media and social issues. The NFB is particularly strong with documentaries (one semi-joke suggested documentary as Canada’s national genre), and its blog offers a section dedicated to the form. Posts often suggest documentaries about topics, such as fishing, adolescence, and Canadian rock music.

4. All These Wonderful Things

Written by A.J. Schnack, All These Wonderful Things reveals an insider’s look at documentary production, distribution, and the overall scene. Though not updated since 2011, it still contains a wealth of material and insights to explore. (And maybe citing it here will inspire some new posts…)

5. Center for Media and Social Impact

The Center for Media and Social Impact is an important group founded by Pat Aufderheide at American University. While the center supports film series and a conference, it also delves into policy and issues facing public media. The blog often addresses fair use issues, but it also gets into social change and other topics.

6. International Documentary Association

The International Documentary Association is a U.S.-based professional documentary organization that provides education, awareness, and funding. It hosts influential awards and screening series. The organization’s blog consists a weekly roundup, screening suggestions, and more. Also check out the magazine for more in-depth materials.

7. Realscreen

Realscreen is an industry news site dedicated to nonfiction media and its media institutions. In addition to talking about productions, Realscreen follows changes in media ownership (such as Discovery buying Scripps properties) and prominent people taking on new positions. Its focus on television, including reality television, distinguishes it from other documentary sites.

8. Stranger than Fiction

Though a weekly New York screening series, Stranger Than Fiction also offers a Monday Memo. The Monday Memo deftly brings together documentary news and information into a readable weekly roundup. Occasional guest posts highlight New York City events, such as question-and-answer session following an Abacus: Small Enough to Jail screening.

9. Desktop Documentaries

Desktop Documentaries boasts a wealth of information about documentary production. The multi-author blog in particular offers information about storytelling, crowdfunding, and equipment. Some posts feature writing, while others feature short videos. Post writers even engage readers in the comments.

10. Point of View Magazine

Point of View Magazine is a quarterly magazine that focuses on Canadian documentary culture. Articles and blog posts include reviews, interviews, overviews, commentary, and technology. One piece delves into Canadian documentary history, with Canadian documentary makers winning Oscars, while others highlight documentary films in the NFB’s archive.

11. POV’s Documentary Blog

POV is a 30-year-old PBS series that airs documentaries with unique, personal perspectives. Its documentary blog covers its broadcasts, but the blog also covers almost everything related to documentary, including production issues, interviews, festival overviews, and so much more. Tom Roston is the most regular writer, while multiple guests bring in other voices.

Full disclosure: I must admit some bias with this last one as my better, if infrequent, writings have appeared on POV’s blog since 2011.

‘Hoop Dreams’ News Coverage Suggests a Different Kind of Impact

Popular film titles sometimes work their way into everyday language: Bucket List, Gaslight, Groundhog Day. “Hoop Dreams” is one of those film titles.

As part of my background research into Hoop Dreams, I pulled 996 articles mentioning the phrase from all the years available in the Lexis Nexis news database. About half of those stories referred to the film, but just as many did not. Among the latter, some patterns — both expected and unexpected — emerged.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most dominant recurring pattern involves individuals and their aspirations. Most individuals — almost equally boys and girls — are athletes who seek success in sports, such as landing a scholarship, attending college, starting a new sport, or joining a team. Some individuals even abandon their sports dreams, such as one who gave up basketball to become a doctor.

These dreams know no geographical boundaries. While Chicago is the setting for the Hoop Dreams film, other dreamers live in Iowa, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. People chase their dreams across the globe to Germany, Canada, Croatia, Luxemborg, Israel, and India.

“Hoop Dreams” is a popular name for teams, camps, academies, and programs. Teams with the name play in West Virginia, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania. Camps and academies appear in Connecticut, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Australia. Programs include Hoop Dreams in Lexington, KY; ABCD Hoop Dreams in Boston; and YMCA Hoop Dreams in Hamilton, Ontario. Programs also appear in England and Australia. Do an Internet search and you’ll probably find even more than the ones listed here.

Tournaments run in Georgia and California. The Pescadero High School Hoop Dreams Tournament schedules both boys’ and girls’ teams. One tournament involved wheelchairs.

A cool program was founded by Susie Kay in Washington, D.C., to help area students attend college. Kay claimed that Arthur Agee, one of the two boys appearing in the film, reminded her of her own students. Named for the film, the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund started as a single-day basketball fundraiser in 1996. That first round raised $3,000. Within a few years, that tournament and other fundraising efforts expanded to $125,000. The program ended in 2009 following the economic downturn.

Very few stories mentioned the NBA at all. A couple stories connected “hoop dreams” with buying NBA teams or stadiums, and one referred to Mesho Marrow’s dream of founding a women’s basketball team in St. Louis. That dream became reality with the Missouri Arch Angels, named for the city’s iconic structure on the Mississippi River. The team plays in the Women’s Blue Chip Basketball League.

The phrase applies mostly to youth, but one 90-year-old also harbored her own hoop dream. Josephine Brager sought induction into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. She played basketball pre-World War II for the All-American Redheads and later the Dallas Hornets. The Redheads toured the country playing against men’s teams using the men’s rules — and often won. Sadly, Brager wasn’t chosen for induction.

“Hoop dreams” also means sports other than basketball. It refers to netball, which is an international cousin to U.S. basketball. Rhythm gymnasts and hoop dancers also are hoop dreamers.

One sports reference took me a little bit to puzzle out. According to one story, the Shamrock Rovers Football Club had “hoop dreams.” But why would an Irish football club have “hoop dreams?” Because one of the team’s nicknames is “Hoops.”

In Morgantown, West Virginia, a home offered a “hoop dream” of its own. In addition to the five bedrooms, five bathrooms, and home theater, the house had an indoor basketball court. The asking price was more than $1 million.

Some of the more creative mentions of “hoop dreams” have nothing to do with basketball or even sports. One gig announcement cited “Hoop Dreams,” a band, playing in Hobart, Tasmania. After a little digging, I found the band was based in Virginia and had a Cure-like sound, particularly on the track “Knife Fights.” Before signing the band, a record company contacted Kartemquin Films about the band using the name, which filmmakers Steve James and Peter Gilbert were fine with.

“Hoop dreams” also occur in fashion, in one case for earrings. The story read, “Orbs in all styles and sizes are earmarks of high style.” Hopefully, the look is better than the pun.

My favorite reference connected the film, identity, sport, and art all in one installation. Inspired by the film, Esmaa Mohamoud created an art installation called “Heavy, Heavy (Hoop Dreams).” The installation consists of 60 concrete basketballs, each weighing about 31 pounds. The “heavy” refers to the relationship between basketball and black male culture, according to Mohamoud.

Before the news started covering the film in 1994, the only mention of “hoop dreams” appeared in a 1987 story about “hoops and dreams.” Every other non-film-related story I pulled from the database appeared after the film’s release, from about 1997 forward.

A search for the phrase through an Ngram viewer offers similar findings, particularly in the phrase’s first appearances. In a search for the phrase from 1950 to 2017, the phrase first appears in 1993, grows in 1994, and peaks in 1999.

All of these findings suggest a documentary impact of a different kind: that of a name on sports, music, fashion, art, and culture.

Special thanks to Tim Horsburgh, distribution and communications director at Kartemquin Films, for suggesting the Ngram search and the other film names mentioned in this post.