Aging punk rockers and the New York Times might not seem to have much in common, but staying afloat in a rapidly changing digital world is a theme shared by The Other F Word and Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, two films that were screened over the weekend at the Nantucket Film Festival. In another documentary shown there, Bobby Fischer Against the World, we watch the chess genius struggle to stay afloat in his own deteriorating mind.
The Other F Word is a funny, engaging and touching look at musicians from California punk bands that include Pennywise, NOFX, Rancid and Blink-182. Several decades after they burst on the music scene, all anger and testosterone, they find themselves parents of young children, serious about -- and slightly bewildered by -- their middle-class responsibilities. Their reflections on their own broken families and absent fathers help put into context the nihilism of their early music, and a few of them marvel that they are still alive at all. While some of their musings about parenthood border on banal (think Us Magazine's "Just Like Us" celebrity feature), their determination to be better fathers is sweet and hopeful.
Jim Lindberg of Pennywise struggles with the extended touring that takes him away from his wife and three young daughters, and jokes that Ambien and hair dye are his current addictions. We see him on an impossibly long worldwide tour, skyping with his family, checking into soul-crushing EconoLodges and making an unscheduled stop at home to escort his middle child to a father-daughter dance.
Lindberg must continue touring to support his family; with the advent of Napster and other file sharing services, it's hard to make money any other way. The band has experimented with giving music away on myspace.com, and trying to recoup through merchandise sales, but hitting the road is the only sure bet.
The Other F Word's examination of the changing music industry meanders a bit, and the film has interviews with too many people. But it leaves you with some striking images: a tattoo-covered Lars Frederiksen of Rancid pushing his young son on a swing at the playground; Fat Mike of NOFX, rumpled and wry in a zebra striped bathrobe, making toast for his young daughter, who imperiously bosses him around from her princess-pink bedroom.
In Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, free information poses more immediate and dire challenges. We watch the Gray Lady try to integrate readers' appetite for speed and sparkle with the paper's history of upholding the highest journalistic standards. Something's gotta give, and it does at the New York Times: as more people find their news online, the paper continues to lose money and readers. Will Bill Keller, executive editor of the paper, and his staff find a way to keep the Times profitable when more and more people get their news for free?
At first, the answer seems to be no. We are reminded of recent news stories of other great national papers closing their doors: the Baltimore Examiner, the Denver Post. We watch 100 New York Times employees, some of them veteran reporters and writers, receive pink slips. We observe 21-year-old Brian Stelter, a Young Turk of social media, try to persuade the Times' old guard to use Twitter. Watching this sorry tale on Nantucket we were reminded of the final collapse of the whaling industry here, when kerosene made whale oil obsolete.
Yet the story of the Times ends on a hopeful note. When the Time's media reporter David Carr takes on bullies at the Tribune Company, we are inspired by the rigor and professionalism of the paper's senior reporters. When writers and editors debate the wisdom of running a not-quite verified story--have combat troops left Iraq or not?--we remember why we trust the Times for our news. To stop financial disaster, the paper is going to insert a virtual "pay wall" so that readers will be required to pay for their online news. The unthinkable will not happen after all. The New York Times will survive (we all hope).
In Bobby Fischer Against the World, another film shown at the festival that aired on HBO earlier in the month, we go back to the time when threats were existential -- as in, nuclear -- rather than economic. The film explores eccentric chess prodigy Fischer's rise and paranoid descent, and uses his historic 1972 match against Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky as its narrative centerpiece. America's fascination with the Cold War match-up, highlights of which aired on the evening news, seems almost quaint in our wired society, and watching the masses follow these two silent figures hunched over a chess board reminds you what we've lost. Fischer himself, during his semi-sane days, warned against the rise of computers. He worried that such technology would rob the sport of its "humanity" -- a strange prophecy coming from an avowed anti-Semite -- and created his own chess variant, Fischer Random Chess, to preserve the sport's unpredictability.
A great documentary needs a compelling story, the right characters to populate it, and editorial discipline on the part of the filmmaker to keep it on course. For all its tantalizing insight into the daily workings of the paper of record, Page One lacks focus. Director Andrew Rossi veers off in multiple directions -- to Wikileaks, Judith Miller, Jayson Blair -- giving it the feel of a History Channel production. It's interesting, but doesn't adequately address the larger question of the Times' survival in the internet age. The Other F Word shines thanks to its quirky subjects and Jim Lindberg's charisma, but would have been stronger with fewer diversionary characters (skateboarders?) and stricter editorial control. Only Bobby Fischer hits the trifecta: it's a helluva story, full of complex characters and very neatly told. Checkmate.
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