" Couldn’t live with the whole celibacy thing. You could call me a man of the cloth without the cloth. "
— Matthew McConaughey, Contact

MRQE Top Critic

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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America’s Heart and Soul is a coffee-table book of a movie. It features outstanding photography with a few brief captions that nobody reads.

The movie introduces us to two dozen colorful Americans. Some of them make photogenic art, like the junk sculptor, or the cliff dancers who reduce gravity by turning it on its side. Some of them work in photogenic surroundings like the Telluride cowboy or the Pennsylvania steel workers. Still others have enough color in their personality to stand alone like the explosives nut from Creede, Colorado, the heavy metal band with no illusions about their blue-collar day jobs, or the NYC bike messenger who likes to think of himself as a sort of real-world Spider-Man.

Between these large segments are tiny little scenes of the b-list subjects, like the hat-maker, or Ben of Ben & Jerry’s fame. Of even smaller grain are the music-video montages that cram the entire country into 90-second song snippets.

Picture and Sound

Disney gives America a coffee-table book for its 228th birthday
Disney gives America a coffee-table book for its 228th birthday
Even on DVD, the cinematography is gorgeous
Even on DVD, the cinematography is gorgeous

No DVD is going to look better than a well-projected film. But even on video, America’s Heart and Soul is gorgeous. The DVD includes both widescreen and full-frame versions of the film, and I recommend you fill your frame with the picture, aspect ratios be damned.

Sound quality is also excellent on the DVD (it is encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1). And the movie makes heavy use of music and sound design to enhance the experience, so America’s Heart and Soul is actually a very good DVD for showing off your system.

DVD Extras

The DVD includes three extra features: an audio commentary with Schwartzberg, a 9-minute featurette on the making of the movie, and four extended versions of songs from the film.

The interview and audio commentary are very similar. Both feature Schwartzberg talking about the movie, and he repeats himself from one to the other. His comments about shooting and serendipity are interesting. He reveals that it was pure luck to be in Telluride just as the aspens were at their golden peak. Several of the subjects for the movie were “found” by friends or family.

Schwartzberg is also interesting when he talks about the technical side of shooting film. Helicopters fly dangerously close to landmarks because he wants to go “to the edge” for his film. And he’s clearly in his element when he explains wing-mounts, fuselage mounts, and even bicycle handlebar mounts for getting the most dramatic footage possible.

But like the film, the commentaries falter when he starts talking about sentiment and themes. I almost hate to pick on the guy because he’s so good at shooting, but his wisdom is as shallow as “I think having fun is important,” and “Freedom is the most important liberty we have, as Americans.”

In Perspective

This week I interviewed Al Maysles, a spry 78-year-old master of the documentary. When I asked him about the change from film to video, Maysles said the change was great. High production values were fine for Hollywood, he said, but capturing that true, pure human moment was much more important, and video allowed him to do that without being burdened by the technology.

Schwartzberg is the opposite of Maysles. He’s a genius when it comes to production values. He shoots on film, not video, and knows just how to capture light and color for a glorious shot. His photography will take your breath away.

But when it comes to the full, rich, human condition, America’s Heart and Soul knows only one angle.