The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we’ll choose three nonfiction films — classics, overlooked recent docs and more — that will reward your time.
‘78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene’ (2017)
Stream it on Kanopy. Rent it on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play and Vudu.
From the storyboards, Hitchcock determined that it would take 78 camera setups to create the shower scene in “Psycho,” Stephen Rebello wrote in his book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho.’” The ultimate sequence contains 52 cuts. Yet from those cuts came one of the most diabolical and enduring coups in cinema history. In “78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene,” the director Alexandre O. Philippe and his interviewees examine a moment that shook the medium. They cover it from a wide array of perspectives: historical, analytical, technical, sociocultural. While Philippe has carved out a niche as a documentarian who makes movies about movies, his more recent features — like “Memory: The Origins of Alien” and the forthcoming “Lynch/Oz” — haven’t matched this one for sheer headiness. That’s less a knock on Philippe than it is a tribute to Hitchcock.
The group Philippe has assembled to expound on “Psycho” — and Marion Crane’s death in particular — includes film editors (Walter Murch, Chris Innis), directors (Karyn Kusama, Guillermo del Toro) and even Janet Leigh’s body double, Marli Renfro, who identifies her belly button and hand. Sometimes Philippe’s talking heads seem randomly selected, as if he filmed his buddies and was afraid to cut anyone. But even the less relevant participants have moments of insight. (Elijah Wood’s co-podcaster Daniel Noah points out that there’s a continuity from the final image of “North by Northwest” — what Hitchcock called an “impudent” shot of a train going into a tunnel — to the postcoital scene that kicked off “Psycho” the following year.)
Even people who know the film by heart may not have noticed some of these details before. The curator Timothy Standring makes the case that of all the different paintings of Susanna and the Elders that Hitchcock could have chosen to hang over Norman Bates’s peephole, he chose one that specifically emphasizes voyeurism. Amy E. Duddleston, who edited Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of “Psycho,” recalls trying to re-create the shower scene and finding that what she came up with “was weird, and it didn’t work.” Hitchcock’s films can withstand endless scrutiny, but they can never be replicated.
‘Three Identical Strangers’ (2018)
Stream it on Hulu or Kanopy. Rent it on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play or Vudu.
The story of how the separated identical triplets Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman found one another caused a stir in the news media back in 1980. But part of what makes “Three Identical Strangers,” directed Tim Wardle (brother of the Wordle creator Josh Wardle), so engaging is that it tells their story as it unfolded for them. Robert, known as Bobby, recalls going to college at 19 and being welcomed “back” by people he didn’t know, then speeding down Route 17 in New York to meet Eddy, the “twin” brother he didn’t know he had. David remembers making the phone call in which he revealed that he was, in fact, the third of the bunch.
But how they met — and how they partied and ran a restaurant together during good times — is only the beginning of a story that grows progressively more disturbing. The men were raised by parents from different economic strata. (According to David, he grew up blue collar, Eddy middle class, Bobby more affluent.) But if the men were nevertheless so similar that, even as strangers, they tended to finish one another’s thoughts, it would seem to mark a pretty decisive victory for heredity in the nature-versus-nurture debate. We see a TV clip of another pair of separated twins, Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein, in which we learn that they both edited their high school papers and both studied film. As the author Natasha Josefowitz, one of Wardle’s sharpest interviewees, says, the story raises uncomfortable questions about the extent of free will.
What’s the weapon of choice for Baltimore’s vigilante rat hunters? A fishing rod? A baseball bat? A pellet rifle? In “Rat Film,” the answer is all three. But watching two men buy turkey and peanut butter for bait and then stake out an alley to fish for rats is only one of the stranger sights you’ll see in this probing, free-form experimental documentary from Theo Anthony (“All Light, Everywhere”), which is by no means just about rodents.
Rather, the film uses rats to open up a wider lens on the history of Baltimore: on how scientists at Johns Hopkins University used the city as a test site for pest control, and on how people with power tried to control and segregate the city’s human population, creating redlined neighborhoods that would inevitably be riven with poverty, vacant lots and health problems. One of the more disturbing rat experiments discussed is a study of the effects of crowding on the development of social pathology. When a colony’s space was deliberately restricted, according to the voice-over, “asexual, cannibalistic rats preyed on their abandoned young.” The social spiral in ghettoized neighborhoods hasn’t been quite that dire — but then, Anthony hardly needs to underline the connection.
“Rat Film” isn’t a pure polemic and at times has an almost whimsical eye for the absurd. (In one segment, Anthony visits a couple who keep rats for pets.) But the film’s political argument is powerful and direct. Anthony spends time making house calls with Harold Edmond, an exterminator with the city’s “rat rubout” program, who says you will find rats in places where people have the least education and the fewest resources — “no dreams, no aspirations, just surviving.” But he likes the rats; they’re sharp, he says, and they have just one mission: “They do what they do.”
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