Documentaries illuminate small screen
Sometimes the recent past can seem most foreign. The 2018 documentary “Studio 54” (10 p.m., A&E, TV-14) glances back at a nightspot that defined a very brief era, a specific style of hedonism and excess that delighted some and scandalized others.
Most of all, “Studio 54” is a profile of its founders, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. They’re portrayed as friends from college and ambitious young men from Brooklyn who captured a certain brand of lightning in a bottle.
The film features a wealth of period footage from personal home movies and news footage. It had the full participation of Schrager. (Rubell died in 1989.)
Having its subject on hand is both a plus and minus. We get an insider’s look at Schrager’s wild ride, going from the toast of the town to an FBI raid and imprisonment for tax evasion. At the same time, the film is a tad breezy about the historical and cultural currents of the era.
Nobody talks about cocaine or how that expensive party drug may have ushered in the “velvet rope” mentality that defined “Studio 54” and presaged 1980s culture.
› “Independent Lens” presents the 2018 documentary “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” (10 p.m., PBS, TV-14, check local listings). Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, this film was five years in the making. A dreamlike meditation, it defies easy description.
The first documentary from director RaMell Ross, it presents short vignettes, often shot and framed in unconventional ways, of his neighbors in a rural corner of Alabama. Mothers and grandmothers comfort babies, student athletes talk about their ambitions, a town gathers for a game or a parade, a car rolls past a cotton field that seems to go on forever. The film rolls on with the loosest sense of narrative. Or perhaps no narrative at all.
If you wanted to nail down “Hale County” as a movie “about” black life in Alabama or America, you might be technically correct but miss larger points. It’s an artist’s
poetic reflection from his particular point of view. If the Criterion Collection presented a film like this from a French director, would we obsess about its “Frenchness”? Or look for universal observations about what it means to be human?
Like many poetic experiences, it’s not for every viewer. Its absence of straightforward narrative asks us to think about the stories we may follow too easily. Is it mesmerizing? Or unfocused? I couldn’t stop watching.
› The 2017 documentary “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood”
(9 p.m., Starz, TV-MA) profiles Scotty Bowers, a World War II Marine veteran and Los Angeles gas station attendant who claims to have engaged in, or facilitated, sexual liaisons involving an astounding number of closeted movie stars, among them the most beloved idols from Hollywood’s golden age. As actor Griffin Dunne blurbed for “Full Service,” the trashy yet matter-of-fact book that inspired this film: “Turner Classic Movies will never quite look the same.”
Contact Kevin McDonough at kevin [email protected]