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]

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