City Paper at SXSW: Praise for two documentaries on renowned artists, 'The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson' and 'The Salt of the Earth'

The first film to be screened during the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival was "The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson" on Friday afternoon. If you're a rock fan of a certain age and a certain obsessiveness, you will recognize that name as the singer-guitarist of Dr. Feelgood, the band that kicked off the British pub-rock movement of the mid-'70s. But that's not what this movie is about.

In January 2013, Johnson was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer and was told he had 10 months to live. Rather than depressing him, as you might expect, the news liberated Johnson; he refused chemotherapy so he could enjoy his remaining life to the fullest. And when you hear him talk on camera, the glint in his mischievous eyes below his gleaming bald dome makes it clear that he was genuinely thrilled.

Johnson is one of those great English talkers, whose enthusiasm, anecdotes, literary quotations, and command of details make him endlessly fascinating. If this film had just shown us his talking head, it would have been interesting enough. But director Julien Temple—known for his films about the Kinks, David Bowie, and the Sex Pistols—found a way to illustrate Johnson's monologues with film clips that are not literal illustrations of what he's saying but metaphorical illustrations.

Thus, when Johnson talks about rediscovering nature, Temple draws from slow-motion nature documentaries. When Johnson talks about the strangeness of confronting death with a guaranteed due date, Temple uses clips from Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" and Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast." These are mixed in with clips of Dr. Feelgood and Johnson's trio on stage, quotations from William Blake, William Shakespeare, and John Milton (Johnson taught English for a year before becoming a full-time musician), and a visit to his childhood stomping grounds on Canvey Island.

It all comes together into an astonishing whole that provides one with one of the healthiest contemplations of death ever encountered.

An hour later the same theater screened an equally powerful documentary: "The Salt of the Earth: A Journey with Sebastiao Salgado." Salgado is one of the greatest artists in the history of photography, and this film is filled with his black-and-white images, sometimes staggeringly beautiful, sometimes terrifyingly tragic, and sometimes both at once. These images are surrounded by the story of the photographer's life as told by the co-directors Wim Wenders, the legendary German filmmaker responsible for "Wings of Desire" and "Paris, Texas," and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the subject's son, in moving pictures that are almost as impressive as the photos they surround.

The movie opens with Sebastiao Salgado's famous pictures of La Serra Pelada, the open-pit gold mine in Brazil, where thousands of nearly naked men, slathered in mud, crawl across earthen terraces and up wooden ladders carrying burlap sacks of dirt that may contain traces of gold. They are remarkable works of art because they create a fabulous metaphor for the world economy (Salgado abandoned a career as an economist to become a photographer) and also create dazzling patterns of light, shadow, and human emotion. Slowly but surely Salgado's nearly hairless head emerges through the photographs like a fish rising to the surface.

That's just one way the co-directors make connections between the photos and the photographer's life. The movie traces that life from a childhood in rural Brazil, involvement in leftist politics, and flight to Europe to pursue a career and escape dictatorship. Salgado, who answers questions in fluent French, used Paris as his base for photography trips to Ecuador, Nigeria, Siberia, Kuwait, Ethiopia, and beyond. His photos evolved from mesmerizing portraits into mesmerizing portraits that also revealed human exploitation and misery.

This reaches a climax when he arrives in Rwanda during the genocide and then follows the refugees into the jungles of the Congo. These gruesome images of bloated and abandoned corpses littering roadsides are hard to take, but they produce a catharsis that few fictional films can match. They affected the photographer himself the same way, and he laid down his camera for many years until he was lured back to work by nature photography. Like Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner," "Salt of the Earth" manages to tell the story of a visual artist in the only possible manner: by creating more memorable images.

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