Watch: Motel (Documentary)(1989)

Behind the faded signs of three motels in the American Southwest lay entire worlds of passion, loyalty, adventure and fate. Veteran filmmaker Christian Blackwood winds his way into the soul of remarkable people in a uniquely American subculture.

05 July 2023 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News

My favorite motel stay was in Santa Fe. I don’t know if it is featured in this doc. ha.

I had driven some distance that day (I had flown to Las Vegas and rented a car and was driving through Arizona and New Mexico with longer stops at the Hopi Reservation and Santa Fe) and I was anxious to find a place for the night. I had already passed many ‘No Vacancy’ signs and so I grabbed the first one that came up.

It looked fine. Nothing special but it did not have to be anything special. I needed a bed, a TV, a fridge for the beer and a fake coffee machine.

As I went to pay I finally noticed a huge “NO REFUNDS” sign.

Well, yeah, I thought. That was odd. But it was hot and late and I was hungry. And thirsty.

I had a true sense of relief after checking the room. There did not seem to be anything untoward. I threw my suitcase on the floor and set off to the steak house across the street and then to the local store to buy a few cans of beer.

I watched some TV before turning in and slept like a baby for… well, a few hours.

At 2:00 AM I woke up to the sound of a train whistle. It seemed to be fairly close and sound for some time but eventually stopped. I groaned and went back to sleep.

For a short time. It happened over and over again all night long and continued until morning.

At about 6:00 AM I looked out the door and in daylight I could now see the rail tracks in the distance. It was a level crossing and so I presumed the whistle had to sound the entire time it crossed the area, for the entire length of the train.

So yeah, no refund. And no sleep. And no come back here again.

James Porteous | Clipper Media News

Christian Blackwood was an American film director and cinematographer. He was initially a child actor, then a cinematographer acclaimed for his work in Charlotte Zwerin’s Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser. But his major work was as the director of over 80 films, mostly documentaries, over a 25-year career. Wikipedia

Motel (1989) Documentary Filmmaker Christian Blackwood studies three motels in New Mexico, Arizona and Death Valley.

Christian Blackwood, Film Maker, Dies at 50

New York Times | July 25, 1992

Christian Blackwood, who directed or produced more than 95 documentary and feature films, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 50 years old.

He died of lung cancer, said his wife, Carolyn Marks Blackwood, who noted that he was a heavy smoker.

Mr. Blackwood was born in Berlin in 1942 and was brought to the United States when he was 7. He began his film career soon after graduating from New Lincoln High School in Manhattan.

In his 30-year career, he won a variety of awards, including the Berlin Film Festival Peace Prize, several Emmy Awards, and the State’s Film Prize, a prestigious German award, for an experimental feature film called “San Domingo.”

“Straight, No Chaser,” his 90-minute film about the jazz musician Thelonious Monk, was widely acclaimed at the New York Film Festival in 1989. It was based chiefly on 14 hours of black-and-white film shot in the late 1960’s by Mr. Blackwood and his brother, Michael.

Mr. Blackwood’s work appeared on the “American Masters” and “Point of View” series on PBS, as well as on Home Box Office and German television and in theatrical release.

In addition to his wife and brother, also of Manhattan, he is survived by his mother, of Hamburg, Germany, and a stepson, Gabriel Marks-Mulcahy of Manhattan.

Famous Works

  • Credits; Film Director, Except Where Noted
  • Spoleto: Festival of Two Worlds (documentary), Christian BlackwoodProductions, 1967.
  • Harlem Theater (documentary), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1968.
  • Summer in the City (documentary), Christian Blackwood Productions,1968.
  • Eliot Field: Artistic Director (documentary), Christian BlackwoodProductions, 1970.
  • Juilliard (documentary), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1971.
  • Kentucky Kith and Kin (documentary), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1972.
  • Black Harvest, Christian Blackwood Productions, 1973.
  • Yesterday’s Witness: A Tribute to the American Newsreel (documentary), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1974.
  • Living with Fear (documentary), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1974.
  • To Be a Man (documentary), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1977.
  • (And producer) Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel (also see below), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1978.
  • Cousins (documentary), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1979.
  • (Also producer and cinematographer) Tapdancin’ (documentary), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1980.
  • (Also producer and cinematographer) All By Myself (documentary), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1982.
  • Charles Aznavour: Breaking America (documentary), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1983.
  • (Also producer and cinematographer) Observations under the Volcano(documentary), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1984.
  • (And producer) My Life for Zarah Leander (documentary; also see below), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1985.
  • Private Conversations (documentary; also see below), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1985.
  • (Also producer and cinematographer) Nik and Murray (documentary),Christian Blackwood Productions, 1986.
  • (Also producer and cinematographer) Signed: Lino Brocka (documentary), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1987.
  • Two Hotels in Our Troubled Middle East (documentary), Christian Blackwood Productions, 1988.
  • (Also producer and cinematographer) Motel (documentary), ChristianBlackwood Productions, 1989.
  • Also directed (with Hans-Jurgen Syberberg), San Domingo, 1970. Cinematographer, Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser, 1988.
  • Credits; Television Work; Episodic
  • Producer, director, and cinematographer, “Private Conversations: On the Set of `Death of a Salesman,'” American Masters, PBS, 1985.
  • Credits; Film Scripts
  • Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel, Christian Blackwood Productions, 1978.
  • My Life for Zarah Leander, Christian Blackwood Productions, 1985.

Read more:

What to Stream: Rediscovering the Blackwood Brothers, a Pair of Great Documentarians of New York City Life

By Richard Brody | May 27, 2020 | The New Yorker

Thelonious Monk plays the Piano.

Unlike Charlotte Zwerin’s famous Thelonious Monk documentary sketching the musician’s life, the Blackwood brothers’ film, which had fallen into oblivion, takes you inside it.Photograph Courtesy Michael Blackwood Productions

The brothers Michael and Christian Blackwood, documentary filmmakers, were born in Berlin—Michael in 1934, Christian in 1942—and came to the United States in 1949. (Their original family name was Schwarzwald.)

I was recently digging around for the work that they’re best known for—the 1967-68 footage of Thelonious Monk in performance that is prominently featured in Charlotte Zwerin’s documentary “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser,” which was released in 1988.

In the process, I discovered several other films of theirs, available to stream (on Vimeo, posted there by Michael Blackwood Productions), which deserve recognition as classic documentaries of New York public life.

Michael Blackwood’s first film, the short “Broadway Express,” from 1959 (streaming on Kanopy and Vimeo on Demand), is an intimate spectacle of the New York subway. It starts with a conductor in a train yard preparing an A train for its journey to Rockaway.

The movie, filmed mostly during the evening rush hour and late at night, is a nineteen-minute symphony of faces and gestures, of styles and habits. (It’s a silent film, featuring spare music by Howard Gilbert.) Blackwood flings himself into the action, keeping his camera running in the center of a crowd densely packing into a train. He shows men in straw hats, tightly coiffed women in dresses, and a general trend toward formality in apparel—yet also a diversity of attire among the young that belies easy generalizations.

Blackwood calls attention to some prevalent activities, such as sleeping in the subway (he filmed many people, seemingly commuters, dozing during their late-night travel), and to others that seem to have caught him by surprise, such as a child standing at the open doors between cars to catch the breeze, and a group of people playing cards during their trip.

Then as now, buskers display their talents in transit, and beggars make their way through the cars. The movie teems with daily dramas: teen-agers in poufy dresses appear headed to a prom; an elderly woman is teaching a child to read. It’s a haunting, anecdotal cross-section of city life, and New York’s personalities seem to burst forth from the screen.

In 1968, Christian Blackwood made another great N.Y.C. documentary, “Summer in the City,” which is entirely about the Upper West Side. Christian (credited as Schwarzwald) co-directed with Robert Leacock and conceived the project with the novelist Uwe Johnson, who wrote the voice-over commentary. (The narration is in German, subtitled; the movie was made for West German television.)

It’s a film of relationships—of the filmmakers’ connections with their many subjects—and, as such, it’s a remarkable early example of the influence of the participatory direct-cinema ideas developed by Robert Drew and realized by the cinematographer-filmmakers who emerged from his circle, including Albert Maysles and D. A. Pennebaker.

Like them, Blackwood is an extraordinary cinematographer (he’d done some shooting for one of the greatest films of all time, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s first feature, “Not Reconciled,” from 1965), and, like them, he joins his vigorous, engaged, and discerning camerawork to his personal involvement—and copious discussions—with his film’s subjects.

These include participants and activists in a weeklong block party sponsored by the Peace and Freedom Party, residents of an old-age home on West End Avenue, and an elderly man living in isolation and longing for his childhood home in Alabama.

Blackwood spends time with a white family that has moved with their seven young children to a part of the neighborhood in which white people are a minority (Johnson emphasizes, on the soundtrack, that they send their children to private school); he follows two young heroin users and films the squeamish-making specifics of their injections, while they speak freely of their lives.

He also spends time in a police station, speaking with the captain, who acknowledges the neighborhood’s frustrations with rising crime, and filming the day’s patrolmen (and they’re all men, and all white) at their daily muster.

Women hold signs during a protest.

The depth of “Summer in the City” comes from its extended dialogue (some of which Johnson translates into German, in voice-over), as in an extraordinary sequence centered on Jeannette Washington, who is the leader of a protest outside City Hall, mainly by black women, against cuts in welfare benefits and against the so-called urban renewal around Lincoln Center, which in the nineteen-sixties was driving many poor and black people out of the neighborhood.

Blackwood films from within the crowd of protesters—and shows monstrous incidents of police violence, which Johnson, in his commentary, describes as “police terror” that TV viewers will see on the news that evening. (There were, in fact, broadcast crews on hand at the time.)

Blackwood also speaks at length with Washington in her apartment, as she discusses the large-scale goals and local specifics of her effort to create a political movement. (Johnson’s commentary emphasizes the obvious tension between the neighborhood’s white, black, and Puerto Rican residents, the endemic racism and over-all political context that underlies it.)

Some of Blackwood’s portraiture is solely and deftly visual, including scenes of people at open windows in a handful of buildings, which he films with darting pans and tilts. He displays the vigorous activity of children—older ones playing baseball in a schoolyard, younger ones gathering on the stoops, still others hanging around on their fire escapes and looking into the street.

As he films the neighborhood’s teeming public life, some people hide their faces from the camera; others delight in its presence and share and overshare exuberantly with the filmmakers. Some of the participants display to Blackwood’s camera a side of life that was rarely seen in 1968.

Blackwood films a drag pageant (unfortunately, Johnson’s commentary here overwhelms the drama of the competition) and then follows the contestants and their fans onto the sidewalk outside the ballroom, where they contest and dispute the results. Two trans women admit the filmmakers into their home and let themselves be filmed, with a candor that was hardly to be found in the American cinema at the time.

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What sent me down the Blackwood brothers rabbit hole was the quest for outtakes from their Monk footage; instead, I found something altogether different, and revelatory: another 1968 film that they made, about Thelonious Monk, “Monk,” a.k.a. “Monk—A Portrait of the Legendary Jazz Musician” (streaming on Kanopy and Vimeo on Demand).

It’s a two-part film, nearly two hours long, originally made for German television. Michael Blackwood produced it; Christian shot it.

But it fell into oblivion, and the brothers’ thirteen hours of footage—of Monk onstage, backstage, in rehearsal, in the recording studio, in the street, in transit, and even in his hotel room with his wife, Nellie—was later excerpted in Zwerin’s famous Monk documentary, “Straight, No Chaser.”

Unlike Zwerin’s film, the Blackwoods’ documentary features nothing but their own footage of Monk and company on tour, at work, and in private—no added interviews, nobody else’s archival footage, no additional musicians’ performances, no voice-over commentary, no layering of illustrative newsreel footage or historical information to contextualize the concert tours that the brothers film. The result is something much more immersive. Where Zwerin sketches Monk’s life, the Blackwoods take you inside it.

Christian Blackwood’s cinematography is a major source of the movie’s thrill. He records extended takes of performances: Monk’s quartet (with Charlie Rouse, Larry Gales, and Ben Riley) in the first part of the film; in the second, the group expanded to an octet, with four notables (Ray Copeland, Johnny Griffin, Jimmy Cleveland, and Phil Woods), for the European tour.

What emerges above all is an artist whose confrontations with the practical side of music, from studio recording to international travel, offer constant stress—and whose daily life in New York, private conversations, and distinctive way of dealing with that stress appear continuous with his music itself.

Monk’s producer at Columbia Records, the famously interventionist Teo Macero, is seen telling Monk that he wants him to play something “free-form.” Monk’s quick and sharp response is “I’m not trying to disguise nothing that would stop people from hearing it and digging it, you know?” (That answer is severely edited in the Zwerin film.)

Yet Monk also discloses his own artistic sense of wonder and self-challenge; speaking of a new composition that he’s been working on with his quartet, he says, “I’m just learning like they are. I make up something, and it’s something—I don’t even know what it is until I look at it again myself, it’s new to me.”

When Monk is booked at the Village Vanguard, he receives the well-known club owner with a grandly ironic flourish: “Max Gordon, the club owner! Praise the club owner, rah-rah-rah!” There’s a wonderful bit of repartee with Monk, his band members, and his friend Nica de Koenigswarter (a Rothschild heiress and Monk’s longtime benefactor) regarding his black-opal pinky ring and a thousand-dollar bill; one musician, speaking from offscreen, turns the moment into a sharp comedic riff about the skeptical mother wit of poor people.

The second part of the film features the expanded group on a European tour, which comes with its own complications: travel, accommodations, cuisine, and general tension.

Onstage in New York, Monk often dances while others solo; in Europe, his dances onstage and pirouettes offstage have a special sarcasm of calculated, perhaps desperate, relief from the stress (including the stress of having Blackwood’s camera pointed at him in personal or intimate or merely solitary moments).

The biggest problem, however, involves the music itself: the expanded group’s elaborate big-band-style arrangements and the extended solos from all of the band members (plus the guest soloist Clark Terry) deëmphasize Monk’s own playing.

Backstage, after a concert, he’s buttonholed by a German radio journalist who asks him, “Was your quartet boring you? Or why do you come with six horn men?” Monk’s answer is short and bitter: “Somebody else’s idea.” His frustration is as apparent in this remark as it is on the bandstand. (This question and answer are cut out of that scene in Zwerin’s film—as if in fear of undercutting her film’s suggestion that the big-band tour is a highlight of Monk’s career.)

Some of Blackwood’s most sharply observed scenes are filmed, again, on the streets of New York. Monk had lived most of his life in the neighborhood long known as San Juan Hill, which was predominantly African-American.

By the time the Blackwoods filmed “Monk,” the area had been largely demolished for the construction of Lincoln Center, but the musician and his family continued to live there, in a new building erected to replace what had been torn down.

Onscreen, as Monk walks through the neighborhood, he’s warmly greeted, at the corner of Sixty-fourth Street and Amsterdam Avenue, by men in the street—mostly black men, one of whom speaks to him of another acquaintance. When Monk asks whether the man “kicked off,” he gets a painful answer: “Bang-bang-bang.” (In Zwerin’s film, the scene is cut to snippets and the voices are eliminated, replaced by music.)

There’s a public face to Monk’s music, a sense of irony, of experience transmuted into both musical genius and musical humor, and the Blackwoods’ film connects the art and the anguish: in their discerning, passionately engaged view, the pain that Monk channelled into his puckish side comes through clearly.

Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999. He writes about movies in his blog, The Front Row. He is the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.”


Harvard Film Archive

An incredibly prolific documentary filmmaker, Michael Blackwood spent his life crafting an indispensible archive of 20th century arts and architecture. Sometimes co-directed by his filmmaking brother Christian, Michael Blackwood’s films cover all aspects of the influential products, people and processes of modern art creation. 

Originally named Schwarzwald, Michael Blackwood (b.1934) and Christian (1942 – 1992) were born in Germany during Hitler’s reign. Once the war began, the Schwarzwalds spent many horrific, chaotic years skirting death.

Sheer luck, non-Jewish maternal grandparents, sympathetic gentiles, and their keen, resourceful mother all played parts in their survival. Finally, the family left a demolished Berlin in 1949 for a fresh start in Manhattan.

The brothers had been exposed to the innerworkings of film and art from birth; before the war, their parents ran a company that made materials for movie and theater sets.

Beginning their cinematic careers at a young age, they both had auspicious starts in different fields: Christian as a child actor and later cinematographer (the first film he helped lens was Straub-Huillet’s Not Reconciled [1965]), and Michael as an apprentice editor at NBC. 

The documentary work Michael edited at NBC’s Special Film Unit led to his making his first film, Broadway Express (1959), a nineteen-minute cinema verité study of the New York subway. In the words of Richard Brody, “It’s a haunting, anecdotal cross-section of city life, and New York’s personalities seem to burst forth from the screen.”

Moving back to Germany in 1959, Michael worked as a freelance director and producer of documentaries for West German television.

Shortly after his return to the States in 1965, he and his brother formed Blackwood Productions, focused on documenting significant contemporary figures in the arts and humanities.

Two of their earliest documentaries, Monk (1968) and Monk in Europe (1968), are detailed verité journals of several days in the life of Thelonius Monk. Portions of the thirteen hours of footage they shot is used in Charlotte Zwerin’s Straight, No Chaser (1988).

Unlike Zwerin’s film, the Blackwoods’ documentary features nothing but their own footage of Monk and company on tour, at work, and in private—no added interviews, nobody else’s archival footage, no additional musicians’ performances, no voice-over commentary, no layering of illustrative newsreel footage or historical information to contextualize the concert tours that the brothers film. The result is something much more immersive. Where Zwerin sketches Monk’s life, the Blackwoods take you inside it.  — Richard Brody, The New Yorker, May 2020

Many films on many artists—directed either by one or both brothers—followed. These included monographs on individual artists such as Christo, David Hockney, Jim Dine, Isamu Noguchi, Philip Guston and Jasper Johns; surveys of groups or movements—for instance, Musical Outsiders: An American Legacy (1966), Japan: the New Art (1970), The New York School (1972), Tapdancin’ (1980); as well as a variety of cultural icons: Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel (1976), Edith Head (1981), All By Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story (1982), A Composer’s Notes: Philip Glass and the Making of an Opera (1985), to list but a few.

While Christian’s interests tended to move freely around the worlds of art, dance, music and film, Michael was more focused on well-known American painters, usually either Pop artists or Abstract Expressionists, though by the late 70s, he began veering from this course with films like Fourteen Americans: Directions of the 1970s (1980)—which featured emerging artists Joseph Kosuth, Laurie Anderson, Nancy Graves and Gordon Matta-Clark, among others—and the remarkably comprehensive Pablo Picasso: The Legacy of a Genius (1981), as well as an examination of New York in the 80s, Empire City (1985). 

Starting later that decade, Michael added numerous documentaries on architects and architecture, a passion that would continue for the rest of his career. 


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