Real Reels | An Iconic Eatery, a Resonant Road Trip, and Patricia Highsmith

An iconic eatery, a resonant road trip, and Patricia Highsmith are among January’s must-see documentaries now on DVD/Blu-ray.

The Automat. 79 min. Kino Lorber. 2021. DVD UPC 3832925929. $19.99.

Automat restaurants in New York City and Philadelphia were beloved by residents for most of the 20th century. Imprinted on the memories of anyone who ate there, they featured uniquely designed vending machine windows and customers used only nickels to pay. By the 1970s they were rapidly disappearing. Lisa Hurwitz’s documentary is a warmhearted history of the Horn & Hardart automats, covering the glory years and as well as the sad years in sweet, feel-good tones. Famous New Yorkers such as Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Colin Powell, and Carl Reiner tell of their connections to these quirky but revered cafeterias that meant much more than the cheap coffee and good pie they sold. VERDICT Food and nostalgia merge in this charmer.

The Great Muslim American Road Trip. 180 min. PBS. DVD UPC 4188704683. $24.99.

Married Muslim couple Mona Haydar and Sebastian Robins go on a nearly three-week road trip across the United States in this three-part PBS history travelogue. The road they choose to travel is the mother road itself, Route 66, and they wind all the way from Chicago to the Santa Monica Pier next to the Pacific Ocean. Leaning more toward history than touristy, Haydar and Robins attempt to find Muslim connections on their journey. They discover a rich tapestry of Muslim and American experiences and stories across the country with both positive and heartbreaking moments. While the emphasis is on learning, like any lengthy road trip, there is plenty of laughter, eating, singing, and even a bit of bickering. VERDICT Education, empathy, and travel are linked in this inspirational and informative film.

The Ground Between Us. 62 min. Passion River Films. 2020. DVD UPC 7297589481. $24.99.

A short, somber film looking into three different examples of greed is gnawing at the boundaries of public land. Parks, forests, mountain ranges, and nature preserves are in increasing danger of disappearing with current politicians, the oil and timber industries, and other developers ready to make some serious money. While the film tries to put a hopeful spin on protecting the land, the blunt message is stark, as environmental issues and cultural traditions usually have a hard time winning a war against economic behemoths. VERDICT A bit dry at times, but recommended for any library seeking to boost their environmental or Indigenous collections.

Loving Highsmith. 84 min. Zeitgeist Films. 2022. DVD UPC 3832926081. $19.99.

The life of novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921–95) is told utilizing her diaries, notebooks, and revealing interviews with family members and lovers, all to tell a deeply personal and complicated story of a complex human being. Eva Vitija’s film is well-balanced between Highsmith’s troubled childhood being shuttled between relatives, her years living a clandestine life in the lesbian community in New York, and her work, which was often adapted to film by Hollywood studios. In 1952, Highsmith published a novel (Carol) under a pseudonym and its relatively happy ending for a LGBT character was unprecedented. This documentary gives much attention to Carol and its impact not only on Highsmith’s life but as a groundbreaking vehicle for LGBT representation in culture as a whole. VERDICT An extremely intimate snapshot of both Highsmith’s writing and personal life.

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