Day six of the 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival was another day for documentaries, with the nostalgic and lively THE AUTOMAT on the virtual docket.
Horn and Hardart’s restaurants were a fixture of New York and Philadelphia for much of the 20th century. Based on a central commissary model, one could get good food at good prices behind a glass door for a few nickels. Noted especially for its New Orleans style coffee, it was a huge success among all walks of life until American migration to the suburbs in the latter part of the 20th century robbed the chain of much of its urban customer base.
Lisa Hurwitz’s THE AUTOMAT traces this rise and fall and what it meant to America. In terms of content, it’s what you would come to expect from a good documentary that’s destined to find a home on PBS at some point. The vintage photos and film clips are well chosen, the talking heads appear to know what they’re talking about, and it moves at a good pace. Where THE AUTOMAT strikes gold is in who Lisa Hurwitz got to talk about Horn and Hardart’s the obvious love everyone had for the institution. Most particularly Mel Brooks who kind of takes over the documentary.
Mel Brooks is joined by the celebrity likes of Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Colin Powell who all offer their own insights and observations. But, Mel Brooks dominates the proceedings, even offering directing advice on several occasions, which Lisa Hurwitz obviously took to heart. Brooks is lively, funny, sharp, and has obvious love for the subject. Somehow, even though they don’t share an interview, he and Carl Reiner manage to play off each other in comic bits. It’s kind of magic. Brooks even provides an original song to the production which is above and beyond the call of duty and a testimony of his passion.
THE AUTOMAT isn’t going to change anyone’s life as a documentary. It’s simply a good example of how the form can highlight a somewhat forgotten part of history and make a case for it. Finding the right people to comment highlights exactly why the talking heads model of making documentaries can work wonderfully. It’s a delight.
THE AUTOMAT plays once more at the 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival on May 2, 2022 at 5:00 pm at the Oriental Theatre and is available on Milwaukee Film’s virtual app during the festival. The 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from April 21, 2022 until May 5, 2022. You can get tickets at mkefilm.org.