Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The documentary ceiling

As it turns out, I've seen exactly 100 documentaries in my life.

You'd think it would be more. I certainly thought it would be more. But when I counted through my list last week upon getting the idea for this post (after seeing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work), I found myself at exactly 99 -- which includes stand-up comedy movies, for the purposes of this exercise. So I decided I'd just delay the post until I watched my 100th (Protocols of Zion) last night.

I watch as many documentaries as anyone I know (with one exception), yet they account for just 3% of all the 3,035 movies I've seen. I guess that shows you the prevalence and general name recognition of documentaries relative to fiction films, when even a buff who consumes films like a hoover has only just gotten into triple digits in his 37th year of life.

Of those 100 documentaries, you know how many I gave a thumbs up?


To put it another way, I've only ever disliked six documentaries, and two of those were the aforementioned stand-up comedy films (I'm looking at you, Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat). I won't even mention by name the four conventional documentaries at which I turned up my nose, so I don't have to start any arguments, but let's just say at least one was an utter waste of time, and a fairly loose interpretation of the term "documentary" (I'm looking at you, The Real Cancun).

If there's going to be a 94% chance of enjoyment each time I pop in a nonfiction film, you'd think I'd be clambering to get my hands on as many as possible. But here's why I don't: While I find almost all of them to be good, and a few of them to be great, I find almost none of them to be transporting. And here's where we hit what I'm calling "the documentary ceiling."

I've seen documentaries about everything you can imagine: the preparation of food, the mistreatment of animals, the use of the word fuck, the use of the n-word, the abuse of steroids, wrongful imprisonment, Anti-Semitism (just last night), insects, a French tightrope walker, video game geeks, penguins, global warming, electric cars, Trekkies, fundamentalist Christians, a crazy bear enthusiast and every Michael Moore documentary except his last one. What they all have in common is that they can't touch me the way the best fiction films out there can.

The reason for this seems relatively simple: I seek emotional truth in fiction, not in reality.

If you tear it down to its basics, anyone can put a camera in front of a grieving mother or a burning building or a protesting crowd, and produce an emotional reaction in the viewer. All you have to be is at the right place at the right time. But when you create those emotions "artificially," so to speak, it's a more impressive feat to me. When a line of dialogue identifies something universal and powerful in our world, even though it's the fabrication of a screenwriter, it's more true, in a way, than actual "truth."

Of course, I'm oversimplifying the purpose and value of a documentary. In fact, I'm worried I'm coming dangerously close to being anti-documentary, by identifying this tendency in the way I read films. The last thing I want to be is anti-documentary, because that's the same position held by the conservative hawks I detest, who seek to keep hidden the corruption that documentaries tend to expose.

But I can't escape the unfortunate reality that whenever I start to watch a documentary, I have slightly muted expectations. It was that feeling, before sitting down to Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, that inspired me to write about documentaries today. (In fact, I would have used that poster art with this post, except that I didn't really want Rivers' large botoxed-face up at the top of my blog for 24 hours, and the image from the Protocols of Zion poster kind of went with the title of the post.) When I'm seeing a documentary, I never think that I might be seeing the best movie of the year. It feels like there's a certain ceiling for how good it could possibly be.

Maybe part of what's tripping me up is that the purpose of most documentaries is not the same as the purpose of most fiction films. Again oversimplifying, the purpose of most fiction films is probably to entertain first and foremost, and then sometimes to educate, depending on the film. With documentaries, it's often the other way around. Which is why you will meet documentary enthusiasts from time to time who don't particularly care for fiction films. They're in it for the education only, the same way they read only nonfiction, and watch only the History Channel. I don't necessarily call these people film fans -- I call them fans of learning. The documentary is just one of many media available to allow them to learn, and they may view those media somewhat interchangeably.

It's perhaps no surprise, then, that some of the documentaries I've found most effective have been about frivolous things. In those cases, there's more of a balance between entertaining and educating. These films also tend to allow themselves to be slightly more "cinematic," in that they might have fewer talking-head interviews and follow more of a readily identifiable story. I basically want the documentaries I love to resemble the fiction films I love as much as they can, without crossing over into the realm of actual fabrication. Which ultimately is a failure to appreciate documentaries for what they actually are.

This is a very rich topic and I'm sure I could go on for hundreds if not thousands more words. But instead I wanted to close by telling you my ten favorite documentaries of all time, and seeing if I can figure out why they managed to transport me almost as much as a quality fiction film. (And good news already -- I tried to pick just five, but couldn't whittle it down, so I chose ten. And even that was hard.)

10. Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991, Alek Keshishian). I loved the way this film brought me into the world of one of the most fascinating people in the world, at least at that time. Keshishian used different film stocks and expertly combined concert footage with behind-the-scenes footage, and with other Madonna-related hoopla.

9. Religulous (2008, Larry Charles). Bill Maher is quite the agent provocateur in this screed against religion, but I really connected it with it because I was the choir and it preached to me. Maher underscores why I find organized religion so scary in the wrong hands, in a very powerful way at times -- and a very funny way at others.

8. Super Size Me (2004, Morgan Spurlock). Morgan Spurlock would eventually wear out his welcome by trying too many other social experiments, and becoming somewhat egocentric. But the first social experiment I saw, where he ate nothing but McDonald's for 30 days, was a funny and convincing indictment of the American fast food industry, and earned points for outside-the-box thinking.

7. Man on Wire (2008, James Marsh). One of the most thrilling documentaries I've ever seen, where the attempt to cross between the buildings of the World Trade Center on a tightrope is staged like a spy thriller. Loved the eccentric French acrobat at the center of the action, and was particularly impressed that the movie never indulged in any post-9/11 sentimentality -- or even mentioned 9/11 at all.

6. American Movie (1999, Chris Smith). Rarely has the new American dream -- to make a movie -- been expressed so poignantly through the plight and lives of such ordinary Americans. Mark Borschardt, Mike Schank and the metaphorical inertia of a Wisconsin winter are absolutely riveting topics, eccentric to no end.

5. Sicko (2006, Michael Moore). I debated about whether this list really deserved more than one Michael Moore movie, as Bowling for Columbine is also great. But this movie's climax may be the most affected, emotionally, I've ever been by a documentary -- and whether that was Michael Moore manipulating me or not, it still reminded me of what I sometimes take away from moving fiction films. So Sicko takes the spot.

4. Microcosmos (1996, Claude Nuridsany & Marie Perennou). Still the most mind-blowing nature movie I've ever seen, though to be fair, I categorize this as a true documentary, whereas some impressive nature documentaries have actually been a part of a larger television series. The vignettes are constructed as many little conflict-filled narratives, causing you to become fully invested in a scarab beetle struggling with a ball of dung.

3. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008, Sacha Gervasi). The best of the many music documentaries I've seen, probably because it resembles one of my favorite mockumentaries of all time: This Is Spinal Tap. With a little distance from it, I've decided that this movie probably contains one of the biggest no-no's in the making of documentary films: A scene or two that was at least somewhat staged. But I loved these goofball Canadian rockers so much, and they seemed so earnest, that I just didn't care.

2. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007, Seth Gordon). I don't know why, exactly, but this showdown of two Donkey Kong experts was one of the most thrilling documentary experiences I've ever had, an epic battle between two personalities who were probably not hugely different from each other, but were constructed in such a way where you were eager to cheer one and boo the other.

1. Looking for Richard (1996, Al Pacino). Al Pacino's love letter to Shakespeare, his role in our world and the challenges of performing his work takes the number 1 spot because it's the only documentary that I've ever ranked as my favorite film in a given calendar year. That year, 1996, was actually the first year I formally ranked my movies. And though I haven't seen it a second time -- I definitely should -- I remember being so blown away by the craft and care that went into this film, which contained parts of a performance of Richard III within the confines of the documentary structure. A brilliant way to address Shakespeare from all his many-splendored angles.

Honorable mentions: Bigger Stronger Faster*, Bowling for Columbine, The Cruise, Dig!, Dogtown and Z-Boys, Jesus Camp

Agree? Disagree? Well, you don't know which documentaries I've seen and which I haven't, so there. :-)

But I'd love to hear some of the ones you were impressed by for their potential fiction film qualities -- or otherwise -- if you'd like to talk about them in the comments section.


Don Handsome said...

I really like this concept of the documentary ceiling. Its something that I’ve struggled with in my own film ranking as typically I place conventional films higher than docs, but I would also say that a good documentary can really send me and I wonder why I don’t celebrate documentaries more as my favorite films.

I guess I sometimes feel that because documentaries are “limited” to portraying actual events or some sort of factual version of reality, that it is harder for them to be as transportive as conventional films which can be driven by artistic flourish. Film is my favorite art form, and it’s a rare documentary that can show me something new enough or tell me something interesting enough that I feel like I’ve experienced art that can compete with the best that conventional film can offer.

I’ve spent a lot of my time in the last 10 years or so seeking out those docs that can transport me as much if not more than a conventional film. My list has some cross-over with yours (Man on Wire, Anvil!) so I wont mention those common elements. Here you go:

- Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator (2002, Helen Stickler) – an unofficial (and much much darker) companion piece to your honorable mention of Dogtown and Z-boys;
- Riding Giants (2004, Stacey Peralta) + Step Into Liquid (2003, Dana Brown) – two modern updates of the classic surf documentaries…these flicks take you to new places and show you things that you never thought possible. With Giants, Peralta gets unprecedented access to huge waves and with Step Into the Liquid Brown updates his father’s doofus-zen formula to show us surfing in Wisconsin, The British Isles, and The Gulf of Mexico;
- My Kid Could Paint That (2007, Amir Bar-Lev) + Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010, Banksy) – two docs that examine the roll authenticity plays in Art. Both are mind-blowing. Exit is one of the best films I’ve seen in 5 years;
- Dig! (2004, Ondi Timoner) + Overnight (2003, Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith) – Incredible portrayals of the perils of egomania;
- The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005, Jeff Feuerzeig) – Sadness and joy, pure and unfiltered;
- The Chicago 10 (2007, Brett Morgen) – A visually stunning film that uses innovative storytelling techniques to make real events that happened 40 years before its release; and
- Scratch (2001, Doug Pray) + Bomb It (2007, John Reiss) – two films that subscribe to the more is better idea of informative filmmaking. These films take the worlds of Turntablism and Street Art and try to show you everything – instead of commenting. They aren’t the strongest films on this list, but they are certainly fun to watch.

And then, outside of the last decade, there is F For Fake (1975, Orson Welles). Like Exit Through The Gift Shop is a documentary that examines authenticity by being a (possibly) inauthentic document in and of itself.

Vancetastic said...


Great list. After I came up with my own, I bemoaned the fact that I did not include, even as an honorable mention, two of our most vital documentarians: Brett Morgen (Chicago 10, Kid Stays in the Picture) and Errol Morris (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, Mr. Death). Both use outside-the-box techniques that are both engaging and enthralling -- I specifically respected Chicago 10, which you mentioned, in that respect. For some reason, though, each of these films left me wanting, to just enough of an extent that they couldn't qualify for my personal upper echelon of docs.

I'm hoping to see Exit Through the Gift Shop soon.

Did you forget to include Endless Summer?

Don Handsome said...

If I opened up the Surfing Doc list to all decades it would be waaaay too long - this is why I kept the list limited to the last decades. The Endless Summer is one of my all time favorite movies period and I will always love it. I've thrown some Love to Bruce Brown on my list with his son Dana's film...But Endless Summer will always always always be my favorite documentary...until its not.