Sunday, November 28, 2010

Documentaries are not entertaining

For years now I've been limited by the maximum three movies at a time you can rent from the library. It's not that I really think I need to watch more than three movies from this one source in the two days you're allowed to have them out, or three or four days if you time it out correctly over a weekend. It's that I have trouble making up my mind. In fact, I'll go through alphabetically, picking up movies as they catch my fancy, and will be struggling to hold them all by the time I start to pick up speed around R or S. In fact, every once in awhile a fellow patron will inform me that I can only take out three, and I'll explain that I pare it down to three after the initial dozen I've chosen as contenders.

Well, I just learned that three is not actually the limit. It's the limit for feature films, but not for documentaries.

Or, as the librarian put it, for "entertainment films" but not for documentaries.

Here's what happened on Tuesday night as I was stocking up to get me through to Saturday (the library being closed on both Thursday and Friday). I came up to the checkout counter with a sort of random selection: Donnie Brasco (which I'd already seen), Lost in Space (which I only vaguely sort of wanted to see, and picked up for the purposes of light escapism) and Angels and Demons (which I didn't want to see that much, but which I thought might interest my wife).

As the librarian was scanning the bar codes on my selections, I noticed the documentary Koyaanisqatsi sitting on the counter next to her, recently returned but not yet shelved. It had been on my radar and I'd been wanting to see it. "Can I take this out instead of one of these others?" I asked.

"You can take it out in addition to the others," she responded.

It was then I discovered that the library observes a distinction between fiction films and documentaries. But "fiction films" was not how she described them. She said I could take out up to three "entertainment films" and up to three documentaries.

It may not be worth making this the basis for an entire post, but I chuckled to myself over the implication that documentaries were not "entertainment" -- in fact, that they were diametrically opposed to being entertainment. Surely it was just a slip of the tongue and she really meant fiction films or feature films. Then again, those categories are kind of inexact as well. A "fiction film" can be about a non-fiction event, and a "feature film" can sometimes refer to documentaries -- a "documentary feature" (as opposed to a short subject).


So Koyaanisqatsi was pretty cool. If you're not familiar with it, it's the 1982 film that juxtaposes images of the purity of nature with images of the busy-ness of modern society and technology, and is actually sometimes known as Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. New age musician Philip Glass composed the sometimes haunting, sometimes playful score. There's no narrative, per se, but it's certainly nice to look at, all the time-lapse photography utilized perfectly to make meandering clouds and busy freeways seem downright mesmerizing. And the message is not super in-your-face -- there's an implication that man's influence on the planet has been negative, but it's never spelled out in so many words. It was an interesting decision on my part to start watching it at nearly 1 a.m. last night, and it took a Monster energy drink, two candy bars and some ice cream to get me through. But at least I finished it at night -- it's one of those movies that's cooler if you see it in the middle of the night than the next morning, frantically before you have to return it to the library.

So I'll know in the future to throw in at least one doco every time I'm planning to rent some fiction films. If I'm lucky, I will even be entertained by it.


moviesandsongs365 said...

I would agree with you that many documentaries are entertainment.
Morgan Spurlock comes to mind, "Supersize me" was highly entertaining and funny ( :

Vancetastic said...

That's a good example. I'd like to think that a good documentary always leaves you feeling at least mildly entertained -- even if its primary goal is to educate you.