Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Yesterday's news

If you were to place all consumable information on a continuum representing its ability to endure, with newspaper articles on one end and novels on the other, most feature films would be a lot closer to the novel end of the spectrum, and most documentaries would be a lot closer to the newspaper article.

A newspaper article, in its essence, is something consumed quickly, perhaps not even completely, then thrown away. A novel, on the other hand, can be timeless, something you would still want to read more than 500 years after it was written. (Even though there were more plays and epic poems being written 500 years ago than novels as we understand them today.)

It's too early to know how films will endure relative to the great works of literature, but I think it's safe to say we'll care about fiction films a lot longer than we'll care about documentaries. At least culturally, if not historically.

This past weekend, I saw Charles Ferguon's Oscar-nominated documentary No End in Sight, which was released in 2007. It's a very good film and it's only four years old, but there's a reason I got approved to review it in October of 2009 and am only just now getting around to watching it.

Namely, the "end" of the Iraq War actually is in sight. Troop withdrawal is picking up speed as we speak.

You might say that there's an end in sight for the relevance of No End in Sight.

Just because the film's title is necessarily fleeting, tied to the specific moment in time in which it was made, doesn't make it less worthwhile as a viewing experience. But I'd argue that it does make a 2011 viewer slightly less eager to seek it out. Perhaps more than slightly.

And as this idea occurred to me, I realized that many documentaries out there have sort of an "expiration date" -- a date after which the topics in the film no longer have the social resonance they had when the documentarian first envisioned making the film.

Consider this: How often do you go back and watch old fiction films? If you're a big film fan, it's pretty often, right?

Now, how often do you seek out old documentaries?

[Sound of crickets chirping.]

That's because we generally don't. Perhaps without even realizing it, we limit our documentary intake to those documentaries made within the past five years. However, as No End in Sight indicates, even five years can be long enough for the film to have lost its immediacy.

Now, this certainly does not apply to all documentaries. Some documentaries are purely historical in nature, where all the footage is archival, and all the interview subjects are reflecting on something in the past, at some point after the fact, with the date of their reflection being somewhat irrelevant. And then there are those documentaries that are essentially divorced from time altogether, such as Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, in which Errol Morris looks at the lives of four men who are obsessed with their various professions (a lion tamer, a topiary artist, a hairless-mole expert and a designer of bug-sized robots).

But even films like Fast, Cheap and Out of Control have probably been lost to all but the most dedicated fans of documentary filmmaking, who would be inclined to study the entire career of a great documentarian like Errol Morris. Merely by being a documentary, this film gets lumped in with its of-the-moment brethren, eventually lost in oblivion as far as most movie fans are concerned.

And although Fast, Cheap and Out of Control did not get nominated for an Oscar in 1997, the nominees from that year more or less bear out my theory. Only Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls is a film I'm sure I remember, though I did not see it. The others are The Long Way Home, about the creation of the Israeli state after the Holocaust, which won the Oscar; Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, about writer Ayn Rand; Waco: The Rules of Engagement, about the 1993 standoff between the Branch Davidians and the FBI; and Colors Straight Up, about at-risk teens in Los Angeles trying to stay off the streets through various arts programs (though I had to search beyond wikipedia to get even that description of the film). The Waco movie in particular is a perfect example of the kind of documentary that's pegged off a news event from a particular moment, which may not speak to a 2011 documentary audience in an ongoing way that would make them seek it out.

So what point am I trying to make here?

I guess it's this: As discussed here, documentaries are some of the most consistently high quality examples of filmmaking we have, but if you don't see them during their brief window of maximum relevance, you might as well forget it. Even with the documentary that many people consider the greatest of all time -- Hoop Dreams -- you don't hear fellow movie fans talk about revisiting it, do you? And if they didn't see it back in the early 1990s, you don't hear them talk about paying it a first visit at all.

The greatest feature film? Citizen Kane, maybe? Casablanca? The Godfather? New film fans are discovering these movies every day, even though two of them were released in the 1940s and the other released in the 1970s.

And this could be because in the universe of fiction, there's no way to know exactly what came next, to know whether subsequent events invalidated what we're seeing in the movie. Even where there are sequels -- such as Godfather II and Godfather III -- those sequels build on the narrative of the original in (hopefully) satisfying ways. And no matter how many sequels there are, we still don't know what came after the final sequel.

It's a bit different with documentaries. When a film bemoans the "quagmire" -- to quote a word from which Donald Rumsfeld famously dissociated himself -- of a misguided war that's seemingly without end, and you watch it during the period of time when the war is actually sort of ending, you lose a little something. It's like real life should have given you a spoiler alert.

Don't get me wrong -- I found No End in Sight captivating. I learned things I didn't quite know previously, like what a foolhardy thing it was to dissolve the Iraqi National Army. That decision -- made recklessly and without consulting the proper experts, as the film demonstrates -- left thousands of military-trained Iraqis out of a job, angry, primed and ready to become insurgents. That decision alone may have cost a thousand American lives. Without seeing the movie, this is a part of the Iraq War whose significance may have been permanently lost on me.

But let's be honest. I watched the movie because I was getting paid to review it. This makes me very different from the average viewer seeking out No End in Sight in the year 2011.

Or more likely, not seeking it out at all.

No comments: