Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Down on docs


A telling thing happened at the library on Friday night.

I was meeting the rest of my family and my mother-in-law, in town from Tasmania, for an early dinner on the main commercial drag of North Melbourne. Instead of coming home first, I met them there after work, but got there a good 30 minutes before they did. So I used the opportunity to browse leisurely through the movies at the library, instead of having to do it quickly while frantically looking over my shoulder to make sure one of my children wasn't destroying something or crawling out the door. (Or, walking out the door, these days.)

I did a bunch of that methodical finger flipping through the boxes -- you know, the kind made famous as a method of browsing used CDs back in the day. But when I came to the documentary section I stopped.

"Nah," I thought. "Not worth it."

As in, there could not possibly be any documentaries I would be interested in borrowing.

It's not something I would have consciously admitted to myself before this incident, but when it happened, it became abundantly clear what kind of fiction phase I'm in right now. In fact, the last documentary I watched was way back at the beginning of February, more than three months ago. But so total has my recent dismissal of documentaries been that I was at first convinced that I hadn't seen one since before I closed my 2014 movie list, when I watched the Nick Cave doc 20,000 Days on Earth on January 14th. Then I found Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father on February 6th, making my drought seem just a tad less staggering.

It's not like I'm down there with your average viewer, who watches fewer than one documentary a year. But considering how I used to program documentaries as part of my regular viewing habits -- probably on the order of at least one per month -- it seems like more than just a scheduling quirk. This is a pattern forming.

It's not like access to docs is hard for me right now or anything. I've got a ton on my Netflix queue that I mean to see -- eventually.

But "eventually" has been a timeframe I've found a hard time reaching lately.

I'm not sure exactly what it is, but I do have some theories. That Netflix queue is part of it. Now that Netflix shows a sprawl of recent documentary arrivals on the home page, and most of them are ones I have never heard of, I'm finding it harder to determine what's considered a "legitimate" documentary. Now that the means of delivery of all movies has changed so radically, that's even more the case with the documentary, which has never been a cinematic stalwart in the best of times. With more documentaries premiering on TV or online, it's hard to distinguish what is a "real documentary" and what might just be a "television program." I try to observe that separation of church and state (TV and movies) on the lists I keep, and a movie that doesn't easily categorize itself questions my sense of order. (Of course, most people would say you should just watch a non-fiction program whose subject matter interests you, and not worry about whether it neatly fits into the taxonomy of programming types.)

But I'm betting that the bigger factor is that I'm into escapism lately. That may be a rather obvious statement to make about a cinephile -- our need for escapism is what causes us to become cinephiles in the first place -- but I'm feeling the truth of it more than usual. Documentaries, by their structure and often their subject matter, can feel like work more than an escape from work.

Or perhaps I'm still reeling from the documentary that felt most like work of any I've seen in ages -- the one that came right before 20,000 Days on Earth. That was Particle Fever, whose poster has the honor -- or in this case dishonor -- of adorning this post. Who would have thought that a movie about something inherently awesome -- the Hadron super collider -- could be so deathly boring? Okay okay ... maybe it was our fault for thinking it wouldn't be.

Well, as I like to do in these pessimistic posts, I'll end with a vow -- a vow to aggressively force some non-fiction filmmaking back on my schedule. Because there are some docs out there that have been tantalizing me for a while -- I just have to let them come to the forefront. I just have to let them get "thrown on." There's the 2013 film The Institute, to name one. I understand I'm supposed to know as little as possible about it going in. Hey, that sounds like a good fiction film!

And maybe next time I'm at the library without any kids, I'll give that good old documentary section a finger flip.

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