Thursday, October 5, 2017

A documentary crisis

I know I got burnt out from watching documentaries in two years of vetting movies for the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (HRAFF), but this is ridiculous.

Of the 75 films I've ranked so far in my upcoming year-end 2017 list, only two of them are documentaries -- and they're both films I watched at the tail-end of last year's HRAFF viewing period.

I'm taking HRAFF off this year in part because it takes up too much of my precious viewing time during the last four months of the year, in part because my wife is incredibly busy this year and needs 100% of my availability, and in part because I need a break from the cavalcade of non-fiction film viewing, as my love for that form has suffered these last two years.

It's a love that's been slow to recover, apparently.

Or has this just been a bad year for documentaries?

Last night I rented Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent from iTunes, as the beginning of an attempt to rectify this deficiency in my viewing schedule. I haven't watched it yet. I wouldn't have rented it if it weren't this week's 99 cent rental, but it was. And I probably wouldn't have rented it if I hadn't known it was a "real documentary" -- in other words, not some pseudo TV special or other special interest feature -- because a review of it still sits in my podcast feed of unlistened Joe Morgenstern reviews. But I do know that, fortunately.

I think it may be a bad year for documentaries, as I cannot think of any prominent ones that have crossed over to the zeitgeist (or, the documentary version of the zeitgeist, which is far more niche). But the bigger problem is what I have discussed before, which is that in the age of streaming, documentaries have been the first films to lose their status as "real films."

If I were truly generous, I would consider any moving picture of feature length a "real film." But in reality, I still need to set some aside in the ghetto of what we would have once considered "straight to video." Nowadays, that term has lost some of its meaning, as truly legitimate films are debuting on Netflix and never getting released theatrically. But it's kind of easy to figure out which fiction films would have been released cinematically in the olden days, and which would not have. The creative talent behind them is usually a tip-off.

Not so with documentaries. Since few documentary directors are household names, and since documentaries tend not to have the same featured players as other documentaries, you can't tell just by looking at a documentary whether it's one that we once would have seen in the theater, or one that would have gotten fobbed off to TV or some lesser format. There are some exceptions, like the 2016 film from Ava Duvernay that debuted on Netflix called 13th, which ended up reaching a lot of viewers and becoming talked about. But where might it have been without the director of Selma associated with it?

A larger problem documentaries have, at least for me, is the issue of their subject matter. A friend rants about what he calls "inconsequential documentaries," or some similar term, which are highly specific movies about eccentric things that no one really cares about. Movies like that can be fun, of course, but I agree with him that there have been far too many of them in recent years. I got that vibe majorly from a film released earlier this year called Chicken People -- one of the few 2017 documentaries I'm aware of -- that looked at people who entered their chickens into competitions, not unlike dog shows. Without even having discussed that film with him, I agreed implicitly with the perspective on that film I'm sure he has, which is that neither of us needs to see a movie about championship chicken specimens and the goofy people who breed them. Like many other "inconsequential documentaries," the Christopher Guest mockumentary of it is impossible because it already basically is a mockumentary itself.

But then the other problem is documentaries that are too consequential, too much like homework, too heavy to contemplate in a world where the news depresses us on a regular basis. For last year's HRAFF we considered not one but two documentaries about people who go into the rubble in Syria to pull out bodies, hoping to find some live ones. That's got the opposite problem. It's too sobering and has no possibility for humor.

So what's the middle ground?

Is it Jeremiah Tower? Could be. The movie is about a celebrity chef, which certain seems inconsequential enough. But he pioneered California cuisine, and maybe there's something more substantial in that, if it looks at interesting trends in culture and lifestyle.

Well, Joe Morgenstern saw it fit to review, so maybe that's proof of its value in itself.

Can you offer any suggestions of essential 2017 documentaries I need to get on my schedule?

My year-end list is depending on you.

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