Sunday, July 6, 2008

God is the Director

Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch? ~Gene Siskel


Not everyone enjoys documentaries. I know this. I do think, however, that is a fallacy. In a society that thrives on 'reality' television shows, the truth is we crave documentaries. We merely suffer a shortage of truly excellent ones. The word Documentary tends to induce in most auditory hallucinations of some dry Brit trolling on about the migratory habits of the Eastern European Barn Swallow, then whispering as we voyeuristically observe their mating habits. That sort of documentary has inspired many parodies and jokes, and a series of incredibly obnoxious car insurance commercials with a little lizard I would love to feed to my bird. Yes, these dry, strictly informative and educationally driven documentaries still exist. The History Channel can pan and loop across a photograph so well, you almost forget it isn't a film. There are, I assure you, far more gripping and engaging documentaries out there.

Filmmaking as a whole is a collaborative art, like a well designed machine intent upon a specific outcome. Documentary films are wholly organic, growing and forming as they are meant to and dictating to the filmmakers how things will be.


Let me introduce you to a few of my favorites. The following are documentaries you may have heard of, and if so, it is with good cause. A Documentary is not a film which often garners great praise save among the cinematic (read: artsy-fartsy) folk and perhaps a gathering of primary school teachers and college professors. This has been changing lately. With Al Gore looming over us with his doomsday scenarios of the day after tomorrow, and Morgan Freeman's parade of penguins, the Documentary is slowly, but surely creating it's own place in the pantheon of enjoyable film. Those I've listed here are ones that I felt moved me. They have earned recognition mostly through awards and in name alone, and are often ones that others have remarked "oh yeah, I heard of that...haven't seen it though." Well, here's why you need to watch.

Brother's Keeper (1992)
The Ward brothers were relatively outcast from their small New York farming community. Not very social, lacking in civil graces, and wearing their labors heavily on their faces, these four brothers were inseparable and paid little mind to the community's avoidance. When William was found dead in his bed and Delbert, the youngest, was accused by the police of murdering him, however, the entire community of Munnsville, NY gathered together and stood behind Delbert as he and his brothers Lyman and Roscoe fought to prove his innocence. The townspeople collected money to afford him a defense lawyer and routinely showed their support with banquets and dinners; events the Wards were never invited to previously. Even when the DA made accusations of incestuous relations gone wrong, and mercy killings, the townspeople remained steadfastly in support of the Ward boys. Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, this film is well edited and draws you into this true life drama quickly. Nominated for five awards, including two at Sundance, there is little question why Brother's Keeper won the Sundance Audience Choice Award. It is an engaging tale that could have easily been told in a literary fashion, but is so much better served as a documentary. To see the real Delbert Ward, and take a tour of the true conditions and manner in which he and his brothers lived, draws you into the reality of William's death and leaves you to answer the question for yourself: Is Delbert Ward a murderer?

Buena Vista Social Club (1998)
Music is a language that everyone can comprehend. We feel it. We are moved by it. Some live for it. Wim Wenders, famed German director, made this Documentary about a group of aging Cuban Musicians who embody the truth of music, the soul of it. Due to Castro's rise, these street performers lost their fame and faded away quietly in Havana. Thanks to the Legendary Blues Guitarist Ry Cooder (check out the film Paris, Texas), they have been rediscovered and brought together to create one of the most captivating documentaries, which in turn spawned an inspiring (and dance-inducing) soundtrack. I would challenge anyone who claims not to care for blues, Latin or Caribbean music to watch this film and not, at the very least, be drawn in by the charm and sagacity of these incredible people. The film is as much an insight into Cuban history as it is a passionate homage to the lost music of Havana.


Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Yup. I put a Michael Moore film on this list. You knew it was going to happen, so suck it up and let's talk. Moore is certainly not a Documentary filmmaker in the sense that he makes unbiased, journalistic presentations of events. Oh, no. Moore always has an agenda, a plan, a firm concept with which he intends for you to walk away believing or at least thinking about. Most people would tell you that Roger & Me, his first film, is still to date his best. For Moore followers, his newest film is always his best. And for those who don't take him seriously....they favor Canadian Bacon.
I have not yet seen Sicko--I will state that now. (In my queue, though.) Of those films I have seen, however...I feel that this one is incredibly poignant and remarkably ballsy. Fahrenheit 911 said all the things that everyone has now been saying for about 5 years, however, you'll find that when watching this documentary, people still cringe. Gun Control is still that issue that no one wants to talk about. Any film in which Marilyn Manson is the sound voice of reason is a serious fucking winner in my book.


Grizzly Man (2005)
Werner Herzog is a cinematic genius. Many might disagree with me and label him as simply weird. Sure, okay...he's that too. But I love him. The documentary Grizzly Man is a tribute to all that is weird about Werner Herzog. It is also brilliant. Filmed almost entirely by the focal figure of the film, Grizzly Man is about grizzly bear activist Timothy Treadwell. Killed in October of 2003 by the very bears he lived amongst and fought to protect, Treadwell was a character more troubled and inspired than Herzog could have written him to be, and as a sad result he and his girlfriend Amie Huguenar were mauled and killed on tape. Herzog masterfully introduces Treadwell through the man's own recordings and compels you to journey with him toward this inevitable moment. It is the death of a self-proclaimed hero and one is left to wonder if, perhaps, it is the only way that Timothy Treadwell could have died; while horrible, also poetic. Such an ending is in keeping with the hero and anti-hero tales of Herzog's other films and while slow-paced, one cannot help but hold on to see things through to completion; a moment I will assure the faint of heart, you will neither see nor hear.

An Evening with Kevin Smith (2002) and
An Evening with Kevin Smith 2: Evening Harder (2006)
There is no great conspiracy revealed within these collective 8 hours of film. There is no environmental disaster warned, no endangered species to be saved, and no deep look into the heart and mind of some poignant figure. This is 8 hours of film director Kevin Smith answering questions at various universities and college venues. 8 hours of some of the funniest interview responses and personal stories I've ever heard, and simply a fantastic way to sit back, laugh your ass off and forget for a little while-- or for once-- not to take yourself or life so damn seriously. Listen to Smith as he answers extremely candidly questions about his career, his work, and his personal experiences. Hear why he, a devout Catholic, was actually stunned at the church's and audiences reactions to his film Dogma. Find yourself laughing hysterically at his ordeals in trying to write and get a green light for a Superman script with a producer who had some pretty outrageous demands. It's a little nasty. It's a little vulgar. It is HUGE fun, and a great way to unwind after an 8-14hour crap shift at a crap job...like in Clerks.


Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show(2006)
The cast list runs like a tally of some of America's best comedians: Ahmed Ahmed, Peter Billingsley, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst, Justin Long, Sebastian Maniscalco, Keir O'Donnell, and of course, Vince Vaughn. Vaughn envisioned a show with the same spirit as Wild Bill's Wild West Show, only instead of sharp shooting cowboy's and Indians it was sharp shooting Comedians. Thirty Days, Thirty Cities. This show spanned from the west coast through the heartland and on its course gives a surprisingly endearing (and of course, hilarious) portrait of these comics' lives and reasons for doing comedy. The Americans they encounter along the way only strengthen these men and their tale, particularly a moving visit to a 200 person camp for Hurricane Katrina refugees (when the storm first hit landfall). I watched this film on Netflix (play online) with the intention of having a high spirited reprieve from a stressful day and I was delighted to not only be led to tears in laughter but moved to tears as well. This is a documentary of a different sort and although it starts a little slow, deserves far more praise than most have offered it. For those of you who read reviews and see the remarkably hefty number of bad ones that this film tallied, ask yourself this: Who are you gonna believe? Me or those appletini drinking dumbasses? I'm telling you...this is worth the watch. Just the small insight into the real Vince Vaughn, not the movie-clown, is intriguing. He is an insightful man with deep and varied interests, who has earned my respect in many ways. And if you can't take a flip-flop joke....well fuck, ya. I'm still laughing!


There is one last documentary that was a fun film to watch. I am not a huge sports watching fan. I love to play some field games with friends, but I don't really get into watching them on television...and certainly not watching documentaries about them. I found the indie release Big Blue - The NYC Handball Documentary to be far more engaging than I'd expected, a testament to its director Justin Sullivan. Check out my full review at Pieces Magazine!

Any you think should not be missed? Leave a note and share your favorites.

In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director. ~Alfred Hitchcock

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sketches of Frank Gehry and Why We Fight are both excellent documentaries worth watching for different reasons.

Kahl said...

Vague and Ambiguous are both excellent words....for the same reasons.

Janet said...

Great article. I'll need to check out some of the documentaries you mentioned, especially the handball one since I read that great review you wrote on it. I have watched Al Gore's documentary, Morgan Freeman's Parade of Penguins, and all of Michael Moore's stuff. I loved them all and was glad to see them on your list.