Monday, November 26, 2012

Movie Monday: The Documentary Edition

Documentary films.

Say that, and a lot of people's eyes will glaze over, their attention will wander, and you will have to change the subject in order to regain their attention. But I'm here to tell you that documentaries vary as widely as any other genre of film, and they don't deserve to be dismissed just because they are often not seen as "entertainment".

I suspect that the widespread opinion that documentaries are boring (and that's the description of them I hear most often) comes from the memories most people have of seeing educational films in school. And, goodness knows, many of those are horribly boring - although I always quite liked the Bell System Science Series, which had unusually high production values for their time, which I saw in elementary school and junior high.

For example, there was "Our Mr. Sun", the first film in the series, made in 1956 and directed by legendary film director Frank Capra. This film was still being shown in the public schools, at least in Southern California, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I remember seeing this one several times in classes during those years. The whole thing is available on YouTube, but I found this clip of the last few minutes of the hour-long film to be really eye-opening on a number of levels:

I think it is fascinating, how much time in the film was given over to the possibilities of solar power and how, while nuclear power is mentioned, it is ultimately dismissed as not as important as solar power. I hadn't remembered how much religious imagery was included, but I think it's interesting that no conflict is found between religion and science as the film explicitly endorses asking questions to understand how the natural world works. And, is it just me, or does that prayer-like narrative at the end of the clip sound more like a prayer to the Sun than anything else, despite the reference to St. Francis? Also, there is a bonus female role model, something I'd forgotten from my viewings of the film. This is very progressive for the time the film was made.

But, so much for my trip down memory lane. Educational films are not what I'm talking about here, although documentaries can be educational if you watch them critically and understand that they are not usually objective, but carry the messages and biases of those who make them. Nobody is ever going to mistake Michael Moore's documentaries for anything but subjective surveys of his subjects, for example. Anyone who has seen "Roger and Me" (1989) or "Bowling of Columbine" (2002) or "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004) knows that, whether they agree with the positions Moore takes in those films or not.

That sort of bias has existed in documentary films ever since they began to be made, at the dawn of filmmaking itself. In fact, many of the first films were documents of moments in time: a train entering a station, factory workers leaving their shifts for the day, a couple kissing. As the technology improved, travelogues, or what were called "scenics" at the time, became popular. But, very soon, filmmakers realized that they could tell real-life stories on film as well as they could tell fictional stories. But, they also realized, stories have more of a structure than real life does, and so they began to construct their documentaries as they would any other film. This led to manipulations and the inclusion of the biases of the filmmakers that often go unnoticed because the viewer assumes they are watching reality.

Except that as we all now know from the proliferation of "reality TV", "reality" on film is what one makes it.

This is not to say that all documentaries are a sham. It is important, however, to be aware that the reality within documentaries is often a managed reality, manipulated to tell a specific story. Which was the case as early as 1922, when Robert J. Flaherty made his classic documentary, "Nanook of the North" and made sure that a walrus that was being hunted was shot with a harpoon rather than the shotgun that his subjects also possessed. There are whole classes on the anthropology of images that study such manipulations, both in film and in still photography.

Documentary films are also, always, edited documents, just like any other film (or book, for that matter). A case in point is the documentary I watched yesterday, and which spurred the idea for today's Movie Monday post. "Looking for Richard" (1996), directed by Al Pacino, is one of my favorite documentaries and I was delighted to find it just starting a showing on the Sundance Channel yesterday afternoon when I sat down to see what was on television.

"Looking for Richard" is a wonderfully entertaining, if sometimes a bit scattered, attempt to find a way into Shakespeare's play "Richard III", who is, in fact, the Richard that the film is looking for. But it isn't just looking for the character that Shakespeare wrote. It is also looking for the meanings of the play, for the history behind the play and the character, for a way to make the play relevant for - and comprehensible to - modern audiences, for a way to stage the play, and for ways that the actors involved can relate to and best portray their characters. The actors involved in this effort, both as part of the cast and in commenting on the problems posed by playing a character in Shakespeare's plays generally, are an interesting lot. The film is worth watching just to see them arguing on behalf of their characters as a way of finding their way into their roles.

But, the point I started to make a couple of paragraphs ago is that it is a highly edited film. Over 80 hours of film were shot, which were then edited down to the 112-minute running time of the final cut of the film. That is a lot of material, over 4800 minutes of film reduced to less than two hours. And, at one point in the film, one cameraman comments to another that they need to make sure that Pacino doesn't find out that they have a few reels of film left over, because if he discovered that, he'd want to shoot those, too. So, there could have been more footage. One wonders what, exactly, was left on the cutting-room floor, and marvels that the finished product manages to hold together.

Mostly, you will be able to see documentaries only on television or on DVD. Unless you live in a large city, you will rarely find a documentary being screened in a movie theater. Offhand, I can only think of one non-music documentary that I've ever seen in a theater. That was director Errol Morris's "A Short History of Time", an exploration of the life and work of theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. When documentaries do come to cities like mine, they often play only for a few days, and only for a screening or two per day. I think this one might have played for a week locally.

The argument I want to make here, though, is that you should seek out documentaries. You should be careful to identify their biases, but you shouldn't avoid them. Depending on their subject matter, they can be, yes, educational, but also relaxing (I'm thinking "The Endless Summer" [1966] and "The Endless Summer II" [1994], Bruce Brown's two surfing documentaries, which I could watch all day long), eye-opening ("The U.S. vs. John Lennon" [2006], directed by David Leaf), and just plain wondrous ("Cave of Forgotten Dreams" [2010], directed by Werner Herzog).

Here, for example, is a short taste of what you'll see in "The Endless Summer". I'm feeling more relaxed just having watched this few minutes of film. Think what watching the whole movie might do to improve your day:

This is the trailer for "Cave of Forgotten Dreams":

And here is the trailer for "The U.S. vs. John Lennon":

Now, go see a documentary.

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