Are his movies even worth it?

Are his movies even worth it?

I keep waffling on the issue of documentaries.  I hate the, except when I love them.  There seems to be little middle ground, based on my own personal reactions.

The Evidence for the Prosecution:

1.  Documentaries can be boring.  An Inconvenient Truth – This has to be the worst quality documentary made.  I don’t like getting political when I rate movies.  Even when it concerns politics I agree with.  You cannot give me enough money to say a poor movie is interesting when it isn’t.  This is why this type of review is worthless. A perfect review of this type of movie is only a political move.  This movie is boring, and not boring in the deliberately slow-paced manner, which I typically enjoy.  It’s just not good.  It is a glorified PowerPoint presentation.  It is surprising, shocking, and meant to be moving; on most counts it fails because it does not engage me.  At all.  This first type of documentary is all too common.  It’s the reason most documentaries go on the shelves of stores…and stay there.  No one’s interested in being bored.  The coffee table edition is more interesting.

2.  Documentaries as propaganda.  Triumph of the Will – Probably the best example of propagandism, the film by Leni Riefenstahl (spelled right the first time!) about the rigid professionalism, determination, and divinely ordained nature of the Third Reich I have had to watch three times for classes.  The first time was in high school, just a clip of the beginning.  The second for a class called The World between the Wars in college.  The third was for another college class: The History of Film: Part II.  I’ll admit.  The film isn’t that engaging, but it’s one hell of an interesting movie.  It was interesting all three times.  Not exactly documentary, incredibly staged and all factual, but technically documentary.  Because we know it is propaganda, its value as a piece of recorded history is lost.  As a piece of fiction, presenting the fictionalized version of a true event is great.  As a documentary is cannot be taken with much seriousness.

3.  Documentaries as a time waster.  The Up Documentaries – This set of documentaries is amazing.  Other people know this. You should know this.  If you don’t–watch them!  But be prepared to waste a lot of time.  The problem is this series is well edited, but takes footage from people’s lives when they are 7, and revisit their lives every seven years, from 7 to 42.   This is the straightest set of documentaries I have ever seen.  I think they are revealing, interesting, and engaging on every level.  But be prepared to use up about 10 hours of time watching these documentaries.  Which is the problem.  As documentaries are generally a labor of love for the directors, there is so much content that they do not want to sacrifice that they should.  Information that seems unnecessary, out of place, or useless is included.  Why?  Because the director understands why it fits it.  The director has hours of footage for every minute in the films.  Why not include a little extra?  But still, 10 hours?

The Evidence for the Defense:

1.  Documentaries can be really interesting. Spellbound – I will never be able to get past this documentary.  I think this is the first documentary I truly thought was amazing.  It was shameful to watch because I saw glimpses of how nerdy I was as a child, I saw the way parents drive their children just to win, and I saw how cruel children can be on themselves.  But mainly I just laughed out loud at the absurdity of the nerdiest thing on ESPN–the fierce competition for the title of Spelling Bee Champion.  This documentary you must watch.

2.  Documentaries as understanding.  Hoop Dreams – I knew when I started working with disadvantaged youth, the realities of their lives were disastrous.  The problem was I never thought about it in the long term.  Even after the first year, I never thought about where those students I taught would move after I was done teaching them how to use a comma with nonessential information.  This documentary reminded me of what issues they face: standardized test bias, social pressure, rough neighborhoods, limited resources, poor education, and institutionalized practices that look a lot like discrimination.  The scene where, after a student has made it to college, but lives in a house removed from the main campus where other athletes live–all black, all removed, all separate–is shocking.  These events are not from the sixties, or seventies.  They are from the ’90s.  They could be from today.   The movie made me understand, again, what issues really plague urban youth.

3.  Documentaries as entertainment.  Super Size Me – The movie was done to entertain.  Without the cameras there, would the man have undergone his personal experiment to eat McDonalds every meal of every day for a month?  Doubtful. It was only done to be filmed.  A staged documentary, just not staged like Triumph of the Will, so I’m willing to go with it.  This movie is just funny.  Interspersed with interesting facts about the fast food industry, and one man’s body decline because of the food he eats, the movie was made to demonstrate a point.  It demonstrates that people need to eat less fast food.  It makes it’s point.  I still eat fast food, and will always go for a Whataburger Honey Chicken breakfast sandwich whenever I get into a town that actually has a Whataburger.  But the movie did make its point.

Verdict:

The drawbacks of documentaries are just too much to risk.  I have trouble enough finding a good documentary.  The semi-interesting facts of the History channel work like 60 Minutes reports rather than historical research.  And while I wanted to be fair by presenting an even number of documentaries for both side, the fact of the matter is I could come up with several more documentaries that I did not enjoy, and had trouble coming up with three that I did enjoy.  The sheer enjoyment factor should win, but I won’t let it.

Documentaries do one thing, generally, very well: they tell a good story.  When they fail to do that they are awful.  A movie, after all, exists to tell a story.

All of the bonuses of movies, like cinematography, direction, editing, acting, etc. are lost in the necessity of a documentary.  Almost never will a documentary be able to demonstrate artistic merit and the factual entertainment that defines its genre.  Because I stake so much of what a movie is based on what a viewer can see, I must dismiss documentaries, generally speaking, as a failed genre.  There are just too few good documentaries to make the genre worthwhile.

Feel free to point out an excellent documentary.  I have a feeling that means I’m not going to get very many comments on this post.

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