Saturday, November 7, 2009

#55 - Documentary movies get cool.

It was the decade when...

People realized that the Documentary was more than an "hour-three" Oscar category.

Documentary filmmakers are a resilient bunch. Despite the dearth of money, the lack of public attention, the difficultly finding distribution - they have pressed on, rolling their Sisyphean boulder up the hill, hoping to, if they are lucky, get a brief moment in the sun at the Academy Awards, Holocaust topics being a good bet to achieve Oscar glory.

In the AUGHTS this long suffering genre had a kind of popular revolution. Instigated by the work of one uniquely popular documentarian, many filmmakers suddenly found their documentary movies acquiring not only critical praise but that most illusive of commodities: box office success. Best of all, there was nary a swastika in sight. Here are some of the highlights:

Bowling For Columbine (2002): Whatever your feelings on his politics or directorial style, all parties can agree that Michael Moore is the most financially successful documentary filmmaker of all time and probably the most widely seen. No other documentarian gets as broad an audience or a seat on Dave Letterman's couch to promote his films. For many people Moore is documentary cinema. His first film of this decade was one of his best and earned the orotund director his first Oscar. Grossing over 20 Million dollars domestically, Bowling For Columbine was nothing short of a blockbuster by the standards of the genre. Less an exegesis on the Columbine massacre than a free-form essay analyzing the violence at the heart of the American experience, Columbine is Moore at his least didactic. The party-line invectives for which he is famous are less present here, preferring contemplative associations to lefty bromides. Without his firebrand opining however, the film becomes a double edged sword; it packs a wallop and yet remains slightly vacuous, the subject matter offering no neat resolutions or demagogues to denounce. No summation exists to tie together Moore's various analyses. There is, in the end, only the horrific absurdity of Columbine.

The Fog Of War (2003): For years Errol Morris has been something of a documentarians documentarian. Serious and solemn, Morris' films are highly focused and charged with epistemological purpose. The Fog of War has all the familiar Morrisian tropes: the menacing Phillip Glass score, the dreamy symbolic imagery, the moral seriousness. In the film, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sits before a stark white background (it looks like he is in an Apple Commercial) answering Morris' questions in a tone that feels like a cross between courtroom testimony and therapy couch confessional. Never going in for the kill, Morris allows his subject neither absolution nor damnation for his actions preferring instead to stress the many ambiguities that politics and war trade in. Perhaps such fence-sitting is a kind of cop-out but it makes for exciting, thought-provoking cinema in a way that crude indictment would not. The film won Morris his first Oscar.

Capturing the Friedmans (2003): An unrelentingly horrible story of a middle-class suburban family eaten up alive by its patriarchs pedophilia, Friedmans uses as its through line the found footage of the family home movies, a near unwatchable record of dysfunction and familial collapse. The story plays out as a mystery of sorts: did the kindly father, a school teacher, really molest children in the basement of his suburban home? Did his son participate in the abuse? As the accusations against the family mount to more and more preposterous heights, the smell of hysteria overtakes reality. But, it's the stress from within that consumes, the family as crucible of anger, denial and confusion. The film lost the Oscar to The Fog of War but still earned a respectable three million dollars at the box office.

Fahrenheit: 9/11 (2004): The Titanic of documentaries (the Movie, not the ship), Fahrenheit: 9/11 was a phenomena. If the the Palme D'or at Cannes was more of a political rebuke to the Bush Administration than an award for excellence in filmmaking, it nonetheless was tangible proof that Moore's two hour invective was going to play a role in the national conversation as no documentary had before. Grossing over $200 Million in worldwide box office, the film acted as both battle cry and pat on the back for liberals everywhere. Too bad then that the movie actually adds up to little, despite the filmmaker's effectively conspiratorial tone. More a manipulation than a reasoned argument, Fahrenheit was concerned primarily with demonizing the President and his administration. An effective piece of propaganda, the movie did not succeed in it's real goal; George Bush was reelected in 2004 despite Moore's marching orders.

Super-Size Me (2004): A gimmick of a film, Super Size Me was the shockingly popular movie about a guy who eats nothing but McDonalds for a month. He gets fat and ill. Who knew? It garnered its creator Morgan Spurlock $11 Million dollars and a television contract.

Grizzly Man (2005): The voice of God in movies is usually pretty consistent: loud, masculine, and authoritative. I find this most depressing. I like to think that God sounds more like, well, like Werner Herzog: thoughtful, ironic, detached, wryly humorous and vaguely Continental. A voice which offers gentle but unsparing insight into the absurd activities happening down on planet earth. No commands or eternal judgments, just contemplative musings and poetic notions about existence. Well, I doubt God is very much like this (or like anything at all), but in Grizzly Man, Herzog's brilliant 2005 documentary about the life and death of Grizzly Bear enthusiast Tim Treadwell, I can at least pretend. Using mostly "found footage" taken by the ill-fated protagonist, Grizzly Man worked on many levels: It's the story of our relationship to the natural world and it's creatures. It's a cautionary tale of broken dreams and the pain of experiencing failure in a society that both practically guarantees it and yet has little patience for mediocrity. It's a tale about using and making cinema to escape our lives. Treadwell was not a scientist or trained naturalist, he was an out of work actor and LA beach bum who, fed up with Hollywood, people, and society, decided to leave it all behind with an act that both conceded his failure and was a last ditch effort to avoid it: he goes to live amongst the Grizzlies, recording his new life on video tape. His strange new lifestyle finally got him some long-sought media attention, including a now macabre visit to the Late Show with Dave Letterman. Herzog selectively chooses from Treadwell's copious footage to paint a picture of man at odds with civilization but doomed by his rejection of it. Throughout, Herzog interjects his modest and dispassionate musings, all the while concealing a bleak humor that permeates the whole movie. It's fascinating.

March of The Penguins (2005): Anthropomorphic children's folderol. Somewhere David Attenborough is wincing. It was also a blockbuster and Oscar winner.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006): Al Gore has been giving a PowerPoint slide show on Global Warming for years. In 2005, someone recorded it. Alarmist and shocking, the subject matter mattered more than the filmmaking. It won the former VP an Oscar (and probably a Nobel too).

Man on Wire (2008): Though a certain 2001 event goes blissfully unmentioned in this documentary about performance artist Philipe Petit's 1974 illegal tight-rope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center, the film acts as a sort of elegiac tribute nonetheless. While Petit's act would be a fascinating story in any context, it's the resonance of what happened later that gives the film it's real purchase. Man on Wire allows us to see the Towers as something more than flaming infernos. The film is an Oscar-winning celebration of measured mischievousness and risk-taking, literalizing the metaphor that life itself is a tight-rope walk, and thank God for that.


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