Saturday, November 15, 2008

I Thought I Hated Documentaries

So why have I seen so many? I used to tell people that I don't like documentaries. But upon reflection, I'm reasonably certain that I've watched as many or more documentaries recently than I have fictional films. Here's my list of viewed documentaries. Add your list in the comments!


King of Kong
Fog of War
Constantine's Sword
An Inconvenient Truth
Who Killed the Electric Car?
The Times of Harvey Milk
The Celluloid Closet
The Aristocrats
Fahrenheit 911
Bowling for Columbine
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
March of the Penguins
Hearts of Darkness
The Making of Jurassic Park
Lost in La Mancha
Deliver Us from Evil
Grizzly Man
Darwin's Nightmare
Jesus Camp


Best in Show
A Mighty Wind
The Office Special
Waiting for Guffman
For Your Consideration
American Movie
Windy City Heat
The Blair Witch Project
Coming Apart


SuiginChou said...

I dislike documentary-films as a general rule of thumb but I enjoy documentaries-proper on PBS (e.g. Frontline, NOVA). I think it's to do with the entertainment factor --

Documentary films almost always come at you with a heap of bias. And they're damn proud of it! From Stein's Expelled to Maher's Religulous, both sides of the American sociopolitical fence share equally in the blame. Fog of War is a partial exception to this rule, but it really, REALLY is more like a Frontline documentary than it is a film. In fact, what sets it apart from a documentary is its admittable bias, its message that it hopes to share.

Documentaries-proper, too, can display some bias that is inescapable when attempting to discuss the subject matter (e.g. you can't discuss Darwin without betraying whether you ultimately agree or disagree with his claims) but they typically come at you with the professionalism of a historian: they refrain from displaying bias when at all possible and just present the facts.

Michael Moore may claim that he does this, too, but he's a big fat liar (and one who I find endearingly entertaining, but still!) because:
a) he and I both know that he is provocative in how he shares his facts, and
b) he and I both know that he only tells the facts he wants known while refraining from presenting other sides of the story

A documentary-proper generally avoids this. If PBS's NOVA had a documentary on relativity, they would bring in skeptics as well as supporters. If they had one on evolution, similarly, they would show tasteful interviews with intelligent members of the clergy and would not cruelly select only those few soundbytes which make the clergy seem pompous or incompetent (as would, say, Bill Maher).

Long story short,
you may prefer documentary films because of their entertaining bias,
and I may prefer television documentaries for precisely the opposite reason.

But that's just my speculation. I have no idea: you tell me.

SuiginChou said...

I could have summed this all up with one analogy. I wish I had. Anyway, here goes:

Documentary films : autobiographies
Documentaries-proper : biographies written by a team of authors who each has his or her own opinions about the person's life and character.


Documentary films : history essays
Documentaries-proper : history encyclopedias

The encyclopedia ought not display professed love or hate of Caesar, but the Roman senator's essay certainly can and can resonate with the individual far more powerfully in part thanks to this bias.

As for documentaries you mentioned like The Making of Jurassic Park? Yeah: I would say that those fall under the label of "multi-biographies" more so than documentaries. You get a bunch of actors, CG teamsters, the director, the producer, etc. and ask them to recount how the movie was made. It's very different from the hypothetical scenario where Leonard Maltin or Roger Ebert would take us historically through the making of Jurassic Park in chronological order and telling us the bad along with the good. The Making of Jurassic Park almost exclusively focuses on happy, cool, exciting technologies and stories and near-mishaps. Insofar as it does mention serious errors, it takes an "all's well that ends well! :)" approach. Which of course a multi-million dollar box office hit can afford to cheekily do. I think a real JP documentary would have a little less of this glowy optimistic bias. But perhaps that's what kills it for you. I dunno.

Daniel said...

How was Constatine's Sword? I'm thinking of seeing that.

Also you really need to see Why We Fight, which is my contender for best documentary ever, maybe neck and neck with Dark Days. Why We Fight is probably the single most thorough body of work exploring any subject I've ever seen. It dissects America's history of war in the 20th-21st Century from every possible angle and it's really remarkable to see someone succeed at something so ambitious. Dark Days is just a breathtaking piece of stark humanism and it's beautifully shot. Can't recommend those two titles strong enough.

Jay said...

"Constantine's Sword" is only okay, I think. Pretty good. The fact that the narrator used to be a Catholic priest adds a little more weight to his investigation. I liked "Deliver Us From Evil" more. It's about the Catholic church sex scandals. The only problem with that film is that it focuses on one repeat offender and makes generalizations from that one case (although the priest molests several times and the Catholic cover-up is appalling).

Jay said...

Ryan: I actually love TV documentaries, but I decided to focus on films. Also, it would take a lot of research to pin down the titles of all the science channel and history channel specials I've seen.

I've also seen a lot of "Making of" documentaries for films, but I included in this list only those that are a little more focused and a little more complete (For instance, they hired James Earl Jones to host "The Making of Jurassic Park" and it had its own VHS release, whereas "The Making of Jaws" is a collection of interviews added as a special feature for the DVD)

Daniel said...

Yeah I've seen Deliver Us From Evil (actually most of the documentaries on your list, is that because you rip through all the netflix Instant Watch things too?). Very intense movie and yeah the whole cover up aspect was really sickening.

SuiginChou said...

Well in that case? You like documentaries and should quit pretending that you don't! ;p :)

Mike said...

You forgot Borat for mockumentaries.