It seems the film documentary form is experiencing a kind of belated recognition. The box-office success of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11”, coupled with a spate of outstanding releases last year (including “The Fog Of War” and “My Architect”) has caused both the film industry and the media to take note.
Some theorize that television’s relentless onslaught of reality-based programming has touched a nerve with the public whereby true life issues and stories have suddenly acquired a new fascination. In fact, I think people are finding so little originality in standard Hollywood fare that almost by default they are turning to some very talented documentarians for creative sustenance.
Whatever the reasons for documentaries’ new prominence, it’s good news for discerning viewers who decide to get better acquainted with this special kind of film, too often relegated in the past to the “too dry for me” dustbin of missed movie opportunities.
We begin at the beginning, with the early pioneering films of Robert Flaherty. In 1922, he released “Nanook Of The North”, chronicling how one Eskimo family cheerfully subsists in the most frozen and remote part of Alaska. Close to a century later, it remains an astonishing achievement, revealing man’s ingenious, unwavering capacity to adapt and survive, even under the most inhospitable conditions.
Eight years later, Flaherty partnered with legendary silent director F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu) to make “Tabu”, a semi-documentary shot on location in Tahiti. The film features actual Tahitian natives in a simple but vivid tale about the tragic consequences of forbidden love. Even with no spoken dialogue, the beauty of the players and the location lends this film a magic aura which defies datedness.
In the talking picture realm, but with precious little talking needed, is Flaherty’s “Louisiana Story”(1948), the director’s crowning achievement. A boy living with his family in the Louisiana bayous communes with his wild and mysterious surroundings while looking on with fascination at the work of oil drillers nearby. Flaherty’s brilliant camera work lends a subtle artfulness to the theme of civilization encroaching on nature.
Great documentaries provide powerfully intimate glimpses into the human condition. Two in particular came from the Maysles Brothers, who did much to extend the genre in Flaherty’s wake: “Salesman” (1969), and “Grey Gardens”(1976). “Salesman” is an up-close look at an aging door-to-door salesman who, right before our eyes, sinks deeper into a sales slump, feeding a nagging disillusionment with his chosen calling, and sadly, his whole life.
“Grey Gardens” is the stranger-than-fiction tale of “Big Edie” Bouvier and “Little Edie” Beale, respectively aunt and first cousin of Jackie Onassis, who have retreated from the world and their own broken dreams in a decaying East Hampton mansion. Though they are well beyond eccentric, the Maysles manage to find a core of humor and humanity in mother and daughter that counter-balances the ghoulishness of their predicament.
Ross McElwee, whose film “Bright Leaves” is now in theatres, burst on the documentary scene in 1986 with the hilariously honest and dead-pan”Sherman’s March”. McElwee is a sad-sack protagonist who turns a straightforward trip tracing Civil War General Sherman’s famous “march to the sea” into an inspired meditation on life, love and relationships. “March” is refreshingly true to life and on-target about the fundamental differences between the sexes, and our often clumsy, futile attempts to bridge them.
Rarely have the effects of this country’s Great Depression been portrayed with such a gentle and touching humanity as in “Riding The Rails” (1997). Winner of the prestigious Peabody Award and originally broadcast on PBS’s “The American Experience”, “Rails” focuses on the scores of teenagers forced to leave home in the 1930’s and ride freight trains in search of work. Featuring archival footage of the period and a priceless folk song score from Woody Guthrie and other balladeers of the time, the film’s most memorable sequences are the interviews with the now elderly, respectable folks who eked out desperate existences as young hoboes, but can still recall the sheer romance and adventure of hopping those freights.
Anyone with the faintest un-suppressed memory of the Internet boom should watch the cautionary “Startup.com” (2001), an intense look at the treacherous waters of American business. Here the film-makers record a pivotal year in the life of two friends collaborating on an internet start-up that consumes their every waking hour. “Start-up” demonstrates how the rules of cut-throat modern entrepreneurship can transform natural human ambition into nerve-shredding obsession.
Obsession of a more benign variety is explored in the irresistible “Spellbound” (2002), which takes us inside the intensely competitive world of the annual National Spelling Bee, and introduces us to a group of highly diverse but uniformly brilliant children, each intent on winning grand prize. The crowd-pleasing quality of this film comes from the likeability of the kids featured, and the laudable values of self-discipline and self-improvement reflected in the parents’ encouragement and coaching of their gifted progeny.
Few topics better represent the nature of human competition than sports. For sheer color and intensity, it’s hard to beat “When We Were Kings”(1996), Leon Gast’s documentary on 1974’s famous Ali-Foreman match-up in Zaire, dubbed by Ali himself as “The Rumble In The Jungle”. It saddens and inspires to see Ali in his physical and verbal prime, and the pundits who re-live that unforgettable event- chiefly writers Norman Mailer and George Plimpton- make their fascination with the art of boxing- and the characters involved- infectious.
Then there’s the sport where you compete and commune with the elements all at once. Even for those whose feet will never touch a surf-board, the Brown family (first Brian, then son Dana) have engagingly clarified the mysterious ethos of surfers via two documentaries made a generation apart. Just for the record, it’s all about love of the water, the freedom it represents, and lest we forget, having fun.
In 1964, as surfing was expanding from a localized activity to a media-fueled craze, Dad Brian released “Endless Summer”, depicting the life of hard-core surfers, and showcasing the awe-inspiring waves they chase all over the world. Seen today, the film is a gorgeous, aquamarine time-capsule, equipped with a score reminiscent of Jan and Dean, all of which helps project the rush of a still new and growing phenomenon.
Nearly forty years later comes Dana Brown’s update, “Step Into Liquid”, which characterized the sport as a mature industry with millions of devotees, yet still finding ways to innovate and challenge the sea’s biggest swells. The photography is even more stunning as it appears to virtually penetrate a host of jaw-dropping waves, but re-assuringly, the governing spirit of surfing is unchanged. These two films make an ideal double bill for a rainy day.
Next week’s follow-up will delve into documentary titles that illuminate other areas of human endeavor, specifically, the arts, politics, and the ravages of war.