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John Farr

John Farr

Posted: October 9, 2007 01:51 PM

As Hollywood Churns Out Formulaic Re-Treads, American Documentaries Rise


Particularly as home (and mobile) movie consumption has grown, transforming how and where we see films, the once fringe-dwelling, feature-length documentary is undergoing a sustained and long-overdue public recognition. In support of this, I note on our own website that of all the genres we cover, the documentary section shows the most pronounced skew towards more recent release dates. This is no coincidence, friends.

Though some credit for the documentary's new prominence is due to the notoriety of Michael Moore's often arresting yet polarizing work, his success and visibility have served mainly to show jaded, numbers-minded Hollywood execs that documentaries can actually make money. Mind you -- this is no small feat, nor unimportant.

But there are plenty of docs you never hear about that are equal to, or dare I say, better than, even Moore's finest output. And these titles -- if you ever hear about them -- also serve to compensate for the dearth of originality and intelligence in most current American commercial film by providing thought-provoking choices for adult viewers who want some brain food sprinkled in with what they see. (Nasty little secret: from my own film work, I now believe that generally speaking, the best narrative features released today come from outside this country, even though we still dwarf other nations in movie exports and profits. (Ironic, no?- and perhaps, just a little disturbing)).

So into this creative vacuum steps the documentary, and unquestionably, our now massive DVD universe allows us to discover the distinctive rewards of this special genre as never before. Though not nearly enough marketing support goes behind these features (beyond Mr. Moore's work, and to a lesser extent, a few other names), the films themselves are, for the most part, all available on DVD. All you have to know-or be reminded of- are their titles.

And even with the plethora of outstanding newer "docs" on our site, it's also highly revealing to examine the history of the form in what you watch. So for this piece, I've culled a variety of top-flight, mostly under-exposed documentaries that span a full eighty years, starting with a mind-blowing ethnographic entry from the 1920s, and proceeding chronologically to present day.

Grass (1925) - In 1924, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack set out to document the treacherous biannual migration of the nomadic Bakhtiari people of Persia. Seeking fresh pasture for their immense herds, which they rely on for survival, the impoverished but supernaturally rugged Bakhtiaris (who number 50,000, including children) are forced to cross a raging river and an alpine range of sheer rock with 500,000 cows, goats, and tents in tow -- or face certain death. It's hard to convey just how mind-blowing it is to watch these ancient people, led by the courageous Haidar Khan, surmount obstacles that would stop seasoned adventurers in their tracks. One of the most amazing sequences captured by then-novice filmmakers Cooper and Schoedsack (who'd make the original King Kong eight years later) is the fording of the icy Karun River-on inflated goat skins! But this is nothing compared to the Bakhtiaris' pack-laden, barefoot scaling of the 15,000-foot-high Zardeh Kuh peak. "Grass" endures as an awe-inspiring film document.

Louisiana Story (1948) - A solitary but curious young boy lives humbly with his family in the Louisiana bayou. He communes with his wild and mysterious surroundings while looking on with fascination at the work of oil drillers nearby. This uniquely lyrical film takes us back to the days when oil was a symbol of inexhaustible plenty in our land. Still even if the boy is too young and mesmerized by all the men and machinery to realize it, through the brilliant, stark work of Robert Flaherty's camera, we see the now-disturbing, corrupting encroachment of civilization -- with its rampant appetites -- on the peace and sanctity of nature. The result is sublime visual poetry. Flaherty himself was the acknowledged father of the documentary form, having made the heroic Nanook of the North a full quarter century before. Here he delivers a rich meditation on how these opposing forces -- the earth's bounty and the demands of progress and prosperity -- must inevitably collide, making us think more than ever about the long-term price to be paid. Ironically enough, Standard Oil sponsored this film!

Point Of Order (1964) - Emile de Antonio's riveting historical document is a skillfully edited compilation of 1954's televised Army-McCarthy hearings, famous for bringing down the nefarious junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, after his long, corrosive Communist witch-hunt ruined scores of lives. And the director succeeds beyond measure in placing the rise and fall of McCarthy-ism in particularly lucid, dramatic context. While many of us have seen Boston lawyer (and lead Army counsel) Joseph Welch's pivotal repudiation of McCarthy ("At long last, Senator... "), few may remember all that led up to it, which only heightens that culminating moment's impact. Even by today's standards, it's an intense experience to watch smarmy, young McCarthy counsel Roy Cohn go up against Welch and Senator Stuart Symington on charges of currying blatant favoritism for Army enlistee G. David Schine (widely known as Cohn's lover). Gazing on McCarthy himself is positively spooky, as we have to wonder how a sleazy man like this could amass such destructive power. (At least "W" has good hair.) Without doubt, this incisive, illuminating title belongs on the curriculum of any classes studying this period.

Salesman (1969) - The much revered documentarians Albert and David Maysles broke through with this devastating, up-close look at an aging door-to-door salesman who sinks deeper and deeper into a professional slump, feeding a nagging, increasingly draining disillusionment with his chosen calling and, by extension, his whole life. This innovative, blistering film shines a penetrating and sobering light on the modern human condition- and specifically, the essential tenuousness of our respective life paths. Here we confront a man who sees his career, his self-respect, his safety net, all receding before his eyes, leaving him with precious little to show for it. This sad, wrenching tale still delivers a profound, subtly jarring impact, whether you happen to work in sales or not. This gem sure sold me.

Harlan County, USA (1975) - A visceral, uncompromising look at one of the bitterest showdowns in American labor history, this doc tracks the efforts of non-union Kentucky coal miners to win basic human rights from their employer, Eastover Mining Company, over the course of one year. When Eastover brings in gun-toting scabs to replace the beleaguered striking miners, the ugliest fight of all begins. Filmed between 1973 and 1974, Barbara Kopple's groundbreaking work follows the plight of these downtrodden workers, deprived of fair wages and insurance, and forced to shop at the company store. As her roving, restless camera makes plain, Eastover operates in collusion with the Harlan police, who look the other way when its representatives start taking pot shots at miners (and Kopple herself). Few documentaries today have the immediacy, intensity, or grass-roots appeal of this Oscar-winning film, an edge-of-your-seat tribute to a courageous group of hard hats and their families.

Vernon, Florida (1981) - Acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) trains his eye on the oddball residents of tiny Vernon, Florida in this laid-back Southern charmer. Guileless and un-self-conscious old-timers discuss life and culture in their town; a traffic cop parked in his patrol car divulges his technique for nabbing speeders; and a passionate turkey hunter recounts every unhurried step that led him to nab three prize gobblers. Are these folks for real? Pull up a porch chair and lean in close. Whether you laugh out loud or just sit gaping at the idiosyncratic soliloquies of these endearing Vernon locals, one thing is for sure: You'll feel right at home under Morris's studiously unobtrusive observational style, which allows his subjects simply to speak for themselves. Gentle weirdness abounds, however, throughout this eccentric little film, but the pleasure is all ours.

Frank and Ollie (1995) - Theodore Thomas's touching film traces the five decade friendship and partnership between Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, both part of Walt Disney's pioneering inner circle of animators. Frank and Ollie (everyone says that as if it's one word, including their wives) also have a natural kinship that extends beyond their work, a closeness and compatibility that seems rare, even quaint, by today's standards. This warm, uplifting entry gives insight into animation techniques and advances, but is equally insightful about the nature of enduring close friendship. Frank and Ollie are the types who could complete each other's sentences, if they chose to. What comes through as they reach senior citizen status is the love and reverence they have for their chosen field, and for each other. Take note of an increasing rarity: a thoroughly winning documentary that should click with adults and older kids.

My Flesh and Blood (2002) - In this highly affecting film, director Jonathan Karsh takes us into the Fairfield, California home of single mother Susan Tom, who selflessly cares for 11 adopted special-needs children. Faced with a barrage of daily tasks: feeding, dressing, advising, medicating, and defusing tantrums, Tom somehow manages to create an environment of relative normalcy, stability, and all-consuming love for kids who face immense challenges every day. This priceless portrait of a unique household and the saintly woman who governs it, might sound depressing -- and indeed, especially in Susan's skirmishes with volatile early teen Joe, the movie does weigh heavy on the heart. But Tom is so articulate about her children's issues and her motivations for taking them, that the piece remains compelling and redemptive, especially once you've come to see and know these valiant kids. Raw but poignant, Blood truly stirs the soul.

Jesus Camp (2006) - This eye-opening documentary trails Pentecostal children's minister Becky Fischer in her quest to "indoctrinate" the next generation of evangelical leaders. Glimpsed mainly at a "Kids on Fire" summer retreat in North Dakota for kids under 15, these youths dutifully pray for theocracy and the vanquishing of Satan in cathartic sessions, and hear tough-talking teach-ins about sin, abortion and politics, and laying down their lives for Jesus. By focusing intently on a single woman's efforts to raise a theocratic revival in America, film-makers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing have crafted a frightening thumbnail sketch of what's suggested to be this country's fastest growing, most influential social movement. Home-schooled by evangelical parents who teach them creationism instead of evolution, amiable preteens like wannabe preacher Levi and proselytizer Rachael are urged by Fischer to pray for George W. Bush and pro-life Supreme Court appointees, then given over to fervent prayer sessions during which they speak in tongues. For dramatic counterpoint, the filmmakers showcase the critical commentary of local radio host Mike Papantonio, but they really needn't have: Fischer and her juvenile God's Army are quite alarming enough on their own.

Let me know your thoughts on these picks, and if so moved, share some of your own.

And don't forget: "Ain't nothing like the real thing , baby..."

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