Continued from Part One.
By now, there are many well-established types of documentary. A quick
tour, touching on the highlights of each genre, follows:
The Historical Documentary
We've already mentioned some of the greats in this genre - The Sorrow
and the Pity, The Civil War and others - but there are many
more outstanding works. Eyes on the Prize, a history of the civil
rights movement, is a masterpiece. The
War At Home and Berkeley
in the Sixties (made by your humble author) are highly regarded
looks at the protest movements that swept America in the 1960s. There
were two excellent series on the Vietnam War: Vietnam: A Television
History and Vietnam:
The Ten Thousand Day War. The tragic life of Robert Oppenheimer,
father of the atomic bomb, is the focus of Jon Else's thoughtful The
Day After Trinity, while The
Atomic Café takes a very funny and scathing look at the
culture of the bomb. I'm fond of a hard-to-find history of the CIA,
On Company Business. I also admire a number of films about gay
liberation, especially Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's The Times of Harvey Milk and The
Celluloid Closet. And you should take a look at the awe-inspiring
documentary on the Apollo moon shots, For
All Mankind. Of course, the most prolific and popular filmmaker
in this genre is Ken
Burns. His towering achievements are The
Civil War and Jazz;
they need no introduction or recommendation from me. Just don't ask
me to sit through his Baseball
series, much longer than it'd take to watch a couple of games. I prefer
his smaller gems like Empire
of the Air and The
Brooklyn Bridge; as well as the series he produced called The
West. Brother Ric
Burns is also a maestro. Who'd have thought you could make as much
with snow as he did in The Donner Party? His new opus, New
York: A Documentary is a bit more of a slog but still has its
Portraits of Exceptional People
One of my favorite documentary genres is the human-interest
story, portraying some strange or fascinating character. Grey
Gardens is among the first and best, a portrait of eccentric
aristocrats - Jackie Kennedy's aging aunt and cousin - going to seed
in a crumbling mansion. From the same era comes Best Boy, the
most well-observed portrait of a mentally retarded man you might ever
hope to see; Marjoe, about a former child preacher; and Pumping
Iron, a look at bodybuilders featuring the Governator. One of
the masters of this genre is Errol
Morris, whose Gates of Heaven is an unflinching look at the
essential weirdness within the most mundane people; also check out his
other portraits of eccentrics (to say the least), Mr.
Death: the Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter, and Fast,
Cheap & Out of Control. Then there's Berlinger and Sinofsky's
Keeper, the odd and oddly moving tale of an eccentric man charged
with the murder of his brother. Terry
is a brilliant film about a brilliant eccentric. Sometimes in this genre
the people are ordinary and the stories are of triumph over adversity;
Hoop Dreams is a propitious tale of two African-American kids
pursuing basketball glory.
More often, though, the people are extraordinary,
like the blind throatsinger of Genghis
Blues. Or offbeat, like Chet Baker in Let's Get Lost.
Or just plain bent, like Sick:
The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. However,
the hottest new entry in this genre is about a downtrodden file clerk-cum-comic
book artist: American
Splendor is a blend of drama and doc, mixing actors with the
real Harvey Pekar and his wife Joyce; it was made by documentarians
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, so we can sort of claim it
as one of our own. There's something of a genre within a genre here
- films on filmmakers. Many of these are also portraits of madness,
to one degree or another. Two of the best of these are Les Blank's Burden
of Dreams, about Werner
Herzog making Fitzcarraldo
in the Amazon jungle; and Herzog's own film about his relationship with
intense actor Klaus
Best Fiend. Francis
Ford Coppola going a bit bonkers while making Apocalypse
Now made for compelling viewing in Hearts of Darkness.
abortive attempt to make a film of Don Quixote is the frustrating
tale of Lost
In La Mancha. Legendary Italian filmmaker Federico
Fellini is the subject of I'm
a Born Liar. And The
Kid Stays in the Picture portrays the strange, almost unbelievable
career of movie mogul Bob
Rather than say a lot here, I'd rather let music docs speak (or sing)
for themselves. Woodstock,
The Last Waltz
and The Buena
Vista Social Club are among the best-known and best-loved docs
of all time. If you've never seen Jazz
On a Summer's Day, you're in for a treat. Don't
Look Back is one of my favorites - because it's about Dylan;
because it's classic black & white cinema verite; and because "Subterranean
Homesick Blues" is a total kick. Monterey
Pop, in its expanded DVD version, is better than ever; it features
Otis Redding's greatest performance and Jimi Hendrix being simply amazing.
Among films on the Rolling Stones are Gimme
Shelter by the Maysles and Godard's
intriguing One Plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil).
got her start with a wild look at the punk scene, The Decline and
Fall of Western Civilization. Folk music fans adore Wasn't That
A Time!, about the Weavers reuniting for a concert at Carnegie Hall.
Bluegrass fans will like High
Lonesome. The classic gospel doc Say
Amen, Somebody is a foot-stomping good time. Salsa is the subject
of Calle 54,
which would go well as a doubleheader with Buena Vista. In addition
to the Chet Baker film, Jazz fans can enjoy the fabulous bios: Straight,
No Chaser, about Thelonious Monk, and Triumph
of the Underdog, about legendary bassist Charles Mingus. A more
recent music doc, Standing
In the Shadows of Motown, is a bit more mainstream but well
worth a look.
For the most part, nature docs are strictly television
fare. But every once in a while, something amazing comes along - like
or his earlier Microcosmos
(bugs, up close and personal) - that gets a feature release. An even
rarer treat is the nature film that happens to be weirdly amusing, like
the hilarious Cane
Toads: An Unnatural History. Otherwise, this area isn't my cup
Most interesting to me are the genre-breaking, breathtakingly
original visions - documentaries like:
Cane, the original shockumentary, a fascinating look at bizarre
rituals around the world.
a stunning visual and aural meditation on the worlds of man and nature
being out of balance.
- Sans Soleil, Chris Marker's mysterious and evocative poem
about Japan, Hitchcock, memory and who knows what else.
- Sherman's March, a witty transformation of the documentary
into a personal odyssey across the South, searching for love
- The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris's crime story of justice
miscarried rendered as a stylish noir thriller.
& Me, Michael Moore's comical portrait of his hometown, Flint,
after General Motors closes down.
- Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs virtuosic exploration of being
black, male and gay.
Splendor, a brilliant conflation and layering of
drama with documentary.
Documentary is alive and well. Cinema verite carries on in films like Startup.com;
Looking for Richard; Pennebaker's The
War Room; and the surprising new hit Spellbound.
The political/polemical doc thrives still, in works like The
Trials of Henry Kissinger and Errol Morris's new critically acclaimed
film about Robert McNamara, The Fog of War. Recent archival histories
include the fabulous Cockettes
and the best film yet on The Weather Underground. Then there's
the new non-fiction drama, Capturing
the Friedmans, which brilliantly renders a disastrous tale of
an imploding family. My Architect is a compelling film about the
legendary architect Louis Kahn as explored in an agonized psychodrama
by his illegitimate son Nathaniel. From Venezuela comes The Revolution
Will Not be Televised, about the attempted coup against President
Hugo Chavez. And Bus 174 is a superb Brazilian doc about the hijacking
of a bus. All in all, documentaries are going as strong as they ever have.
There's plenty to keep you busy for a long, long time.