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Documentary

by Mark Kitchell

  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 rewards.

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 Brother's Keeper, the odd and oddly moving tale of an eccentric man charged with the murder of his brother. Terry Zwigoff's Crumb 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 Kinski, My Best Fiend. Francis Ford Coppola going a bit bonkers while making Apocalypse Now made for compelling viewing in Hearts of Darkness. Terry Gilliam's 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 Evans.

Music Documentaries

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). Penelope Spheeris 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.

Nature

For the most part, nature docs are strictly television fare. But every once in a while, something amazing comes along - like Jacques Perrin's Winged Migration, 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 of tea.

Genre-breaking Visions

Most interesting to me are the genre-breaking, breathtakingly original visions - documentaries like:

  • Mondo Cane, the original shockumentary, a fascinating look at bizarre rituals around the world.
  • Koyaanisqatsi, 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.
  • Roger & 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.
  • American Splendor, a brilliant conflation and layering of drama with documentary.

Koyaanisqatsi

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.

GreenCine Recommends...


Mark Kitchell's Favorite Documentaries

Roger & Me

  1. The Sorrow and the Pity: A masterful, complex and riveting account of wartime France; over four hours and not a minute too long.
  2. The Man With The Movie Camera: Experimental, visually dazzling, with more layers than an onion, it's A Day In The Life. Maybe the most inventive film ever made.
  3. Koyaanisqatsi: Another great film poem, with gorgeous cinematography. An upper about a downer, human life out of balance with the natural world.
  4. Salesman and Grey Gardens: A double bill of the Maysles Brothers' greatest works of cinema verite; unflinching but heartfelt looks at odd folks.
  5. The Atomic Café: One of the funniest docs ever, a satirical stroll through the propaganda of nuclear war.
  6. The Battle of Algiers: The greatest non-doc documentary ever made - it feels so real you could swear it's authentic - and one of my favorite films. Catch it!
  7. Cane Toads: An Unnatural History: A great disaster story about Australia being overtaken by voracious toads, originally imported to contain another pest.
  8. Berkeley in the Sixties: This is my baby, a classic archival doc and a compelling look at the protest movements that swept America in the 1960s.
  9. Sherman's March
  10. Roger & Me: A highly original blend of muckraking and comedic journey... with the inimitable Michael Moore giving new meaning to diaristic cinema.
  11. Crumb: I'm amazed at the way this film is put together... no structure, it just feels right. And the Brothers Crumb are pretty amazing.
  12. Capturing the Friedmans: Some films are miracles, make you wonder how'd they do that; a harrowing look at a family coming apart, makes the Louds of An American Family look like the Cleavers.
  13. Harlan County was recently remastered and reissued.

For Further Reading:

Documentary, by Erik Barnouw

Documentary Filmmakers Speak, by Liz Stubbs

 

Discuss the documentary primer on our message boards!

Go back to Part One.

Go back to Primers index.

Mark Kitchell is a San Francisco-based filmmaker whose Berkeley in the Sixties was nominated for an Academy Award. He is currently working on a documentary series about the history of the environmental movement.

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