Thursday, November 01, 2007

20:07 (Non-Fiction Edition)

screenshots from the 20th minute and 7th second of a movie
I can't guarantee the same results at home (different players/timing) I use WinDVD

AL GORE: The so-called skeptics will say, 'Oh, this thing, this is a cyclical thing; there was a Medieval warming period, after all.'

With Charles Ferguson's smart and powerful No End in Sight debuting on DVD this week and Tony Kaye's Lake of Fire slowly rolling out to metropolitan theaters and worrying away through striking images and interviews at the issues and debates surrounding abortion, I'm thinking even more than usual about documentaries. I've seen 16 documentaries released in 2007, of which six—the two I've just named plus Deep Water, The King of Kong, Taxi to the Dark Side, and Zoo—have a serious shot at my year-end Top 10 list. Which also reminds me of how many fantastic documentaries opened last year (and, since it's still the week of Halloween, how many of them were frigging scary). If you missed 'em, rent 'em! If you saw 'em, see 'em again! If you can't find 'em, convince your local public or campus libraries to buy 'em!

OFFSCREEN VOICE: That shooting we heard this morning, while we were sitting here? Do you know what that was? A brother and sister! The Americans called to them, 'Stop, where are you going?' They were afraid and started running. They killed them both.

Iraq in Fragments, the film that should have copped An Inconvenient Truth's Oscar, only played an Oscar-qualifying run in Chicago, and those are even paltrier for documentaries than for typical narrative films: three days, in this case, from a Tuesday to a Thursday, with almost no advertising. I sped down and caught the film, which made my top 10 list last year. But more audiences deserved a chance at this incalculably timely and gorgeously, bravely shot film. Recently, Arab Film Distribution has made Iraq available in a 2-disc special edition that includes supplemental footage, short films, and a commentary by James Longley, the director, editor, cinematographer, and sound recordist for the movie. I've seen it popping up in Hollywood Videos and Blockbusters around the city, and it's a perfect title to convince your local public or campus libraries to buy for their collections. Also a stunning reminder of how much documentaries gain from a refined visual sensibility, and from a filmmaker who really hunkers down among his or her subjects for long, trust-building, and eye-opening periods, instead of cruising in to the latest media circus or trying to reconstruct a backwards collage out of sound bites and stock footage.

Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's Jesus Camp, also an Oscar nominee, could have used a little more of both of those qualities: visual refinement and a sense of day-to-day rhythms and less self-conscious behavior from their subjects. Still, it's a galvanizing and indelible portrait of a certain strain of kid-targeted Christian radicalism that proudly espouses the very same analogies that secular critics tend to assume as condemnatory. For instance, camp leader Becky Fischer thinks that borrowing the model of young Muslim fundamentalists driven toward jihad and honorable self-sacrifice is a good thing, and she says so with palpable sincerity amid utterly mundane surroundings. One of Jesus Camp's trickiest riddles is how much agency we're willing to ascribe to kids who feel they are choosing their faith and passing it on to others, when so much of the film implies a top-down imposition of values from adults to children. Pre-teen evangelist Eli, pictured above, radiates all the self-confidence and sense of purpose that this image crystallizes, with the same blend of boyish accents and remarkable sobriety of tone and comportment. Even viewers who see the preceding image as an emblem of the mechanical conformity that Becky Fischer may in fact be inculcating will have to reckon with Eli's charismatic humanity and deeply felt convictions as something more than superimposed values.

Here are five 20:07 captures from each of the five "acts" of When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee's colossal, expansive, and important commemoration of the post-Katrina flooding of New Orleans. The fifth act is only available on the DVD, and NO, NATHANIEL, I DIDN'T KNOW HE'D TURN UP EXACTLY THEN.

ACT I: TV NEWSCASTER [voiceover]: And then, this: the first break visible in the roof. That is daylight coming through, and the rain soon followed.

ACT II: SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR [about interviewing Michael "Brownie" Brown of FEMA]: At one point, I said, 'How can we have better intel than you have? Because I have a research file prepared by my 23-year-old research assistant, a production assistant, and I'm getting better intelligence than you're getting? How is that possible?' It was really baffling, I mean it was really one of the more baffling interviews, uh, because they seemed so out of touch with the reality that I think a lot of people had been watching day after day after day.

ACT III: GLENN HALL, III: I wanna go back home because that's where I was born and I want to stay there all my life. And I still want to visit other places but that's my main place, New Orleans.

ACT IV: JOSEPH BRUNO, ATTORNEY AT LAW [voiceover]: This is the greatest engineering firm in the world. You designed a wall, which is supposed to hold that water, that you know will fall over if the water goes over the top. As a lawyer, I'm sittin' there thinking, are we gonna have to sue the Corps of Engineers. And we find—oh, man, wait a minute. They're immune. Meaning, you can't sue the Corps of Engineers. Statute says, 'The United States of America is not liable for damage from floods.'

ACT V: SEAN PENN [about hearing an evacuee's testimony on TV news]: Most importantly, her 80-year-old mother had refused to leave because her whole life was invested in the house and the trees in front of that house that she loved. It was still in the flood zone.

Lastly, because not all documentaries are portentous or depressing, and because some of them even Feel the Funk in a Full-On Way while displaying just as much artistic craftsmanship and intellectual content as their more sober peers:

DAVE CHAPPELLE: On the actual block? It's like a warehouse where they make chairs, there's like a Salvation Army, a nursery school, then there's this ill house called the Broken Angel House that these two people live in. They've been living there for 40 years.


Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I was struck by how mature (well beyond their years) the kids were in Jesus Camp and how comfortably they were subject by the zealots to such disgusting exploitation and indoctrinating. I spent the whole film squirming at the torture they were put through and the consequences that were bound to haunt them for life.
I was also struck by Academy Award Winner Bobby Duvall's demonic nuttiness.
(And while I agree that Iraq in Fragments was brave, often thoughtful and always eerily gorgeous, I did find the first two chapters very flawed and indulgent.)

Anonymous said...

Iraq in Fragments and Jesus Camp both made my Top 10 list last year (at #6 and #8, respectively). An Inconvenient Truth and Dave Chappelle's Block Party just missed.

Those were the only documentaries I saw (wait, I did see Deliver Us from Evil, now that I think of it--also very good), but they speak enoromously well for a genre I don't necessarily seek out (so far this year, I've only seen Zoo).

I guess the moral of the story is that I should see more documentaries.


i've argued with myself about what to do with documentaries. I don't see enough of them to feel qualified to really weigh in on the 'state of' and I don't understand how to compare them to feature narratives for awards and year end lists (and I love doing that so much so...)

you know how less discerning moviegoers can't divorce a movie's quality from its plot and whether or not they enjoyed it? how the filmmaker is telling the story never seems to enter the conversation.

I fear I'm like that to at least a small degree with documentaries maybe because I don't see enough of them. But subject matter counts for a lot with me in this medium and that irritates me

i haven't seen most of these films but i loved block party and inconvenient truth

Glenn Dunks said...

"you know how less discerning moviegoers can't divorce a movie's quality from its plot and whether or not they enjoyed it?"

Aah, but see I can usually forgive a terrible film if I enjoyed it. I know you hated Transformers and I admit that it's not exactly high art but I enjoyed it (so much more than the other big action blockbusters, although I somehow missed Bourne 3) so I gave it a good grade. If I don't regret spending the cash then I don't care whether it's technically good or not.

I don't necessarily think The Devil Wears Prada was the fourth best made film of last year, but I placed it at #4 on my top 10 of 2006 because I enjoyed it so much and I get endless rewatchability out of it.

...but, ahem, back on topic. LOVE Block Party (my #5 of 2006) and most certainly do not love An Inconvenient Truth. I'd barely even call it a documentary actually. It was like all the research and all the effort was made off camera and there was nothing to show for it other than some snazzy graphs and charts. Was I the only one who wanted to hear more about Gore's environment efforts from the '80s. Or to actually see Gore visit these places that are so effected by global warming and talk to people who have been effected.

If Oprah manages it then Al Gore can.


i actually didn't hate Transformers but I know what you're saying.

I am going to force myself into more documentaries though because at the very least they're certain to provide more education than what passes for "news" programs these days.

I'm still horrified by the questions that were asked of the democratic presidential candidates the other day. Seriously now. SHUT THE F*** UP about UFOs this country is in danger LISTEN to what these people have to say about the actual issues. It's all stupid 'gotcha' games and diversions and nothing of substance.

Lyn said...

The perfect storm for documentaries is when a well chosen subject combines with an astute film maker - and I don't see this as so far removed from how you'd assess feature films.

Best documentary so far this decade: Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man", no contest.

Glenn Dunks said...

Hoop Dreams would be in my top 10 of the 1990s for sure. Amazing movie that one.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I loved Grizzly Man (#3 in 2005)

NicksFlickPicks said...

@Goran: I certainly admired the maturity of Eli, and of the agnostic little blond guy, though Rachel and the dancing girl (her name is escaping me) seemed much less mature—an interesting gender politic at work among those kids, especially as Eli starts seeming a little impatient with Rachel's officious little antics by the epilogue. As for Iraq, I liked the first section better than it sounds like you did, but I agree that the third was in many ways the most impressive, and the "indulgence" you describe struck me as editing problems more often than visual ones. "Fragmentation" as a title trope can serve to disguise a lot of tenuous and scrambled connections. Still, that's the only negative thing I really have to say about the film.

@Steve: We sure do agree a lot! I did admire Deliver Us from Evil, too, and Grizzly Man was my #1 film of 2005.

@Nathaniel: I know you like to keep your doc's out of the regular Film Bitch/Top 10 categories, and that's you marching to your own Film Bitch drum. I share Lyn's belief, I guess, that I want the same consistency and finesse of transitions and storytelling devices from documentarians as I want from other filmmakers, and image, soundtrack, ellipses, emphases, tone, and all that stuff work similarly enough between the modes of fiction and nonfiction film that I don't really mind mixing 'em up.

@KC: Your points about how An Inconvenient Truth could have been opened up and given a stronger foundation with location footage, etc., are really interesting and I don't have any counterargument. From the standpoint, though, of getting the camera and the edits to reinforce the power of Gore's presentation, keeping things fluid and visually engaging without making it "FUN!" in some artificial way, I was really impressed. But I may also have had a soft-spot for hearing these trends and statistics stated so publicly and with such authority (give or take his folksy "I have a friend who tells me..." source-citations).

Lyn said...

Forgot to say this earlier: great post Nick.

And Steve - respect. Whilst I see a lot of docos both at the movies and at work, I am WAY too squeamish to see Zoo.