Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Documentarian

Sherman's March: Favorite Documentary of the Moment

Pyramid of Mass-Cult Quotient

Someone once told me I was a ‘documentaries’ person. Immediately, I objected. It made me sound like I was an indiscriminate consumer of any and all non-fiction film. This is not true.

I decided to look at some of the documentaries I’ve watched recently and break them down. I think this will become an obsession.

Because this is a beginning, it is rudimentary and somewhat slapdash. But here are some qualities I look for when watching a documentary. (This initial list applies mostly to anthropological documentaries as opposed to historical or vérité-style documentaries, some of which are included in this list, which will require an additional set of standards or dilation of the current standards).

1) Curiosity – The documentarian’s curiosity should be macabre, libidinous or slightly off-kilter such that the content of the film is surprising and potentially unsettling. And the unsettling aspects should be honed in on and thoroughly fleshed out for you, who may have macabre, libidinous or slightly off-kilter tendencies.

2) Delivery – (This applies to documentaries where the filmmaker is an exhibitionist and puts him or herself in the documentary) The research should be conveyed in a way that seems like it was obtained without effort and delivered with earnest, self-effacing humor that causes you to laugh not only with the filmmaker but also at her/him.

3) Edification – It's best if you learn things that the filmmaker did not intend for you to learn. After watching the film, you should be compelled to go on the internet and learn even more about the things you learned in the film. One should also want to find any other films this filmmaker has made and watch every one of them in consecutive order.

4) Charisma – If the filmmaker is going to be and exhibitionist and provide a voice over or put him/herself in the film (see Werner Herzog, Ross McElwee and Errol Morris in his HBO series First Person), s/he should be very smart and have spent at least 10,000 hours making movies.

5) Mass-Cult Quotient (MCQ) – (Temporary working phrase) This is the degree to which a film is useful in relation to the percentage of random people you'd be able to hold a conversation with about it at a cocktail party or dive bar. There are multiple factors on which MCQ is determined (such as novel use of technology, subversive content, cult status, awards won and topicality (the last quality often roughly translating to “dubious intent” or “bad” though not always. This element is crucial since it almost ensures that even a film you don’t like will have value: at least you can pontificate on why you hated it. A high MCQ will most likely prevent you from having to say, “I will never get those two hours of my life back.” I try really hard to never have to say that.

So here is a short, non-exhaustive MCQ pyramid (which I will, over time, make look like a pyramid):

Grizzly Man (2005, Werner Herzog)
The Thin Blue Line (1988, Errol Morris)
Fast Cheap and Out of Control (1997, Errol Morris)
Civil War (1990, Ken Burns)
Encounters at the End of the World (2007, Werner Herzog)
Capturing the Friedmans (2003, Andrew Jarecki)
Crumb (1994, Terry Zwigoff)
Sherman’s March (Ross McElwee)
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999, Errol Morris)
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997, Werner Herzog)
Titicut Follies (1967, Frederick Wiseman)
The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner (3 short films, 1974 – 1976, Werner Herzog)
Land of Silence and Darkness (1971, Werner Herzog)
Mobutu, King of Zaire (1999, Thierry Michel)

1 comment:

James said...

"s/he should be very smart and have spent at least 10,000 hours making movies." i liked this part a lot.

i think i would also be a "documentaries person", according to these criteria.