DOCUMENTARY FILMS II
Famous Documentary Film-makers:
Errol Morris –
Errol Morris’ unique contributions to the documentary film category were significant with many examples of weird films with offbeat and unusual subject matter: the looney Gates of Heaven (1978) about a bankrupt N. California pet cemetery and its devoted pet-owners, Vernon, Florida (1981) about the quirky inhabitants of a backwater Floridian town, the controversial The Thin Blue Line (1988) that helped free accused and convicted murderer Randall Dale Adams on Texas’ death row, the biographical A Brief History of Time (1992) with ALS-afflicted and wheelchair-bound cosmologist Stephen Hawking discussing quantum physics, the fascinating Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997) about four eccentric individuals (a topiary gardener, a lion tamer, a mole-rat expert, and a robotics scientist/inventor), and Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (2000) – about a caffeine-addicted specialist who designed execution equipment.
Barbara Kopple –
Director Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA (1976), another Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, documented a Kentucky coal miners’ strike in the early 1970s against the Eastover Mining Company. She also directed a second Oscar-winning documentary film on labor struggles, American Dream (1990), about striking employees at a Hormel meat-packing plant in Austin, Minnesota. In addition, she filmed an in-depth documentary on comedian/musician/director Woody Allen and his 1996 jazz band tour of Europe, titled Wild Man Blues (1997).
Michael Moore –
Iconoclastic, sardonic, independent film-maker/journalist Michael Moore has had varied success with his personally-made films about the excesses and abuses of corporate America, social issues and politics, including The Big One (1997) filmed during a 1996 promo tour for his own first book Downsize This!, and the darkly humorous Roger & Me (1989) – Moore’s first documentary, and the most successful documentary film up to its time in film history (Moore broke his own record 15 years later). With scathing commentary, it examined the devastating effects of the 1986 closing of auto factory plants in Flint, Michigan (Moore’s hometown) by GM’s unavailable former CEO Roger Smith. Moore’s next film, Bowling for Columbine (2002), the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award-winner, presented the US’ trigger-happy obsession with gun rights, violence, and the American culture of fear, including a remarkable interview with NRA spokesman/actor Charlton Heston. The film was the first documentary to compete in the Cannes Film Festival’s main competition in 46 years, and was the unanimous winner of the festival’s 55th Anniversary Prize. It was also the first documentary film to be nominated and then win in 2003 the Writers Guild of America (WGA) Award for Best Original Screenplay. It was also the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award-winner. It was also the highest-grossing documentary of all time, soon to be surpassed by Moore’s own Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).
Another critical expose, Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) provided a scathing indictment of President George W. Bush’s handling of the terrorist crisis and his alleged connections to Al-Qaeda leader Bin Laden’s family. The documentary film was included among the Cannes Film Festival’s main competition (only the second time in 48 years for a documentary) – and won the top prize – the first for a documentary in nearly 50 years. The controversial film had earlier gained further publicity and notoriety when Disney opted not to distribute the film through its Miramax subsidiary unit, and Moore accused the company of censorship. [Supposedly, Disney feared the film might endanger tax breaks Disney received in Florida where its theme parks were located, and where the president’s brother, Jeb Bush, was governor at the time.] Moore’s film set box-office records as the highest-grossing non-concert, non-IMAX documentary film of all time – and at the time the only one ever to win a box-office weekend during its debut showing. His next film was the searing look at the American health care system, Sicko (2007).
Stacy Peralta –
Life and culture in Southern California were the subject matter of documentary films produced by youth-oriented TV producer and skateboarding icon Stacy Peralta: Dogtown and Z-Boys (2002) surveyed the growth of skateboarding since the late 1960s by following a group of skaters off Venice Beach and their subculture, and Riding Giants (2004) was an engaging and exciting film about the evolution of the big-wave surf culture as seen through the experiences of legendary, thrill-seeking surfers. It credited blonde pre-teen star Sandra Dee and her Gidget (1959) film with the explosion of surf culture in the early 1960s.
The Prelinger Films Archives –
Prelinger Archives, founded in 1983 by Rick Prelinger would grow over the next twenty years into a collection of over 48,000 “ephemeral” (advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur) films. Included were films produced by and for many hundreds of important US corporations, non-profit organizations, trade associations, community and interest groups, and educational institutions. Some of the films were outrageous and sometimes bizarre examples of 40’s and 50’s US propaganda that were aimed at influencing the public. They ranged from social guidance films like Are You Popular? (1947) (which warned that only ‘bad’ girls park with boys in cars at night) and ‘mental hygiene’ films on how to engender family courtesy and etiquette like A Date with Your Family (1950). Other subjects were Cold War films like the cartoon Meet King Joe (1949) produced to convince American workers of their good fortune, and Why Play Leap Frog? (1949) that also attempted to convince workers to increase their productivity. Others were Don’t Be a Sucker (1947) and Make Mine Freedom (1948) which warned against the dangers of Communism, and Brink of Disaster (1972), a Nixon-era film decrying the evils of 60’s activism, and how it threatened American moral, religious and ethical principles.
Biographical Documentary Films:
The Oscar-winning documentary by Richard Kaplan, The Eleanor Roosevelt Story (1965), was a tribute to one of the most influential First Ladies in US history. Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost (1988) was a biographical account of the life of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Marcel Ophuls’ riveting Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988), with an extensive examination of the exploits of the infamous Nazi ‘Butcher of Lyon,’ won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in its year of competition.
Terry Zwigoff’s intriguing Crumb (1994) provided a bizarre portrait of the underground comic book artist/writer Robert Crumb (famous for Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, and the ‘keep on truckin” slogan). When We Were Kings (1996) provided powerful insight into Muhammad Ali during the time of his pursuit of the heavyweight world championship (“Rumble in the Jungle”) against challenger George Forman in Zaire in the mid-70s. [The film inspired Ali (2001) with Will Smith five years later.] An exploration of the life and writings of the controversial playwright/novelist was found in Michael Paxton’s Best Feature Documentary-nominated Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life (1997). Filmmaker Estela Bravo chronicled the life of the famed revolutionary Cuban leader in Fidel: The Untold Story (2001). In the dream-like, self-consciously narrated documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002), the life of high-living showman Robert Evans – famed egotistical Hollywood producer at Paramount Pictures (responsible for hits that included Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Love Story (1970), The Godfather (1972), The Godfather, Part 2 (1974), and Chinatown (1974)), was revealed.
Two rock music documentaries concentrated on folksinger/songwriter Bob Dylan: D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967) followed a young Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour of England. And then Martin Scorsese’s epic documentary No Direction Home (2005) was a 3-and-a-half hour portrait of the first six years of Dylan’s career.
Documentary Films on Filmmakers:
A number of documentary films have turned the cameras on filmmakers themselves:
- Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) provided a behind-the-scenes look at the disaster-ridden making of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979)
- Les Blank’s on-location Burden of Dreams (1982) traced the grueling making of Fitzcarraldo (1982) by director Werner Herzog
- Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001) provided an insightful retrospective of the films of the famed director
- Time Magazine‘s film critic Richard Schickel’s Turner Classic Movies documentary Woody Allen: A Life in Film (2002) was composed of film clips and on-camera interview material, gave a revealing view of the revered director’s films
- Schickel’s next film was a definitive biographical tribute to comedic genius Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin (2003), featuring interviews (with noted directors such as Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen), film clips, and a look at Chaplin’s life and career; in the following year, Schickel also completed the 90-minute Scorsese on Scorsese (2004), a revealing portrait of one of the greatest film-makers of all time
- Kenneth Bowser’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003) (subtitled: How the Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood), based on the book by Peter Biskind, and A Decade Under the Influence (2003), an original 3-part documentary mini-series by Ted Demme (who died a year before its release) and Richard LaGravenese, both documented the maverick film-makers (such as Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Mazursky, Altman, Hopper and Spielberg) in the revolutionary 70s who brought a new spirit of innovation and experimentation to Hollywood
- the TV documentary The Blockbuster Imperative (2003) described the sorry state of modern cinema and its film studios, with bloated budgets, the exaggerated pitching of movies by marketing divisions, and moneymaking as the biggest imperative
- Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate (2004), composed of a series of interviews (and based on Steven Bach’s 1985 book of the same name), provided a behind-the-scenes look at one of Hollywood’s most notorious disasters – director Michael Cimino’s big-budget epic western Heaven’s Gate (1980), that brought down United Artists
- Anglo-Austrian director Frederick Baker’s documentary essay on British director Carol Reed’s classic work, Shadowing the Third Man (2004) was an excellent deconstruction and behind-the-scenes look, including interviews with various principals, of the film The Third Man (1949) that the BFI voted the #1 British film of the 20th century
- Universal’s Inside Deep Throat (2004), a major-studio NC-17 film (the first since Universal’s Henry & June (1990)) with controversial, sexually-explicit scenes from the original 1972 film, told the story of the most notorious (and successful) porn film of all time with Harry Reems and Linda Lovelace. It frankly recounted the cultural phenomenon that resulted, and how it became a rallying cry for both censors and free-speech advocates
A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) offered an informal and very personal four-hour documentary with film-maker Scorsese providing commentary on dozens of carefully-chosen film clips from some of the greatest examples of US cinema. Scorsese himself made two notable documentaries: (1) Italianamerican (1974), about his family life with his parents, Charles and Catherine (who has appeared in eight of his films from 1967 to 1995), and Italian-American life in general, and (2) the 246-minute epic documentary My Voyage to Italy (1999), an inspiring survey of Italian cinema, including Scorsese’s own connection to both his Italian heritage and other great Italian filmmakers (such as Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, and Vittorio de Sica).
It’s All True (1993) (Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles) told about the difficult struggles Welles faced in 1942 to make a film about South America. [This was the film project that forced the film-maker to be out of the country during the ill-fated editing of his masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).] East Side Story (1997), directed and narrated by Dana Ranga, humorously (unintentionally) documented the rare phenomenon of socialist musicals produced from the 1930s to the 1970s in the Eastern bloc.
Chris Smith’s smash hit American Movie (1999), a Sundance Festival phenomenon, documented the struggles of independent and aspiring film-maker and Wisconsin film buff (Mark Borchardt) to direct a 35-minute, low-budget horror film. Director/narrator Vikram Jayanti’s The Golden Globes: Hollywood’s Dirty Little Secret (2003) presented an expose on the Golden Globes Awards, presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and gave a glimpse of the media’s role in marketing Hollywood films. Midnight Movies: From the Margin To the Mainstream (2005) examined the six most influential low-budget midnight movies: Night of the Living Dead (1968), El Topo (1970), The Harder They Come (1972), Pink Flamingos (1972), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Eraserhead (1977), and their relationship to the turbulent, anti-authoritarian time period of their releases.
Expose Documentaries of Social and Political Issues:
Documentarian Frederick Wiseman filmed Titicut Follies (1967), a controversial expose of the conditions at the Bridgewater, Massachusetts State Prison for the Criminally Insane. The film was banned and suppressed for 25 years due to legal issues regarding inmate privacy. Wiseman also directed High School (1968) that presented rebellious teens at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. [A follow-up sequel titled High School II (1994) visited an alternative high school in New York’s Spanish Harlem.] Spike Lee’s first feature-length documentary film, 4 Little Girls (1997), examined the civil rights struggle and the 1963 hate-crime murder of four innocent victims in an African-American Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Arnold Shapiro’s Oscar-winning documentary Scared Straight! (1978) provided a look at a prison program designed to scare juvenile offenders from incarceration in a maximum-security prison by contact with ‘lifers’ doing hard time at New Jersey’s Rahway facility. The Farm: Life Inside Angola Prison (1998), made by Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus, investigated conditions inside the maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary. The third film by anthropological Australian film-makers Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly, Black Harvest (1992), told a tragic story about Joe Leahy, a half-white/half-aboriginal owner of a coffee plantation in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, who relied on the Ganiga tribe’s native labor.
A compilation film from Kevin Rafferty, the cult classic The Atomic Cafe (1982), assembled 1940s-50s footage from US governmental sources about the atomic bomb to show the falsity, naivete, and absurdity of many of the statements about radiation danger during the Cold War. Rafferty used the same style in his expose of the tobacco industry, The Last Cigarette (1999). Another archival documentary, using black comedy about the Nazi’s Third Reich, was Hitler’s Hit Parade (2003), with an edited collage of Hitler-era propagandistic newsreel footage, advertisements, and movies (to the tune of entertaining 30s popular music) that effectively and ironically masked the horrors being perpetrated elsewhere. John Huston’s once-banned Let There Be Light (1945), a war-time documentary on shell-shocked soldiers, was finally released in the early 1980s after the Army was pressured to declassify the film.
The humorous and eccentric Hands on a Hard Body (1997) explored a Texas car dealership marathon-competition to win a Nissan pickup truck by becoming the last person left touching it. Startup.com (2001) followed the entrepreneurial evolution (and ultimate demise) of a new media company (govworks.com) during the Dot.com era in the first year of the 21st century.
The BBC’s expose Trouble at the Top: The People vs. Coke (2002) surveyed the New Coke debacle when the Coca Cola Company tested the new drink product with focus groups in the mid-80s and went ahead to create one of the biggest marketing and business blunders ever. Morgan Spurlock’s dark comedy satire Super Size Me (2004), his debut feature documentary that won the Best Director award at Sundance, examined the reasons for US obesity, marketing ploys of fast food companies, and the frightening health after-effects of his 30-day binge of fast-food eating (at McDonalds). As a result, Spurlock experienced declining health: he gained 25 pounds, developed chest pains and bad skin, had an increase in body fat of 7%, an increase in cholesterol of 62 points, loss of sex drive, and the pain of toxic-shock withdrawal at the end of the experiment. Another expose of the irresponsibility, exploitation, and lack of accountability of global businesses, and how corporate decisions have impacted the world was contained in Jennifer Abbott’s and March Achbar’s The Corporation (2004).
Robert Greenwald’s Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War (2004) examined what the intelligence community knew about the claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and provided a harsh critique of the Bush administration’s foreign policy and its single-minded determination to enter into war. Earlier, Greenwald had executive-produced the disturbing Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election (2002) which examined the voting debacle and court abuses that took place in Florida following the last presidential election. He also released Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism (2004), which provided an insightful look at the partisan, ‘unfair and unbalanced’, conservative political viewpoints of FOX-News.
Filmmakers Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman won an Academy Award for the emotional and compassionate Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt (1989) – about five individuals commemorated on the giant, iconic memorial quilt who battled AIDS, accompanied by a soundtrack by Bobby McFerrin. [Earlier, Epstein had won the Best Documentary Oscar for The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) about the political life of the first openly-gay politician to be elected to office in California – to the SF Board of Supervisors. Milk was brutally murdered in November 1978 by disgruntled ex-Supervisor Dan White, who was only charged with manslaughter on a junk food defense. Epstein’s first documentary was the landmark feature Word is Out (1978), which told the stories of 26 gay men and lesbians from across America.] Epstein followed up with the informative The Celluloid Closet (1995), based on the 1981 landmark book by Vito Russo, which surveyed sexual myths and attitudes toward homosexuality (gay and lesbian) in Hollywood’s films through interviews and film clips.
Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (1991) took a look at Latino and black competitors in NYC drag balls. Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997) honestly profiled cystic fibrosis performance artist Bob Flanagan who reveled in masochistic and S&M acts. And Andrew Jarecki’s disturbing Oscar-nominated crime documentary Capturing the Friedmans (2003) graphically portrayed the issue of child sexual abuse and molestation within a dysfunctional middle-class Long Island family, while examining the elusive and conflicting questions of guilt and innocence. Southern Comfort (2001), a documentary by Kate Davis about the transgender movement in the Deep South, followed the last year of the life of Robert Eads – a female-to-male trans-sexual who died of ovarian cancer. The film won the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001, but was ineligible for an Oscar because it aired on HBO’s America Undercover series.
Two hard-hitting documentaries provided critical, anti-war commentaries on the Vietnam War: Emile de Antonio’s powerful Vietnam: In the Year of the Pig (1968), and Peter Davis’ Academy Award-winning anti-war documentary film Hearts and Minds (1974) questioned US involvement in the Vietnam War.
Nature-Related Documentary Films:
Disney’s first feature-length “True Life Adventures” entry was The Living Desert (1953) – with incredible nature footage from the desert. Oceanographer Jacques Costeau’s underwater explorations in the Calypso were captured on film in the Academy Award-winning The Silent World (1956) by filmmaker Louis Malle. Bruce Brown’s thrilling The Endless Summer (1966) with a great score by the Sandals, was a popularly-received film about an around-the-world search for the ‘perfect wave’ by two surfers. The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971), with spectacular close-up photography, was a pseudo-documentary about the world of predatory insects, including a warning about an impending showdown between humans and insects.
Other nature-related documentaries included the following: South African film-maker Jamie Uys’ Animals Are Beautiful People (1974), with the tagline “The Secret Life of Wildlife”, provided an entertaining view of the intriguing wildlife of the Namid Desert and how the animals often mirrored the behavior of humans. (Six years after completing this project, Uys went on to create The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981).) The groundbreaking French documentary MicroCosmos (1996) (advertised as “It’s Jurassic Park in Your Own Backyard!”) chronicled the world of insects – in close-up, with revolutionary macroscopic cameras and film techniques (similar to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982)). The BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs (2000) (with narration by Kenneth Branagh) was a documentary series of films by Jasper James with incredibly-realistic CGI dinosaurs. The nature documentary Deep Blue (2003), derived from the BBC’s Blue Planet TV series surveys how creatures from dolphins to penguins live and battle for survival against predators in the ocean.
The Oscar-nominated Winged Migration (2001) from French director Jacques Perrin provided a breathtaking documentary about many species of migrating birds. The highest grossing nature documentary ever made (up to its time), March of the Penguins (2005), narrated by Morgan Freeman in the US release, followed the perils of emperor penguins in their quest to mate in the most inhabitable part of the world – deep in Antarctica near the South Pole. Warner Independent Films originally paid $1 million for this Sundance Festival hit when it was just a French-language nature documentary with the original title The Emperor’s Journey. It cost $8 million to make and earned almost $78 million – the second-highest gross for a non-IMAX documentary.
The most straightforward, fact-based, troubling and frighteningly relevant film in recent memory was director Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006), presented by lecturer, ex-VP and Presidential candidate Al Gore – it clearly exposed the myths and misconceptions that surround global warming and actions that could prevent it, with lots of evidence: numerous charts, statistics, graphs, maps, photos, and animations. Its surprising success during the summer of 2006 was underlined by massive heat waves baking the entire United States.