The Jinx, the Junkyard, and the Juice

It’s been quite a run recently for crime documentaries. In the past year or so, three long-form crime documentaries have attracted a lot of attention. All involve men alleged to have behaved badly, as, I am afraid, we often do. In fact, all three involve men accused of murder.

First there was The Jinx, a six-part series on Robert Durst that premiered on HBO in February and March of 2015.51enCm4r4HL._SX342_

Then came Making a Murderer, a ten-part series on Steven Avery, which was made available for streaming on Netflix in December of 2015.

And, most recently, there was O.J.: Made in America, a five-part series on O.J. Simpson, which first aired in the Spring of 2016.

These three films generated a lot of binge-watching and water-cooler conversation.

HBO reported that 750,000 people watched the first episode of The Jinx when it first aired and about 3.4 million watched some part of the show within its first few weeks of availability.

Although Netflix does not publish viewership reports, the evidence suggests that Making a Murderer was even more popular. Adweek estimated that 19.3 million people watched the series in a little more than a month.

O.J.: Made in America may have put up the most impressive numbers of all. ESPN reported that 3.4 million viewers sat down to watch the first showing of the first episode, and, by late June, the network was claiming that the show had been seen by 35 million viewers.

It may not be possible to compare these numbers, apples to apples, because it’s not entirely clear what each of the various networks considers a “viewer.” If a single person sits down six nights in a row to watch episodes, does that count as one viewer or six? As far as I can tell, the people who write press releases for ESPN think it means six viewers. Perhaps the publicists at the other networks do as well. I can’t say for sure.

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But, even allowing for exaggeration, puffery, and variation in counting strategies, these are remarkable numbers.  It is truly amazing that millions of Americans have watched these documentaries — and even more amazing if you consider that all three series require a significant investment in terms of time.

The Jinx runs for 279 minutes. The O.J. series runs for 464 minutes. And the Avery film runs for 666 minutes, which, of course, is THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST. When this curious fact becomes a key ingredient in popular conspiracy theories on the internet, remember: you read that number here first! But of course the number begs the question: who is the BEAST? Is it Avery? Or is it the Manitowoc Country Police Department?

Looking at the viewership numbers cited above, one is tempted to say that documentary has “arrived,” that Americans are now beginning to appreciate non-fiction film in a way they have not previously. If that is really what has happened, then nobody will be more delighted than I will be. But I am skeptical. Do these numbers really prove that America has learned to love documentaries, or do they prove that America loves violent stories and murder mysteries? I strongly suspect it is the latter. I suspect that what these numbers tell us is: if it bleeds, it leads – even if it’s a documentary.

It is also tempting to conclude that American attention spans are getting longer. But, again, I am skeptical. If you look at the viewership numbers for The Jinx, you will see that the number of viewers who watched the last episode, in which Durst appears to confess, not realizing that his microphone is still “live,” is more than twice as large, indeed is almost three times as large, as the number of viewers who watched the middle episodes, in which he does not confess. This suggests that there were hundreds of thousands of people who felt compelled to watch the “reveal” but didn’t feel the need to watch the rest of the series. After all, one can push out a lot of tweets in 279 minutes – or so I am told.OJ-Made-in-America

But, even with these disclaimers, I think the popularity of these series has to be seen as a very positive development. There are signs that a lot of Americans can be persuaded to take an interest in at least certain kinds of documentaries.

Of the three films, I enjoyed The Jinx the most. I found the story compelling and I found Durst genuinely creepy. Watching the series, I was reminded of a time, a decade or two ago, when I sat up late reading Flannery O’Connor stories and then felt the need to get up out of bed and make sure all of the doors were locked — for, in a world that has such people in it, it would be height of foolishness to leave one’s doors unlocked.

I would rank Making a Murderer second. Although it was too long to hold me rapt for all 666 minutes, it did hold my attention, and I gasped loudly, with millions of others, when it was revealed that a vial of blood entered into evidence had been tampered with, apparently pierced by a syringe of some sort. Up to that point I had been somewhat skeptical about the defense theory that the police tampered with the evidence in order to frame Avery. But at that moment it suddenly seemed frighteningly possible that they did.

My least favorite of the three was O.J.: Made in America, perhaps because I lived through the story as it unfolded. As a boy, I watched Simpson playing football and had O.J. Simpson football cards. I remember watching him run through airports in those Hertz ads, and even remember my dad telling me what a big deal it was that a black man had been chosen as a spokesman for the company. My father was an American historian, and he understood the significance of that choice in a way that I could not at the time. I remember the Naked Gun movies, too; and, of course, I remember the murder of Simpson’s ex-wife, the car chase, the arrest, and the murder trial. So the story was familiar, and I had already worked out my thinking about Simpson. (Guilty!) But there were some interesting bits in the series. I found Simpson’s former agent to be one of the more compelling interviewees.  He served Simpson for a long time, but eventually disgust caught up with him and overtook him.

The O.J. film and the Avery film seem to me to resonate in certain ways. A major theme in both is evidence. Modern forensic evidence can be very compelling – I mean blood work, DNA analysis, and fiber analysis. These can be powerful tools for seeing that justice is gone. But if the cops are dirty and are willing to plant evidence, then all of the most up-to-date forensic techniques may be for naught.

In Making a Murderer, the defense attorneys suggest that prosecutors may have made up their mind about Steven Avery’s guilt and then planted blood and bones to make the evidence fit their theory. The filmmakers seem to find this theory persuasive, and so do many viewers of the film.

In the Simpson case, the defense made a similar argument – that the forensic evidence had been planted by racist LAPD cops — and the members of the jury,  mostly African-Americans, who had years of experience with thuggish and racist behavior by LAPD cops, found this argument persuasive and were willing to set aside whole rafts of forensic evidence. Simpson’s blood was found at the scene of the murders, along with a bloody glove and a set of bloody footprints. A trail of blood led away from the crime scene. Simpson’s blood, Nicole’s Brown’s blood, and Ronald Goldman’s blood were found in O.J’s car and also at O.J.’s house. To many people all of this seemed to be irrefutable evidence of Simpson’s guilt. I certainly took it as such.  But, of course, that is only true if we believe that the blood was actually deposited in those places by Simpson.

I hope these films will encourage a national conversation about evidence, policework, and the planting of evidence. The police need to be careful. If people come to believe that policemen frequently or routinely plant evidence, then even the best evidence may come to be seen as no evidence at all.

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Nuts!

Reviewed by Guest Blogger One-Eyed Pete

 

Well, partner, whaddaya say we divide this ‘yere movie review into two parts?

In the first part I’ll tell ya’ why I reckon maybe you should saunter out and see Nuts!

In the next part, I’ll tell ya’ why I personally thought the film was swell.

 

 

What sorta fella are ya?

Are ya’ the sorta fella who likes stories that are weird but true?

Are ya’ the sorta fella who likes off-the-wall American characters?

Are ya’ the sorta fella who likes courtroom drama?

Are ya’ the sorta fella who likes surprise endings and “twists”?

Are ya’ the sorta fella who likes animated footage of two goats doin’ it? sundance-nuts-300x151

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then I reckon you might like Nuts!

I can speak on this subject with some authority ‘cause I saw this film earlier in the year.  You see, every year the fellas down at The Full Frame – I know it sounds like a pool hall, but it ain’t — round up a hundred or so of the best darn documentaries they can find and put them on display. It’s like a big cattle auction. I make a point of goin’ out there for the round-up most years, and Nuts! was one of the best films I saw last time I was there.

And guess what? This film is comin’ to a theater near you.  It was showin’ in Kansas City earlier — and Santa Fe and Dallas. It’ll be in Denver directly and in Austin a little later. It’ll also be in some pilgrim towns out east later this fall.

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Now, let me tell ‘ya why I thought this film was a huckleberry above a persimmon. (Out east I guess you might say “a cut above.”) But before I do, I reckon I should fire off a warnin’ shot. If you don’t want me to spoil what yer frenchman calls the day-noo-mont, you might want to stop readin’ right about here.

Ya see, Nuts! is about this ‘yere fella name-a John Romulus Brinkley, who was what folks around here call a four-flusher. That is, he was a swindler. Brinkley was the sort of fella would let on he was holdin’ a straight flush when he had ten high, and he had the stones to bring it off. In fact, stones is what this ‘yere story is about. Stones or nuts. But I am gettin’ out ahead of myself.

Anyway, this ‘yere Brinkley came up with a cure – or what he said was a cure – for fellas whose manly parts wouldn’t brisk up no more, if ya’ follow my drift. And the cure – or s’posed cure — he come up with involved slippin’ a goat’s stone into the afflicted fella’s rucksack to sorta get his manly juices percolatin’ again.

Well, if you or I had that sorta problem, I reckon we’d be lookin’ around for a cure. And I reckon we’d be willin’ to pay more than dollar or two if we found one we thought might work.  And if we ever saw a billy goat out in a field pirootin’ with a she-goat, we might think, “maybe there’s somethin’ that goat has that I could use.” And, to continue in this vein,  if we shelled out for the good doctor’s “cure” and it didn’t do what we hoped it would do, well, I suppose we wouldn’t go around tellin’ folks it didn’t work like it was supposed to. Nah, I reckon that’s the sorta thing we might prefer to keep quiet about.

So Brinkley harvested a lot of goat testicles and stitched ‘em into a lot of fellers who had the “complaint,” and some said his cure worked and some didn’t say it didn’t, and before long he was flush, and after a while he pulled foot and moved down to Mexico. Bought himself a big ranch down there and even a radio station all his own, so he could play for the gallery and tell everybody what he had to say about life and politics and current affairs – which, as it turned out, was quite a lot.

Well, this went on for quite a while, till the boys in Washington got fed up with Brinkley and his radio station, and his opinions, so they up an’ dry gulched-him. They brought a suit at law and charged him with hornswagglin’ thousands of poor disappointed fellas who, lord knows, had enough to worry about already. And in the end, they convicted Brinkley and put him out o’ business. He ended up busted and despondent.

It’s a swell film, an’ what I particularly like about it is the way the director – name is Penny Lane — puts th’ elements together. See, at first, she sorta just tells ya’ the things that Brinkley said about himself – like how wonderful and powerful the cure was, and how delighted all his customers were, and how happy their wives were, too. (Pardon me, ladies, for mentioning this last detail.) In the first thirty or forty minutes of the film Lane doesn’t say a bad word about Dr. Brinkley, or his clinic, or the “cure.” And since everything is so positive, ya’ sorta start thinkin’ that maybe Brinkley was onto somethin’. You start believin’ in the miracle cure!

But then, in the second half of the film, Miss Lane turns the coach plum around. She lays out the other side of the story – all the ways in which Brinkley was a swindler. And then, you say, “Nuts!” ‘cause ya’ sorta feel like you’ve been swindled yerself. You fell for Brinkley, too – or at least ya’ came close enough to it that ya’ understand how all them other fellas with the discouragin’ condition coulda fallen for him. But, thank the good lord, for you it’s not nearly so much of a big deal as it was for the other fellas. You haven’t shelled out a grand for goats’ balls. You’ve just been taken in by a piece of clever storytellin’. And there’s a sort of pleasure that comes from bein’ taken in in that particular way.

I guess what I’m sayin’ is that this Penny Lane, whoever she might be, seems to have learned a trick or two from ol’ Dr. Brinkley. That Brinkley was a helluva salesman, but, take it from me, Penny Lane is no slouch either.

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Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

By Nick Gibiser

Doc-Lands Contributing Writer

I visited last year’s Virginia Film Festival intending to watch Les Blank’s How to View a Rose, a film about legendary documentarian Ricky Leacock. Instead I was greeted rather abruptly by a title card reading, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

Over the next twenty minutes, I watched Werner Herzog do just that, and I could not be happier about the movie theater’s mix-up.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, also directed by Les Blank, was released in 1980 and follows the noted German director as he fulfills his promise to eat his shoe if director Errol Morris ever completed his film Gates of Heaven. Morris released his film in 1978, and Herzog kept his word.167144

The documentary cuts between Herzog preparing a pair of shoes at the kitchen of famed Berkeley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse, being interviewed in the back of a car, and actually eating his shoe at the UC Theatre. Blank successfully navigates the absurd process, giving Herzog ample time to justify his thoughts and actions while never shying away from the enigmatical nature of his subject.

Herzog bounces from thought to thought, decrying the destructiveness of commercial television and lauding cooking and walking as the only two alternatives to filmmaking. He ponders the social value of films while consuming a shoe encrusted with garlic, onion, rosemary, and hot sauce.

At its core, this film is about having the guts to pursue art. It is about having the drive to do whatever it takes to create art that, in Herzog’s words, provides us with “adequate language or adequate images.” Herzog is adamant that his stunt is meant not only to provide publicity for Morris’s film, which at the time had no major studio backing, but also to inspire young artists who do not have the “guts” to start their projects.

And in that way, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is an unexpected success. The film, even 36 years after its initial release, captures the earnestness of Herzog and the impassioned meaning behind his often unimpassioned tone. Herzog may be ostentatious, but he is a man who lives up to his word and goes to extremes for the sake of his art.

Where the film falters is in its failure to contextualize its subject. Those unfamiliar with Herzog or Les Blank may leave this movie confounded and confused by the strange German man waxing poetic on the state of civilization. Blank asks his viewers to accept the filmmaking institution that is Herzog in all his faults and glory with little explanation. The film is not inaccessible, however, as the spectacle of the shoe eating keeps a firm enough grasp on the audience’s attention. At a runtime of only twenty minutes, the film feels neither too long nor too short.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is at once funny, maddening, inspiring, and eye-rollingly pretentious. But most importantly, it is incredibly entertaining.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe can be purchased on DVD through Les Blank Films.  It can also be streamed through Kanopy, a streaming service which is available, free of cost, to students and faculty members at many American colleges and universities. Sometimes copies are also available on the internet.

Should you have the opportunity to watch Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, however that opportunity presents itself, I highly recommend you do so.

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Cartel Land

The best film I saw at Full Frame this past weekend was Cartel Land, directed by Matthew Heineman. This documentary is a fascinating study of vigilante movements on either side of the US-Mexico border.

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On the Mexican side of the border, the filmmaker focuses on the Autodefensas – a group of citizens in the Michoacán district who grew disgusted with the Mexican government’s inability to eradicate ruthless drug cartels, armed themselves, and hunted down the cartel members. The Autodefensa movement caught on, in large part because of the charismatic leadership of a small-town physician, José Mireles, known as “El Doctor.”

On the American side of the border, the filmmaker focuses on Arizona Border Recon, a paramilitary group that has appointed itself to patrol the US-Mexico border more vigorously than the legal authorities are willing or able to do, stopping drug traffickers and illegal immigrants, and turning the illegals they catch over the border police. This group is led by Tim “Nailer” Foley, another charismatic leader. Although Nailer and the ABR vigilantes turn violators over to the border patrol, they are every bit as disgusted with U.S. government as Mireles and the Autodefensas are with the Mexican government.  Both the Autodefensas and the ABR vigilantes take the view that the government is defaulting on its obligation to protect the people, and therefore the people have the right to take matters into their own hands. “We are in a state of nature now,” they seem to be saying. “Let us band together to save ourselves.”

Cartel Land is astonishing, eye-opening, and terrifying. The film has so much going for it, I hardly know where to begin. For one thing, it has not one but two great central characters. Mireles, the leader of the Autodefensas, is so appealing  that, at times, we are swept up in the drama of the Autodefensa movement.  We see the handsome doctor treating sick children, calling on the intimidated people of Michoacán to defend themselves from thugs, and urging his fellow Autodefensas not to succumb to the temptations of power, and we are tempted to accept him and the other Autodefensas on their own terms – as patriots and outraged citizens heroically doing a job the government is unwilling or unable to do. We not only see — we actually feel — the tremendous emotional appeal of the movement, and we want to believe that the good character of Mireles will guarantee the decent behavior of the Autodefensas. And yet the film also reminds us of the dangers of placing one’s faith in extra-legal movements and charismatic leaders.

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“El Doctor,” leader of the Autodefensas

 

The filmmakers pull back the curtain on several scenes most Americans will – hopefully — never witness.  We see cartel members cooking meth in the Mexican desert, Autodefensas interrogating and roughing up suspected cartel members, and heavily-armed American vigilantes playing an astonishing game of cat-and-mouse with cartel scouts and drug mules in the hills of Arizona.  There is one scene in which the Autodefensas and an embedded cameraman find themselves under heavy fire from cartel gunmen. The footage in this scene was so life-like and terrifying that my instinct was to duck and take cover under my seat.

Cartel Land also has unexpected twists. There were several turns that I did not anticipate — and won’t give away here. And I gather I am not alone, because you could hear the audience at Full Frame gasping at several crucial moments in the film.

The film is tight and very well edited. It’s amazing that it is only 96 minutes long. You emerge from the screening feeling like you’ve watched a 6-hour miniseries and developed a comprehensive understanding of the situation. You also emerge emotionally fatigued.

The film does not oversimplify. It does not suggest that there is an easy solution. It manages to capture and convey the excitement of a cresting vigilante movement while also illustrating just how horrifying it is to see whole regions descending into lawlessness.

As I noted at the outset, the focus on parallel vigilante movements on either side of the border gives the film an interesting symmetry. Mireles and his vigilantes are fighting against the cartels in Mexico, where they cook the meth, while Nailer (himself a reformed meth addict, with the zeal of a reformed sinner) and his ABR vigilantes are trying to stop the same cartels from bringing the meth across the border. Both groups feel that the government has failed them, and that they have to take matters into their own hands. The viewer comes to understand each vigilante group a little differently, and a little better, because the other group, on the other side of the border, is also depicted in the film.

The film left me with a renewed appreciation for rule of law. Democrats get excited when a Democratic President is sworn in. Republicans get excited when a Republican takes office. And both act like it’s the end of the world if the other side gets in. Me, I get excited whenever one candidate is voted out another one is voted in, and the exchange takes place without any violence.  That is a great achievement, even though most Americans don’t realize how wonderful (and rare) it is. In parts of Mexico, change of real authority seems increasingly to be achievable only with automatic weapons.

Although I prefer honest politicians, I am also pleased to see dishonest politicians indicted and convicted for corruption.  In Mexico and too many other places around the world corruption seems to be universal and more or less taken for granted. When crooks are driven out of office, they are replaced by new crooks, and, over time, the people grow so cynical about the possibility of honest politicians and even-handed justice that many lose faith in the concepts themselves.  Eventually rule of law gives way to the law of the jungle.

I have come to think that democratic government gets too much hype and adulation, while rule of law does not get nearly enough. Recent events in the Middle East have shown that democratic government is not the answer to all of the world’s problems. If the majority happens to be a militant ethnic or religious group, then majority rule may turn out to be a very bad thing for numerous minorities, particularly if the rights of those minorities are not secured by rule of law.  The best guarantee for individuals or minorities is rule of law — the sovereignty of the statute rather than the rule of the individual. It is alarming to see how completely rule of law seems to have broken down in parts of Mexico, not far from the U.S. border.

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Alive Inside

Have you got your playlist ready, just I case? I have mine.

The documentary film “Alive Inside” convinced me to put my mp3 house in order. The film, which aired recently at the 2014 Virginia Film Festival, is about music and the impact it can have on older people suffering from various sort of dementia. The film shows that music can have an inspiring and invigorating effect on older people who might otherwise sink into a depressed and/or vegetative state. It also argues that we lean too heavily on medications in this country: in some cases, the film suggests, an iPod might be a much better treatment than a bottle of pills, and yet music-making devices are not accepted as medical tools by most insurance companies.

The filmmakers suggest taking music to older relatives and friends, and the film made me want to get my own playlist in order, just in case.

Click on the clip below to watch a remarkable episode from a rough cut of the film that went viral on YouTube some months ago.

Click here to watch the trailer.

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Virginia Film Festival

The 2014 Virginia Film Festival is just around the corner. It will run from 6 November to 9 November.  This festival is not a documentary film festival but it generally features a good slate of docs, and this year is no exception. Indeed, this year the festival has provided attendees with a webpage that lists all of the docs on the slate. Click here to see that webpage. I’ll be there, catching a bunch of new docs; hope to see you there as well!

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The Staircase

I’d like to second the recommendation (here) made by the guys from nonfics.com for The Staircase, a multi-part true crime documentary by French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.

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My family and I watched this film with rapt attention, and when the first disk ended, I was unceremoniously dispatched to the video store to get the second.

“Hurry!” said my wife.

And hurry I did, for this documentary is as thrilling (and full of twists) as any thriller you’ve ever seen in the megaplex.

 

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The Islamic State

If you haven’t seen the Vice News documentary, The Islamic State, it is eye opening.

You can watch it online, here.

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Finding Vivian Maier

Finding Vivian Maier is an intriguing and enjoyable film which I saw in a movie theater not much bigger than my living room.  I encourage you to see it in your living room, as it is now available on DVD.

The film is about a photographer by the name of Vivian Maier who has been posthumously discovered and acclaimed. I liked the film because Maier turns out to have been an unusual person, and because the film taught me a few things about photography I had not previously known.

Of the several reviews of the film I have read, this review in The Independent is the best.

As an additional incentive, I attach a handful of Maier’s street photographs.

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Drunk History and the Trajectory of Documentary Film

What does the newish Comedy Central series “Drunk History” have to do with documentary film? I suppose most people would say, “not much.” But I disagree. In my mind, the best way to make sense of the show (which made me laugh so hard the other night that I nearly peed the couch) is to think of it in relation to documentary film and trends in documentary filmmaking over the past few decades.

If you go back forty or fifty years, most documentaries were produced by government agencies or one of three major news networks. (Nobody else had the money to make one.) These documentaries generally featured voice-over narration by some voice of authority. The story was narrated, and the disconnected parts were helpfully connected, by an authoritative narrator – usually a male narrator with a deep resonant voice. You heard Walter Cronkite, or some other eminent-sounding male explaining, “Marijuana is a very addictive drug,” and you just knew – or at least you were supposed to just know – that IT WAS TRUE.

However, after the cultural revolution of the sixties, and the writings of Foucault and other theoretical luminaries, it has become much harder for most people to accept this sort of “voice of God” narration. People have become more suspicious. Many people, especially among the cognoscenti, now see the machinations of Power (Foucault’s term) everywhere, and they are immediately suspicious of anything that presents itself as “the voice of God,” or the supposedly objective voice of the narrator. If you’ve watched documentaries for the past few decades you probably know what I mean. Young filmmakers today generally avoid the voice-of-God narration like the plague. They want to avoid any suggestion that there is one true narrative, or that they are naïve enough to believe in such a thing. The general view, I take it, is that only someone who is hopelessly naïve could believe that objective narration is possible.

Thus we get lots of films with no narration whatsoever, and cinema verite films, and we also get films that feature a blatant, utterly unapologetically subjective narrator (like say Ross McIlwee). Now my claim is that “Drunk History” represents a sort of reductio ad absurdum of this tendency in documentary filmmaking.

What if the narrator were not as reliable as the day is long, like Walter Cronkite? What if he were not even an ordinary guy like Ross McIlwee? What if he happened to be not even remotely reliable? What if he happened to be so blotto that he could barely narrate the story in a comprehensible way?

This is the road the producers of “Drunk History” have traveled – or, some might say, stumbled down. I am not sure I would say that, however, because I think the people who make the show know what they are doing, even if the inebriated narrators in the episodes often do not.

Notice also how “Drunk History” makes use of another convention of traditional documentary filmmaking: the re-enactment.  In traditional documentary, one of the classic methods for dealing with lack of footage (a serious and recurring problem) is to stage re-enactments. You see these in Ken Burns films, and in all sorts of other documentary films. You see this in “Drunk History,” too, but with a difference. In this case, the narrator is a drunk – the ultimate in unreliable narrators – and yet the exact words of the drunken narrator, and even the stupefied pauses,  are put into the mouths of the re-enactors. If the narrator is telling the story of Nellie Bly and mumbles “Nellie Bly was like, “This is totally bogus, dude!” then the on-screen actor portraying Nellie Bly mumbles, “This is totally bogus, dude!” This sort of word-for-word re-enactment goes well beyond what is done in most documentaries. In a Ken Burns film, you might see a line of soldiers marching or a group of men sitting around a campfire. But you will rarely see the filmmaker trying to place words in the re-enactors’ mouths.  In Drunk History, though, that is exactly what the filmmakers do, and it produces most of the funniest moments in the series. But these moments would not be nearly as funny if we weren’t all so familiar with the elements of classic documentary film — the voice-of-God narration and the shots of soldier-reenactors s mustering out in a Civil War documentary. The series works by accepting the conventions of documentary – voice-of-God narration for audio and re-enactments for video – and reducing them to absurdity by substituting a drunk for the omniscient narrator and having the re-enactors act out and re-speak the intoxicated narrator’s mumblings and non sequitors verbatim.Statue of Liberty

And – perhaps I should have said this earlier – the result is funny as all get out . I enjoy the show immensely and pay it that highest and most sincere form of tribute – I wish to hell I had thought of it first.

And yet, even while I am laughing at “Drunk History,” I am unwilling to give up my belief that documentary film can sometimes present us with reliable information about the world we live in. It’s all very well to be suspicious – to be aware of the ways in which the medium can be manipulated by governments and ad agencies and interested parties. It really can be. It has been. It will continue to be. We don’t want to be naïve. And yet it is equally true that part of what we appreciate about a documentary film is that it has a certain relation to reality which is not true of fictional films. If we consistently treated documentaries as if they were indistinguishable from fictional films, there would be no reason to have a separate category, and, if you think about it, no reason to make documentaries at all.

In short, I feel like what “Drunk History” has done is similar to what the boys from Delta House do in “Animal House.” You may recall the climactic scene, in which the Delta boys sabotage the town parade and one of them leads a marching band into a blind alley. The musicians in the band keep marching, till they are marching into one another and their trombones are bending and folding up as they smash into the wall. We laugh at the absurdity of the situation. However, nobody ever decides they don’t ever want to see another marching band because they saw one marching band made to look absurd in National Lampoon’s “Animal House.” Thus it is – or will be, I think — with “Drunk History.” We laugh at the absurdity of the situation – and at the drunks – and at the re-enactments of drunken dialogue. We admire the cleverness of the idea and the skill with which the whole thing is done. But we don’t necessarily conclude (at least I don’t) that because documentaries can be made to look silly, with drunk narrators, all documentaries are necessarily silly and as unreliable as the narrative of a whiskey-bleared Irishman on St. Paddy’s Day. A vigorous genre survives lampooning, and I take it documentary film will, too.

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