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Documentary

The Queen of Versailles

The Queen of Versailles

These people are you superiors in every possible way.
Don't doubt it for a second

dir: Lauren Greenfield

It takes a certain kind of character to handle being wealthy and powerful. Few people have the stones for it. It’s not for common mortals like us to be rich and famous, no. We would buckle under the tremendous weight of such awful responsibility. The rest of us peasants should be grateful that we don’t live under the dread of such burdens.

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a downside for these brave people. They have to develop heroic defence mechanisms to protect themselves from the harshness of reality and the envy of the lower orders. As an example, you might have noticed that whenever a celebrity or wealthy person does something obviously, demonstrably wrong, then any criticism levelled at them is dismissed as hate from the “haters”. Haters, you see, are the envious, poisonous masses who dream up all sorts of untrue perfidy in order to bring down their betters. It’s the only explanation.

It’s the only way to make sense of a reality that previously seemed to bend to your every whim. If things always seemed to go your way because you were powerful and top of your game, and that your self-directed wilful free ride somehow ends, it’s because of the haters. It can’t be because you did something wrong, ever. It can’t be that you were complicit in a corrupt system, never that.

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The Imposter

The Imposter

Gaze into the eyes of a psychopath, and despair

dir: Bart Layton

At their worst, documentaries cover something that happened in the most turgid, lifeless manner possible, sending the facts even further out of reach and serving the self-interests of people trying to impose their horrible view of humanity all over the rest of us.

At their best, they illuminate the confusion that confronts all of us in the face of not what happened at particular points in time, but why. It’s not the sole purpose of documentaries to answer questions, or to say “This, then this, then this”. Sometimes they succeed best when they still leave us wondering “what the hell were these people thinking?”

The Imposter is a documentary about something that really happened, in which most of the facts are not in dispute. Let’s say 99% of the facts are not disputed. With the family involved, and the imposter of the title, none of them are denying that any of this happened. What none of them can genuinely answer is the “why” of it all, and that doesn’t detract from the experience in the slightest.

A boy goes missing in Texas, in the 1990s. A ‘boy’ in Spain is found by police, who claims, eventually, to be the missing Texan boy, Nicholas Barclay.

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Samsara

Samsara

I wouldn't get into a fight with her if I were you

dir: Ron Fricke

How do you even review something like this? It ends up saying more about the reviewer than the movie reviewed.

Samsara isn't a sequel to Baraka, the amazing, awe-inspiring 'documentary' from the 1990s that I've watched a billion times and whose soundtrack I've listened to even more. It's a continuation of Baraka, same director, same incredible 70mm film footage, same globe-trotting footage and same blissful lack of narration.

While I've seen Baraka so many times that it's become like the wallpaper of my skull, it exists in a pre-review time, before I was ever presumptuous enough to start thinking critically about films, about film as a medium, and, even worse, before I had the gall to start writing about them.

Samsara supplies me with a curious opportunity: How do you write about something that has no (obvious) narrative or story, which isn't really documenting anything other than how awesome-looking some bits of the world are, and which it's almost impossible to describe beyond saying stuff like "And then there's a shot of the Pope's arse, and then there's a narwhal, then there's a glacier, then there's a guy picking his nose at Roppongi Station, then there's a massive sand dune and then" which I could do for thousands of words and still get no closer to capturing its point or essence?

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Inside Job

dir: Charles Ferguson
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With documentaries, sometime it’s the content, far more so than the quality of how it’s put together, that’s the defining element deciding whether it works or not. Sure, I am the first person in human history to point out that documentaries tend to veer between polemical and propagandistic, so it’s the most obvious thing to point out ever, but it’s far more true of this ‘genre’ than any of the others. There’s usually far less revelation, and far more letters-to-the-editor aggravation.

Inside Job seeks to illustrate for us what went on and wrong in the lead up to that recent minor economic kerfuffle you might have heard about or lost your job over, charmingly referred to as the Global Financial Crisis. The most important word in that phrase is not the first one, anti-globalisation crusaders, or the last one, catastrophists and doomsayers. It’s the middle one, because, as Matt Damon’s soothing and scolding voiceover articulates for our benefit, it was the goblins of high finance, abetted by cowardly governments that were the ones that did the dirty.

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Catfish

dir: Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost
[img_assist|nid=1389|title=Catfish are not tasty. Do not click on the fish.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=338]
The lifeblood, the cornerstone, the fundamental currency of documentary filmmaking is credibility. The subjects, as in, the people being interviewed don’t have to necessarily be credible, since there are a lot of quality documentaries about dishonest or deeply delusional, misguided people (the Aileen Wuornos: Selling of a Serial Killer doco, Fog of War, Tyson, Mr Death: the Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter Jr), so I have zero problems with unreliable interviewees.

The people who we have to trust as being credible are the ones making the documentary. Michael Moore squandered a lot of the goodwill his earlier documentaries engendered in the public once revelations as to the level of ‘creativity’ involved in putting together his various screeds, manipulating facts and the depiction of events to buttress his arguments, came out. Also, he's a bit of a hypocrite, but his documentaries have forcibly improved in the interim.

The people involved in this documentary don’t strike me as being very credible, honest or forthright in their depiction of events. It doesn’t completely torpedo the doco, because, after all, it’s about dishonesty. I just would prefer it if the makers could be a tad more honest than the fabulist at the core of this story.

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Restrepo

dir: Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington
[img_assist|nid=1354|title=War is... something or other|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=299]
Back, way back in the dim, distant reaches of last century, there was a war in a little-known and already forgotten place called Korea. The battle was between the noble South supported by the United States (and other allied nations of course), and the evil and horrible Northern Communists supported by the terrible Chinese. There were many battles, much slaughter, even towards the end of the war. The Battle of Pork Chop Hill in April of 1953, not only resulted in the slaughter of many noble soldiers, but resulted in a war film that made the careers of a lot of shiny Hollywood dickheads. It showed how random death on the battlefield can be, and how countless soldiers can die horribly because someone far from the front lines commands some men to hold a seemingly strategically important hill.

The supreme irony comes when soldiers who have given almost everything to defend a position, who’ve seen all their buddies die for it, can be told to retreat from the position because of some other strategic need or because it’s decided that, in retrospect, it wasn’t really that important, or that some other hill was the really crucial one that’ll win the war.

Cue scream of forlorn and impotent rage in the face of the universe’s cold disinterest.

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Exit Through the Gift Shop

dir: I’m not sure, though Banksy is credited.
[img_assist|nid=1265|title=About time, too.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=583]
They call it a documentary, but I don’t think you can take anything that transpires in it at face value. It seems like it’s the story it claims to be, but that could all be bullshit.

After all, Banksy is involved.

The parts that are undeniably ‘real’ focus on street art, which is the contemporary term describing graffiti, or whatever you call it when people paint, spray-paint, creatively deface or otherwise do anything in public which inflicts their eyesores on the general public for a brief period of time.

The thing is, if you’ve seen any of the stencil stuff that’s sprung up in the last ten years, the stuff that looks like it was painted but is really stuck on, it’s Banksy.

Banksy didn’t necessarily do it himself, and in fact it’s very unlikely that he did it in your city, unless you live in London, whereby it’s a possibility. But his stuff, his concepts, his radical juxtapositions and provocations, spread across the world like a virus.

His stuff, and I know how pointless it is saying this, is brilliant. I’ve known of his stuff, living and working as I do in the inner city, where his stuff is pasted over everything, for much of the last decade, but I knew next to nothing about the man. Now, after watching this flick, I know even less.

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Fog of War, The

dir: Errol Morris
[img_assist|nid=1011|title=Get off my lawn or I'll carpet bomb your village|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=336]
When you look upon the face of a man in his 80s, you tell yourself
that you can almost read his life in the lines and contours thereon.
At least that's the illusion I had watching this award-winning
documentary by Errol Morris about Robert McNamara. He's hardly a
household name around the world, but more than a few people should
remember the man who was the Secretary of Defense in the States during
one of the most turbulent times in the country's history. Although one
could argue the times were no less turbulent then than they are now.

One could almost say from watching this film that McNamara suffers
from a tremendous amount of guilt for his actions as the Secretary of
Defense. Surely he doesn't have deep regrets from his time as the head
of Ford, or his time as one of the highest paid executives in the
world. This fascinating glimpse into history almost seems to be an
extension of McNamara's search for redemption. In fact the method in
which he is filmed deliberately gives proceedings the appearance and
feel of a confessional.

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Oceans

dirs: Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud
[img_assist|nid=1431|title=Oceans. Someone needs to tell them to stop being so smug|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=597]
Oceans. They’re everywhere! And, did you know that they’re full of water?

Very watery waters, apparently. And mostly the water is blue. Sometimes green, sometimes grey, sometimes a mixture of greeny-bluey-grey, but always very watery.

We owe a lot to the oceans. They feed us, naturally, and they’re also where we dump all our sewerage and garbage, as the gods intended, and they also willingly have become the final resting place for murderous / saintly Osamas who’ve outlived their usefulness, but they’re also really pretty. And they’re also chock full of thoroughly beautiful creatures like dugongs, walruses, stonefish and moray eels.

Who could not love the Oceans? They’re practically the puppies/kittens of the solar system. Only a completely dead-inside monster, that’s who. Or the captain of the Titanic, I guess. Or anyone who’s lost a loved one to the Ocean’s watery embrace, I guess as well.

This astounding documentary which has taken its time to get here, and is playing at Cinema Nova (in Melbourne as at 22/5/2011) acts as if people don’t know what oceans are (as opposed to seas, which everyone knows are the oceans’ poor orphan cousins), or that there are fish in them. There’s actually a line of narration that says the following:

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2008 Film Year In Review

dir: Buxbaum or Bixby Ali Van Allen O’Shea

2009

Very late in the game, very late in the year, I have decided to close the lid, as in the coffin lid, on the previous year’s festivities by summarising all of my highly valuable yet worthless thoughts on how I thought the year went movie-wise. You might wonder “why?” whereas I just wonder “why not?”

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