Last year I came to the realization that I’d watched far more fictional films than documentaries, and in these young months of 2012 I have set about making amends. I’m not sure what it was about 2011 that led me to seek solace in fantasy and escapism, but rest assured I’ve been taking some time out to reconnect with reality this year, and all I can say is that it’s a far stranger place than 1920s Paris could ever hope to be.
First up this year was Bombay Beach, Alma Har’el’s poetic documentary about the inhabitants of a decaying town on the edge of the Salton Sea. Located two hours outside of Los Angeles, the town of Bombay Beach was a tourist destination in the 1950s, but has since declined into rural squalor. The film’s three main protagonists are Benny Parish, a 7-year-old with a vivid imagination and a host of behavioral problems, not helped along by his loving but complicated family; CeeJay Thompson, an African American teenager and football star who seeks refuge in the isolation of Bombay Beach to avoid the gang violence surrounding his family in Los Angeles; and Red, a tough old bird, who mostly survives on whiskey, cigarettes, and audacity. Har’el portrays her subjects (and the poverty surrounding them) with dignity, beauty and respect–but this is not your typical documentary. Weaved in between the documentary footage, the director also films the inhabitants of Bombay Beach acting out their fantasies and inclinations, set to haunting music scored by the likes of Beirut and Bob Dylan. The result is a stunning film that is part documentary, part visual poetry.
Equally bizarre and mysterious is Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. Since the early 1980s cryptic tiles have been popping up in cities, starting in Philadelphia, moving across the U.S. and even as far afield as South America. The tiles are all emblazoned with the same message:
IN Kubrick’s 2001
ON PLANET JUPITER
What does it mean? The documentary follows a few endearing amateur sleuths as they attempt to crack the code, with increasingly bizarre results. Do they find the culprit? This I cannot tell you, but I will say that the ending is far stranger than expected.
Of course, life is inherently strange and perplexing, and this is the subject of Astra Taylor’s philosophical documentary Examined Life. As Cornell West states in the opening of the documentary, “for me—philosophy is fundamentally about our finite situation. We can define that in terms of we’re beings [moving] towards death, we’re featherless two-legged linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and feces whose bodies will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms.” Heavy stuff. Not much happens in this documentary; we essentially drop in on eight important, modern thinkers including Slavoj Zizek, Peter Singer and Judith Butler, while they drop some serious knowledge. It’s totally fascinating though.
Far heavier in scope is The Interrupters, a film which made many best-of lists last year and for good reason. This is a hard documentary to talk about in a light fashion—it’s about a unique program in Chicago called CeaseFire whose sole aim is to stop violent deaths in poor urban areas. CeaseFire is staffed by ex-gang members and ex-convicts who try to intervene in conflicts in their community, particularly those that may escalate into extreme violence or death. In these neighborhoods though, violent conflict can result from something as minor as someone making a funky comment about someone else’s shoes. This makes total success for a project like CeaseFire nearly impossible. It is not a totally depressing film though as the program and its practitioners are all pretty amazing, and director Steve James (who made Hoop Dreams) has unparalleled access to these rough communities. If your library copy hasn’t come in yet, you can watch the film here.
Also on a downer note is The Last Mountain, a film about the environmental effects of mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachian region (this includes Pittsburgh). The film focuses on Coal River Mountain in West Virginia, where community members and environmental activists are pitted against a coal company in the struggle to save one of the last large mountain ranges in Appalachia. The film makes the point that the fight for Coal River Mountain, although a local story, has national and international significance. According to statistics in the film, nearly 50% of America’s electricity comes from burning coal, with 30% of that coal coming from Appalachia, and burning coal is the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Because this seems like a topic that needs to be explored further, I’ll be focusing on this movie again in a future post about coal mining and energy.
I’ll end things on a lighter note with a movie that is not a documentary, but plays like one. Tiny Furniture, a film written and directed by (and starring) Lena Dunham will likely leave audiences split. Why you ask? Primarily because it is about a privileged New Yorker arriving home in a post-collegiate funk from her expensive and exclusive liberal arts college (Oberlin). She has no idea what she wants to do with her life, but has a keen instinct for making terrible choices. It may be hard for some viewers to relate to the occasionally unlikable main character or care about her fate. Much has been made of Dunham using her actual home and family in the shooting of this film, so I won’t go on about that. What I will say is that I think this is an honest and brave movie, and Dunham is very talented. This was her first major feature (at the ripe age of 24) and I look forward to her next project—an HBO series about Girls. I only hope it’s half as honest as this film.
What about you? Have you seen any good documentaries lately?
Keeping it “Reel,”