I just saw Gerald Peary's new documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism -- which incidentally features Cinematical's fearless managing editor Scott Weinberg as well as Cinematical alum Karina Longworth -- and I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite some lumps here and there. I'm having a hard time deciding whether or not non-critics will like it, but it celebrates many of my heroes (James Agee, Manny Farber, etc.) and even included one or two historical tidbits I did not know. One thing it talked about was the immense power wielded by Bosley Crowther at the New York Times from 1940 to 1967 -- he alone could make or break a movie -- until a new generation led by Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael began to directly challenge him. Crowther was mainly interested in social responsibility in films, films that managed to "say a little something," rather than sheer artistic exercises or works of personality. The new documentary treats Crowther kindly, but dismisses him as a relic.
However, in the world of documentaries, the Crowthers of the world still exist. Let's take a look at some of the current ones, beginning with Joe Berlinger's Crude (4 screens). It tells the story of an evil oil corporation that drilled in Ecuador and subsequently left the land poisoned; the 30,000 inhabitants of that region are now in a long-running lawsuit against the corporate types. Certainly no reasonable person wants to see corporations take over the world and control us all, and I gave the film a passing grade for being a solid work of journalism, but -- honestly, now -- who really wants to buy a ticket for this? Who wants to see it again? Who would ever own it in a DVD collection? But it has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and looks to be a potential Oscar contender.
Next up, we have Theodore Thomas's Walt & El Grupo (3 screens), which tells the potentially interesting story of Walt Disney's "goodwill" visit to South America in the early 1940s. The film seems more interested in protecting Disney's image than in really exploring the cross-cultural implications of the story. It's far more revealing to watch Disney's finished products, the extraordinary films Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944). Meanwhile, More Than a Game (14 screens) tells an inspirational basketball story, but using the oldest, creakiest documentary methods imaginable. And though I gave Food Inc. (27 screens) a rave review, and though it's a modest hit, it's not the kind of movie I'd call a personal triumph or a work of art.
These are the kinds of movies, which -- even if their message is absolutely essential -- will not stand the test of time. The thing that lasts through the ages is not news, but artistry, emotion and personality. When we watch Nanook of the North (1922) today, its not to learn about Eskimos, but to learn about the man who made it, Robert Flaherty. Thankfully, there's one near-great documentary playing at the moment: Abel Ferrara's Chelsea on the Rocks (1 screen). The unpredictable maverick Ferrara isn't exactly the kind of guy you'd expect to be doing research or following up on leads, but he somehow adapted his ramshackle style to this film. He checked into New York's Chelsea Hotel for a few months and simply filmed his neighbors (including Ethan Hawke, pictured above) telling stories. He sometimes interrupts with an expletive and sometimes walks in front of the camera; he's less interested in presenting a polished film or an important document or in making a statement than he is in simply making something that he himself finds interesting. It's a rambling, cluttered mess of a film, but his personality comes through; we learn as much about Ferrara as we do about the Chelsea. It's a real triumph, the kind that Crowther would have hated.