I've got a great idea for a documentary. I will attempt to go a full year without wearing pants, as a film crew follows me and my goal and presents just how difficult such a wardrobe restriction makes my everyday life. Not interested? Is it because you know my blogging profession would not make it so hard to go 365 days without bottoms or because the task is not tied to some greater protest or cause? Probably a little of both, plus the fact that you'd have no interest in seeing a feature film of just me walking around pantsless.
But what other sort of restrictions or obstructions are there worth centering a documentary around? Something that's not just a stunt but also a form of activism, be it focused on Americans' health, the legality of drugs, being more environmentally conscious or some other such effort that could make a difference beyond what it does to the single person or family living out that strict set of rules during a set time frame.
I know people who regularly plan out monthly meal missions involving the deprivation of a particular food, such as cheese or bread or french fries. Unless they made it out to be for a greater message regarding either diet restrictions or obesity their constant changes to their eating habits aren't of much interest to anyone but themselves. This is why they don't have filmmakers documenting their lives as the subjects of this week's trio of films did.
Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004)
Even if you're not a huge documentary film fan like myself you've probably seen this Academy Award nominee based around director Morgan Spurlock's self-enacted task of eating only McDonalds for a month. So I probably don't need to say much about it other than in hindsight it's still a far more entertaining film about the evils of fast food than either the dramatized adaptation of Fast Food Nation or the very recent Food, Inc. It's also funnier to me six years later because at the time I first saw the film I had just recently gone off fast food, among other things, and lost 60lbs. I recall being in the theater and hearing my companion whisper, "this is making me actually crave a Big Mac." And me agreeing.
As far as the restriction-experiment-based genre of documentaries go, this was the obvious influence on the second film selected this week and maybe even the third. But it didn't spark a total trend, partly because the concept works better with other media, particularly books and reality TV series. In fact, rather than churning out more feature films structured around other goals, Spurlock went to cable with the show 30 Days, in which he or others attempt missions involving income, alcohol, religion and other serious issues. It was like his TV Nation, only afterward he hasn't had as much success as Michael Moore had post-TV phase (he is however currently nominated for an Emmy for his work on The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special - in 3D! On Ice!). His contribution to Freakonomics is the least of the bunch, and right now he's in San Diego documenting Comic-Con attendees for a film that I can't imagine being as interesting as his doc debut.
Regardless of how Spurlock turned out, though, was the film itself effective? Well the obesity epidemic continues in full force and Spurlock's mission itself was scrutinized for a long time after. Yet despite claims that the film wasn't the cause, it seemed to have an influence on McDonalds' decision to do away with the "super size" options for their meal combos and it also continues to be a good tool for educating kids about healthy eating, as there are all those parts of the film that don't directly involve his stunt. It's these parts that allowed for an educational version of the film to be made for school curriculum. For more on where we're at many years later, there's also a new "6 1/2 Year Special Edition" due out in September that will show us where some of its featured subjects are at today.
Super High Me (Michael Blieden, 2007)
Before this documentary was made, comedian Doug Benson was referencing Spurlock's earlier film in his stand-up act, proposing the idea, as a joke, of doing a similar stunt with marijuana. The hoped result of such a gimmick, however, was for reverse intent, to do something a lot to show that it isn't unhealthy rather than to show that it is. Filmmaker Michael Blieden, who'd made prior comedy concert films, took Benson to task and together they made this similarly hilarious yet also similarly educational documentary about the effects of smoking pot every day for 30 days. Well, first the regularly high comedian goes a month without a single drag of marijuana in order to make a scientific comparison.
For obvious reasons Super High Me was not as successful as its predecessor and it certainly didn't have an education edition released. But I don't think its lesser exposure had as much to do with the subject matter as the fact that it seems like and was kind of sold as more of a parody of Super Size Me than a serious look at a serious topic. I was actually surprised when I watched it that it contains so much informative material and non-stunt-involving document of the modern medical marijuana industry, pro-pot activism, the politics and enforcement of its illegality and other stuff that even most potheads likely found enlightening.
One thing I wish Super High Me had, though, that it's precursor and the next film in this column had, is a girlfriend (or boyfriend or other kind of partner) through which to see the more social effects of such an exercise. In Super Size Me the audience gets to side with Spurlock's vegan chef girlfriend (now wife, pictured above) and see how his experiment is hurting their relationship, if and when it is. At the very least a partner of some sort would likely have taken over designated driver duties away from Blieden's crew, which had to chauffeur Benson around his whole month of regular intoxication.
No Impact Man (Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, 2009)
There's a moment in this documentary, which is about writer Colin Beavan's mission to live with "zero impact" on the environment for a year, that perfectly calls attention to itself and the very concept of these kinds of stunts, whether literary or cinematic. It's a quote -- I thought from a widely read New York Times story on Beavan's mission, though it doesn't appear to be so -- in which someone described the idea as "part change the world, part gimmick for your next book." The criticism made me somewhat annoyed with Beavan and the film even though I already had accepted this balance that comes with projects like this. It seemed more an issue given that the No Impact Man book obviously took down a lot of trees for its publication (that the hardcover edition ended up a bargain book shows it may have been over-printed, too). The Kindle version makes sense, however. Then there's the part in the film where Beavan and family shut off their power for six months. He ends up being loaned a solar panel, which he claims is only for necessary electricity -- like powering his laptop so he can blog about his experiment. Hmmm.
The thing I love about No Impact Man, though, is that it's not necessarily about the project -- that's what the book and blog are for -- so much as it's primarily focused on Beavan's wife, Business Week writer Michelle Conlin (pictured above), and how the experiment impacts her (ahhh, so the title is slightly ironic in film form). It's like watching a version of Super Size Me where Spurlock's girlfriend is on screen and heard on the soundtrack more than he is, which is pretty interesting. It is however somewhat sad that more than all the derisive news stories about Beavan, her involvement seems to show the height of the project's obnoxiousness. She's like a filter for the audience to wonder if they could've put up with it. Then again, she's also a representative of why the idea behind the experiment is necessary, as she's a highly consuming and addicted individual exemplifying capitalistic excess and waste.
I'm not sure if it's still being developed, but a few years ago Columbia picked up the rights to Beavan's book in order to make the story into a dramatic feature. I can't imagine that it would work on a level that's beneficial to the cause. It would just likely be a slapstick comedy involving the annoyance of the restrictions. Similarly other experimental lifestyle books such as The Year of Living Biblically have been optioned for non-documentary feature films as well. I wonder if there is room for another documentary entry into the fold. And if so, I'd like to see what Lars von Trier, who made the multi-restriction-based doc The Five Obstructions, could do with something like these three films. Or, has Sacha Baron Cohen ruined the genre by taking the concept to a different level with his comedic partial-documentary films that function is a similar and more popular way?