My first Doc Talk column, which honestly feels much longer ago than January of this year, was centered on news that chimpanzees were shooting their own non-fiction films as part of a BBC special. The idea inspired me to complain about the seemingly growing belief that anyone can make a documentary so long as they've got a camera and a subject or cause worth documenting.
To publicly answer a recent, related tweet from Errol Morris (which he appears to have deleted but which is still viewable through others' retweets), yes, yes, yes, it's very possible and very common for there to be bad movies made about good subjects and worthy causes (frankly, I think Morris' Standard Operating Procedure counts). And the reverse is also definitely true (see Triumph of the Will).
This becomes more and more apparent the more docs I see. And since the start of this column I've probably seen more in the span of these last nine months than I had in total beforehand over the course of my 33 years (and I already saw more docs than most people to begin with). But that's the case with anything. The more you get of anything, there's a probable increase of bad along with good.
Now I'm starting to get solicitation from filmmakers with undistributed or self-distributed works with desire for coverage in Doc Talk, in part because it's one of the rare places for docs to get attention on a major movie blog. I've been fairly welcome to the idea, mainly since a lot of great stuff I see at fests or long after their festival runs are titles that don't get picked up or didn't quickly find exposure.
Of course, this is less the case now that digital platforms are available to nearly every worthwhile non-fiction film (and many that aren't of much value, too). I was reminded this week, in fact, that a good percentage of Netflix subscribers are becoming more open to and familiar with documentaries thanks to how many are easily accessed through the Watch Instantly feature. Being able to sample a few minutes and decide immediately if you want to continue helps. Admit it, you too have been seeing more docs than before through this service.
Also, one of the first documentaries I reviewed (before joining the Cinematical team) was for a barely distributed film called American Beer (sadly still not available through Netflix), about a bunch of guys who take a road trip around the U.S. to visit craft breweries. It's not the greatest as far as quality of filmmaking goes, but it is highly informative and I'll always remember and thank it for teaching me the basics of beer appreciation (which led to snobbery, according to my friends).
This week I watched the first two documentaries sent to me directly by their filmmakers, and without being too harsh, let me just say I'm disappointed. Enough that these might be the last two documentaries I accept in such a way. Still, even though I hate being the guy to come down hard on people who make an effort and do rather than just talk (which admittedly is all I do), I'm not going to let the time spent watching these films go wasted. So I'm going to make minor examples of Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story and The Winter of the Beard, neither of which I hated yet both of which I wanted a whole lot more from.
Let's begin with the Monopoly doc, the debut non-fiction feature of Kevin Tostado, which will be hitting the smaller film fest circuit this fall and also can be demanded via its Eventful campaign for screenings. As its title suggests, Under the Boardwalk is about the Parker Brothers board game, and if you'd like to know everything there is to know about the history of Monopoly, you'll at least get that out of it. It is quite exhaustively informative, though in a way that reminded me of how Food Network's Unwrapped is superfluously educational about snacks and candy. Narrator Zachary Levi (TV's Chuck) even seems to have modeled his voice-over on that of Marc Summers.
In addition to featuring segments well suited for cable television, though, Under the Boardwalk also attempts to be the kind of competition document we've seen with films like Spellbound, Wordplay, Word Wars and The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, the last of which was a kind of game changer for tournament docs. So if you're going to film, say, the U.S. and World Championships for Monopoly, it's best to find or (nothing wrong with this) create drama and give us characters, not just people. Tostado has the beginnings of a Billy Mitchell-type villain in Ken Koury, a lawyer who dresses like the Monopoly version of John Lasseter (seen here for reference) and likes to label other competitors cheaters, but his potential is squandered, especially once he's out of the contest before even the final round.
Ultimately what we're left with is a piecing together of historical background, a lot of talking heads just saying how much they love Monopoly rather than any subjects we really get to know and care about, and some visual documentation of the 2009 tournaments. It wouldn't hurt to have some manipulation, better editing or something to give us a real story here. Tostado already fakes a few bits, such as coverage of finalists' home life, which was recorded after the event yet made to look like it's from before, as if the film was following these people all along.
I was surprised more by The Winter of the Beard (available on DVD via co-director Jeff Pitcher) and liked it a lot better, though for very subjective reasons. On the surface it's just a film about nine men spread out over America who stop shaving for six months. They weren't even allowed to trim any facial hair. But unlike a number of other films that have been made documenting beard and mustache competitions and celebrations, this film merely uses the experiment as a device through which to present its subjects' lives and philosophies through that half year. Kind of a collaborative effort, each grower was given a camera and asked to record first-person documents, mainly through self-interviewing and confessional-type monologues.
What results is a relatively specific portrait of men in their 30s addressing what that gender and that age come with. Because I'm a man in his 30s, one who constantly grows and then shaves his beard, I related. Viewing it directly between screenings of Katie Aselton's The Freebie, which I think is a must-see for all people in this age range, and I'm Still Here, which may have slightly contributed to my decision to shave off my current beard and also which I initially related to for that "am I doing what I want to be doing" question we in our 30s often ask ourselves, I had a precise context and perspective with The Winter of the Beard that others won't have.
It's got pretty limited appeal, I guess, additionally due to how depressing and angry and slow it can be at times. But a documentary isn't bad for being inaccessible to a large audience. I do wish the film had more diversity in its subjects and showed more than it told. It's best moments are scenes with all the men brought together, once early on in the experiment and again at the end, both of which reminded me of Kelly Reichert's Old Joy. There's a more open-spaced and less stagey feel to these parts that I wanted more of.
Each of these documentaries has its pros and cons. Under the Boardwalk is more on the bad movie about a good subject end of the spectrum, while The Winter of the Beard is closer to being a good movie about a boring (or at least overdone) idea. My main problem, though, is that neither is very significant or made with real passion or necessity. And with as many documentaries as are made in the world today, and with animals showing how easy it is to do the bare minimum to qualify, and with such limited media coverage of non-fiction cinema, filmmakers must aim to be and make the best and really try to reach that goal. There's just no room for half-assed work anymore.