I have been watching a lot of documentaries lately. I've always really liked the genre, but I've been really into it in the past few week. So I thought I'd review a couple of them.
Several months ago, Mark and I watched The Weather Underground which is about the Weathermen/Weather Underground radical activist/"terrorist" group in the 1960s and 1970s. I already knew quite a bit about them and found it pretty simplistic, but Mark really liked it, so I went in search of more documentaries about the radical groups of that time.
The first one I found was Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (also sometime called Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbianese Liberation Army). Guerilla made The Weather Underground look like an in-depth master work. Seriously. I realize the film was mostly about Patty Hearst's capture and bizarre behavior, but they could have given enough background to make it make sense! Watching the film gave you very little idea of what the SLA was really about, how it started, and why they did what they did. It was mostly a waste of time.
The next thing I saw was an old documentary called Who Are The DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids? (made in 1977). It's a much better movie than the Hearst one, even if it is old-PBS style documentary (lots of voice-over and not enough of the "subjects" speaking for themselves). It tells the story (or a piece of the story) of the DeBolt family, who have seven biological children between them and twelve adopted children, of various races (mostly Korean and Vietnamese), most (all?) of whom have various disabilities (several of them are partially paralyzed, two are blind, one has no arms or legs, etc.) Simply watching the logistics of the DeBolt family, with twelve children living at home, is fascinating enough, but this film also does a fairly good job portraying the kids with disabilities as whole people, rather than martyrs, or caricatures. Given the prevailing attitudes towards people with physical disabilities in 1977 (and now...), it was impressive to see.
Which isn't to say that the film is perfect--it's certainly not. As I mentioned, I would have like to see more of the family speaking for themselves, and it erred on the side of making things appear a bit sunnier than they possibly could be. However, I found it surprisingly good overall.
Lastly, S. and I went last night to see the new documentary about the New York Times crossword puzzle and its devotees, Wordplay. Wordplay is much lighter fare than the previous two movies, but it's also better made. In fact, I think it's one of the best made documentaries I've seen in a long time. There's no clear film-maker agenda, and the people featured in it are give the space to speak for themselves at length. The viewer comes away with not one but several clear views of why these people do crossword puzzles, even why they become obsessed with them, and it makes sense. I was especially impressed with filmmaker Patrick Creadon's ability to use film to portray love and respect for language. To move between the mediums like that, without the effort being obvious, is a triumph. Wordplay is also able to walk the line between taking itself too seriously and taking itself seriously enough, which, given the subject matter, is a fairly thin line.
As a testament to the impact the film made on me, I attempted to work several crossword puzzles today, something I've never been interested in before. While I doubt conversion was Creadon's goal, it has to say something for his work that it got me interested in trying them out. I suck, by the way. Becoming a Times devotee is a long way off.