Sunday, January 8, 2012

palate cleanser: American documentary

One day, when I was working at Penguin, I saw a tall, good-looking blond man with a mustache walking toward me, and he looked familiar.  I said, "Hi," and he said, "Hi," with a big smile, and I thought, "Wow!"  Charisma just wafted off him.  It took me a second to figure out who it was:  the documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, whose companion book to Supersize Me was being put out by the imprint next to mine.  (This has happened to me a few times, when I've seen a public figure:  they look familiar to me, so I greet them as an acquaintance just before it registers who they are -- and that I don't know them personally.  But it probably seems a lot more friendly than gawking and pointing, which I imagine is more pleasant for the famous person as well.)

I had seen Supersize Me and knew that Spurlock was a terrific filmmaker, but hadn't realized until that time that a lot of it owed to Spurlock's performance as himself in the film.  His work is great, but his appearance in the film is what puts it over the top.

I just watched his newest film, Pom Wonderful Presents:  The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, and it's just fucking brilliant.  He's so smart, such a smart filmmaker.  Basically, what he's done is to make a film that is basically 100% product placement -- the $1.5 million to produce the film was generated entirely from product partnerships.  And while he honors his contracts with these sponsors to the letter, he somehow manages to make a point about the horrible ubiquity of advertising.

OK -- there is a connection here to Indian film.  Indian films are a lot more overt about the role of product placement.  At the very beginning of each film, along with the usual list of producers and releasing companies, they have a title for "Product Partners," and lists them all right up front.  American movies hide them in tiny type within the closing credits.  Both are honest, but Indian films are more open.

I love American documentaries, and they're very different from most of what I've been watching.  Although I did watch Errol Morris' Tabloid a week or so ago, and recently rewatched The Thin Blue Line on cable.  Morris is another brilliant one.  His topics are a little more eccentric; he's kind of leaning in a David Lynch direction at times.  Michael Moore is left-wing and anti-corporate and amusing; Spurlock is anti-corporate and wickedly funny.  I've seen a few best docs of 2011 list, and have been checking out a few. 

But the one I'm really looking forward to is the third Paradise Lost doc, coming out this month on HBO.  Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's first two films shone a light on an egregious miscarriage of justice, the case of the West Memphis 3.  Three small boys were found dead in West Memphis, Arkansas, and the local cops decided to point the fingers at three teenage boys who liked to listen to heavy metal and wore black tee shirts.  They made up all kinds of stories about devil worship and sexual torture, and the kids all got life or death sentences.  They were finally released this past summer, after eighteen years in prison.

Morris did something similar in The Thin Blue Line, which also led to the release of someone unfairly convicted of murder, even though his documentary had a somewhat dreamy quality (enhanced by a fantastic score by Phillip Glass).

American documentaries just kick ass.

One more connection:  would some excellent American documentarian please make a movie about Indian film, and hire me to do research?

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