Picking up where I left off from my last article on the Sci-Fi movies that will haunt your dreams, I’m bravely continuing through my library and Netflix queue to bring you another unsuspecting genre of terror.
True life on film. Or at least, that’s what we’re supposed to believe. It’s the premise of most documentaries, but as I will soon discuss not all are as “authentic” as they should be. Some real reasoning, some fake facts, but it’s all in the name of education and entertainment!
1) Documentaries on Food: First off, this is something very, very close to us. Culture is constructed on how and where we eat. Social circles are made or broken by who we share our meals with. A lot rides on food. Including our health, which many recent documentaries have taken the lens to reveal not so wonderful things about the bounty at the grocery store. Two standouts in this category are the critically acclaimed Food, Inc. and Food Matters.
The first is an expose of sorts, revealing the origins of our food. Although there’s a lot of pro-PETA-esque sounding rants, it’s pretty within reason to argue the genetic mutation of animals for profit at the risk of both the animal’s well being and human health raises the skeptical eyebrow. That point was mentioned in one of the first films about the obesity epidemic, Super-Size Me, but Food, Inc. takes it further by actually showing the malformed beasts stumbling in dark coops and the poor farmers bought out by the conglomerates to produce the sickly creatures. It’s not only the animals that are treated cruelly, but people too. From food poisoning fatalities to the exploitation of illegal immigrants, there’s an awful lot of bad blood running from slaughterhouses. Possibly the biggest victim of this multi-national tragedy is the farmer. Subsidized off of their land, forced to pay patent cost on seeds (certain seeds, especially genetically modified ones, are patented and have a copyright just like Mickey Mouse), and trapped into an indentured servant-like contract not unlike that of precolonial America, farmers just can’t seem to get a break.
In Food Matters, the issue of malnutrition on the consumer side is explored in great detail by doctors and nutritionists alike. A tad more radical than Food, Inc. perhaps, but it brings much to the table in terms of learning how to eat properly. Tips like forgoing the steaming of veggies to keep the nutrients in or how certain vitamins affect multiple functions in the body is not a Discovery Health Channel special, it is engaging and almost scandalous that the medical profession is so illiterate when it comes to nutrition. For example hospital diets and fad diets do more harm than good and there maybe a possible cancer treatment with mere Vitamin C, killing the tumor and replenishing healthy cells for regrowth. Where are my Flintstones Vitamins again?
If the food doesn’t get you sick, these docs will.
2) Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room: Americans are pissed about the economy and rightfully so. Movies like Insider Job (now playing at the Coolidge now) and Capitalism: A Love Story are some of the best in recent docs that focus on the current economic meltdown. But what should have served as an alarm for things to come, was then merely swept under the rug as an unfortunate accident. I’m talking about the catastrophic bust of the Enron corporation, once one of Wall Street’s sure-fire stock exchange sweet-hearts, now a punchline for all the things that can and have gone wrong in the business world. As Gordon Gecko said in the original Wall Street, “Greed is good” and this Houston-based company made it their mantra. The doc, veers dangerously into parody moments at times. Do we need a stripper scene to show how spend happy these executives were? I think not, but it add a hilarious bit of strangeness when this is shown in a soft focus dream-like back flash. I suppose it’s humanizing these greedy bastards to have a weakness for something that normal.
But it is the biblical concept: that money is the root of all evil, which makes this documentary so damn terrifying. These CEOs and accountants weren’t members of some elitist Illuminati conspiracy. Many were regular business folks, worked hard in college, networked their way up, and built a company from a local gas and oil supplier to an international conglomerate of businesses. They pioneered business practices online and were a major player in the nineties economic boom. They were ordinary people like you and me.
Somewhere along the line of playing the game of capitalism: the monopoly edition, many of these guys seemed to have lost their consciences or their souls, if you prefer. They encouraged employees to invest in the company in order to cover their debts, sort of like a Ponzi scheme. Employees lost their jobs and their pensions. Shareholders lost their investments. Companies associated with Enron were essentially blacklisted and some, like Enron’s accounting firm, lost all credibility in the market and followed Enron into bankruptcy proceedings not too long after. Banks were robbed of loans that could have been set aside for other businesses. Thousands were affected, literally left in the doghouse in terms of what their families were going to do about income. And what Enron executives have to say for themselves in court is about the scariest real-life “Law & Order” scenarios one can watch. Completely devoid of remorse, each executive took the stand in order to assert his innocence in one of the biggest insider trading scandals ever to mark the history of free enterprise.
Their names may not be Freddy, Jason, or Michael Meyers, but you won’t forget these real-life monsters anytime soon. A choice few of their former business partners in crimes are currently reaping the rewards of taxpayer’s bailout money.
Note: I really recommend I.O.U.S.A. and Maxed Out as well. A little older on the documentary shelf life, but there great films to explain how our country and its citizens are screwed in terms of debt. If you thought your $100,000 worth of student debt was bad, you may never want to own a credit card after watching these films.
3) PBS/History Channel Documentaries: Okay, so this one is not so specific, but has anyone else noticed that the qualities of some of these documentaries have slipped? Some, in the name of being “cutting-edge” have become increasingly over edited and over populated with graphics. The one that comes to mind here is the History Channel’s series on the seven deadly sins. Interesting concept with modern day connections on how sloth was actually misdiagnosed depression and how envy has actually benefited capitalism. But then we got to the recreation portions of a cartoonish helldom, and repeated images of the devil violently flying past the screen. I understand they are trying to visualize a concept, but there’s only so many times you can flash medieval paintings of Lucifer before it’s burned into my retina.
As for historical recreation, my mood shifts from serious spectator to chuckling onlooker the moment a heavily accented voice reads the words of wisdom from long ago. As much as I love Ganhdi and Martin Luther King Jr., I don’t need their words to be read dramatically like a bad Lifetime movie. That said, the silly accents given to laypeople distract the viewer and add about as much authenticity as having a horse carriage on Main Street, U.S.A. in Disney World. It’s a distraction when I’m trying to get a better picture of the castle.
4) Zeitgeist: The Movie :I came across this public domain documentary a few years ago through a MySpace recommendation (did I just age myself here?). Glenn Beck, eat your heart out. This film had me hyperventilating over one conspiracy after the other. At first it starts slow, introducing the notion that religion is the greatest scam ever sold. Alright, we’ve heard it since Karl Marx told the working class that religion was the opiate of the masses, move on. Part two of the film is where things start to go in the radical conspiracy zone. 9/11 was an inside job according to the filmmaker, and he does a handy job of bringing in “experts” and slowing down clips of the attacks to fill your eyes with tears and hearts with fear. Good lord, as if the concept of trigger-happy terrorists weren’t scary enough, let’s throw in the idea that the government killed thousands of its own citizens in the name of imperialism.It’s quite the assertion to make sir, can we see some credentials? Documents? I want more than just recreations of backroom deals and silly pictures of Bush as evidence.
But the insanity doesn’t just stop there. Remember the Illuminati I mentioned earlier and the ones that Dan Brown has in his Angel and Demons as the bad guys? Spoiler alert! Apparently, these guys also run the World Bank and are going to ruin us back to the bartering era. Conspiracy theories are tucked inside of another like a matryoshka doll from a sci-fi flick. This is not a relaxing movie, even I had to force myself to finish it, especially the final chapter where it becomes very easy to lose grip on what is real and what was conspiracy.
It is Inception in the form of a crazy documentary. It seems as if it’s trying to implant ideas where there were none there before. Thank goodness there’s a way out of the nightmarish paranoid world painted in this film: it’s the end.
5) Military Documentaries: Again this has to do with some of the pratfalls of historical documentaries (terribly edited sequences, horrible voice overs, awful re-enactments), but sometimes it is the nostalgia for what once was that can be severely misplaced. Before the 24-hour Military Channel and before aliens and “Swamp People” took over, the History Channel used to be the home of endless war documentaries. I know, because I used to suffer through these in order to get to the next rerun of “History’s Mysteries” and “Modern Marvels.” WWII was so popular in the early days, History Channel was often joked about as the Hitler Channel. I knew more than what my textbooks covered in high school thanks to this programing flaw. What we did not often see back then, was more international coverage (although this has been improved with the invention of History International). And hey, here’s a decent question: other than fighting, what else did humanity accomplish other than murdering each other? I think the only other figure that garnered as much screen time as the Gestapo was Jack the Ripper.
The other danger of documentaries is that it only usually covers one side of the story. Good for us Americans, unfortunate for those we waged war with. Again, until recently, war documentaries covered the heroics of one side only. It’s only now that documentaries are delving into Lincoln’s time in office not as a great hero, but as a man struggling with duty and depression. Patton was not just a great American hero, he could be a brute at times and challenged his superiors. Military documentaries are right up there with political documentaries in terms of painting the world black and white, good and evil. People caught in the middle be damned. What these propagandist gloss over is the fact that these men and women of campaigns were flawed, had fears, and were very much human. They had families and loved ones just like the people they fought. Show me that kind of a story, with complex personalities and believable circumstances while addressing the enemy and the context over which they are fighting; maybe we can find something that is fair and balanced. Maybe.
Also, The Sorrow and the Pity? How long can a documentary be before its length becomes a form of torture itself? The purpose is to educate not bludgeon the viewer to numbness about a subject.
Well these are just a few of my favorite and not so favorite nightmares on film. Don’t eat too much of the candy this season, I hear there’s another documentary in the works about that.