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The current situation / non-stylish documentaries
In this week's blog, Slarek provides an update site work and how it's being affected by his home situation, and wonders if it matters whether a documentary feature plays it by the numbers if the content is worthwhile.
9 July 2017

Having started this blog with the intention of using it in part to communicate the current state of play with the site, it has occurred to me recently that when I do get around to writing an entry, it often reads more like an article. So this week, let's kick off with...


The current situation with the site

I see no need to repeat myself regarding the situation of my mother's health and the impact it is having on the time I am able to spend watching films and writing about them, having already outlined it in a blog back in March. It may be pertinent, however, to reveal here that the situation has not improved and has recently declined, to the point where the question that we're asking those with the medical qualifications has switched from “what next?' to “how long?” Obviously, my care of her is taking precedence over everything else in my life at present, which is why reviews are currently not flying out of my MacBook and may be subject to some further disruption in the not-too-distant future.

Adding to the recent bottleneck, every spare moment I could find recently has been swallowed up by my review for Indicator's superb Sinbad Trilogy box set, whose contents took a solid two weeks to watch and write in any detail about. Currently I'm working on reviews for two more Indicator releases, Sidney Pollack's Castle Keep and Arthur Penn's Mickey One. I watched Castle Keep this afternoon and am still trying to unscramble my brain as a result, having never seen a war movie quite like it. Camus has been beavering away on a soon to be posted review of the Blu-ray from Indicator's upcoming dual format release of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., and I'm hoping to deliver a late review soon (due to a seriously delayed release date, I forgot to ask for a review disc and thus will be working from the retail version when it arrives) of Arrow's dual format release of Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Pulse, a film I rate as highly as Cure, the film through which I was introduced to Kurosawa's work. Also in the pipeline is a review of the G.W. Pabst anti-war double, Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft, which is being released on dual format by Eureka later this month as part of the Masters of Cinema collection, while Gort is currently wrestling with what he likes and dislikes about Michael Winner's The Stone Killer, another recent Indicator release.


Do documentaries need to be visually stylish?

Last week I watched a feature-length documentary titled Oklahoma City, which explored events leading up to America's worst act of domestic terrorism, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995 by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, an atrocity that resulted in the death of 168 people. It proved compelling viewing, filling in gaps in the story as I understood it and tracing the links between McVeigh's actions and the terrifying number of extreme right-wing groups still active in the US. Structurally, it's absolutely by the numbers, being a bog-standard blend of talking-head interviews, archive footage and photos, newly shot location material and animated graphics to illustrate points. But does that matter?

It's hard now to imagine the revolutionary impact that the arrival of lightweight 16mm film cameras and crystal sync sound had on the documentary format in the late 1950s and early 60s, freeing it from the formal, tripod-bound rut in which it was stuck and changing the way that documentary films would be made from thereon. In recent years, filmmakers like Nick Broomfield, Louis Theroux and Michael Moore have become an integral part of the stories they tell, while the lively use of graphics in the likes of Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, the more minimalist approach of Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's The Corporation and the superb structural memory games played by Errol Morris in The Thin Blue Line have further re-energised the feature documentary format. The only downside of this more adventurous approach is that it tended to cast a shadow over more traditionally structured documentaries of the day, which sometimes drew criticism for their comparative lack of technical or artistic innovation. This in turn led to documentaries that actually became annoying to watch, with directors so desperate to draw attention to the filmmaking that it genuinely got in the way of the stories they were telling. Remember that period when you couldn't watch an interview without it intermittently cutting to a wobbly monochrome shot of the interviewee from a different angle? Every time I saw this I wanted to punch the filmmakers concerned in the kidneys.

Oklahoma City, which was directed by Barak Goodman and is available to watch now on Netflix, has none of those visual ticks or structural and stylistic innovations, and gets by solely on its content, the quality and breadth of its research and, dare I suggest, its unfussy presentation. I'm guessing it won't be up for any major awards, but it held my interest anyway because it tells an interesting story and doesn't let the filmmaking get in the way. And in that respect, it's absolutely doing its job.