"Reality" shows like Honey Boo Boo and Amish Mafia make me crazy.
They're empty filth with false, contrived insights into people on the outskirts of modern society, glorifying the buffoons who are only too happy to act the part on television. That's why this week's column showcases real documentaries about real people. For the most part, these docs don't look down on their subjects, nor do they make them look foolish through clever editing. While not perfect, they nail exactly what documentaries should do: objectively look at a topic and give the viewer a new perspective on something they may never have known about.
Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure(2011, Netflix Streaming): Many years ago, two friends, Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. moved to San Francisco to follow their dreams of being stars in the music biz. Being that they had more heart than money, they had to rent an apartment within their means, which meant a dingy little cheap joint. They ended up with a nice enough dump, but were given one warning by the landlord: "neighbors can get loud", and she wasn't kidding. What follows is a very interesting study of something all of us who live with people on the other side of our walls wonder whenever they hear noise from the neighbors: "what could they possibly be doing over there?" This documentary falls apart a bit toward the end, but watching Eddie and Mitchell go through an amateur investigation of their neighbors and the resulting underground "fame" that resulted from their antics makes for a pretty fascinating story.
Vernon, Florida (1981, Netflix Streaming): I love Errol Morris' wide ranging work. One of his docs examined the life of a man who builds the machines that administer the killing drugs to death row inmates (Mr. Death, The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.). Another showcased a family that started one of the nation's first big pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), and another got a guy released from death row (Thin Blue Line, also streaming on Netflix). While all three of those movies are great, Vernon, Florida is more representative of why I admire Morris' work so much. The doc is free-form, with no plot to speak of. Morris simply records some of the more eccentric townsfolk of Vernon, Florida. We meet such colorful people as an old man who claims to be able to do four things at once (thanks to the bolts in his head!), a woman who is convinced that the radioactive sand that she picked up on vacation is growing, and a gentleman who describes turkey hunting in such a way that you'd think he's chasing after his own dark, inner demons.
Queen of Versailles (2012, Netflix Streaming): This movie is a near perfect example of what a good documentary should do: the filmmakers behind Queen of Versailles simply let the cameras roll and let their subjects do the rest. The Queen of Versailles is actually Jackie Siegel, the wife of wealthy timeshare magnate David Siegel. As the film begins, the two are undertaking the building of their personal Versailles, a magnificent mansion with over 100 rooms, an ice skating rink and other assorted craziness all spread out over an 85,000-square-foot floor plan. The building of this $65 million abode is made even more difficult when the great recession hits and hubby's timeshare business takes a financial dive. Versailles would almost be a comedy if it weren't so infuriating on so many levels. The anger comes not from the lavish lifestyle that Mrs. Siegel is used to living (I can't begrudge anyone spending what he or she has); the anger comes from her complete inability to actually grasp how dire her situation is. Maybe it's not even anger at her really, just frustration, because she does seem like a very sincere lady. Queen of Versailles is a fascinating window into how the wealthier among us handle a situation that us normal folk deal with on a daily basis.
Trekkies (1997, Netflix Streaming): Okay, okay, we all know about trekkies, the nerds who love all things Star Trek, but this documentary showcases the humanity behind the devotion. While I will definitely concede that some of these fans are a little off (the lady with hundreds of photos of the guy that played Data is nuts), for the most part they make a great case for why they do what they do. One of my favorite things about this doc is that the makers of Trekkies seem to try to go out of their way to attempt to lampoon some of their subjects, but it backfires completely on them. They fail because the trekkies they are trying to poke fun at explain that they are simply trying to live by the moral code that Star Trek exemplified, which is actually a pretty honorably way to live -- once you get past the outfits and all.
Grizzly Man (2005, Netflix Streaming): I would be very very remiss if I were not to mention Werner Herzog when writing an article about great documentary filmmakers. Herzog definitely does not make non-biased documentaries, but he is careful to lay out what his beliefs are about his subject very early on in the filmmaking. He certainly does that with Grizzly Man, his documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor who decided to be the protector of wild grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness, who ended up getting himself and his girlfriend killed and eaten by those very bears. While Herzog clearly does not side with Treadwell's beliefs, he never lets that cloud his documentary and it certainly helps to make the film much stronger. Grizzly Man will most likely make you angry at the hubris that Treadwell displays, but the anger won't be fueled by a director editing the footage to make Treadwell look like a nut. Herzog lets Treadwell speak for himself. It's an amazing character study of a man who has lost touch with the "real" world around him.