Normally, I am very upbeat about market forces and their effect on society. The benefits of allowing the market to define stuff generally results in a net improvement of most everything over time. For every unintended side effect, we are given ten products or services that make our lives better or easier in some way, or which allow us to concentrate on things that make us happy, as opposed to, for example, peeling potatoes.
Even consumer-driven TV, which is generally set up for audiences with about the intelligence of a hamster has never been an issue for me. I watch very little TV other than sports, so I’m happy that the drooling masses are cooped up in their houses game shows and Big Brother instead of clogging the streets or committing violent crime. Or worse, trying to think… that never goes well. So the boob-tube serves a purpose.
But, sometimes, one is hoisted by his own petard, and suffers karmic vengeance. While generalizing about TV, I was once under the smug impression that the documentary channels stuck somewhere in the 400s of the cable system were free from that particular plague. It used to be that the media companies behind them had seemed to simply stick them there, hoping to get an intellectual audience in New York, and resigned themselves to making small profits from that pat of their programming. Documentaries are cheap to film, as you don’t need to spend money on big stars, so even a small advertising investment is enough to keep the channels viable.
Unfortunately, there came a time in the mid 2000s when someone realized that people will watch stuff with a documentary format if you dumb it down enough. Reality TV had proved popular enough to have a long run on network TV, just imagine what it could do for the History Channel! And from there to the current programming grid was a slippery slope. I did an experiment last night: of the ten documentary channels on my TV grid, only one was showing something that a reasonably bright 10-year old wouldn’t have shut off in disgust. The rest were showing series about pet misbehavior, celebrity ghost stories, prisoners abroad, crime stories and psychic children. I do enjoy the show about restoring stuff, but I have to admit it counts as entertainment more than documentary films.
So, out of a grid of ten channels, precisely one – Discovery Civilization – was showing a program actually aimed at teaching something: Time Life Lost Civilizations – a show nearly 20 years old (the Mesopotamia chapter, BTW, is brilliant, balancing the religious and historical themes very well).
Ouch. Seems like teaching intellectually stimulating programming on TV has gone the way of the dodo.
Of course, documentary film has anything but a pristine, unblemished history (wikipedia entry here). From its very early origins, it has had its issues. Perhaps the first major documentary, Nanook of the North, was also one of the the first fictionalized documentaries. It tells 1920s audiences about the life of an Inuit family in northern Canada. Sadly, the film doesn’t reflect the true life of those families at the time, but is, instead an idealized picture of how it would have looked decades earlier – but that isn’t explained to the viewers at any time. In one famous incident, Nanook is shown hunting with a seal with a harpoon, which nearly gets him killed. What filmmaker Flaherty neglects to mention, however, is that, in real life, Nanook would have done what any sensible person in the twenties would have done: shot the thing with a rifle.
It got worse long before it got better. Over the next twenty-five years, documentaries were generally used for two things: basic newsreels and propaganda. While Battleship Potemkin is perhaps the best known early Soviet propaganda film, straight documentaries – as opposed to historical reenactments – were also a staple of the state controlled cinema industry.
But even the Soviets took a back seat when it came to showing off their ideology in a chilling, powerful way. The title of most alarming documentary has to go to Triumph of the Will. Leni Riefenstahl was a brilliant filmmaker (as can also be seen in her other masterpiece, Olympia), but she was in the pay of Hitler’s government, which meant that her talents were used to glorify the Aryan race (although Olympia, surprisingly, hero-worships Jesse Owens, but that is a story for another post). The images in Triumph are some of the most powerful I have ever seen on film, and the scene with the massed party at night is probably one of the most disturbing things ever committed to celluloid (yes, I know there are more graphic images elsewhere – but if you think it through, the death of millions trumps most anything else).
This use of documentary film is still alive and well today. The documentary format is a great platform to push an extreme ideology in a way that, to the uncritical portion of an audience, makes it seem legitimate. Super Size Me, for example, is based on an extreme, unrealistic premise – and yet was widely hailed as a serious film as opposed to what it was, a cynical publicity stunt aimed squarely at one particular company. Anything by Michael Moore also uses the format, very intelligently, to lend credibility to ideology. Modern examples abound.
In fact, it may be impossible to present anything in a way that completely avoids bias, or giving credence to one theory over another, but I think what makes a documentary worthwhile in my book is to at least make the effort, although in critical documentary that may become difficult.
To my mind, the golden era of documentaries started at some point in the sixties, and is only starting to end today, falling to commercial pressure and celebrity, as well as the shining beacons of commercially successful documentaries that are just opinion wrapped in facts that support it, ignoring anything inconvenient.
Don’t get me wrong – critical documentary can be very thought provoking and intellectually stimulating (I can’t recommend Visions of Space enough, the film about Mies van der Rohe is simply brilliant), but that doesn’t seem to be the direction in which we are heading.
Of course, all is not remotely lost. Despite the impression one gets when looking at the Oscar-nominated documentaries, there are still great documentaries being created all over the world, and if you have access to BBC or PBS, you will probably still get them on TV (we only get BBC news in Argentina, and no PBS). But for the rest of us, it takes an internet trawl to locate the good stuff.
I recently found a documentary which shows the life of the wildlife that has adapted itself to life in Japanese rice paddies, and the farmer’s planting cycle. Simply fascinating – but ten years old.
Still, I know there are newer gems out there, too. It’s just a question of looking for the.
Also, there are bonus points for anyone who can tell me where the lead image came from… That has to count for something, right?