Films

The Noir Film to End all Noir Films

Bacall and Bogart in The Big Sleep

We don’t normally start our articles with a caveat, but we’ll make an exception for this one.  We’re not considering Casablanca a noir film for this one, mainly because it doesn’t quite have the necessary cynicism in many of the characters that noir embodies.

Having said that, we can move along.

It seems that, over the past few years, a very good chunk of our posts regarding the 1001 films one must view before the grim reaper arrives have been about noir in one form or another.  It’s pretty much to be expected, as we’re traversing the golden age of the genre, the mid forties.

We’ve seen some films that we liked, a few that played with the expectations, and at least one which was just that little bit too dense to be enjoyable.  Hell, we even thought we’d finally found the be-all and end-all of noir film.

We were wrong.  The best noir film ever made is The Big Sleep (1946), and the reason it beats out To Have and Have Not is twofold.  The first part of the explanation is that the producers built on a formula that was pretty much perfect.  They took the same insanely talented group of actors and writers and applied the lessons that they and everyone else had learned over the intervening two years–and though two years might not sound like much, remember that there was more noir going on in those two years, than any time before or since.

The second reason is that, though we’re including To Have and Have Not among our noir films, it’s actually, to a certain degree, more aligned with Casablanca than with The Maltese Falcon.

The Big Sleep Movie Poster - Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart

But there’s no doubt about The Big Sleep.  As soon as Marlowe walks in, you know it’s the real deal… almost by definition.  In fact, we’re going to establish a new definition for noir: it has to contain either Marlowe, Hammer or Spade.  There.  We said it.

But even if the main character was some other detective, we’d have allowed this film in.  The plot twists and turns like a corkscrew, and you need to pay attention, or you’ll miss just what the heck is going on.

The women are beautiful–even the ones that aren’t Lauren Bacall–and the fact that the characters inhabit a world where night never seems to end is an inspired artistic decision.

Unusually, there are two versions of this film, one from 1945 and this one. The ’46 version is one in which the studio made a bunch of alterations… and, in an unusual turn of events, is actually better than the director’s original vision (more Lauren Bacall can never, ever be a bad thing, can it?).

So, if you are going to watch only one noir film in your life, this might be it.  It is film noir fully grown up and using all the tricks it learned in adolescence.

 

Also, here at CE, we’d like to give a shout out to surviving members of the cast: Dorothy Malone and Sonia Darrin, two women who have had an extraordinary run… long may it continue!!

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…and Other Times in English

We’d already done a review of one film adaptation of James Cain’s seminal novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, but that one had been in Italian.  The Hollywood version was actually the third to appear, after the Italian version and one in French.

Lana Turner and John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice

Why?  Well, like much else that was wrong with cinema in the 1940s, the Hays Code was to blame.  The self-righteous thought police was hard at work back then attempting to control what people did and thought (plus ça change…) with the effect that filmmakers were loathe to do anything that might offend the censors.

If you ever wondered why people who broke the law–even the romantic, sympathetic ones–never got away with it it was because one of the articles of the code expressly forbade that.

If you wondered why kisses never lasted more than three seconds… ditto.

The main question, of course, is: in the golden era of film noir–a genre whose success depends on the basest of human emotions: lust, betrayal, greed–did the limitations on the films make them less than they could have been or did they have the opposite effect and force the directors to go above and beyond to get around the limits?  We’ll never know, but the films that have come to us make me think the second is more likely,

Eventually, however, the studio moguls decided that, though the book’s subject matter was quite sordid, it was no worse than much of the rest of the genre, so they went ahead and filmed it.

The Postman Always Rings Twice Movie Poster

This one is, perhaps, a slightly more faithful adaptation of the book than Ossessione, but the two are, of course essentially the same.  The main difference is in the visuals.  For some reason, the sense that the Italian version gives is that most of the action takes place during the daytime, while the American one is much darker and more nocturnal, probably because that was the predominant aesthetic of the genre, or maybe it was a conscious effort to separate the two.

Whatever the cause, it works.  The film is a moody take on an already dark subject.

There isn’t really much more to say about it without rehashing the plot or repeating what other critics have said.  My own recommendation is to watch them both.  I think the Italian version is better at creating believable sexual tension between the characters–and, unhindered by the Code, at showing it–while the American version shines in the legal aspects and nighttime scenes.

Both are worth a look.

Reflections Upon Big Eyes

Tim Burton Big Eyes movie poster

María Evangelina Vázquez, who wrote this wonderful piece on Blake’s Poetry a few months ago, is back.  As is becoming a habit, she brings something completely new to the Classically Educated table: a thoughtful review of a modern film.  In keeping with our tradition, however, she deals with the subject from a different angles, which tie many isolated incidents together – and provoke thoughtful reflection.  If you enjoy this piece, and can read Spanish there is a repository of her articles here

Big eyes stare back at us. It’s like in Las Meninas by Velázquez; we ask ourselves: are we looking at the characters on the painting or are they looking at us? It is true that very often those things we cannot see directly, those that are hidden, are the most important ones. We have the iceberg theory by Hemingway which supports this idea. And now we have Big Eyes, the film by Tim Burton, based on a true story. In this movie we get to know the life of Margaret Keane: the real artist behind the paintings that were attributed to her husband, Walter, for around ten years.

It is not the first time that a woman is shadowed by a man who takes credit for her work; that is what happened to French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who began writing as ghost writer for her husband. Other women such as the well known Brontë sisters used male pen names when signing their first texts; and even in our times, J.K. Rowling signed her books with her initials so that the audience would think the author was a man.

Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell Poems

While some may still have to conceal their identity, others are often tempted to show themselves off more than they should. Social networks encourage us to share images of our private lives with others. What’s the limit, where do we draw the line? Our eyes are often overstimulated and we see so many things that a great part of these images go unnoticed and we cannot always decide what is relevant and what is accessory. It’s like in “The Purloined Letter” by E.A. Poe: the most obvious place for the letter is overlooked. We have an appetite to see more and more. And although we cannot possibly process all the information available, we look for images everywhere and try to make sense of what we see. We often don’t pay attention to images that we should see or that could interest us if we only gave them the chance to show themselves. On the other hand, we usually end up paying more attention to those images that are easy to digest, or that the media offer us with just one click.

The movie Big Eyes focuses precisely on what we see, what we want or are allowed to see, what we decide to show to others, how we mask ourselves because we don’t have the strength to assume who we truly are, or because society just makes it complicated for us to do so. Margaret is a talented artist who paints enormous, expressive eyes. These eyes are way out of proportion but they are what make her characters so special, and they become her trademark, like Modigliani’s long necks (in Argentina we have paintings by Lino Enea Spilimbergo, which also emphasize the eyes).

Margaret Keane Painting

Is it not a remarkable paradox that the artist who painted those huge eyes couldn’t be seen? Keane’s eyes remind me of John Steinbeck’s gigantic pearl, one that was so big that it could not be sold; a promising rarity that, however, could not find its place in the market. That’s what happened to Margaret’s paintings until the art market found a place for her. It has long been proven throughout human history that commercial success does not imply quality in art (and I should say in any other area), and that the lack of it does not imply poor quality of work either. The most significant example for what I’m saying is Vincent Van Gogh. He has bestowed great gifts on our eyes; nevertheless during his life he was quite invisible to those in charge of selecting masterpieces.

It is true that Margaret struggled and suffered psychological abuse for many years until she could stand up to her husband, to society, but she finally got the recognition she was looking for. We should ask ourselves: how many more Margarets are out there? Invisible all their lives… Sometimes just one look is enough to save them.

An Early Zombie Walk

I walked with a Zombie still

We all know film zombies.  They are the gentlemen and ladies who shuffle along in the direction of the nearest warm body (especially if it’s one of the main characters in the film) slowly decomposing, asking for brains, making others like themselves and generally being antisocial.  We should probably blame the seventies for this image.

But zombies are a little more complex than that.  They’ve even found a certain amount of street-cred among intellectuals due to the fact that they are said to embody the fears and anxieties of consumerism – the mindless pursuit of a given objective – and the atomic era.  This viewpoint has caused them to be accepted by certain areas of academia and there are even articles in serious newspapers and even academia dealing with the phenomenon.  Seen this way, as a symbol and a metaphor, they become socially acceptable.

I personally believe that the whole “metaphor” thing was planted by George Romero in an attempt to boost their popularity.  They’re friggin’ zombies for crissakes – if you over-think them, you’re doing it wrong.

I walked with a Zombie

Which brings us neatly to the next installment in our review series about the 1001 films to see before you die (hit the 1001 movies tag for the rest of them).  Today’s subject is the 1943 horror vehicle I Walked With a Zombie.

What makes this one interesting isn’t only that the lack of symbolism is appealing (in 1943 the atomic age hadn’t started, and the discussion of the angst of consumerism by postmodernists was still awaiting a time when psychedelic drugs were more widely available), but also that it uses the actual zombie mythology from Haiti.

We generally try to avoid spoilers when we do these reviews, but in this one, there’s not that much to spoil.  Generic character A discovers that Generic character B has a strange disease (a probable source for the virus-zombies of later years?  Discuss in comments), and the villagers, driven by their Voodoo belief believe that B is a zombie, and as such needs to be put out of her misery.  Tension ensues.

What makes it worth tracking down is not the story itself, but the fact that it tells the tale of a zombie as it would have been told before we all “knew” what zombies were.  It’s a story of witchcraft and curses and spiritism, all washed down with rum (and the first performance of a Calypso song in an American movie).  Also, like the movie Cat People by the same director, it leaves the audience with the question of whether anything supernatural is actually happening – or whether it’s all just an unfortunate misunderstanding.

As modern horror, it’s not all that compelling – or even frightening for that matter – but if you know what’s under the hood, it does become interesting!

And, if you ever get dragged into a Zombie Walk (seriously, you should get new friends or a new boy/girlfriend)… at least you’ll be the single person who knows what real zombies are about!

zombie walk

 

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A Very Different View of the War

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp Poster

 

If, a few weeks ago, you’d asked me what films about contemporary events produced during WWII were like, I’d have mumbled something about a combination of ra-ra morale building and propaganda.  In many cases, and for many countries, I’d have been absolutely right, but the British have always marched to a different drummer, it seems.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)is not a film that could have been filmed in Nazi Germany, and I seriously doubt that it is something that would have been permitted in the US.  In fact, it was filmed in Britain despite a certain Mr. Churchill attempting to stop production and making it difficult for the producers to film.

And yet, years later, we can watch it in its original glorious technicolor, and enjoy the fact that it was filmed.  Only in England…

Colonel Blimp

Of course, why it was not quite popular among the governors of that island is a much more interesting tale than the production itself.  The first clue is in the title.  Colonel Blimp was a cartoon character from the 1930’s who made proclamations such as “Gad, Sir! Lord Bunk is right. The government is marching over the edge of an abyss, and the nation must march solidly behind them!” from various Turkish bath locales.  The cartoon, clearly well-intended, and quite left-leaning (a google image search should find some more examples) was probably not the most popular of motifs by 1942.

The only real link to the cartoon, though, other than the title is that the main character, in his middle age, looks quite a bit like the Colonel in the cartoons, plus the fact that the action starts in a Turkish bath could possibly make it a bit confusing to the modern viewer, but that never detracts from the entertainment value of a film which, in essence, is a bit of a romp.

The second thing that was objectionable to many is that the film portrays a German (and a WWI officer at that) as a likable character. The fact that this German was not a Nazi, in fact was running from the Nazis, seemed to cause little impression amongst the naysayers.

It’s not actually clear why, Specifically, Churchill was against the film, but it was rumored that he thought it was a satire of him.  After production, he promptly banned it for export.

Deborah Kerr

It does seem, however, that resistance was mainly from a few sectors, and audiences enjoyed it, which is unsurprising, as it follows the career of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, played by Roger Livesey as he falls in love with three different iterations of Deborah Kerr’s character: once as a young firebrand disobeying orders, once as a mature WWI officer looking for a wife, and once as an older man whose feelings are more paternal towards her – and of outrage towards the actions of her boyfriend in whom, eventually, he sees a reflection of his younger self. 

This is essentially a story of coming of age, of the wisdom of age, and the value of friendship, as shown by our German officer who becomes the good Major-General’s best and oldest friend.

And, for a romp and a romance, it’s surprisingly good at showing what growing old means – and a good way of coping with the realizations one has along the way.

Plus, it’s fun.  We here at CE give it four Schlemmons on our newly introduced five-Schlemmon scale (invented this very to give this movie four Schlemmons on it).  We will be rating all movies on the Schlemmon scale from now on, in honor of the guy who told me how Titanic ends (the ship sinks), and thereby saving me a couple of hours of maudlin lowest-common-denominator awfulness.  We may use the Schlemmons for other things, too, depending on whether we feel like it.

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A Break From Wartime

The man in Grey

World War II seems to be in the air here, not only has our perusal of the 1001 Movies you must see before you die been reviewing the war years, as reflected by our last post in the series, but we are also planning a large series on the final days of the Bismarck, mixing our passion for history with our love of literature.  Nevertheless, so much war makes one wonder what it must have been like to actually have to live through WWII itself.

I imagine that one would want to have some kind of distraction from the ever-present war, and if going to the movies, one would probably only be able to stomach a certain amount of propaganda film.  But, at the same time, I also imagine that film audiences were nowhere near as convinced of the general expectation that people should respect and be nice to one another as we have today.  Gainsborough Pictures, a British movie studio, seems to have reached the same conclusion, and filmed the subject of today’s review, The Man in Grey, in 1943 (and again, I invite you to think about that for a second).

It is most emphatically not a war movie, as it is essentially a romance set in regency times, despite the fact that it begins with two servicepeople – a man and a woman, at an auction of the goods of an heirless notable killed at Dunkirk.  After that, however, it moves back in time to two ancestors of the man and woman, played by the same actors who are involved in a reasonably cynical love quadrangle.  Basically it’s the story of a man and women who get married and then fall in love with other people.  SPOILER ALERT IN THE NEXT SENTENCE: Happiness is averted at the last moment, and then the women die.

Unhappy Ending for this couple!

Even if you do read the previous sentence, it doesn’t give much away that you can’t guess from the opening scene, so you can still watch the film.

But of more value, in my opinion, is to wonder why this film with only a partially happy ending (no, I won’t spoil that for you) became the foundation of a successful series of melodramas.  Wouldn’t it have been much more logical, with the Luftwaffe potentially delivering death at night, to go out and watch a screwball comedy?  Or just a cartoon?

Perhaps not.  People of the time do see to have been a little less delicate than we are today.  Entertainment–even escapist entertainment–was not obliged to leave one feeling good or even sad but uplifted.  It was permissible to tell a story of bad people being bad, just because that’s the way life is, and there’s no such thing as karma.  Life isn’t fair, and the attitude of the times reflected that, and, looking around at modern social movements which seem to be trying to change that (next: watch idealists attempt to repeal the law of gravity!), I must say that I find the attitude amazingly refreshing.

juan-manuel-fangio-mega-galeri-25

Movies, of course, weren’t the only place where this kind of thinking abounded.  After the war, auto racing became much more popular, as cars became more ubiquitous.  Trees and houses were considered perfectly acceptable things to have on a roadside…  and crowds stood as close as they could.  There was no real public outcry, because “B-24s are dangerous, MGs are fun” explained away the danger of the activity.  And if someone died, it was their choice – after all, no one on the planet is forced to race cars, and only adults were doing it.  That wouldn’t fly today, where the Nanny State has invaded even these areas which should be between an adult and his conscience (do NOT get me started on helmets on ski slopes, because I am kind of a broken record on that).

I find it fascinating how seemingly unrelated issues such as movies and health and safety aren’t that unrelated after all.  I wonder if the pendulum will swing back to sanity, or if that only comes with the clarity given by a big, unpleasant war?

 

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Docudrama from WWII: Fires Were Started

fires were started Still

One of the interesting things that arise from having joined the 1001 Movies list in the early 1940s is that these first posts, not surprisingly, are have a higher-than-average proportion of propaganda films and war subjects (and if you missed our initial post on this subject, see here, and here for the earlier posts in this series on a different site).

Today’s subject is a 1943 film produced by Britain’s Ministry of Information, entitled Fires Were Started.  It tells the tale of a newcomer to the Auxiliary Fire Service, a group of civilian volunteer firefighters (the real ones pictured below) who were often put at the forefront of the fire control effort during the Blitz.  It has all the hallmarks of a propaganda film*: it depicts a heroic activity in which the common man can participate during a time of war, and shows that you are better for it, and that everyone is doing their part against a terrible scourge.

Actual Auxiliary Fire Service Members

One thing I did find interesting, and something I’ve also observed in other British films of the era, is that the films are very careful never to demonize Germany or the German people.  While Nazis are fair game, when they are mentioned in the British films I’ve seen, they are shown as having perverted a noble race as opposed to representing it.  In this film, the scourge isn’t the Nazis, it’s fire.  Fire symbolizes the plight and fight of the people of Britain and gives a framework to the heroic actions of the firefighters, as well as a clear backdrop to the philosophy that, if one kept one’s head and continued working, everything would be all right.  There is one particular scene where the telephone operators in the firehouse, mainly young women, suffer a number of near -and one very near-misses from enemy bombs, but still carry on with their tasks.  Esprit de Corps is also a central motif here.

Screen-Shot-2012-09-05-at-20.54.06

The fact that it’s not an actual documentary, but a dramatization of typical events allowed the director, Humphrey Jennings (pictured above), the leeway he needed to make it more effective.  The film pulls at the heartstrings because the sacrifices have a human face, and it works as propaganda because the heroism of those that sacrifice isn’t wasted, it allows the war effort to proceed.  The fact that Jenkins employed real members of the Service to act in the film, probably increased the amount of emotion that shone through.

As a basic course in propaganda, it is hugely effective, and I’d love to hear which other propaganda films you’ve found to be equally so.  From an earlier era, Battleship Potemkin comes to mind (while October is an example of how to overdo it and bore an audience to tears).  Any others?  I’d love to hear your suggestions – and maybe add to the review list!

 

On a related but separate note, I’ve often been asked where one can get these movies, as it’s a bit frustrating to read a review of something, and then be unable to find it anywhere without resorting to piracy (although piracy seems to be less of an issue in some countries than in others).  For this particular list, I’ve found that Netflix has about 80% of all the titles available, including Fires Were Started.

 

*I was about to write “of a good propaganda film”, but edited it, as we need to have a discussion on what exactly makes a propaganda film “good”.

Meshing with the 1001 Movies List

List!

Lists are popular.  People like them.

Blogs (including this one) are full of lists.  Top ten this, ten best that, ten worst hat experiences*, etc.  So are websites, sports shows, books and Cosmopolitan.  In fact, though there’s no list included in this particular post, it is closely related to one, which is also a book.

Those who’ve followed me over from my venerable Livejournal know that I’ve been watching the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die in chronological order.  This is driven more by curiosity regarding something I didn’t know all that much about (cinema history) than true obsession regarding the field (which is, in my experience, how polymaths do things).  I don’t watch one a day, or one a week, or anything like that, but, on occasion, I watch one, and have made a decent dent in the list.

I used to blog about it on the LJ, but the theme fits Classically Educated much better than what is, in essence, a writer’s blog.  So, as from today, I’m moving them here.

Classically Educated joins the party at my current progress level, which means that classics such as Metropolis, Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation (possibly the most shocking -actually laughably shocking, as I laughed in disbelief almost all the way through the second half-movie to modern sensibilities that I’ve seen so far, but also a landmark in film technology and one that brought the medium new maturity) have already been discussed.  Anyone who’d like to have a look can go here.

Today’s movie is not the ideal starter, but that’s never stopped us before, so here goes!

Meshes Key

Meshes of the Afternoon is an experimental film from 1943, and a surreal one, to boot, so it’s really only lovable for people who either fancy themselves connoisseurs of the avant-garde or serious students of film history.  It’s a very short piece, focusing on a dream sequence with certain events repeated to reinforce their significance.  A woman walks into a house, sits on a chair, falls asleep, and then reviews the scene various times, with alterations and a sinister figure.  Then, the dream and reality kind of merge, leaving one to wonder what is real and what isn’t.

To the educated layman’s eye, the film is not particularly successful as entertainment, but it does manage to convey the “dream on film” effect it was aiming for and, as such, is worth investing 14 minutes on, if only just to have an opinion on it if it ever comes up.

But I would warn you to avoid going overboard if you find yourself discussing this one with either a film historian or a psychologist.  Non-specialists will have a hard time keeping up with specialists on any film that Maya Deren created, and this one, despite seeming superficially accessible, is no exception.

maya deren

Of course, one can always take the engineer’s approach to impenetrable artsiness and say that it’s just useless navel-gazing, but that would come under the heading of tweaking obsessive people, and we’d agreed that wasn’t a great idea.

*Which immediately begets the question “Is there such a thing as a good hat experience?”  Feel free to discuss in comments!

Documentaries – Decline and Fall?

Mystery Image

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.

idiot-box

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.

41U6PTgd6sL._SX300_

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).

triumphofthewill-thelongwalk1 Triumph_of_the_Will_-_Night_footage_(1)

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?