Documentaries

Standard Oil’s Louisiana Docu Drama

People who’ve been following along for more than a decade (I know there are still some of you around from the LiveJournal days), will remember that I reviewed a couple of Robert Flaherty’s documentaries there, particularly Nanook of the North during our 1001 Films viewing.

I’ve never really been a fan of documentaries with scripted action.  For my money show me footage from the era, if it existed, or artifacts, but dressing characters up and having them play a role which might or might not be true to reality is just silly.

Louisiana Story Film Poster

Within this context, Louisiana Story has one thing going for it: it was filmed during the era it attempts to portray, which makes many of the background images, at least, realistic.

I assume costumes, customs and creole are also true to life because Flaherty never used professional actors, but let locals play roles as themselves.

So watching the lazy life on the water take place is a balm, as is seeing the inside of a Cajun house.  The film is very much softened–none of the real issues that Cajuns faced, and none of the consequences of extreme poverty are shown–but perhaps all the better for it.  Watching it in 2020, there is no real harm in idealizing a lifestyle that has all but disappeared today, and it makes the .

On the other hand, the money to make the film came, at least in part, from Standard Oil, which is a mixed blessing.  I’m pretty sure no oil rig ever was as clean, peaceful and unobtrusive as the one portrayed, but I’m also delighted to have seen how a 1940s rig functioned.  Some of the most fascinating scenes in the movie are the ones where drill is being fed into a hole.  Talk about tense moments.

Anyway, I enjoyed watching this one as a document of an era, but it needs to be taken with several grains of salt.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist who writes across several genres and lengths.  His latest novel is Ice Station: Death which, as the title implies, is a horror book set in Antarctica.  You can check it out here.

Ignorance as a Point of View

Astrology Cartoon

I was talking to an acquaintance recently, and was amazed and more than a little dismayed when she said “Astrology is a science, just like math.”  When I expressed my utter disbelief that anyone with even a smattering of education could possibly utter such a statement in the 21st century, she dismissed me as closed-minded and, safe in the knowledge that a majority of society would back her on that point, spoke about other things.

Never has, in my opinion, the modern iteration of ignorance been so eloquently expressed.

So, in order to learn about the people who share these modern times with us, let’s dissect the incident:

Astrology is a science

Well, one thing that astrology is NOT is a science.  To summarize centuries of development, science is a process by which hypothesis are tested via empirical data and then the theory is modified to fit the data.  As anyone objective can easily see, astrology works precisely opposite.  The results are given first (Scorpios kick babies, prefer to drink white wines and are only compatible with Gemini) and then the data is peered at through distorting lenses to make it seem like it fits.  It is much more akin to a religion than a science.  Wikipedia calls it a pseudoscience, because it attempts to clothe non-scientific methods within a scientific framework, but I think Wikipedia is being both generous and politically correct (can’t get funding if potential donors are offended).

Funny Fortune Cookie

So when discussing this, the defenders of astrology will say that testing is unnecessary because there are millennia of tradition behind it, and there’s no need to verify further. Er…  Yeah, that would also have worked when Columbus was yammering about the Earth not being flat.

So… why do people insist that it’s a science? Well, despite the growing trendiness of aggressive ignorance disguised as “a democratic right to different points of view”, there is still a feeling in society that science and logic are much more intellectually respectable than spiritualism.  So people lie to themselves (and attempt unsuccessfully to lie to intelligent observers) in order to feel respected as opposed to the alternative: feeling like ignorant cretins when faced with the raised eyebrow of a respected member of the peer group.  It’s better to dismiss logical arguments as “the limitations of people who think they’re educated” than to just admit that astrology is more of a fun, brain-dead way to spend time – like watching Dancing with the Stars – than anything approaching a science.

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 11.14.07 AM

Just like math

The discussion of whether mathematics is or isn’t a science probably would have gone over her head, but this article on the topic is simply awesome, especially the bit about Cicadas, so I just had to link it here.

Ok, so that’s the breakdown of her phrase, but the more disturbing bit is her sense of security that society would back her up.  In this case, I tend to agree with her.  That is a bit worrying, and it led me to asking myself why society seems to prefer to support certain ignorant theories and marginalize people who try to debunk them as elitists*

I think the answer is twofold.  In the first place, I’d like to offer the hypothesis that there’s a large correlation between the kind of people who think that astrology is a science and the the kind of people who watch a LOT of TV.  As is pretty evident to even casual viewers, TV content is not designed to stimulate the intellect, but rather to pander to more basic needs: low entertainment, fear-mongering and (particularly relevant in this case) the reinforcement of beliefs.  Now, to meet these needs, even the documentary channels have needed to adapt, as we’ve discussed before.  And if it’s on the Discovery Channel, then it must be true, right**?

The second half of the answer has more to do with how society has evolved in the decades since the second world war.  After the war, society has become obsessed with safety in all forms, be it physical or psychological.  The many have, in their wisdom, decided that freedom is less important that safety (see: mandatory helmet laws, myriad).  Even feelings are to be preserved…  if someone hurts your feelings, they are in the wrong, and therefore “safe places” need to be created where they can’t do so.

As educated, intelligent people are a minority, their opinions are normally dismissed as elitist, which immediately equates them with such immoral bastards as the filthy rich*.  So, to protect themselves from feelings of inferiority, the mob has made astrology a socially accepted topic – and mocking astrology the province of evil, “limited” people who can’t see beyond what their senses tell me.  So, once again, we decide what is scientifically correct by democracy***.

Is it just me, or should an educated society work in precisely the opposite way?

*Please note that here at Classically Educated, we consider the word “elite” to be a compliment, definitely not an insult.  If you are reading this, and feel that being elite is bad, you probably landed on this site by mistake!  We also oppose the discrimination against rich people – in fact, we oppose discrimination against any minority… fortunately, dumb people are not a minority, so you’re good there.

**This footnote isn’t actually linked to anything in particular, but I just had to mention traditional remedies.  All I have to say about that is that most ancient societies had life spans of about thirty years.  I am certain you are intelligent enough to draw your own conclusions about traditional medicine from that fact, and I don’t have to give you any further subtle hints.

***Can we vote to repeal the law of gravity?  Hover cars sound way cool.

Not Sparkly, Never Sparkly

o-cemetery-at-night-facebook

Baron H is back as a guest blogger today (if you missed his earlier installments, you can read them here and here).  As always, he has a particularly… long view of mortal affairs which is refreshing.  And yes, we do believe he is still the internet’s only undead blogger.

Salutations Classically Educated Readers!

I could blame Stephanie Meyer for the recent misunderstandings I’ve been seeing regarding the undead.  After all, you can only see so many movies which portray the undead as effortlessly glamorous before you start believing the PR.  And I’m told she’s sold a number of books as well.

But I’ve been here longer than any mortal, so I don’t actually blame Meyer. Stoker, and then early Hollywood were truly more instrumental in giving us this image.  I guess it’s too late to try to get the unwashed to understand this (contrary to popular belief, people have not been getting dumber in the past few years.  Almost every mortal on the planet has been an imbecile since I can remember, and that’s more than a few centuries), but I can at least make an appeal to the intelligent readers out there.  Both of you should probably be able to catch the gist.

Vampires are not glamorous by nature.  We are just, to take a horrid neologism and apply it, regular guys.  In order not to let the side down, it is imperative that we understand and follow the rules of etiquette.  We might not have any of the olfactory disadvantages of zombies, or the aural handicaps of banshees, but we do need to work – imagine if we let ourselves go.  We’d all look like Nosferatu!

Still, this aside was not the main thrust of this particular post (although I remind you that etiquette is always the most important thing – be you mortal or Aikanaka).  I wanted to talk about documentary channels.  

It used to be that the people who watched The History Channel, or Nat Geo, were a bit snobbish.  Intellectuals who were too good to share the same mind-numbing programming that everyone else seemed to enjoy.

Now it seems that the executives at these places have either realized that that market was too small or have succumbed to the temptation of going after the brain-dead hordes.  So you get reality TV, Celebrity Biographies and, worst of all, a whole slew of programs with names like Ancient Aliens and Paranormal Encounters.

This last one is worrying.

Now, as a member of the undead community, I am all for a bit of information and greater understanding.  But, when you put every kook and whacko who can shake off the effects of the drugs long enough to do an interview on the screen and let him ramble, you are creating a dangerous precedent, which gets even worse when you treat it as credible evidence.

This isn’t documentary filmmaking.  This is shameless pandering to the lowest common denominator disguised as documentary.  Documentaries shouldn’t be stealing their ratings from the audience for Big Brother.  And I certainly can’t condone the way these fictionistas portray ghosts!

But the true reason I gnash my teeth whenever these subhuman programs come up is that I am one of those who were among the original target.  I will gladly watch a documentary about napoleon for six hours, but give me an episode of Ancestral Aliens, and…  well, let’s just be thankful that vampires can’t throw up (Bet you didn’t know that – Ed.).

But one of the keys to good etiquette is that one must not fight emerging trends, but find a way to incorporate them.  So I’m thinking of starting a program to portray undead as they really are.  I can sell it to one of these channels.

And I can eat any executive who declines.

With no sparkliness whatsoever.

Salutations,

Baron H

 

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”.

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?