In Apple’s popular iMovie program, there’s a feature called “The Ken Burns Effect” that zooms and pans across still images in the style of photomontage the famed documentarian popularized in such films as The Civil War, Jazz, and Baseball. Sadly, this effect is set to default within the program, as if Apple assumes one would automatically like the stills within a movie to look just like a Burns film. It’s an aggravating feature, not just for promoting Burns’ overrated style, but also for illuminating the near-endless homogeneity of most documentary filmmaking.
Perhaps someone in your circle of friends or family is looking forward to receiving a Burns film box set on DVD this holiday season. If so, consider the following an alternative gift guide for documentaries, wherein a much-loved but thoroughly overrated film from the genre is rejected in favor of a less-loved, underrated choice by yours truly.
Hoop Dreams vs. Love and Diane.
Both these films portray the popular doc subject of individuals struggling to overcome great socioeconomic adversity, but where the former relies too heavily on tired inspirational sports-movie clichés, the latter intimately shows the difficulty of finding compassion or forgiveness in the crossfire of addiction, poverty and a corrupt welfare system. Jennifer Dworkin’s film, ten years in the making, earns its sense of hope with a frightening immediacy that makes the Steve James film look hollow. Unavailable on commercial DVD, Love and Diane can be special-ordered from Women Make Films and has been shown on PBS’ P.O.V. series.
Roger & Me vs. Specters of the Spectrum.
Possibly the only documentary more overrated than Hoop Dreams, Michael Moore’s first film is by far his worst: a slapdash, meandering, generally insulting work that he has gradually matured past with each subsequent film. For genuinely persuasive muckraking cinema, check out instead Craig Baldwin’s pseudo sci-fi found-footage doc, which appropriates our own media and uses it against itself to delirious effect. It’s just the kind of bizarre, ingenious political filmmaking this country could use more of.
Capturing the Friedmans vs. Brother’s Keeper.
Both of these fall under the so-odd-it-has-tobe-true subgenre, but where the former seems too often cheap and exploitive (ooh, child-molester clown!), the latter is a revelation for how its murder-mystery framework actually adds layers of mystery the more we learn of the story.
Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger (makers of the equally brilliant Paradise Lost films) so concretely portray the hermit-like existence of the Ward brothers that familiar documentary themes (incest, murder, corruption, media manipulation) seem totally new.
An Inconvenient Truth vs. Lessons of Darkness.
While the former has some admirable traits, it really does look like a silly PowerPoint lecture when compared to Werner Herzog’s haunting, mystical portrayal of Kuwait after the first Gulf War. With vast helicopter shots showing oil fires burning so high they practically scorch the sky, Herzog presents the landscape as if viewed by a distant creature, unfamiliar with the waste and destruction it sees. His vision of environmental apocalypse is more powerful than any charts Al Gore could possibly dream up.
March of the Penguins vs. The Films of Jean Painlevé.
Admittedly, the former is an easy target, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t show your kids something more enriching. For more than 40 years, Painlevé specialized in poetic animal and nature films that increasingly bordered on the abstract. His belief in the inherent strangeness of the natural world is most apparent in his many underwater films, some of which have been shown live with musical accompaniment by Yo La Tengo. A DVD of some of these films is available in the U.K., with a U.S. release apparently in the works.