Discovering Documentaries
Reviews from the O’Neill Media Center Collection
By Wes Hazard

Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg, 2010, 84 minutes)
O’Neill Media Center RC387.5 .M375 2010


Sometimes art imitates life, often life imitates art, and sometimes mere imitation is done away with completely and you’re left observing someone whose entire existence, the very way they approach the world, might reasonably be confused with a grand-scale art project. Mark Hogancamp is one of those people. Years ago Mark was a divorced and self-destructive alcoholic with an obvious talent for art. One night, for reasons that are only gradually revealed, he was brutally attacked outside of a bar by five men who beat him so badly that he lost most of his memory and motor control. Out of a coma, and with his health insurance benefits rapidly drying up, Mark was forced to develop his own therapies to assist him in becoming himself again. He created Marwencol, a scale model of a WWII era Belgian town populated by G.I. Joes and Barbie Dolls (some representing made-up characters, other standing in for Mark’s friends and acquaintances) that is as expansive as it is intricately detailed. With stunning commitment and imagination Mark creates continuously evolving storylines where Nazi goons, Belgian witches, American POWs, Mark’s co-workers and Mark himself battle each other, relax at the neutral saloon, travel through time, and play out the scenes of Hogancamp’s subconscious, all in 1/6 scale. When the copious photographs that Mark takes of these scenes find their way to the editor of a magazine dedicated to outsider art Mark is hailed as an artistic revelation and invited to star in a New York Gallery show. The tension between exhibiting his art in the very world that he escapes from by creating it is palpable and only enhanced by certain details of Mark’s personality that slowly come to the surface over the course of the film. Throughout this movie you can’t help but wonder what Marwencol actually represents. Is it a tool for Mark to cope with what’s happened to him or is it an escape created so that he doesn’t have to face the reality of his new life? Is it art? Can it survive being shown to the world? The film doesn’t answer these questions, but you’ll definitely be glad that it asks them.

The Case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1998, 65 minutes)
O’Neill Media Center PS3523 .O833 Z57 2007

The Case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft

Documentaries usually succeed or fail based on how well they can tell a story and how interesting their subjects are. Much less often do you find one that’s captivating because of its style and direction. This is one of those…though it certainly doesn’t hurt that it profiles the author of some of the most original and twisted horror fiction of all time. If you’re not an enthusiast of the genre it’s very possible that you’ve never heard of HP Lovecraft, much less read one of his stories. No matter. This movie is so good at presenting the tone and spirit of his works that it renders any other introduction unnecessary. That’s not to say that you won’t want to explore Lovecraft’s fiction after watching (you will), it just means that this documentary is brilliant as a stand-alone piece. It solves the most fundamental problem of a documentary such as this admirably well: how do you make a film, a piece of visual art, about a man who lived almost entirely inside of his head? It does so rather inventively by using a combination of stock footage (early 20th century street scenes, microscope clips of cell division and bacteria, grainy medical school training films, etc) and original material recorded in what looks like an old haunted mansion and featuring a cardboard cutout of the author on wheels that you will not soon forget after viewing. All of this is narrated over by a measured yet incantatory voice reading bits of Lovecraft stories and correspondence as well as addressing the author in the second person like some sort of disembodied judge. If you ever feel like watching an hour of inventive film collage about a master of horror you can do a lot worse than beginning here.

Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005, 104 minutes)
O’Neill Media Center QL737 .C27 G75 2005

Grizzly Man

For thirteen summers Timothy Treadway lost himself in the Alaskan wilderness while following, filming, and mingling with grizzly bears – the animals he came to love and revere far more than anything else in the world. He knew their movements and habits. He came up with whimsical names (Mr. Chocolate, Aunt Elizabeth, Freckles, Quincy, etc) for every individual bear he met. He was able to familiarize the grizzlies with his presence enough to get shockingly close to them on a regular basis. Still, at least in the footage we see, he never seems to forget how dangerous they really are and the cautions one must take when around them. These cautions were ultimately not enough because in his thirteenth summer Treadway, along with a companion, was killed and eaten by a grizzly. This is made clear about eight minutes into the movie, the following hour and half is an exploration (via the hundreds of hours of footage that Treadway left behind and interviews with friends and nature experts) of just how it was that a solitary man could come to identify so closely with bears that he would, as is evident, wish to become one, to abandon the human world and live as one with his favorite beings. Treadway is a model subject for a documentary. He had an extremely off-kilter but endearing personality, he was a prodigious self-filmmaker who loved to talk out loud when alone, and he had a passion for getting up close and personal with some of the most efficient killing machines to ever walk the earth. It would probably be riveting enough to watch a stand-alone edited version of his personal footage, but with master director Werner Herzog directing this movie, conducting interviews, probing into Treadway’s psyche and laying down his inimitable voiceover on top of everything you get one of the most intense documentary character studies ever put to film. A modern classic and a total gem.

The Mindscape of Alan Moore (Dez Vylenz, 2008, 78 minutes)
O’Neill Media Center PN6737 .M66 M56 2008

The Mindscape of Alan Moore

There aren’t very many living people who, by general acclamation, are regarded as the absolute best in the history of their field. The nature of a title like that tends to favor the giants of the past. Thus no matter how many undisputed masterpieces a modern writer might produce, they’d always find it impossible to step out of Shakespeare’s shadow. Nowadays a genius requires a relatively new field of endeavor if they are to be thought of in that way. Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky come to mind, as does Alan Moore. No creative force in comic books (writer or artist) is as lauded by his peers, respected by his fans, or known more widely to the general public than the long haired shaman from the north of England who created Watchmen and V for Vendetta among many other classics. If none of that means anything to you then The Mindscape of Alan Moore might not be the best film for you to see. Unlike an artist character study which attempts to peel away layers of the subject’s public persona in order to get a raw look at them, this documentary is basically 80 minutes of Moore talking directly to the camera (with no interviewer input) spliced with images from his graphic novels and other assorted footage. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting (quite the contrary) but it’s very clear that this movie goes only where Moore wants it to go and presents only the finely crafted image of himself that he wishes to present. You don’t necessarily have to be a fan of Moore, or even of comics, to appreciate this piece; but you do have to be willing to listen to the personal history, philosophical musings, and freely dispensed invective of a sixty year old, self-described magician with a penchant for the paranormal and full-finger rings. It’s certainly not for everybody but this doc goes to some pretty interesting places (fascism, the relationship between art and magic, alternate universes, morphogenesis, etc.) while still giving you the dirt on why Moore hates the very idea of a Watchmen film so much. On oddball film, but worth it.

For All Mankind (Al Reinert, 1989, 80 Minutes)
O’Neill Media Center TL789.8 .U6 F67 2009

For All Mankind

Uplifting is an adjective that gets tossed around almost reflexively whenever a documentary about human accomplishment is being discussed. Sometimes it’s earned, sometimes not. For All Mankind not only earns it, it might just make the word more meaningful for you. A triumph of editing, this film, in 80 minutes, masterfully compresses the ten years—beginning with JFK’s 1962 speech at Rice University and ending with the last Apollo mission in 1972—during which America embarked on one of the greatest scientific and engineering endeavors in human history: to land men on the moon and return them safely to Earth. The earthbound footage is captivating on its own. It might be hard to imagine how a room full of 100 tie-wearing engineers looking at computer monitors might hold your interest, but with excellent cutting and pacing it’s a joy to watch the close-ups on their tense faces in the moments during countdown or their unrestrained joy when Armstrong and Aldrin’s lunar module successfully lands. Watching the astronauts, in full gear, trying to relax on La-Z-Boy recliners before getting into the cockpit is the kind of incongruous image that you won’t soon forget. But it’s when the movie takes us into space that its true grandeur emerges. Powerfully coupling voiceover narration from the Apollo astronauts reflecting on the most significant events of their lives, with the images that they themselves shot (in their ships, on spacewalks, in lunar orbit and on the moon itself) gives us an immediate sense of just how big this mission was and how blessed they felt to be a part of it. We see their giddiness at the first few hours of weightlessness, the awe and isolation they felt while floating tethered to their ships in the vastness of space (palpable indeed), and we can almost feel the radical shift in perspective they experience as they watch Earthrise for the first time while coming around the moon. This movie will draw you in and make you feel, and it’s not every documentary that’s capable of that. Absolutely incredible.

The Bridge (Eric Steel, 2006, 94 Minutes)
O’Neill Media Center RC569 .B75 2007

The Bridge

The critic Robert Warshow once wrote that, “To watch the suffering and death of real people in a movie is an ambiguous experience, and it would be a kind of moral outrage to make that experience an object of art criticism.” In The Bridge, you see a man, seemingly calm and wearing a polo shirt, leap to his death in the third minute. This is the first of many suicides captured in the movie. I, in agreement with Warshow, won’t try to evaluate these scenes in any way, but I will tell you that to watch them is a singular experience and that The Bridge is a documentary you will not forget. More than 20 people end their lives by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge each year, thousands have done so since it was completed in 1937 and it is the most popular destination for suicides in the world. Director Eric Steel and his crew filmed the bridge from dawn until dusk every day in 2004 and managed to capture 24 jumps; one person survived. It’s impossible to shake a certain feeling of guilty voyeurism when watching these scenes, and the film doesn’t shy from the issue. But it also does what it can to make something more than morbid curiosities of them by interviewing friends and family of the deceased so that we begin to get a sense of the troubled, but loved, people that they were. We hear from grieving friends, mystified bystanders who accidentally caught a glimpse of someone’s last moments, and even from proactive observers who jumped in to pull people back as they were about to make the plunge. I found the most gripping interview to be that of Kevin Hines, the lone jump survivor in the film, a young man with schizophrenia who hits the water and is convinced of God’s intervention when a porpoise seems to lead him to the surface. I would not argue with him. His account is riveting and is only one of many. The Bridge makes no grand statements about suicide or morality or responsibility or even the ethics of observation in a movie such as this. It doesn’t have to. You can make those judgments for yourself... or not. This film, like the bridge itself, is just there, inviting you to regard it.

Christianity: The First Thousand Years / Christianity: The Second Thousand Years
(Bram Roos, 2001, 400 Minutes)
O’Neill Media Center BR145.2 .R57 2001/ BR145.2 .C47 2001

Christianity: The First Thousand Years

Over the last decade or so A&E Network has steadily challenged PBS for the title of the best US network producer of quality documentaries. Their lavish, lucid and incredibly well researched films have consistently been able to take sprawling subjects (such as the centuries-long Dark Ages) and mold them into entertaining and deeply informative films that you can return to again and again. With their 8-hour long epic on the history of Christianity they pretty much outdid themselves. The scope and ambition of this project is just astounding. Beginning very shortly after the death of Christ this project (across 2 DVDs) examines the survival of the early church in the face of Roman persecution, the adoption of the faith by the empire, its spread to the east as Rome fell, the stand against Viking hordes, its first encounter with Islam, the Great Schism, the renaissance renewal, the emergence of Protestantism, the ensuing Inquisition, the spread to European colonies all over the globe, and Christianity’s reaction to modernity. In the end you’ll find this ambition justified several times over. This is not a production about Jesus Christ, or his teachings or faith; although those are all discussed. It is a historical investigation into the emergence, spread, survival and influence of Christianity over the last 2000 years. No matter what your background or beliefs it can’t be denied that this force has influenced the course of human civilization like few others. This film lays it all out in the most interesting way possible and after 8 hours you’ll be left wishing there were more. This is what general-audience, television-based documentaries are all about.

Wes Hazard, Media Services Assistant, O'Neill Library