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The Reel World

Documentaries enjoy newfound popularity


It's still unclear whether Michael Moore's record-breaking Fahrenheit 9/11 will affect the outcome of the November election, but it's irrefutable that Michael Moore has affected the way moviegoers view documentaries.

Fahrenheit 9/11 has emerged as a cinematic first: the blockbuster documentary. Yet it was Moore's previous piece, the Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine, that made American audiences first realize that nonfiction films could be -- gasp! -- entertaining. Certainly, IMAX features like Everest and concert films dating back to Richard Pryor or the Rolling Stones have always enjoyed a modest degree of popular acceptance, but the more traditional documentary format has always been regarded as the ugly stepchild of American cinema, marginalized and ignored by the masses. But thanks to Columbine, the nonfiction genre has enjoyed success as never before: A glance at the all-time top moneymakers in this field (see accompanying chart) reveals that practically all of the titles were released within the last couple of years.

Of course, these grosses rank as a mere pittance when compared to the cash generated by Hollywood's fictional films -- even a colossal flop like the recent Around the World In 80 Days earned more than all documentaries except for Fahrenheit (on the plus side, nonfiction films cost peanuts to make, so their profit margins are often much more enviable).

At any rate, moviegoers who have acquired a newfound interest in documentaries won't be starved for selections. Here, then, are some rental suggestions of worthy nonfiction features produced within the last dozen years.

THE WAR ROOM (1993). "Every time a Democrat comes along who has some ideas, the Republicans ambush him. That is standard procedure." That savvy statement, spoken before the 1992 presidential election that found Bill Clinton thumping George Bush pere, was made by James Carville, the Clinton campaign manager and star of this Oscar-nominated documentary that illustrates in often amusing detail how the team managed to overcome petty hostilities and seize the day -- and the White House. The movie offers ample pleasures: A rare chance to see an animated Al Gore; Carville's popping blood vessels as he rails about how the mainstream press gave papa Bush a free ride on Iran-Contra but hammered Clinton about Gennifer Flowers; the cool-under-fire George Stephanopolous talking a Perot supporter out of reporting that Clinton fathered an illegitimate black child; the sharp comments by Bush staffer Mary Matalin, so much Carville's equal that it's easy to see why they became a couple; and Carville's exasperation when told (on election night, no less) by a waiter that the special on draft is Busch beer.

CRUMB (1995). Can art literally save a life? That's the question posed -- and answered -- in Terry Zwigoff's fascinating documentary about Robert Crumb, the notorious cartoonist who gave the world such counterculture touchstones as Fritz the Cat and the "Keep On Truckin'" images. More than just a character study, the film contrasts the peculiar artist with his two dysfunctional brothers and shows with amazing clarity how the channeling of Robert's talents into a productive career has perennially kept madness on the outside looking in. Keeping with the complex nature of its subject, the picture careens wildly between moments of great humor and instances of sobering tragedy -- for example, watching how the homemade comic books of Robert's brother Charles (who committed suicide circa the film's release) eventually gave way to pages of nothing but scribbles straight out of The Shining marks both the height of absurdity and the descent into insanity.

THEREMIN: AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY (1995). You may not know the name, but you know the sound. The theremin is the funky musical instrument that created the otherworldly reverberations employed in various science fiction flicks (including The Day the Earth Stood Still) and in the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." And Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey is the true story of Professor Leon Theremin, the man who invented this revolutionary device in the 1920s. Here's a life to file in the "truth is stranger than fiction" basket: A Russian immigrant who was living in New York at the time of his invention, Theremin was eventually kidnapped by Soviet agents and tossed into a Siberian labor camp. Long believed by the Western world to be dead, he was finally discovered concocting espionage gadgets for Joseph Stalin, but it would remain decades before he managed -- at the age of 95 -- to return to the US for a visit. Visually, Theremin is rather static, relying heavily on vintage snapshots and "talking heads" to relate its story. Yet the material itself is so patently bizarre that viewers will be quickly captivated by its myriad twists and turns.

UNZIPPED (1995). If nothing else, this movie about fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi served as an antidote to Robert Altman's Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter), an artificial look at the industry that was released around the same time. The creative process at work is one of the hardest things to capture on film, yet director Douglas Keeve does a fine job of taking us inside the mind of one of the shining stars in the couture culture. Mizrahi is revealed as a charismatic and sharp-witted artist whose love for his craft is clearly evident, and it's intriguing to watch how, over the course of the film, his demeanor slowly changes from carefree to testy as the date of his next show (the Fall "94 Collection) draws closer. The movie features appearances by supermodels Cindy Crawford (discussing her pores, no less), Linda Evangelista and Kate Moss, yet it's Mizrahi himself who remains firmly positioned on our mental runway.

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