Rightwing Film Geek

Born yesterday and I don’t mean Judy Holliday

Did you know that you can die without having seen a single nonfiction film made before 1988? Well, obviously you CAN — though in that same sense you need never have seen one made after 1988 either. But the whole premise of the Current TV series “50 Documentaries To See Before You Die,” which concluded last week, is that the nonfiction/documentary film is a worthy enterprise and that there ARE 50 such films. And stipulating that there are, this list is, excuse me, a born-yesterday travesty.

Here is the list, after the jump:

50. Spellbound (2002)
49. Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991)
48. The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)
47. One Day in September (1999)
46. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998)
45. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)
44. Burma VJ (2008)
43. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
42. Catfish (2010)
41. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
40. When We Were Kings (1996)
39. Biggie & Tupac (2002)
38. March of the Penguins (2005)
37. Inside Job (2010)
36. Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)
35. Paragraph 175 (2000)
34. Brother’s Keeper (1992)
33. Tongues Untied (1989)
32. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
31. Jesus Camp (2006)
30. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
29. Man on Wire (2008)
28. Gasland (2010)
27. Tarnation (2003)
26. Murderball (2005)
25. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)
24. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
23. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000)
22. Shut Up & Sing (2006)
21. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
20. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
19. Touching the Void (2003)
18. Food, Inc. (2008)
17. Street Fight (2005)
16. Bus 174 (2002)
15. Crumb (1994)
14. Dark Days (2000)
13. The Fog of War (2003)
12. Bowling for Columbine (2002)
11. Paris Is Burning (1991)
10. Grizzly Man (2005)
9. Trouble the Water (2008)
8. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
7. The Celluloid Closet (1995)
6. The War Room (1993)
5. Supersize Me (2004)
4. Waltz With Bashir (2008)
3. Roger & Me (1989)
2. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
1. Hoop Dreams (1994)

I try to be a realist about these things. Obviously, no list of “the 50 Greatest X” will ever be the same 50 I’d pick. So saying “where is so-and-so” doesn’t even have the interest of a GOOD parlor game. And in a commercial medium, some favoring of popularity and familiarity over merit is inevitable. As is a certain amount of presentism. It can’t all be “cultural vegetables.” But every so often, one such list will go too far. The channel “Current TV” takes that title WAY too literally. There is not a single film on this list made before 1988. None. And not because the program’s title is “50 Great Documentaries from the Past 25 Years.”

I have seen more than half the films on this list and am at least somewhat familiar with all of them. Most of that half are good and some I love unreservedly. In fact the three at the very top, I would have absolutely no problem with their being 1-2-3 even if the list WERE all-time.

If there were, say, 10 or 12 from before the mid-80s (and there’s no denying that the theatrical documentary has made huge leaps at the box office and in public consciousness since then, thus justifying “over-representation”), then any complaints would be about judgment calls. Saying, for example “not enough Flaherty,” could be dismissed as special pleading or as seeking some sort of absurd decade-by-decade quota. But “none” is not a judgment call. And especially not when the zero-period covers the substantial majority of the film medium’s history. (I also won’t pretend not to have noticed that pre- and post-1988 are each almost exactly half my lifetime.) It would be easy to lament this with the quotation “the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past,” but that was written by some dead white male whom nobody reads any more. Or uses “whom” to refer to.

The worst part of this sort of cultural born-yesterday-ism is that, like all forms of narcissism, it is self-reinforcing, and soon enough becomes its own justification and dulls the senses, like muscles that never get used. If those old farts of the past were so obviously inferior to Us Today, then they WILL neither have anything to say nor have done anything of interest because we will have made ourself deaf, dumb and blind to anything they might have said or done. As always, nothing is more stifling than a demand for relevance.

There are other problems, and by that I don’t mean that there’s quite a few films that are aesthetically trivial and/or are there only on the basis of some affirmative-action model. There’s an aesthetic crampedness, though that is itself at least in part a function of the presentism. This list is dominated by what is the current It Thing — the “issue film,” i.e., the filmed polemical essay where you get the sense that what really matters is not the cinematic medium but The Cause. This The Cause is almost always something leftist, though that is only part of why this genre makes me contemplate the beauty, wonder and pleasure of being disemboweled without anesthetic while watching Ariana and Michael Huffington’s wedding night. In other words, the In Thing is movies that have no reason to be movies. Even apart from the specific merits of the films on Current TV’s lists, such heavy InThing-ness doesn’t do justice to an entire genre that comes in a dozen different flavors. This list isn’t ALL Monty Python’s Spam, Spam, Spam. But there is a little much “real pork shoulder and ham” on this-‘ere menu.

Which leads me to one last thought about the effect of this kind of “I don’t need to know nothing before I was born” list — what I fear it does to film criticism. If you scan the decennial Sight and Sound critic polls of the greatest films of all time, taken from 1952 to 2002, one thing that jumps out (or should jump out) is how much less-current the recent polls have been. In 1952, the winner was BICYCLE THIEF, made in 1948, and two other films (BRIEF ENCOUNTER and LOUISIANA STORY) were less than 10 years old. In 1962, Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960) placed second and the Top 10 also featured UGETSU MONOGATARI, from 1953. Same in 1972 — L’AVVENTURA was still in the Top 10 as were two other 60s films (PERSONA and 8 1/2). But in 1982, 1992 and 2002, not a single film less than 19 years old has made the critics Top 10. And in the separate directors polls S&S did with the 1992 and 2002 surveys, there is only one film combined less than 20 years old at the time (1980’s RAGING BULL in the 1992 survey). At 22, RAGING BULL remained the newest film in the 2002 directors poll, while the first two GODFATHER films (28 and 30 years old) were the most-recent ones in the critics survey.

What does that increasing temporal remoteness (what has been snarkily dubbed “cinecrophilia”) have to do with the seemingly opposite noveltymania of the Current TV survey? I think it may be a case of opposite vices, rather than canceling each other out like an acid and a base, actually exacerbating and reinforcing each other in social interaction. Critics and the mass public each see the other as, to use hostile vocabulary, snobs and slobs — each an image of the Other that reinforces the Self’s self-image, either as foo-foo aesthetes buried in arcana or as mouth-breathing ignorami. (I realize I am coarsely generalizing.) But here’s the common ground — both the Presentist and the Cinecrophiliac agree that putting NANOOK OF THE NORTH, OLYMPIA or LAS HURDES on Current TV, even for a segment on their importance, is pointless exoticism.

As I’ve already said, I don’t have a tremendous problem with the Current TV list within its 23-year period. Still … cmon? MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE or SHUT UP AND SING as definitive musical docs? Only one film absolutely, totally and unquestionably not from the Anglophone world (Brazil’s superb BUS 174)? Even stipulating the 10% gay quota, how does PARAGRAPH 175 make a list that THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK does not? On such grounds, one could obviously quibble with this quarter-century-stunted canon endlessly.

But to conclude in a constructive spirit, let me offer a counter-canon — 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die But Might Have Been Made Before You Were Born. All these films are from before 1988, the year Current TV thinks history and interest begin. (Yeah, yeah, so I was born in 1966 … like you could’ve resisted the punning title.) Many feature on my annual Top 10s (including one that might seem like fanboyism, knowing me); others do not but I acknowledge their importance; some I haven’t even seen but know are important anyway. A few aren’t even arguably documentaries per se (you’ll know immediately which ones I’m referring to) but they matter for reasons related to documentary history and aesthetics. Some are even pinko treasonous propaganda from folks who wouldn’t vote for Michele Bachmann (imagine?). Someone like Christopher Campbell of Spout might even consider the foregoing list hopelessly conventional (though that’s the nature of canons). But I’ll put this list of films, collectively, up against the Current TV list.

Victor’s Old Documentary Canon
Broken Noses (Bruce Weber, USA, 1987)
Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, France, 1986)
28 Up (Michael Apted, Britain, 1985)
This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, USA, 1984)
The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein, USA, 1984)
Zelig (Woody Allen, USA, 1983)
The Atomic Cafe (Jayne Loader / Kevin and Pierce Rafferty, USA, 1982)
Say Amen, Somebody (George Nierenberg, USA, 1982)
Burden of Dreams (Les Blank, USA, 1982)
Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris, USA, 1978)
The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1978)
ABBA: The Movie (Lasse Hallstrom, Sweden/Australia, 1977)
Harlan County USA (Barbara Kopple, USA, 1976)
Grey Gardens (Albert Maysles, USA, 1976)
God Speed You (Mitsuo Yanahimachi, Japan, 1976)
The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzman, Chile, 1976)
That’s Entertainment! (Jack Haley Jr., USA, 1974)
An American Family (no director, USA, 1973)
Roma (Federico Fellini, Italy, 1972)
Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, USA, 1970)
A Married Couple (Allan King, Canada, 1969)
Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, USA, 1969)
The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophuls, France, 1969)
Salesman (Maysles brothers, USA, 1969)
Sympathy for the Devil (Jean-Luc Godard, Britain, 1968)
High School (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 1968)
Hour of the Furnaces (Octavio Getino and Fernando Solas, Argentina, 1968)
Don’t Look Back (DA Pennebaker, USA, 1967)
A Man Vanishes (Shohei Imamura, Japan, 1967)
Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 1967)
Tokyo Olympiad (Kon Ichikawa, Japan, 1965)
Chronicle of a Summer (Jean Rouch, France, 1960)
Primary (Richard Leacock, USA, 1960)
Moi, Un Noir (Jean Rouch, France, 1958)
City of Gold (Wolf Koenig and Colin Low, Canada, 1957)
Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, France, 1955)
The Battle of San Pietro (John Huston, USA, 1945)
December 7th (John Ford/Greg Toland, USA, 1943)
Fires Were Started (Humphrey Jennings, Britain, 1943)
Why We Fight (Frank Capra, USA, 1942-44)
Olympia (Leni Riefenstahl, Germany, 1938)
The River (Pere Lorentz, USA, 1938)
Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, Germany, 1934)
Song of Ceylon (Basil Wright, Britain, 1934)
Las Hurdes (Luis Bunuel, Spain, 1932)
The Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga-Vertov, USSR, 1929)
Grass (Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, USA, 1927)
Moana (Robert Flaherty, USA, 1926)
Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, USA, 1922)
In the Land of the Headhunters (Edward Curtis, USA, 1914)

September 3, 2011 - Posted by | Documentary


  1. Looks like a pretty definitive list, but Zelig as documentary?

    Comment by Colin | September 3, 2011 | Reply

    • Is this the same Colin Low who co-made the (pretty awesome) Klondike doc I named, as the height of the National Film Board of Canada style?

      Obviously, ZELIG is a fictional film, as is SPINAL TAP, and parts of such films as MEDIUM COOL. My point in naming those titles is historical as much as aesthetic — how documentary forms (and different ones in the cases of the Reiner and the Allen) became usable in fictional films and/or meldable with fiction (the Wexler).

      Comment by vjmorton | September 4, 2011 | Reply

  2. […] updated Right Wing Film Geek this week after a long dry spell, and I wanted to draw attention to his post on “born yesterday-ism,” the phenomenon of propagating ultra-recent artifacts of pop culture as landmark achievements.  He […]

    Pingback by No Nanook, know nuthin’? « Catecinem | September 5, 2011 | Reply

  3. I can’t believe it, not a single film before 1914 – wassup widdat?

    Comment by Rob | September 17, 2011 | Reply

  4. […] Victor Morton recently wrote about a new list of top documentaries (purportedly of all time), which doesn’t contain a single one made before 1988. This recent piece by Bill Mesce goes into further details about why the focus seems to have shifted. Some of the changes in content distribution that he notes are: […]

    Pingback by The Pop View » “Don’t it always seem to go…” | September 26, 2011 | Reply

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