Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Forget Charlize Theron and her un-glam, highway trampette getup. Forget Sean Penn and his weeping hysterics. Forget thoroughbred horses as saccharine allegories for Depression-era American resilience. Forget about the imperial naval battles of Old Europe.

Take a solitary moment, and cease pondering Middle Earth and all its hobbits and dwarves, wizards and elves and computer-generated goblin stand-ins.

Oh, and while you’re at it, stop trying to relate to overprivileged Americans getting overpaid for doing not much of anything in Tokyo and then whining about how hard it is to make sense of life.

This isn’t to say that the top nominees at this year’s Academy Awards are overrated, though some of them are.

It is to say that the real action of 2003 was in nonfiction documentary filmmaking.

Last year was an unprecedented year for doc-pics. Usually one or two, such as “Hoop Dreams,” poke their heads into the metropolitan mainstream, or beyond.

In ‘03 there were several: the provocative reappearance of Robert McNamara in Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War,” a successful, if elliptical, application of Vietnam’s lessons to the current war on terrorism; Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s look back at the Weather Underground, America’s homemade activist-terrorists; and “Balseros,” which tracked seven refugees from Castro’s island prison making their way here in America.

Sorry, Jim Sheridan, but when we learn that, in real life, the family of your “In America” wasn’t navigating skid row but, rather, the vagaries of New York City’s artistic community, the “In America” of those runaway Cubans is a little more compelling, no?

These films collectively cut to the quick of what America might mean today, to itself and to the rest of the world. They examined concepts of outward-pushing empire and inward-pulling prosperity; the inevitable inequalities of an open society and the violent expression of its discontents.

These movies are shards from our past that still have jagged edges. They have lessons sharper and more urgent than the nervy existentialism of “21 Grams.”

Sit down for the next sentence.

The best of these nonfiction features (and the likely winner of the best documentary feature Oscar), “Capturing the Friedmans,” basically renders superfluous the entire enterprise of fictional filmmaking.

Conceived and directed by first-time director Andrew Jarecki, who — isn’t this rich — set out initially to document New York City’s party clown subculture, “The Friedmans” has unexpected twists and turns; it is shocking and sad and stirring; it has characters who are immensely interesting and peculiar.

And get this: The Friedmans filmed, voluminously, the tense kitchen table goings-on of their family life as it was being turned upside down by a grotesque child molestation case that rocked an affluent Long Island, N.Y., community in the late ‘80s.

With home movies like this, who needs screenwriters and actors?

Rounding out the nominees for best documentary feature is Nathaniel Kahn’s “My Architect,” which in an ordinary Oscar year might qualify as a shoo-in to take the award. It was a graceful look at an American treasure, architect Louis Kahn, that would’ve been disfigured by a fictional representation.

Don’t let the awards season hoopla limit 2003’s documentary buffet. There were other contenders, too.

There was Jeffrey Blitz’s “Spellbound,” which took the annual quest for the National Spelling Bee championship and turned it into an understated survey of the immigrant experience and middle-American striving.

With Washington, D.C., as their mecca, the socially challenged, elementary school-aged Mexicans, Asian-Indians and American Indians vie for a simple yet highly challenging meritocratic trophy.

In “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary,” German filmmakers interview the elderly amanuensis of Adolf Hitler, still living in Munich. Its casual intimacy reduces the what-iffy historical speculations of Menno Meyjes’ “Max” to childish fantasy.

Another of 2003’s also-rans, Jose Padilha’s “Bus 147,” revisited a hostage crisis in Rio de Janeiro from three years ago, crafting a new narrative of social justice agitprop from old television news footage.

“You think this is a movie?” hollered Sandro, the gun-toting vagrant who commandeered a public bus at gunpoint. “This is no … movie.”

He was right, of course, but he was wrong, too.

These documentaries are, in a sense, the visual realization of the late-19th century social/realist novels of Dickens, Zola and Balzac. Yet they dispense with the middle-man of ink and parchment, delivering a more immediate payoff.

What’s unique about them is their position relative to current events. They are postcards from the recent past, which makes them all the more relevant.

Bob McNamara recalls where we’ve been; the youngsters of “Spellbound” tell us where we’re going; and the aliens of “Balseros” tell us who wants a piece of the hemispheric action.

What more can you ask from movies?

The difference between documentaries and fictional features last year, and every year, might best be illustrated by a simple thought experiment: What’s more evocative, a snapshot or your mind’s eye?

Documentaries, at their best, are like snapshots: real, truthful, inarguable, but as limited as the borders of their frames. Fiction movies are like memories; unreliable, imaginative, intoxicating.

Ultimately, we need one as much as we need the other.

Maybe it’s time, then, that we stop looking at documentary filmmaking as a junior art.

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