Sadly, the culture of mainstream documentaries is such that we don't hear about them much until the end-of-year awards season. Of course, there is the rare exception of the docs that find massive traction early; this year: The Act of Killing (haven't seen yet) and Stories We Tell (which won't be found here due to deserving much more than "notes"). Otherwise, the shortlists start coming out and the streaming services start picking them up right around December/January. The following is my attempt at boning-up on this year's lauded documentaries in an attempt to greater survey doc culture in the vacuum of 2013 as well as avoid those "huh, I should watch that sometime"-but-never-actually-watch moments.
FIRST COUSIN ONCE REMOVED
First Cousin Once Removed is a post-Alzheimer's profile of proficient poet Edwin Honig from the point-of-view of the titular character. The film uses Alzheimer's to make a self-proclaimed film about memory; more specifically the film becomes about memories tied to our friends and family. There are a few dynamics the film juggles with strong results. First, the disease offers an opportunity for Honig to, at times, approach his past objectively, as if another person. Likewise, we get to apprehend two distinct consciouses of one man's life. A second storyline is the author's navigation and mental preparation for a disease he predicts will also affect himself. The third act focuses on the muddied familial relationships Honig had, starkly contrasting his relationships with friends and colleagues; balancing the subject as both memorialized and criticized.
The film draws largely on Honig's wonderful poetry to cultivate points, offer questions, and illustrate parallels about the subject's situation and Alzheimer's on a greater level. Most memorably, the poem "Passing" suggests the film is ultimately interested in how others perceive and deal with the passing of loved ones. What makes First Cousin Once Removed so powerful is the oscillating potency and incoherency of Honig. He has sudden moments of absurdly poetic lucidity for anyone, Alzheimer's or not, such as: "What is memory but some kind of way of saying I'm alive." Honig's only advice is to "remember to forget," which is poignantly illustrated in one of the film's final sequences. In between incoherent bird-like caws, he sharply asks to be left alone; seeming to acquire a final forgetfulness.
Blackfish is much more pervasive this year than First Cousin Once Removed. It's this year's The Cove. That is to say it's an animal-centric exposé that's about as polarizing as Oreos. The film covers the atrocities of places like SeaWorld and SeaLand; the results of killer whale captivity. However, what I enjoyed most about The Cove, it's Action/Adventure tactics, is not what Blackfish is interested in. It's a straight-forward attempt to deliver SeaWorld its comeuppance, going as far to place one foot in the court room docudrama door.
Though it utilizes many interesting visual resources, the perturbing simplicity of Blackfish is hard to overlook. Yes, it's captivating and while I hesitate to say documents like these aren't important, it's paint-by-numbers tradition and one-track mindedness keep it from transcending its specific topic and target to offer greater insight. Some of the questions I have are 1) What needs are attractions like these fulfilling in our culture? 2) Why is there such a large disconnect that allows our ability to enjoy something so obviously inhumane? The documentary hints at these questions in the last ten minutes, but it's very cursory and unfulfilling. The obvious juxtaposition to make with Blackfish is Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man. Both docs focus on humans in precarious situations with dangerous animals, and both are the result of and response to one/many fatalities. However, the type of man/nature/beast dynamics that Grizzly Man thrives on are completely absent in favor of the mere pointing of fingers in Blackfish. Unfortunately, the film isn't going to heighten the level of social discourse about captivity, it's basically just the coda to the Louis C.K. joke HERE. I need to hear how bad mammal captivity is about as much as I need to hear how unhealthy McDonald's food is.
THE CRASH REEL
The Crash Reel might be the doc I least expected to enjoy. A "Sports Doc" that profiles a young snowboarder, Kevin Pearce, who sustained a traumatic brain injury during a snowboarding accident just as he had ascended as one of the two best in the sport. Although the majority of the film focuses on Pearce's rehab and post-injury life, there are multiple narratives within the film: his rivalry with Shaun White, the parallel with his brother's Down Syndrome, his decision of whether or not to snowboard again, the problematic dangers of Xtreme sports, and redefining success as it is relative to our changing lives. All of these are satisfactorily expounded upon, but it becomes obvious the film is centrally interested in the family dynamic, how a family depended on each other to emotionally and pragmatically navigate the trauma together. Most of the film's potency comes from seeing how civil the family seems to deal with each step of the injury, everyone acting in the best interest of the family. The Crash Reel ends up sharing quite a bit in common, thematically, with First Cousin Once Removed. The parallels of someone attaining an immense amount of passion and talent being stripped of nearly everything, presenting two completely different sides of one person, and how those closest deal with the subject's distinct transformation.
Aside from its distractingly recognizable indie pop soundtrack, The Crash Reel is akin to a more developed and balanced 20/20 or Dateline feature. Though thankfully, the film doesn't become obsessed over how dangerous Xtreme sports are but is responsible enough to discuss it. The film clearly comes from a place of respect for the sport and how beautiful it can be. It's not demanding answers to the sport's problems or condemning those in charge, but simply presenting some difficult predicaments that surround Xtreme sports.
Blackfish is streaming on Netflix
First Cousin Once Removed & The Crash Reel are streaming on HBOGO