Here are a few more notes on documentaries from the 2013 shortlist, a couple of which made the cut for Academy Awards nominations. Similar to my first volume, these three films range from highly recommended to undesirable. More importantly, these three films serve as a perfect microcosm for the three distinct types of documentaries the Academy is interested in.
LIFE ACCORDING TO SAM
Life According to Sam is a documentary profiling progeria; a rare genetic disorder that renders a victim's phsyical age increasingly incongruous with their actual age. As the title suggests, the film uses Sam as the vantage point of a progeria sufferer. His precociousness and level-headed perspective on life make him an ideal centerpiece and reference for the audience. And conveniently (for the film as well as Sam), his mother (a doctor) is the leading researcher of progeria. The majority of the film's narrative follows her seminal study on the effects of a drug on a sample of progeria victims.
Unfortunately, the film becomes obsessed over the ongoings of the mother's post-study research through academic journals as she attempts to advance significant treatment options. It's a worthwhile story to tell, and Sam offers a wonderful personality, but Life According to Sam acts more as a proponent of broader recognition for a terrible disease, something akin to an informative article, and in exchange keeps in-depth emotional storytelling at arm's length.
CUTIE AND THE BOXER
Cutie and the Boxer, a film about New York artists, takes the opposite approach of Life According to Sam. It's the portrayal of a long marriage between Noriko (Cutie) and Ushio (the Boxer) and their lifelong struggle to make ends meet. But though the art and the artist's struggles fill their own substantial pocket of the film's runtime, this is first and foremost a portrait of domestic turmoil.
By domestic turmoil, I don't mean the sensational back-and-forth yelling of many fictional films. Cutie and the Boxer blossoms out of simple quips or unmasked statements, usually delivered by Noriko, that reveal a lifetime of being tossed out of focus due to Ushio's art, recognition, alcoholism, and social circle. Her even-keeled, yet boldly honest temperament also bears the weight of being the marriage's pragmatic half that anchors his irrational positivity. It doesn't take long before you realize this is Noriko's film.
The film's third act centers on the couple's first art show duet, in which Noriko finally has the chance to display her unrecognized talent as well as her autobiographical narrative of Cutie. Through her exhibition, she tries to rectify her position and give her a sense of importance and achievement. She doesn't hold back from confronting the long-held imbalance in their marriage nor from displaying her perception of some of the relationship's muddiest moments.
It is the weight and honesty of these muddy moments and the love that transcends them that accrue Cutie and the Boxer's beauty. Noriko says that their marriage only lasted because of her endurance. The film thrives on this kind of honesty about their differences, jealousy, negligence, and artistic sensibilities; the truth that love is to be found in difficulty.
Dirty Wars is the story of Jeremy Scahill's investigative reporting of some of the uncovered corners of America's war in the Middle East. Many of his discoveries and portrayals of the affected innocent are delicate and interesting, and his conceit is noble. HOWEVER, this film, and Scahill, as he appears here, is disdainful as he turns Dirty Wars to mere masturbatory, self aggrandizing crap. And since these are only notes, as well as to save you from a bunch of contemptuous prose, I am going to resort to a list of all of the components that made this film a real struggle to get through for myself (I'd actually be interested to know how many of the Oscar voters did a blind vote on this one):
1. Scahill's narration sounds annoyingly like an audiobook
2. The predictable live text in typewriter font that plays like a dossier or mission update
3. Planned stock footage of Scahill's work/daily activities (not that I fundamentally have a problem with planned footage in documentaries) that make him seem important, much like the navel gazing shot seen above
4. Scahill as the main subject without any character development
5. Unless you consider annoying lines like, "I had no idea where the story would lead me...how much the world had changed, or how much the journey had changed me" as true mental plumbing
6. The black-and-white shots of foreign children reminiscent of manipulative Feed the Hungry infomercials
If there's one thing to learn from Dirty Wars, it seems to be that Jeremy Scahill is an awesome journalist who does good things for people. Cool.
Life According to Sam is streaming on HBOGo
Cutie and the Boxer & Dirty Wars are streaming on Netflix