10 Types of Documentaries We Can Live Without

(Bummed out about all the negativity? Try out 20 Documentaries Everyone Should See, Pt 1)

 

I’m a big fan of documentaries. I especially enjoy social and cultural documentaries. They can’t all be winners though. And as I see more of them, I have begun to witness a few themes that are, well, over done. Stale. Silly. Pretentious. Insulting. Not all films in these subgenres are any of those things (I have tried to give at least one example in each category of a film that fits the description and is actually kinda good) but enough of them are to be worthy of note.

So, without further ado, here is my list. All of the films I mention are available for streaming on Netflix Instant.

 

1. “Wow, New York City is amazing!”

What the filmmakers think they are saying: “NYC is a city of epic contrasts, indelible joy, and crushing sorrow. These years spent living in Park Slope have been the best of my life, and I want to document that.”

What the filmmakers are actually saying: “Hey, look at my awesome life!”

Part of what’s magical about film documentaries is how they make the specific details about someone’s life feel universal. But documentaries cannot survive on local quirk alone. If the point of your movie is to say nothing more than “hey, look at this cool place!”, then I think what you have is a recipe for a vapid and shallow documentary.

 Watch this movie:

I Like Killing Flies

About a famous greasy spoon in the east village. An example of how “slice of life” can work in a film.

Instead of this one:

Ashtanga, NY

About how Yoga helped NYC heal after 9/11. Seriously.

 

ashtanganyposter 10 Types of Documentaries We Can Live Without

Clearly this is not pretentious at all.

 

2. “Inner City Youth Overcome Poverty Through Art.”

What the filmmakers think they are saying: “All people have dignity and potential, and the current social system is doing nothing for so many of us. Perhaps this film will be the single point of light that shines in the darkness.”

What the filmmakers are actually saying: “Gee it’s hard for these kids! We should help them somehow if it’s politically expedient!”

mariostorybox 10 Types of Documentaries We Can Live Without

Whoa, a typewriter in prison?

This genre is particularly irksome, because it typically focuses on young non-white kids learning to appreciate the same things that middle-aged white people like. It typically treats it’s subjects like curiosities. A black kid doing ballet is treated like a bear on a unicycle. All of this is wrapped around a usually vague and ham fisted political argument. If you want to change things, get specific, get active, or STFU.

 All of these movies are pretty bad:

Mario’s Story

Latino youth learns about writing while in prison. Heroic white people work on his behalf.

 Accelerating America

Heroic principal sets ethnic youth on a course for success. Ok, what really happens is you see a principal yelling at teenagers for two hours, a swell of music announces the end, and you’re like, “Well, I guess that worked?”

And a special jury prize for achievement in white savior complex cinema:

The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins

A conceptual artist fights to be the first person to adopt out of the new nation of South Sudan. Not everyone is thrilled. The documentary is unfailingly fawning and sycophantic.

 

3. “Hey! Look at this crazy subculture!”

What the filmmakers think they are saying: “We can use this strange subculture to really get at something universal about human nature.”

What the filmmakers are actually saying: “Hey, Trekkies made money, so let’s make Trekkies 2!”

I’m a certified nerd. This much is undeniable. Does that mean I want to watch 90 minutes about people who love Dr. Who? No. If I want to hear all about Dr. Who fandom, I can either call someone I know, or look it up on the Internet like a normal person.

Trekkies had a spark. Trekkies 2 was a little too much. All the imitations are way too much.

Borderline Unwatchable:

Dalekmania

Dr. Who sure has some crazy fans!

Indyfans

Indiana Jones sure has some crazy fans!

 

indyfan for life 10 Types of Documentaries We Can Live Without

Cosplay, baby.

4. “Entitled White People Go On Road Trip, Learn About Life!”

What the filmmakers think they’re saying: “America is such a land of unique characters, let’s peek into their lives for just a minute and see what it tells us about ourselves”

What the filmmakers are actually saying: “Best spring break ever, bro.”

This generally involves someone seeking to “Look for America,” to quote the Paul Simon song, often on a trip to “all the lower 48 states,” because getting to Hawaii and Alaska isn’t in the budget. What it actually means is you get to watch some obnoxious hipster’s vacation videos. Extra points for every Wacky Character and stereotypical regional accent that is gently mocked.

Quirky Self Indulgent Crap:

10 MPH

2 guys quit their jobs and ride Segway scooters across America. Yep, it’s exactly what it sounds like.

Self Indulgent Crap:

Our Time

Remember MTV’s Road Rules? What if they made that into a ploddingly slow docu-melodrama with some sort of vague philosophical point to make? You would get this movie.

Preachy Self Indulgent Crap:

The Human Experience

We are the world. We are the children. Time to make the world a better place, so let’s start going on field trips into the lives of poor people with our cameras.

 

calvinhobbeshistorygo4 10 Types of Documentaries We Can Live Without

A far more profound take on the human experience. You're welcome.

5. “What’s Destroying The Earth This Time?”

What the filmmakers think they are saying: “Only immediate action can save our beautiful blue marble.”

What the filmmakers are actually saying: “Despite the fact that the vast majority of environmental damage is caused by post industrial waste and can only be reversed by concerted effort on the part of governments and industry, saving the biosphere is your personal responsibility.”

I suffer from outrage fatigue. I get bent out of shape so easily and so frequently when faced with the less than ideal state of the world that I just can’t handle the plight of the honeybees right now. I just can’t deal with it. I’m glad other people care. I’m glad that those other, better, smarter people are working on it.

Save the Dirt! Before it’s too late!

Dirt The Movie

Dirt is apparently kind of awesome. Alright, if you want to watch a slow ass movie about people waxing philosophical on the life of microbes, this is your movie.

Save the Bees! Before it’s too late!

Queen of the Sun: What are the Bees Telling Us?

I think the bees are telling us: “more pollen, plz. kthxbye.”

beespanish 10 Types of Documentaries We Can Live Without

All kids love the wry observational humor of Jerry Seinfeld.

6. “The Secret Conspiracy Behind ______!”

What the filmmakers think they are saying: “The truth is out there, people.”

What the filmmakers are actually saying: “Hey, listen to this crazy unsubstantiated shit a guy told me!”

Everyone loves a good myth, and plenty of these films are entertaining as hell, if only because they’re so out there. You have to constantly maintain a bit of critical distance because the documentary form is so powerful that you are forced to accept the viewpoint of the documentarian to a certain extent. The best of these are made by either skeptical outsiders or true believers. The worst are made by cynical opportunists exploiting harmless cranks for a cheap dollar.

Mystical new age BS:

What the Bleep Do We Know?

We know that this movie sucks big fat bleepty bleep. It purports to be a documentary about quantum physics, but is actually a propaganda piece for the followers of Ramtha, the ageless celestial entity that speaks through some lady in Oregon. I’m not making that up. Unlike most of the “science” in this film.

Cynical money grubbing BS:

Paul McCartney Really Is Dead: The Last Testament of George Harrison

The real tragedy here is that you will never get these 55 minutes back.

Actually quite good:

Cropsey

Some guys revisit an urban myth from their hometown, and then shit gets real. Could be terrible, but isn’t.

Not at all good:

Eyes of the Mothman

THE REAL STORY behind THE MOTHMAN. If that sounds awesome to you, you should watch it. You will get exactly what you expect.

mothman 450x600 10 Types of Documentaries We Can Live Without

12 ft stainless steel Mothman statue, Point Pleasant West, Virgina.

7. “Wow, The 60s Were Amazing!”

What the filmmakers think they are saying: “What an amazing time in America, when the change in economic relationships finally was reflected in changing social relationships.”

What the filmmakers are actually saying: “Baby Boomers are awesome, and we like to hear ourselves talk!”

It’s easy to believe from popular media that everyone was “down with the struggle.” Plenty of deeply conservative people have described themselves in my presence as “an old hippie.” I don’t have proof, but I think way more people voted for Nixon back then than will own up to it now. He got elected twice after all.

Meh:

Chelsea on the Rocks

Over it. Did you know it’s super expensive to live there now? THANKS, RUDY!

Pssshaw:

Berkeley in the Sixties

I think Berkeley is still sorta like this, just without any push back from The Man.

 

8. “Yelling Louder Proves My Point.”

What the filmmakers think they are saying: “Here is a well constructed video essay about why you should agree with me about this political issue.”

What the filmmakers are actually saying: “RIDDLED WITH LOGICAL FALLACIES??? YOUR MOM IS RIDDLED WITH LOGICAL FALLACIES!!!1”

This is all Michael Moore’s fault. I love “Roger and Me“, and I enjoyed “Bowling for Columbine,” but it should be understood that these aren’t documentaries. They are polemics. And because of this, it’s hard to make a good one, or even a watchable one. Most of them are profoundly shallow and unfair. Unfortunately, there are also a ton of them, because all you really have to do is have an opinion and find some academics who will talk about it with you on camera. Then you just cut it together with some file footage and maybe an audacious stunt before calling it a day.

GOP garbage:

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Science teachers who don’t want to teach science get fired sometimes. Kind of like how if I was a college professor and I wanted to teach an alternative set of grammar rules for American English, actually, you could probably get away with that. You would probably need tenure, though.

Dem. Garbage:

Deflating the Elephant

It’s a 124-minute movie that essentially functions like one of those shrill liberal blogs that deconstructs conservative language. And oh, hey, look it’s American actor and political activist Sean Penn!

 

Spicoli3 10 Types of Documentaries We Can Live Without

So much better than I Am Sam.

9. “Unexpected Profundity.”

What the filmmakers think they are saying: “The wisdom of everyday people never ceases to amaze me.”

What the filmmakers are actually saying: “I’m amazed that other people have thoughts.”

This is the “Good Will Hunting” trope; we’re all actually brilliant! Even people you wouldn’t expect! The problem is that in making this point, the filmmakers reveal the people that they think are unlikely sources of wisdom, almost always working class people and people on the margins of society. It’s more than a little exploitative.

Crap:

The Philosopher Kings

The inspiring story of janitors at top universities. What was I just saying about the Good Will Hunting trope?

Actually pretty good:

The Parking Lot Movie

It’s about parking lot attendants. Manages to avoid talking down to the audience or ridiculing the subjects.

 

10. “Dysfunctional Family Struggles With Dysfunction.”

What the filmmakers think they are saying: “What an interesting study of diverse family dynamics.”

What the filmmakers are actually saying: “I bet people would pay money to watch these fuck-ups!”

The difference between a good film in this genre and a bad one is empathy. If the subjects are played chiefly for laughs, it’s basically the ethical equivalent of watching Maury, but with the added stink of hipster irony. I would like to say that such films are the exception. I would be wrong.

Exploitative:

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

Hey, let’s laugh at some poor people with substance abuse problems as their children suffer from neglect. Yay, finally a movie that gives us permission to enjoy watching the cycle of dysfunction repeat itself.

Amateurish:

Family Values: An American Tragedy

Top prize at the Bitter Home Video Festival.

Doesn’t Live Up To Potential:

Dr. Bronner‘s Magic Soapbox

The story of the crazy dude who escaped the Nazis and created a semi famous brand of holistic peppermint soap with labels covered in philosophical ramblings and Bible verses. It seems like it would be interesting, right? Prepare to be surprised.

 

Jesco gives the Finger 300x167 10 Types of Documentaries We Can Live Without

This is so depressing. Jesco White from the Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virgina.

 

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23 Comments
  1. Pingback: » The Top Ten Most Disturbing Films on Netflix Instant – Part One » OKC.NET

  2. Pingback: » The Top Ten Most Disturbing Films on Netflix Instant Part Two » OKC.NET

  3. I actually really liked Berkeley In the Sixties. I thought it did a great job of describing the unique dynamics of the trifecta of the FSM, the Black Panthers, and the hippie movement. Lots of good history and footage, IMHO.

  4. Actually, the better term is “white knight” to describe the genre of the white savior. Crosses into fiction as well – Avatar, for example.
    But you are kinda FOS.
    Cropsy is very good, as was Philosopher Kings.

    Seriously, offer some more constructive crit, and promote great, little seen docs. Much more valuable use of your time.

    Cheers,
    DMCG

  5. “I love ‘Roger and Me’, and I enjoyed ‘Bowling for Columbine,’ but it should be understood that these arent documentaries. They are polemics.”

    This is a narrow view of what a documentary is that is directly contradicted by legendary British documentarian John Grierson, who is credited with coining the word “documentary.” Grierson famously said, “I look on cinema as a pulpit, and use it as a propagandist.”

  6. I loooooooved Tthe Parking Lot Movie, one of my faves at HotDocs when it came out.
    @Easton, excellent question. I think firstly this author is saying ‘be aware of your privileges as a citizen/human,’ and tsecondly that when you are making a film there is an inherent film’r/SUBject power imbalance that should be minded responsibly.

  7. I was pretty worried that the doc about my band was going to be on this list. I guess it escaped by wedging in between “crazy subculture” and “entitled white people go on road trip.” Whew!

  8. You know what else is a terrible trope/cliche? A snarky blog post riddled with manufactured emotional outbursts about how dumb any unimportant cultural artifact is. If you don’t like the films, just don’t watch them. There’s plenty of good stuff out there to keep you occupied.

    • So not only did you click through and read (?) the article, you commented on it…so you are basically encouraging me to write more snarky list articles, because that’s all that anyone reads on the internet. (Thanks cracked!) Take your own advice, man. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.

  9. Pingback: Enough Already « Archimedes' Archive

  10. Almost ALL documentaries we could live without! But the Preachy Self Indulgent Crap is the worst, hey?

    And how about the sort that wants to talk about how nice it is that the ‘other’ people are happy/struggling/being inspiring, in a nice culturally relative way which totally does not address the fact that half the population (i.e. female) may be experiencing a life which is in some ways rather a lot less than nice.

  11. Pingback: Dave Finally Watches: Cropsey | Dave Ex Machina

  12. What is your take on

    man on wire

    cave of forgotten dreams

    senna

    rivers and tides

    still bill

    180 degrees south

    I adore those, liked your list… agree pretty much spot on, and would love commentary on those….

  13. Great article. I almost saw a few a those docs on Netflix but even though I read your article I may still watch them to have an opinion myself.

    I am actually shooting and editing a documentary myself about a comic book store. There is no money, no film crew, and no script. I’ve been debating about the style of the documentary as to whether to include a narrative or not but at the same time I feel it should be an observational style. If you would to email me with your input I would like to read it. Thanks.

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