More truth than fiction: creepy documentaries

13 May

Simone has a doctor’s kit. She also has faux John Deere power tools. We store them together, and she has conflated the two. So tonight, to fix a cut on my hand, she starting hitting me with a hammer. She put pliers in my mouth. She twisted my nose with a wrench. And she shoved a miniature bedpan into my shirt. She ended the session catapulting her forehead into my face. There’s one potential career ruined.

Anyway, I’m not a huge fan of documentaries—they often fall into two categories, beautiful but boring, or stale succession of talking heads—but I’ve recently watched a number of very fine movies. (I also watched Melancholia, which I will write about at length, later; for now, let me just say that it is superb.)

Here’s a selection of the best I’ve watched.

One of the strange tiles from Resurrect Dead.

Resurrect Dead—This unnerving little documentary follows three men attempting to decode the mystery behind the “Toynbee tiles,” cryptic tiles hammered into the streets of Philadelphia and other major cities on the East Coast. The mystery involves pirate radio, David Mamet, self-delusion and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. It’s a very fine movie, lean and spare and direct, that will creep under your skin and stay there. I can’t quite explain how haunting this little movie really is.

An amazing exercise in investigative reporting and killer style.

The Thin Blue Line—Errol Morris is the greatest documentary filmmaker our country has yet produced. He’s incisive, moral, funny, insightful, but his movies have space in them for side stories and little snaking anecdotes. Here he deconstructs a murder through dozens of re-enactments. By examining each person’s testimony—and walking the audience through the re-enactment—he discovers the truth of the case and eventually freed an innocent man. Astonishing.

One of the scariest documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Cropsey—One of the first scary documentaries that works. The filmmaker here investigates the boogey man of his youth, Cropsey, a murderous wraith in Staten Island that supposedly kidnapped children and murdered them. Much of the film follows a crazed man on trial for the murders, and the citizens and cops who comb the garbage-besmirched Staten Island woods for corpses. In true gonzo fashion, the filmmaker contacts the suspect, and soon is part of the investigation. Mesmerizing and disturbing.

Truffaut and Goddard and cinema.

Two in the Wave—The French New Wave is the name given to the group of upstart film journalists and writers who, in the 1960s, stopped being critics and started making films. They include Resnais, Varda, Truffaut, Godard, Rivette and Chabrol, among others.  Truffaut and Godard are the two biggest names, and this very fine documentary follows their childhoods, their first films, their friendship and eventual falling out. Peppered with great film clips and interviews. Truffaut emerges as a cineaustic wunderkind, while Godard remains an oblique, tendentious, frustrating and misanthropic filmmaker. (Full disclosure: save for Alphaville and Contempt, I find Godard to be miserable and overrated; I know this puts me on the outs with most cinephiles.) I prefer Chabrol to both, but the background story of 400 Blows, one of the great movies, is worth the time investment alone.

One year in the life of hard living crackers.

The Wild and Wonderful Whites—One year in the life of hard-living crackers in West Virginia, as they deal drugs, have babies, fight, drink, dance, feud and murder. It’s an eye-opening glimpse into a hard-scrabble world of doomed, tormented souls. As a movie it has some flaws; there’s no narrative through line, some characters are hard to recognize, and the movie’s argument appears to be that the White family is vicious, cruel, mean-spirited, but full of independence and integrity. But as cinematic voyeurism/anthropology, it can’t be beat. These aren’t my people, but they’re close.

Bare knuckle boxing the Irish way.

Knuckle—The best of the bunch, which is saying quite a lot. The filmmaker spent 12 years chronicling feuding clans of Irish Travelers—a wild, self-governing Irish underclass—who settle their differences in a series of brutal, but strangely mannered, back-road bare-knuckle brawls. The film drops you right into the middle of it, and it takes fully half the film to realize that it is actually four clans feuding over two overlapping incidents, and that they are all related to each other. So cousins and uncles and even grandfathers duke it out year after year. The film focuses on a particular fighter, James Quinn McDonough, who keeps trying to retire, but keeps getting sucked back into fights with younger and younger opponents. Unforgettable.

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One Response to “More truth than fiction: creepy documentaries”

  1. FCM May 21, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

    Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” is a pretty decent work.

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