Thursday, April 30, 2009

That's Edutainment!

In a world in which the masses have gained access to media tools that once belonged to the very few, the need for clarity in messaging has never been greater.  A digital camera, a keen sense of organization, some seed money, and an interesting topic can provide the basic foundation for a feature-length documentary film. But in today's oversaturated media, finding a way to shape and frame one's message requires skill and spice. At some point, any documentarian must answer the same basic questions that have confronted journalists since the beginning of investigative reporting:

And how?

A well-crafted documentary will point viewers toward a "teachable moment" in which the viewer learns something new and important about the world in which he lives. If a documentary is powerful enough, it might even inspire viewers to take action or spread the word about an important cause (global warming, gay marriage, domestic violence) or event.

I received one of those teachable moments this week while riding astride my recumbent stationary bicycle and watching an episode of Jurassic Fight Club. What did I learn? During the age of dinosaurs, oxygen accounted for nearly 31% of the earth's atmosphere (compared to today's lower levels). As a result, everything grew bigger and faster. Plants and animals processed more oxygen, ate more, and tended to be more active for longer periods of time.

Documentary subjects basically fall into two categories. Some concentrate on living creatures (man, animals, plants, etc.,) and can regularly be seen on the Animal Planet channel or in the BBC's breathtaking 2006 series entitled Planet Earth.  Others concentrate on spreading new ideas and finding ways to resolve conflict. These may range from cooking shows to documentaries about social injustice. For most of these documentaries, however, the bottom line is sweet, simple and best expressed in a song from The Wiz (Broadway's 1975 musical reworking of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz):

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Three documentaries seen back-to-back this week at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival tried their best to avoid bad news. Each took a strikingly different artistic approach to its subject. And yet, the weakest of the three documentaries was the one that focused on the industry which shapes and brands corporate messages. Listen to filmmaker Doug Pray discussing his work earlier this year at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival:

Dedicated to the late Hal Riney, Pray's Art & Copy  is most notable for its surprising lack of conflict. There are numerous talking heads discussing famous ad campaigns. Many of their voices drone on as filler footage (cars on a packed freeway) splashes across the screen. Statistics about the number of people employed in the advertising industry and its effect on the economy are periodically thrown into the mix. 

As much as Mr. Pray may not wish for his film to be perceived as a puff piece about the advertising industry, you know what they say: if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. (Only someone like Chico Marx would have the insight to ask: "Why a duck?")

Most of the professional creatives (the driving forces behind the world of advertising) who appear in Pray's documentary seem about as passionate as accountants, as inspired as plumbers. That may be because it is very hard to codify the creative process.  What these people are really talking about is what goes into the sausage produced by the advertising industry. They can reminisce about great campaigns or the golden days of Madison Avenue as they try to describe the creative process and the thrill of being at the center of such a provocative industry. But there is little passion in their eyes or body language.

As a result, the people who specialized in media communications as a means of selling product, provided the least interesting material in the three documentaries I saw. Could it be that this film falters because the medium in which these people thrive is an abbreviated format (print ads and 30- or 60-second television spots)? 

The mild-mannered Riney deftly sums up the situation by stressing that, while there are plenty of people who work in advertising, very few are truly exceptional. Tommy Hilfiger confesses that, although some ads changed his career and made him work harder than ever, to this day he is still embarrassed by them.

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How do you take a topic which is a total downer and make an appealing film about it? That was the challenge facing Barbara Ettinger once she decided to make a documentary about the dangerous increases in ocean acidification. The fact that she succeeded so magnificently with A Sea Change is a testament to her skills as a filmmaker and her willingness to find the proper framework with which to deliver so much vital information about changes in the earth's atmosphere.

Nobody enjoys being lectured about doomsday scenarios. So Ettinger turned to her friend and colleague, former educator Sven Huseby, for help. After Huseby became fascinated with the topic of ocean acidification they embraced a format that had the retired Huseby trying to explain to his grandson, Elias, the kind of world his generation was leaving behind. From pteropods to dolphins, from sea anemones to salmon, Huseby explores the effect of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the world's oceans on every part of the aquatic food chain, from coral reefs on up to whales.

I'm a sucker for great underwater photography and some of the stock footage used in Ettinger's film is breathtaking. Yet the narrative is shaped in such a way that it raises concern without scolding, and explains the dangerous levels of acidification in today's oceans without being bombastic. The simple interactions between a grandfather and his grandson (whether in conversation or written letters) have such a universal appeal that the audience absorbs the science very easily while grasping how important the documentary's subject matter is for our times. There are also many moments when Elias steals the show just by being a little boy.

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If one were to judge a documentary strictly by the level of daring in its format, I'm pretty sure Peter Greenaway's remarkable achievement in Rembrandt's J'Accuse! would undoubtedly win top honors.  Unlike Sister Wendy Beckett (the consecrated virgin whose art history documentaries for the BBC made her internationally famous), Greenaway relishes his double role as a curator and provocateur.

At the outset of his film, Greenaway announces that he is going to solve a murder using 31 specific clues visible in Rembrandt's famous painting, The Night Watch. The number of clues sets up a rigid framework for the film which becomes as ominous as a countdown to liftoff at Cape Canaveral.

Although, as a narrator,  Greenaway may lack the corpulent creepiness of Alfred Hitchcock, as an art historian he is a passionate guide to the drama contained within Rembrandt's painting as well as the back story of how the painting came into existence. Not everyone agrees with Greenaway's opinions and, to be honest, there were times during the screening I attended when the audience burst into laughter at some of his more obsessive comments about the phallic symbolism of a certain weapon and its placement in the painting.

Still, I can't think of a more thrilling way to introduce someone to art history, cultural literacy, and the process of analyzing a crime scene. With its fierce intellectual acuity, historical relevance, and grand sense of purpose, Greenaway's documentary leaves television's CSI franchise gasping for air. Here's the trailer:

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