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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Just the Facts: Non-Fiction DVD

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

The past couple years have seen a dramatic increase in the visibility of documentary films, particularly in theaters. There once was a time when documentaries made just token appearances in art houses and college campuses before taking their rightful place on video shelves and on public broadcasting. But today, a documentary can screen in a mainstream cineplex alongside big budget Hollywood fare and actually stand a chance of making some money. Movies like Spellbound, Winged Migration and yes, Fahrenheit 9-11 have demonstrated that audiences will leave their homes to see non-fiction subject matter on the big screen. Fifteen years ago, a movie like March of the Penguins would likely have screened only in natural history museums. These days it cracks the weekend box office top ten.

Home video, on the other hand, has always been non-fiction friendly. Virtually all documentaries play as well if not better at home than they do in the cinema, especially now that so many are shot on video instead of film. Unfortunately, documentaries also sometimes attract sloppy and lazy filmmakers. In films like these, there seems to be an attitude that finding an interesting subject guarantees an interesting film. That's just not true. It's relatively simple to find interesting people or topics to make movies about. It's much more difficult to frame that subject in a way that makes it interesting to people besides yourself.

On DVD, non-fiction encompasses much more than just documentary films. Go to your public library and check out what's shelved in the non-fiction video section and you'll see what I mean. In addition to traditional documentaries, there are TV series, do-it-yourself instructional videos, archival collections, and much more. This column aims to look past the most famous recent documentaries like Super-Size Me and into a handful of discs that show the diversity of non-fiction DVD. Some are good, some are bad, and yeah, some are downright ugly.

Noam Chomsky: Rebel Without a Pause
2003 (2005) - Docurama

For the past few years, the Docurama label has been doing an outstanding job of presenting a wide array of non-fiction films on disc, from the seminal Bob Dylan doc Don't Look Back to the brilliant true crime story Brother's Keeper to IFC productions like Lost In La Mancha. Unfortunately, Noam Chomsky: Rebel Without a Pause is one of their weaker efforts. This is an instance where the subject is more interesting than the film surrounding him.

Noam Chomsky: Rebel Without a Pause

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For those who don't know the man, Noam Chomsky is one of America's leading intellectual figures. Almost certainly the world's most famous professor of linguistics, Chomsky became politically active in the late 1960's. His views on America's foreign policies, analysis of mass media and most recently, opinions on the war on terror have made him a lightning rod for controversy for decades now. Certainly he's a fascinating man and more than worthy subject matter for a documentary film. Indeed, several have already been made, most notably Manufacturing Consent.

The problem with Rebel Without a Pause is that it's interesting only as far as what Chomsky is saying is interesting. In fact, the film plays out more as a concert film than a documentary. We see pieces from a number of speaking engagements and Q&A sessions but no original, individual interviews with Chomsky himself. The original interviews come from fellow activists and colleagues, most interestingly from Chomsky's wife Carol. But while we're told repeatedly that Chomsky is a controversial figure (so controversial in fact that some interviewees suggest his life might be threatened), we don't ever really hear from anyone who disagrees with him.

Chomsky is talking about hot-button topics such as the war in Iraq but since the entire film was shot in Canada instead of the U.S., we don't see a lot of dissent or even questioning, just polite interest from the Canadian students. As a document of Chomsky's Canadian tour, Rebel Without a Pause is probably quite accurate. But if you're not already familiar with Chomsky, this is definitely not the place to start.

The presentation of the film on disc is about as good as can be expected. It was shot on video and looks OK, although some of the sound isn't very good. It's particularly difficult to make out some of the questions from various audience members. The main extra is almost forty minutes of additional Chomsky footage taken from a press conference. It's certainly as interesting as anything Chomsky has to say in the film itself. Otherwise, there are a couple of filmmaker bios, a statement from director Will Pascoe, and Docurama's catalog, complete with a few trailers for other releases.

As a documentary, Rebel Without a Pause is far too scattershot and unquestioning to be a success. If you're a big Noam Chomsky fan, you'll likely forgive the film's shortcomings and simply enjoy hearing the man speak on a variety of topics. If you disagree with him, you'll be annoyed that no one is representing your side. And if you've never heard of him before in your life, the movie's pace and lack of clear focus will probably make you tune out long before the credits roll.

Rebel Without a Pause
Film Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/C+/C-

The 70s Dimension
2005 - Other Cinema DVD

So Wrong They're Right
1996 (2005) - Other Cinema DVD

Other Cinema DVD (or OCD) is a relatively new independent label that I would like to officially nominate as one to watch. Unlike Docurama, OCD isn't a non-fiction-only label. But so far, some of their most interesting releases have fallen into that category, including these two new discs.

The 70s DimensionSo Wrong They're Right

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

The 70s Dimension isn't a documentary. In fact, it's a DVD that really shouldn't exist at all. It's a compilation of commercials and public service announcements from the decade that taste forgot rescued from a Portland, OR TV station dumpster. And if you, like me, were alive and watching television during the 1970s, you won't find a more mind-bending time machine of a DVD than this one. Some old favorites are here, like Madge and her Palmolive dish washing liquid ("You're soaking in it!"), the Marlboro man, and the pollution-hating Indian who sheds a single tear, but most are more obscure. I was fond of the military recruitment ads, particularly those that reached out to women. The spots are divided into eight well-chosen categories: Appearance, Appliance, Drink, Food, Military, Potpourri, PSA and Transportation. Each of them will bring you straight back to the 70s... the hair, the clothes, the technology, even the decidedly low-tech presentation. The spots collected here don't look or sound spectacular. They won't show off your home theatre, unless you're still watching a 32-inch Magnavox in a beautiful faux cedar housing. They look and sound better than you might expect 16MM films fished out of a dumpster to, but that's about all.

The spots are just one half of The 70s Dimension, collected under the umbrella title What the 70s Really Looked Like. The rest of the dimension is 70s Remix, six short films created out of vintage 70s ephemera, reinterpreted through editing, manipulation and sound design. This is a mixed bag to be sure but the best of the short films are genuinely excellent. Tony Gault's Not Too Much Remember is fascinating (though if you want to pick nits, its footage isn't just from the 70s) but my favorite was We Edit Life by Vicki Bennett, a terrific mixing of image and music.

Russ Forster's So Wrong They're Right is a more traditional documentary and one of the best non-fiction films I've seen in a long time. Forster, publisher of the now defunct fanzine 8-Track Mind, travels America tracking down fellow enthusiasts of 8-Track tapes, those long-gone cartridges that dominated stereos throughout the 70s. Before you dismiss these people as kooky hipster eccentrics, let me say that while we're on the verge of yet another video format change into high-definition DVD, now is the perfect time for every single DVD fan to watch So Wrong They're Right. The men and women featured here understand something that a lot of video fans don't seem to get. It isn't the technology, it's the music that's important. It isn't the format, it's what's recorded on it. A lot of collectors just accumulate objects and display them for their own sake. Not these folks. To them, an 8-Track is worthless if it isn't being played. They're willing to take a chance on music they've never heard of because they can buy these tapes for a quarter at thrift stores and rummage sales. If their copy of KISS Alive II still plays fine on 8-Track, they see no point in rebuying it on CD. It's an attitude we could use more of. Perhaps if more people got fed up with buying and rebuying the same things over and over, it would send a message to the record companies and movie studios. Just a thought.

So Wrong They're Right is a funny, warm and nostalgic journey. Even if they're only interviewed for a few minutes, I enjoyed spending time with each and every person in this film. They're smart, independent, and unusual people and I could easily relate to their 8-Track passion. (For the record, no, I don't have any 8-Tracks any more, although this film certainly made me wish I'd held on to my collection. Perhaps my old cartridges of Glass Houses and the Superman soundtrack are still buried somewhere among my dad's tapes. Hmm...)

So Wrong They're Right was also shot on 16MM and, like The 70s Dimension, isn't a technical marvel. The extras on this disc, on the other hand, are rather enjoyable. Director Russ Forster contributes an informative and amusing commentary and narrates a behind-the-scenes and an 8-Track history slide show. 8-Track Mind #100 features episodes from the video version of Forster's magazine, including a tribute to Abigail Lavine, a contributor to the magazine and film who tragically died not long after the film's completion. Another interview subject from the film, Texas entrepreneur Mr. Bucks, contributes a few celebrity interviews with the likes of Tiny Tim and David Byrne. Finally, as with The 70s Dimension, the disc includes previews for other releases from OCD.

Other Cinema DVD is off to a great start, releasing little-known quality titles totally unlike anything anybody else is doing. The 70s Dimension is a wild trip back in time. The only thing that could make that disc more fun is if you have the equipment to re-edit the commercials back into episodes of Good Times or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. So Wrong They're Right, on the other hand, is just about as good-hearted and affectionate a documentary as you'll see. I hope future releases from OCD continue to surprise and surpass these two fine discs.

The 70s Dimension
Program Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C-/C/C+

So Wrong They're Right
Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C/C+/B-

Desperately Seeking Seka
2002 (2004) - Disinformation

The Midnight Blue Collection Volume 1: The Deep Throat Special Edition
1975-1987 (2005) - NY After Midnight/Blue Underground

I don't know if you've noticed but there are a lot of documentaries focused on the porn world. I have my theories as to why this might be. If you make a pornumentary, you can hang out in the porn world, check out porn sets, write off a trip to the Adult Video Awards in Vegas on your taxes (it seems to be mandatory for all of these movies to go to Vegas), but still maintain the respectability of being a documentary filmmaker instead of a smut peddler. In other words, these movies are made by guys who are obsessed with porn but don't have the stones to make porn themselves.

Desperately Seeking SekaThe Midnight Blue Collection Volume 1: The Deep Throat Special Edition

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

Some of these pornumentaries are kind of entertaining, such as Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy, but most are not. The best is the recent Inside Deep Throat, which wisely focuses on what is arguably the single most important porn movie of all time and examines it from every angle. But most of them are along the lines of Desperately Seeking Seka, a great title without a movie to back it up. The movie is ostensibly told from the point of view of Swedish journalist Stefan Nylen. Stefan comes to America hoping to find out whatever happened to Seka, the famous single-named porn star of the late 70s and early 80s. Not a bad idea for a movie. Seka was certainly one of the most popular and beautiful porn stars of her day. Only trouble is that it turns out that Seka ain't all that hard to track down (Nylen makes a single phone call and finds her living in Chicago). And the reasons she left the industry ain't all that interesting (she was getting older and didn't want to do it anymore).

Instead of allowing these discoveries to change the direction of the film, directors Magnus Paulsson and Christian Hallman pad things out with lengthy, dull excerpts from Seka's movies and interviews with porn figures new and old, including Al Goldstein (who must be contractually obligated to appear in every single movie about pornography ever made) and producer/director Jane Hamilton (who used to perform under the name Veronica Hart). Hamilton is the most interesting person in the film and a better movie probably could be made about her. As it is, Desperately Seeking Seka is anticlimactic, repetitive and dull.

The DVD is equally subpar. The sound is iffy and the video quality is pretty poor, especially the clips from the movies which were clearly taken straight from worn VHS tapes. The bonus features include a bunch of deleted scenes and interviews (the movie itself is less than an hour), many of which are just more clips from Seka's movies! There are some production notes, bios, publicity material and outtakes, plus a painfully bad commentary by the filmmakers. The most useful extra on here is a fairly complete looking filmography for Seka herself, which if nothing else will steer you toward some quality vintage smut.

Speaking of vintage smut, I don't think I've ever seen a stranger DVD than the inaugural edition of the Midnight Blue Collection, The Deep Throat Special Edition. For over twenty years, Midnight Blue raised temperatures across New York City late at night. Hosted by the ubiquitous Al Goldstein, Midnight Blue provided a serious (well, relatively serious) look at pornography and sexual politics at the height of the adult film industry's popularity. Cashing in on the resurgence in popularity of all things Deep Throat, this DVD collects an assortment of interviews from Midnight Blue over the years revolving around the legendary porn movie. Yes, the TV on DVD phenomenon is now so pervasive that we're seeing public access shows released on disc.

Strictly speaking, the content of the disc isn't all that interesting. Interviews with the likes of director Gerard Damiano and star Harry Reems are interesting within the context of their time but if you're genuinely interested in learning about the making of the movie, you're much better off waiting to see Inside Deep Throat. But it's the way this disc is put together that makes it so bizarre. Occasional bits of trivia are put in Pop-Up Video style, giving context to the proceedings and filling us in on tidbits like the fact that Carol Connors, the nurse in Deep Throat, is Thora Birch's mother. Weirdest of all, the individual episodes are bridged by the actual commercials aired at the time. So you get to see ads for swingers clubs like Plato's Retreat, escort services, and sex toys like the Orgasmatron.

A disclaimer at the beginning of the program explains that every effort was made to restore the original elements but, as they say, you can't shine shit. True to their word, the program looks and sounds pretty awful. Watchable but with occasional dropouts and weird video rolls. It's bad but in a way, it just makes the whole thing feel that much sleazier. The only extras are two horrible audio interviews with Damiano and Reems recorded so poorly that I couldn't make out a word that was said.

For anybody who thinks that all porn is the same, that's just not true. There's good porn and bad porn and likewise there are good pornumentaries and bad ones. Desperately Seeking Seka is pretty lousy, making a subject which should at the very least be titillating seem extremely dull. The Deep Throat Special Edition isn't much more informative but at least it's got a real air of genuine porno sleaze to it. If it were a bonus disc to a full-fledged double-disc special edition of the movie Deep Throat, it would be pretty damn cool. But on its own, it'll only appeal to the most devoted of vintage porn collectors.

Desperately Seeking Seka
Film Rating: C-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C-/C/C-

The Midnight Blue Collection Volume 1: The Deep Throat Special Edition
Film Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): D/C/D

World War I in Color
2003 (2005) - Capital Entertainment

Some subjects are so big, they're better suited to being examined on television than on film. Entire cable networks are dedicated to shows like these, multi-part dissections of wars, empires, ancient civilizations and historical figures. World War I in Color (or Colour as this British-produced series is spelled) is typical of programs like these. Serious, gripping non-fiction stories of the type favored by Tony Soprano. The twist with this program is that thanks to the miracle of computer technology, original footage from the Great War has been colorized, giving us the opportunity to see the war as never before.

World War I in Color

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

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Now I know what you're thinking. Probably the same thing I was. How can there possibly be any use for colorization that doesn't completely bastardize the original footage? Well for a start, none of this material was shot for an artistic purpose, so unlike colorizing say, Casablanca, the technicians' only responsibility is to keep things as accurate and detailed as possible. And if the result isn't exactly the way it was originally seen (as narrator Kenneth Branagh intones at the beginning of each episode), at its best it does provide a remarkable level of immediacy to the footage. Some of the most impressive footage is of naval battles. With basically just sea, sky and battleship grey to worry about, this footage looks pretty close to reality. The colorization doesn't always work, though. Shots of troops marching often look like an attack of the clones instead of a unit of individuals. Even so, even the least effective coloring here is a far sight better than those early attempts at colorizing the Three Stooges.

But no documentary stands or falls solely on the basis of its technical merits. In addition to the enhanced footage and Branagh's narration, World War I in Color is bolstered by voice-over performances of soldiers' memoirs and letters plus contemporary interviews with historians and surviving veterans.

Thankfully, optional subtitles are provided and you'll likely switch them on to understand some of the gentlemen interviewed (none too surprising considering they're all within shouting distance of the century mark). The worst thing to be said about the voice-over work is that they're all performed in broad accents, no doubt to erase any doubt as to which army they were part of. The unfortunate side effect of this choice is that every French soldier sounds like Inspector Clouseau, every Russian soldier like Boris Badenov, and every German like Rainier Wolfcastle.

In the end, however, World War I in Color is no better or worse than any other documentary of its type. The war is presented clearly in individual episodes focusing on different stages of the conflict, from the trench war to the rise of the flying aces and U-boats. If you're a WWI buff, nothing in this series will be news to you but you'll appreciate some of the rare footage and the eyewitness accounts from the veterans. Otherwise, this is a solid introduction to the topic but not so dynamic that it will necessarily hook you for life.

Extras on the set are limited to an uninteresting "making of" (really just a couple of sit-down interviews with the producers and nothing about the more technical aspects) and a pretty good bonus episode called Tactics & Strategy. This program uses CGI to digitally recreate certain key battles, going more in-depth into these individual moments than the broader scope of the series itself allows. The computer technology is already outdated but it's still a fairly interesting fifty minutes, giving a great deal of insight into how warfare has changed in the last century. Disc one also includes thumbnail biographies of many of the key players of World War I and a helpful timeline of events and some startling facts and figures about individual casualties.

World War I in Color doesn't exactly break new ground in telling the story of the war to end all wars but it does present familiar information (or at least, it should be familiar) in a clear and concise manner. As computer technology continues to improve, such attempts to revitalize the past may well become more common. Certainly this kind of project is the only use colorization should be put to. The original footage captured the war using the best technology available at the time. To use modern technology in an attempt to make this footage as lifelike as possible seems a noble effort. World War I in Color is a good first step.

World War I in Color
Film Rating: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/B-

Adam Jahnke

Adam Jahnke - Main Page
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