Jan 24, 2009


Why have documentaries become the pseudo-intellectual's stock answer to the question, "So, what kind of movies do you like?". Well, I guess that question kind of answers itself. Pseudo-intellectuals are, by definition, deficient in original, independent thought. Like seventh graders, they follow fashions fairly well, and lately, the "cool" answer to give when someone inquires about your taste in film is, "Oh, well I mainly just watch documentaries". This answer is typically coated in a snooty syntax that is immediately intended to put the pseudo-intellectual in a position of artistic and cultural superiority versus someone who may have just seen Bedtime Stories.

It may sound as if I'm being unfair to the documentary genre, as if I place a low-quality on the "non-fiction" films simply because I despise a certain, specific sub-class of people who like them. Not so. I think documentary = lazy cinema. Not lazy in the physical sense, as if to imply that the makers of these types of films aren't ambitious hard workers. But lazy in that no matter what style the documentary takes (talking heads, verite "on the scene" accounts, narrated passages of found footage) it is inherently less visually interesting than a narrative film. I watch films to see production design, acting, lighting, framing, composition, color, camera trickery. That is cinema. There are exceptions, yes, but I feel that 98% of documentaries are always inferior to the artistry involved in the making of a narrative film.

Still, documentaries can be entertaining, and my fierce stance against them as a credible art form has lead me to watch quite a few in order to keep my argument fresh. Just like a news story on 20/20 can be fun, or a bullsh*t piece on PBS can introduce me to an unknown topic, this genre of film is not without value... don't misunderstand me. High art, it ain't, but a cute and casual time kill? Sure.

A couple of days ago, I watched The Order of Myths. The film is your typical guilty liberal puff-piece where race-hustling is used to garner instant critical acclaim. Check the way director Margaret Brown juxtaposes a scene where a town elder in Mobile, Alabama talks about the importance of trees to his community in a totally holistic way, with a scene talking about past lynchings and hangings in Alabama. Without conscience, she just labeled this man a racist. Same goes for the way she traces the roots of one of her young subject's family back to the time of the slave trade, implying that this 21st century young woman has the instincts of hate in her heart. Documentarians can be passive-aggressive scum at times.

But Brown redeems herself a tad in the film's final third (perhaps she realized she was unfairly painting an innocent girl with a very broad brush). The major focus of the film surrounds Mobile, Alabama's annual celebration of Mardi Gras, and it questions why the community still has one parade for whites and one parade for blacks. Though from the (few) explanations that Brown allows the locals - both white and black - to give, tradition seems to have a lot to do with it. I don't doubt that some of the participants of both parades suffer from serious feelings of bigotry, but I get the feeling that it's a small percentage. Yet hate sells, so Brown plays that angle up... until the end.

Finally, as if feeling a disservice to the people of Mobile (who are all genuine and warm to Ms. Brown) was starting to take shape, The Order of Myths shows the united fronts of both white and black parades coming together in a sharing celebration, proving once and for all that the separation of the two parades wasn't based on prejudice at all, but simply tradition and cultural differences. The last shot of the film has Brown revealing to the audience that one of the men she frequently interviews throughout the film is her grandfather. This moment gives Brown credibility, motivation for why she decided to enter this small town and try to stir up a controversy. Her own ties to the community explains that she may have been hungry to understand her past and heritage on an honest level, and it urges you to let the director off the hook for a second... but just for a second.

-The Man With No Name

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