Documentary Films and the Lives of "Interesting" People
August 22, 2012
I suppose we define eccentricity as "someone stranger than ourselves." I imagine that some people find the fact that I am willing to drive long distances just to take a picture of a rare bird to be eccentric. I am a 44-year old man who owns a Star Wars T-shirt for every day of the week, and I'm sure some people view that as eccentric. I won’t argue with them. I find eccentric people to be interesting people, which makes me glad to be one of their ranks.
I’m not the only person who finds eccentricity interesting. There is an entire genre of documentary film based upon examining the lives of these "interesting" people. We should not confuse this with the reality TV genre of "train wreck watching" as exemplified by The Anna Nicole Show or The Jersey Shore. A great documentary about eccentric people should let us into their lives or subcultures without crossing the line into mockery or exploitation. Some of these films even examine that line itself. Let's take a look at some of these films that are available at MCPL.
Let’s start out with something relatively tame: spelling bees. Yes, some kids (and their parents) take spelling bees VERY seriously and VERY competitively. Surprisingly, a documentary about the 1999 National Spelling Bee held audiences Spellbound.
While many people could see the value of taking spelling very seriously, they probably wouldn’t understand putting the same level of time and energy into an arcade game. Steve Wiebe would beg to differ. Watch his assault on Billy Mitchell’s legendary Donkey Kong high score to become The King of Kong.
Hardcore videogamers are often considered to be nerds, which I would consider a subset of eccentrics. But players of Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGers (role-playing gamers) are often considered to be the uber-nerds, even by other nerds. However, the RPGers have challengers for that title: LARPers. LARPers (Live Action Role Players) take RPGs to the next level. Instead of just rolling dice to battle imaginary enemies in imaginary dungeons laid out on graph paper, LARPers dress up and do it in real life. Join a crew of LARPers as they do battle with the forces of evil at Monster Camp.
While the above obsessions might seem silly to some, at least they don't put their practitioners at risk of arrest, or even death. So, what in the world would possess someone to walk a tight rope between the towers of the World Trade Center? As if that weren’t crazy enough, why do the whole thing illegally as an act of guerilla theater? Find out about the "artistic crime of the century" committed by Philippe Petit, the Man on Wire.
So far, so good. Now let's move on into the territory of serious eccentricity, where strangeness fades into dysfunction. Here we find the hazy borderline between observing and exploiting. In fact, I would argue that in the following films, the line itself is as much the subject as the people.
Perhaps the most famous documentary of this sort is the iconic Maysles brothers film about the aged Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Big Edie); her charming, fashionable, and witty daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie); and their crumbling Hamptons mansion, Grey Gardens. Despite living in obvious poverty and sharing their squalor with hordes of cats and raccoons, the Beales still see themselves as aristocrats. Yes, that Bouvier in their name is the same as in Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (Big Edie and Little Edie are her aunt and cousin, respectively.).
One can't help but feel uncomfortable at times watching this film, which raises a lot of questions. Of particular interest is the relationship between mother and daughter. Is Little Edie trapped in this situation by a manipulative mother, or is she just a loving daughter caring for an aged and mentally ill parent the best she can? Are we feeling sympathy for the unfortunate? Or, are we indulging in schaudenfraude: seeing those whose wealth and position in society was not earned, but inherited, reduced to penury? And finally, should we be watching this tragic mess at all?
Finally, there’s Terry Zwigoff’s look at the comic artist Crumb. This unflinching look at an influential artist is a truly great documentary film: one that examines that links between madness, dysfunction, and genius; the tendency of biographical films to be hagiographies; and the question of intruding on troubled lives in the first place. I will warn you right now that this film is for mature audiences only.
R.(Robert) Crumb is considered by many to be the father of underground comics and one of the greatest living illustrators. Crumb's work is often shocking, featuring disturbing sexual and racial themes. Even more disturbing is the evidence of dysfunction and mental illness in his family as seen in the dismal lives of his mother and two brothers. The self-described "pervert" pouring out his inner demons in the form of provocative art is just one side of the man. Crumb is also a middle-aged family man who lovingly mentors his talented daughter in drawing, collects old-time blues music on 78s, and complains about how the whole country is going to pot. Which is the real Crumb? Is this even a valid question? And who are we to ask it?