10 November 2007
It got me to thinking about the documentary as a genre. An ancient critical precept holds that the goal of any art, in any medium, is dual: the please and to teach (to "delight and to instruct," in older translations). If we're not pleased by watching it, we won't. If we're only pleased, if we don't feel that we gain anything from those two hours other than a fleeting uptick in hedonic points, there will come a point pretty quickly when it, too, isn't worthy of our time.
Perhaps the difference between documentaries and other movies is simply that in the former the "teach" part of the old formula is more in-your-face.
Not long ago, I saw an old 1930s movie about Marco Polo. Nobody would confuse it with a documentary. The Italian and Chinese characters both spoke English (which was convenient) and everybody looked Caucasian. But even that movie had some instructive value. Marco Polo discovers pasta and firecrackers, he is on hand when the Khan tries to conquer Japan, etc.
Still, genre boundaries aren't quite that loose. What is the definition of a documentary film, for the purposes say of awarded an Oscar?
There are rules that have to do with the movies' continuing competition with the small screen, television. One of Michael Moore's movies was once ruled inelible for consideration by the academy because he allowed it to be shown on TV in the same year as its theatrical release. Another highly regarded documentary, Grizzly Man, was I understand excluded because the producers relied too much on archival footage. (So what? Film editing is less valuable for a documentarian than the actual photography?)
Upon further consideration, I don't think the Academy is of much help in this matter.
And I'm not really going anywhere with this line of thought so I might as well allow it to peter out right around ....
Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.