Friday, October 7, 2011

Now This Is A Crazy Person Blog Rant..

Watching Nova | Building the Great Cathedrals and boy, is it both interesting and horrifying. There is an excellent documentary here, really, the visuals alone should be unimpeachable: high def video tours of some of the most impressive gothic structures? A huge compilation of medieval scrollery? Shit son, slap a Ken Burns After Effects filter on that shit and call it a day. And yet this is unwatchable, an unfocused mishmash of the worst Discovery channel 'What Did Judas Iscariot Really Sound Like?' lowest common denominator-y and the DaVinci Code knockoff effects that are so popular in today's history docs.
Is this really how we understand the past now? Does our narrative of the past really require conspiracy theories and Tom Hanks looking like a sexually predatory freshman year literature professor? All the evidence would seem to endorse the conclusion, which is strange, because the last three or four years have been great for documentary filmaking. Actually the kinds of documentaries that the academy has been recognizing as of late (meaning, like, since The Fog of War in 2004 if memory serves) are contemporary issue docs; why public school voucher programs work, our country's health care system is broken, the bank bailout was engineered to increase bank profits and fuck everyone else, public school voucher programs are the devil, etc.
History documentaries, their subjects further from our collective immediate experience, their talking heads all academic rather than the worn yet fierce visages of the aged fighters of wherever, their audience more couchridden than politically engaged, have felt the tidal wave of popular demand for Dan Brown stronger than most.
"But what's the problem with there being unnecessary and frankly retarded stylistic flourishes in contemporary history documentaries?" I hear you, the non-existant reader, cry, "At least people are learning something about how, like, people went to the bathroom in biblical times or whatever." True, dear nonexistant reader, knowledge is good, really any amount will do, but here the formatting itself undermines that greater purpose. By appearing so similar to The DaVinci code or The Secret these documentaries lend a certain, I don't know, a 'credence by visual effect proxy'. You can't suggest that in aping the visual effects of these movies these projects are not trying to --in effect-- borrow against the 'reality' of these movies and trade on the audience's relationship to them. Using narrative fiction to illuminate reality is not the worst thing, and there are presumably good reasons to do it. For example high schoolers with less-than-entirely formed senses of history probably learn more from the emotional melodrama of Tale of Two Cities than from a survey course of late 18th century French culture. What's dangerous is the sense of using fiction as a context for historical fact rather than the other way around. "Historical" documentaries like this feed and endorse a culture of paranoia acceptance; seeing Did The Dead Sea Scrolls Predict The End of Days? every other day on the History channel normalizes something like Loose Change after a couple of years, both endorse paranoiac ramblings, disingenuous editing, and shithouse-crazy fringe conspiricists, and if one of them is still good enough to air on the History Channel...


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