5 Documentaries That Prove The Opposite Of Their Point
Documentaries are like the overscrupulous nerds of the film world. Every time an 18-wheeler blows up behind Shia LaBeouf in Merked: The Angela Merkel Story, it's a documentarian's job to push the glasses up the bridge of their nose and say, "Well actually, Ms. Merkel achieved most of her major accomplishments via diplomacy. Also, she was a German woman, not a perpetually-hoarse-sounding American man."
That's in an ideal world. The problem is, documentaries are made by people, and people are sometimes complete fucking lunatics -- such that their complete fucking lunacy actually manages to eclipse the story they initially set out to tell. The following are five such examples of documentaries that ended up eating themselves alive.
Salinger is a documentary directed by Shane Salerno about reclusive author and cult icon J.D. Salinger. It starts out relatively normal, if a little gimmicky, with a bunch of cool interviewees like Tom Wolfe and (for some damn reason) Philip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Sheen talking about how much they liked Catcher In The Rye. But for every Tom Wolfe whom Salerno interviews, he also threads in a sort of kooky, borderline mentally ill person who's not Martin Sheen. People like Joyce Maynard (who, to be fair, is actually relevant to the story) and some fucking guy who drove to and camped outside of Salinger's house when he was, like, 16 (who, to be fairer, is absolutely not).
In case you're wondering, it's this strange motherfucker right here. And no, he has not become more balanced with time.
The face says "I'm crazy," while the man-bag says "and carrying human heads."
At first, you think, "Maybe Salerno is just showcasing both sides of the J.D. Salinger cult." Like, yeah, this novel inspired Gore Vidal, but it also inspired Mark David Chapman. But about midway through, Salerno absolutely fucking loses his mind like ... well, like somebody who's way too into Catcher In The Rye. He completely abandons any semblance of impartiality regarding his subject. This is taken verbatim from the end of the movie:
"Based on private interviews conducted over nine years, the filmmakers have learned that J.D. Salinger has approved the following works for publication. The information was provided, documented, and verified by two separate sources.
A Counterintelligence Agent's Diary
A World War II Love Story ... based on Salinger's ... complicated relationship with his first wife, Sylvia Welter. The two main characters meet in post-WWII Germany and begin a passionate love affair.
As with their real life counterparts, they share telepathic communication."
Using their cutting-edge telepathy device.
Salerno just takes it for granted that you, the viewer, A) believe in telepathy and B) further believe that the author of Catcher In The Rye was telepathically connected to his first wife. You know, like he apparently does.
He does all this while simultaneously overlaying a musical score that makes each new prospective manuscript sound like it was ripped right from the fucking Panama Papers. Literally no piece of writing has ever deserved the amount of hamfisted tension that's slathered on the works of J.D. Salinger in this one crazy-ass documentary. The film names a handful of other projects that are supposed to be released before concluding:
"Salinger's chronicles of the Glass and Caulfield families will be the masterworks for which he is forever known. He will have created a full history of two of the most extraordinary families in American literature."
And it will annoy American high schoolers until the end of time.
This isn't some kooky talking head saying this, mind you. This is the documentarian himself, having not ever read any of the books he's listing, straight-up screaming in bold typeface, "J.D. SALINGER WILL COME BACK A GENIUS ONE THOUSAND TIMES MORE TERRIBLE THAN ANY YOU HAVE EVER KNOWN. TREMBLE AND REPENT, MORTAL SCUM," before (I assume) either spontaneously immolating or being beamed up into whatever spaceship J.D. Salinger has chosen to ferry True Believers away from this Earthly plane, and leaving his ill-fated editor with this fucking mess of a film.
The movie is a serious trip, is what I am saying.
Heckler, produced by Jamie Kennedy, starts out as a fascinating look at what makes people yell at comedy shows. They managed to get some of the best comedians in the country to tell their best heckling stories -- including David Cross, Paul F. Tompkins, Robert Kelley, Lewis Black, Eugene Mirman, and Dave Attell -- all in the first ten minutes. It's genuinely delightful. Then it delves into the phenomenon and why people heckle in the first place, and connects the people who yell at comedy shows to the then-growing trend of newspaper writers and online bloggers who were getting followers based on their reputations as angry, vitriolic critics.
Spoiler: People are dicks.
Around the halfway point, though, Jamie Kennedy starts exclusively interviewing bloggers who gave Son Of The Mask negative reviews. There's an extended scene in which Kennedy reads blurbs about his movies back to the people who wrote them years before, and it just sort of leaves the camera on their uncomfortable faces as he channels his best Kenneth Branagh. One gets the vibe that this is less a PSA about rudeness and more an opportunity for Jamie Kennedy to spend thousands of dollars bullying nerds who hurt his feelings.
And he then had the guts to show his face at Comic-Con. Well played, Kennedy.
The movie ends by covering the pretty much universally maligned director Uwe Boll's boxing matches against internet critics. Thing is, though, the critics had no boxing experience or training and -- in exactly the sort of fashion you'd assume Uwe Boll conducts his affairs -- they were told it was a publicity stunt instead of, you know, a for-real boxing match with someone who intended to beat the shit out of them. Said another way, the triumphant emotional climax of Kennedy's film is a series of scenes wherein one of the worst filmmakers of all time violently assaults a bunch of unsuspecting nerds who had the temerity to question his artistic genius. Which is a pretty decent metaphor for the film's whole raison d'etre.
Exit Through The Gift Shop
Even if you're not plugged into the art world, you probably know Shepard Fairey and Banksy as the guys who made art vaguely interesting again in the mid-2000s via vandalizing public property. The rise of street art is about as close to a Lisztomaniacal phenomenon as the turtleneck-and-shawl-wearing world of nauseating post-graduate degrees and exaggerated pronunciations of Vincent Van Gogh's surname was ever going to get.
Enter Thierry Guetta, a French dude living in L.A. who films everything he does. (And I do mean everything. There are scenes in the movie of him filming himself in the bath -- which, beyond being sort of weird, is a goddamn electrical hazard, Thierry.) He falls short of ass-backwards into the innermost circles of the street art world, and ends up playing the Pennebaker to Banksy's Bob Dylan. Sounds perfect, right? Well, it would be perfect, in the hands of someone slightly less bonkers than Thierry Guetta.
Midway through the movie, after literal years of chronicling the rise of street art, Guetta finally cuts together this movie, if you want to call it that:
Once Banksy sees Guetta's insane-ass director's cut, he decides he needs to take the movie into his own hands. Which is perfectly fine by Guetta, since he's now decided to -- I shit you not -- cash in on his friendship with Banksy in order to become a famous street artist.
The third act of the movie sees Guetta taking out massive billboard ads, renting out a ludicrously large studio space for an opening exhibit in L.A., and doing just about everything except actually making any Street Art. He commissions a bunch of nobodies to do that -- you know, like a real artist would. Which, bizarrely enough, works really well. Guetta's terrible, vapid art show is a huge commercial success (like Suicide Squad, but more pretentious). The documentary ends up tracking Guetta's farcical emperor's-new-clothes-style rise to prominence in the art world. You can practically hear Banksy cringing behind the lens as Guetta's art sells for five or six figures.
I would pay people to take this out of my house.
The irony, not exactly lost on Banksy, is that a movie which was initially supposed to chronicle the rise of the one subsection of the modern art world that wasn't completely bloodless pretense ended up being mostly about how the art-buying community can't tell the difference between genuine social commentary / commitment to craft and a guy who pays college kids to blow up a lithograph of Marilyn Monroe's face before holding out his hand palm-up and saying "Money, please!"
By the end of the movie, Banksy is like a little kid who just found out that there's no Santa Claus and his parents are getting divorced. That's how badly he takes Thierry Guetta's astoundingly unearned success in the same world that took years to notice Banksy in the first place.
The whole bizarre picaresque ends with Banksy saying, "I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art ... I don't do that so much anymore."
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Artifact earns distinction insofar as it's the rare Jared Leto movie that's almost suspiciously devoid of a character dying of HIV. That's because it's a documentary about Leto's band, 30 Seconds to Mars, which plays the rock and roll music. Artifact tracks 30 Seconds to Mars (or 30STM, as I assume dedicated 30STM-heads call them in order to save time) through the arduous creative slog that accompanies the creation of their 2009 album This Is War.
The most difficult part was Leto refusing to stop pretending to be a musician.
The first half of the documentary chronicles the day-to-day trench warfare involved in making the album, which mostly entails the band raising dental and cuticle hell while money men from the record label continuously butt in and try to make the product more commercially viable. It's art versus commerce on bath salts, it's super eye-opening, and you end up really rooting for the band and Leto's vision for the album.
Unfortunately, the second half of the movie is all about 30STM actually recording the album. Why "unfortunately"? Turns out the music is goddamn terrible. It's almost like you get catfished by Leto's absurdly sincere commitment to the band's dumpster fire of an album. There's all this buildup, but by the end, you're just kind of like, "Yeah, maybe the record label was right all along."
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
Expelled is a documentary starring Ben Stein which argues that Darwinian evolutionary theory has an unfair hegemonic vice grip on the intellectual community, and that proponents of intelligent design have been unfairly persecuted for questioning the wisdom of natural selection. OK, that's not something I particularly agree with, but hey, maybe it's true that academia can be hostile to anybody trying to inject metaphysics into pure science. Maybe we could all do well to broaden our minds beyond the threshold of pure empirical humanism.
Now, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is a really bad documentary in let-us-count-the-damn-ways. For one, the persona Stein elects to adopt is essentially a right-wing version of Michael Moore -- as if for 30 years, people on the right had all been saying, "Well, I don't agree with Mister Moore's politics, but what a charming personality he has." For two, it's a huge fucking snow job. It misinterprets facts (in some cases willfully) in order to make Big Science seem like a monolithic Illuminati conspiracy of rabid dogmatists, as opposed to, you know, a bunch of bespectacled nerds publishing peer-reviewed studies in a handful of little-read journals. But whether the documentary is full of baffling quantities of bullshit (it is) is not important for the purposes of this article.
We'll just leave that all over here for a minute.
What's important is that in the first half of the documentary, Stein, in between deploying a rash of strawman arguments and ad hominem attacks to tar and feather a community of unruffled geeks, makes one simple point over and over: Just let the kids play, ref. And as much as you can hate Stein and his intellectual dishonesty here, it's actually a pretty good point. People shouldn't be wading into scientific debates and policing rational discourse just because certain ideas have sociopolitical baggage attached. In a free society, ideas should be allowed to speak for themselves, and stand or fall on the basis of their own validity.
Midway through the movie, all of that changes in less time than it took the One True God to create the Birds of the Air and the Beasts of the Earth. To the point where you feel like maybe the Ben Stein from the first half of the movie should meet the Ben Stein from the second half, and they should duke it out.
In a patently insane 180-degree turn, Stein starts equating people who believe in evolution with Nazis.
I recommend you start your drinking game at this point in the film.
That's not a euphemism; he literally walks through the Dachau Concentration Camp and wonders aloud why evolutionary proponents don't apologize more for the Holocaust (which he also casually equates with both abortion and euthanasia). Which is sort of like arguing that we should stop teaching universal gravitation in schools until physicists apologize for the bombing of Hiroshima. In the same hour-and-change-long documentary, Stein says, "You shouldn't try and politicize science; you should let ideas speak for themselves," and, "You know who else thought we evolved from a common ancestor? Hitler! Have fun with your provable theses, you atheist abortion doctor."
Then "All These Things I've Done" by The Killers starts playing while Stein stands at a lectern and receives a standing ovation from a crowd of hired extras (that's not a joke) as he repeats that one famous line he had in Ferris Bueller -- which we're assuming was a contractual obligation Stein had to fulfill in order to get production funding for his totally unhinged Holocaust romp.
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