Before I run down what I watched, let me talk about what I read. After about two long years of good intentions and sporadic attention, I finally finished Robert Caro’s monumental biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker.” I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to do it but that’s only because the book itself is 1,200 pages long and weighs over four pounds and it’s not available on Kindle or iBooks or even in reliably readable pirated e-book form (I tried). When I did pick it up though, every page was fully transporting and engrossing, so vivid and luxurious is Caro’s deeply researched, minutely detailed writing.
Who knows if an ambitious director or an enterprising star will ever make the mistake of trying to adapt “The Power Broker” as a narrative feature, but I would bet money that there will never be a documentary made from it. The sheer richness of detail and expansiveness of the story that Caro tells would break any documentarian. There would just be no hope of capturing in a measly two-hour documentary the scope of Robert Moses’s life and work, especially the way Caro tells it, when even the wide physical expanses of the entire New York region itself could barely contain the breadth of the master builder’s creative and destructive genius.
All of which is just a roundabout way of making the point that, over the years, I’ve lost interest in the documentary as an art form. Like most people, I’ve enjoyed my share of them in the past—“When We Were Kings” and “Gimme Shelter” come to mind as standout film watching experiences for me—but these days more often than not I find documentaries intensely dissatisfying. They’re either too short, in which case they never seem to get to the level of detail in their subjects that I as a viewer want to see, or they’re too long, in which case they’re probably still too superficial for my taste while also managing to be boring.
If I’m going to watch a movie, I’d much rather watch something that’s declaratively fictitious, that has no pretenses to being factual. This isn’t about a bias against non-fiction, either; in fact what I find most frustrating about documentaries is that they’re not as rigorous or detailed as any given feature article in any give issue of say The New Yorker.
What’s worse, there are so many diverse and frankly elastic interpretations of what a documentary is, and so when it comes to journalistic integrity, I rarely know what I’m getting into. It’s obvious to say but worth repeating because so few people seem to acknowledge this, but documentaries are not journalism. They’re not fact checked and multiply sourced and in fact they’re more often than not opaque in their methods and research. And yet because they have the veneer of reality, they’re presented as fact much more often than they should be.
All of this came to mind as I finally finished “The Power Broker” mostly because reading it felt very much like experiencing something truly cinematic, where “cinematic” connotes a level of fulfilled ambition and emotional impact so overwhelming that you have no idea how it was ever done, much less dreamed of. There’s not a single documentary that I can think of that comes close to that, except perhaps for Ric Burns’s eight-part mini series “New York: A Documentary Film.”
If you enjoy documentaries, then more power to you. I acknowledge that there are things that the documentary form can do that the narrative form can’t, and I know that my aversion to them means I’ve missed out on some truly good ones every year. But for me watching documentaries just doesn’t seem like the best return on my time investments. I’d seriously rather be watching some silly popcorn fare or reading a real piece of journalism.
Okay, now on to what I watched in June which, ironically, included a documentary! That was “Kedi,” which tells the “stories” of several street cats in Instanbul. Intellectually I justified the time by reminding myself that “Kedi” makes no pretenses to being factual and also it’s freaking adorable, people.
The rest of what I watched, frankly, wasn’t all that impressive. In total I managed to see only thirteen films, only one of which was a new release. That was Cory Finley’s “Bad Education,” a black comedy about a Long Island superintendent of schools who meets with scandal. It was a fun ride that didn’t quite stick the landing, and also a bit of a letdown after Finley’s very impressive 2017 debut “Thoroughbreds,” which everyone should seek out.
The real standout for my June was probably the little-noticed but crackerjack 2018 thriller “Arctic,” which follows in the man-versus-nature tradition of “All Is Lost.” (At the risk of belaboring my point from above, I’d much rather rewatch these two fiction films than have to revisit a totally bogus man versus nature documentary like say “Free Solo”.)
Halfway through the month I discovered that my AT&T cellular plan entitles me to a free subscription to HBO MAX, so that’s my excuse for rewatching three of the horribly misconceived Batman movies from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. It’s a kindness to say that they haven’t stood the test of time; even Burton’s “Batman Returns” is awful. I thought I was going to work my way from the worst of the series to its “best,” Burton’s 1989 “Batman,” but after the first three, I couldn’t bear to do it.