Back in July I wrote about my overall low regard for documentary films. My argument mostly amounted to a frustration that documentaries, despite frequently adopting the guise of journalism, rarely acknowledge how little their narratives usually conform to actual facts. As a result I seldom choose to watch them; I’d just rather be watching something more transparently fictitious.
However, last month I saw two documentaries that frankly delighted me. First was “Jasper Mall,” directed by Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb and released earlier this year, which captures a year in the slow, ignoble death of a shopping mall in suburban Alabama. Then, at the end of the month, I watched John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection,” directed by Julien Faraut in 2018, which is ostensibly a sports documentary but in reality is an indescribably unique meditation on the nature of filmmaking.
These are two very different kinds of documentaries but what they have in common, and what worked for me so well, was their honest disinterest in being journalistically comprehensive. “Jasper Mall” makes no pretense that it’s telling a complete story about how or why this particular shopping mall is in economic free fall—much less why countless more malls across America are undergoing similarly catastrophic decline. The movie features no suspiciously simplistic statistics or flashy animated charts, no authoritative voices chiming in on the economic underpinnings of the ongoing retail collapse, and no corny reenactments of historic events. There’s also no “investigative reporting” that tries to bend events into convenient narratives, and no reductive mischaracterizations of real people for the purposes of setting up simplistic villains.
Instead, “Jasper Mall” is just an extended set of visits with the shop owners and workers who are trying to make the best of a deteriorating decision, with the mall operators who are quixotically doing their level best to reverse the trends, and with the idle patrons who can do little more than witness the collapse. Each person tells their story simply and straightforwardly, with no pretense and no artificial drama. There’s no judgment, no admonitory message, no call to action.
If anything, “Jasper Mall” is really more like a horror film, just one where the terror moves in slow motion and the victims fade away quietly. Most horror films trap their characters in buildings or towns that allow no escape. Similarly, “Jasper Mall” never leaves the mall grounds, and at times it feels like the mall’s deep, moat-like parking lot forms the very edge of the world. The characters themselves disappear one by one, whether because shops close or because they literally pass away, and there’s a feeling that the end is near for all of them. It’s sad and sweet and a little humorous, and also unforgettable.
Julien Faraut’s “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” also works within a circumscribed scope in that it deals only with a few specific moments in time—specifically, the occasions on which the tennis great competed in the French Open in the early 1980s—and goes no further. We get no back story on McEnroe’s early tennis training, no commentary from mentors, peers or competitors, and virtually no context on McEnroe’s career beyond these appearances at all.
In fact, the entirety of the film is composed from training footage captured by a filmmaker-tennis player named Gil de Kermadec, who served as technical director of the French Tennis Federation during McEnroe’s peak years. Throughout his tenure de Kermadec made it a practice to capture countless hours of footage of players at the French Open in order to better understand how the body moves during play.
A tremendous amount of what de Kermadec captured was of McEnroe on the court: his famous tantrums and the confoundingly off handed elegance of his swings. From this source material, rediscovered just a few years ago, director Faraut fashions an utterly original film. The subject is ostensibly McEnroe, and indeed the player is rarely not on screen. But in actuality the documentary is an impressionistic essay on what it means to make a film, as Faraut is even more interested in what it means for the camera to witness a live sporting event than he is in McEnroe’s playing.
Faraut’s film is actually about the making of de Kermadec’s film project—which itself is really only partially about McEnroe. In many ways the true star is the footage itself, salvaged from nearly forgotten archives, and restored to its grainy, gorgeous 16 mm glory. Faraut occasionally slows it down and overlays an otherworldly guitar soundtrack on top of McEnroe’s ground strokes, and the results feel as if he’s pulling on and stretching time like silly putty. You feel transported to the matches, but more aware of the abstraction and artistic license that the camera imposes on events than in most any other documentary. I haven’t seen another movie like it all year, if ever before.
In all I watched sixteen movies in November. Here is the full list.
“Jasper Mall” (2020) ★★★½Unpretentious, unassuming, unforgettable documentary about one year in the slow death of a shopping mall.
“On the Rocks” (2020) ★★ I got this Sophia Coppola movie free for buying any Apple device!
“Return of the Jedi” (1983) ★ Rewatched. Jeez did this franchise run out of ideas quick, and boy are so few people willing to acknowledge it.
“Lady and the Tramp” (1955) ★★★½ The painted backgrounds are still astounding, and the story, such as it is, isn’t so bad either.
“Casablanca” (1942) ★★★★★ Rewatched. Wondefully complex and elegantly simple at the same time.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017) ★★★ Rewatched. I’ve seen way more of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark than I really need to.
“Deathtrap” (1982) ★★★★ A twisty murder thriller that’s maybe not so incredibly twisty, but it’s so tautly executed by the underrated Sidney Lumet that it’s a pleasure just to go along for the ride.
“Small Axe: Mangrove” (2020) ★★½ It’s shocking to watch a movie by Steve McQueen, one of the masters of nuance and subtlety, that’s clumsy and obvious.
“The Phantom Tollbooth” (1970) ★★ A swing and a miss at making a prestige picture from animation legend Chuck Jones.
“The Widow Couderc” (1971) ★★★★ A mysterious stranger who happens to look exactly like Alain Delon comes to a small French village and meets a widower who happens to look like Simone Signoret. Nothing too surprising happens, but the emotional authenticity that emerges is palpable.