Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Two films for the price of one! How DVDs ruined the theatrical documentary.

I hesitated before watching Knives Over Forks on Netflix Instant yesterday.  I had an interest in the picture, and the DVD was in my Blockbuster quque, so there was seemingly no reason for me not to just watch it right from my Netflix streaming system, right?  Well, first I had to go online and look up the reviews for the Blu Ray.  Specifically, I needed to check what kind of supplemental materials were on the disc.  To my relief, there was only about six minutes of PSA-type material to be found, so I watched the movie yesterday (quick review - the information is worthwhile, but it's a terribly amateurish documentary with few real insights beyond its broad thesis).  I have discussed before the problem of films coming out on DVD 3-5 months after theatrical with significantly altered or extended 'director's cuts' and how that negates the whole purpose of seeing a film in a theater.  Documentaries are a different story.  When you watch a documentary in theaters, you get the final film.  But when you rent a documentary on DVD, there is a good chance that you'll actually get two films for the price of one, with enough extra material in the form of deleted scenes and unedited interviews to constitute a second look at the same subject.

No End in Sight was a dynamite 104-minute documentary chronicling the utter disaster that was the occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2007 (when the film was released). It was the best documentary of the year in a very good year for documentaries (Taxi to the Dark Side and Crazy Love are also modern classics).  But if you happened to catch the film on DVD, you got not only the film itself, but 105 minutes of additional documentary material related to the subject.  In other words, you got No End In Sight and its quasi-sequel/spin-off.  If you happened to rent Food Inc. (the best documentary of 2009, natch), you were treated to the film itself as well as around forty-minutes of additional relevant and worthwhile material.  And of course, in these cases, we aren't talking about behind-the-scenes or making-of footage, we're talking about deleted scenes, IE - MORE documentary.  And since this footage isn't lacking in context when viewed by itself (as is the case for deleted footage of an actual feature film), you basically just get more of the content and information you wanted after you watch the film itself.

Not every documentary unloads copious additional footage on the DVD of course (An Inconvenient Truth has more 'making-of' material than extended lecture and information).   But frankly most of them do.  Waking Sleeping Beauty (the only documentary I saw in a theater in 2010) has about an hour of additional archival footage, including a priceless bit of Disney animators somewhat abrasively picking on some scrawny, shy kid named Tim Burton.  Deliver Us From Evil (the definitive look at how the Catholic Church covered up the sexual abuse of its congregants) has about 35 minutes more material. When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee's four-hour epic chronicling the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, has an ninety-minute addendum chronicling what happened after Lee's original project ended.  Even something as slight (in terms of importance of subject matter) as American: The Bill Hicks Story has an hour of deleted interview footage that adds greater context to Hicks's childhood years.  If the primary purpose of a documentary is to educate, be it about a social issue or about a worthwhile nonfiction story, is it not to the benefit of the viewer to wait for DVD so that one can examine all of the material that pertains to the subject at hand?

Over the last few years, I've one or two documentary in theaters in a given year.  I saw Capitalism in 2009, Waking Sleeping Beauty in 2010, and Conan O'Brian Can't Stop in 2011.  What say you, dear readers?  Am I cheating myself and/or my readers by not seeing Buck or Page One in theaters, or is it merely common sense to wait for DVD so I can get all of the footage on one convenient DVD?

Scott Mendelson    

1 comment:

Colin "Fitz" Biggs said...

Documentaries have never played well to me in a theatre. Couldn't say why, but the reflection process is always easier at home.


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