Costume Documentaries: 10 Films Proving Dressing Up Isn't Just for Halloween

Costume Documentaries: 10 Films Proving Dressing Up Isn't Just for Halloween

Oct 17, 2012

Doc Talk is a biweekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This week, in advance of Halloween, we recommend films involving costumes worn other times of the year.

You’ve got two more weeks until Halloween, so don’t stress out if you haven’t figured out your costume yet. And maybe be happy that you only have one day a year when you have to dress up like a monster or superhero or favorite movie character. A lot of people wear costumes on other days than the last of October. And some do so on a very frequent basis for their job or hobby.

While I’m not certain I approve of people dressing up as documentary subjects for Halloween (maybe it’s okay if the subjects are now deceased, so the Beales of Grey Gardens are fair territory), but I’m definitely into documentary subjects who dress up, whether for Halloween (see October Country and My Flesh and Blood) or another occasion.

Feel free to dress up as anyone in a documentary who is dressed up as something else, many of which you can see in the following ten recommendations:

Trekkies (1997)  

Tomorrow is the 15th anniversary of this film, one of the first major fandom docs, of which there are now tons. And it got a lot of attention thanks to having distribution from Star Trek studio Paramount (it was the first released under the art house shingle Paramount Vantage). Director Roger Nygard offers a good mix of Trekkies, from those who only dress up in costume for conventions to those who wear the Starfleet uniform for formal occasion, such as serving on the jury for the Whitewater trial, and the dentist who has turned the costumes into routine outfits for himself and his staff at a Star Trek-themed practice. Nygard later made a sequel, Trekkies 2, which came out in 2004. Rent the first one now to stream from Amazon. The second is available to stream instantly on Netflix.

Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope (2011)

Though plenty of convention docs have come out following the success of Trekkies, I think Morgan Spurlock has made the best one since. Maybe it’s that he had a better budget or great producers (including Joss Whedon), but even then it could have just been a technically competent puff piece on the San Diego Comic-Con. However, it’s partly that and also a compelling look at the anxieties of a handful of dreamers among the mass of attendees. All this time I thought it was a place to finally comfortably get your geek on. But some set themselves up for further stress inside the halls of the fanboy paradise. I was particularly moved by the arc involving a costume maker competing in a cosplay pageant. Rent it now to stream from YouTube.

American Juggalo (2011)

The Insane Clown Posse has had decent documentary attention since 1997’s Shockumentary, but this short film by Sean Dunne is a remarkable look at section of the group’s fanbase that attends the annual Gathering of the Juggalos festival. The video has become a sensation online because of what it shows, but it also shows it well. Of course, some of these people aren’t wearing costumes any more than a businessman’s suit is a costume. And, of course, some female fans aren’t wearing anything at all. But GOTJ fests are where you’ll find the scariest face paint masks outside of October 31. Watch it now via Vimeo below:

The Clowns (1970)

Fellini’s mix of fantasy, documentary and pseudo-documentary is above all a nonfiction essay on his and the rest of the world’s view of clowns, and we get to see a number of different kinds of these costumed and made-up performers. Rent it now to stream from Amazon.

Circo (2010)

A film about a family-run Mexican circus, this obviously has its own share of clowns, but the costumes that have stuck out most in my memory are the giant Rugrats heads worn by the children -- masks that look like they were dug out of a dumpster outside of Universal Studios. Watch it now, streaming instantly from Netflix.

The Sons of Tennessee Williams (2010)

Docs depicting Mardi Gras are a good source of costumes in real life, and The Order of Myths should be recognized, but the drag queen getups on display and in competition here are the best seen in a movie since The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Part gay rights history, part window into modern gay krewe pageants, it’s worth seeing solely for the outrageous fashions. Watch it now, streaming instantly from Netflix

Disneyland Dream (1956)

One of the home movie docs by Robbins Barstow and family, here we see them on a trip to the newly opened Disneyland, having won the prize in a Scotch tape contest. Watching the short, which has been added to and preserved by the National Film Registry, you might be surprised at how few character costumes there are, but there are definitely a lot of dressed up employees of the park. One of note is a 10-year-old Steve Martin, who can be seen (but only identified by himself) working as a young magician in the background of a couple shots. Watch it via YouTube below and look for Martin at 20:20:

Jackass: The Movie (2002)

It’s becoming more and more popular for documentaries to feature people in costumes involved in pranks that aren’t just pranks but which serve a satirical point. Way before The Yes Men and Borat and the must-see current release Kumare, Johnny Knoxville and his merry jokers were smartly and stupidly goofing around on TV, and their shenanigans carried over to this first feature. Actually, neither Party Boy nor Night Pandas are really all that revealing of anything significant. Not like Bad Grandpa and Terror Taxi in Jackass Number Two. All three of the Jackass features are available to watch now, streaming instantly from Netflix.

Confessions of a Superhero (2007)

While Warner Bros. continues to work out how and when to do a Justice League movie, you can see Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman together here, along with the Hulk, in Matthew Ogens’s tribute to the struggling actors who don character costumes and panhandle along Hollywood Boulevard. It was an especially pertinent film a couple years ago when these kinds of street performers were banned for a few months before a judge ruled they could return. Watch it now, streaming instantly from Netflix.

Superheroes (2011)

Another documentary about people dressed as superheroes, this film by Mike Barnett deals in the sort that actually consider themselves real-life crusaders of justice. On one level they’re also just superhero fans, and to another extent some (specifically the anti-homophobe “bait patrol”) are out to just prove points through entrapment and are therefore somewhat similar to the characters of Borat and Kumare. Others would probably not approve of their superhero uniforms being labeled mere costumes. Rent it now to stream from Amazon.



In Theaters

Brooklyn Castle (Katie Dellamaggiore) - Both a huge crowd pleaser and often a real downer, this endearing character-driven mix of kid-competition doc and education-system issue film has been understandably and deservedly picking up audience awards around the festival circuit. The focus is on a number of preteen players from a championship junior high school chess team, and it’s the kind of movie where you’ll remember certain characters afterward. But will anyone consider, as I did, how odd it is for us to root for strangers just because they’re being documented while therefore hoping that other kids we don’t know end up losers? Opens Friday in NYC and next week in L.A. with other cities to follow through November. Also recommended: Arnon Goldfinger’s Holocaust-related family investigation fil The Flat, which opens Friday.

On Video:

Kati with an I (Robert Greene) - On my list of the best docs of 2011, I wrote that this verite teen film could be popular among YA fiction fans. The thing about primarily observational works like this is they should play very easily to people normally averse to nonfiction movies, because they’re just stories being told rather than an attempt to communicate facts and arguments. Kati is still something we can learn from, however, mainly about young love and the ever-blurring lines of what it means to come of age into adulthood. Is growing up marked by high school graduation -- the literal setting of the film -- or by other things that happen before or after? Now on DVD from Icarus Films. Also recommended: Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present; the Christopher Guest-produced Nina Conti: Her Master’s Voice (also streaming from Netflix); Paul Williams Still Alive (new to VOD only); and The Invisible War (on DVD October 23).


I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog


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