Doc Talk: How is 'American Reunion' Like a Certain British Reunion-Based Documentary Film Series?

Doc Talk: How is 'American Reunion' Like a Certain British Reunion-Based Documentary Film Series?

Apr 04, 2012

It is really not my intention to keep tying this documentary column to a new non-documentary release, but both The Hunger Games (see last Doc Talk) and now American Reunion are too perfectly relative to competition films and biographical film series, respectively, to let these connections go. Hopefully in two weeks I won’t be so inspired by The Lucky One to keep this a recurring idea. There’s actually the rare case of a wide-release documentary opening then (Chimpanzee), so regardless of whether or not Disneynature’s latest offering is more narratively constructed than a Nicholas Sparks adaptation (and knowing Disneynature, it might be), we’ll be just fine.

This time, however, a fictional Hollywood comedy very much fits the focus of Doc Talk. To a very minor degree, the upcoming American Pie sequel has a kind of documentary aspect. Reunion shows us, at least physically, what has happened to a group of young actors in the decade since the last straight-course installment (forget the spin-offs for a moment, if you don’t normally). Everyone from Jason Biggs and Mena Suvari to lower-tier cast members like Chris Owen and Justin Isfeld are back, in part for the extra-textual parade of familiar faces, slightly changed with age.

It’s as much a reunion between the audience and the actors as it is for the characters on screen, amongst themselves. And just as with our real-world high school reunions, the greatest appeal comes from the promise of reconnecting with those we haven’t seen or heard from much in years (hey there, Thomas Ian Nicholas!). Both fictionally and nonfictionally the sequel feeds our interest in the “where are they now?” question. It’s a common inquiry to anyone who has attended too many post-screening Q&As in which the audience mostly wants to know updates on a documentary’s subjects.

Reunion comes out at a perfect time, so that narrative movie fans (of the American franchise anyway) may experience a satisfaction of curiosity that we doc enthusiasts anticipate every seven years thanks to Michael Apted’s Up series. The latest -- eighth -- part, titled 56 Up, is due for a UK premiere on ITV1 very soon. I’d initially read the broadcast was set for May of 2012, though I’ve also heard the release will be tied to the Olympics, which kick off in late July. And Time Out London simply lists it as an anxiously awaited summer program. Either way, it could be much longer for Americans to view the new installment, which revisits a selection of British individuals, now aged 56, who were initially documented as kids back in 1964 for a short news special titled Seven Up!.  

If you’ve never seen any of the Up docs, you’ve got at least a month or three to catch up, and I do hope that some of my critic colleagues do so for the same reason they’re now watching (for the first time or revisiting) the previous American Pie movies. The entire Up set is available in full from U.S. distributor First Run Features, which I presume (and hope) will also bring 56 Up to the States. Could you view the new part or any other installment out of order or without familiarity with the subjects? Yes, especially since Apted includes footage from past episodes as recall reference material. But while there is allowance for isolated enjoyment from any one Up film, you really won’t fully appreciate the docs without following the characters in time, in order.

That became even more apparent to me this past weekend when I excitedly tuned in to watch Gillian Armstrong’s Love, Lust & Lies on the Documentary Channel, which presented the U.S. television premiere of the 2010 film on Saturday night as part of a program devoted to women filmmakers (disclosure: I also blog for Documentary Channel). I’d never seen any of Armstrong’s series, which is like a less-consistent, all-female, Australian equivalent to Apted’s. Begun with 1975’s Smokes and Lollies, there have now been four sequels returning to the lives of that original film’s three subjects, who were initially documented at the age of 14.

None of the five titles are officially available on video in America, outside of Documentary Channel’s airing of the latest anyway, so it was not possible for me to catch up on Smokes and 1981’s Fourteen’s Good, But Eighteen’s Better, 1988’s Bingo, Bridesmaids and Braces and 1996’s Not Fourteen Again before seeing Love, Lust & Lies. And even though, like Apted, Armstrong also includes refresher footage (basically the first third is all archival lead-in), I found it difficult to quickly get into this film because I didn’t have the same sort of investment in and familiarity with the three women that I would have from watching the prior episodes in their entirety.

Whether I’d been following along since 37 years ago or had viewed Armstrong’s films all at once, now, in marathon form (that’s how I experienced the Up films when 49 Up came out here in 2006), the long-anticipated or immediate reunion appeal of a film like Love, Lust & Lies is absent when seen by itself. It becomes more simply a biographical chronicle framed separately without greater context. This isn’t to say it’s not still interesting and enjoyable (the film airs again tomorrow afternoon if you're interested), though maybe only as much as American Reunion is for people who haven’t seen American Pie, or Truffaut’s Love on the Run is without first seeing The 400 Blows and other “Antoine Doinel” films, or The Brady Brides and Still the Beaver with no familiarity with The Brady Bunch and Leave it to Beaver.

Armstrong’s series is not as well known internationally as Apted’s, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me since she has relative status here as a filmmaker, having directed such popular movies as My Brilliant Career, Little Women and Charlotte Gray over the years (maybe, like Apted, she needs to do a James Bond and Chronicles of Narnia sequel too?). Plus, while the Up films involve fairly localized political and social themes, as relatable as they can be to the rest of the world, Armstrong’s series deals with a more universal and timeless theme of womanhood and a cycle of continued womens issues that affect a selection of individuals who might be no different, on a basic level, were they living in America rather than Adelaide.

The global identification with properties like the Up series and whatever we can collectively call Armstrong’s (the lack of common title may be part of the problem) is reason why the latter may have been conceived in the first place, and why there have been Up-inspired series similarly produced in the U.S., Sweden, Japan, South Africa and elsewhere. Yet they can also have additional place-specific appeal and importance, such as Germany’s Children of Golzow, which is interesting for having begun in 1961 (preceding the Up start, in fact) to coincide with the construction of the Berlin Wall (this series would be great fodder for national cinema courses on German film if it weren’t also unavailable here). And both that and the Born in the USSR series (a British production) now offer the fascination of following their subjects after the dismantling of the Wall and the Soviet Union, respectively.

I’m sure there’s a lot more nostalgia involved with a returning fiction film such as American Reunion, an attraction that does link it up with some documentary sequels and reunions such as An American Family Revisited: The Louds 10 Years Later and Best Man: ‘Best Boy’ and Us Twenty Years Later. Yet it’s our fascination with biographically tracking lives from birth to death, regularly following-up with down-the-line milestones such as marriage, parenthood and high school reunions, that unite it with series like Up and Children of Golzow (as well as Facebook’s Timeline feature), enough that if the actors are willing, Universal might be able to sustain its recharged franchise with regularly updates through the inevitably titled American Funeral. And for purely documentary-esque curiosity, I’ll be with Biggs and friends to the end.



Although its subjects aren’t all the same age, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope would make a good start to a continuing series (and backtracking prequels given its title) along the lines of what I discuss above. I’d genuinely love to find out what happens to at least a few of the characters, such as an adorable couple who become engaged at the annual San Diego geek fest. Ironically, it’s one of the few docs directed by Morgan Spurlock that can’t sort of already be considered a sequel (see a past Doc Talk on doc sequels in which I argue that Spurlock’s films in which he appears are kinda follow-ups to Super Size Me). The surprisingly sweet and satisfying celebration of Comic-Con is my theatrical pick of the week, though it does hit VOD simultaneously to its cinema debut this Friday. See my feature review of the doc from the 2011 Toronto Film Festival for more details and praise.



Other recommended new releases hitting home video include Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, which tracks the life of Sesame Street performer Kevin Clash all in one biopgraphical swoop (though you’ve been episodically following him throughout 30 years of Henson productions without even knowing it) and Madonna: Truth or Dare, which seen today for the first time (as is my experience) caters to a reverse sort of curious attraction than American Reunion and 56 Up do. Those hit DVD (and Blu-ray for the latter) yesterday.

My primary new pick, however, is Werner Herzog’s feature death row doc, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, which hits DVD and Blu-ray April 10. I also reviewed this one last fall from TIFF, where I called it “as heavy and upsetting as a typical true crime novel...more a horror movie about Texas overall than anything else.” I also acknowledged at the time that it’s hard to deeply care about the lives and deaths of individuals in a film by the same man who had just given us Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Not only do I still urge you to see it, I recommend viewing it twice, since I appreciated the big picture of the narrative more the second time around. See my thoughts from that perspective in a post I wrote on the film from last year’s DOC NYC fest.


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

Categories: Documentary, Features
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