Doc Talk: Where are the True Summer Doc-Busters?

Doc Talk: Where are the True Summer Doc-Busters?

May 19, 2011

Seeing as this is my first column at Movies.com, and since we’re in the throes of the summer movie season, I thought I’d begin with a fun and accessible topic: the “doc-buster.” What is a doc-buster, exactly? This is exactly what I’d like to find out. It has such a great ring to it, but as of yet I don’t think it really means much at all. Morgan Spurlock, who coined the term for his new film, Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, has sort of immediately misused his own invention, as odd as that sounds.

Doc-buster is obviously a blending of the words documentary and blockbuster, so logically the term should be defined as a documentary blockbuster. But now we must remind ourselves what these two original terms mean. For me, documentary just refers to nonfiction film, whatever you think that means in and of itself (this is a discussion for another column, perhaps). Blockbuster is kind of an easier word. It means a movie that makes a whole bunch of money. Or, it used to mean that.

“Once a purely economic term,” Tom Shone wrote in the book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Summer, it has since the 1970s “become the name a movie calls itself.” That sounds perfectly appropriate to Spurlock’s new film, which is focused on concepts of branding. Really, though, the term now just means a film that looks big and costs a lot of money and is expected to play big and make a lot of money.

How anyone would think a documentary would make a lot of money is beyond me, and I love the darn things. A Justin Bieber concert film, okay, that should be called a doc-buster. Disneynature’s latest Earth Day feature, titled "Al Gore Presents: Global Warming is Making These Cute Baby Animals Sad.” Oh yeah. Doc-buster. A Michael Moore film featuring penguins getting launched into the air inside a portable toilet, in 3D? Maybe that’s a doc-buster. But you really just never know with docs what will be a phenomenal hit and what will fall by the wayside.

Actually, I anticipate Project Nim will do pretty well, at least for a documentary. It’s got an adorable chimpanzee wearing clothes, it can play like a prequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes and it’s by far the most incredible, astonishing, gripping, stunning, emotional and wonderful story on the big screen this summer. I hope it’s a huge hit, since it’s still my favorite film of the year. I also expect the hilarious and accessible Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop to eventually be popular. But not a lot people are going to pay $10 to see someone they can see nightly for free. And no, Animal Planet has nothing like Nim so don’t attempt the analogy.

Otherwise there aren’t really any qualified doc-busters on the horizon this season. And I’m bummed. Not because I prefer my docs to be mainstream fare like African Cats and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, the two top-grossing nonfiction films of the year so far. Or that I want gratuitous explosions and action sequences showing up randomly in the excellent domestic-terrorism-doc If A Tree Falls – even though I do wish Spurlock had blown up a Volkwagon in Greatest Movie, as he claimed he wanted to.

But there was actually a time, long ago, when documentaries could be accepted as exciting stuff. Sure, at first it was very sensational true-life-disaster footage and other exploitations of suffering, namely from the Edison Company. Yet there were eventually nonfiction action-adventure spectacles, partly thanks to the Robert Flaherty Nanook of the North model. Yes, they often manipulated facts or reenacted scenes, but so do most nonfiction films and based-on-true-story dramas today.

Give me modern equivalents of Grass and Kon-tiki, please. One kind brings the camera along for the original action as it happens; the other reproduces an adventure so perfectly even Andre Bazin could love it (and he did). The closest to the former recently might be The Cove, or the embedded war films Restrepo and Armadillo, but they’re off-putting because of their real violence. The closest to the latter might be Touching the Void, which was pretty spectacular on the big screen and should have inspired copycats.





Come on Werner Herzog, why aren’t you still trying for nonfiction disaster films? Is it just because the volcano in La Soufriere didn’t erupt as expected?

Speaking of things that didn’t happen, Greatest Movie is anything but a blockbuster in terms of the old definition. Three weeks in, albeit with a relatively low screen count, the film hadn’t even grossed half a million dollars, and its per-screen average is descending terribly. The doc-buster is a doc-flop. Not that expectations should have any been better for what’s basically a series of comedic advertisements. Yes, people get excited about that concept every Super Bowl Sunday, but those ads don’t cost the price of a movie ticket. Spurlock really should have blown up the Volkswagon.

And now it is unlikely that studios will produce documentaries of their own, as Spurlock – and I – would like to see, let alone expensive doc-busters. Then again, Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is gaining a lot of steam. But all that might do for Hollywood is lead to a spurt in documentary acquisitions for the sake of 3D conversions. No thanks.

New Documentary Recommendations

On DVD:

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is a magnificently fascinating documentary on Japan’s obsession with insects and overall relationship with nature. Those grossed out by bugs will even love it, at least until the guy drinks sake from a jar filled with dead hornets.

In Theaters:

Louder Than a Bomb is pretty good for a doc I could have just dismissed as "Spellbound with slam poetry". Throw in some Hoop Dreams Chicago flavor and you’ve got an inspiring drama about inner city kids with dreams and a means of expression. Like the recent DOC NYC-winning teen poetry film To Be Heard, it’s actually a lot less sappy than it sounds.

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