Documentaries Are Us: Real Life Stories as Stories

We don't always expect real life to be as engaging or dramatic as fiction.

Posted Sep 08, 2014

     Four incredibly fascinating documentary movies were released this year and noteworthy for their psychological impact.  Unlike the more typical politically motivated Michael Moore-ish  documentaries which tend to make you feel guilty about what you eat, think, or do, this current stream of documentaries do not represent anything more than real people—albeit in amazingly interesting situations.  I've previously discussed, Stories We Tell, which reveals through reconstructed flashbacks and recollections of the primary suspects, the story of Sarah Polley, the filmmaker herself, in the search for her biological father. This year we have Tim's Vermeer, Finding Vivian Maier, The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden,  and Particle Fever. Each one tells the tale of remarkable human drive and motivation, and each one surpasses anything that can be presented in fictional form.

     Many—including myself—admire Jan Vermeer's paintings. They elicit a sense of quiet solitude, and as exemplified by

Jan Vermeer, The Music Lesson

"The Music Lesson," their photographic quality—with fine detail in lighting and perspective—makes the paintings even more stunning, particularly as they were created over 150 years before the invention of photography. Vermeer's paintings are so exquisitely accurate in visual detail that it has been conjectured that the painter must have used an optical device to create such masterpieces (see analyses by Philip Steadman and David Hockney). Yet no evidence exists amongst Vermeer's artifacts (other than the paintings themselves) that point to him using any such device. Tim's Vermeer tells the story of one man's quest—though perhaps obsession would be a more appropriate term—to discover exactly how Vermeer painted with such photographic acumen.

           Tim Jenison, a video tech inventor and entrepreneur, was fascinated by the photographic quality of Vermeer's paintings. With cash and time in hand, he sets out to discover exactly how an optical device could be used to create such paintings. He invents a lens and mirror setup that allows him to see the scene in front of him reflected onto a sheet of paper on the table. By matching a dab of paint with the color that he sees projected through his device, he learns to paint in a meticulous dot by dot fashion. Much to his surprise—and to us moviegoers—he becomes quite adept at painting, and as an existence proof he attempts to use his optical device and incredible patience to reproduce "The Music Lesson" from a studio mock-up of the painting's scene using vintage or exquisitely reproduced artifacts and live models. His attempt, which took nearly a year, is documented on film. The movie wonderfully captures Jenison's ingenuity and drive and offers a glimpse of how someone in the 21st century can inform us about someone in the 17th century. Indeed, if Vermeer did use such a technique to match colors on a point by point basis, he didn't as much use an optical device as he actually was the optical device. As moviegoers we become fascinated by Tim's progress and eagerly await the final product. Of course, in this case the proof is in his painting.

            Another portrait of a rather obsessive yet creative individual is Finding Vivian Maier. On the surface, Vivian Maier was an eccentric live-in nanny who spent much of her adult life in Chicago taking care of children. Vivian MaierIn interviews, the parents who employed Vivian (coincidentally including Phil Donohue) remember her as a recluse who insisted that no one be allowed in her room. Those she cared for remember Vivian as a mother figure, though a rather odd one who always had a camera around her neck and used it on excursions into the city—often to rather insalubrious locales. Vivian lived her final days unemployed in an apartment paid for by three adults who were nannied by Vivian years earlier. She died in 2009 and would have been left in total obscurity (along with the 100,000 negatives found in her room) had it not been for John Maloof who in 2007 bought some of her negatives at a flea market auction with the intent of collecting photos for a book on Chicago he was writing. Although Vivian's photos were not suitable for the book, Maloof realized that they were rather stunning portrayals of Chicago street life. Maloof posted some of these photos on Flickr, she was "discovered," and now many recognize Vivian Maier as one of the best 20th century street photographers. Her work follows in the same vein as that of Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand (whose photos are being exhibited and worth a view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until Sept 27). Maloof, who co-directed Finding Vivian Maier, now spends his days as Maier's archivist and primary promoter. Thanks to his remarkable find and this stunning documentary we can now know Vivian Maier.

            The Galapagos Islands, known to us mainly from Charles Darwin's visit, was the setting for a sordid tale of sex, murder, and mystery, which is told splendidly in The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden.

In hippie-like fashion, Friedrich Ritter, a German physician, and his lover Dore Strauch left their spouses and set sail to the Galapagos in 1929 to start a new life. They settled on the deserted Floreana Island and turned their little plot of land into a survivable garden. Ritter's biggest mistake was to send letters back to Germany, which where ultimately published and described Ritter and Strauch as romantically pioneering souls. The publications excited another German couple, Heinz and Margret Wittmer, who decide to settle there as well. Although the two couples were not completely amicable neighbors, the sex, murder, and mystery began later when the "Baroness" Eloise von Wagner Bosquet and her two boy toys, Robert and Rudolf, landed on the island. In addition to Eloise's brash lifestyle, the not-actually-a-baroness had interests in building a hotel resort on Floreana Island. The plot unfolds as presented through the islanders' writings, interviews with their descendants, and most interestingly actual film footage taken at the time. I will not spoil the fun in revealing any more of this sordid tale only to say that this real-life mystery might best be described as Gilligan's Island meets Lord of the Flies.

            Finally, Particle Fever is a must-see documentary for anyone interested in the love of science.

With footage taken during the seven years prior to the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, the film documents the trials and tribulations of cutting-edge scientists trying to unlock the secrets of particle physics. The focus is on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland, which even before its construction was being touted as the dream machine to prove or disprove the existence of the Higgs boson. We learn about the importance of the science through engaging interviews, most enjoyably from David Kaplan, a professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University, Nima Arkani-Hamed, a physicist on the faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and Monica Dunford, a physicist who was then working at the LHC and best exhibited the exuberance of experimental physics. Even though we are well aware of the success of these intrepid scientists, we still become fully engaged in their quest. Interestingly, the video footage was edited by Walter Murch, the world renown film editor of such movies as Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, and Cold Mountain. Better than any movie I've seen, Particle Fever portrays the excitement and commitment that scientists have for their work.

            The human condition can be revealed in many ways—through song, dance, stories, and of course our modern invention, movies. When we tell stories, we don't always expect real life to be as engaging or dramatic as made-up fictions. Yet these four documentaries—perhaps because they consider real people in real situations and are presented in a most engaging manner—leave a lasting impression of the passion, drive, quirks, and deficiencies of being human.


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