A Documentary a Day Keeps the Psychiatrist Away

Most people are put off by documentaries and nonfiction books because they fear they will be educational, especially the mind-numbing kind of education they were exposed to when sentenced to 13 years of hard learning back in their K-12 prison days.  And yes, many documentaries and nonfiction books are as painful as classes back in high school.  However, and I mean a really big however, some documentaries and nonfiction books are mind blowing far out fun and entertaining – if you get off on learning about new things about this world and reality.  A good documentary should educate, but a wonderful documentary will entertain, and a great documentary will inspire.

As I have gotten older, I have become jaded to normal television entertainment.  It takes Breaking Bad quality to make me watch fictionalized television shows, so to fill up my old TV watching time I’ve turned to documentaries.  I’ve discovered if I can find the right documentaries I’m far more entertained than by watching 98% of fictional television shows.  More than that, I’ve discovered that watching a great documentary is uplifting for my mood, even if it’s about a depressing topic.  And the best documentaries inspire me with hope.  Documentaries can be elixirs for the soul.

For instance, last night I watched Touching the Wild on PBS Nature, about Joe Hutto spending seven years with Wyoming mule deer.  It took Hutto over two years of patiently following a herd of mule deer daily before they accepted him.  Eventually, he got to know them so individually that he named them.

Touching the Wild is about more than making friends with wild animals.  It’s an extremely profound philosophical work, about existence and death, about mind, language and intelligence.  One of the things that I’ve been learning from all of these documentaries is science is discovering that that animals are much closer to us mentally than we ever wanted to believe.  We are not God’s chosen creature.  We have no right to claim dominion over all the other creatures of this planet.  Nor can we claim our intelligence makes us superior. 

I am not a religious man, but this film was Biblical in its impact.  Strangely, I had seen Noah this weekend, and it makes you wonder if there was a creator, if he wouldn’t despise humans and want to wipe us out.  Christians babble on endlessly about being saved from sin, but I think it’s a childish cop-out to want to be forgiven.  We need to stop sinning to atone for our sins.  Watching Touching the Wild is like walking in Eden, we can blame the serpent all we want, but it is humans that are destroying paradise.

I was going to write this essay by listing dozens of great documentaries I’ve seen lately, but that would be too wordy I think.  I think instead I should tell you how to find great documentaries.  The highest qualities documentaries on TV are on PBS.  The next best source is streaming Netflix.  For instance I showed my friend Olivia Samsara yesterday that’s from Netflix.  She was blown away.

Cable TV has a lot of channels with documentaries and nonfiction shows, but most of its crap.  Sorry, but it’s true.  Some of it’s okay, but be careful.  The History Channel has such great potential, and sometimes it even has good shows, but all too often it has suspect information.  I wish it was peer reviewed by actually historians.  It would be great if actual Ph.D. historians had a chance to evaluate their documentaries in follow-up shows, because it would be enlightening to teach folks how they are being misinformed.  The History Channel has some good shows among the schlock, like The Universe, but they aren’t as well made as the science shows on PBS.  They tend to endlessly repeat the same animations and information.  Fox has redeemed it’s news division with Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a 13 episode series currently appearing on Sunday nights, that would make Carl Sagan choke up with pride for his protégé Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Like I said, PBS is where it’s at, when we’re talking about documentaries on regular television.  Currently Wednesday nights are called Think Wednesday, that start with Nature and NOVA, and follow up a three part series called Your Inner Fish, based on Neil Shubin’s book of the same name.  Your Inner Fish should give creationists apoplexy and intelligence designers their worst nightmares, but for people who understand evolution it’s a thing of beauty.  If only Darwin could have lived to see it.

NOVA has been running a series on animal intelligence and last night show was about dogs.  Anyone who loves dogs should watch it, especially if you’ve wondered why your favorite pet knows when you are coming home.  By the way, if you have a Roku, get the PBS channel, and you can watch these shows if you missed them.  The Roku PBS Channel keeps current shows around for a few weeks like Hulu.

Throughout the week, PBS has fabulous documentaries.  Just take a chance and try some of them out.  They cover every subject you can think of, and more than you can’t.

The variety of documentaries at Netflix streaming is practically endless.  New ones appear faster than I can keep up.  If you add one to your queue, Netflix will recommend ten more on the same topic.  Often when I add one documentary, I’ll end up adding eight or ten because Netflix is good recommending more that fit my tastes.  And if you aren’t a documentary junky, you’ll be surprised by how many documentaries are being made each year.   Just look at four music documentaries I recently watched.  The variety of all documentaries makes the word diverse quaint.

I’m not much of a traveler, so documentaries are my lazy-ass way of traveling the world.  I’m also on the shy side, so documentaries let me meet people I never would in real life.  But you have to be careful, some documentary film makers are very persuasive, and it’s easy to be convinced into believing bullshit.  We’re so used to fiction, that we accept what we see on TV.  That’s bad.  Being educated can be thrilling, and it doesn’t have to be boring.

What you really want, is to be inspired.  And sometimes you’ll find inspiration in the strangest places.  I’m not into fashion, but I found the documentary on Bill Cunningham, a fashion photographer for the New York Times, who is in his eighties and rides a bike around Manhattan, as very inspirational.  That’s the best thing about documentaries – seeing stories about people who stand out in their effort to achieve their ambitions.  Quite often I watch shows about people that overcome so many obstacles that aren’t in my way and still do things I only dream about.  They make me want to be a better person.

If I’m feeling blue and watch an inspiring documentary, my mind and soul will be uplifted.  If I’m feeling tired and watch a great documentary, I’ll be energized.  There’s more to TV than cop shows and sitcoms, and before reality shows, there were documentaries – shows about the real reality.

JWH – 4/17/14

Samsara (2011)–Ron Fricke Shows Us the Diversity of Mankind

It is impossible to express how beautiful Samsara is to see on a big screen.  If you’ve seen Baraka or Chronos at the theater, then you’ll have the best idea of what you are in store for visually.  And this film is all about visuals.  It’s a documentary without narrative.  Beautiful hypnotic music, gorgeous exotic music, lush sacred music adds to the impact of the visuals, but this film is all about seeing.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, your mind will race through an encyclopedia worth of words as you watch Samsara.  It’s a rush.

I can’t emphasize this enough, but to truly experience this film you need to go see it in a theater.  I have Baraka on DVD and watch it on a 56” TV, and I love it.  But it’s not the full experience.  Nothing I can say can convey the full impact of the film.  No photograph or film clip does the film justice.

Now I warn you, this is an intensely intellectual film, even though it has no words.  Many people, will find it boring – if you have a fascination about this reality we live in, then your lifetime of thoughts will make this film great.  Your mind will create a narrative as you watch.  This show is a head trip, and your thoughts will script the film as you watch.  You’ll write it different every time you watch it.  The many scenes from around the world are meant to trigger deep philosophical responses. 

Samsara will probably only play one week in your town, so if its on, go see it while you can.

Be sure and set this clip to the highest resolution and watch it full screen.  Or visit the official site and watch the clip there.

Samsara was filmed in 25 countries with 70mm film, and converted to digital with a 8k scan, creating a 20 terabyte file.  That’s a lot of details to shoot up into your brain in one hour and thirty-nine minutes.  Most Blu-Ray films come in around 20 gigabytes, so Samsara has a 1,000 times more bytes of detail.

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Samsara is a spiritual ride around the globe, zooming in on monasteries and prisons, jungles and deserts, slums and hi-rises, the poor and the rich, the beautiful and the grotesque, the living and the dead, a baby in the womb, and people in their coffins.

Samsara and Baraka shows how immensely diverse our world is.  It makes you realize that your view of reality, the one you’re so obsessed with, is really so very small.  Just before Samsara came on tonight they had a preview for The Hobbit.  That preview entices movie goers to come see a fantasy world rich in landscape and full of colorful fantasy beings.  It was a thrilling preview until Samsara came on.  The real world Samsara made the fantasy world of The Hobbit seem pathetic and dull.

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It’s very hard to describe Samsara because it doesn’t stay on any scene for very long.  Each clip is glimpse of a subculture from around the world.  Only a well traveled world traveler will know about most of these sites and people.  There’s even a humorous look of gun owners from around the globe, and beautiful sequences of bullet manufacturing.

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Samsara spends quite a lot of time showing exotic locations of religious worship.  This was also true of Baraka.  I believe the filmmakers must be very spiritual people, but I see what they show in a different light.  I see the temples as relics of history, and their worshipers as primitive souls trying to hang onto a dying past in our fast pace world that’s constantly changing.  Our modern world, shown at night, looks like red blood cells coursing through veins.

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The Buddhist monks carefully create a mandala with colored sand, but in the end they destroy their creation.  I assume to make it again the next day.  That focus on creating the details in the image is a kind of worship, or prayer.  Filming Samsara is the same kind of worship.

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There will be scenes that might shock, disturb or disgust you, but they are all filmed so beautifully that I have to assume that the filmmakers see everything on Earth in a spiritual light.  Many of the scenes are just exotic people that live their lives so much different from ours.  Seeing the film makes me realize how parochial I am.

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If Samsara isn’t at a nearby theater, then buy Baraka on Blu-Ray.  You can watch the entire film online, to get some idea of how Ron Fricke sees the world.  Watch it at least long enough to study the faces of the snow monkeys bathing in the warm water.  Think about how they see this world.  Think of the snow monkey watching this film like an alien from outer space seeing our world for the first time.  I’ve watch Baraka many times now, and I want to be the snow monkey.

Samsara and Baraka will not appeal to a lot of people.  I’m sorry that’s so.  People really should spend one evening watching a movie that so much different from their usual multiplex fare.  Take a trip around the real world, it’s more far-out than any CGI world ever created – even Avatar.

JWH – 11/2/12

Biblical Documentaries

I’m not religious, but I’ve been watching a lot of TV about the Bible lately.  National Geographic Channel, The Discovery Channel, The History Channel and even PBS have been showing some fascinating shows about the Bible in recent years.  Last night I watched “Jesus’ Tomb” from the National Geographic Channel’s Mysteries of the Bible series.  Mysteries of the Bible is an entertaining series, but their episodes are no match compared to “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” that appeared on PBS’s NOVA a few weeks ago.  All these documentaries vary greatly in quality, and that’s what I want to talk about.

It’s hard to discuss shows about the Bible without ruffling religious feathers.  I love science and history shows, and these biblical documentaries combine archeology and anthropology with history, to explain the origins of western civilization.   So, when I analyze these programs, I’m not dealing with the related spiritual issues, and for the most part, that’s how the documentary makers work too.  They often try to compare what is written in the Bible with what we know from historical research and from scientific studies.

If you watch these shows you’ll learn a lot, but if you hold certain religious beliefs dear, some ideas presented might annoy you.  Don’t get me wrong, I think religious folk are the intended audience, because atheists who like Bible history, like me, are not that common.  But I’m guessing most of these shows try hard to walk the razor’s edge when it comes to controversial issues of faith.

When watching any documentary you have to analyze the producer’s motive.  Many filmmakers start with a cherish idea of their own and do all they can to document the proof of their belief.  Others pick an interesting mystery and try very hard to be impartial.  One way to judge a film is if it examines the obvious questions that come to your mind while watching.  Last night’s show, “Jesus’ Tomb” avoided several issues that popped into my head while watching.

Another way to measure the quality of these TV documentaries is track how often they repeat images or ideas.  These one-hour shows actually have about 45-50 minutes of show-time versus the remainder of an hour to fill with commercials.  Some shows are stretched by constantly repeating material both visually and verbally.  I don’t know if it’s because the show’s producers don’t have enough content, or they think we’re stupid and their viewers need constant reiteration to actually comprehend their discoveries, or they figure most viewers are channel surfing and they want to make sure those drive-by watchers get hooked with the high points.

If repetition is because of the channel flippers, I hope TV producers stop that practice quick.  It’s not fair for the serious viewers of their shows to have to be bombarded with sing-song phrases, and psychedelic video flashbacks.  I don’t mind shows repeating a complex concept in different ways to help people to understand, but to flat out say and show the same words and pictures over and over again is just damn annoying.  One reason PBS documentaries often seem head and shoulders above the documentaries on all the other channels is because they don’t have commercials to interrupt their flow, so PBS shows don’t do that say it five times song and dance crap.

Another thing commercial driven channels do is spend too much of their times before and after commercials presenting teases for what’s to come.  Last night’s one-hour show, “Jesus’ Tomb” could easily have been a nice 30-minute documentary.  If they had put in 20 more minutes of genuine content, it would have been a very good hour show even with commercials.  And all my criticisms could have been answered in those twenty minutes too.

One thing I love about these biblical documentaries is they show video of where historical events took place.  Seeing all the various kinds of tombs cut out of rock in last night’s show was a great way to illustrate the Bible.  The filmmakers interviewed scholars about Jewish burial practices of the time, checked with what archeologists were finding, quoted related biblical verses, and showed how various beliefs came down through history in stories, paintings, and religious beliefs.  Last night’s show did a pretty good job of exploring why and how Jesus might have been put in a nearby tomb, but I was left with a bunch of questions for the filmmakers, even at their simple level.

How common was it to put people in those small tombs cut into solid rock?  If it was very common, wouldn’t there be millions of them in Israel?  To the spiritually minded, the important issue is the resurrection of Jesus.  For that story to work a tomb is a good stage, but would a common criminal be buried in a tomb?  (That’s what the Romans and Jewish leaders thought of him.) The show spent a lot of time exploring how and why Jesus’ body could have been removed from the tomb, but they didn’t explain two ways that popped into my mind.

Could some his followers have removed him and buried him elsewhere, not telling the women who found the tomb empty the next day?  And were there no grave-robbers in that time, even Romans who wanted to get rid of a martyr’s body?  Of course, for the spiritual story to work, Jesus’ body had to disappear, so does it really matter how?

And here’s the part of the show that the filmmakers avoided, but I wanted explored.  In the early parts of the Bible the concept of afterlife is missing.  The show did interview one scholar that said Jews of the time believed in the resurrection, and wanted their bodies gathered in ossuaries, but they believed all people would be returned to their bodies at the end of time.  For centuries Christians believed something like this too.  So when did the idea of dying and immediately going to heaven come about?

The point of Jesus’ tomb story is about resurrection.  Why couldn’t the show’s filmmaker spend twenty minutes on the history of this idea rather than repeating so much of the other information.  At what point in the history of mankind did people start thinking about living after death?  And is the story of Jesus and his tomb the pivotal point in history when this idea was born?  I’m not asking the filmmaker to state whether resurrection is possible or not possible, I just want the history and archeology of that idea.

Many of the biblical documentaries are quite timid on exploring the depth of an idea.  They love to bring up startling ideas, like another show that dealt with apocryphal stories of Jesus, including one where Jesus killed a child when he was a child himself.  They are not afraid to have National Enquirer headlines, but they don’t want to have scholarly expositions because that might bore people.

On the whole I find these shows very entertaining because of they usually give me a good deal of history I haven’t known about before, along with some nice video of archeological digs, science labs pursing arcane mysteries of ancient evidence, and interviews with fascinating scholars.  However, sometimes I think they throw in some interviews with wild-eyed theorists and fanatics too.

Studying the Bible is like studying the founding fathers of America, but the people of the Bible are the founding fathers of Western civilization.  So far these Bible documentary makers examine artifacts and compare them to Bible stories.  What I’d like to see is for them to examine the history of the mind of the people.  A history of psychological development.  Please show a history of the common ideas that arose during biblical times.  The NOVA show, “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” is a step in the right direction.

Understanding the early history of mankind is like researching our childhood to figure out how we came to be who we are.  Every age interprets the Bible anew, reinventing religion.  Most people ignore that or never knew that, and assume that current religious beliefs have always existed as they do now.  I want these biblical documentary historians to show how beliefs were different century by century and how the people were different because of their beliefs.  Some Christians hate the word evolution, but all the concepts we hold in our head are a product of evolution too.

God, Satan, Heaven, Hell, sin, redemption, charity, faith, etc., all started out as tiny one cell ideas in the mind of man and over the centuries have evolved into the dinosaur ideas they are today.  This season’s shows about Bible history barely touch on this, but I expect the biblical documentaries to evolve too.

JWH 12/17/8

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