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Don't make me watch!

Sure they're important, but I'd rather have my limbs yanked out than go see another documentary.

June 10, 2007|Joe Queenan | JOE QUEENAN writes frequently for Barron's, the New York Times Book Review and the Guardian.

FOR THE LONGEST time, controversial films like "Gentleman's Agreement," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "A Civil Action" and "Do the Right Thing" have helped set the national conversational agenda. Widely discussed, these films have triggered serious debates about where this society is headed, often at times when many Americans would prefer to talk about something else.

The list of movies that have rocked the boat goes on and on: "Bad Day at Black Rock," "The Pawnbroker," "Born on the Fourth of July," "Erin Brockovich" and "Mississippi Burning," to name just a few more. No matter how ham-fisted they are (or how crass Hollywood's motives for making them), these motion pictures have provoked soul-searching about subjects ranging from racism to corporate malfeasance to the treatment of veterans.

But in recent times, things have changed. Increasingly, the national conversational agenda is being set not by costly dramatic films with stars like Gregory Peck and Julia Roberts but by low-budget documentaries starring portly, middle-aged men.

Increasingly, American failings are being scrutinized in films whose primary object is to persuade, not to amuse. To the surprise of many, "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" have enjoyed spectacular success at the box office -- at least by the standards of the documentary genre -- marking a watershed rupture with the past, when tubby, middle-aged men traditionally stayed behind the camera, writing checks, while spindly young men provided the on-screen entertainment.

Of course, the number of people who will actually pay to see a documentary is dwarfed by the gargantuan audiences who line up to see "Spider-Man 3," "Pirates of the Caribbean 3" and "Fantastic Four 2" Documentaries rarely reach the hoi polloi. Marginal profit centers for movie studios, documentaries do not reach the massive audiences that turn out in droves to see "Talladega Nights" and "King Kong"; there is almost no demographic overlap between moviegoers seeking laughs supplied by Will Ferrell and moviegoers seeking laughs supplied by Al Gore.

Why does this matter? Because people who will not pay to see documentaries are being locked out of important national debates. Until Gore came along with "An Inconvenient Truth," few Americans, it seems, were aware of the grave threat to our ecosystem posed by global warming. Likewise, until the release of "Fahrenheit 9/11," few Americans were aware that the Bush administration does not always tell the truth. Yet because only a minuscule number of Americans have actually seen these two magnificent films, and thus remain ignorant of the specific points they make, the serious debate we all need to have about the future of our nation has not truly been joined. Michael Moore and Gore are doing a fine job of preaching, but so far they are mostly preaching to the converted.

Why are Americans so reluctant to turn out for "An Inconvenient Truth," yet willing to wait in line for hours in the pouring rain to see a crummy retread like "Spider-Man 3"? Basically because of the lingering hatred of documentaries that carries over from high school. For millions of Americans, the word "documentary" conjures up hair-raising memories of being locked in a steamy, smelly auditorium for 45 minutes and forced to watch a grainy film about the boll weevil produced by the United States Department of Agriculture.

For many Americans, the word "documentary" evokes the specter of dreary films with names like "Don't Scoff at Socially Transmitted Diseases, Polly Evans!" or "Akron Today: Where the Rubber Meets the Road!" or "Our Friend, the Cotton Gin." For most Americans, the term "documentary" is synonymous with "homework." It's bad enough that you might be forced to watch one. But who would actually pay to see one?

I would love to say that I view such an attitude as backward, provincial and intellectually indefensible. But the truth is I share my compatriots' primal aversion to the documentary genre. Whether the subject is the Civil War, global warming, the romantic life of penguins, the mysterious world of heavy metal, the exploits of suspected pedophiles, the joys of ballroom dancing or a guided tour through the world of spelling bees, I would rather have my limbs yanked out of their sockets by enraged rhinos than sit through a documentary. I would rather watch the worst Keanu Reeves movie, I would rather sit through 11 consecutive Demi Moore films, I would rather attend a 10-day Skeet Ulrich film festival than sit through a documentary.

Even when I have appeared in documentaries, which I have on several occasions, I refuse to watch the films when they are sent to me; I would rather have my eyelids devoured by enraged piranhas. This is because of my deep-seated belief that no matter how good a documentary is, documentaries suck.

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