Top-shelf documentary (and now scripted) filmmaker, Joe Berlinger, stopped by the Cinemondo Podcast Studios - okay, we went to him — and discussed many of his films. Burk, as is his custom, asked Joe what some of his favorite docs were. He mentioned a film I hadn’t heard of - directed by the Maysles Brothers of Grey Gardens fame. No, it wasn’t GG, but I did find the doc for free on YouTube and I sat down and watched it a day or two after we met Joe.
I discovered a film, fifty plus years old, that is well-regarded as a touchstone of the genre. Yet, I had never heard of it. And, I have to tell you, it really moved me. Not only because of the story it told, but of the time and place it documented. That world is gone. Those people, most of them, are dead. Their lifestyle is no longer. The jobs of the protagonist - so important to them and their livelihoods, are also long gone. So we are seeing an immediate, no filtered look at a group of people and an experience that is no more. To see that, as an immediate experience, is so touching and odd that it made me understand why good documentaries are such a vital part of the world experience. If the Maysles brothers weren’t there with their camera - those people are gone forever. Those feelings and shared experiences never happened.
Documentaries are readily available to everyone at anytime online and on streaming services - also PBS. Many are excellent - I get sucked in. Some, though, overstay their welcome. I’ve seen many 6-10 part docs that are fascinating, but they’re a bit in love with themselves. We don’t need all of that. Two hours would have served that subject matter better than the sixteen hour experience I binged. But I’m quibbling. True crime docs, which Berlinger’s Paradise Lost is the touchstone and gold-standard of those, are everywhere. They’re fascinating because of the subject matter. The truly great ones, though, are much more than who killed who. They open up a new world to the viewer - and they don’t hit you over the head with it. It unfolds, like an onion, getting more intense and pungent as we get to the center of what happened.
Joe Berlinger’s films - whether he chronicles Metallica as no one as ever chronicled a rock band, or delves into the phenomenon known as Ted Bundy (both his doc and his scripted film with Zac Efron are on Netflix now!), his films just let the story unfold. You discover with the camera - the journey is quite the ride. Take it.