Werner Herzog once quipped: "It's all movies for me. And besides, when you say documentaries, in my case, in most of these cases, means 'feature film' in disguise."* Perhaps that's a post-mod nod to relativism. It is true that there are documentaries and there are "documentaries," just as there are feature films and "feature films." Be wary about which ones you use in a history class. The History Channel's series of films on ancient aliens stand in contrast to episodes of PBS's American Experience. (Do history students know the difference?)
I've seen a few history-related documentaries in the last few months that are as enchanting as many feature films. I've also seen some feature films that view like weird documentaries, or period pieces, trapped in the amber of time.
While The Unseen Alistair Cooke: A Masterpiece Special first first aired on PBS in 2008, I hadn't seen it until a couple of weeks ago. The film, "chronicles Cooke's decades in America, friendships with Hollywood icons, celebrated journalism career and years as host of Masterpiece Theatre. Marking the November 2008 centennial of his birth, The Unseen Alistair Cooke: A Masterpiece Special turns an admiring eye on the master observer." It's a captivating story of an endlessly fascinating character. For anyone interested in exploring how Brits view Americans and vice versa, this is a fun one.
The latest installments of American Experience include some films that tie in to anniversaries. On the Civil War front, the Robert E. Lee bio aired in January. On February 28 Triangle Fire will run on PBS, marking the 100th anniversary of that tragedy. HBO will be showing a similar documentary. "The PBS special is affecting," writes Aaron Barnhart at the Kansas City Star, "much more so than the overly talky HBO documentary on the fire airing next month. PBS also takes more liberties with the facts. In 1909, about a year earlier, the Triangle ladies had led a walkout that quickly spread to other Garment District shops. Crucially, some of New York’s leading aristocratic women, such as Anne Morgan (daughter of J.P.), joined them."
Moving forward in time and genre . . . I watched the 1970 film Getting Straight, which seems strangely proud of its relevance and counter cultural bona fides. (In full here.) The film stars that ubiquitous actor of the Me Decade, the hirsute Elliott Gould as a a former campus radical who returns to school with a single-minded purpose: He wants his degree and his fun, with no political strings attached. Complete with chamber-pop hippie soundtrack, Getting Straight features a young Candice Bergen, an even younger Harrison Ford, and an array of stock characters playing Baby Boomer roles. There's the Dionysian stoner, the African-American radical (who demands a black studies department), and various libertines and longhair sign carriers. It almost has the feel of a clunky play, with the youngsters squaring off against the hopeless, old squares in the admin. (Watching it, I was reminded of Christopher Lasch's line about the era: "Even the radicalism of the sixties served, for many of those who embraced it for personal rather than political reasons, not as a substitute religion but as a form of therapy" [Culture of Narcissism, 33].) Getting Straight's cinematography borrows heavily from pop art in some visually appealing ways. The filming is playful, even silly at times. A great period piece, which can, at times, be grating.
I'm always on the look out for 60s films that can be used, in bits, in class. Maybe next time I teach America in the 1960s I'll use a clip or two from the Monkees colossal psychedelic bomb, Head (1968), or Roger Corman's The Trip (1967). The Graduate (1967), or the Strawberry Statement (1970) (watch the latter in full here) might work as a generational flick in ways that Getting Straight would not.
Much, much, much can be tracked down on YouTube or on the "watch instantly" feature on Netflix. Selections from two well made Rock docs, both on Netflix, come to mind: Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?) (2010); and Rolling Stones: Stones in Exile (2010).
On accessibility/access to film clips, performances, historical movies Don Chiasson observes in his review of "Keif's" new biography ("High on the Stones," March 10 NYRB):
Anyone reading this review can go to YouTube now and experience Muddy Waters, or Chuck Berry, or Buddy Holly, or the first Stones recordings, or anything else they want to see, instantly: ads for Freshen-up gum from the Eighties; a spot George Plimpton did for Intellivision, an early video game. Anything. I am not making an original point, but it cannot be reiterated enough: the experience of making and taking in culture is now, for the first time in human history, a condition of almost paralyzing overabundance. For millennia it was a condition of scarcity; and all the ways we regard things we want but cannot have, in those faraway days, stood between people and the art or music they needed to have: yearning, craving, imagining the absent object so fully that when the real thing appears in your hands, it almost doesn’t match up.
It all makes screening the past in the history classroom much easier. More choices than ever, though.