Documentary Recommendations

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

Nature: My Life as a Turkey

I haven’t had much time to blog lately. Real life has kind of taken a dump on my internet profile. But I have managed to catch a few nice documentaries on Netflix Instant. Thought I’d pass the recommendations onto y’all before I go back to hiding in my closet.

“Homo Sapiens 1900”

This fascinating look at the history of eugenics, covering the beginnings of the movement with Darwin, through the work of his cousin Francis Galton, and into the era of the Nazis and Soviets, is invested with the sort of bomb-shelter quietude that marked Chris Marker’s great “La Jetee” — watching it is a bit like tuning into a transmission from some hidden nocturnal realm. The tone is incredibly dispassionate, and the pacing is so deliberate it’s almost hypnotic, like the verbal outpouring of an especially monotonic therapist. Happily, the content is free of inane talking heads, relying instead on primary sources. I learned a few things while watching it. For instance, I had no idea that Art Nouveau was an outgrowth of eugenics. Nor did I realize how neatly Sweden’s early twentieth-century interest in racial purity presaged Nazism. How is it that Sweden, the poster nation for hippy-dippy liberalism, has such a deep connection to Nazi Germany? And why did no one tell me about it in school? The reviews featured on Netflix are worth taking a look at. They reveal the instinctive revulsion that contemporary folks feel when encountering ideas that are natural outgrowths of Darwin’s writing. Their objections make me wonder: Was the Nazis’ killing of millions in the name of racial purity any worse than the Soviets’ killing of millions in the name of ideological purity? How did one end up being considered more awful than the other? Written and directed by Peter Cohen.

“Ghost Bird”

Interesting, intermittently entertaining look at the hubbub surrounding the supposed reappearance in Arkansas of the ivory-billed woodpecker. The doc moves easily between elegiac ruminations on the topic of nature and folksy, libertarian-minded skepticism regarding politics and the gullibility of the public. Writer-director Scott Crocker makes insightful, not-pressed-too-hard connections between the extinction of wildlife due to loss of habitat and the demise of small-town America due to the loss of domestic jobs. Seen in that light the still-unconfirmed woodpecker sightings seem divinely appropriate: they’re the only thing that’s brought vitality back to this impoverished region of the American South, mostly through the twin boons of eco-tourism and generous (and perhaps completely unwarranted?) grants from the federal government. I also got a kick out of the doc’s delineation of the fascinating subculture that is bird watching. What interesting folk bird watchers are! When they invoke the phantom bird their faces light up like neon advertisements. They’re believers, seekers, treasure hunters. In their case the gold isn’t under the rainbow, it’s flown over it.


“Windfall” is another doc that seems rather libertarian in its sympathies. Its topic is the scandal that has erupted in the wake of the wind farm industry’s encroachment into upstate New York. As the local farming enconomy has tanked some locals have turned to wind as a source of income. Director Laura Israel shows how the government-subsidized firms behind these schemes focus on areas with weak economies and lax zoning laws. They start by offering a few residents money to erect windmills on their property. If they accept they’re faced with the unenviable task of convincing their neighbors that it’s not so bad living with a science fiction monstrosity looming outside your bedroom window. The windmills strike me as apt metaphors for the grotesqueness of contemporary do-goodiness. They’re 400 feet tall, each blade weighing seven tons, and they make a  constant whooshing noise that makes you think of the prairie gales that are said to have driven some early pioneers to insanity. And yet some have convinced themselves of their beauty (or at least their moral appropriateness). The movie does a great job of nailing the vibe of the affected community. It’s a mix of rural thorniness and just-moved-from-the-city sophistication. The people are real characters, too. Each has a firmly held and somewhat sympathetic take on the situation. Together they’re dealing with an off-kilter, slightly comical conundrum, one that evokes the novels of the wry New York humorist Kirsten Mortensen.

“Degenerate Art: The Art and Culture of Glass Pipes”

Though it’s overly long and repetitive, I appreciated filmmaker Marble Slinger’s respectful look at something I was completely ignorant of: the culture that has developed around glass pot-smoking devices. Slinger does a nice job of tracing the history of the form from the work of pioneer Bob Snodgrass to the underground glass blowers of the present era, who seem to be every bit as wild and showoff-y as our tattoo artists and skateboard designers. To be honest, I find most of the work shown in the movie to be garish and overwrought. And yet it’s hard not to admire the way the folks involved in this subculture have developed and maintained a sense of shared aims and traditions. Their confidence in their identity is real and inspiring, and it’s refreshing to encounter a burgeoning art form that takes pride in being functional as well as creative.

“My Life as a Turkey”

I couldn’t have been happier with this “Nature” installment chronicling a man’s efforts to spend the better part of a year acting as virtual mother to a flock of turkey poults. That man, the naturalist Joe Hutto, speaks in a quiet voice, and his words have a ruminative, poetic bent; at times his low-key presence swells slightly and he achieves an almost Whitmanesque expansiveness. (You can see why his turkey wards are so eager to follow him.) It’s a sort of essay film: the words and images have obviously been massaged into a reenacted narrative, and occasionally you’ll catch Hutto and his team showing things they couldn’t possibly have caught on the fly. It’s a bit jarring but it doesn’t really hurt the movie. Rather, it lends it a storybook quality reminiscent of the work of Robert Flaherty, Disney’s “True-Life Adventures,” and Clarence Brown’s “The Yearling.” Galloping across the Florida scrub and pouncing on worms and grasshoppers with an almost unnatural dexterity, the turkeys make you think of miniature dinosaurs, and the talented “Nature” photographers do an ace job of catching the birds’ individual personalities. They manage to bring you into Hutto’s perceptions, too. The reflections he delivers concerning the nature of life and relationships struck me as being perfectly pitched between lyricism and common sense. Directed by David Allen. Written by Lynn Hoppe from a book by Hutto.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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11 Responses to Documentary Recommendations

  1. epiminondas says:

    Re: Home Sapiens 1900

    Did Cohen answer your questions?


  2. Fun reviews and recs, tks. More generally: I’ve been struck by the way having video on demand available has affected my viewing habits. I find myself watching ‘way more docs than I used to. No real idea why this should be the case. Maybe we’re in a fizzy era of doc-making. Maybe I’ve already watched most of the fiction films I’m interested in watching. Maybe with increasing age I’m finding the real world more interesting than made-up ones. Maybe it’s something about having video-on-demand available …


    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      I think we ARE in a fizzy era of doc-making. But, for me, watching a lot of docs is related to my no longer having cable. Instead I have the Roku. And when I’m surfing the net or whatever I’ll often put on a documentary in the background. Some I end up paying a lot of attention to, others I don’t. I’ve gone through a large number in that fashion. Lots of nature and science shows too.


      • Robert Nagle says:

        First, I just wanted to say that the wind power movie (which I have not seen, but will) sounds one-sided. Anyway, the ideal solution would be to put windmills offshore; land-based windmills have some spacing issues — depending on where you put them.

        Second, I also watch the Netflix docs on my roku while doing housework. I watched half of the Ken Burns’ Civil War series that way. Chuck out Morgan Spurlock’s “30 Days” series which is one of my fave things on Netflix.


      • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

        The windmill movie is probably a bit more con than pro, but it gives both sides. It’s primarily focused on the people who live in the town. Some or for and some are against. I honestly had no idea about all the issues surrounding those things.

        I’m not normally much of a Ken Burns fan, but I watched his Prohibition doc on Netflix Instant and got something out of it. I made some notes and planned to blog about it, then I didn’t. A pretty interesting period in recent-ish history.


    • The “My Life as a Turkey” doc was great. It also avoided the usual lefty preaching that comes with most docs. While I do like docs, I’m not fond of spending my time watching lefty propaganda.
      “My Life as a Turkey” was a real life Dr. DoLittle story. Charming. And, I’ve always loved the wild turkeys who live around my house. They are very intelligent, fast as hell when they want to be, and they fly with ease and grace.


    • Callowman says:

      VOD is seemingly doing the opposite to me. I hate docs. Can barely watch them any more. When somebody says, “I recently saw a documentary…” my heart sinks. Fuck so-called reality. Most docs are just myths masquerading as reality anyway. I prefer my myths shameless, brazen and potent. Not even “based on a true story”, never mind “true”. This evening I watched “The Man Who Killed Liberty Valence” for the first time. That’s real enough for me: the Ransom of democracy killing Liberty with a little help from a very ambivalent John Wayne.


  3. agnostic says:

    “Nor did I realize how neatly Sweden’s early twentieth-century interest in racial purity presaged Nazism. How is it that Sweden, the poster nation for hippy-dippy liberalism, has such a deep connection to Nazi Germany?”

    Enthusiasm for the Nazis basically reflected a long-standing ethnic / civilizational divide in the German-speaking lands between Anglo/Saxon/Nordic, who are more purely Germanic, and those with more Celto-Germanic stock from the Rhineland, Bavaria, Austria, etc.

    It’s the same split between early and eager adopters of Christianity vs. later and resistant adopters. As well as between Catholics and Lutherans. (Western/Southern Germany being early and Catholic, the Nordic areas being later and Lutheran.)

    That Northern/Eastern area of Germany extends into Scandinavia and the Baltic (where people only live along the southern fringe of Norway and Sweden). Their land is more for farming than herding livestock, unlike the more hilly/mountainous regions of the Celto-Germanic folk.

    Swedes find the Nordic parts of Germany more familiar — nose-to-the-grindstone lifestyle, gloomy / emo / pessimistic outlook, socially withdrawn, and so on. And lots of blond people (probably a reflection of some personality difference that they all share, like domesticated cows that have piebald coat colors). Celto-Germanic folk are darker-haired, work hard / play hard, more sanguine, and up for a rollicking good time (Oktoberfest).


  4. agnostic says:

    Scandinavians have always been big fans of state regulation, and the Nazis were just the emo-Wagnerian extreme of that basic theme at a particular time and place. Nordic places like Minnesota and Utah have a much more stickler-for-rules way of life. No flexibility and appeal to common sense on a case-by-case basis.

    I think their desire for state regulation, of which Eugenics was again just an extreme manifestation at a certain time and place, comes from their sedentary agrarian way of life. It’s what links the Nordic groups together, and joins them with the Baltic groups, the northern/eastern Slavic groups (Soviet Communism again being an extreme of their basic desires), and even into mainland China, and stretching back into Ancient Egypt.

    Big powerful centralized states are an outgrowth of agriculture, so the more a folk is adapted to farming alone, the more they express the hive-minded authoritarian drive that we see among the areas mentioned above. Everyone is tied to the land and crammed in like sardines, so we all have to learn to tolerate each other’s presence — while not actually feeling anything for one another — and all agree to abide by The Rules, so that our pressure-cooker community doesn’t explode.

    As you look at people who have a longer history of herding livestock (which selects for an opposite set of traits), you find far less tolerance for rules, regulations, smothering mothers, nagging wives, and other degrading forms of OCD and Planning.

    The shepherd tending his flock is far removed from a powerful centralized authority, so he both does not rely on it to come to his aid in time (hence more emphasis on standing your own ground, not acting in the “Minnesota nice” fashion), and doesn’t care so much if he violates its silly regulations. He’ll be somewhere else by the time anyone comes after him, assuming the powers that be even gave a shit about some hillbilly shepherd.


  5. agnostic says:

    Also worth mentioning the connection to religion, or “religiosity” at any rate. Scandinavia, the Baltic, and the northern/eastern Slavic realms were the last parts of Europe to be Christianized. From what vague impressions I have, they don’t seem to have been enthusiastically and devoutly religious even before as Pagans (save the Vikings perhaps, but they were fiery red-heads, not withdrawn blonds). They were the first regions to bitterly and violently break away from mainstream Christianity (the Reformation), and they’re the least religious parts of Europe today.

    And are people aware that the “Freikörperkultur” movement, AKA the modern Pagan-seeming nudist movement, was not just primarily German, but primarily northern/eastern German? Favoring the shores of the Baltic — the last patch of Europe to become Christianized (Lithuania circa 1400). The non-Nordic Germans don’t seem to have gone in much for it. “Catholic shame” is not an outside force, but a feature they have chosen to adopt in their behavior.

    I wonder if the Nordic-Baltic-Slavic groups ever were truly Christianized. They had it imposed on them for awhile, broke off as soon as they felt comfortable, and have never looked back. They’re not enthusiastic atheists or hardcore cosplay Pagans. They seem more like the original Pagans of the area — not really giving religion much thought to begin with. We can regulate moral behavior through authoritarianism, smothering mothers, and nagging wives instead — just like the Chinese. Scandinavians consider themselves something like the East Asians of Europe.

    Their only guiding quasi-religious impulse seems to be OCD, particularly about purity, simplification, and cleanliness. No accident that Scandinavian design looks so designed by Scandinavians. Combine that with their social organization toward the good of the hive, and Eugenics isn’t so surprising — especially the negative kind, and the more compulsory kind.


  6. Pingback: Docs About Movies 2: “Big Joy” | Uncouth Reflections

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