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Catching Up
By Ron Steinman

Rating:  

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

Rating Scale

Recently on the Sundance Channel I saw two films that represent different forms of the documentary. One, sweet and filled with the heart of America, was relatively simple in execution and quiet in presentation. This is “Hamburger America”, a hymn similar to films about the hot dog, apple pie, and ice cream. I thoroughly enjoyed it for its lack of

George Motz

pretense and its ability to make me smile. Simply shot and directed by George Motz, it is his journey across America in search of not the perfect hamburger, which is what I would have done, but in search of the most bizarre burger. These include hamburgers that are smeared in peanut butter, others coated with heavy butter, and some that are steamed – well, you get the point. At each stop in his odyssey, Motz introduces us to the creators of the burgers, shows us how they are cooked, and talks to those who eat these sometimes-strange concoctions. All told, it was easy viewing on the eye and enough to make my stomach growl for a burger cooked my way. I do not advocate running out to buy this film, but if it appears in a theater near you or back on TV, give it a look. You will not be disappointed.

 

Rating:  

1 out of 4 stars

Rating Scale

The other film, “A Letter to True,” by photographer Bruce Weber, was self-indulgent, and for me a waste of time, but a film I watched anyway because many reviewed it favorably. I wanted to find out why. After seeing it, I thought it weak and filled with a fashion page sensitivity that few could understand or care enough to watch for more than fifteen minutes. I wondered while watching it how so many critics thought it diverting and unique. It was badly shot – it’s angles sometimes made me wonder what Weber was up to and why – and what Weber tried to pass off as quirky came across to me as weak. For some reason I was not interested in Bruce Weber’s memories of his friends, his home movies, and what passed for fuzzy images. It is as if Weber had too much time on his hands and not enough pictures of his beautiful golden retriever to fill the screen. I would rather not have Weber’s reflections on 9/11 and his conversations with Elizabeth Taylor. I would rather sample one or more of the grand burgers that made my mouth water in “Hamburger America.” Hey, I love my dog Lacey, who is unique, one of a kind, beautiful and soulful. But a movie dedicated to her? I think not. Though I am writing a book called “The Zen According to Lacey” with photos by Eileen Douglas about Lacey’s world view from her almost mythic position as a royal Shih Tzu.

Rating:  

1 out of 4 stars

Rating Scale

In July, The History Channel presented a two-hour program called “The Dark Age of Interrogation.” It was about the use and abuse of interrogation techniques, from World War II to Abu Ghraib. Not a new subject, nor was it well produced. It was typical of so many of these synthetic documentaries, which are a regular part of many cable channels. The History Channel, a spin off of A&E specializes in these quickies, many of which try to convince the audience that what they are watching is new and based on substantial and important research. Most of the footage from this production came from various archival libraries. Everything in it was a rehash. It broke no new ground and its execution was perfunctory, including a script that verged on the simplistic. As with so many programs on cable, look out for the many time it will be repeated. Do not be fooled by advertising and promos. In cable, no audience is too small to get advertisers and the more time a show plays, the more money the cable network makes. The History channel is no exception to the excess of repetition and hype.

There are many kinds of documentaries on PBS. There is its version of a biography and the arts presented by American Masters and The American Experience. P.O.V. attempts to give independent filmmakers a voice. NOVA and Frontline regularly cover very well science and current affairs. A staple for many is the nature film. There are sociological films, and those that detail America for us through baseball, music, and dance. Many other films are surveys of what PBS wants you to know are big and important topics. Usually PBS excels in this, the well-produced, information film, the kind that tells you more about a subject than you ever thought you wanted to know. The information film comes to life in “Guns, Germs and Steel” an offering that ran over three weeks in July and into August. Produced by Lion Television for National Geographic, the documentary though earnest and sometimes captivating, fails on many levels, except the price of producing it because it must have been very costly.
 

Rating:  

2 out of 4 stars

Rating Scale

Jared Diamond, the author of the prize-winning book “Guns, Germs and Steel” was our main guide through most of the maze of his fascinating theory. When he is on screen, for all his quirkiness, and I mean no disrespect, the series comes alive. We see him in New Guinea. We see him in the mountains of Peru. We see him the jungles of Africa. He is real and genuine. When the producers cut to another expert somewhere else, it breaks the flow of the story until Professor Diamond returns. I believe he is thrill seeker, a man after knowledge any way he can find it, then absorb, and finally, create a theory from his experience. Not many men I know would make New Guinea their vacation spot year after year thinly disguised as a scientific journey. There should have been more of Diamond in more places, doing what he does best, being himself. If they did that, there probably would have been the need for fewer reenactments.

Jared Diamond

Let me get out of my system something I abhor. I do not subscribe to re-enactments, especially when they looked too fake or too real, undercooked or overdone. Rarely do they work to help us suspend our disbelief. Rarely. This time they did not. This three part series had some of each. “Guns, Germs and Steel” should be an example to everyone why re-enactments do not work. The scenes were too elaborate. The sites were too clean. The actors looked too healthy, and too freshly scrubbed for their roles, especially those who were playing people from 10,000 years back. As soon as I knew I was watching a re-enactment --and it was immediately, of course --, all semblance of my imagination disappeared. Every time the actors appeared, they seemed too real. I had difficulty --well, not really-- in figuring where I was, and when, what I was watching took place. I thought how clever of the producer, the conquistadores were well dressed, and the animal skins worn by the Stone Age people looked freshly tailored. Then I wondered why the producers put so much money into those scenes when some of the real scenes in today’s world really needed more work. This is not to say that the scenic shots had the necessary beauty, rich and well composed, but they were really wallpaper, there to get us from one point to another and seemingly not part of the producer’s vision. The three parts ran for three very long hours. Perhaps if there were fewer re-enactments, it would have been a two-part series. That is something PBS frowns on. Three parts is good for a better audience. The audience can grow for three parts. Besides three hours amortizes the funding far better than two hours does. Maybe then, there would have been real sparkle to what was in the end despite it being a mess, a fascinating information documentary.

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At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.

 
 

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