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Two Terrible Documentaries

March 28, 2007

I didn't get a lot out of An Inconvenient Truth when I saw Al Gore's well-said, though dull-to-watch climate crisis doc a few weeks ago. My luck with documentaries hasn't improved since, unfortunately. Over the weekend, I dragged my way through HBO's much-hyped Addiction series -- a 14-segment overview of the current drug and alcohol addiction landscape in the US. And last night's attempt to watch What The Bleep Do We Know about quantum physics was prematurely aborted in favor of bed less than halfway through.

Addiction is more of a public service announcement or piece of political propaganda than an in-depth overview of the way people sink into and recover from addictions. In my review about the series for the British Medical Journal (which comes out this Friday) I said that HBO's effort "leaves the viewer feeling as battered and bored as a heroin user going cold turkey." From the dull repetition of the series' main message – that addictions are chronic diseases of the brain that can be managed through a combination of medical and behavioral treatments (a controversial though hardly new idea) – to the homogeneity of its style, Addiction is just about the least addictive television programing I have ever witnessed on HBO.

The saddest thing about Addiction from an artistic perspective is its under-use of the individual styles of the filmmakers involved in making the project. The series producers hired some of the top names in documentary film-making, including D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, and Jessica Yu. But none of these auteurs got to show off their individual styles and approaches. All the films looked and felt the same. The same dreary experts said the same dreary things over and over again. It would have made much more sense (and been much cheaper) to use just one filmmaker, for the series looks like the work of a single, unified creative force.

Addiction might have been boring, but at least it made narrative sense. What The Bleep, by comparison, didn't even have coherence going for it. This rambling hotch-potch of talking heads mumbling about sub-particles existing in two places at once and the true meaning of God mixed with a bizarre fictional story about a young wedding photographer's journey to enlightenment, made no sense to me. This is a real shame as quantum physics is a fascinating subject.

To me, it looked like documentarians William Arntz and Betsy Chasse were worried about alienating their audiences by throwing lots of abstract ideas at them, so they decided to superimpose a fictional narrative upon the theory in order to draw people in. The story, however, has the reverse effect. I found myself turned off completely by the tale, in which a young woman, apparently jilted at the altar, struggles to overcome her own negative, self-created beliefs about the world about her. The point behind the story is a powerful one -- as human beings, we tend to construct our own realities which often have little to do with what's really going on in the universe -- but Chasse and Arntz tell the story so inanely that I found myself craving the return of the crackpot scientists to the screen.

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