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The real red pill

More than any summer that I can recall, the film-going options in the Triangle seem to be located on two different planets. One of these orbs could be called Planet Boom and the other could be called Planet Earth.

On Planet Boom, the explosions never stop, cars never run out of gas and guns never run out of bullets. The bad people always die, and when they do they just disappear--their blood never has to be mopped up, the bodies never buried and the losses never mourned.

Right now the multiplexes of Planet Boom are overflowing with the refuse of expensive shoot 'em ups that are conceived and produced with the teen-aged male consumer in mind. I'm well past that particular sell-by date, so going to the multiplex in the summer is an oppressive prospect. When I scan the listings and see nothing but action brawn like T-3, Bad Boys II, 2 Fast 2 Furious and the new Lara Croft movie, I envision suffering through two hours of ear-splitting explosions and non-stop soundtrack music, all cut together in a blur of mayhem that is designed to pummel us into submission and convince us that we're being entertained.

But this isn't the space for an anti-blockbuster rant or hand-wringing about the Future of the Movies. Indeed, the spectacles at the multiplexes haven't been all bad. The smart, modestly-budgeted apocalyptic thriller 28 Days Later has become a word-of-mouth (and Internet) hit and, after last Friday, a new, four-minute alternate ending is on view at the end of the credits. Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean have also been great fun for children and grownups alike. And Seabiscuit, after a successful opening weekend, may prove to the studios that there is a summer market for old-style Hollywood period dramas.

But in the parallel reality of Planet Earth, a pleasant development this summer has been the emergence of hit documentaries. At this writing, there are four excellent docs playing around the Triangle, all of which have been held over for extended runs. Spellbound, the stand-up-and-cheer spelling bee epic, is entering its second month in two theaters and Stone Reader, a marvelous valentine to an obscure novelist, is still selling tickets. And, two weeks ago, the spectacular Winged Migration and the haunting Capturing the Friedmans opened to excellent business and will likely play for a few more weeks. On top of all that, this Friday will see the release of the widely acclaimed Rivers and Tides.

Of course, we in the Triangle have developed a special taste for the documentary form, due to the presence of such institutions as the Full Frame Festival and the Center for Documentary Studies. And the filmmakers in the area make documentaries the way trust fund kids make indie films in Lower Manhattan. This year, we've had the opportunity to see excellent work from Amy Morrison and the duo of Jim Haverkamp and Brett Ingram. And Cynthia Hill, one of the current Indies Arts Award winners, unveiled Tobacco Money Feeds My Family, a film as sensitive and melancholy as its title suggests, and one that was inexplicably overlooked by the Full Frame selection committee. (Hill is presently finishing up a new film about Mexican immigrants.)

One reason for the current glut of documentaries in theaters could be that studios and distributors are increasingly holding their prestige narrative films for December, a release date that has become a near-requirement for purportedly Oscar-worthy flicks. Just look at last year's most acclaimed films: Adaptation, Catch Me if You Can, The Hours, The Pianist, Far From Heaven, Gangs of New York, About Schmidt. All of them were released in November or December. Since the quality-film wad gets shot at the end of the year, the art theaters have a big empty space to fill on their summer schedules and can bring in riskier, less immediately commercial ventures.

But it's not just for lack of better films that these films are succeeding, but because they are simply more interesting and involving than the summer swill of Hollywood. Furthermore, documentaries require very little suspension of disbelief--they're documentaries after all--and it becomes much easier for us to identify with the subjects and be rewarded for it with shock, amazement or sorrow. When we see the home movies of the Friedmans, their happiness and hijinks, they become a very recognizable family. When the authorities tear this family apart on the flimsiest of evidence, we share their pain.

Hollywood films rarely allow for ambiguity in the behavior of characters (although the protean superheroes of X2: X-Men United are recent exceptions). It's beyond the imagination of formula movies to have conflicted characters--in Capturing the Friedmans, Arnold Friedman is a pedophile and a loving father, a nebbish computer teacher and a mambo musician. Nor will Hollywood entertain complex notions of truth, reality and perception. In Friedmans, Arnold says he molested his brother Howard when they were children, but Howard can't remember any of it. (And, considering that Howard ends up being the only happy, well-adjusted Friedman, it really would serve him no purpose to discover the objective "truth.")

Although Hollywood films are full of sentimental subplots involving parent-child relationships, not one of them is a patch on the fervent, complex bonds shown in Spellbound. For example, there's the humble and goofy Pennsylvania couple that their whiz daughter describes as being like Archie and Edith Bunker. The parents are amazed and mystified by their daughter, yet matchlessly wise and gentle with her when she finally loses in the final round. And no writer in Hollywood could write a scene as abjectly sad as the one in Capturing the Friedmans where the once-happy family falls into bitter quarreling over the course of a Passover seder. Nor could a screenwriter imagine the delighted surprise of the middle-aged welder in Stone Reader when he encounters someone who'd read and loved the one book he published 30 years ago.

When we're exhausted by computer-generated effects on Planet Boom, we can turn to the documentaries of Planet Earth, which can tell us of the very real possibilities of our lives. Who leaves a bang-bang film feeling energized? Compare the weary feeling you have when you stagger out of a lumbering blockbuster like The Hulk with the giddy excitement you feel at the close of Winged Migration, a movie that takes us inside a wondrous way of seeing a world that really exists. Did Alex and Emma (a Luke Wilson-Kate Hudson stink bomb about a struggling writer and his stenographer) make anyone who saw it go home and start reading a classic novel? Not a chance. But Stone Reader most certainly did.

The Matrix hipped us to Jean Baudrillard's notions of the perpetual media spectacle, the terrifying realization of Plato's cave and shadows which Laurence Fishburne related to us as the "Desert of the Real." And The Matrix also introduced "the red pill" into the pop lexicon--referring to the drug Neo takes so that he might see things as they really are.

In fact, documentaries are the red pill, and they open our eyes to life outside our door. Call it the Oasis of the Real. EndBlock


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