Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:January 28th, 2006 04:35 EST
Art Imitates Life...The 40 Year Old Virgin

Art Imitates Life...The 40 Year Old Virgin

By John Goodin

The box office big-timer of the month has been The 40 Year Old Virgin, a rather formulaic comedy centered on sex and a clumsy every-man protagonist with a heart of gold. A little further down the top-10 list, sitting comfortably with the most consistent sales performance of all, is a quaint little documentary called March of the Penguins. This is a film with no frills, no star power, and no grandiose marketing campaign. Penguins and a slew of other recent documentaries are grabbing enormous attention simply because they’re good – and they’re set to give Hollywood a royal shake-up.

It doesn’t take an industry analyst to note the recent explosion in popularity of documentary films. With the reality TV boom and the intensified focus on celebrity news, voyeurism is quickly becoming the driving force behind popular culture. However, these “nonfiction” films are of a different breed. These films hovering just below the mainstream are genuine works of quality; intelligent, clever works of art that are the responses of fed-up auteurs to the mundane sludge pouring out of Hollywood.

Documentary film has been around for quite some time, and it has always fascinated us. From Albert Maysles’s landmark film Salesman to classic rock docs like the Bob Dylan tour diary Don’t Look Back, these moving Polaroids have utilized their inherent appeal to grab our attention. What makes these films unique is the element of truth. The simple fact that a story actually happened can turn it from a trite, overblown mess to a remarkable tale of epic proportions. Take the 2003 film Touching the Void for example: this account of a wounded mountain climber overcoming unfathomable odds would otherwise seem phony and contrived, but its factual nature caused one theatergoer to remark, “If that doesn’t make you believe in God, nothing will.”  

With the advent of digital video and simple at-home editing programs, almost anyone can film the great stories around them, and do it on a shoestring budget. In 1999, The Blair Witch Project Made history with its extremely low budget of $25,000. Today, films are popping up with incredible 4-figure budgets and production crews consisting of only a handful of people. Not only are they a breeze to make (compared to multi-million dollar studio productions), but they give consumers everything they could want from movie going experience. Hands on a Hardbody features absurd but charming humor, The Corporation is a startling exposé of real-life corporate scandal, and you haven’t seen family drama until you’ve seen the Oscar-nominated Capturing the Friedmans. The public’s hunger for low-key alternatives to Hollywood action extravaganzas and the ease with which they can be made is turning home movies into the hot new indie media. Not to be outdone, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood got into the game. High-profile directors such as Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) and Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers) have temporarily abandoned Tinsel town to put out small nonfiction pictures. And love him or hate him, author and filmmaker Michael Moore blew the doors wide open in 2004 when his anti-Bush film Fahrenheit 9/11 opened to the tune of $24 million. Fahrenheit not only inspired enough interest to lift its lifetime box office gross to $222 million, it also riled up enough conservative anger to launch a multitude of pro-Bush and anti-Moore films. Soon everyone that had something to say was putting a DVD on store shelves across America.

Could this mean a large-scale backlash against the typical studio fodder? “People will always want to see “Jurassic Park” and “Spiderman,” says filmmaker Dave Yonkman. “What I hope will happen is that the big budget bubblegum films will get better as a result.”

In five years, we may look back on the documentary boom as the springboard that launched waves of traditional narrative films with efficient, D.I.Y productions. The increasingly common references to “documentary-style” photography in studio movies and television shows are a testament to this. Nonfiction film will always be around; man will never be done investigating the world around him. But it won’t stop there. It will teach a new breed of filmmakers to investigate that world, and to carry that spark of talent and ability to every corner of the movie industry. “If that’s the case,” Yonkman says, “the digital revolution isn’t just good for people, who like to make movies, it’s even better for people who like to watch movies.”