Slipping in a little late-night education in the form of the National Geographic or Discovery Channel’s documentaries is always a wise idea. Their films are easy to follow, visibly stunning and convincing enough to get even the ADD’ers among us to sit still for longer than an hour. They teach us about the primal behaviors of exotic animals, the beliefs and traditions of far-away countries and mind-blowing quantum physics. We no longer rely on schools for our general education; we thank popular science programs and the impressive camera work seen in nature films.
Sure, spend a few hours soaking up the programs offered by Discovery and you can act like a smart ass at work the next day by recounting your newly attained MythBusters trivia. But if you really want to out-do your colleagues on Monday, tell them about these babies. These five documentaries are so far out they’ll have you speculating for days!
5. The Staircase (2004)
Life is a real comedian, and shit simply has a way of happening. You’ve got be pretty damn unlucky for it to happen twice though—especially when the shit happens to be a murder … or was it an accident? Who the hell knows! What we do know is that the accurately named Staircase follows a highly suspicious murder investigation and trial. Every episode of The Staircase keeps us browbeaten with its constantly shifting sentiments and closeted skeletons. Michael Peterson is a bestselling novelist whose wife died by falling down “15, 20 I don’t know,” stairs. That in itself sounds tragic, but what happens when the injuries don’t really make sense given the nature of the accident?
Authorities believed Peterson to have battered his wife to death with a fireplace poker which was missing from the house. We follow the trial and get a personal look at what happens to the family and Peterson in the throes of this awful situation. At times, we are so consumed by the real-life family drama, we forget that further evidence is not really in his favor. Turns out Peterson adopted the daughters of a family friend who had also died by falling down the stairs. Hmm. Don’t you think you have some explaining to do Mr. Peterson?
4. My Best Fiend (1999)
Werner Herzog is known as one of the most important directors of the New German Cinema period between 1960 and 1980. Werner has a calm, stoic manner which is a certain characteristic that can be felt in his films. He studied History, Literature and Theater in Munich and directed his first film, Lebenszeichen (Signs of Life), when he was twenty-four-years old. He has made more than fifty films since. Five of his most famous works starred his “best fiend,” Klaus Kinski, who was specialized in playing psychopathically energetic roles. He was an extraordinary actor with a wild, unpredictable temperament that was rather difficult to work with at times.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1981) and Cobra Verde (1987) are all proof that Herzog and Kinski had a profound artistic connection of the special variety. This documentary gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of their typical working routine and their continuing dance between the lines of respect and loathing. Kinski was famous for his erratic behavior; he was like a child who was constantly seeking attention. He would quickly turn callous and resort to pubescent tactics. He often treated Herzog with genuine disgust and was sure to emphasize his insults. But he was also extremely fixated on his work as an actor and would dedicate days on end studying his characters; Herzog was well aware of that. Their relationship was so testing that Herzog once threatened to shoot Kinski should he decide to walk out on Aguirre. This is a telling film about a chaotically beautiful friendship that produced works of great cinematic importance.
3. Shut Up Little Man! – An Audio Misadventure (2011)
We’ve all had annoying, loud and even shady neighbors; it’s happened to the best of us. Doesn’t matter how Perfect-Ville your street may look to outsiders, you will always run a chance of the wrong type of folk moving in next door. Then again, if you’re going to move into a bright pink apartment dubbed by the block “The Pepto Bismol Palace,” you’re kind of asking for it. When Mitchell D. and Eddie Lee Sausage moved into the Pepto Palace in San Francisco in 1987, they had the great (mis-) fortune to move in next to Raymond Huffman and Peter J. Haskett. Peter and Ray’s favorite past-time was to argue constantly and viciously, with Peter frequently shouting “Shut up little man!” at his roomie, Ray.
Bizarre dialogues and heated discussions have always been a great inspiration to artists, writers and directors alike, so Eddie Lee and Mitchell D. put their irritatingly grumpy neighbors to good use. They started recording the arguments between the oddest roomies ever: Peter, an openly gay man, and Ray, a raging homophobe. Eddie Lee and Mitchell D. shared the tapes with friends, who shared them with their friends, and so on. Within no time, these roommate-spats reached a cult status and inspired cartoonists like Ivan Brunetti and Daniel Clowes to explore their misanthropic sides. Listening to the private arguments of two clearly disturbed men may seem somehow perverse, but trust us when we say it is rather intriguing.
2. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2011)
If you love playing adventure games, solving strange riddles and are generally the detective type, John Foy’s Resurrect Dead is going to get you really excited. Justin Duerr has always been a curious rebel. Tired of barn-living and pigeon rearing in rural Pennsylvania, he busted out to Philly and made his name in the underground punk and art scene when he was eighteen-years-old. He has remained in Philadelphia, playing with bands like the Vivian Girls Experience, but we believe his true mission in life lies elsewhere.
What would you do if you noticed cryptic tiles with engraved messages such as “Toynbee Idea In Movie 2001 Resurrect Dead On Planet Jupiter” embedded into the streets of your city? What would the adventure-seeking detective in you do? Needless to say, you’d do exactly the same as Justin; you’d start asking questions, scouring the country and connecting the dots until you found your answers. We urge you to go on this mad trip with Justin to uncover the secrets behind the so-called Toynbee tiles. Your final conclusions may not be satisfying, but they will forever have you wondering: Who is Severino “Sevy” Verna (aka James Morasco) and what is he trying to tell us?
1. Crumb (1994)
Robert Crumb, one of the most controversial cartoon artists of the late ’60s and ’80s, continues to impress his fans with his eccentric persona and world perspectives today. He first started his own Zap Comix in 1968. These comics were printed by film-maker and Beat writer Charles Plymell. From then on, Crumb dedicated his time to creating his own work, such as Fritz the Cat. He also managed to merge his passion for music with his work, as can be seen in the book R. Crumb—The Complete Record Cover Collection, in which you can enjoy his artwork for bands like Big Brother& The Holding Company, Blind Boy Fuller and of course his own musical formation, R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenades. Crumb tends to mix his own personal fetishes and obvious sexual preferences into his work without ever losing face with Freudian clichés. He sure is a kooky character but a lovable one.
Anyone who has ever studied his comics and other illustrations must have noted that this is a man who is evidently hung up on some satirically sexual identification with his created characters. His psychology is so openly on display, we can’t help but speculate about his origins; really, what must his family be like? Crumb may feel comfortable sharing certain insights with the public, but he also appreciates his privacy. A documentary about himself, his family and the people who influenced him seemed very unlikely for a while. Who could be trusted enough to be granted such an intimate insight into his family? There was only one man for the job: friend and fellow cheap suit Terry Zwigoff, who ended up spending nine years on this project. This documentary might make you blush uncontrollably at times and will definitely leave you with a bit of a gabble in your throat, but that’s the price you’ll pay for getting to know the people behind an artistic genius.