Docs after Dark: An Insomniac's Homage to the Documentary Channel
Over the past few years I have developed the bad habit of falling asleep on the couch in front of the TV. And like many bad habits, I suppose, the longer I do it, the harder it is to break. Indeed, by this point it is so ingrained into my nightly regimen that I now find it far easier getting to sleep on my bulky sofa—with migrating cushions and throw blankets, amidst the murmur and glow of overnight television—than I do on a posturepedic mattress with full bedding, in a silent, darkened room. Now although cold feet and the inevitable crook in my neck do get me up earlier in the morning, and its ambiance is often integrated into some rather bizarre and memorable dreams, I have never found anything truly beneficial, mentally or physically, about sleeping this way. Until recently, that is, when I discovered The Documentary Channel (a.k.a. DOC).
One thing I should mention about these nights on the couch is that it often involves me waking up at some point and not being able to get back to sleep. This leads to channel surfing. Well, actually, sometimes I don’t need to surf—say, if I fall asleep watching the Red Sox on NESN (especially, and this is weird, when I wake up in the middle of a “Sox in 2” re-airing of the game in the very inning where I dozed off during the live broadcast). Sometimes I’m lazy, or too tired to search for something, and end up watching—or simply listening to—infomercials (from these I have learned, among other things, that I may be carrying up to twenty-two pounds of impacted fecal matter in my colon). Most of the time, however, I channel surf until I find something watchable. In the past, this usually meant landing on a Hollywood classic or some enjoyably cheesy movie from the 1980s (it seems as if I can almost always find a John Hughes film). But then one night in the spring of 2010 I stumbled upon something new beaming down to my DirecTV satellite: channel 267 DOC, a network that according to its own logline—and much to my utter glee—was “the first 24-hour television network exclusively devoted to documentary films and the independent filmmaker.” To quote Renée Zellweger, you had me at “hello.”
Fortunately, my initial high expectations have not been disappointed. And over the past year I have spent many late nights and predawn hours with DOC. In fact, it has surpassed the AMC/TCM/FMC troika as my favorite insomnia station. One thing I really like about the channel is that its programming looks and feels different from everything else on TV. It is hard to describe, really, but its visual aesthetic stands out, I think, in large part because it is less polished and packaged than so much of what I see on television these days. And even within its own nightly lineup one cannot generalize, as the look, feel, and tone of DOC’s films are often different from each other—some having been shot on 16mm, others with prosumer DV cameras, and still others more recently on HD. And this is to say nothing of the diversity in documentary subgenres or editing styles. In fact, because the majority of its programming was produced by independent filmmakers in the truest sense of the word, and not as part of some network brand, I find it is almost like having a running documentary film festival in your home.
To explain why I find it so refreshing, it may be easier to describe what this programming isn’t. Here I’m comparing its depth and authenticity to the kind of fast food documentary and reality programming that dominates cable and satellite TV—you know, the shallow, mind-numbing, overproduced shows where nothing real or interesting ever happens, made worse by juxtaposed interview clips where those involved go on and on about that very nothingness, and where the conflict or competition or storyline is so dragged out in order to fill the hour that it becomes painful to watch (as an editor, the gratuitous use of motion effects and repetitive use of the same B-roll I find particularly irksome). But I digress. Don’t get me wrong, we all need fast food sometimes, and on TV this means just this kind of vapid, voyeuristic titillation-cum-schadenfreude. And just as I sometimes scoff down a Big Mac against my better judgment, I too am guilty on occasion of watching America’s Next Top Model, What Not To Wear, and Real Housewives, and getting sucked into virtually anything I ever come across on UFOs, Bigfoot, or the Knights Templar (not to mention cold cases and conspiracies). But, alas, like my Big Mac binges, I am usually left feeling a bit ashamed afterward, and slightly sick to my stomach. Granted, it’s not always a fine meal at The Documentary Channel (there are a few real stinkers, and also early morning blocks of “sponsored documentaries,” i.e. infomercials), but at least it is something new on the TV menu.
Another thing I really like about DOC is that its programming includes films that would simply never be broadcast elsewhere on television. In part this is due, I think, to their production values, and in part on account of their subject matters. Many of its films are not quite slick or sexy enough for HBO, say, or always a good fit, I imagine, for PBS programmers. And you can forget about standard cable. Take, for example, the film Candyman: The David Klein Story (2010), a documentary on the rise and fall of the man who in 1976 invented “Jelly Belly” jellybeans. I really enjoyed this film, as I’m sure many viewers did. But I suspect it would never have found a broadcaster were it not for The Documentary Channel. The same is true, I would argue, for ClarkWorld (2009), a doc on the life and works of film director Bob Clark, perhaps best known for his holiday classic A Christmas Story. I just cannot see this somewhat obscure film ever making it on A&E Biography, never mind PBS’s American Masters. Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer’s film Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea (2004), as well, is another quirky doc that found a way to reach new audiences via The Documentary Channel. Ditto two other films I caught in the wee hours of the morning on DOC: High Score (2006), a film that followed retro-gamer Bill Carlton’s attempt to break the Missile Command all-time high score of 80 million points; and Year of the Bull (2003), perhaps the closest thing I’ve seen to a Hoop Dreams for high school football. The fact that docs like these are still being made, and are finding their way to wider audiences, not only gives me hope about the future of independent documentary (a tough business, believe you me), but it also inspires my own work—getting the creative wheels spinning, for better or worse, on ideas that I would otherwise deem too fringe or opaque to produce.
Above and beyond some of these lesser known films, DOC has also provided me the opportunity to catch a number of award-winning and classic titles that for some reason I’ve never had the chance to see. Included among these documentaries are Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker’s great film on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, The War Room (1993); Jeffrey Blitz’s utterly engrossing doc following the lives of eight young competitors in the 1999 National Spelling Bee, Spellbound (2002); and A. J. Schnack’s unique treatment of author Michael Azerrad’s audio interviews with Kurt Cobain, Kurt Cobain: About a Son (2006). What’s more, the channel gives me the chance to re-watch some of my all-time favorite documentaries, films that I haven’t seen in several years such as Sherman’s March (1986), Brother’s Keeper (1992), The Weather Underground (2002), Grizzly Man (2005), and Bowling for Columbine (2002). One night I even caught the tail end of Primary (1960) of all things, the groundbreaking direct cinema film on the 1960 Democratic Party primary election in Wisconsin between JFK and Hubert Humphrey. And I’ve heard that one night they even broadcast Robert Flaherty’s 1922 classic Nanook of the North.
One final thing I really like about my late nights with DOC is the randomness of it all. And indeed this is one of the things I still like about traditional television as opposed to VOD and the ever-increasing ways to stream TV programming from the Internet. I enjoy channel surfing with the clicker, and finding something that I never would have otherwise sought out. Stuff like Candyman or Year of the Bull, for example, was not appointment viewing for me. And I think it is unlikely that I would have come across them via the Internet as it now exists. To me, it’s becoming sort of like the difference between following your literary whims around a bookstore and being told by amazon what you might like to read based on previous purchases. I fear that if I know exactly what shows/films/news I want to watch, and link always and only to them, I will rarely if ever stumble upon something terrific that I never knew existed. Now, I suppose something like Hulu might be a solution to this dilemma, and provide me something rather similar to the traditional channel surfing experience. And I imagine I’ll probably get there at some point—perhaps on the day that I get my TV configured so I can watch on-line content on a decent sized screen and with good speakers. But until then, or until—my greatest fear—DOC goes the way of TLC, the Discovery Networks, and The History Channel (which recently added such shows as Ax Men and Swamp People to its “history” lineup)*, I will stay tuned to The Documentary Channel, continuing to be entertained and inspired, and sometimes lullabied, by its “creative treatment of actuality” (to invoke John Grierson)…reality television par excellence.
*I pray that DOC’s founder Tom Neff, an independent filmmaker himself, never lets this happen. I also hope—and this is a subject in its own right, one that I don’t have the space to cover herein—that the channel figures out a way to fairly compensate the independent producers who provide all of this programming; unfortunately and unconscionably, the most that one can expect to be paid as a license fee from The Documentary Channel is a few thousand dollars (likely not even enough to pay for errors and omissions insurance), and in many instances these filmmakers are not paid a dime.