Quirky Documentary Subjects
by Kristin Battestella
From drive-ins, Star Wars, and Halloween to Steampunk and vampires – these unique documentaries offer an eclectic niche of fun, alternative insights.
Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie – This 2013 hour and a half recalls the 5,000 strong fifties peak of the drive-in experience with nostalgic cartoons, vintage advertising, and old newsreels alongside producer Roger Corman, cinema historians, and theater owners recalling the glory days of neon lights, giant outdoor screens, and twenty five cent admission – not that folks didn't cheat on tickets by hiding in the trunk! Suburban expansion and cheap land or available open spaces made the post-war culture ripe for this kind of family movie going with kids in pajamas piled in the back of the station wagon. The double feature experience included playgrounds and concessions while schlock B pictures for necking teens helped the emerging independent film scene – low budget second rate films to fill these second rate theater showings. From simple wood construction and concrete or metal screens to speaker boxes hanging on the window, the rush to change film reels, and flammable projectors, technology wasn't always the drive-in's friend. The sixties loss of innocence and new X ratings led to a decline in the family-oriented as sex and violence onscreen led to a seedy, urban, and downtrodden reputation in the seventies. Everything from now banned DDT insecticide, Daylight Savings Time, and tornado or hurricane damage jeopardized drive-ins, and color television competition, gas shortages, smaller cars without bucket seats, and VCR popularity led to closures in the eighties. Before and after photos show dilapidated signs and abandoned marquees while prime real estate locations became shopping malls, and its quite intriguing to see our cultural changes paralleled with the rise and fall of the drive-in movies. Although there are sad moments and small preservation efforts – the drive-in in my hometown is one of less than 400 existing today – this well paced chronological flow does what it says in recalling the history as well as making one wonder why this private evening out in the comfort of your own vehicle ever fell out of mainstream favor. New repurposes as flea market spaces and church revivals keep the memories in our collective consciousness, and this pleasant retrospective is perfect for sentimental baby boomers or instantly streaming kids who can't fully comprehend this kind of cinema experience.
Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys – As a former everything Star Wars enthusiast, this 2014 documentary is full of must see retro commercials, toy display tours, expert authors, long time collectors, and Kenner toy designers discussing the sentimental value, big business collecting, and industry changing staying power of Star Wars toys. The history of Kenner and the timing of the original Star Wars films combined for franchising that made room for imaginative play and interconnectivity in an era when you couldn't watch the movies on repeat but you could play with your toys. Such merchandising and licensing boons led to a hitherto unseen supply and demand of toy anticipation and specific timetables with their fair share of inevitable gaffs such as the infamous Boba Fett mail in offer, the Snaggletooth variant figures, unauthorized foreign releases, and empty box Early Bird Certificates. Difficulties with sounds, electronic parts, or unsafe moving pieces, however, inspired innovate thinking, and some goofy toy designs that didn't work are featured alongside rare prototypes, artwork, and detailed specifications from the film departments – not to mention the trouble in making lightsaber toys! While it's tough to fathom a time when merchandising wasn't part of a famous franchise, collect 'em all chase marketing and every tie-in imaginable kept pace with the blockbuster box office evolution, birthing today's Tickle Me Elmo fanaticism. Aging audiences and less Star Wars media after the Original Trilogy created a brief lull in merchandise and some revival misfires before the Special Editions, but the Prequels reinvigorated the vintage pursuit for parents and the next generation. Collecting Star Wars toys is both a nostalgic rekindling of childhood memories and an expensive collectible hobby made of pristine oddities and mint rarities, and this hour plus is a smorgasbord of unique treats and drippy humor recalling ye olde Star Wars playtime. I myself am guilty of building cheap versions of sets I didn't have, coordinating my play along with the Star Wars soundtrack cassettes, and not letting my nieces play with my AT-AT filled with loose storm troopers. Don't judge me. While this topic may be too nerdy and overly detailed to the layman or non-fan, it's interesting to see how one specific franchise gave rise to the now standard merchandising, marketing, and massive obsessions for, well, everything. Adults who were kids during Star Wars' infancy and parents who have fought over toys at Christmas will have a good time here. I want a room to display all my Star Wars stuff!
Vintages Tomorrows – This hour plus 2015 documentary details the fantasy, sub culture, and revisionist creativity of the anachronistic steampunk movement via interviews with authors, bloggers, craftsmen, and musicians. Convention panels and roundtable conversations help define this alternative Victorian history – a broad variety of retro futurism across art, fashion, literature, music, and all demographics. Discussions on the eighties steampunk emergence from cyberpunk, the anger of past underground styles, and the inclusiveness of counter culture movements are done without judgment. Maybe some are perceived as weird or extreme and live everyday life within their alternate personas or gadgetry, but the recent coming together of like minds at conventions and with social media encourages progressive ideals, new technology, and fresh reflections on the past rather than today's stagnant monotony. From early zines to current cosplay fashions and a mixing of retro pin up, Gothic, and Victorian flair; these hodgepodge ideas are broken down in chapters describing the steampunk aesthetics – spectacles, goggles, corsets – anchoring the notion of self expression through form and function. Introverts can express themselves in unique ways or a return to a previous modesty where making the clothes fit you rather than conforming to skimpy off the rack measures. At times the intercut talking heads editing can be too speedy or confusing, interfering with interesting people and whimsical visuals that can speak for themselves. This made by and for steampunk practitioners view may not be as objective on the pros and cons, either. However, several segments do discuss that steampunk is not a recreation of the past Victorian intolerance and oppression but a reclaiming of the positive without historic offenses – a chance to rectify past wrongs and embrace all communities. Catch-22 debates on top hats from Hot Topic fads overtaking the creative philosophies and reinvented craftsmanship are self aware alongside the irony of instant technology and social media bringing together a community that rebuffs virtual pretense in favor of do it yourself mastery and the hopeful ideology that science fiction can still become science fact instead of just post-apocalyptic gloom. For those embracing steampunk, it's an open minded rebellion in search of something better than contemporary convenience or complacency, so sit back and enjoy the unique whimsy here.
Halloween: Feast of the Dying Sun – This recent documentary hour intends to set the holiday straight with the Celtic origins of season, adding sunsets, cemeteries, Samhain bonfires, and end of the harvest celebrations to the spooky voiceover for heaps of atmosphere. From Scottish identity guessing games and the belief that the dead visit the living to trick or treating as beggars pleading door to door and souling for small cakes, tales of how our Halloween customs came together are detailed with banshees, hidden fairy lands, and ghost sightings. It's great to see Druid practices, pre-Tolkien fantasy ideals, and Victorian fairy beliefs rooted in daily culture rather than Halloween as we know it as October 31 and done. Brief reenactments add creepy alongside authoritative, folklorist interviews, but the campfire storytelling narrative is often too abstract, meandering from one spooky specter to another with only vague, basic minutes on Celtic arrivals in Britain, early sacrificial offerings, standing stones, and ancient sites. The facts jump from 4,000 year old yew trees to otherworldly portals and fairies capturing mortals for liberating dance rituals – crowding intriguing details on the special power of nine or magic number three and church absorption of pagan practices. The generic Celtic talk drifts away from Samhain specifically, as if today's generation needs hand holding explanations on witch hunts, the origins of bobbing for apples, and the medieval transition toward All Hallow's Eve and All Saints Day. The rough timeline tosses in New World changes, Victorian gothic literature, and horror cinema fodder as we both laud Halloween with parades and an American commercial revival yet continue to misconstrue witchcraft and occult hallmarks of the season. This can be spooky fun for folks who don't know a lot about the history of Halloween, however it will be too swift and superficial for expert viewers. It's easy to zone out thanks to the random storytelling style, and the intended pagan history would be better served with a longer or specific, multipart documentary. Except for some wanton fairy queen sexy talk, as is this is neat for a teen sleepover or party background where rather than attempted academic, the tall tales can be casual fun.
Nightfall: 100 Years of Vampire Films – The dry, redundant, trying to be cool narration of this 2010 hour opens with Twilight mania and vampire parodies before going back to historical inspirations and Stoker's 1897 Dracula bar. The fast moving flair spends only a minute or two on each subject, and skips other literary vampire sources in favor of continually repeating the vampire hype without actually presenting any. Hokey splices with vampire re-enactors compromise fine stills, artwork, and film clips while only one or two unintroduced interviewees briefly appear. Silent staples, The Vampyre, and pre-Hayes Code seductions get pushed aside for some kind of contemporary trailer as if they were using this documentary purely to promote somebody's new vampire film, and sidetracking statistics on how there are so many vampire books and movies actually omit more content than they present. Nosferatu and Bela Lugosi leap to quick sixties sexual mentions before going back to the Universal sequels and straying into irrelevant science fiction. All this documentary had to do was tell the facts in order, but Mexican horror like El Vampiro, the advent of fangs onscreen, and Hammer color fall prey to a mocking tone with more time spent on cheesy titles like Dracula: The Dirty Old Man and Disco Dracula. Vampires in television are never given a glance, and major films of the sixties and seventies like Blacula, The Vampire Lovers, and most of the Hammer series are blatantly ignored, leaving an erroneous, glossed over representation more akin to a padded school report. It's almost angering that My Son, The Vampire is mentioned over Anne Rice – the eighties and nineties are completely absent as if there were no such thing as Near Dark, The Lost Boys, or even Once Bitten and My Best Friend is a Vampire. Wikipedia is cited as the first source in the credits, and the trying to be hip stance that vampire films were in the dirt until recent millennial popularity really feels like it should be the other way around. This is clearly meant for younger audiences new to the vampire genre, but the poor presentation is terribly frustrating for well versed vampire fans.