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Just prior to Thanksgiving, I took the plunge and suspended my DirectTV account.  I concluded I was wasting too much time in front of the television.  My goal was to spend less time watching the idiot-box, and more time being "productive," whatever that might mean.

Well, I'd like to say I now spend my evenings and weekends working out, memorizing scripture, learning string theory, and solving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Sorry, no.  In fact, I still use the television.  However, I have been using my T.V. differently than before. 

To get started, I bought a wireless-enabled DVD player that allows me to stream internet content to my television.  With this marvel of technology in place, I now do three things, primarily, with my T.V.: Listen to Pandora, watch T.V. series I really enjoy (Law and Order, season 1), and watch documentaries.  It is the documentaries I've found to be most rewarding, and have actually spent most of my time in this niche (although I did sit through the entire 6th season of The Office one Saturday...a step backwards perhaps).

I've watched perhaps a score of documentaries so far, and have another 10-15 on my Netflix queue.  I've enjoyed almost all of them, though some have pushed the limits of watchability.  Here is a run-down of the documentaries I've watched, and a (very) brief review of each:

  • Toucing the Void - Two friends set out to climb a mountain, only to find themselves in a heap of trouble. This true story of a man's fight for survival was almost too incredible to believe, and at times the story almost ground to a halt, but in the end I was left both amazed and disturbed.  Excellent re-enactments and narration by the story subjects.  Score = 85
  • Food, Inc. - The first of several "food" documentaries I've watched.  Perhaps a bit over-sensationalized, but definitely eye-opening.  I've read a couple of food books lately ("In Defense of Food" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma"), and this documentary lent further weight to the disturbing story of how and what we eat.  Score = 85
  • Man on Wire - This story of a French tightrope walker was an unexpected delight.  In 1974, Philippe Petit set out to walk a high wire strung between the twin towers in New York.  Featuring a wealth of interviews, footage of his training and preparation, and other ancillary material, this was a compelling and well-made feature.  Score = 92
  • The King of Kong - This story of obsession, deviousness, ruthlessness, hope, despair and, ultimately, vindication centers on the most unlikely of story vehicles: the video game "Donkey Kong." Featuring a  real-life cast of villains and heroes who defy description, this story exposes many of the overarching elements of the human "drama" as they play out on a totally bizarre stage, that of competitive arcade gaming.  This is a REALLY good documentary that tells a story much bigger than its subject material might suggest.  Score = 99
  • The National Parks: America's Best Idea - In typical Ken Burns fashion, this series of films (6 in all) leaves no stone unturned in examining the history and drama surrounding America's National Park system.  Stunning photography, compelling back stories and narration, jaw-dropping scenery...this series is produced at the highest level.  It sometimes takes a bit of patience to let Burns unwind his stories, but the payoff is almost always worth the wait.  If you love wilderness, you'll find this series well worth your time.  Score = 90
  • The Cove - I'm usually leery of "activist" stories.  I typically find myself somewhat sympathetic to their cause, but disgusted by their tactics.  However, I found this story of a group's effort to halt a Japanese dolphin kill to be more watchable than most, primarily because the story struck a good balance between the story and the activists.  The footage these activists obtained was hard to watch (who wants to watch a dolphin slaughter?), but the film did a good job of providing context - political, environmental, cultural - for the story.  Score = 83
  • National Geographic: Africa - This series of films from National Geographic (7 in all) presents stories of life in Africa, all set in different countries.  Each featured stunning photography, but what I liked most about this series was the fact that each story focused on one or two individuals, revealing what it means to live as an African.  A young boy takes his first trip across the Sahara to help sell camels; A pregnant mother travels with her son from Nairobi to her home village to give birth, while another women treks from far in the bush to visit her family for the first time in 11 years; Jungle-dwellers try to maintain their traditional way of life despite the encroachment of loggers and other outsiders; an Ethiopian man trains to be a priest.  Each story was very different, but taken as a whole they stitched a mesmerizing picture of what it means to be an African.  And, incidentally, I now consider the narrator, Joe Morgan (from Terminator 2), to be the best narrator on the planet.  Score = 95 
  • Mugabe and the White African - This fascinating, though disturbing, film follows the efforts of a family of white farmers in Zimbabwe as they try to keep possession of their farm.  It probably helped that I had some existing background knowledge of Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's tyrannical president, but I don't think such knowledge is necessary.  The film does a good job of laying out the current political and social situation, and effectively shows how the insanity of Mugabe affects all Zimbabweans, white and black.  Once thing the film does not address, however, is a more historical perspective on how the white farmers originally came to Zimbabwe.  This information is, I think, relevant to the story and helps explain some things.  In the end, though, it is clear where the evil lies, and this story of fighting against such evil is important to watch.  Score = 90
  • Greeks: Crucible of Civilization - The story of Greece and how it came to represent the height of civilization, as well as the seed of western civilization.  Perhaps it was the subject material, but I had a hard time finishing this series.  There were some very interesting parts, such as the emergence of Athens as a center of power, but overall I was quite bored.  I may try again when I'm in more of a scholarly mood.  Score = 77
  • Blue Gold: World Water Wars - This film looks at the scarcity of water, and the privatization and corruption that springs from this scarcity.  A bit amateurish in some ways, the film nonetheless does a good job of detailing the many fine points of "war" over water.  Corporate malfeasance, national-level dirty dealings, price gouging, illegal water diversion...the film paints a pretty bleak picture for a resource most of us take for granted.  I did think the film was a bit too "high altitude" for my taste; I would have preferred some personalization of the issues...how do water shortages and price hikes affect individuals?  In the end, though, a worthy film.  Score = 83
  • King Corn - Another "food" film, this one centered on the industrialization of (what else?) corn.  This film, though, has more of a "home movie" feel to it, and I like it.  Two young film makers set out to purchase and manage 1 acre of Iowa corn, and to follow it through the food chain to its ultimate destination...their hair.  Funny, gentle, simple...this film makes most of its noise through whispers.  In the end, the story is compelling and disturbing, but never heavy-handed.  Score = 94
  • Food Matters - ANOTHER "food" film, but it started off so poorly I couldn't finish.  I have nothing more to say.  Score = DNQ
  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room - The biggest problem with this film (produced in 2005) is that we all know how the story ends.  Regardless, I did find this film to be pretty gripping and disturbing.  Featuring lots of background "intel" about the collapse of Enron, and the despicable behavior of all involved, this film left me disgusted (again) with Big Business.  Most interesting to me, though, were the personalities involved: Ken Lay, Jeffery Skilling, Andy Fastow.  How does one become that type of person?  Score = 83

Well, that's it so far.  I would certainly like to hear of any other documentaries you might recommend.  My DirectTV is suspended until March 1st and I need to get busy!

Reader Comments (5)

Good post. My cable company called today with a rather tempting deal of 100 channels and free PVR for $9 a month. I held in strong- we will continue to be TV-less and 9 dollars richer each month. Your blog post was exactly the confirmation I needed.

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterYuriko

I would recommend John Adams. This was a very interesting documentary. American Experience: The Presidents. This is a 7 part documentary about some of our key presidents. I found the series to be fascinating because you learn so much about the Presidents that you wouldn't learn in a history book. Very cool series! PBS Frank Lloyd Wright documentary. Frontline: The First Christians. This is an amazing documentary about the origins of Christianity and the life and death of Jesus.

February 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGena

That Billy Mitchell really gives us Mitchells a bad rap. Also, one you might like similar to the Enron one, but happier...much happier is the Pixar Story. And after seeing your air guitar skills you might want to watch Air Guitar Nation. Not the most intellectual film in the world, but it is awesome nonetheless.

February 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSam Mitchell

I love docs too Dave. Two recently I've seen are "Waking Sleeping Beauty" about the animation rebirth at Disney and "Exit Through The Gift Shop" about a street artist that may or may not be real, but is crazy entertaining. King of Kong is on of my faves too and I make everyone I know watch it.

February 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBarnz

Thanks Dave - I'm definitely going to check out some of these soon.

April 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErik
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