January 1, 2005 5:12 PM   Subscribe

I want to watch some good documentaries. Please advise. (Simultaneously, I shall beef about The Elegant Universe, a USA science programme.)

I come at this having just watched some David Attenborough documentaries, so I'm used to the BBC documentary style. Incredible production standards, mind-blowing facts and connections, and lots of trivial knowledge that leads me to start thinking various Big Thoughts on the nature of life and brainz.

So I thought I'd give NOVA's programme on string theory a shot. I've seen the first episode, and there are two more to go. I dread viewing them. I can't say as I've learned anything yet.

My main problem is with the "made for the MTV generation" style. There isn't a single scene that isn't blasting with movement and sound fx, and no scene lasts for more than a second. Most annoying.

And the content? It's like Sesame Street for simple-minded adults. Everything is repeated a half-dozen times, just to be sure that you really, really get it. But are they repeating key ideas, whopping great twists on reality, or stunning new concepts? No, so far it's just been a damned history lesson.

So my question (I do have one!) is mostly this: should I even bother watching the next two episodes? Is NOVA going to grow balls and actually teach me something about string theory? Will they try to blow my mind as thoroughly as Feynman did?

I very much want to continue watching documentaries. Should I give all NOVA/PBS documentaries a pass... which is to say, are they all going to be vapid, MTV-driven schlock that fails to inform and challenge?

Finally, what documentaries do you recommend? What has rocked your world, floated your boat, twisted your brain?
posted by five fresh fish to Media & Arts (46 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't seen NOVA in years and years but I remember the old ones being very good, actually. There was an episode about set theory paradoxes and Cantor's discovery of "bigger and bigger infinities" that completely captivated me at the time.

If you like math, the University of Minnesota's Geometry Center has made a few videos that are good, and in pretty wide circulation (ie, you could probably find them at most university libraries). Particularly Not Knot and Outside In.
posted by Wolfdog at 5:22 PM on January 1, 2005

No discussion of good documentaries could be considered legit without first mentioning The Civil War, by Ken Burns. I don't worship at the altar of Burns, as some do, but this work is astounding.

From your post i'm guessing you're asking about only TV documentaries? Because there's tons of great films out there, including One Day In September, The Times Of Harvey Milk, and the relatively new The Fog of War. Those are probably my favorites of recent memory.

But as for TV documentaries, and if you're in a warmongering kind of mood, there's always Victory at Sea -- It's a little dry, but quite good. And of course you could try to endure all 20+ hours of The World at War, long but extraordinary.

Hmm. Now you've got me wanting to watch all of these again. Thank you. :)
posted by wolftrouble at 5:27 PM on January 1, 2005

I've recently watched A Brief History of Disbelief and The Century of The Self. Both BBC, both excellent.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:03 PM on January 1, 2005

Response by poster: Yah, tv documentaries. And if there were torrent links, so much the better. Note: the NOVA series is freely available at the link I provided.

I'm more into the sciences than history, but whatever. If I were to start viewing social studies documentaries, I'd have to start with Canadian-oriented histories.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:05 PM on January 1, 2005

I have seen several Nova episodes worth watching, and I have seen some of an American series on DNA that was pretty good. It might be this one.

Most of the good TV documentaries are British though. If you haven't seen Connections 1 & 2 and the Day the Universe Changed by James Burke you have to go download them now! Connections 3 is not in the same league.

Definitely skip Segan's "Cosmos", similar to your complaint about the string theory series, but slower. In fact I have had lots of bad luck with documentaries on physics and cosmology. I just can't remember all the titles to warn you about...

I would love to see "Vietnam: the 10,000 Day War" by Michael MacLear (the Ghosts of War guy) and "War" by Gwynne Dyer, but they don't seem to be available anywhere.
posted by Chuckles at 6:21 PM on January 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

So my question (I do have one!) is mostly this: should I even bother watching the next two episodes? Is NOVA going to grow balls and actually teach me something about string theory? Will they try to blow my mind as thoroughly as Feynman did?

You can safely skip the rest of The Elegant Universe documentary. It was, honestly, one of the worst presentations I have ever seen. You're right, they seemed to be more enthralled with their fancy graphic abilities than with the Science itself.

As you yourself surmise, if you really want to pick some of this up, grab a book not a movie. There are a lot of great popular science books out there. Strangely, Greene's book on which the documentary is based, is actually quite good.

As for Feynman, the book of his I would recommend the most is The Character of Physical Law. Forget the daunting, technical-sounding title. The book is extremely readable, has zero equations, has fascinating ideas and manages to deliver a lot of insight on how physicists like Feynman think and what modern physics is really about. My copy is completely worn.
posted by vacapinta at 6:38 PM on January 1, 2005

Be sure to check out the earlier inquiry regarding recommended documentaries here at Ask.Metafilter (December 20, 2004).

I am quite a fan of "Touching The Void". One of my "top ten" films for 2004.
posted by ericb at 6:42 PM on January 1, 2005

BTW - "Touching The Void" won two top awards at the 2004 British Independent Film Awards - “Best Documentary”; “Best Technical Achievement – Cinematography”... and is a likely contender for the Academy Awards/Oscars.
posted by ericb at 6:44 PM on January 1, 2005

I have had lots of bad luck with documentaries on physics and cosmology. I just can't remember all the titles to warn you about...

Stephen Hawking's Universe was just awful, IMHO.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 6:57 PM on January 1, 2005

The Blues anchors a multi-media celebration that raises awareness of the blues and its contribution to American culture and music worldwide.

Under the guiding vision of Executive Producer Martin Scorsese, seven directors will explore the blues through their own personal styles and perspectives. The films in the series are motivated by a central theme: how the blues evolved from parochial folk tunes to a universal language.

posted by The White Hat at 6:59 PM on January 1, 2005

Don't miss Bill Moyers' excellent doc on the song, Amazing Grace. It was probably filmed about 15 years ago and tells the origin of the song, with performances from a variety of artists, including Johnny Cash and Judy Collins.
posted by lometogo at 7:02 PM on January 1, 2005

FYI ... "Touching The Void" was directed by Kevin Macdonald. He directed "One Day in September" (mentioned by wolftrouble). That film won the 1999 Oscar for Best Documentary.
posted by ericb at 7:13 PM on January 1, 2005

Skallas, I don't think you are an auditory learner... If audio/visual presentations are so poor why do we bother with lectures in university? (Sorry for the digression, I promise I won't do it any more if you won't)
posted by Chuckles at 7:15 PM on January 1, 2005

Response by poster: I loved "Connections" as a teenager. I'm going to have to watch them all over again.

OMG. Touching the Void sounds like a nightmare. I gotta see it.

The Blues will also be awesome. Likewise Brief History of Disbelief sounds worthwhile.

Basically, what I really want is just some quality television. I'm spoiled: I don't want to waste my time on crap television.

Skallas, I don't want book recommendations. I've read shedloads of non-fiction, and while it's been great, I'm now looking for something different.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:32 PM on January 1, 2005

Anything from BBC should be a good enough recommendation. I particularly liked Private life of Plants (sorry I'm rushing no link)
posted by elpapacito at 7:36 PM on January 1, 2005

Also what appears to be a BBC2 production (?)
The power of Nightmares:The Rise of the Politics of Fear. I'm linking to Kuro because it re-links to torrents of the documentary. Technically, it's many links away :)
posted by elpapacito at 7:42 PM on January 1, 2005

I like some of the films on Newsworld programme with Michelle Jean. Do you speak French? There are a bunch of groovy documentary programmes on RDI, the French Newsworld. Maybe their schedules can be a viewing list for you? (Apologies, I'm tired and can't dredge up any titles out of my memory but I've seen some groovy programming there that is the opposite to what you describe above. )
posted by philfromhavelock at 8:41 PM on January 1, 2005

Some UK-biased ideas (I don't know how you'd get your hands on half of these):

History: anything fronted by Simon Schama or David Starkey. John Romer's Byzantium documentaries are fantastic.

Architecture: The Open University's teaching material, while dry, has some gems. The stuff on Italian architecture I especially enjoyed, but remember it's education, not entertainment.

Natural History: Anything by the BBC's Natural History Unit is going to be beautiful, but just a touch shallow.

Archaeology: Time Team rocks. It must be up to it's 10th or 11th season by now.

Marine archaeology: James Cameron has produced great documentaries on the Titanic and the Bismark. The series Wreck Detectives (synopsis: underwater Time Team), while more modest in scale, is pleasant enough to watch.

Computing: I enjoyed Robert X. Cringley's Triumph of the Nerds, but I haven't seen his more recent stuff.

If you want to explore audio as well as video, keep an eye on Radio 4's output. Off the top of my head: Reith Lectures, Analysis, From Our Own Correspondent, All in the Mind, The Material World, In Our Time, This Sceptred Isle and Making History are all worth a listen.

While Googling around, I saw this in the ads, which has a lot of stuff I'd like to watch but appears to be geared towards institutions ($50 rental??).

For what it's worth, my impression of The Power of Nightmares was that it played to it's audience. YMMV.

Things to avoid: a lot of The Discovery Channel's output takes one or two facts and stretches them out like candyfloss. A good example is their documentary on Oliver, who may have been a human/chimpanzee hybrid. I believe it was a 40 minute film, but it can be summarised as "Is Oliver a normal chimpanzee? Yes. Here's some footage of ligers and zorses".
posted by Leon at 8:52 PM on January 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

I saw the NOVA documentary as well hoping to get some idea of string theory out. But like you I didn't get anything.

They explain it like it's just something the scientists thought up. Sure they MENTION that they used math but how was the math applied?

I'm not a mathemagician but I would appreciate it if they at least scraped the surface.

Attenborough and Connections are the best.

*cough* MV *cough* Group
posted by Napierzaza at 9:10 PM on January 1, 2005

Attenborough and Connections are the best.

The Day the Universe Changed beets Connections. Fortuitously I noticed just the other day that it is now available here and there on the internets. (Just take a close look at the forums because it is not an official release of _that_ group... Err, *cough*, I guess :P)

It's too bad you aren't in the COTU because Big Ideas can be great sometimes. Mostly politics and social science, but once I say a brilliant linguistics lecture by Stephen Pinker... Wow!

More radio, if it's of interest, Ideas is often brilliant. Read this for a sample.
posted by Chuckles at 9:33 PM on January 1, 2005

If they ever run it again, please watch C-Span's American Presidents series. They made John Tyler and Rutherford B. Hayes interesting.
posted by marxchivist at 10:03 PM on January 1, 2005

I want to watch some good documentaries. Please advise.

My list begins and ends with Hoop Dreams. It will be among the best three hours you've ever spent watching a film of any genre.
posted by NoMich at 10:17 PM on January 1, 2005

Not being a BoSox fan I still enjoyed HBO's The Curse of the Bambino

Not sure how easily you'll fing BTs for the following, but here's my short list:

Ditto on Touching the Void

Also liked Dogtown and Z-Boy

Capturing the Friedmans was disturbing yet compelling

The following are awesome visual/musical interpolations of humanity and it's interaction with earth and each other with newagey music by Phillip Glass
Nagoyqatsi (not as good as the others, but meh, it's a series..)

You probably already know, but IMDB has a pretty reliable rating system by genre. Here's their top Documentary listing
posted by HyperBlue at 11:33 PM on January 1, 2005

I will second NoMich's mention of Hoop Dreams. That defines what a documentary film should be in my mind.

And this thread won't be complete until someone mentions Michael Moore, so there, I've done it.
posted by chicobangs at 11:38 PM on January 1, 2005

I haven't seen the documentary - but I was going to. Perhaps now, I'll be less eager to. I do have the book that I assume its titled after - Brian Greene - The Elegant Universe. And it goes some way to explaining string theory, but at a very abstract level. I studied physics as an undergraduate, before branching out into (infinitely easier) subjects like computer science. I don't understand string theory, even at a superficial level - despite making several attempts to get a grip on exactly what it is.

In my mind there are just no decent analogies that a lay-person can latch on to to explain string theory. Special and general relativity were a complete mystery to me, until I stumbled onto the likes of Hawking - who has a knack of explaining it that gells with my sort of brain - my undergraduate Physics lecturers were fucking atrocious at explaining anything other than the trivial.

So, for me, Im waiting for someone who can do the same for string theory that Hawking did for relativity (and Feynam did for the rest of Physics) - that is, explain it in a way that I can latch on to. Its obvious that I'll never understand the math behind it - and in fact a big part of the unknown parts of string theory apparently cannot be explored with current mathimatical knowledge - its that bleeding edge. In short I guess its no wonder that the NOVA fare wasn't much good.

I did however watch one NOVA documentary that I thought was pretty decent - The Commanding Heights - was a look at macro economic policy shifts throughout the last century. I'm not particularly interested in economics per-se, but the NOVA documentary was titillating enough for me to go buy the book it was based on (which I've yet to read)

Good luck finding something stimulating produced by anyone other than the BBC - they are IMHO the only ones to consistently produce groundbreaking work.
posted by BadSeamus at 12:13 AM on January 2, 2005

The Sorrow and the Pity (Le chagrin et la pitié.)

A true masterpiece by director Marcel Ophuls; examines life in Nazi-occupied France (in the town of Clermont-Ferrand, near the occupation capital of Vichy) and indelibly contrasts the rarity of heroic resistance with the common, everyday banality of collaboration, cowardice and appeasement.

For my money, one of the finest documentaries ever filmed.
posted by enrevanche at 12:17 AM on January 2, 2005

Commanding Heights tries to give a brief history of modern economic thought. I'm happy that I purchased the DVD set.

Fog of War is a fun, candid 90-minute conversation with Robert S. McNamara by Errol Morris. I really dig his style.

The Revolution Will Not be Televised is the story of a French film crew that was present during the overthrow of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez a few years ago. Fun and startling, if biased.

My to-do list reminds me to rent From Mao to Mozart - Isaac Stern in China, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.

Also, I really enjoyed Microcosmos, but it's more macro nature footage and less of a learning documentary experience.
posted by nickgray at 12:53 AM on January 2, 2005

I expected The Medici to be pretty dry and boring. I was absolutely riveted for all four hours (4x1) which chronicles the entire family and their influence on renaissance art (not a subject I would immediately be drawn to).

I'm a documentary fanatic and this was certainly one the most surprising and fascinating in recent years.
posted by Cancergiggles at 1:46 AM on January 2, 2005

I just watched Devil's Playground
"Devil's Playground explores the Amish ritual of Rumspringa, a coming-of-age "time for decision" presented to Amish youth when they must decide which path they will follow as adults... 16th century religious scripture or 21st century pleasure."

My only experience with Amish culture is from watching Witness so this was very interesting.
posted by Tenuki at 2:04 AM on January 2, 2005

*cough* MV *cough* Group

Also digital *cough* distractions *cough* is worth a look.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:11 AM on January 2, 2005

Some good ideas here.
posted by fixedgear at 5:24 AM on January 2, 2005

Some of my favourites from last years Sheffield documentary festival to look out for on TV over the coming year (although sadly they might take quite a bit of hunting down): Justice, The White Diamond, In the Dark, and Darwins Nightmare. They also ran a Nicolas Pillibert retrospective (director of the recent cinema hit Etre et Avoir) and I highly recommend anything by him (Every Little Thing in particular).
posted by gravelshoes at 7:49 AM on January 2, 2005

From a Canadian perspective, what about the National Film Board?
posted by v-tach at 8:35 AM on January 2, 2005

Response by poster: You probably already know, but IMDB has a pretty reliable rating system by genre.

OMG. The very inkling of that thought had not even come close to crossing my mind. D-oh!

What a great list. I'm bookmarking this thread!
posted by five fresh fish at 10:01 AM on January 2, 2005

I haven't seen these, but they're on my list:

Seven Up [1964] and on up...
--"Director Michael Apted revisiting the subjects every seven years to create one of the most unusual real-life narratives in history."

Theremin: an Electronic Odyssey. This is about the guy that invented the theremin, beloved instrument of sci-fi movie soundtracks.
posted by Bron at 1:11 PM on January 2, 2005

I didn't see Spellbound listed (sorry if I missed it), but this is just amazingly fun to watch. Plus you can feel stupid when 11 year olds spell better than you. Woot.
posted by DeepFriedTwinkies at 2:24 PM on January 2, 2005

NOVA both produces its own shows and buys shows from independent producers. This is why their quality varies so widely. Some of them are great; others not so much. From what you say about this show, it sounds like it was bought from people who made it for the "Learning Channel" or one of those other middlebrow cable thingies.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:56 PM on January 2, 2005

One of the best documentaries I've ever seen was the A&E documentary on the Titanic.
It's very long and languid but utterly gripping, with lots of first hand survivor accounts. Also, you get a wonderful sense of the Gilded Age and how it ended so very abruptly.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:27 PM on January 2, 2005

This is what you would call an indirect recommendation. I really liked Simon Singh's book on Fermat's Last Theorem, "Fermat's Enigma". Not too dumbed down but I could still understand what he did as a non-math major. It was based on a documentary that he did that was shown here on Nova, but he's from the UK so it was probably originally for the BBC. Might be worth checking out.
posted by smackfu at 3:32 PM on January 2, 2005

Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time is a phenomenal bit of documentary filmaking. If you're looking for a respite from MTV-style editing you will certainly find that in this gorgeaous and intimate film.

The Up series series by Michael Apted is also wonderful. In the early 1960s, Apted interviewed 14 children that came from different strata of British society and made the movie Seven Up. He then went back to these people every seven years and made anopther film. In 1999 he released the most recent installment, 42 Up.
posted by donovan at 3:47 PM on January 2, 2005

Terry Zwigoff's Crumb (about cartoonist R. Crumb) is pretty great.
posted by sad_otter at 5:24 PM on January 2, 2005

No shortage of not-very-relevant suggestions. Here's one more; I think you should see Control Room, a documentary about Al-Jazeera.
posted by stiggywigget at 6:12 PM on January 2, 2005

Don't know why I didn't remember this before but Desmond Morris has done a few documentary series. I remember really enjoying The Human Animal.
posted by Chuckles at 7:34 PM on January 2, 2005


The Secret Life of Machines is a really good one. Well worth seeing if you ever wondered how simple machines work and what priciples.

Like a less ambitious Connections.
posted by Napierzaza at 9:09 PM on January 2, 2005

Not only did I watch all of The Elegant Universe, just hoping that it would provide some nice analogies and descriptions about string theory, but I then had to sit through it again when the astronomy professor I was teaching for decided to show it in class. Ugh. It has its appealing moments, like the interviews (Susskind's response to the rejection of his article proposing string theory: go get drunk. That cracks me up...), but I felt like it could easily have been cut from three hours to one and nothing would have been lost.

I usually like the PBS Frontline series. The episodes on Wal-Mart's growing influence and the role of advertisers in American culture (The Persuaders) were good, and if you can stomach the quality you can stream quite a few of them from the Frontline site. I am also hoping for good things from the CBC series The Passionate Eye. Thanks to *cough* digitaldistractions *cough* I have some of those on standby waiting to be watched.

Theatrical documentaries I liked were Moog (Theremin was mentioned above, and I liked this one a lot) and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (also mentioned previously).
posted by natedogg at 9:38 PM on January 2, 2005

The Five Obstructions....

very very good film
posted by Espoo2 at 12:51 AM on January 21, 2005

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