Friday, January 03, 2014


A Chapman Family Newsletter is forthcoming, but in the meantime, let's talk about documentaries.

We got Netflix. And I have an addiction.

In my defense, it's an addiction to learning, so I could be a lot worse off. I also still watch stuff on and youtube, but most of the docs on this list are on Netflix (hence the lack of links). (I've also been on a body image/gender issues kick, you'll notice.)

I'm also at around 90 documentaries on the ongoing list of recommendations, so I'm in the process of organizing them by topic. In the meantime, that beast of an unorganized list is available by clicking on the "documentaries" tab at the top.

Elizabeth I: Killer Queen
Because we share the same name, I always liked to think that Queen Elizabeth was a kind, wise and noble ruler. The jury's still out on whether or not she actually killed anyone, but either way, she was mean. She once stabbed the back of one of her ladies in waiting's hands. She did write lovely poetry, though, so there's that.

The Last Days of Anne Boleyn
A bit more Tudor history. Anne Boleyn is such a set of contradictions to me that she's becoming more and more fascinating. I don't know whether to applaud her or dislike her. Either way, she was influential. One of my favorite things about this documentary is that it shows LOTS of different perspectives. They interview lots of authors and historians, and none of them really agree on certain aspects of Anne Boleyn's history.

The Great Inca Rebellion
Not quite as fascinating, but a nice glimpse into Inca history. Some interesting stuff about how myth and history get tangled up together, and how sometimes one informs the other and vice versa. History is written by the conquerors, but even they don't have perfect memories. Graves tell their own story.

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's
Step into the glamorous world of fashion! This doc tells the tale of New York's snazziest department store, the rich and famous clientele who frequent it, and the place it holds in the hearts and minds of designers everywhere. And how about those windows?

Born Into Brothels
I actually watched this one years and years ago, but it's one I think about often, and it deserves to be on this list. A photographer visited Calcutta to photograph the women in the red light district and in addition, began to teach photography lessons to the children of the women she was photographing. This film examines the reality of growing up in the red light district, with a hopeful emphasis on the power of art to change lives.

My Penis and I
The reality is that women don't have penis envy. Men have penis envy. But why? What's the social focus on penis size? Does it really matter? Does it affect confidence? One "non-well-endowed" British man seeks to find the answers.
(WARNING: Full male and female nudity. There's also a point at which the narrator visits the set of a pornographic film for his research.)

Another documentary about male body image. This one is lighthearted but fascinating. It's also interspersed with candid scenes of Will Arnett and Jason Bateman discussing what it means to be a man while they receive spa treatments, so that's amazing. Everything from facial hair to identity is covered.

Busting Out
One about women! This one examines America's obsession with breasts, both cosmetically and clinically. It's an interesting documentary because it covers breasts (ha) in the context of body image and in the context of disease--how women with breast cancer deal with the experience of losing a breast.

America the Beautiful
About halfway through this documentary, I realized that I'd seen it before, but was happy to rediscover it. I think about it often, but had no idea what it was called. It follows one man's journey to understand America's body image issues (and we have a lot). He discusses Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign, the modeling world, an obsession with plastic surgery, and how to help the rising generation deal with the confusing messages surrounding appearance.

How the Universe Works (series)
So much awesome science!!! The first episode covers the Big Bang, and then the series discusses everything from black holes to supernovas. To space enthusiasts, there's a nice balance of common knowledge and new info. I was most fascinated by the episode on alien solar systems. There are so many billions of stars out there, and many of them have planets orbiting them, just like we do our sun. But sometimes they're so crazy! And it illustrates how AMAZING our own solar system is. Did you know that if Jupiter didn't exist in its current state, the earth would probably have been destroyed a long time ago? The gravity of the huge planet pulls in anything hurtling towards earth. Thanks, Jupiter!

Tales From the Script
A great and inspiring documentary that writers and film enthusiasts will especially enjoy. Screenwriters discuss their experiences in Hollywood...the huge challenges to writing films, and the times when things go amazingly well. It's a nice sort of disillusionment in a way. You watch this documentary and realize that Hollywood can be this soulless pit and that you probably won't ever actually make money writing for the screen. But you also realize that if you've really got talent, and have a strong center, and have important stories to tell and know how to tell them, you can pour some soul back into Hollywood.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
THIS DOCUMENTARY BLEW MY MIND!!!! There's a cave in France called "Chauvet Cave" and it houses the oldest known cave paintings on the earth--as in 30,000 years old. They can date them by dating the layers of [insert geological material that I can't remember the name of here] that's grown over the initial layers of paint. There was a rock slide that sealed the caves off for thousands and thousands of years, so when the cave was discovered in the 90's, lots of people thought it was a hoax because the paintings looked so fresh. And they are BEAUTIFUL paintings...full of motion and life. I actually cried.

Out Late
This documentary tells the story of 5 people--two women, two men, and one MTF transsexual--who all came out to their friends and family after the age of 50. Each of their stories are totally different, and some of them lived "straight" lives for many years before choosing to embrace their identity as lesbian or gay. It's heartwarming and honest, and if you're seeking to understand more about the LGBT experience, this is a pretty beautiful set of stories.

Jacob discovered this one and watched almost the entire thing, and then right at the climax of the film, he stopped it and insisted that we watch the whole thing together. It's incredibly difficult to explain this film clearly, but it follows one man's attempt to understand religion. He creates a fake identity as a guru and begins a religion as an experiment--to see if he can gain followers and how far their devotion will go. But he begins to have transformative experiences of his own along the way, and the end result is pretty uplifting.

This one has been recommended to me a few times, and it's currently a pretty popular film on Netflix, which is pretty important. It's almost an expose. It tells the story of humans' complicated relationship with killer whales, focusing on how we use them in the entertainment industry. And you'll probably never want to visit SeaWorld again. Did you know that whales have structures in the emotional centers of their brains that humans don't have? So killer whales live incredibly rich emotional lives that we can't even conceive of--we don't even have the equipment in our brains to understand it. And their family units are so tight that orcas from different families speak different dialects--they can't even communicate with each other. This documentary was very difficult to watch, but I felt a moral imperative to watch it, and I'm glad I did.

This was especially interesting after watching the film "District 9," actually. This focuses on how cities are designed, how slums are created and good ways to address them, and ways that changes in cities can change societies as a whole. There was a weird bit at the end that focused disproportionately on Germany and one controversial remodeling project, but as a whole, it was a cool look at city design.

Page One: Inside the New York Times
Will the New York Times survive into the digital age?! Newspapers have it tough in the age of instant information, and many a newspaper has ended up on the chopping block. This documentary gives an inside look at the workings of the Times, and what journalism means today. They interview several reporters, talk about the legal traps and the social responsibility of journalism, and how newspapers have succeeded and failed.

Nova: Mystery of a Masterpiece
In 2007, an art collector paid $20,000 for a particularly striking Renaissance portrait. But somewhere along the way, someone said, "This looks a heck of a lot like the work of Leonardo da Vinci." (Which would make the portrait worth close to $100 million.) So, blending forensic science and art history, they set out to figure out who painted the portrait.

Series: Prophets of Science Fiction
I'm in the middle of this right now, and I'm enjoying it SO MUCH! This series starts with Mary Shelley as the true founder of science fiction and covers Phillip K. Dick, H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein, and George Lucas. It covers the authors' lives, how they influenced the world of science fiction, and how their predictions have since come true. Any avid reader or film enthusiast or history buff will enjoy this series. (Oh! And it's hosted by Ridley Scott! And Michio Kaku makes appearances in every episode!) 

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