Monday, January 09, 2006

3 TV documentaries I found absolutely fascinating

I probably should be doing something productive, but since school doesn't start until next week, I've been watching a lot of TV. Here are three documentaries I saw, with brief reviews:

Absolute Evel: The Evel Knievel Story on the History Channel
I'm not a big fan of extreme sports, or motorcycle stunts, but this was on just after the Houdini documentary I'll review below, and since Johnny Blaze (the original Ghost Rider) was a stunt biker somewhat inspired by Evel Knievel, I figured I'd give it a try.

I was rather impressed. Not by Evel himself, but by the filmmakers. This documentary is told mostly from Evel's point of view, as he narrated 85% of it or so. The filmmakers let him speak for himself, augmenting his narration with archival footage, occasional comments from others and other standard things you'd expect to find in a documentary of this type. About the only time the documentary looses steam is when another narrator occasionally intrudes and it falls into "VH1 Behind the Music" clichés.

Evel comes across as a rather fascinating character. A sexist philanderer and apparently incapable of any self-reflection, he still comes across as rather charismatic and intelligent. He justifies or glosses over his faults (including the time he beat the author of an expose book up with a baseball bat), blames most of his accidents on someone else - yet you can't help but like the guy. In his heyday (before I was born and when I was very young) he was a huge phenomenon, and you can see why - despite his arrogance and harshness, he's quite likeable. He's quick with a witty remark, able to express his ideas clearly (even when he seems unsure of what he is trying to say, he sounds like he knows exactly what he means) and able to make good comparisons. He's plain spoken, but he also comes across as a man driven by impulse most of his life.

On camera, in his old age, he looks awful, almost like you would expect someone who has broken over 50 bones in motorcycle crashes to look. His son, who appears briefly at the end, comes across as more well-rounded and self-reflexive, but Evel was clearly the trend setter.

Madness of Henry VIII on the National Geographic Channel

Solid history, this helped me put figure out the continuity of Henry the VIII's bizarre reign (such as how each wife died and in what order he married them, as well as which wives had to deal with Woolsey and which ones had to deal with Cromwell).

The thesis is basically: Henry the VIIIth was one crazy king. Driven to insanity by lust and greed, he died an obese monster.

This documentary had some interesting tidbits and solid scholarship, but it also came across as a documentary for the MTV generation. It had the feel of a music video. Also, there were several recurring visual leitmotifs of flowers wilting, bread turning moldy and clouds passing over a castle. The music was quick, frantic and obviously influenced by rock - and if that wasn't enough, the music played underneath the comments by scholars, adding an odd dichotomy when their comments were more dry and academic (though some comments were more flavorful, and one of the historians shouted 80% of her comments, as though in a heated argument).

If you can get past the frantic music and MTV style editing, there's some good, solid history here.

Houdini: Unlocking the Mystery on the History Channel.

Apparently, Teller (of Penn & Teller) can talk, but only if his entire face is cast in a shadow (so you can't tell if it's really him, I guess) and he's talking about Houdini.

Anyway, this is structured around a private collector who auctions off "the largest collection of personally-owned Harry Houdini artifacts and memorabilia." There's not a whole lot new in here about Houdini, though I find it odd that after a long section on Houdini's war on mediums, psychics and spiritualists, it ends with a large group of magicians attempting a séance to contact Houdini. However, apparently Houdini left behind what he would say if he ever came back, and only one (or was it two?) people know what it is, so there's no chance anyone could fake a return of Houdini's spirit (it was also done it a fully lit room with none of the traditional trappings of spiritualists - it was just a large group of people chanting "come back Houdini!"). Of course, Houdini didn't come back.

A nice overview of his life, and a cool glimpse at some of the rarer items associated with his life.

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