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Screens Armchair cinephile

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Stranger than fiction

Next week brings the release of the latest “you gotta see it” feel-good documentary, the hugely successful March of the Penguins (National Geographic/Warner). Nobody reading this is likely to need much information about the film itself, but your local video store would surely like you to have a heads-up on the release’s convenient holiday-season timing.

And what better time to point our noses toward docs whose exotic subjects haven’t yet connected with the public? Surely the most extreme of these is BBS: The Documentary, a self-released labor of love (available through bbsdocumentary.com) about what people did with computers and phone lines back in the pre-internet Stone Age. Made with the obsessiveness frequently found in computer folk, the film fills three (!) DVDs with first-hand tales from the hackers and hobbyists who pioneered this territory.

Two other new titles fill multiple discs (released individually) with a less single-minded approach, using the TV-anthology format to explore contemporary culture. The Architectures series (on Facets Video, now up to four installments) uses short films by different filmmakers to discuss individual building projects. Often incorporating interviews with architects, scale models, and rare archival ephemera, it also has one enormous benefit over books: A motion picture can walk us through a building, affording perspectives still photos can’t capture.

In PBS’s Art: 21 series, which just completed its third season, filmmakers aren’t content to stay with the big stars of contemporary art. They dive into galleries and studios in an attempt to find tomorrow’s greats, giving them a rare opportunity to speak to wide audiences about their work.

Contemporary artists may not get much glory these days, but even less is given to movie editors, whose work is devoured but unacknowledged by millions every weekend. The Cutting Edge (Warner) does its part to remedy that, in a feature-length testament — with interviews, tributes from big-name directors, and example clips — to those who decide what falls on the cutting-room floor.

Political-minded moviegoers following the saga of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (released in stores while it tours the country theatrically) might be interested in McLibel (Cinema Libre), about another corporate David-and-Goliath story. In this one, the longest trial in English history revolves around a couple of regular Joes who refused to apologize for criticizing McDonald’s.

Penguins aside, two of the best recent docs are on new discs from ThinkFilm. Both turn out to be remarkable, often joyous films despite their depressing subject matter: In Murderball, we meet quadriplegic jocks who, in a brutal sport called wheelchair rugby, prove that the handicapped can be just as macho and obnoxious as anybody else; in Born Into Brothels, a group of children from one of the worst places you can imagine, a whorehouse in Calcutta, are given a reason to hope for something better via an American who introduces them to the joys of photography.

A doc that sounds like a downer and actually is, on the other hand, is Paradise Lost (Docurama), in which three teenagers stand trial for killing three 8-year-olds in an alleged Satanic ritual. The music here is provided by Metallica, who wound up being subjects themselves in filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s later film, Some Kind of Monster.

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The DVD industry may never catch up to prolific pioneer Werner Herzog, but New Yorker Video is trying, by bundling three of his mini-features onto a single DVD. Of the three — The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner, How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck, and La Soufriére — the middle film is one of the most cheerful in the Herzog filmography. It’s about the nimble-tongued guys who emcee livestock auctions, and you really have to see these folks do their thing to believe it.

In other Herzogian news, Grizzly Man arrives from Lions Gate the day after Christmas, while two more obscure titles — The White Diamond, about an airship traversing Guyana, and Wheel of Time, about Buddhist rituals — were released recently by Wellspring. Oh — and speaking of grizzlies, the little-seen Project Grizzly (Reaction) introduces us to a scrap-metal dealer with a strange obsession: He builds cumbersome suits of armor intended to be bear-proof, then sets out on expeditions to test them in the wild.

Finally, First Run Features offers a five-disc set devoted to one of the most personally distinctive voices in the documentary world. The Ross McElwee DVD Collection bundles four features and two shorter films, the best-known of which is the landmark Sherman’s March. Buffs who’ve seen that one, in which Ross wanders the South using the Civil War as an excuse to ponder his own love life, will know whether they’re interested in this set, which is never shy about putting his funny self-obsession front and center. McElwee’s psyche may not be quite as earth-shattering a subject as the history of computer bulletin boards, but it has been fertile ground for the sprawling quasi-genre of nonfiction film.

By John DeFore


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