Senna, Bobby Fischer Against the World & other bland documentaries

Thursday June 23rd 2011

Asif Kapadia’s Senna and Liz Garbus’ Bobby Fischer Against the World are both incredibly 6/10 films. They’re interesting, well researched, definitive studies of important competitive figures, put together by talented filmmakers who will almost certainly go on to bigger and better things. Both succeed in establishing universal themes despite seemingly niche subject matters, and if Senna is a little more fun than Fischer it’s only because racing is so much more visual than chess.

But MY FUCK are they both bland as hell.

I know it’s not really fair to demand that movies be ‘cinematic’ (as I’ve done before) and that trying to define that word is in itself near-impossible, but when you’re handed a story that fiction filmmakers would quite literally kill for, why not make the most of it? Come on Asif Kapadia! You’ve got a story about one of the world’s most famous adrenaline-junkies dying at the height of his powers in a horrific car crash. It’s like the Ryan Dunn biopic we’re not even allowed to joke about for another 4-6 weeks.

Even Bobby Fischer Against the World, which can’t boast quite the same level of visceral excitement as Senna, has its fair share of wantonly filmic narrative twists and turns. Plus it’s the one time you might be able to use the ‘chess is a metaphor for life’ thing without coming across as a total spanner. For a truly experimental filmmaker, the possibilities are endless.

But instead these are documentaries in their purest form: stuff dat happened in the order wot it happened. Some might say that’s a good thing — letting the story speak for itself and all that — but I can’t help but wonder why anyone would bother shelling out cinema money on films like these when there are acres of bland-but-fascinating docs waiting to be watched on More4 every night of the week (I can personally recommend Crack House – 6/10).

I’m not really trying to dissuade you from seeing these films. They’re fine. I’m just trying — in my own slightly pathetic sub-Kenneth Tynan way — to yearn for something new, something fresh, something distinctive, in mainstream documentary. And failing that, can we at least have a moratorium on soundtracking montages with the Theme from Shaft?