Yet recently a reader called me to complain. She went to the Franklin Mall 6 with some friends to see Spellbound, the new film about eight children competing in the National Spelling Bee. When she reached the box office, she was taken aback to learn that Spellbound is a documentary.
She didn't want to see a documentary. I could understand her sentiment: If you grew up in the American educational system, or even if you own a television, documentaries are synonymous with sleepy National Geographic specials, pre-Ken Burns PBS, or stuffy classroom days spent listening to wobbly projector sound, spacing out as dust particles play in a shaft of light showing How a Bill Becomes a Law and The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays.
I argued with her that great documentaries - sorry, “nonfiction movies,” as publicists would like you to call them - tell stories as absorbing as anything in theaters, often more so because real life tends to skip the usual formulas. She would have none of it; indeed, the theater posted a sign - actually, a warning - that Spellbound is a documentary. An employee told me some customers assumed it was a Harry Potter-ish fantasy about witches.
So let me try a different tactic: A gaggle of terrific new docum . nonfiction films is being released on DVD. Try any one. Ask yourself if it is less compelling than the last movie you saw in a theater. Start with The Kid Stays in the Picture (Warner Home Video, $27.95), the wild story of the rise and fall of movie producer Robert Evans, told as the sunny, sleazy documentary equivalent of a can't-look-away celebrity tell-all - by a celebrity who actually knows how to tell a story. Evans narrates his own biography in the croak a of man who sits in the sun too much and remembers his childhood in Brooklyn too well. This DVD is nuts, baby: Extras include a slew of full-length interviews with Evans, a gag reel Dustin Hoffman shot for Evans while he was making Marathon Man, and best of all, a rare 1970 film of Evans pitching the board of directors of Gulf + Western, filmed by The Graduate director Mike Nichols.
Another fantastic spinner of tales - tall tales, depending on your politics - is Michael Moore. If you're still wondering what all the hullabaloo is about this pudgy Flint, Mich., native, pick up his Oscar-winning docu-essay on American gun culture, Bowling For Columbine (MGM, $26.98, available Tuesday). As insightful as he can be exasperating, Moore has put together a typically provocative DVD: Extras include Moore's infamous Oscar night acceptance speech, a conversation with former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart, a trip back to Littleton, Colo., and a commentary track from the interns who helped shoot and edit Columbine.
Less showy is Moore's Roger & Me (Warner, $19.98, available Tuesday), his 1989 tour of a Flint that's been ravaged by the business decisions of General Motors. The new DVD edition includes a Moore commentary full of hindsight-is-20/20-like stories. The brilliant Brother's Keeper (Docurama, $24.95) from 1992 digs even deeper into the disposed to tell a story of when a murder might not be a murder. A poor old farmer in rural upstate New York is arrested for smothering his ailing brother - was it a mercy killing or a more sinister act?
Walking the line between exploitative and compassionate is Wisconsin filmmaker Chris Smith. He would be the wrong choice for a movie like Brother's Keeper. His first documentary, American Movie, a cult favorite, is the story of a Milwaukee goofball trying to make a low-budget horror flick. His latest is similarly deadpan: Home Movie (Home Vision, $29.95), a lovely look at people living in bizarre homes, like a tree in Hawaii and an underground missile silo in the Midwest. What separates Smith's work from the winking light features on your 6 o'clock newscast is an insistence on seeing past the goofiness - locating the sadness and emptiness that drives a person to design a home for cats.
eSpeaking of local goofballs and their screwball horror flicks: Toledo's own Doug “Dr. Shock” Agosti and Lance Smith have made a bona fide special edition DVD of their entire northwest Ohio cheese-and-splatter works - and it is genuinely fun, professionally made, must-see viewing for Toledo natives. Produced and distributed with Arizona-based Brain Damage Films, Dr. Shock's Tales of Terror ($30) includes four of Agosti and Smith's no-budget creep shows - The Town That Loved Pizza is a personal favorite - along with outtakes of head-rippings gone wrong, tons of behind-the-scenes footage, and coolest of all, a commentary track that's a telling look into the slapdash world of $1.98 filmmaking.
“I wasn't there that day,” Smith says during The Garden Tool Murders. “I had to work.” They point out a crystal ball that's really a balloon, discuss their philosophy (“We don't wait for someone to hand us a check”), point out Toledo locations, discuss their brushes with Toledo police - if you have no money and dream of making a movie, Agosti and Smith are the oddly inspiring, seat-of-your-pants, vampires-and-pimps-fueled Toledo answer to Seabiscuit.
At the moment, the Dr. Shock's Tales of Terror DVD is available at www.brain- damagefilms.com and most Video News stores.
NEW ON VIDEO: The Lizzie McGuire Movie (Disney Channel queen Hilary Duff barely stretches her TV series into an innocuous Italian travelog; the DVD's behind-the-scenes footage suggests a more melancholy and interesting teen personality beneath the fluff); House of a 1000 Corpses (Rob Zombie directs a sicko tribute to grind house cinema of the 1970s, and between all the torture, it's actually kind of affectionate); Cradle 2 the Grave (Forgettable Chopsocky action junk with Jet Li and DMX), Head of State (What should have been Chris Rock's long-delayed movie breakthrough is just a mediocre satire about a regular guy who runs for president - here is a terrific comedian in dire need of a terrific director).