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The Naughts: The Documentary of the ’00s

The Naughts: The Documentary of the ’00s (photo)

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Sometimes superlatives need to be slung, such as when speaking of the richest, most ambitious and exciting decade yet for nonfiction film — and, really, what other variety could back up that boast? To nail down a single doc as the preeminent work that typifies these years is no easy task, especially since the best of the bunch attacked specific subjects with laser-like precision and idiosyncratic techniques. (Sit tight, the lede is about to be buried.)

The ’00s legitimized the allure of the “pop doc,” a trend that shoehorns potentially lackluster material into glossy narratives. Spelling bees were transformed into suspense thrillers (“Spellbound”), quadriplegic rugby players did their own stunts (“Murderball”), tangoing kids got their dance-off (“Mad Hot Ballroom”), a reckless but beautiful feat of derring-do was reenacted like a heist procedural (“Man on Wire”), and a PBS-style nature film became a blockbuster saga of familial survival (“March of the Penguins”). Who’d have thought, way back in the ’90s, that documentaries could one day hold their own at the multiplex?

In fact, one even surpassed the $100 million box office mark and became the first doc in a half-century to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes: Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” an unprecedented take-down of a U.S. presidency still in power. Being comfortably waist-deep in the Information Age, empowered activists, muckrakers and other truth hunters were let loose to meticulously research and address the quandaries of globalization (“The Corporation,” “Mondovino”), consumerism (“Super Size Me,” “Czech Dream”), environmental disaster (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “Darwin’s Nightmare”), the media (“Manufacturing Consent,” “Outfoxed”) and whatever else ails us. Sure, we now had Google, Wikipedia and other accessible means to quickly click and uncover how people were getting screwed, but through cinema — and often with that aforementioned pop-doc sheen — wider audiences were being reached.

12082009_Tarnation2.jpgNo topic was off limits any more, which brings us swerving back to the argument at hand: what doc could possibly define this prolific era? My personal favorite, Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man,” certainly took a bold new direction by discovering lyricism in troubled nature lover Timothy Treadwell’s found footage and simultaneously disagreeing with the environmentalist while mythologizing him. That eccentric profile shares one of the most fascinating and potent qualities that ran rampant this decade, which could be illustrated with a joke: How many documentarians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Four; one to hold the bulb, one to hold the camera, one to film that cameraman, and one to film himself discussing the other three.

Self-documentation was one of the defining behaviors of ’00s cinema — as was the do-it-yourself kick of indie culture — which is why Jonathan Caouette’s ingenious 2004 doc “Tarnation” should stand as the poster child for the ’00s. Infamously made for only $218, Caouette’s near-unclassifiable portrait of his schizophrenic mother Renee LeBlanc and his own tumultuous childhood sculpts powerful material with a strangely autonomous methodology. A haunting kaleidoscope of old Super-8 home movies, family photos, reenactments, teary-eyed confessionals, answering machine messages, campy underground films and all the effects that year’s version of the iMovie software had to offer, “Tarnation” alternates between poetic memoir, psychodrama and an imagined horror flick as co-directed by David Lynch, Stan Brakhage and Jack Smith. It’s an appropriately avant-garde approach to a surreal, real-life nightmare.

LeBlanc was a child model in the ’60s, but after a rooftop injury and the depression she subsequently experienced, her parents signed off on her shock therapy treatment, which the film suggests is actually what instigated her mental illness. Caouette was shuttled between abusive foster parents and his overwhelmed grandparents, came of age as a gay man in a conservative environment, developed a dissociative disorder after trying pot for the first time (unknowingly smoking two joints laced with PCP and dipped in formaldehyde), watched his mother get raped, and somehow bounced back as a young thirtysomething after his childhood spent in hell. Simply making the film and piecing together these events that shaped the director’s character must’ve been cathartic, and that feeling is heartbreakingly palpable.

12082009_Tarnation3.jpgOther successful docs this decade turned their cameras on their families and themselves (“Capturing the Friedmans,” “51 Birch Street”), but the more shameful, look-at-me narcissism of the YouTube generation could stand to learn more from Caouette’s pragmatism than his naked vulnerability. After all, does anyone really need every navel-gazing exhibitionist with issues blabbering into a webcam and trying to call it cinema? “Tarnation” embraces and outright stylizes its compromised aesthetic, so that degraded VHS recordings are mutated into the lush psychedelic images of an addled mind through fragmentation and filters, but stops shy of exploiting LeBlanc’s madness by granting her the empathy she deserves for allowing herself to be filmed. Caouette not only seems as hyper-conscious of the film’s budgetary concessions as viewers are, but then utilizes that unspoken awareness to remind us how personal and handmade the project is. A throughline could be drawn to both Harmony Korine’s art-prank “Trash Humpers” and the hugely profitable, P.T. Barnum-like fraud “Paranormal Activity.”

In short, the “Tarnation” experience is and should continue to be sampled as a gateway drug to more progressive DIY cinema in the next decade, whether they’re tales of LGBT empowerment or autobiographical reinventions and other crafty genre hybrids. This is a film that ably demonstrates how personal demons can be exorcised in the form of art, entertainment, self-analysis and kept record all at once, and for relatively no money — which is perfect considering none of us have any right now anyway.

This feature is part of the Naughts Project.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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