Recently I found myself waylaid by a second bout of the dreaded novel coronavirus COVID-19. So sad. Another promising young man, struck down in his prime… Well, to tell the truth, the combination of vaccine boosters and anti-bodies built up from a previous infection meant that this bout was exceedingly mild, but for the purpose of this article we’re going to imagine me, pale and tragic, like a dying, orphan waif in some dreadful gothic novel; too pure for this world…
The point is that when I’m poorly I turn to comfort movies. Movies that make one warm and cozy. Relaxation movies. Healing movies. When I was a little boy, I would turn to the likes of “The Blues Brothers”, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or “The Princess Bride”, fine movies all, but as I get older, I find my tastes growing more esoteric. (I really hate that last sentence, but I can’t think of a better one, I swear I’m not trying to sound cool.) By the time I reached my late 20s I had curated for myself this assortment of non-fictional medicine. A veritable Chicken-Soup-For-The-Soul of documentary filmmaking (only with fewer stories about dying children. Seriously, what the hell is up with those books? Who is reading these to feel good? What’s spiritually uplifting about dying of some horrible disease just so your nephew can learn about angels or something?).
By way of final disclaimer, I want to promise you that I’m not making this up. These are really the movies I watch when I’m sick. Seriously, ask my wife! I also don’t want to give the impression that I don’t think it’s weird that these are the movies I watch when I’m sick, nor that I don’t also watch stuff like Columbo or Creepshow or whatever, but a list of Adam Sandler movies is probably less interesting and you don’t need to be told that “Happy Gilmore” totally holds up, we all know that it does. However, when ill health strikes, without fail, before I get to the oeuvre of the Sand-man and co., I invariably watch these first.
So, I present to you 5 documentaries to watch when you’re sick. They may not give you the same peace or contentment they give me, but they’re all worth a watch regardless of your state of health.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Directed by Werner Herzog & Dmitry Vasyukov
Dmitry Vasyukov made a 4-hour Russian television documentary about the village Bahktia in Siberia and the hunters and fur-trappers who live there. (You can watch the whole thing with English subtitles on youtube). The great Werner Herzog (many of whose documentaries would be honorable mentions for this list) took that 4-hour tv series, edited it down to 90 minutes and wrote and performed english voice-over narration for it. It’s Werner Herzog describing the activities of hunters in the harsh wilds of the Siberian Taiga. If that doesn’t sound like a good time to you then there’s a high probability we aren’t going to get along.
The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young
Directed by Annika Iltis & Timothy James Kane
The Barkley Marathon is an ultra-marathon footrace in Tennessee. A race so brutally difficult that in its first 25 years only 10 people even completed it. The documentary follows the 2012 incarnation of the event and the various characters who participated. You learn the history of the race and get a wonderful portrait of the eccentric man behind it. It’s great to watch when ill because as you lie there you can think, “Well, I’m laying here coughing a covid-saturated lung out, and my entire body is one gigantic ache… but at least I’m not running the Barkley marathon!” Be sure to stick around to the very end as there is a final scene wherein the origin of the “Barkley” sobriquet is revealed and it’s basically what I would point to if someone asked me to define “Grace”.
The Birth of Saké
Directed by Erik Shirai
A documentary about the Tedorigawa sake brewery in northern Japan. This brewery is operated day and night by a staff of men who live at the brewery from August to late April every year. We see every stage of the brewing process and get a look at what it’s like to live the way these men live, the challenges and triumphs of their lifestyle. We really feel like we get to know these men. There is a pair of scenes showing the younger workers hanging out at a convenience store juxtaposed with two of the older men in a communal bath that brings tears to my eyes. For my money, this sequence is one of the greatest instances of humanity ever captured on film. You could also easily mute the audio and just stare at the screen as it’s gorgeously photographed.
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Ok, please hear me out. 24 Frames is a collection of 24 four-and-a-half minute sections entirely made up of a single shot. Each of these shots is almost entirely stationary (with one or two exceptions). All of the segments are based on the still photography of director Abbas Kiarostami. A view out a window, a couple wild horses filmed out an open car window in a snowstorm, a flock of sheep huddled around a single tree for warmth as the snow relentlessly falls. That’s it. I promise, it’s so much more compelling than I’m making it sound. It’s one of the most beautiful, meditative experiences I’ve ever had with a piece of art. I think this quote from Kiarostami sets you up for what you’re in for:
“I absolutely don’t like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them. I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kind of films I like.”
The Story of Film: An Odyssey
Directed by Mark Cousins
I’m cheating here, but it’s my Take 5. If you don’t like it, then start your own comics society newsletter. This is a miniseries, and it runs 15 hours, but it’s the most comprehensive guided tour of the history and the art of film I’ve ever seen. Unlike a lot of other film history documentaries (and I’ve watched A LOT of them) this one does not limit itself to the oft-repeated history of Hollywood and the American film industry. This is a truly global tour of the history of the cinema. You’ll wear out your pause button (or, like, I don’t know, phone-screen or… playstation? or whatever? Look, what you watch it on is up to you. I mean, I think you should try to watch it on as big a TV as you can, but I’m not your dad. You watch it however you like, you know? Live your life, just if you watch it on your phone, you are not allowed to email and tell me). Yeah, so you’ll wear out your pause-button, stopping every 15 seconds or so to write down the name of another movie you need to track down.
There you have it. That’s the kind of thing I get up to when I’m bed ridden. What sort of things do you like to watch when you’re sick? Answers on a post-card stuffed into the bottom of an empty wine bottle and cast into the nearest body of water.
Until next time.