The Project of Being Human

by Michael Potemra

I have only recently become conscious of the fact that I have a general antipathy toward documentaries. Yes, I think Marcel Ophuls’s Sorrow and the Pity (1969, about Vichy French collaboration in World War II) and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) were masterpieces; Errol Morris’s nonfiction work The Thin Blue Line (1988) is a noir classic, right up there with the best fictional films in that genre; and Nostalgia for the Light (2010) was an excellent, utterly sui generis meditation on Chilean politics . . . and astronomy. But I find that most documentaries split up into two categories. First, there are tendentious works of political parti pris: Sorry, no matter how talented a director is, I don’t think that his particular set of interviews, clever graphics, and quick cuts will be the factor that finally convinces me that I need to hate George W. Bush, or Barack Obama, or Donald Rumsfeld, or whomever.  And second, there are tediously padded examinations of marginal subjects that end up coming across as little more than infomercials for the director’s pet interest.

I am equally delighted and surprised, therefore, to report that in this one weekend, I have seen two magnificent new documentary films, each of which I recommend strongly to general-interest viewers. Finding Vivian Maier tells the story of a Chicago nanny and pack rat who died in 2009: When all the piles of junk were examined after her death, it was discovered that she had left behind hundreds of thousands of undeveloped photos and films, which amount to a breathtaking archive of 20th-century American life. Hers would be a monumental achievement if its scope alone were considered; making it all the more impressive is that she had an immense natural gift for photography, and the works on display in this film make the case that she was one of the most perceptive and insightful people who ever worked in that genre. She was especially good at capturing slum life, but she also took impressive pictures in the suburbs where she did her nanny work. Humanity in all its diversity — “life’s rich pageant” — is in this film.

I can’t say I had a particular interest in photography as an art form; this movie made me want to explore it further. The second splendid documentary I saw this weekend was on a subject in which I did have a preexisting interest: Particle Fever tells the story of the scientists at the CERN supercollider facility near Geneva who are shattering subatomic particles to try to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang — and thus understand material reality at its most fundamental level. Last year, they succeeded in proving the existence of the Higgs Boson (in journalese: “the God Particle”) and thus gave strong support to the quantum-physics theory known as the Standard Model. The film is full of memorable physicists who come across as distinctive individuals, and their enthusiasm for their work is infectious. The documentary is simultaneously a stirring account of a great victory, and an open-ended narrative (as science must always be, short of the eschaton): The discovery of the Higgs Boson does not answer the question of whether the universe can be explained in terms of a “supersymmetry,” or whether its apparent intelligibility is the random, lucky result of its existence among a whole bunch of chaotic universes in a “multiverse.” (The film doesn’t mention the possibility that there may be a “rational multiverse,” i.e., a plethora of universes that are all rational and non-chaotic. Given my passionate interest in a Certain Someone who may or may not have provided clues to His own existence — opinions differ on that — I would modestly suggest that this possibility not be ruled out a priori.)

Particle Fever ends by showing a clip of the caves in southern France that contain the oldest known examples of art, and stresses that the paintings of animals on those cave walls show that the desire to create art is intrinsic to human beings — just as intrinsic as the human person’s desire to understand reality through science. To watch Vivian Maier and Particle Fever is to explore the truth about humanity, and the truth about the universe — and to have renewed cause for pride in the fact that one participates in the project of being human. 

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