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Friday, July 10, 2009


Beginning as a "journalistic non-fiction" series on Chicago Public Radio, Showtime's "This American Life" takes host Ira Glass all over the USA looking for unique people with interesting stories. THIS AMERICAN LIFE: SEASON TWO, containing all six episodes on one disc, is a collection of these true-life tales which range from mildly interesting to downright fascinating.

Most episodes present two-to-four slice-of-life vignettes loosely based on a single theme. "Escape" begins with the incongruous sight of a group of inner-city kids ambling down the grimy streets of North Philadelphia on horseback. Thanks to the man who runs the stable (which has since closed, according to the commentary), these kids get to escape their dreary lives for a few hours a day and gain some self-respect by riding and caring for the horses.

Next is the amazing story of a guy named Mike who has spinal muscular atrophy. With a tiny body that resembles a deflated balloon, Mike is totally helpless and dependent on his mother. At 27, however, he wants to escape from her and live his own life, which presents a number of problems. Unable to speak--his finger moves just enough to operate a device that types his words on a monitor--Mike chooses either Johnny Depp or Edward Norton as the person with whose voice he'd most prefer replacing his robotlike computer one. Depp accepts the assignment and reads Mike's written thoughts and feelings for us during the segment. Mike is remarkably resilient, upbeat, and optimistic despite his often tenuous hold on life, and his story is hardly the maudlin "inspirational" blather it might have been.

"Two Wars" is about an Iraqi student living in the US after fleeing his war-ravaged home country. As a summer vacation social experiment, he travels from place to place, setting up a stand with a sign reading "Talk To An Iraqi" (an idea he admits to have copped from Charles Schultz). This results in a predictably wide range of views and opinions exchanged by him and the various Americans who take him up on the offer. Then we encounter a Bulgarian man living in Rhode Island who refuses to mow his lawn, to the constant chagrin of his American wife. He manages to come up with a political justification for this, which I don't buy for a second. I'm lazy too, see--enough to recognize it in someone else even when he calls it a "laidback approach to life" coupled with an Eastern European "irony and cynicism." His wife asks, "So, you think it's ironic not to mow the lawn?" to which he rather lamely responds, "No, it's want to mow the lawn." Uh-huh. Admit it, dude, you're just plain lazy. Next.

"Going Down In History" starts with a hilarious account of two convicts who make a daring and rather ingenious escape attempt using dental floss. An amusing look at the impermanence of our youthful memories centers around "Picture Day" at a high school. Lastly, a birdwatcher scouring the swamps for the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker, rumored to have been extinct for the last fifty years, insists that he captured a fleeting glimpse of one on a grainy videotape in 2005. He admits that his evidence is about as convincing as the average Bigfoot film, yet convinced he is, and in the swamp he remains.

The final act of this episode, however, is the most startling. A man who was beaten almost to death by a group of guys in a parking lot several years ago now gets revenge by casting his attackers as SS officers in a one-sixth scale recreation of a Belgian village that he's built in his backyard. Painstakingly modified action figures stand in for the Nazis, the villagers, and the heroic freedom fighters of which he is one, along with a green-haired femme fatale from the future who serves as his faithful protector. Obsessed with his self-created fantasy world, he has devoted his life to depicting the bloody demise of these SS officers, over and over again, and the romantic exploits of his one-sixth-scale surrogate self, diligently photographing the results (which would make a bitchin' fumetti). Needless to say, the guy doesn't get out much.

"Underdogs" reveals a side of boxing of which I was unaware--fighters referred to as "opponents" who, although they do their best, are expected to lose in order to chalk up victories on an up-and-coming boxer's record. Even so, they must win occasionally in order to qualify as worthy fighters. Here, we see two such opponents pitted together in a fight each must win to stay in the game. It's an emotional segment in which I found it hard to decide who to root for, since they're both decent guys who really need the money and the respect. Act two explores the unusual world of adolescent stand-up comics who use humor to transcend their status as picked-on social outcasts. I'd like to have heard more of these kids' comedy acts, but unfortunately some droll, droning adult "spoken word" performer dominates the segment with his dull commentary.

"Scenes From a Marriage" is the most riveting episode in the collection. After an amusing cartoon intro that explores how different a husband and wife's perceptions of the same event can be, we're introduced to a 54-year-old man named George and his 18-year-old Korean mail-order-bride. Theirs is an idyllic life on their rolling acres of beautiful secluded land as they frolic with their dogs and make like a rustic Adam and Eve. Which is what this documentary was intended to be about--until something happens that unexpectedly flips the whole thing upside-down and turns it into a waking nightmare. And all because George, who is so nice and normal and level-headed most of the time, seems to have this one little itty-bitty teeny-tiny screw loose in his head.

Finally, there's the extended episode "John Smith", a composite story of a life told through several different John Smiths, each at a different stage from infancy to one foot in the grave. It's a cute idea that doesn't really come together as intended but has a lot of heartfelt moments.

The DVD is widescreen with Dolby Digital sound. I found the music quite irritating throughout, but maybe that's just me. The main bonus feature is the almost 90-minute presentation "This American Life LIVE!", a multi-media show performed by Glass in front of a theater audience. He presents scenes from the series on the big screen while sitting at a mock-up of his radio DJ console, occasionally inviting director Christopher Wilcha out for a chat as well. Glass and Wilcha also do a commentary track for the first episode ("Escape"), and there's a small photo gallery.

"Scenes From a Marriage" probably comes closest to what I consider a real documentary, meaning that the filmmakers simply point their cameras at real life and shoot. It's harder to do, it takes more time and patience, and there's a lot more footage to sort through looking for the good stuff to edit together. But it really pays off by convincing us that what we're seeing is real and is happening before our eyes. Other segments such as "Picture Day" consist mainly of interviews, which is fine.

A lot of what we see on "This American Life" is what I think of as "designer" documentaries, so carefully directed and cinematic that they're more staged than real. The story of Mike, the young man suffering from spinal muscular atrophy, is a good example. The subjects are portraying themselves in re-enactments that are so preplanned as to seem storyboarded. Not much spontaneity, except when the camera inadvertently captures some genuine unexpected moment of real life, usually during the interview shots when people are candidly revealing their thoughts.

As director Christopher Wilcha puts it:

"...the radio show is sort of cinematic, these vivid characters and these vivid scenes and stories, and so we wanted to do something sort of cinematic. The radio show isn't straight news, and it's not straight documentary. And we wanted to try and translate that, so I think our reference points were often fiction films, and trying to just be a little more ambitious with the image-making."

I usually find this kind of made-to-order documentary technique bothersome, but "This American Life" does it very well. With their choice of subject matter and keen manipulation of same in order to present it in the most dramatic way possible, Glass and Wilcha have managed to create some wonderfully compelling television.

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