First Run Features // 1996 // 50 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // April 28th, 2006
Twenty-two women talk about 41 breasts.
I requested this title for review for one reason and one reason only: its title. You might have noticed that Breasts: A Documentary has the word "breasts" in the title. This means that search engine spiders (and even real, live web surfers) are going to be all over this review like ants on spilled jam. It will quickly become the most popular DVD Verdict review of all time. I can sit back and watch the clicks roll in (and surely win a prize of some kind). See, it worked -- you're here, aren't you?
Documentarian Meema Spadola might also have been banking on the alluring power of her title. After all, who can resist watching something called Breasts: A Documentary? It may have "breasts" in the title, but it also has another key word: "documentary." Though admittedly I'm a lifelong fan of breasts, I wasn't expecting this to be a hooter parade. As a volunteer for Durham's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, I guessed that Breasts: A Documentary would likely not feature gauzy, loving, slow-motion pans over globes of creamy flesh.
Indeed, Spadola's take is decidedly au natural. Twenty-two women, ranging from limelight-hogging hams to quiet, articulate women, wax poetic about the trials and tribulations of having sweater sacks. (If you think my barrage of nicknames is inappropriate, you should see some of the names these women come up with for their ta-tas.) These women are unabashedly unclothed. They vary in size, age, attractiveness, and comfort level, which gives the film a democratic appeal. This democracy extends to gender: Breasts: A Documentary is aimed towards men and women alike.
At its best, Breasts: A Documentary provides penetrating insight into the blessings and perils of having breasts. The women seem powerful and confident when discussing how they use their tits for leverage. They seem vulnerable when discussing social ostracism or medical issues (including cancer and carte blanche breast exams). Like engaging documentaries should do, Breasts presents a complex issue in a way that makes an intuitive connection with the viewer. Spadola capitalizes on the inherent appeal of breasts to cover a wide range of human issues. Some of the women are honest and in tune with their own bodies, which leads to heartfelt revelations.
Breasts: A Documentary is not always at its best, though. My experience was impaired by two distinct problems that compounded each other.
The first problem is the radical disconnect that some of the interviewees had with my perception of their reality. For example, two of the women featured are former men. Call me shallow, but it irks me to hear about breasts from people who came by them after the fact. I can see using some of their comments as color commentary, an informative aside on gender-reassignment patients and their feelings about the impression of breasts as part of their image. But these interviewees are heavily featured, which damages the integrity of a documentary about breasts. Another example is a stripper who discusses the awe-inspiring power that her artificially enlarged breasts have over her audience. When we finally get to see these magnificent headlights, they are a raw, red mess of veiny bulges and scar tissue. The lighting must be very good on her stage, because those are the least appealing breasts I've ever seen. I cannot reconcile her comments with the reality I see. The same goes for a grossly obese comedienne who seems completely out of touch with what people think about her breasts. Taken as a whole, these words of self delusion ring like false notes in an otherwise cohesive tune.
Though Spadola does a good job of de-eroticizing the subject when appropriate, the truth is that this documentary is highly visual. This leads to the second problem: The video quality on this DVD is abysmal. A patchy network of horizontal bands does no wonders for the bodies on display. The sound quality is fine, but the video is simply unacceptable. My experience was watching blotchy, bandy, 100" torsos while suffering through the annoying comments of their owners. Those who watch this documentary on smaller screens might have a different experience.
The filmmaker interview makes me feel better about the documentary; Meema Spadola is approachable and lucid. The deleted scenes were painful to sit through taken out of the engaging context of the documentary proper.
Documentaries are all the rage now, for good reason. Where breasts are concerned, more exposure is just fine in my book. If it weren't for the video issue and some egregiously out-of-touch interviewees, Breasts: A Documentary would feel more complete. The film achieves moments of potent honesty and avoids the alienation pitfalls of some feminist works. Even so, as packaged, it has trouble filling out a training bra.
Review content copyright © 2006 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 50 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* 30 minutes of Bonus Footage
* Interview with the Filmmakers