When measuring the milestones of anything, we tend to put value into the multiples of ten, sometimes five. Although it may not be significant in terms of the time this Earth has been around, human lives are short enough that ten years is truly a long time. So when a company, organization, or even University reaches the tremendous milestone of a full century, it’s a feat to be celebrated. These entities have existed long before us, and will be likely to continue after we expire, through more hardships and triumphs than the human mind can comprehend. So, when a story is told about these great milestones there should be plenty of material to tell a story that feels like a true movie narrative. Howard, a documentary finalist at Heartland this year, manages to do that with a life that was tragically cut short, so there should be no issue for Ball State University to tell its story in a similar grandiose fashion.
As a Cardinal myself (obviously), I can say that I definitely did feel a sense of pride while watching From Normal to Extraordinary: Ball State’s First Century, at least somewhere deep within my soul. For the most part though that pride was buried underneath an overpowering sense of clock-watching, toe-tapping, doodling-in-my-notes boredom.
Production fit for an award-winning department
The best part of From Normal to Extraordinary was the production of it. The editing was slick, fast-paced, and worked wonders to keep the mind-numbing material moving. The effects that were applied onto old-timey photos of the centuries old Muncie to make them alive were a nice stylistic touch, even if it didn’t necessarily look seamless. The interviews were also cut together expertly, with very few edits that seemed odd or out of place. Sound quality is excellent, and the orchestration provided by Ball State’s music department was the unsung hero of it all. I’m a sucker for some smooth jazzy tunes. From the production alone, it’s no surprise that this documentary was put together by an award-winning department.
The cinematography of the film was also good, but nothing really special. A couple of shots seemed out of focus, and the camera’s moving during interviews wasn’t a choice I was a big fan of, but otherwise it was a very well shot film. The few aerial shots in the film were surprisingly great looking, giving a new view of the familiar campus. Again, it looked like a professionally made production despite being a (mostly) student project, which was impressive. The only really jarring thing is that in interviews with former President Jo Ann Gora the shots seemed blurrier than the rest of the film. I had initially thought I was seeing things, but when they cut between an interview with another person and then back to President Gora, it really felt like there was some alteration to the footage. Yet, that may have been my imagination, and otherwise the rest of the film is excellently shot.
How long is this lecture again?
Ultimately, the thing that sours From Normal to Extraordinary is the way the narrative was presented and told. A documentary, of course, needs to tell facts and events as they happened, otherwise it becomes fiction based on true events. In that aspect, this documentary was well researched and told what it needed to do to accomplish that. But a documentary is more than just the history books and research material being presented. A great documentary tells a true story in a way that it becomes a piece of entertainment. The most compelling documentaries still use storytelling techniques to create a film that stands strong on its own without using the source material as a crutch.
From Normal to Extraordinary not only doesn’t tell its story in a compelling way, it also waters down any potentially interesting elements to the point where not even the material being presented is interesting. Watching it gave the feeling that there was something noticeably absent in the narrative, like it was missing some kind of driving aspect to keep an audience member engaged. After sitting on it, I think I figured out what it was lacking: conflict.
Going back to Howard, as that’s served as a go-to example for what makes (to me) a great documentary, it created a celebration of someone’s life that wasn’t afraid to speak on the hardships. The defeats, the failures, the disappointments, the tragedies, and the many eventual successes were all present in Howard. It wasn’t a one-note piece, it created a gripping narrative without any fictionalization of his story. An audience member, even one who didn’t know Howard Ashman before entering the theatre, would leave the show mourning the loss of a great songwriter and talent. The struggles shown made the triumphs all the more sweeter. After all, it’s hard to enjoy dessert if all you eat is candy. Unfortunately for From Normal to Extraordinary, it downed its whole bucket of Halloween candy and then tried to eat the entire centennial birthday cake.
From Normal to Extraordinary brushes over the universities struggles all too briefly. You’re telling me that, within a full 100 years of existence, there wasn’t anything worse than “attendance and funding plateaued while the leadership was unstable”? Even other bits of hardship are touched upon and then quickly abandoned to go back to stroking egos. A rollercoaster isn’t exciting if it only goes up, and the same goes for a documentary narrative. Heck, any narrative needs to have some kind of struggle or conflict. Otherwise, what’s the difference between watching the film and reading a Wikipedia article? At the very least, the Wikipedia article might not gloss over the struggles that come with existing for 100 years.
So that leaves a couple questions to be asked. One: does this film tell Ball State’s story fairly and accurately? I would believe the answer to that to be yes; it’s a clearly well-researched, well-produced film. A lot of care went into the production aspects of this movie. However, does that make From Normal to Extraordinary a good piece of entertainment? Judging from the fact that I had to shift in my seat, bite my hand, and slap myself to stay awake during the film, I would give that a resounding no. It doesn’t matter how excellently put together the film is if there’s no reason to stay engaged through the whole film.
Featured Image: Heartland
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