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by Alice Arnold
First Run Icarus Films, Brooklyn NY, 2007
DVD, 26 mins, colour
Sales: $225.00
Distributor’s Website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Kathryn Adams


A quick scan of dentistry through the ages confirms the fact that dental procedures have certainly improved over time. Hippocrates and Aristotle wrote of cauterization with a red, hot wire to treat diseases of the teeth. Decay removal during the middle ages was by way of a ‘dental drill’ or metal rod rotated between the surgeon’s hands. By the 1100s, an abscess was lanced by the local barber and teeth were sometimes extracted in the marketplace by self-taught vagabonds. Thankfully, from the 18th century onwards, scientific and technological advancements in dentistry have not only given us electric dental tools, the hydraulic recliner and the much-applauded anesthesia but have established orthodontics as a specialty. Today, high-speed dentistry enables us to look beyond our basic oral hygiene needs and concentrate on acquiring and maintaining ‘the perfect smile.’ But have we gone too far?

Alice Arnold’s light-hearted and investigative documentary Teeth explores America’s obsession with straight, gleaming white, flawless teeth. Through a series of interviews with dentists, a psychoanalyst, a health educator, and a group of people whose pearly whites are somewhat challenged, we learn that having an attractive smile in contemporary society not only boosts our self esteem, thus having a positive, psychological effect on the way we interact socially, but it is a sign of economic and social standing. As Michael Moskowitz, psychoanalyst observes,

"…to show one’s good, perfect, white teeth is to show that one has the money and the power needed to maintain those good, perfect, white teeth."

Bombarded with images in the media of happy, successful people with perfect smiles, the populace is pressured into feeling that even the slightest dental imperfection should be corrected. The cosmetic dentistry business is booming and people are queuing up for implants, porcelain veneers, gum lifts, crowns, bridges and laser bleaching. We are brightening dull teeth, closing gaps, repairing and straightening chipped and crooked teeth so as not to feel defective, flawed, substandard, or inferior. But as Arnold’s documentary points out, aesthetic dental procedures are costly, and it is the lower income earners who are again disadvantaged. Charles Gordy’s famous quote, "a smile is an inexpensive way to change your looks" no longer applies!

Noncommittal yet informative and incisive, this documentary flows along nicely with a jazzy audio mix by Norm Scott. Smile related quotes and survey results, such as the ‘Invisalign Smile Survey,’ which examines the importance of the smile on careers, dating, self esteem etc., appear as text throughout the documentary. This all works quite well but the split screen technique (The Brady Bunch style) used during some of the interviews is incredibly distracting.

From Freud to hip hop this documentary covers a lot of ground. Freud’s theories on why we dream of losing teeth and how teeth represent the penis (who would have thought?) are of interest as is the latest in fashion for teeth among today’s hip hop culture. Diamond studded gold or silver grills fixed to the teeth are becoming more and more popular. As one ‘grill’ enthusiast explains, "I don’t buy the typical white man’s attitude to all white teeth. . . . I’m going to have gold ones." However, with such a vast collection of information and very little time to expand on any one aspect, the documentary lacks weight and seems to finish at the midway point. It could well have been the first of a six part series and would have had viewers looking forward to the next installment.

Dentistry for aesthetic purposes is a much-needed advancement for some, but let’s not rid ourselves of all our quirky gaps, chips, and roguish, wily teeth. They give us our uniqueness. As Austin Powers – International Man of Mystery – notes, "In Britain in the 60s you could be a sex symbol and still have bad teeth." Yeah baby.



Updated 1st April 2008

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