Michael Moore, being repulsive. That was not intended as a dig at his physicality. He’d be repulsive even if he looked like Kat Dennings. Okay, maybe not then, but you get the point.
What is a documentary?
I know that may seem like kind of a ridiculous, pretentious question to ask, especially right off the bat of an essay or whatever, but I don’t mean it like that. I’m absolutely serious, and it’s an entirely valid question. What the fuck is one? I don’t think we really know. I mean, we know ‘em when we see ‘em I guess. Basically, they’re movies about real life. Nothing staged. Except interviews, of course. Interviews are, by their very nature, extremely staged and controlled and can very easily be manipulated by both the interviewer and the editor, but those get a pass, I guess. (As do dramatic reenactments, which can be very misleading, but are thought of as okay for some reason.) I think we can all agree though that documentaries definitely must not have a script that people are following. That’s for sure. Well—except of course in the case of a sort of monologue through-line or whatever. The documentarian gets a pass on having a script. Even if it’s way subjective. Man, this is getting contradictory. And confusing. And gross.
On top of all this, we as a culture have I guess decided that propaganda counts as documentary. Enough people voted with their money by seeing Michael Moore’s stuff and An Inconvenient Truth and 2016: Obama’s America that now we just accept that stuff as part of the genre—even though they, and many others, are highly biased and full of inaccuracy and manipulation. Like I said—propaganda. But hey, it’s all for a good cause right? That is, if you agree with the cause of course, and believe that the trampling of objectivity is an okay thing so long as said cause gains new followers or whatever. Ends justifying means and whatnot. Sigh.
Basically, documentaries are the most repulsive genre. No other genre or sub-genre of film—other than I guess fake snuff tapes—contains shit specifically designed to deceive you. (Yes, all art ‘deceives’, blah blah blah, but let’s not get existentialist here, you know what I mean.) Isn’t that kind of fucked up? Isn’t that something we should talk about, and take very seriously?
Look, I’m not saying I don’t like documentaries. I watch them often. Though personally, I stay away from the more blatantly biased stuff. I tend towards human stories, particularly ones with a fly-on-the-wall element. Some sort of palpable distance between the subject and the observer. Sure, I’ll watch a doc about a fucked up thing going on in the world once in a while (the Paradise Lost Trilogy is fucking amazing) but I pick them very carefully. I always read up on them to make sure they’re to be trusted.
It’s funny to me that we rate movies for content—G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17—but we don’t rate documentaries for truthfulness. Shouldn’t there be some independent group that just fact checks documentaries all the time, and rates them based on how trustworthy they are? I mean yeah, people do that here and there online by themselves, but there’s no official group that does it. Often times, you’re not even sure if you can trust an internet dude alleging that a documentary is full of lies, because it’s really just some stranger. You have to then fact check everything they say, because who the hell knows what their agenda is? That’s a whole lot of work just to watch a damn movie. Which is why most people just watch a thing and take it as gospel and move on to the next whatever.
A week or so ago I saw a YouTube clip that featured Kevin Smith giving his thoughts on the notoriously lie-filled 9/11 conspiracy documentary Loose Change. He states that he thinks it’s a gripping, well-made film, but also admits that he has no idea if it’s true or not. I believe that’s a good, safe way to approach documentaries—skeptical, but also appreciative of just plain good artistry. It’s totally okay to appreciate the beauty of a thing even if you don’t agree with what it promotes. For example, personally, I think the Westboro Baptist Church signs (GOD HATES FAGS, et al.) are all really well designed. I disagree with every damn sign, but I love the colors and font choice and layout. Yes, they’re fucking awful people, but come on, you gotta admit, they’re tits at graphic design. But I digress.
I’ve made two documentaries. Nancy Ivers: 21L, a short, and Rehearsals, a feature. Both are highly ‘experimental’, but to me, they’re pure, whereas most documentaries just plain aren’t. Some might look at them both and say they’re ‘just a bunch of footage’ (cough, Greg DeLiso, cough) but personally, I’d rather more documentaries were like that. I like looking at real things and being given the freedom to draw my own conclusions. I don’t like, nor want, ‘help’. That’s like being told what colors to use in a coloring book—or worse, buying a coloring book with the pictures already colored in for you.
Nancy Ivers: 21L is pretty straight forward—it’s just silent fly-on-the-wall footage of a painter getting ready for, and then having, her first gallery show. I was hired by her to film her however I wanted, and that is what I came up with. It’s meant to be shown on a wall, like a moving painting. Filming it and editing it was a lot of fun—I got to find all my little favorite moments of people just being themselves (most of them completely unaware I was capturing them) and collage it all together. I’m quite proud of the result.
Rehearsals is pretty similar, but more ambitious and time consuming. Fly-on-the-wall footage of a bunch of aspiring actresses, collaged together to form a day in the life of one aspiring actress, each actress essentially ‘playing’ a different aspect of the ‘woman’. It’s not for everyone, but for those it is for, it’s hypnotic and lovely. If you have a taste for minimalism, and for pretty shots of pretty girls, you’ll dig it.
Maybe you’re like me, and wish documentaries were just simple and not a fucking headache. If so, check out my stuff. And definitely check out Foreign Parts, which I talked about in my Netflix Longies #1 post. It’s probably the purest example of a ‘pure documentary’ in recent history. For older examples, check out the works of Frederick Wiseman. They’re hard to come by, but highly worth digging for.