...or If John Grierson Were Alive Today How Hard He Would Plotz
By Jesse McLean
The mainstream acceptance of documentary films is undeniable, which is to say they’ve started to make money. This newfound box office clout has transformed the genre from one of format to mood. Non-fiction films are now subject to the same rigorous expectations of any western, thriller, or musical. And while it is always heartening to see practitioners of a heretofore ‘ghettoized’ art form reap a financial reward, that cheer is darkened by the thought of a Darfur genocide doc pitched to unctuous studio execs a la The Player (“It’s Super Size Me meets Schindler’s List!”).
John Grierson, the Scottish-born pater familias of British and Canadian documentaries wrote in his book First Principles of Documentary, “We believe that the materials and the stories taken from the raw can be finer (more real in the philosophical sense) than the acted article.” Which is all fine and good, but when you’re opening on 2000 screens, you want to know that it’s going to play in Poughkeepsie.
Grierson engendered the notion of documentary as unaltered truth, and his veracity has been debated ever since, but never before have the tools of cinematic grammar and genre conventions been applied to the form with such verve.
The most common tact stolen from fictional films appears in the crosscut. Innumerable examples exist of this editorial dash between two or more threads of action to create suspense (Roger & Me, The War Room, Startup.Com, Hoop Dreams, ad nauseum). Now I don’t suggest that documentarians should be barred access to the rudimentary tools of editing, but this technique can only erode the already crumbling notion of unvarnished truth espoused by giants of verité like Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, Public Housing, Domestic Violence) or Allan King (Warrendale, A Married Couple, Dying at Grace). I’ll make a concession: if the editing style of your documentary owes a heavy debt to Hitchcock, maybe you should back away from the Avid for a breather.
In the mood for courtroom fireworks? No need for Grisham, just turn to Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Capturing the Friedmans and others, (although this trope is the domain of the TV investigative feature and so popular that, well, it has its own station).
How about docs that mimic other genres? Crime drama meets police procedural in Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hill, The Thin Blue Line, Biggie and Tupac, Cocaine Cowboys.
Dysfunctional family drama? Capturing the Friedmans (again), Tell Them Who You Are, Brother’s Keeper, My Architect, Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows. You get the feeling that if Eugene O’Neill were around today he wouldn’t be typing but shooting from the hip in HD.
When discussing the ascendancy of documentaries, there is an undeniable elephant in the room, and that’s not a fat joke. Michael Moore makes non-fiction issue films but rarely deserves the appellation of ‘documentarian’. Moore is the filmmaker as polemicist, a projected cousin of non-fiction rant books that littler bookstore shelves hither and yon. And while I often agree with his politics, this is not the reason I bristle at yelps regarding his passing acquaintance with objectivity. I expect from him the same impartiality proffered by wingnuts like Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity. Those who preach to the converted deftly avoid the burden of objectivity but sacrifice authority for all their furious exhortations.
He has also spawned a brood of filmmaking brats infatuated with making themselves the star. Progenitor Ross McElwee aside (Sherman’s March,Time Indefinite), odious first person entries such as 20 Dates, My Date with Drew and the inexplicably popular Tarnation enervate. All I have gained from these works is that I don’t want to watch films about people I would change seats on a bus to avoid.
Now to the fun part - who to blame? I would like to extend a judicious finger at reality TV but I believe it only highlights the public’s thirst for truth. Once these stopped being ‘reality shows’ and were tagged ‘reality based’ (with story editors on staff, for Christ’s sake) it turned into professional wrestling. Artificiality admitted and embraced, their popularity soared and activated in the viewer’s brain what I like to call the Aaron Spelling Effect, with symptoms mimicking those of enveloping narcosis.
However, the longing for truth continued and it is a sensible urge. In a world of fictional WMDs, steroid-fuelled homerun kings and Katie Couric News Anchor, how’s a fella supposed to set his moral compass? At the movie theater it would seem, a sanctuary for us all in troubled times.
In days past (I’m looking at you Depression Era), we trudged to the theatre for escape. Only now we crave truth but in digestible form. Hence, the addition of genre spice to our documentary gruel. The problem is that the majority of the public receive information in a ‘documentary’ as if it was as John Grierson intended, “raw…more real than the acted article”. Filters are left at the door (Hepa or otherwise) along with critical thought. It’s as if the smell of popcorn causes ninety-minute brain death.
Which leads me to shake my accusing finger at David Holzman’s Diary.
It’s 1967. David Holzman picks up a camera and films his daily life. He is a lover of film and the process of filmmaking. He cites Jean-Luc Goddard’s maxim about truth in cinema. A clip from a glossy Vincente Minnelli film is included in a rapid sequence of one night’s television viewing. David films his girlfriend sleeping in the nude. He acquires a fish eye lens and plays with it, hoisting the camera over his head like a child. He interviews a friend who voices his concerns regarding David’s experiment. He drives his girlfriend away with his filming obsession.
The Library of Congress entered this film into its National Film Registry in 1991. Why, one might wonder, would a film of anodyne detail deserve such an honor? Well, it is a terrific document of New York’s Upper West Side in the late sixties and looks good in black and white. And for those that don’t know David Holzman’s Diary, it was fake.
I don’t bring this up just to cite what could be the first ‘mockumentary’ long before it became a term, the most tiresome word in a sitcom pitch, or the form for many first time directors to tackle (Woody Allen, Tim Robbins, Rob Reiner, Albert Brooks and Jim McBride, director of Diary). I don’t bring up this hard to find film (once available on VHS, currently available from UK’s Second Run DVD in Region 0 PAL) in an effort to convince you of how subtle and effective its evocation of ‘reality’ - I may as well try to describe a cool breeze.
The two directors mentioned illustrate the unending battle between fact and truth. While Goddard famously maintained that film should be ‘truth 24 frames a second’, Vincente Minnelli responded in an interview that film is, in fact, ‘a lie 24 frames a second’. Not only does it provide a telling comment on the methods of two widely divergent talents, it foretells (in an already prescient film) the problematic crux of the blockbuster documentary. A form ostensibly dedicated to objectivity should not concern itself with character arcs, plot points or, God help us, test screenings (“I liked When The Levees Broke but could it be less of a downer?”).
So the next time you’re lined up to see the newest non-fiction film about the troubles along the Gaza Strip, consider instead buying a ticket to Don’t Mess With The Zohan. For if Vincente Minnelli is right, you just might learn something.