Thursday, February 20, 2014

"The Reel Truth"

Documentary filmmakers are the Mother Teresas of the movie business.

Is that “tongue in cheek?”

Only somewhat.  But respectfully so. 

Documentarians as a whole are the most caring, compassionate, minimally mercenary of moviemakers.  Documentary filmmakers care.  Documentary filmmakers sacrifice.  Documentary filmmakers do not live in gated communities or marry movie stars. 

Where would documentary filmmakers meet movie stars?  Maybe at awards shows, for a second, but in the course of the encounter, the movie stars would inevitably be looking around for somebody who can help them. 

Primarily, after they have struggled to raise the money to do so, documentary filmmakers can be found far from the limelight, immersed in making films delineating the outrages of shuttered factories and sick people without health care. 

That’s what documentary filmmakers do; they chronicle misfortune.  The downtrodden.  The ripped off.  The unfairly disenfranchised.  The heartlessly left behind.

Documentary filmmakers are the kind of artists who, if a homeless person asked them for a dollar, they would give them the dollar, and then make a full-length
movie about why they needed it.

Okay, that is, perhaps, over the top, but I am trying to make a point here.  Documentary filmmakers are an entirely different breed of cat.

The problem for me is that the passion, intensity and commitment that documentary filmmakers invest in projects may ironically be the reason that their movies, although skillfully executed, fail to succeed at their intended purpose.  

It is possible to care too much.  The consequence is an insistently one-sided documentary.

I am fully aware that there are not always two supportable sides to every story.  Yesterday, I offered the example of the horrific conditions Upton Sinclair exposed in the Chicago slaughterhouses.  What can the other side possibly say in response? 

SLAUGHTERHOUSE OWNER:  He exaggerated the rat feces problem.

I don’t want to hear it!

Most times, however, the other side has a viable perspective.  There may even be more than one other side.  But the documentarian rarely includes them.  Or, if they do, they are unlikely to portray the opposing side (or sides) in an equally positive light.

Instead, they just hammer away at their thesis, a thesis, which, after a relatively short period of time, a reasonably intelligent audience member would say,

“I got it.”

DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER: Wait.  It gets worse.

By which they might mean it actually does get worse.  Or, as is more often the case, it “gets worse” by the addition of further examples of a similar type of evidence.  To which the reasonably intelligence audience member might, somewhat impatiently, reply,

“I already got it.”

Maybe I’m talking about bad documentaries here.  It is not like I’ve seen a million of them, so I am hardly fully educated on the matter.  What I do know, however, is this.     

All art involves premeditated shaping.  It’s the old story:  “How do you sculpt a pony?”  “You take the marble, and you chisel away everything that isn’t a pony.”  That’s the way you do art.  You leave out everything inessential.

What is the “pony” for the documentary filmmaker?  The “pony” is their ideological perspective, the impelling impetus for making the documentary in the first place.  Anything that interferes with the clarity and cogency of delivering that message ends up marble “pony” dust on the floor.

The result, at least for me, is a finished product that feels suspiciously structured to drive home the documentary filmmaker’s point, cleansed of all loose ends, inconsistencies and contradictory points of view.

This is the process:

The cinematic product – the documentarial argument, if you will – is first shaped for the ear.  A shooting script is prepared, filled with the most convincing evidence to support that argument, to the exclusion of everything that doesn’t. 

After that, the movie is shaped for the eye.  The documentary filmmaker selects the most evocative locations and faces, to enhance and underscore their particular agenda – the deserted downtown, the victim of circumstance with missing teeth.

And then they add music. 

I don’t blame the filmmakers.  One, they feel passionate about that their cause.  And Two, they are artists, doing exactly what artists do.  Setting morality aside – See:  Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will once committed to a project, artists feel duty-bound (to their gift) to do the best job they possibly can.  

Committed to one perspective, objectivity flies quickly out the window.  It’s not insidious; it simply comes with the territory.  Immersed in the artistic challenge, it is now “Find me a skinny cat!”  “Find me a deteriorating neighborhood!”  “Put the skinny cat in the deteriorating neighborhood!”

That’s when the documentary filmmaker can tend to overstep.   

In Sicko (2007), a documentary about health care, Michael Moore wanted to exemplify the basic decency of Canadians (and, by analogy, the corresponding wisdom of their universal health care system) by showing Toronto people who do not lock their doors.  I lived in Toronto for almost thirty years – cumulatively eight different places, as a family member, and on my own.

Our doors were always locked.  We did not lock them deliberately; you just close the door, and it locks.  Isn’t that how doors work everywhere?  You would have to deliberately unlock your door.  We never did.  Neither did any Torontonian I ever knew. 

Am I in favor of universal health care?  I couldn’t be more in favor of it.  To me, the health care issue is like the Chicago slaughterhouses.  What is the opposing view to affordable health care?  Dying?

Health care enthusiast notwithstanding, I would never see Sicko. 

Because of the locks. 

Or, more specifically, that distrust that “the locks” suggests.

Does exaggeration, either for “artistic purposes” or to help make your point effectively serve the purpose?  I say no.   And I apologize if I have exaggerated in an effort to make mine. 

Not to you.  To my point.

Okay, to you too.


Guyle said...

I'm not a big fan of Moore, but now you've aroused my curiosity. I may have to watch Sicko. I've watched a couple of his other works and for the most part, I like them.

Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, I'm sure I've seen them.

My fave docs are by Ken Burns. I don't think he's done any controversial stuff, but I haven't seen all of his work. Baseball got my attention and made me a fan (in spite of some of the justifiable criticism).

On to the important topic of the day, which was the US-Canada women's gold medal hockey game. I assume you are a US citizen by now but really, I don't know. Nor does it matter. But I'm curious: do you still root for your home and native land, even when playing your newer home and quasi-native land? I know I would be rooting for my birth nation regardless of the opponent. Having watched the US women give away a 2 goal lead in the last 3 1/2 min., then lose in OT, well, it's truly disappointing. The Yankee girls earned their tears. I'm so disappointed, I can't watch the medal presentation.

And tomorrow, we get to see the men's version. I'm hopeful!


Capcha looks like their using the Cyrillic alphabet today. This could take a while.

Canda said...

Good post, Earl. I think Michael Moore's financial success is one reason you're seeing more documentaries, and probably the reason they are so one-sided. Moore, however, clearly lies for effect.

But what is the effect? Has he brought us closer to Universal Health Care, or true Gun Control laws?

When Edward R. Murrow did two news specials (really documentaries) on the plight of migrant workers and the excesses of Senator Joe McCarthy, they had ramifications. One could say Murrow practically buried McCarthy.

Frank Paradise said...

I noticed last years Academy Award winner 'Looking for Sugarman' conventionally left out the Cold Fact that Detroit musician Rodriguez was quite well known in Australia and New Zealand and had toured a few times. In the movie it makes out he was discovered by a South African film maker living in some beat house in Detroit after years of total oblivion. Still was a great movie even though the facts were a bit distorted. .