Thursday, October 30, 2008
At its simplest, Errol Morris’ documentary Standard Operating Procedure is an exploration of the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. Beyond that, though, it’s an examination of the reality – or lack thereof – of the filmed image. Some folks like to say the camera doesn’t lie, and that might be right. But the camera doesn't always tell the truth, either. And it was in that vein that Yours Truly, the opinionated host at The Cooler, began a friendly e-mail debate with Fox, the equally opinionated host of the feisty mostly-movies blog Tractor Facts.
The discussion began early this month, just before the release of Religulous, and it continued sporadically from there. Over the course of our exchanges, we debated the very nature of the documentary while touching on Religulous, Michael Moore, Ben Stein’s Expelled, Werner Herzog, The Fog Of War, The King Of Kong, Tarnation and more. Almost 5,000 words later, we felt that we’d explored some interesting topics … and that we’d barely scratched the surface.
A transcript follows …
JB: Let’s get into this discussion by talking about Religulous, which hits theaters tomorrow. At this point, neither of us has seen the film, but judging by the trailer it appears to be a documentary in the Michael Moore style, which I suppose might be best characterized thusly: (1) more liberal than conservative, (2) at least as entertainment-minded as education-minded, (3) shiftily manipulative and (4) stunty, to coin a term. The movie is directed by Larry Charles, who also directed Borat, a comedy with elements of the Moore-esque documentary. I know you loath Borat, which – correct me if I’m wrong – you think is disingenuous, agenda-driven and predatory, for lack of a better term, especially in its portrayal of conservative Southerners. Religulous looks as if it will prey on a similar audience, perhaps in similar fashion. Borat wasn’t considered a documentary because its key subject is a dramatic creation of actor Sacha Baron Cohen. Religulous is considered a documentary because Bill Maher is playing himself. So my questions for you are: Is that fair? Is Religulous a “documentary” in the traditional definition of the term? Or is Religulous, along with the rest of its Moore-inspired brethren, a bastardization of the documentary genre? And if so, so what?
Fox: I think the definition of the traditional documentary itself has been bastardized. The root term "document" implies that truth, or proof, is what the viewer will be getting. Now, most viewers have come to know – especially in our "sensational documentary" era – that documentaries are just as much about a point-of-view as they are a treatment of facts. Certainly there are truths in these films, but never have I encountered a documentary where opinion or point-of-view isn’t the dominant mode. Not that there is anything wrong with that. The best thing a documentary can accomplish is to introduce the viewer to topics or information.
So: "Is Religulous a ‘documentary’ in the traditional definition of the term?" I would say no, but … so what? What we've come to think of as a documentary is anything that is a nonfictional narrative/short, and that's fine. To me, the real battle lies with taking on what I see as irresponsible filmmaking and/or manipulation of reality (which I think every documentary does). That doesn't mean I think that these manipulated films can't present enjoyable entertainment or useful information, but as an art form I think the documentary is inherently flawed because it can never truly achieve what it sets out to do. I wouldn't qualify myself as an expert of the genre, but personally I've never seen a documentary that moves beyond the quality of a well done news segment.
Borat lies somewhere between documentary and mockumentary because only half of the party is in on the joke. In fact, Borat is truly a mockumentary in that it "mocks" its subject matter. What I despise most about Sacha Baron Cohen is that he cowardly hides behind a persona when he ambushes his subjects. (He also picks mostly passive, easy targets, but that's for another conversation.) At least someone like Maher confronts his subjects in an upfront, honest manner. I will give him the credit of sitting side-by-side with his opposition.
Religulous appeals to me because I too have problems with organized religion. However, I respect a fellow citizen's personal beliefs as long as they don't encroach on my life. I could give a crap if my neighbor worships Jesus, Mohammed, Satan, or his parrots, but if that bleeds over into society in a negative way then I have a problem with it. Now, Maher seems to have a problem with religion on a large scale. Not just with the fanatics, but with people of faith in general. What I'm curious to see is who he goes after in Religulous. Just the militants? Or the militants and the peaceful believers as well? A last compliment I can give to Maher before seeing his film is that he doesn't hide his intentions. He's got a chip on his shoulder and he makes that clear. Michael Moore's films are simply propaganda. He's never been interested in trying to understand anything outside of his agenda. Will Maher take the same path? We shall see.
JB: Terrific points. Let me take this back to the beginning by noting that a couple days ago Maher and Charles were on NPR’s “Fresh Air” talking about Religulous. They did their usual shtick. Then their segment was followed by an interview with Steven Waldman, founder and editor in chief of Beliefnet, which host Terry Gross described as “the largest website devoted to religion and spirituality.” Gross asked Waldman about Religulous and he was both praiseful (“funnier” and “more challenging” than he expected) and critical (“offensive” and “slippery”). Waldman then noted that most of Maher’s film is an attack on fundamentalism, and offered that for each example Maher provides of religion having a negative societal impact he could think of many more in which religion is a positive influence. Fair enough. All of which leads Waldman to say the following: “To only look at one part of the story is not really a ‘documentary,’ as (Maher) calls it.”
Now, this observation from Waldman is similar to what you just said when you talked about the bastardization of the term “documentary.” And I’d say that the view that you and Waldman share – that documentaries are supposed to be truthful and perhaps somehow balanced – is widely shared among the movie-going public. In general, I think people equate documentaries with “truth” or “nonfiction.” But I’m wondering how we got to that definition. You said that you think every documentary manipulates reality. So how did we ever arrive at the notion that documentaries are or should be entirely truthful (which is to say void of bias or inaccuracy)?
To answer my own question: I think that the “documentaries” many of us first encountered were nature films in school. Now, even nature films can be untruthful – for Winged Migration, several scenes were staged – but in general a nature documentary shows you animals being animals, responding to their own instincts. You can’t get much more truthful than that. Thus, part of the problem, is us. We carry from childhood this notion that documentaries reflect total and complete truth, only to be offended when we spot shades of gray among the black-and-white. And so I wonder if the documentaries have actually changed (been bastardized) or if instead we’ve just wised up.
Look at it this way: When we were kids, we read our history books and encyclopedias and thought both were undeniable, inarguable truth. Then we got older and we realized (most of us, anyway) that history is written by the victors of war, that different countries have alternate views of world history, that even our own country’s version of historical “fact” has changed over the years as our social norms have changed. All of a sudden we realize that short of something like Andy Warhol’s Sleep, which is nothing more than five hours of footage of his lover sleeping, there’s very little that can be documented on film that is as accurate as it seems.
I think we have a bad habit in this country of equating consensus with truth. They aren’t always the same. For example, we all agree that the Nazis were evil, so no one would ever expect a documentary on World War II to be “fair” to Adolph Hitler or to give the Nazis “equal time.” But when Maher provides a dissenting opinion on religion, he is going to get torn apart for “ignoring” certain “truths.” Is that fair? By my definition, a documentary needs to document. Simple as that. What I object to is when documentary filmmakers stage events and pass them off as unscripted. What I object to is when someone like Moore tells you that a plaque says one thing when really it says something else. Those are lies. But as a concept I think Religulous is truthful: it’s an accurate representation of Bill Maher’s views. I’d say that’s enough to be called a documentary.
Fox: You make a really wonderful distinction that I hadn't thought of before – that's what these discussions are all about, right? – and that is that a documentary is a document of the filmmaker's personal opinion, rather than a dead honest portrait of the subject they happen to be focusing on. I can live with that. Also, you beat me to something I had been thinking about: that the only true documentary – if the definition of that is "a document; a true portrait of events” – would be a camera filming a location in some sort in real-time – uncut and unedited.
I think you're right that our perception of what a documentary is supposed to deliver may place a lot of unfair expectations on the director. On the other hand, I think it's the responsibility of the director to not act like they are an authority on a topic simply because they've made a film. Unfortunately, this is the attitude I get while watching a lot of the historical and/or political documentaries today.
To be honest, while watching older documentaries like Hearts & Minds or Winter Soldier, I got the impression that this is where that trend started. Surely, during Vietnam, it was one of the first times a generation felt openly deceived and had the media tools to express their rage, confusion and distrust. Yet, there is no doubt that Hearts & Minds and Winter Soldier come off as their maker's one-sided opinions and not as a balanced dissection of events. Surely, there is no problem with someone wanting to make such a film if that is their desire, but I fail to see it as anything more than propaganda or selfish catharsis.
Again, nothing wrong with that, but the way the critical establishment has lauded these films as highly-rated works of art bothers me. I haven't seen Ben Stein's Expelled, but it was curious to me the absolute across-the-board denunciation of that film when it sounds like it follows the same one-sided, biased set of rules as any other button-pushing documentary. I expect to dislike the film for the same reason I dislike any other agitprop, but it was telling how critics pushed that film away, seemingly for no other reason than for disagreement with their ideology and/or belief system. In a way, that reaction of theirs kind of proved my point that these films – whether it be Moore or Stein – shouldn't be taken seriously as films.
"Taken seriously as films" was the last thing I said, and that kind of leads into the much dreaded phrase I have used in the past that has started fights among loved ones (in fact, it led to the only time that my dear, sweet wife cursed at me...): "Documentary is lazy cinema." It's something I stand by, and have yet to be shaken from. Now, I don't mean that documentarians are lazy, or that the work that goes into making documentaries is less than pushing 10 boulders up a hill. What I mean is that documentaries tend to betray the aesthetic of what I feel is beautiful about cinema, and that is cinematography, framing, lighting, spatial relationships, acting, color, screenplay, set design, etc. Some documentarians, like Errol Morris, definitely bring a more artistic eye to their films (I'm thinking Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and Mr. Death, for example), but even then, someone like him is bound to limitations since they are filming "real life."
The exception to this would be Werner Herzog, but then he is probably the exception to documentaries in general. For example, I think The Wild Blue Yonder is a beautiful, wonderful film. I think what Herzog does in the few "docs" of his I've seen (I haven't seen Grizzly Man, by the way) is flip the idea of documentary. I think he knows that true documentary is impossible, so he takes real footage and implements it into his fiction. In a way I think this liberates the real footage and gives it a freedom that something like Religulous, or Why We Fight or The Weather Underground doesn't.
JB: See, I think that’s interesting: Having seen only Herzog’s recent Grizzly Man and Encounters At The End Of The World, I think he’s right in the Moore/Maher camp. Those two documentaries are very personal – not only narrated by Herzog but actually experienced through him. I don’t object to this in theory, but as a viewer sometimes I find myself wishing he’d shut up and get out of the way. Show me the footage. Give me the subject. Let me be the judge. Let me experience the story on my own.
By comparison, Morris is far more removed from his subjects (heck, he doesn’t even sit in the same room with the people he interviews). But his films are still influenced by his personal views. As the interviewer, he gets to ask the questions (not all of which we get to hear), and he gets to edit his subjects’ responses after the fact. In that way Morris can comment on the overall subject of his film without actually opening his mouth. To me, this is obvious. But I’m frequently astonished that so many people see Morris’ films as somehow more factual or unbiased than the stuff of a Moore or Maher. I’m not sure that perception is accurate.
Specifically, I remember being perplexed by the reaction to The Fog Of War, which is basically a long interview with Robert McNamara intercut with some b-roll of falling dominoes. In the interview, McNamara admits that he lied to the American people when he was U.S. Secretary of Defense amidst the war in Vietnam. Then he goes on to tell us the “truth.” But can we really trust that “truth”? McNamara was in spin mode before and he’s almost certainly spinning in his interview with Morris. This doesn’t detract from The Fog Of War as a documentary. To go back to the previous definition, The Fog Of War documents McNamara’s version of the truth in that time and place. But I don’t think there’s any deeper actual historical truth to the film than Moore’s stunt-filled antics in Bowling For Columbine. Yet I think I’d be the minority there.
And that brings us to your terrific point about Stein’s Expelled. I haven’t seen the picture either, but I suspect you are correct that critics rejected it for its ideology and ideas rather than its technique or general entertainment value. On cinematic grounds, that seems unfair. Then again, a film like Expelled (which to my understanding argues in favor of Intelligent Design) brings up an interesting conundrum: When it comes to documentaries that make an argument (Religulous, Fahrenheit 9/11, An Inconvenient Truth, etc), rather than those that more or less just observe (Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom, Wordplay, to name a few semi-recent ones), doesn’t an evaluation of that film need to consider the persuasiveness or soundness of that argument?
As I alluded before, I cringe at the way we so often misinterpret popular opinion as fact, because it takes us right to the core of the Stephen Colbert term “truthiness” (things we know “from the gut,” often despite evidence to the contrary). But can an argumentative documentary “succeed” if its arguments are unsound? For example: I haven’t seen that straight-to-DVD documentary that argues that 9/11 was an inside job, but the whole concept is laughable. (I mean, really: Our government, eager to go to war, decided to attack itself during daylight hours? Give me break!) Can a documentary like that succeed as art if it’s filled with ideological gibberish?
If the answer is no, that would support your idea that documentaries are “lazy cinema,” because certainly we agree that the list is long of dramatic films that are mindless, absurd or simply boring that stimulate anyway because of their visual splendor. But on the flipside of that argument there’s a documentary like King Of Kong, about a modest dad’s quest to set the points record in Donkey Kong. As documentaries go, King Of Kong is as void of artistic flourish as one could imagine. From a cinematic standpoint or even a journalistic standpoint I’d find it difficult to argue that it’s one of the 10 best documentaries I’ve seen in even the past decade. But having said that I’d be hard pressed to name 10 films (fiction or non) from the past 10 years that I’ve enjoyed more. I mean that. And yet when the film garnered praise but failed to find a mainstream audience, what did distributor (New Line) do? It signed up director Seth Gordon to adapt the documentary as a narrative feature. What the fuck!? Why? The story succeeds on its own. Efforts to enhance the story via aesthetic flourishes would only expose the emptiness of aesthetics.
Fox: To Morris first: I haven't seen his recent Standard Operating Procedure, but what I've always appreciated about him (vs. a Michael Moore, a Peter Davis, or a Eugene Jarecki) is that I feel he has a genuine respect for his subject, even though he presumptively strongly disagrees with what they represent. This is most apparent to me in Mr. Death, where Morris almost turns a Holocaust denier into a sympathetic character without sympathizing with his views. Same for The Fog of War. Morris could have given McNamara the "gotcha" treatment. Instead Morris lets him speak. Of course, there is much more of the "political" attached to The Fog of War because it is ultimately Morris trying to uncover hidden truths about the decisions that led us into and kept us in the Vietnam War. With Mr. Death, it feels more like a character study and, maybe on greater reflection, an examination of the cost of free thought and free speech (albeit, in a very extreme and controversial manner) in a free world.
So, I would say the difference between The Fog of War and Bowling For Columbine is that Morris has a respect for his subjects while, to me, Moore despises them and is unwilling to grant them an ounce of slack. I know there are those that would say, "Well, fuck them! Those people don't deserve to be given any slack! K-Mart had it coming! Heston had it coming!" I don't subscribe to that. One, I think it's a narrow-minded reaction to a narrow-mined accusation by Moore, and, two, I think it’s an example that two wrongs don't make a right.
Now, I'm glad you brought up King of Kong. I caught moments of it one night while my wife was watching it and instantly got wrapped up in the drama. Afterwards, her reaction – and the reaction of many of my friends – was similar to yours: ecstatic, tear-inducing, joyous. I'm not questioning the honesty of those emotions. What I'm skeptical of is the way in which the director (through editing) was able to take footage of real life and create a type of Hollywood story arc out of it, thus manipulating emotions as if we were watching a fictional narrative like The Karate Kid. Now, the events in Kong are true, but what about the gravity and emotional pull of those events? Would you have felt as sympathetic towards Steve Wiebe and as bitter towards Billy Mitchell if director Seth Gordon hadn’t framed the two men to come off that way? Not to mention, all of this is crammed into 79 minutes! And here is where we really get at the heart of my problem with documentaries. Ethically, I have a major problem with taking real-life footage and making popcorn entertainment out of it. Is Billy Mitchell really a cocky S.O.B.? Maybe... probably... who knows? Regardless, he will now go down as a bad guy in the eyes of people who watch this film. I think that's unfair, and I think it is a major negative of documentaries.
Take Tarnation, a movie I might hate more than any other that's come out in the 00s. Director/camera whore/exhibitionist (forgive me, my hate is coming out!) Jonathan Caouette practically crucifies his grandfather and grandmother on film for the rest of history to judge. The deal is done. They did not get chance to defend themselves because they were so old and senile that they weren't even aware what Caouette was doing. He set up flesh-and-blood grandparents like sitting ducks and attacked them with a camera. Further, Tarnation is 100 minutes long. It's supposed to be about the entirety of Caouette's life, merging old video footage he recorded as a child in Houston up with footage he took of himself as an adult living in New York. So, basically, we have a life compressed into 100 minutes. A life that many critics and fans fawned over and adored and felt sympathy for... in 100 minutes! This drives me nuts.
And to bring that around to the beginning of this entry you might say, "Well, Morris evoked sympathy for Fred Leucther by editing and twisting time?" Yep, and that's why I think documentaries are inherently flawed, and it's why I think fictional narrative filmmaking will always be superior because it automatically excludes itself from distorting reality for the sake of entertaining an audience (and to the detriment of it's subjects). I might think Morris’ film is a more respectable method of distortion, but it's still distortion.
JB: Those are interesting arguments. To put it in a nutshell, you think that since the majority of documentaries can’t completely and accurately portray truth (the truth of their subject matter; the ‘whole story’), and since many documentaries don’t even strive for such depth, that dramatic films are in essence more honest because they aren’t striving for truth in the first place. Is that about right? From that standpoint, I see the “inherent flaw.” But this goes back to the idea that documentaries must achieve perfect truth to be truthful. I don’t think they do. Think of it this way: Beethoven is going to sound different whether it’s played by your local symphony orchestra or mine. But it’s still Beethoven. Whether abridged or imperfect, it has the same core truth.
To go back to King Of Kong, does it have an entertainment agenda? Absolutely. But so what? (Billy Mitchell claims he’s unfairly represented, but watching the film it’s pretty clear that Mitchell hangs himself, even if it was Gordon who tied the noose.) Meanwhile, though I agree that Morris’ films feel as if he approaches his subjects with sympathy and an open mind, we can’t be sure. Perhaps he is just as manipulative and merely better at hiding it.
In the end, no documentary or other form of journalism can cover every facet of any complex subject. But I don’t think that means these stories are inaccurate or even incomplete. Imperfect, sure – despite best intentions, in many cases. But these “nonfiction” stories can still deliver the underlying truth, which is what we’re after. I feel like all we should expect from a documentary filmmaker is an honest effort. Then it’s on the audience to be just as open in our approach.
On that last point, something that gets under my skin is when opponents of a documentary’s ideals dismiss it as “propaganda.” Depending on the definition you choose, just about any film is propaganda (information distributed to advance an idea). The dangerous kind of propaganda is deliberate misinformation. There’s a huge chasm between the two. But when someone hears, “That’s propaganda!” they imagine the second, worst definition. Yet the reality is that most of us swallow whole the propaganda that supports our ideals, whether it comes from advertisers or politicians or movies. We don’t even think about it. We just accept because we agree. It has “truthiness.” Sure, it might have more than that. But often our critical filter takes a backseat to our emotions.
As a lover of journalism, who thinks that good, researched journalism is becoming ever more difficult to find (what with the slow death of newspapers and the deterioration of television news due to the demands of the 24/7 news cycle, etc), I’ve been thrilled by the recent documentary boom, made possible by cheaper equipment, the growth of documentary-friendly theaters and the ever widening of alternate distribution platforms (DVD, YouTube, etc). Once a year, I watch Ken Burns’ terrific Civil War, and I appreciate that kind of long-form documentary filmmaking. I don’t want to see that disappear. But No End In Sight – a film that covers recent and still evolving history – includes the kind of reportage that only PBS’ Frontline tends to provide. Some have criticized such films by saying that they feel like something you’d see on 60 Minutes. True, to a point. And false, as well. It gives 60 Minutes too much credit.
I think the core difference between the two of us in how we approach to documentaries is that I’m thrilled by more, smaller and different, while you seem to see the documentary boom as filled with fluff that gets away from bigger, deeper and more profound documentaries of the past. I’m excited by the documentary boom while you are filled with reservations. Is that fair?
We could easily ramble on this subject for days. So let me try and bring toward some sort of close by asking you this question: We’ve talked a lot about the documentaries you don’t admire. What are the documentaries that best fulfill your idea of what a documentary should be? As a fan of cinema, which films typify the strengths of the documentary genre?
Fox: That brings us back to my comment that documentaries are inherently flawed cinema. If we agree that film is a visual art form, then a film’s primary concern should be the image, whether the film is The House Bunny or The Conformist. But I can’t think of many documentaries that strive for that. To me, the primary focus of a documentary is the information, the statistics, the reporting, etc. Sure, documentaries can be visually breath-taking and can use imagery to enhance the meaning of the information and give it further power. But I think that imagery is a secondary concern of documentarians, whereas in the narrative film the director, production designer, cinematographer, actors, etc., all collaborate to create controlled, thought-out visuals. Also, a documentary is made by significantly whittling away at the shot footage (perhaps 400 hours for a 90-minute film), whereas a fictional film is built up from nothing, using only the pieces it needs (with some editing room exceptions, of course). Artistically, I think these approaches are miles apart, and I prefer the one that is more concerned with image – the foundation of what is truly cinema.
So when I think of documentaries I admire, the first films I think of are musical performances. (Do those count? Musical docs feel more like recorded performances than traditional docs.) There are exceptions, but the ones that mean the most to me are ones where the director achieves a loving recording of the musician by getting out of the way and letting the camera set-ups say everything. With that lead-in, Stop Making Sense and Neil Young: Heart of Gold are two of my favorite nonfiction films – both by Jonathan Demme. I love that guy. I would also like to mention two nonfiction films by Werner Herzog: Lessons of Darkness and The Wild Blue Yonder. Though, I don't consider these traditional docs either since they make fiction out of real-life footage.
Other more traditional favorite documentaries would include: The Outsider (Nick Jarecki); My Country, My Country (Laura Poitras); Hearts Of Darkness (George Hickenlooper); Gunner Palace (Michael Tucker); Inside Deep Throat (Fenton Bailey); Not Quite Hollywood (Mark Hartley); Night & Fog (Alain Resnais). How about you?
JB: I’ve admired several documentaries in recent years: No End In Sight and Taxi To The Dark Side, for exploring stories that our traditional media has been too timid to handle with such straightforwardness. I’ve enjoyed examinations of the quirky, like the aforementioned Wordplay and King Of Kong. I’m still haunted by Capturing The Friedmans. I think Murderball is one of the best films of the past five years not because of the characters most people remember (the gladiators in wheelchairs) but because of the one most forget (the recent quadriplegic coming to grips with his new reality). Stringing it back a ways: I’ve seen When We Were Kings at least a dozen times, and I never tire of it. Like you, I admire Hearts Of Darkness, which I find more fascinating than the film it chronicles (Apocalypse Now). And though it can’t be watched in one sitting, I love how the split-screen approach to Woodstock evokes the event and the era it covers. These are off the top of my head, and I’ve already thought of glaring omissions. But I’ll settle it there.
I respect the observation that documentaries have typically been fact-based and have evolved beyond that in recent years, sometimes for the worse. I cringe at the thought of documentaries resembling “reality TV,” complete with professional writers. Yet at the same time I am excited by the knowledge that documentaries are gaining access to audiences and thus are increasing in number. I’d like to think that the marketplace will force a balance, but I’m aware that the “reality TV” movement demonstrates that honesty, integrity and truth are often obstacles to commercial success. Where the documentary genre will go next, we’ll have to wait and see. But clearly it’s going there with a full head of steam. In a year in which smallish documentaries like Man On Wire, Standard Operating Procedure and Roman Polanski: Wanted & Desired have been endlessly more fascinating than bigger-budget busts like Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, The Happening and Appaloosa, I’m happy about that.
Special thanks to Fox for taking part in this exchange. Comments for either of us are welcome below. If you haven’t yet, do yourself a favor and add Tractor Facts to your list of daily blog visits. You won’t be disappointed.