May 5, 2011

In Pursuit of a Real Moment: Branding, Multi-Media and Record--The Expropriation of Documentary Methods

From Sam Green and Dave Cerf's performance documentary <em>Utopia in Four Movements</em>

When watching The King's Speech, a warm, if plastic, British biopic about King George VI's stutter and his friendship with an Australian speech therapist, my father made an odd comment: "That King accomplished a lot," he said. "He had a good wife."

It's worth noting that my mother passed away in 2002 and, as such, the consequences of widowerhood matter to him. Before you tell me this is not relevant to the field of documentary filmmaking, I'll beg your patience. You see, the film we were watching was based on historical fact--the element some would say lends documentary its most basic value: the transparent apparatus of record-keeping. But my father's response to Colin Firth and Helena Bonham-Carter was rooted in his own experiences (with and without a good wife), and my viewing of this film finally had purpose. When we watch film, we require some point of entry that brings us to identify a transcendent experience, or just a place of communion with the familiar. We love to call this realism, but isn't that just shorthand for another principle that's far harder to verbalize?

Documentary is a utilitarian field. Researchers record their studies on video, as they might take notes or collect samples. Theater artist Anna Deavere Smith, who recently launched a one-woman show about the state of healthcare in America (Let Me Down Easy), interviewed some 300 people in preparation for her show. But what distinguishes her footage from any other brand of meat-and-potatoes record-keeping? Does her research, stripped of the pretenses of art, not qualify as a documentary? Well, one supposes the question isn't precisely what brand of recording does qualify as documentary, but rather, why the subject seems so muddy. Perhaps it's our ability to choose our means of recording and presentation that provides us these concerns. What is documentary if not a pared-down testament that something exists or has occurred? Look at how many flaws this principle alone contains. It's no wonder we seek representations and facsimiles in all the forms we can.

I run a section in Boxoffice magazine called "Book It." We tell theater owners about great films still seeking distribution. As part of this, I'm championing a doc called Biker Fox. For all intents and purposes, this is a cult film--but before MTV has its way with it, academics should have a field day. The director of the film, Jeremy Lamberton, met the film's god-and-monster, Biker Fox (aka Frank P. DeLarzelere II), "at a Taco Bueno parking lot behind a bowling alley. The first thing he said to me was ‘Are you married?' and we decided to start shooting footage," Lamberton reveals. Fox had been an Internet troll and BMX-enthusiast of semi-renown, but there's not a lot I can say about him to communicate how low-gloss and high-yield this man is.

But part of the issue with creating a doc about Biker is the fact he's already recorded the bejeezus out of himself. "Biker's portrait photography is probably his most prolific form of media," Lamberton explains. "He carries a stash of wallet-size portraits to hand out to people. He pushes the Biker Fox brand. He has surveillance cameras in each room of his house that are broadcast over the Internet through his site."

At no point in the process is Biker Fox believable. Think of the characters in Errol Morris' Vernon, Florida or Nick Redmond's Chicken Ranch. These guys aren't crazy, but there is a "deep end" and whatever that signifies, these people teeter on its edge--and live outside the realms of our "Real." Biker not only lives in fringes, but his likeness (with all and none of such contextualized meaning) is multiplied many media over. The "brand" remains essentially the same while the medium changes, but brands have a breathing room, a porousness, that narratives can't share.

Sam Green, best known for his Oscar-nominated doc The Weather Underground, has been touring film festivals with a "live documentary" titled Utopia in Four Movements. "If I were a performance artist, I'd call it a performance, but because I'm a filmmaker I'm calling it a film," Green explains. "Sometimes it comes down to semantics." Concerned with the history and importance of this thing we call "Utopia," Green's "fancy lecture" is a Power Point presentation with QuickTime clips that he narrates, supported by a live score by the band The Quavers and co-director Dave Cerf. "There's this experience of cinema I'm really interested in," says Green. "Lights go down and you're subsumed by what's happening onscreen; that's the magic of cinema and I wanted to keep that, use that experience for the piece."

Ultimately Green is avoiding the corruption of that very specific and still familiar context of movie-dom. "Today, if you're making films, you have to accept that a lot of people will watch your film on an iPod, iPad or phone while checking e-mail... I don't want to be precious, but I do want to be particular about how people watch the film. There's this sense now that a movie is a movie no matter where it's experienced--but the context shapes your experience so much.

"The forms we're dealing with are so established and so taken for granted that when one moves between two forms--between performance and doc or between lecture and film--it simply becomes hard to talk about what ‘it' is," Green continues. "Labels no longer quite work. But being between forms is very interesting, especially today when things are falling apart. There are lots of possibilities between these established forms. Things become open and malleable."

Certainly possibilities abound; perhaps we'll reach critical mass when the quantity of media options matches the variety of the actual experiences they could represent. Yet, it seems as if the four modes we can employ to categorize documentable experiences (expository, observational, reflective and interactive, as posited by San Francisco-based educator Bill Nichols), do the job thoroughly enough. They can even be repurposed for things that ape the form.

Ira Glass, the man behind and in front of the public radio series This American Life, took his show from radio to television with minimal distress over the matter of representation. In numerous interviews on the matter, he's commented that the only surprising thing about the transition is that taking a story from audio to visual forces a sense of urgency and topicality--almost as if the visual lends a surface believability that isn't as weighty as the more ephemeral experience we'll have with a radio news story.

Green's Utopia, in its performative capacities, is more interested in intellectual inquiry than transcendence, but still contains "aha" moments.  "I don't think documentary owns [the truth], but we're living at a time when it's getting harder to put your finger on what's true and what's not," Green observes. "In our political discourse--in cultural debate--falsehood is rampant, but documentary has a special relationship with truth. You can get into all sorts of academic discussions about ‘Truth,' but I'm not interested in that. At the end of the day, everyone has a sense of what's real and what's not."

The 1939 War of the Worlds radio broadcast that mythically inspired New Yorkers to flee the city and jump to their deaths was convincing not because of what it communicated (alien invasion) but because of its strategically timed radio silences. Before Orson Welles, the velvet-voiced adapter of the H.G. Wells story, began the broadcast's soliloquy-like final act, we learned about the alien attack through scattered newscasts of unclear but disastrous events, most of which--from the science reporter to the field journalist to the military transmission--ended with radio silence. We're meant to infer the in-between stuff, and when left to our devices, we've no choice but to believe our assumptions. The answers are ours, and here the medium is embroiled in its own temporary mystery.

This kind of engagement with the medium is a goal in our pursuit of a real moment. The feeling of truth so loves to butt heads with fact...lest we conjure that old story about Charlie Chaplin winning third place in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest.

To force a definition onto the beast that is ‘The Truth,' we've created so many apparatuses and lenses.  We have a lot of media to choose from--which means we have a lot of media to study--and that old "the medium is the message" slogan is just as true now as it was when the range of media was much narrower. Answers aren't simple, but that's hardly a bad thing. "Truth is complex," Green concludes. "I'm not talking about some kind of arcane objective truth, but I'm not a post-modernist who thinks it doesn't exist either. I think it fucking exists and I'm protective of that."


 Sara Maria Vizcarrando runs the review section at Boxoffice magazine, manages the Opening Movies section at and teaches film at DeAnza College.