Sunday, May 20, 2007

The State of the Documentary in the Age of Ressentiment

Will we ever be able to escape reality?

In recent years, there seems to have been a reality glut, with reality television programs and documentary films being the only real growth industries in mass media. With 24 hour news programs and Internet access, many of us feel a gnawing responsibility to be informed about every damned thing going on in the world. However, the more information you obtain, the less understanding you have of that information. Many feel like they know a great deal of trivia with little ability to make sense of it. Perhaps this is why so many people become mouthpieces for religions or political parties- ideologies offer a sort of editing program that gives shape to the flow of sense data, largely by removing irritating counter-information.

But can we really argue that reality has triumphed, marching victoriously over the ruins of illusion? It has become a tired joke to say that reality television bears no relation to reality whatsoever. Less commented on is the fact that this is a boom age for documentaries that aren't really documentaries at all, at least not in the sense of a non-fiction film that seeks to document some aspect of lived human reality. We could perhaps say they're semi-documentary films that seek to convince their audience of a political point, but this is already the definition of propaganda. Indeed, Daniel Wood has called these films "docu-ganda''. In terms of the old cinéma vérité dream of letting the camera roll and hopefully capturing something authentic about people's lived experiences, these films are to documentaries as whistles are to plows; there's just no commonality.

The problem with these documentaries isn't with accuracy; being accurate is the easiest way of lying. Besides, documentaries have always been subject to the sort of mild inaccuracies that come from their having been shaped by sentient individuals. And some of the greatest practitioners of the form, such as Warner Herzog, have never let the facts get in the way of the truth about lived experience. There's something petty about picking at documentaries like chickens, desperately looking for inaccuracies, mistakes, or bloopers to blog about.

The problem is that the latest batch has been made by filmmakers who seem relatively uninterested in other people's lived experiences, or at least uninterested in their points of view. Documentarians like Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore seem more interested in hammering their opinions home over the course of an hour and a half than listening to people outside of their own reality tunnels. In this sense, their films resemble blogs or the other self-centered media of a generation that just isn't that into in other people, or the world outside of its own late capitalist empire of indifference. However, they're a bit more pernicious because their films, let's call them bitch-u-mentaries, are nominally about something in the outside world, and in fact claim to be very important statements about the outside world.

These bitch-u-mentaries have revived the documentary form in some way, even if they had to warp it beyond recognition to do so. Our neighborhood video store's documentary section is a virtual grab-bag of gripes. And it perhaps speaks to how callow and trite these films are that one can guess their content simply from their names. Oh, well you don't like McDonald's, do you?... And you're upset about peak oil... And you hate Wal-Mart... And you don't care for Michael Moore... Okay. Guess I'll just rent Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars again.

Perhaps it's unfair to say that these filmmakers are uninterested in other people; they simply lack empathy or good will towards those people who have committed the sin of disagreeing with them. Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbot, and Joel Bakan actually anthropomorphized The Corporation and made the case that this theoretical person should be locked up. Actually, documentarian Kirby Dick was so interested in the members of the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board that he does things in his film This Film is Not Yet Rated that amount to stalking. In fact, the ambush/interview is a common trope with these films, which often resemble Candid Camera without letting the prank victim in on the joke. Michael Moore set the standard for this sort of behavior by interviewing GM honcho Roger Smith and then making a film about 'unsuccessfully' attempting to interview him. Since then, he's made a cottage industry out of take-down bitch-u-mentaries and various take-down artists have followed in his wake. Unlike kino-pravda or cinéma vérité, which sought to capture reality warts and all, these films are just about the warts.

Perhaps the problem is with us. Maybe the ill will that animates these films comes from our own feelings of powerlessness, particularly strong among liberals, but diffused generally among Americans across the political spectrum. It's possible that the revolution will be televised simply because it couldn't possibly happen anywhere else but on TV. And certainly we should remember that issues of social justice have always been the themes of documentaries. But, there's a world of difference between Agnès Varda and Morgan Spurlock. Varda took marginalized figures and humanized them, while bitch-u-mentaries take human beings and attempt to reduce them to cartoons. To watch Harlan County, USA back-to-back with Roger and Me is to see how far we've gone, from attentive, curious and passionate to callow and glib. In fact, to watch Barbara Kopple's most recent documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing is to see how far she's gone; but she's still heads above most documentarians working today. Maybe each generation gets the documents it deserves. However, when we watch Harlan County, USA or Hearts and Minds again, and we should, I think it becomes clear that the problem isn't really with the subject matter of the gripe-u-mentaries at all.

It's a problem of form. In terms of the form of documentary film making, this boom is probably a bust. Many of these things are just ugly films, in style and tone. The dumbed-down, mean-spirited, shallow and cheap bitch-u-mentary has become the template for a genre that once, not so long ago, aimed much, much higher. What is troubling is that this generation will likely come to equate the documentary art form primarily with character assassination, balanced by occasional hagiography. And, in seeing 'reality' chronicled this way, they will further come to understand human beings as being roughly divisible into good and evil. The films foster public discussion, but only by giving their viewers portable simplistic talking-points to use against the enemy, whoever that is this week. And yet, the sort of society that expresses itself through the take-down is not indicative of a healthy democracy.

In a sense, we could say that the bitch-u-mentaries collectively chronicle a reality that they do not intend to: namely widespread Ressentiment. But, if we can't escape reality, we could at least admit that reality deserves better.

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