Monday, May 4, 2009

The State of Documentary

When it comes to documentaries, I can be a bit of a counter-snob.  Ever since my parents dragged me kicking and screaming from
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, I've been aware of the debate between the so-called "intellectuals" who profess a slavish devotion to non-fiction and those weak-willed dreamers, the "escapists," who blindly champion the art of make-believe.  Off the record, to be perfectly blunt, I am a fiction guy.  There is nothing I find more exhilarating than the human imagination.  The giddy rush I get from a triumphant piece of fiction has no analog.  Probably because great fiction always has a strong point of view.  My favorite documentaries have this same fidelity of vision -- which isn't to suggest that they can only be interpreted one way.  As far as I'm concerned, a movie's point of view can be completely ambiguous, so long as there is an organic cohesion between image and text, rhythm and tone.  Unfortunately, point of view is sorely lacking in the three films I've seen thus far at Toronto's Hot Docs International Film Festival. 

When We Were Boys, directed by Sarah Goodman, is an observational, verite-style documentary designed as an intimate portrait of pubescence, that purports to make us a fly on the wall at an all-boys private school.  Although the movie is entertaining, the rug is quickly ripped out from under its promise of daring expose.   Ultimately the film lacks shape and fails to enlighten us with any key revelations.

In contrast, Rembrandt's J'Accuse by Peter Greenaway, has too much shape and too revelatory a tone to qualify as entertainment or enlightenment.  The movie presumes to teach us about visual literacy, by uncovering the 31 "mysteries" behind the conception of Rembrandt's famous painting "The Night Watch," which hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.   My party, who had eagerly awaited the screening beforehand, managed to sit through the solution of the first six before leaving the theater for greener pastures.  

Greenaway's cerebral history lesson is constructed using a combination of beautifully photographed art stills, strangely inert dramatizations and scrolling text which looks like a CNN newsfeed, rendered in Lucida Handwriting.  Worst of all is the ill-conceived narration.  Greenaway stacks his images so we can both hear and see his narrator, using a picture-in-picture conceit that would be more at home in a bar-mitzvah video.  There is a fine line between ambition and indulgence and Mr. Greenaway should have known better.   

Art & CopyDoug Pray's history of the advertising industry is the slickest product of the three and by far the most enjoyable, but it still suffers from overlength and a reverence for its subject matter that isn't entirely deserved.  Unfortunately for Mr. Pray, the same rules that apply to fiction film also apply to documentary.  Namely, not to overdress a simple tale with a lot of phony, razzle-dazzle, smoke and mirrors. Apart from a few hilarious vintage ads, the best parts are actually the talking heads.  The film's fascination belongs to the mavericks who re-invented advertising from the ground up.   

Do not construe any of this as a dire warning about the state of documentary in general.  For now, let's just agree that documentaries have to try harder than narrative films to overcome the limitations of reality and achieve that perfect symbiosis of form and content, enlightenment and entertainment.  When they succeed the results can be truly glorious.  Just not in this case...