Make It Real: I Was Up Above It, Now I’m Down In It
Making documentary films is simultaneously a humbling and empowering enterprise. It takes letting real events and people dictate, at least to some degree, the contours of a project; it also involves presenting and packaging those events, and characterizing people. Most films implicitly emphasize the former while downplaying the latter. Yet among the films that don’t gloss over a filmmaker’s intervening hand, different temperaments come into play. Some worry about wielding that kind of power. And others just really own it.
At the Sundance Film Festival this past January all of these tendencies were in evidence. In fact, 2016 was the most diverse survey, formally and stylistically speaking, that I’ve encountered in the decade-plus that I’ve attended the festival. But I was struck by the gap between the worriers (Kate Plays Christine, Cameraperson), more prominent at Sundance than ever before, and the wielders (Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, Tickled)—a gap that’s widening in documentary today on both formal and philosophical grounds.
In two very different but equally forceful ways, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine and Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson encourage viewers to question what the director is doing, and how. In Greene’s film, in which actress Kate Lyn Sheil attempts both to investigate and to embody troubled newscaster Christine Chubbuck, every decision is brought under scrutiny, including but not limited to the choice and treatment of the subjects, the shaping of the narrative, the efficacy of the conceit, and the methods of execution. Through interviews and interactions with subject/performer/collaborator Sheil, Greene as filmmaker is openly questioned within the frame of his own film. Meanwhile in Cameraperson, a memoir-essay comprised of footage that the ace cinematographer shot for other filmmakers, Johnson reexamines her own decisions through her edit, choosing clips that don’t necessarily flatter or celebrate her work, and juxtaposes them in ways that constantly interrogate her process and profession. She may not have a Sheil on camera calling her out, but the whole enterprise underscores and interrogates the subjectivity of the person charged with capturing and framing events.
Kate Plays Christine
In neither film does our awareness of the director’s role endow an exalted status. And in neither case does the director leverage his or her relationship with the audience against the people we’re watching on screen. In Kate Plays Christine, these include Sheil, as well as the residents of Sarasota interviewed by Sheil, and local actors cast alongside Sheil to dramatize scenes from Chubbuck’s life. Everyone knows there’s a film happening, and most everyone gets a chance not only to speak but to push the discourse in new or even contradictory directions. In Cameraperson, we’re often left feeling concerned about people on screen in spite of Johnson’s camera (though also in light of it): a toddler coming too close to an axe wielded by his older brother as Johnson keeps rolling, a fixer/driver being directed by the filmmakers into dangerous territory. Greene and Johnson don’t ask for us to see them as saviors. In fact they’re often penitent, exalting those they film in relation to their own imperfections. Realizing the flawed refractions offered by the filmmakers, we’re interested in seeing their subjects more clearly.
That’s in heavy contrast to the filmmakers who are also fully present and accounted for in Tickled and Lo and Behold. In the former, cheeky New Zealand TV reporter David Farrier’s attempts to delve into the subculture of competitive tickling are met with startlingly aggressive rebuffs and weirdly personal (and bigoted) attacks, which causes him to double-down on his reporting, culminating in a low-rent international sting of some very shady characters. The film begins with a montage of Farrier’s TV reports, and proceeds with him as our main character, seated at his office desktop scrolling through messages on Facebook, driving his car, preparing to travel. Via voiceover and in scene, he’s funny, pithily engaging, self-deprecating. He’s also, along with his co-director Dylan Reeve, apt to get laughs first, and ask questions later. Time and again, we’re introduced to a new subject through a sight gag. The VO sets the stage, then we cut to a face, or to a man being tickled, and laughter ensues. The cut, in this approach, is Pavlovian in its effects—it’s an edit as punchline.
The master of this technique is Michael Moore, whose latest film, Where to Invade Next, opened theatrically last Friday. While the punchline cut remains a crucial bow in Moore’s quiver, it’s more rote shtick than pointed or damning critique. His latest is a film in which onscreen subjects are rarely the subject of scrutiny, but rather exemplars of certain ways of thinking and living. Thanks to these punctuated cuts and sight gags, we’re first invited to laugh at these European weirdos with their non-American looks and activities, then realize how much we can learn from them. The “we” here being Americans, since the film doesn’t just presuppose an American audience, it constructs one. Even as Where To Invade ultimately ennobles those it films, it also establishes terms of difference—with the filmmaker casting himself as bridge-builder. There’s purpose to this, an impulse to persuade skeptics to accept different points of view, but it involves assuming, and in a sense prefabricating, that skepticism. Construct straw man, dismantle straw man. The labor of the filmmaker is an essential component of this method. It may be demonstrative in intent, but it’s also, and inevitably, lionizing. As constructed, the humanizing of subjects is defined by the film’s passage from sight gag to respectful portraiture. It involves a hocus pocus of humanization, turning the film’s own sight gags into respectful portraits.
That’s certainly a technique employed by Tickled. One of the few genuine tickle fetishists featured in the film (which is actually far more concerned with creepy litigious trolls than about tickling or tickle competitions—about which there’s still much to learn, and document, for those inclined), is shamelessly introduced via one of these punctuated cuts, his ordinary middle-aged face somehow hilarious and indicative… of something. What follows are languorous, slow-motion, stylishly lit shots of his S&M bench and accoutrements—passing from Michael Moore to Errol Morris territory—complicating our laughter with mystery and strangeness before the subject gets a chance to speak and come sympathetically to life. From supposedly funny-looking to supposedly weird to, well, a person, our generosity towards people on screen has been granted and authored by the filmmaker—it’s never a given.
Sometimes it’s never granted at all. As I’ve reported elsewhere, I watched the film at the cramped, densely seated Library Theater in Park City, about six inches from one of the film subjects associated with the creepy tickle cult mastermind who becomes central to the narrative. The gentleman in question doesn’t come off particularly well in the film—he’s fairly terrifying in a slovenly way—though he’s hardly given much of a chance. In fact he’s rarely on screen when he’s chosen to be filmed. Farrier greets a contingent of these tickle associates at the New Zealand airport with a camera, which they quickly wish to avoid. Then he surreptitiously records planned meetings with these associates, first with a hidden recorder, later with a hidden camera. At no point do Farrier and Reeve invite us to question the ethics of this technique, or put us in the shoes of those we’re ambushing. It’s assumed that these people, whom we do not know, and never learn much about, are deserving of this, and are furthermore fairly served by it. Judging from the agitated, bizarre behavior of the subject in the theater, I’m not exactly keen to know more about this person. But from where I sat, I also couldn’t help thinking how unfair it would feel to have my face serve as a punchline, to have an audience of people guffaw at my squirmy requests to not be filmed, for a filmmaker to assert his own humanity over mine.
Which brings us to Werner Herzog—a great, thoughtful, wickedly ambitious filmmaker exercising some of his worst tendencies in Lo and Behold, a meandering survey of whatever the director finds interesting or horrifying about the Internet. I’ll save my complaints about the slightness, rank dilettantism, and visual impoverishment of this film for another time, and focus only on the positioning of the filmmaker in relation to his subjects, and the ways in which Herzog curries favor with his audience at his subject’s expense. This isn’t a new development for Herzog, but it struck me as especially off-key and out of touch this time around. Other filmmakers at Sundance like Green, Johnson, Michal Marczak (All These Sleepless Nights), Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe (The Bad Kids), Kim A. Snyder (Newtown), and Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated) variously tried to get closer to their subjects, either through copping to their own lens or attempting to remove themselves from it. Herzog however looks from on high, as if through a microscope, at all these fascinating creatures squirming about down there. His internationally beloved stentorian voiceover is in full effect, and it’s hard to imagine that he’s not at least somewhat in on the joke. But instead of full self-parody, instead of letting us laugh at his expense to the benefit of those he’s filming (a tack that Moore edges into exploring in his films), Herzog uses that self-awareness as further leverage against his subjects. Laugh with me, not against me, as we look at the freaks.
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
As a young Internet addict talks thoughtfully about her situation, Herzog frames her to emphasize the stuffed animal posed next to her on the couch. Eventually we cut to a comparatively empathetic close-up, but that infantilizing freak shot crucially comes first. A family talks frankly about the daughter gruesomely killed in a car accident and made into a macabre viral phenomenon, a scene Herzog shoots like an antiseptic Ulrich Seidl horror tableau. The parents stammer through the terrible tale from behind a kitchen island in a formidable suburban home, flanked by grim daughters, all but one of who say nothing. Eventually it comes out that they’re fundamentalist Christians, which instead of deepening the portrait, warps it, with the camera just hanging there, merciless in a moment calling for mercy. Herzog teaches us to look this way. A steady wind of What do you have to tell or show us about the human condition? blows through every shot. You don’t have to be disinterested in the human condition to feel that such a wind is often unfair, and limiting, and supremely condescending to those it breaches. It’s not just a filmmaking technique—it’s a way of understanding the world.
In the sequence with the grieving family, that kitchen island is crucial. There’s a heavy, granite-topped piece of furniture between them and us. It makes for a striking shot, but it also keeps us back. Not everyone in the film is shot this way, and there’s even affection shared with people Herzog clearly considers fellow travelers. But that’s just it—not everyone is extended the same courtesy and accommodation. We’re with Werner, and with whomever Werner wants to have around. The rest may as well be of a different species.
Some cuts, and some shots, bring us closer to people. Others create or maintain distance. Whatever a film’s end or ambition, this is always useful information. After reaching an apex during the ’90s and ’00s—an era of iconoclastic on-camera or heavy-handed documentarians—the impulse to emphasize, maintain, or benefit from tactics of distance seems to be on the wane. Culturally, technologically, formally, there are greater opportunities, as well as a greater appetite, for intimacy and candor. And in terms of our shared vocabulary, our collective understanding of media and its depictions and manipulations of people, I’d say we’re less in need of a strong hand to show us how, when, and why to feel. Admit, or explore that you’re in the way—otherwise maybe consider getting out of it. You may get fewer laughs, but humility in the face of the unknowable is always a better look.