Please Lower the Authorial Voice

{Note: Finally reëmerging from the 80 hour work weeks of summer in a restaurant, I am going to dust off some old pieces and post them here, if that’s okay. There are some outdated passages here and there.}

What sort of story would your life make if told in documentary form? Would it be an inspiring account of genius that went unnoticed for decades before finally it was finally rediscovered and celebrated, as in the great Searching for Sugarman? Would it be part of a larger story of greed and corruption laid bare before the glare of camera lights, like the bracing Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room? Would you be a hero, David taking on Goliath, like Edward Snowden in Whistleblower? A villain, like Dick Cheney in Fahrenheit 911? Or would you, more likely, be the same old bewildered and fallible mortal being stumbling through a random series of events and trying to create meaning from them that you are now? Because, frankly, I hate to break it to you, but your existential dilemmas just don’t make for good cinema!

The forthcoming {and here, dear friends, is just such an outdated paragraph} Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is very likely to write with flamethrower the scathing story of David Muscavige, current President of the Church of Scientology. Billed as an eye-opening exposé, the documentary is expected to be a bombshell blast, blowing gaping holes in the already leaky hull of the Church while the rest of us duck for cover in the safety of our living rooms. And yet, the question remains: since we already know, in rough outline, what the movie is going to say about Scientology, what surprises could it really hold? What reason is there to watch it?

I am reminded here of something a professor friend often says about the academic books she reads: “If you can tell from the title what argument it’s going to make, it’s probably not a very sophisticated book.” Modern documentaries suffer from the trouble of trying to make an argument in the first place. Inspired by the success of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, an entire genre (that we might call gripe-u-mentaries) has come to prominence whose films generally attempt to spell out the argument against a governmental or corporate power, or valorize the life of an iconoclastic individual (or movement) against a corrupt system. At times, as in An Inconvenient Truth, they resemble a particularly overblown campaign ad. With a few notable exceptions, usually by Werner Herzog or Errol Morris, most documentaries of the current boom seem to be modeled after reality television, edited and molded to tell a simple story of bad guys and good guys. Watch the trailer and you’ve seen the movie. So, why do you need to see the movie?

This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy these movies. I often enjoy them quite a bit, but something still seems missing. Of all people, punk music godfather and perpetual grouch Ian MacKaye brought the point home in a recent interview about the numerous documentaries that have recently employed him as a talking shaved head. “This is a real problem with modern documentaries,” he said in yet another interview for Billboard Magazine, “If you look at almost any modern documentary it has a narrative arc. If you look at earlier documentaries, like by the Maysles, there’s no narrator. I mean obviously they’re editing stuff together so they have some God control over the storyline to some degree and they can shape it, but there’s no one telling you what to think necessarily.”

Think of the great documentaries of the past and you’ll remember them not so much as arguments, but as moments, tones, and colors. The washed out browns of Grey Gardens in contrast with the vibrant colors of Little Edie waving her flag. The palpable undercurrent of malaise beneath the golden farmlands of God’s Country. The sun-washed green pet graves of Gates of Heaven. The somber grays shading into black of The Sorrow and the Pity. Drawing from a tradition of literary journalism established by writers like Lincoln Steffens, Mary McCarthy, Stephen Crane, and Jack London, the observational documentarians sought to establish the feeling of a particular time and place as it was without imposing a strictly polemical narrative on events, while current documentaries draw more clearly and openly from reality television and cable biopics. Thought to lack the patience to simply watch things unfold over long takes, we are asked instead to agree.

My favorite documentary, to this day, is one that I’m not sure I could even summarize. Agnes Varda’s Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) begins by telling us about the “gleaners” in impressionist paintings who could be found among the rural peasantry collecting what was left after the harvest. Varda then ties the tradition of gleaning to the poor who rummage after leftovers at outdoor French markets. Finally, she tells of the ideas, images, and gewgaws she has gleaned through her years of art-making, meditating throughout on the passing of time and the signs of her own eventual mortality. It is a beautiful, Proustian rumination on life, what we carry along with us, and what we lose, from a brilliant filmmaker who is still learning through her art what she is saying and asking us, the audience, for clues about what we make of it. It’s a conversation instead of a lesson.

Perhaps the problem is just that we just don’t have much experience with Proust or Sartre anymore. We still see a life as a triumph over adversity in the Horatio Alger mode, a fall to greed and corruption in the Citizen Kane mode, or a David and Goliath struggle in the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington mode. We want art that tells us a clean story with a beginning, middle, and end and then lets us on our way. But great art stays with us because it suggests things and lets us spend the rest of our lives working out our own arguments about what those things really mean.


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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16 thoughts on “Please Lower the Authorial Voice

  1. Where do docu-dramas like The Jungle, and especially, Uncle Tom’s Cabin fit in? Polemical, not very sophicated, but arguably two of the most influential works of their type in American history (even if Sinclair was actually trying to achieve socialism instead of an FDA)

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  2. I am reminded here of something a professor friend often says about the academic books she reads: “If you can tell from the title what argument it’s going to make, it’s probably not a very sophisticated book.

    I knew she was going to say that.

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  3. Oddly enough, I was reading a little on the New Journalism just last night and that strikes me as what has happened here. The need to put oneself into the picture, even through a narrator, is just too strong at this point. And until something breaks through, fundamentally changes the art form, this is what we will get.

    Those films you mention at the top, they aren’t documentaries, they are opinion pieces. They aren’t someones attempt to get to the heart of the matter, they are modern day yellow journalism. Compare Fahrenheit 911 with Shoah. If for no other reason, the former becomes agitprop just because of its timing. There is no way to get the actual facts needed to make something like that. So, it needs to be something that gets heads nodding. That shows just how Right On it is. It won’t change any ones mind, the people watching it already agree with it. The people not watching it, they look at the film makers name and move on.

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  4. , I simply must tease you about the diaeresis. If you can provide us with an army of fact-checkers and proofreaders the like of which are found in the New Yorker, then I’ll “reëxamine” my opinion and look favorably upon that publication’s editorial model. Until then, I’ll maintain that the proper verb is “to re-examine”.

    Well-taken, though, is the reminder that storytelling in a visual medium is driven by visuals as much, if not more, than narratives. This is one reason that I’m not at all confident that whatever skill I’ve amassed at the use of prose would translate into a format like a screenplay.

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    • I do it as a nod to the New Yorker, which amuses me for some reason. I like to think that they see it and consider Ordinary Times to be part of a sort of gang.

      It’s interesting to me how many of the films that have stuck with me- La Strada, Blue Velvet, even E.T.- would work equally well as dreams or silent movies.

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  5. The last documentary I watched had no real agenda, and was deathly boring. Plus, the filmography was hideous. A Spell To Ward off the Darkness, if you really, really want to spend 15 minutes of your life watching a sunrise on water.

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