Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Passion of the Docs

I was thinking recently about an article I wrote for MovieMaker earlier this year called “March of the Indies.” (By the way, is there anything more precious than a writer writing about his own work? I promise that there is a point here and that I am not gazing into a mirror as I type this) In the piece, I wrote that, in the face of the overwhelming, wearing sameness of Hollywood product, indies were making a comeback. But, what I realized the other night is that almost of the films I referred to as crossover hits—March of the Penguins, Mad Hot Ballroom, even smaller scale hits like The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill—were documentaries.

Much has been made of the increasing popularity of documentaries in recent years. The reason that people often site is that it is an unexpected, positive byproduct of reality TV. Much as I hate to credit reality TV for anything, I suppose there is an element of truth to it. But, the larger question is why we are suddenly attracted to the “real.” I do believe that a lot of the credit (or blame, as it were) lies with Hollywood. Movies have become increasingly bigger, louder, more formulaic and, most importantly, harder to relate to. Audiences are looking for something to identify with on screen and they seem to be finding it in the genre of the real. If “real” is in fact a new genre, then reality programming and docs are subsets of it, serving different purposes for their creators, but perhaps not for audiences. Reality programming often seems like nothing more than a cheaper way for networks to create formulaic programming while documentaries are associated with being more personal, serious-minded works. But, for viewers—and filmmakers—perhaps this line has blurred. The work of Morgan Spurlock is a prime example, and I don’t mean that in any sort of negative way. In any case, documentaries and reality TV seem to offer audiences easier access, a way to identify more directly with the material.

But, the question, to get back to documentaries, is why does it seem that more filmmakers are attracted to making documentaries. The reasons, I believe, are many: I’ll list the all in no order of importance:
1. They are cheap to make. True, the same can be said of a low budget fiction film, but it is even more so with a doc.
2. The rules are there are no rules. With documentary still young as a mainstream commercial force, there is no formula (not yet, anyway) for how to tell a story. Look at the different structures for films like Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins, Super Size Me and Capturing the Friedmans. The formula for Hollywood movies (and to an extent, even fictional indies) is etched in stone, but with doc, as long as you can find a subject that engages an audience, you are free to tell your story any way you like.
3. It is a form that invites you to make a personal film. In fact, that is what the audience expects, even demands, a greater sense of intimacy with the material. Hell, even a studio veteran like Sydney Pollack to make the doc Sketches of Frank Gehry about his friend, the architect. Pollack even shot the thing himself with a little digital camera to ensure a greater connection with his subject.

Documentaries have been a breath of fresh air, offering more original and often more risky products (it doesn’t hurt that they try to entertain as well). It remains to be seen if the studio system will come to view this as a challenge and try to make more personal films or if they will retreat further into a formulaic cocoon.

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