"Shocking and hilarious" is an apt description for Liz Canner’s 2009 documentary that so far has not been seen on television. The Vermont filmmaker came to Columbia University to screen Orgasm, Inc. for Barnard/Columbia students who are active in Sexual Consent education and then screened her documentary at Columbia Journalism School for journalism students, some of whom are interested in reporting on public health issues. Mixing investigation, animation and humor may be problematic for some TV programmers but apparently not for students. The film contains a wonderful section about the history of vibrators that reminded me of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (Or The Vibrator Play) a runner-up for this year’s Pulitzer Prize. Insights that come with laughter, often uncomfortable, usually don’t reap the highest rewards. But maybe the existence of play and documentary in the same year indicate a change in the zeitgeist.
Leonard Lopate’s fascinating conversation for anyone concerned with independent media:
Tim Wu discusses the history of the information industry in America, and looks at whether the Internet will be taken over and privatized as radio and television has before it. InThe Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information, he tells stories of the power over information, and wonders if the Internet—and the entire flow of American information—will come to be ruled by one corporate leviathan.
Tim Wu in conversation with professor Richard R. John, moderated by Nicholas Lemann, Dean of Columbia Journalism School, on “History Matters: The Political Economy of the Information Age” Columbia Journalism School 3rd Floor Lecture Hall 116th Street and Broadway
Errol Morris’s new documentary Tabloid is notable for its simplicity.
He recounts the story of Joyce McKinney whose life twice intersected with tabloid sensationalism. 32 years intervened between the “sex-in-chains” and “dog cloned” stories that brought her notoriety of a sort. Now, Morris opens the pages of McKinney’s life and scrapbook again, but for what purpose? If he’s searching for truth, he does that better in The Thin Blue Line. If to tell a story of love, as he claims, he does that better in Gates of Heaven.
"No re-enactments; only six interviews," he proclaimed after the screening that was part of DOCNYC at NYU’s Kimmel Center. Archive clips, and clever graphics provide punch and comic relief.
But should someone’s life be crafted into entertainment without some larger purpose being served? The subject herself, now 60, feisty, came from the last row in the audience to the stage to object to Morris’s portrayal of her life. Was this a heartfelt complaint or a theatrical device to make us yet again question what is true? She had seen Tabloid when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, also programmed by Thom Powers of DOCNYC. So it was not the shock of first viewing her life encapsulated as entertainment.
The experience of seeing Joyce McKinney in real life reminded me of a time when I saw a “healing” evangelist “cure” a man in a television episode, and then a few days later I saw the same evangelist in a live ceremony/service at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles “heal” the very same person from the videotape on stage.
So has Errol Morris made us think about What is True? Yes, but has he added to what we don’t know about tabloid behavior? We already have sufficient reason to be suspect of tabloid headlines and stories, and he has had sufficient experience as a private investigator and documentary filmmaker to disclose the truth to the extent that it’s knowable and to be clear about what isn’t known. Does he believe that if the film is open-ended, more people will want to see it and decide for themselves what actually happened? Is that an effective entertainment strategy? Think Capturing the Friedmans.
Werner Herzog, who opened DOCNYC with his new 3D film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, said that he felt Tabloid was Errol Morris’s most interesting film since Vernon, Florida, a curious comment since it leaves out the entire center of Morris’s documentary filmmaking career. Herzog, cantankerous and lovable as ever, is an extraordinary essayist whose best documentary work (Grizzly Man, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Encounters at the End of the World) involves acute observation of human behavior and experience. Limited in his access to the Chauvet caves discovered in 1994, Herzog speculates and fantasizes about the lives of the hunters who lived and drew on the walls in Southern France as long as 32,000 years ago. He tells us what scenes he staged and why.
We enjoy Herzog and Morris as they enjoy their celebrity. Whatever they do, we are glad that these masters of documentary are still adding to their body of work.
A filmmaker should not ask someone to “do it again,” but rather think hard about what he missed or didn’t get and find a shot, scene, or emotion that is equivalent.
A CBS News cameraman once said to me, when I bemoaned his missing what I thought was a crucial shot, “If I had a dollar for every “essential” shot that I’d missed, I would be a rich man.” Since he was one of the best cinematographers at CBS, I had to think seriously about what he meant.
If gesture is our first language, then paying attention to gesture and other details that make a moment particularly meaningful will yield other opportunities to capture the essence of a person or action. But it’s quicker and often seems easier to “stage” a scene as a real estate agent arranges to “stage” an apartment to promote a sale.
Capturing Life as It Unfolds
Prior to fifty years ago when portable, synchronized-sound cameras were developed by the pioneers of cinema-verite, filmmakers directed the actions of nearly everyone who appeared prominently in a documentary. Documentary filmmakers became exceptionally good at directing subjects or characters to do for film what they did normally in daily life. Today, documentary filmmakers have become exceptionally good at capturing life as it happens. Without thoroughly researching and collaborating with their subjects, those who direct non-actors in a documentary are apt to get stiff, awkward scenes that stand out. Even if they succeed in creating a believable scene, they have made their subjects – if not their audience – skeptical of their honesty.
Comprehensive Education, not Comprehensive Documentaries
Making a comprehensive documentary about education is impossible and is certainly more elusive than writing the Great American Novel. What Waiting for Superman and similar films do is put education reform on the American agenda because social action funders have decided that is a worthy goal. Good, focused reporting might produce documentaries that show what is possible as well as the odds against achieving it. I prefer A Small Act, which just opened in theatres in New York. It shows how one person made a difference in another’s education and he paid it forward.
Patrick Kimani, left, in the documentary “A Small Act,” which is now playing at Quad Cinemas in New York City.
The Lottery, when it doesn’t try to be comprehensive, focuses on the Harlem Success Academy and, likeWaiting for Superman, profiles parents who urgently want a good education for their child.
When I was in high school, I remember asking my father how voters could have defeated a school bond issue that the local press had portrayed as crucial. He said, maybe half of the voters don’t have children in the public schools so they don’t want to pay taxes to improve them. Does anyone think that has changed?