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What’s up, movie doc?


What used to be considered a cinematic documentary and what used to be considered a TV documentary have now reversed places in the popular culture.  Due to the abdication of TV journalism nowadays people go to the cinema for news.

When I grew up it was common to find good investigative journalistic documentaries on TV.  I remember “The Selling of the Pentagon” which CBS broadcast in prime time in 1971.   Though its critique of the military-industrial complex was by no means commonplace, the program was absolutely in keeping with TV’s standards and practice of investigative journalism of the time.  Where are you going to find a program like that on TV today?  You don’t.  You go to the movies and watch Michael Moore.

The success of Michael Moore and Davis Guggenheim and Alex Gibney and Robert Greenwald and so many other documentary makers today can be attributed at least partly to the default of TV journalism.  As corporate power over TV networks grew – an ever shrinking number of ever greater sized corporations controlling ever greater numbers of media outlets – the reach of investigative TV journalism shrank.  Their standards shrank and their willingness to confront state and corporate power shrank.  First the major commercial networks stopped.  The non-pay cable channels never had the budgets or gumption to pick up the slack.  The last gasp, PBS, largely stopped investigative journalistic docs in the mid-90s following a previous wave of Republican attacks.  So what you used to see as standard TV has almost exclusively become the province of cinema.

Now when you want to hear an alternative political opinion, when you want to see an investigative report on the possibility of fraud in the 2000 election, on global warming, on electric cars, on medical care, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on Wall Street… you go to the movies and pay money for the privilege.  I can’t think of a single other country where this same dynamic exists.  Perhaps somewhat in Canada where state-run media has been unfunded in recent years, though not nearly as severely as the U.S.  Certainly not in Europe where these kinds of programs are still considered the exclusive domain of TV.  (For years common logic had it that Europeans won’t even go to the theaters to watch documentaries.  In the past 10-15 years that’s shifted slightly, but not because of the abdication of journalistic TV docs.)

Think about it.  What used to be brought into your home for free now you go out and pay for.  (Or stay home and pay for on Netflix or, occasionally, on HBO.)   Back before the deregulation of media industries, back before corporations were re-affirmed in their “rights” as “individuals” to free speech, back before the erosion of civil liberties protecting free speech for real individuals, when the public ownership of airwaves and bandwith was a commonly acknowledged cultural value necessary to sustain a great democracy, when edification by TV was considered as meaningful a priority as entertainment by TV, it was a popular cultural axiom that TV might actually live up to its advance billing as part of the 4th Estate – the guarantor of informed citizenry.  Were it only so today.

This cultural sea change has also fostered an accompanying set of aesthetic differences.  What used to be considered a journalistic TV aesthetic is now considered cinematic: interviews,  (endless interviews!), experts, narration (especially first person), fast editing, lower production values (poor sound, shaky camera images, flat colors), information, argumentation, charts, graphs, maps, talk, talk, talk…  Were they to form today there’s no one who would get the foundational irony of the name of the band Talking Heads.

This is not to say that these films are often not very well made and very important.  Given the dearth of journalistic docs on TV and the general supplanting of real news with infotainment, with pundits yelling at each other and bullies and comics ruling political discourse, they’re perhaps more important today than TV docs were 40 years ago.  They’re oases in political deserts.  And many of them are supremely inventive.  One of my favorites, and an early benchmark in this genre, is Manufacturing Consent.  For me the film revolutionized how complex intellectual arguments could be made suspenseful and visually arresting.

But with the ascendency of journalistic docs in theaters cinematic docs are hardly given a place anymore.   What do I mean by cinematic?  Lingering long shots - like landscapes – slower paced editing, complex sound layering, subtleties, even contradictions, of story and character, and above all narrative.   Even the best documentaries in theaters today are polemics.  They’re arguments for a specific position, often political or ideological.  Rare are the ones that simply want to tell an interesting story.  Much rarer is it to find the ones leaving you to decide what the story means.    

Look at Werner Herzog.  If ever a filmmaker deserved the big movie screen canvas it’s him.  Yet even his films live theatrically for the briefest of times, if at all, before heading to TV. 

This has also been true for my most recent film Journey from Zanskar.  One Canadian film critic called it “shockingly old-fashioned,” seemingly due to the” problems” of 3rd person narration and the strong but simple story.  One programmer for a prominent NYC art house thought the film “too TV” to book in their theater.  In fact, the thesis of this entire blog was born out to me the week after she turned the film down when she instead booked Inside Job.  (Please – no need to write in and defend the Charles Fergusons, et al.  Again, I’m passing judgment on the style and trendiness of the films they make, not their quality or importance.) 

Given today’s inverted values I can’t help but think that were Hoop Dreams released today it would never be given a chance in theaters.

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