November 9, 2010

Documentary subject matter vs. quality

Recently, I saw two of the most buzzed-about documentaries of the year, Waiting for "Superman" and Inside Job. Despite the extremely urgent and pertinent subject matter (education and the financial collapse, respectively) and the universal critical praise, why did I find the net result to be rather underwhelming?

While some might grumble that narrative films about wars or social issues get a lot more love at Oscar time, the disparity becomes jacked up so much in the documentary world that a nonfiction film can coast on its subject alone. In an article over at Cinematical earlier this year, Christopher Campbell notes that despite its worthy topic, he found the documentary Food Inc. to be downright mediocre. He claims that "the majority ignored the problems with its storytelling, editing and narrowness of testimony because they favored the cause," and offered excerpts from critics who were essentially unable to defend the film on its own merits but just kept stressing that people should see it. Despite the opportunities offered by the cinematic medium, he concludes that the film offered nothing beyond the book on which it was based.

Now, I will say that making a documentary about an issue as opposed to a specific person, group or event poses great challenges. Do you include lots of facts and figures? Interviews with experts, the common man, or both? What stance do you take? These questions have no right answers, but with Inside Job and Waiting for "Superman" I can't help but feel that something was wrong about the approach.

WfS must be making serious bank off the guilt of the privileged and insulated, because the chatter in the ladies' room afterwards seemed to indicate certain viewers' lack of awareness of the state of American education. Listen, I don't expect everyone to know the details and statistics, but as far as I'm concerned knowing that education here is awful is as basic as knowing that we went to war with Iraq. But I guess if everyone knew that, not as many people would be finding the film so eye-opening. As a way of demonstrating its point, the film follows a handful of students in different cities in their quest to escape the public school system and get into a private or charter school. I had trouble getting involved in these stories, because of the distance maintained by the constant reminder that the education of these kids isn't what's really at stake, but they're Representative of a Larger Issue.

I also understand a documentary's desire to convey a specific stance, but even with my limited knowledge of the situation I know that nothing on earth is as binary and straightforward as the director, Davis Guggenheim, makes it out to be. Basically, the take-home message is that everything is the fault of the cackling, nefarious cults known as teachers' unions, and we just need to send all kids to charter schools because charter schools are perfect. But how convenient that all the charter schools they feature are excelling, which is not entirely representative of how they're actually faring nationwide. And how convenient that it's entirely the fault of the unions, and has nothing to do with politicians, government, parents, or anyone else. Look, I'm fine with biased documentaries, and if you're Michael Moore you're sure as hell going to leave out any information that hurts your cause. But if a film is urging reform, I think it's actually detrimental to say there's only a single cause and single solution. Why was there no mention, for instance, of Brockton High School, which went from performing dismally to outperforming most of the state by an aggressive implementation of literacy and writing lessons in every class, including gym? There was no government involvement, no unions got their feathers ruffled, it didn't cost a thing, and no personnel was shuffled. Did I mention that this was at a school with 4,100 students? Where's the documentary on that? I suppose that ultimately, this film can be galvanizing and startling to those who genuinely believe that the American education system is peachy. For everyone else, however, it's clunky and simplistic, and its likelihood of winning the Oscar because the voters feel guilty about sending their kids to private school bums me out.

Inside Job, conversely, could never conceivably be described as simplistic - it's a barrage of information that's actually pretty well organized. The problem, though, is that the movie has no exclusive information. Oh sure, there are plenty of interviews, but they don't offer anything new - economists and scholars reemphasize that they predicted the meltdown, and the fat cats squirm in the spotlight and act like nothing happened. All the information is already out there - frequently on the front page - making the film simply a synthesis. That's fine, I guess, but I tend to agree with critic Shawn Levy's assessment that it hasn't "been rendered in a way that's genuinely worth paying contemporary movie ticket prices to learn about." I couldn't help but wondering if it was really more of a TV special, something in the vein of 20/20 perhaps. Had it been produced and aired in that format, it probably would have reached a significantly wider audience. But instead they had Matt Damon narrate it, released it in theaters and cinched a Best Documentary nomination.

Look, I'm always glad when any form of media gets people talking, especially about issues and current events. I just don't think that should be confused with good filmmaking, and if the best-made documentary of the year is actually about a cute kitten with a funny hat, it should be recognized as such. What do you think? Does subject matter trump all? What was your reaction to these films?

1 comment:

joem18b said...

Great post.

I've noticed when checking Rotten Tomatoes, for example, for highest-ranked films, most up there in the 90% range are documentaries. This suggests to me that to most reviewers, subject is more important than the art used in producing the films. I say this because it can't be the case that all these 90% films are artistically superior somehow to Hollywood dramas.

For myself, I gave up on issue documentaries when Bush got reelected. Perhaps I'll have one final look when somebody makes "The Last Polar Bear."