IN CASE YOU haven’t noticed, documentaries are hot. No longer the domain of university film leagues and vintage un-P.C. jokes — “How many lesbians does it take to screw in a light bulb? One to turn the bulb and 20 to make a documentary about it” — nonfiction films are cheap to make and increasingly free of the esoteric artiness, and sometimes outright pretentiousness, that gave the genre its elitist reputation.
Al Gore (and friends) accepted the Oscar for “An Inconvenient Truth,” which waltzed into the winner’s circle as a box office phenomenon and obvious shoo-in, even though it wasn’t much more than a riveting PowerPoint presentation with good lighting. Recently, there have been rumblings from the scientific community about Gore’s grasp of the details. Few doubt his premise, yet scientists (on both sides of the debate) have suggested that some of his arguments — such as suggesting a direct cause-effect between global warming and hurricanes — were exaggerated for the purposes of getting people’s attention.
But who can blame him? Now that the documentary game is taking on many of the high-stakes qualities of Hollywood, it seems that only the sexiest (or most alarmist) will survive. Yet the pleasures of documentaries (at least in this elitist’s opinion) come from the triumph of grit and substance over flashy theatrics. And though it’s naive to assume that any form of documentation other than, say, the phone book, is purely objective, the best nonfiction filmmakers have had a stake in letting their subjects speak for themselves and allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions — even when they weren’t sure what those conclusions were.
Michael Apted’s ongoing “Up” series, which began with a portrait of 14 English 7-year-olds in 1964 called “7 Up” and checks in with them every seven years (“49 Up” was released in 2005), raises questions about the British class system but refrains from shoving polemics down our throats. In the 1975 classic, “Grey Gardens,” Albert and David Maysles focus on the bizarre and squalid lives of a mother and daughter (Jacqueline Kennedy’s aunt and first cousin, as it happens) and, with limited intervention, tell a story about isolation, mental illness and the complexities of inherited wealth.
There are many more where those came from. But aside from some noteworthy exceptions (“Capturing the Friedmans,” “Grizzly Man” and the TV mini-series “The Staircase” come to mind) we rarely see such movies anymore — and not just because our ability to sit through long scenes with no cutaways or animated graphics has been worn away by the legacy of Short Attention Span Media. We rarely see them because, in many cases, the focus has shifted from the films’ subject matter to the filmmakers’ agendas.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that — this elitist’s all-time favorite doc is the hilariously navel-gazing “Sherman’s March,” which follows director Ross McElwee on a botched mission to chronicle the fall of the Confederacy — but too many of these directors don’t know the difference between hammering us with their opinions and laying out the evidence so that we can decide.
Call it the Michael Moore syndrome. It’s hard not to like his films (and many of us do: “Fahrenheit 9/11" grossed nearly $120 million in the U.S. alone), and yet you don’t need to be a right-wing nut to see that he twists his material to suit his perspective.
From the loins of Moore sprang Morgan Spurlock, of the Oscar-nominated “Super Size Me,” who decided the best way to expose the malfeasance of the fast-food industry was to eat nowhere but at McDonald’s for 30 days and monitor his health deterioration. While we didn’t learn much from that movie that serious journalists hadn’t objectively reported in far greater detail, it proved to be good for Spurlock. He got his own documentary television show on the FX channel, “30 Days,” wherein he (or occasionally someone else) got immersed in an alien culture and lived to tell the tale: surviving on minimum wage, serving time. You get the picture.
Actually, we don’t get the picture. In Spurlock’s work, and in the work of many contemporary documentarians, we get a picture of the filmmaker’s p.o.v. and not much else. That’s because this crop of documentarians doesn’t seem to believe that shooting real life — what happens without their interference — is sufficiently interesting.
Along the way, a strange thing happens. The filmmakers’ hipper-than-thou preachiness (or, in Gore’s case, unhipper-than-thou earnestness) makes us inclined to pick fights with them. Before too long we find ourselves arguing against dire predictions about global warming and eating Big Macs while we’re doing it. Why? Because even though these movies are labeled “provocative,” there used to be another word for this style of film. It also starts with the letter P.
That’s not to say that the true-believer “embellishments” in “An Inconvenient Truth” deeply discredit the movie. But if Gore gets his own show on FX, I may start cutting down trees. On the other hand, he could team up with Spurlock and spend 30 days in the White House. From there, he could propagandize with impunity.