Drowning the Document

It happened while my partner was watching Keith Richards:  Under the Influence.  “This isn’t bad,” she said, “but it seems so much like an advertisement for his book.”  I couldn’t help but agree; taken all in all, Under the InfluenceLife, and Crosseyed Heart seem less like disparate threads in one man’s artistic tapestry than they do interchangeable pieces of a highly calculated marketing campaign.  It’s not as if the Rolling Stones aren’t already egregious practitioners of the money-grab, but this seemed particularly shabby; regardless of its artistic merits, does the the world really need another filmed document about that particular band?  Their lives have been more precisely chronicled on film more than those of the ten men who have been president of the United States since they played their first gig in 1962.

The Stones aside, it’s become clear that we may be nearing Peak Documentary.  It was easy to see this coming; with the rise of digital film technology, the ubiquity of streaming video, and the proliferation of film festivals, there was a sudden rush to present the life story of practically everyone who ever recorded an album, made a movie, or in other wise appealed to an impressionable college student.  A critical benchmark may have been reached in 2008 with the release of Busted Circuits and Ringing Ears, which documented the rise and fall of Seattle grunge unit Tad.  It’s not that Tad wasn’t a good band; they were (and are) excellent.  It’s just that, well, they were just a band, without a juicy murder, scandal, or early death to pad out the running time.  At 93 minutes, you could play all of their first three albums in their entirety and more or less be done with it.  If Tad deserves to have a documentary made about them, who doesn’t?

Nobody, comes the answer from America’s filmmakers.  Practically every band who put out a t-shirt from 1965 to 2010 has now had their brilliance committed to film; documentaries are being made about ethnic cuisines, short-lived dance crazes, minor Hollywood luminaries, human interest flashes in the pan, and even televised moments that lasted five minutes.  Every sports star, author, or comedian with the slightest following gets a documentary made about them if they’re willing to sit still for the cameras. Material that was once fodder for, at best, a DVD bonus feature is now being presented as if it’s a worthy addition to a canon that includes the Maysles Brothers, Les Blank, and Chris Marker.  There’s even a documentary about the making of a streaming-only television sequel to a minor cult movie that hardly anybody saw in the first place.

The most amazing thing about this glut of documentaries is that they’re coming at a time when the ability to make non-documentary narrative feature films is quickly vanishing.  Everyone from traditional movie critics to actual Hollywood directors have spent endless time wringing their hands about how the movie industry’s risk-averse practices — investing all their money in sequels, remakes, reboots, and other safe-as-milk blockbuster fodder– are choking out the possibility of getting funding, or an audience, for anything that doesn’t fit that mold.  If it’s becoming that difficult to make a narrative feature, is our only alternative a glut of documentaries that seem to be reaching a point of diminishing returns with extreme rapidity?

Much of the problem is simple economics:  documentaries, especially ones that don’t require a great deal of intellectual property clearances, are cheap and easy to make.  You find a subject, you sit them in front of a digital camera, you mix in a little bit of old video footage if you can somehow snag the music rights, and presto, you’re done.  But this economic reality allows for a lot of movies that wouldn’t ordinarily get made to stand a chance of widespread distribution, for no other reason than that the constantly balkanizing content streams have a lot of programming bandwidth to fill up.  The hurdle for professionalism has never been lower, and the result is a sort of work-study program for what would otherwise be amateur film students and underemployed graphic designers.  Compounding this is the fact that in the past, the subject of a documentary had to clear the bar of either fame (real fame, as in being someone of global renown or widespread influence) or notoriety (meaning that there was some particular crime, gossip, or succès de scandale behind the story).  Now, many documentaries are made by fans, and document nothing but the art and the creator, as if there’s some driving necessity to make a two-hour movie about every cultural product ever generated.

This even infects otherwise excellent documentaries.  Sini Anderson’s 2013 documentary about Kathleen Hanna, The Punk Singer, was very well done on many levels, but too much of it was dedicated to Hanna’s peers, contemporaries, and inheritors talking about how great she was — something which viewers really don’t need to be convinced of, because otherwise, why would they be watching a documentary about her?   (A similar problem marked the Minutemen documentary We Jam Econo.  A bigger fan of the band than me would be hard to find, but why spend a half an hour of screen time telling me what I already know?)  And, just as we are seeing a depressing crop of text-heavy comics that ‘explain’ some social issue or another while lacking any of the visual dynamism that makes the medium unique, so too are we cursed with more and more documentaries that can’t think of a particularly interesting way to make what is, critically and not peripherally, a visual medium consist of more than talking heads,  shaky archival footage, and dismayingly literal animation.

It was not too long ago that everyone with an opinion on the matter was calling this a golden age of the documentary, and it cannot be denied that, for all the pessimism the flood of second-rate material inspires, there is some tremendous work being done in the medium.  But the functional changes wrought by technological advances, as well as a general disappearance of professionalism as a barrier to entry, has lead to an awful lot of chaff needing to be sorted.  Much as the age of ‘quality television’ has been mirrored by a tide of impossibly bad reality television, so too has the golden age of the documentary seen its parallel in crummy docs that wouldn’t have passed muster a decade ago.  There was a time when skilled critics with a solid platform to act as gatekeeper for this sort of thing, but those days, too, are a quaint relic of a fading past.

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