Documentary Travels

February 27, 2010

My Netflix queue has recently deluged me with a slew of migratory films that track from fiction, to documentary, to stage, and back again: Grey Gardens, Trumbo, Every Little Step.

One might readily ask, why does a really good thing in its form and in its time (a play, say, “A Chorus Line”) need to be turned into a mediocre documentary or visa versa (a great documentary into a good play into a lousy fiction film, “Grey Gardens”)? The easiest reply would be to turn to the economic model currently dominating mainstream media: the familiar re-packaging of familiar forms to service a lazy audience (Transformers, Spider Man) and timid industry. Another answer turns to digital-media studies, and Henry Jenkins’ celebrated theories of convergence: new media now readily allows players (big and small) to move texts across platforms to reach audiences and satisfy their insatiable consumer hungers (for Harry Potter, Twilight, or campy carnival). A third answer would point to the continuing growth of interest in documentary (or really, reality programming) as both economic and formal favorite: take something from the theater to a documentary and grow your audience from the crusty white middle aged denizens of 42nd Street.

Yet, while all useful, and undoubtedly true, these all seem too utilitarian to me. Artists and audiences move to the documentary form because it has pleasures and strengths in it own right: and most of these have been missed or messed up in these translations. “Grey Gardens” makes the case most poignantly. The original documentary of two expressive, outlandish, troubled women catches the trashy, witty surface of how they live, what they say, what they remember and choose to tell. A play or fiction film gets to fill in the blanks through artful reenactments, showing us what was never recorded (the past of the house and its inhabitants in their prime) but the pleasure and power of documentary is that all of reality can NOT be recorded and is not recordable and it is those very gaps that provide meaning, pathos and structure for the best documentaries. “Every Little Step” demonstrates a reverse logic. What started with a documentary impulse, to record the thoughts and conversations of dancers, became a play because this form was best to fill in the feelings, affect, and movement that is often hidden or impossible to record in the superficial self-conscious staged interview-based performance of self often enacted for a documentary camera. To move it back to a documentary that shows a lot of auditions without any of the “deep” backstory that the play itself so artfully provided marks another great loss across today’s easy genre-shifting.

I am not saying artists should not move from documentary to fiction, but rather, that when doing so pay more attention to the distinct pleasures, powers, and limitations of the varied forms, not melting them into each other in the ready by unthunk place of convergence mediocrity.