I am by far not an authority on documentary films. I grew up largely not watching them, then something occurred in my teens when I caught the Fugazi documentary Instrument. This was something different, something artful. I didn’t learn too much about Fugazi, but I did get lost in their ambient music and the director’s mesmerizing sense of timing and film manipulation. This movie wasn’t trying to tell me something, it was trying to show me something, something natural and human.
Something else happened while I was a teenager: Bowling for Columbine was released. Columbine was the first occurrence I remember hearing about from national news (bar Bill Clinton’s whole blowjob thing and my dad awkwardly trying to explain, in simple terms, what oral sex was. Thanks Newt Gingrich), and like any kid raised in a conservative household, I was all about this liberal viewpoint that seemed so humane compared to the otherness of that bloodthirsty, republican side that he represented with everything but devil horns (or maybe those were there, I don’t remember anymore). In hindsight it is easy to look back on Michael Moore’s movies and see them as propaganda tools to push a liberal agenda. What once seemed so idealistic and cause to go rabble-rousing at my local government institution now comes off as desperate and manipulative. Most corporations and government buildings would kick someone out who barged in with a camera demanding explanations to very leading questions, but these methods of Moore’s were all very effective. It set’s up a conspiracy in the viewer’s mind. Not necessarily a government conspiracy, more of an us-vs-them mentality, like we were all being lied to and this could all change if we’d just wake up (“Come on, you Sheeple!”). The problem with this is that it reduces very complex subjects down to the core ideal that they try to address: “Guns should not kill innocent people!”, “Having health care is better than not!”, “9/11 doesn’t have a clear answer!” At the very least Moore is disingenuous, at worst he is manipulating evidence to make his reductionist views easy to swallow.
The problem with Moore is not so much himself (he has since been exposed for his manipulative techniques and largely discredited), so much as the reactionary documentaries that followed in his wake. Once again, I am barely old enough to know a world of documentaries without Michael Moore’s stain on the genre, but it seems that if you go through the Netflix documentary section, more films share Moore’s argumentative, personal-political style than not. They take the position that something is inherently wrong from the outset of the film and spend the rest of the time arguing their position. The main problem with this is it takes realism and journalism out of a genre that was born from these two ideas. Instead of showing the murky grey’s that we all live in in such a complicated world, they reduce their point to absolutes that are hard to argue against, and thereby alienate anyone except those that would already be swayed by their arguments. You can point to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth as doing the world a general service by pointing out that shits about to hit the fan, climate-wise, but it was also easy to detract from the film and point out a liberal bias because of the fudging of some of the graphs. The fudging of the data did not disprove any of Gore’s points, it just didn’t make them as pretty or digestible by an unscientific crowd. While his infractions were small, it created a dissention within the conservative party and gave them all the ammo they needed, and climate deniers were born. All people needed to hear was that some of the data was manipulated on these graphs and the whole point of the documentary can go out the window. This is what happens when journalistic instincts can be avoided and replaced with hyperbole that only serves your side of the issue.
While this may have opened the flood gate of documentaries as a stylized and simplified message, which is much easier for the general public to enjoy than something complicated that doesn’t have such an easy answer (this could actually be said for much of the film industry and box office grosses of today), it was not always this way. As I opened up with, I remember Instrument, a documentary that was more about the beauty and meandering mundanity behind such a powerful and eclectic band, I also remember Dark Days a documentary about an underground collection of homeless that built an elaborate shanty town in an abandoned train tunnel (if I remember correctly). These play as a product before their time. They do not rely on interview segments or voiceover to patch together the narrative of the film (something as much cropped from reality TV as Michael Moore), instead opting to show life as…well, life. In Dark Days, the interviews take place with the people as they sleep inside their make-shift cardboard homes. They are not shot against a backdrop or perfectly centered, making everything feel more guided and sterile. The documenters are literally in the shit with these homeless people, telling a story of humanity, not of politics or opinions.
This all brings me to Salesman, a 1969 documentary I watched based on a recommendation from The Dissolve. This is probably the oldest long-form documentary I have ever seen (if memory serves). Salesman is extremely interesting and was (according to Wikipedia) an attempt to make the first non-fiction film by the Maysles brothers. They got the idea from hearing about Truman Capote’s claims to be releasing the first non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood”. This shows in Salesman as it is at times listless, but contains so much gritty reality it can be hard to look at.
The heart of Salesman is the directors following 4 different Bible salesman as they try to sell their holy books to people that can hardly afford them. The most heartbreaking scene is one in Florida where a couple of men convince a housewife to buy a Bible. When she can’t afford to make the payment until at least Friday they offer to have their friend drop it off before he leaves, so they can receive the minimum payment on Friday. When the salesman arrives to collect the payment, she assures him that her husband said ‘no’ and that they cannot possibly afford it, all while children are running around the house. The man then goes on a spiel about how he’s the general manager (he is not the general manager) and the order had already been placed and it is going to come out of the nice salesman’s paycheck. The good-natured woman acquiesces and hands over $10 that she obviously cannot afford. Who knows if any order had been placed or money would have come out of any paycheck (more than likely not), but this bit of con-artistry is what drives the movie: these salesman professing how useful a Bible is in any home, putting on a holy veneer for the situation, and pressuring people to pay for what they can’t afford, but when they get back together it is all about numbers and sales. Are these men wrong, though? They are constantly working under the threat of being fired for not making numbers. These numbers may represent innocent people on the bottom who seem to buy the Bible’s not out of want or need, but more as a reason to have these (sometimes) nice men in their house to talk to them. The problem is that the further up these numbers go, the more abstracted they become, and these “innocents” are all just cogs in this weird game, certified by the Catholic Church.
Salesman isn’t unbiased, though. One of the most striking scenes, editing-wise, is where one salesman is professing how good this other salesman is, who will say anything to make a sale, and often knows exactly what to say. We then see this salesman offering holy platitudes and good-natured conversation, making the sale to some women (who look like they enjoy the company more than they need the Bible), and then back to the first salesman laughing heartily, what can almost be seen as maniacally, given the situation. Salesman obviously sees this kind of pyramid scheme as regrettable but it also portrays the salesmen as burnt out and homesick, just trying to get by with their own house, kids, and mortgage to think of.
While Salesman plays well because of its “fly on the wall” aspect, it is also apparent that they are attempting to build a narrative, as cameras go from being inside cars, watching someone get out, to outside, watching them shut the same car door. It is as big a giveaway as reality shows where somehow cameras are already inside when people profess that they didn’t know the host/show were coming that day. The big difference is that Salesman only plays around with the reality of the salesmen, leaving the customers as reactionary pieces. While the salesmen may be bending the truth to fit into their own agenda, the customers come off as what they are, people caught in a crossfire between holy indignation, poverty, and the warmth of human contact.
This is not all to say that there are no good documentary films anymore. The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Searching for Sugarman, The Act of Killing are all extremely capable documentaries. These are outliers, though, in a flood of documentaries that deal exclusively with personal politics. The problem with these personal/political documentaries is not that they are trying to say something though, it is that they reduce life to what could essentially be a catchphrase, and life is never so easy. Not every NAZI was evil and everyone in Jonestown didn’t want to drink the Kool-Aid. By ignoring this cognitive dissonance, our culture is essentially ignoring what is essentially human: to be unsure.