Talking Heads

When was the last time you saw a documentary film in the theater? “An Inconvenient Truth?” Or were you, like me, merely subjected to “Al Gore Gives a Really Long PowerPoint Presentation” in a high school environmental science class?


Perhaps you ventured out to one of Michael Moore’s controversial rants, like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “SiCKO” or even “Capitalism: A Love Story?” Whether or not Moore’s liberal leanings happen to coincide with your own, many apparently find some kind of sadistic pleasure in his harsh, accusatory style.

Maybe you even read the Amherst Student and paid attention to a certain critic’s recommendations of intriguing documentaries like “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” “Inside Job” or “Waltz with Bashir” (naaaahh).

Granted, I can see why you don't read us, since we haven't reported on anything like this in a long time.

But the simple odds are that you, the average American filmgoer, have never handed over your hard-earned cash to watch a documentary film on the big screen. Why should you? If you wanted to watch a bunch of pasty professors and neutered nerds yammering on about esoteric topics, you would just turn on the History Channel.

Sorry, I of course meant the Hitler Apocalypse Channel.

I’m here to hopefully dispel a few myths about the much-maligned genre, and offer up a recent title that deserves the serious consideration of film fans everywhere. If by some chance you’re already a doc-dope like myself, please feel free to stop reading and go back to browsing Mubi.

First of all, if you don’t mind, I’d like to stop using the term “documentary” altogether. The word creates a false impression that these films are “documents” of reality, a concept that is laughable even if that is the filmmaker’s intention. You’ll notice that the Amherst course on the genre is called “The Non-Fiction Film,” and I generally prefer that term, if for no other reason than I am a giant homer. A non-fiction film functions the same as a non-fiction book, and should be taken with the same reservations that they represent a purposefully sculpted depiction of events, no matter how factually sound they may be. One way to look at it is to compare non-fiction film to professional wrestling: sure, some elements might be pre-arranged or manipulated, but when you get right down to it, an elbow to the groin is still going to hurt.

Here, famed documentarian Werner Herzog investigates Russian mysticism.

Likewise, a non-fiction film does not necessarily lose its impact just because it isn’t “fair and balanced.” The key is to always keep in mind the filmmaker’s intention: why interview subject X instead of subject Y? Why this helicopter shot? Why cut away at this moment rather than a few seconds earlier? These are questions we should ask when examining any movie, really, but we often forget with non-fiction films because they are seen as having some greater monopoly on “truth.”

The other misconception I need to clear up: non-fiction film can be ridiculously fun. How about the exhilarating life story of tightrope walker Philippe Petit in “Man on Wire,” a movie that is half comedic monologue, half heist film? Or the possibly fake street artist antics of “Exit Through the Gift Shop?” Or, particularly, the inspiration and focus for this post: Errol Morris’ brilliant “Tabloid.”

Did I mention that "Exit Through the Gift Shop" is awesome? Just checking.

Kinky sex, religion, a beauty queen, cloned dogs, Mormon missionaries kidnapped at gunpoint: there is indeed something in “Tabloid” for everyone. It’s the tale of Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming who became a British tabloid sensation when she, yes, kidnapped the Mormon man she had fallen in love with at (fake) gunpoint, took him to a cottage in Devonshire, and (allegedly) forced him to have sex with her in order to cure him from Mormon brainwashing. If you’re not hooked by now, I seriously don’t know what else I can say.

Morris is one of the best non-fiction filmmakers of all time (if not THE best); though he employs the standard “talking head” style that you’re all familiar with to tell Joyce’s story, he adds a new wrinkle: instead of always looking somewhere off-screen to face Morris (the interviewer), his subjects can simultaneously look at the director and straight into the camera at the same time, via a device Morris calls the “Interrotron” (yes, that is meant to be a combination of the words “interview” and “terror”). It’s a slick trick that gets you way more involved in the story, since all the people in the film are STARING RIGHT AT YOU when they’re talking.

The device through which Errol Morris peers into your soul.

There are all kinds of issues at work here: Joyce’s insanity, the Mormons’ insanity, the cutthroat attitude of the British tabloids (a particularly timely message), rape, celebrity, self-delusion, self-image – I can guarantee you won’t have a more thought-provoking/entertaining movie-going experience this summer. If you don’t live close enough to an indie theater showing it, keep “Tabloid” on your radar and Netflix it in a few months. Documentaries don’t have to be political and self-important to be worth your dime – in fact, they probably shouldn’t be.