Saturday, July 9, 2011
When documentaries aren't enough
When thinking of a fiction filmmaker, we tend to think of either someone who has a specific artistic vision, or someone who's trying to make a buck.
It's a bit different with documentarians. Documentarians have a purpose.
Sure, there are plenty of purpose-driven directors of fiction films. But we can never fully know what their motivations are. Wanting to be rich and famous might be one of them.
Now, we know that's not why people get into documentary filmmaking, or if it is the reason, then they're deluding themselves -- a quality that tends to fly in the face of being a good documentarian. The reason people become documentarians is that they have a story to tell, or corruption to uncover. They want to stand up for the oppressed and take down the giants. They want to save the world.
Seth Gordon may not have been saving the world with 2007's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. But it's for damn sure he wasn't saving the world with Four Christmases, his first studio feature the next year. And no matter how good Horrible Bosses may be -- it's got a promising cast, that's for sure -- he won't be saving the world here either.
Come on, Seth. I thought you were supposed to be "enlightened." I thought you were supposed to not need the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. In fact, I thought you were supposed to shun it.
I don't know why I feel disappointed that Seth Gordon wanted to be "more" than a documentarian. If I were trying to be a filmmaker myself, I'd want to make fiction films. Why should I fault him for getting his foot in the door with one of my favorite documentaries of the past decade, then bolting for the greener pastures and paychecks of Hollywood as soon as the opportunity presented itself? Even if his debut feature was such inferior schlock? Maybe he always wanted to be a fiction filmmaker, and the documentary was the exception.
But I do. I do feel disappointed.
I guess it's the same way you feel disappointed when a public defender starts chasing ambulances. When a crusading journalist takes a cushy PR job. We expect documentarians to be serving a higher purpose than just creating entertainment. It may not be a purpose we ourselves want, but it's an honorable purpose that the world needs.
Of course, there are all kinds of documentarians. Some really are not serving a higher purpose. Seth Gordon made a movie about two grown men competing for the high score in Donkey Kong. It wasn't about human rights violations or a corporate scandal. It was about men seeking a certain type of personal transcendence by moving a joystick better than anyone else. I'd probably be much more disappointed if someone like Alex Gibney directed Four Christmases and then Horrible Bosses. For Gordon, it's not such a big transition.
But I'm still disappointed.
I think part of that has to do with the fact that I just pieced it together that Gordon directed both King of Kong and Four Christmases, so I'm still stinging from that realization. He also played a role in the multi-director effort Freakonomics, which I saw last month and wrote about here, and in looking at his credits at that time, I made the discovery: The same Seth Gordon who directed King of Kong directed Four Christmases. I loved the first and loathed the second, so this was like a kick in the stomach. It felt beneath him. It felt like he traded in quirky insight into human behavior for a rancid Christmas comedy in which the supposed funny parts involved Jon Favreau giving Vince Vaughn noogies and wedgies.
And I think that's really what gets at the oddness of the transition from documentarian to studio hack: It's not even the same skill set. Even if someone makes the greatest documentary you've ever seen, does that then mean they're capable of getting big Hollywood stars to emote? In the case of Four Christmases, the answer was "no."
Take Michael Moore, perhaps the most famous/notorious documentarian working today. As pure as we seem to think his documentary instincts are -- even if he bends the rules in well-documented ways -- Moore too was lured by the temptations of fiction filmmaking. Like Gordon, he had one wildly successful documentary (Roger & Me) and followed that up with his fiction film debut, the satirical Canadian Bacon, in which the U.S. and Canada come to the brink of war. The film was a massive failure and sent Moore scampering back into the documentary world, where he made a name for himself as the polarizing figure he is today. (And, has made a buck or two along the way as well.)
I haven't seen Canadian Bacon, but I'm guessing that the reason it didn't work is that Moore is not good at making fiction films. He makes documentaries, and satisfies his fix for fiction by inserting staged or fictitious elements into them. (Well, maybe that's taking it a bit far -- but he certainly doesn't take the stand-back-and-watch approach taken by most documentarians.) In any case, he's found his niche and it's working for him.
So especially if Horrible Bosses is a flop, it's time for Seth Gordon to scamper back to documentaries. He may have made only one, but it was a darn good one, and a person who can make one good documentary can make two, or three, or four.
There are plenty of other people who can make bad studio comedies.