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.


Daddy Geek Boy said...

Why does a filmmaker have to be labeled as documentation or fictional? Why can't an artist move around genres?

Todd Phillips, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron and others make both fiction and docs.

Seth Gordon made a great doc--a pop culture doc, but he took his chance to make mainstream comedies. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

Travis McClain said...

For years now, George Lucas's official line has been that he wants to get back to the documentary work that he enjoyed as a student film maker. His philosophy is that the fiction work pays the bills. Of course, he's been able to pay the bills quite handily for some time now and still hasn't made one documentary as a professional, but I think the reasoning stands.

I read a book about the making of Revenge of the Sith in which it was emphasized that Lucas directs even films like that as though he was making a documentary. He shoots scenes as though they're standalone pieces to be assembled in editing later. I'd be interested to hear how others who have done both kinds of work approach them.

As for Michael Moore, I had absolutely no idea he directed Canadian Bacon. Mind = blown! I loved it, personally.

Responding to Daddy Geek Boy's point, I agree entirely that we shouldn't pigeonhole a filmmaker. But I do have a follow-up question. When a guy like Scorsese, known for his works of fiction, makes a documentary, is that different than when a documentarian ventures into the realm of fiction?

I think for a lot of the public it is. Documentaries are sort of a peripheral genre for most viewers, and I think they see it as a sort of side project when someone like Scorsese makes one.

It's not unlike when Tom Clancy began writing works of non-fiction that came out between his novels. Would the world have been as accepting of The Hunt for Red October if it had followed Submarine: A Guided Tour Inside a Nuclear Warship the way that readers indulged Submarine in '93 because they'd already read six novels by him?

Lastly, just to finish pulling the lid off Pandora's box, what sense do you make of music videos being directed by people outside the music industry? Like when Scorsese directed "Bad," for instance. Is that an innocuous little footnote for you as a fan of that director, or do you study it with the same kind of attentive scrutiny that you bring to the rest of that director's work?

Vancetastic said...

You both make really good points. I often take an intentionally narrow viewpoint on topics like this, so as to explore a perception we have from a knowingly limited perspective. For example, DGB, of course a filmmaker should not have to be limited as one or the other -- by doing so, I am trying to tease out a perception I have and examine its flaws. In the case of Gordon going from Kong to Christmases, the more salient point is probably going from a good movie to a bad movie, than going from a documentary to a fiction film. I'm also trying to play with the idea of how documentarians are perceived by us as being "crusaders" who couldn't aspire to anything so shallow as a holiday romantic comedy.

Travis, it's interesting to hear Lucas say that because of how everyone always accuses him of getting wooden performances from his actors. Kind of the opposite of the type of performance you'd get from a participant in a documentary, who's not acting at all, don't you think? I also agree that movies like The Last Waltz and Shine A Light are side projects for Scorsese, indulgences that he allows himself to have because he's so successful, and because he really loves music, but doesn't think he can really tackle music from a fictional perspective. I do observe a difference between a person who makes documentaries in their spare time and a person who makes them as either the first portion or a significant portion of their career. Again Gordon is not a great example here because the sample size is so small -- one feature-length doc. But again I go back to my point about our perception of documentarians vs. our perception of fiction filmmakers. Or, from these comments, it's clear I should be saying "my" perception rather than "our." ;-)

Mike Lippert said...

I have to agree with the other two guys here in that I don't think a filmmaker who starts off by making a documentary and then switching to fiction should be panned for that.

The interesting thing about Michael Moore is that his movies are essentially social comedies and that's what Canadian Bacon was as well but it failed because it never took off to anything besides a funny concept. Of course in documentary you don't need to worry as much because your subjects will create characters for you. Errol Morris' one attempt at fiction wasn't none too good either.

However, those guys make specific kind of movies. Gordon didn't. He made an entertaining documentary. He made something that I can probably relate to on a more human level than most because it wasn't an educational film but rather one that followed a story from beginning to end in a traditional fictional way (and it's interesting to hear that Gordon will be making a fictional version of King of Kong coming soon).

The thing about Horrible Bosses is that it's a great mainstream comedy, very funny. Do I attribute that to Gordon? Nope, I attribute it to great writing, great personalities and although the director plays some part in a successful comedy (s)he isn't the main driving force I don't think. Four Christmases was more a Vince Vaughn failure to me than a Seth Gordon one and even when I think about King of Kong the thoughts auteur or great documentarian come to mind. If he makes good movies good, if he doesn't oh well.

You say you don't peg him for making mainstream comdies but but rather a bad one and yet nothing is mentioned of Jeffry Blitz who made a very good documentary (Spellbound) followed by a very good fictional film (Rocket Science), another good doc (Lucky) and episodes of The Office.

You also say that Scorsese's documentary are just side projects. Maybe so but what about filmmakers like Werner Herzog who is just as famous for documentaries as fiction or Spike Lee who hasn't made little pet projects but powerful, affecting documentaries.

And the list goes on. I think the thing about what you write here is not that you're right or wrong but you're discussing the wrong filmmaker.

Vancetastic said...


Yes, I agree with your points. Again though, I'm playing with the perception of how documentaries are a "noble" calling while fiction films are a "shallow" calling. Maybe I'm playing a character in this piece rather than myself, I don't know.

I will say that I sharply disagree with you on the quality of the two Blitz films I've seen. I had high hopes for Spellbound and was mildly disappointed by it, though I don't recall the reasons. As for Rocket Science, I thought it was an unmitigated disaster.

Good to hear from you!