the candler blog

A Conversation With Myself Regarding Documentary Cinema

Movies

As the dueling documentaries on Netflix and Hulu about the failed Fyre Festival went live, I knew I’d be goaded into watching at least one of them. I had no interest as the story seemed to have been told plenty of times already. And yet, as more and more friends started talking about it, I figured it was time to watch one.

I picked Netflix’s Fyre, directed by Chris Smith. The film dredged up a number of thoughts about documentary cinema and how we watch and process non-fiction media. Instead of reviewing the film itself or composing an essay, I decided to make my internal monologue a little more external.

So here is a conversation between myself and myself, parsing my feelings on the matter. If this isn’t helpful, I have only myself to blame.

I’m wondering why you say you didn’t even want to watch either film on the Fyre Festival. The idea that you would balk at taking the time to watch a feel makes you sound rigid, incurious.

That’s a fair point but not one that’s really going to change my mind. I would say it’s less that I’m incurious and more that I have a disinterest in watching something that I would rather read.

Read?

So many documentaries today, especially those that are made for television, feel as though they would be better served by a lengthy magazine article. I don’t see what the moving image adds to the story.

I’m going to come back to your “made for television” sideswipe later…

We can talk about it now…

…I think you’re being obtuse when you say you don’t see what the moving image adds. It adds, of course, the moving image. It makes it sound as though you would discount the entire advent of cinema since, well, we have books and theater; why have a new thing?

Except you’re exactly right. You’re agreeing with me without seeing it. The cinema is not literature, it is different. And so is the documentarian a journalist? Hopefully. But bringing pictures to a story, especially now that moving images are everywhere, is only part of it. There must be a story told through pictures, that could not be told another way. Documentary is not illustration, but illumination.

So you do like documentaries?

Of course!

But you’re generalizing that most made today don’t meet your rigid standard?

First of all, I should maybe clarify that my standard, my rigidity as you put it, is merely personal. This is whether or not I like these films, whether I think they’re worth my time to watch. They are a wildly popular form. Clearly no one cares if I dislike 90% or whatever of those that come out.

What are some documentaries that you do like?

Oh, any Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles. I loved Marwencol. Queen of Versailles was enjoyable.

So direct cinema.

Yes, I’m a fan.

Should all documentaries be direct cinema?

If they were, I’d be happier but documentary would still be a niche form.

Okay you referred to Fyre as made for television…

Sure.

Are you making fun of it? In other words, are you trying to take it down a peg by suggesting it’s something other than cinema?

Look, Netflix is a direct-to-video streaming service. This is not necessarily a judgement on the quality of the work, but this is how it works. If there were no awards screening requirements, no Netflix film would ever play in a theater. Why? Because they’re a television network. The proper way to experience Netflix is in the home or on a device.

We will quickly find ourselves in the weeds here, but whatever is on Netflix is television.

Even…

I know what you’re going to say and I guess, yeah, even Roma. I watched it on television. Most people did.

And you think that takes something away from the experience?

Who’s to say? Maybe I would have enjoyed Roma more in a theater. Maybe the same goes for Fyre. But we’ll see. Maybe this year a made for television film will win Best Picture.

See you’re being difficult, clearly. You are trying to poke fun at Roma, a beautiful and cinematic film, because Netflix released it. Why can’t you just judge the film on its merits?

Why isn’t a turtle a giraffe? No one knows. If calling the film that premiered on a television network made for television is bad, I don’t know how we’re supposed to talk about this?

The other end of this is: where do you draw the line? Is every moving image everywhere cinema? Are they all worth our time? Good luck catching up on all your YouTube…

We are off track.

Clearly…

Fyre

Yes. It’s just a dry retelling, with one exception: everything after the festival. They did a good job there. Finally, three-quarters into the film, we get to something interesting.

So doesn’t that make it worth it then?

You may have me there. But I’d much rather watch something else and not know the ending.

And I feel the opposite.