A documentary cannot withstand the corrosion of time based on compelling subject matter alone. I learned this a few years ago while writing copy for an indie distribution label, whose acquisitions team had a rash tendency to pick up decades-old docs simply because they were Academy Award nominees. Sometimes they were still engaging under all that dust, but more often than not there were traits that dated them worse than the fashions worn within: static talking-head interviews shot practically but uninspiringly against bland or ugly backdrops, a schoolmarm’s discipline for the purist limitations of vérité and an exhausting dryness that underscores how little use films are as strict conveyers of data — of course, Wikipedia wasn’t yet invented, so maybe information was enough back then?
Plenty of documentarians today still rely on the same old creative crutches, but in the year 2008, the docs that rubbed up against the zeitgeist had to be bold, provocative or artful to stand apart. It has little to do with elections or wars or bailouts, and more to do with what’s escalating in our Information Aging: digital technology gets cheaper, which births more neophyte filmmakers, which grows the breadth of watchable content at our fingertips to gluttonous proportions, which prompts the mainstream media to pollute themselves with tabloid sensationalism in their begging for our distracted attentions.
This might explain why “Religulous,” a high-profile doc from the director of “Borat,” has taken in less than $13 million in box office sales as of this week. To me, comedian Bill Maher’s on-camera investigation into why the devout believe what they believe was a smug, only moderately funny character attack that missed a golden opportunity to expose how religion has been co-opted by right-wing politics. Regardless, it’s the most commercially successful nonfiction film of the year, and to think that it still only grossed one-seventh of what Disney’s talking Chihuahua has so far means that maybe Maher was right: there is no God.
But really, why do documentaries continue to carry such a stigma? 2008 saw plenty of pop docs, those slickly produced crowd-pleasers that inject potentially unexciting topics into thrilling narratives. Stephen Walker’s “Young @ Heart,” an innocuous heartstring-puller about a chorus of senior citizens who perform Sonic Youth and Ramones songs, uncovered the unlikely eccentrics of the iPod generation. Ari Folman’s wonderful “Waltz With Bashir,” in which the Israeli filmmaker comes to grips with his own relationship to a 1982 Lebanese massacre, might sound like a snooze on paper, but as the first fully animated doc feature, his nightmarish visions and explorations of guilt became affecting enough to get nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Earlier in the year, Brett Morgen’s “Chicago 10” utilized animation to reenact the Chicago Seven trials, so perhaps a new doc trend is born.
Chris Bell’s mighty entertaining “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” blamed the overuse of anabolic steroids and other performance enhancers on the distinctly American mentality to win at all costs, a conclusion made all the most unhappily compelling by the death of his subject and brother, Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, last week. Bell especially stands out this year for his man-with-a-microphone charisma, a persona inspired by the likes of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, whose own new docs, “Slacker Uprising” and “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?”, marked low points in both of their careers. (The former was a glorified DVD featurette that Moore suspiciously gave away for free on the interwebs; the latter was a condescending lump of gimmicky self-aggrandizement that saw Spurlock searching under rocks in the Middle East for terrorists.)
Furthermore, even Oscar winners Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”) and nominee Nanette Burstein (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”) were capable of undercutting their own legacies. Gibney’s “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” had a remarkable subject in the late “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” author and influential (under the influence?) journalist, but blew it with cheeseball creative choices that kept Thompson as unknowable as ever — what was he thinking by asking Johnny Depp to read his gonzo writings while holding a pistol in the air? Morris’ “Standard Operating Procedure” had the best of intentions in examining the prisoner abuse cases at Abu Ghraib via those notorious photographs, though the film pulls punches, lets culprits off easy and inexplicably beautifies its findings. And not to further rag on the misfires, but Burstein’s “American Teen” gets my vote for the worst doc of the year: as a trumped-up peek into the senior year of five Indiana high school archetypes (the jock, the geek, the queen bee, et al.), the film stages moments, expressions and dramatic pivot points to craft a shallow entertainment à la MTV’s “The Hills.”