Some time ago, the book reviewer Sarah Goldstein came up with a term for a type of book which the author sets on a particular mission, the definition being, “Books perpetrated by people who undertook an unusual project with the express purpose of writing about it.”
These types of books, which range from “Walden” to “Eat, Pray, Love,” presume that the author is proactively pursuing a story, and is part of it, rather than observing passively, and in a third-person role. Goldstein called such books “schtick lit“.
And since more and more documentaries are doing this as well, I’ll further coin a sub-genre of “schtick flicks.”
Schtick flicks as successful as Academy Award winners The Cove, Born Into Brothels and Bowling For Columbine have been a counterpoint to more traditional interview-based films, such as Inside Job and Man on Wire.
One documentary I’d put it in the schtick flick category is the entertaining More Than A Month, in which filmmaker Shukree Tilghman sets out to end Black History Month. The film will be seen on PBS in February during Black History Month.
Tilghman says the Byron Hurt documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes influenced him to take on the issue as a cross-country vérité-style journey.
“I decided I could do something like that. The initial idea was not that I’d be in the movie. I would speak to people and other people would take over the story. Marco Williams (of Two Towns of Jasper and Banished, on which Tilghman was a producer) got involved as executive producer and said ‘This film is about you and this issue.’”
Tilghman, whose previous credits have included both documentary and reality television work, has always taken issue with placing black history in the “coldest, shortest month.” And when he saw Morgan Freeman talking about his disdain for Black History Month on “60 Minutes” in 2005, it drove him to do something about it. He drew inspiration from other first-person films — and not all documentaries.
“I thought of films like Sherman’s March, definitely Morgan Spurlock, definitely Michael Moore, and believe it or not, Annie Hall,” he says. The 1977 Woody Allen comedy had been a favorite on Tilghman’s in both the way Allen’s character spoke directly to the audience and also how the film used cut-away moments that might be called “re-creations,” but are more fanciful illustrations of the point, often comic in form.
“When you go to a lecture, people often start with a joke — I thought if we dealt with the issue too seriously and we had all talking heads, it wouldn’t be as good. The re-creations were where Annie Hall came in. I must have watched that film 12 times during pre-production. Because here was the opportunity to break out of the film for a second and either make a joke, or illuminate a point, and to entertain in a little way – to say, ‘Hey, you can laugh.’”
Some such moments that were written but never shot, and some that were shot and weren’t used. “Even some of the stuff that made it in, depending on the audience or the mood I’m in watching it, may be a forced joke. For example, some people may not get the Stanley Kubrick 2001 reference.”
The film took Tilghman to nine cities, and resulted in about 250 hours of footage. He shot with a Sony PMW-EX1 and a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, cameras that gave the film HD quality at a reasonable cost. The film, like so many documentaries, began modestly, but shooting the highest-possible quality for cost was important. Often, interviews were conducted on the street or in busy settings, rather than in a formal and controlled interview mode to give the film a feel of the tapestry of everyday life.
“We wanted it to feel like a journey, in which you’d been somewhere, both in terms of physical space and insights. We could have done this film as talking-head experts. It was intentional to not make it feel like that.”
More Than a Month premieres on PBS during Black History Month on February 16, 2012. For more information, visit the film’s official website.
I’m always leery about documentaries made by celebrities. I’m not talking about people who are celebrities because of the docs — the Moores, Burnses and scant others who have name recognition because of their work — but rather the famous who jump in seemingly out of nowhere to make documentary films.
With Sundance 2012 bringing us the premiere this week of Ice-T’s Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, and Rory Kennedy’s documentary about her also not un-famous mother Ethel, I find myself with that vaguely sickening feeling that celebrities make documentaries because they are burnishing self-image, protecting or enhancing their brand, or sometimes doing a salvage job. Think Al Gore. Or Exit Through Gift Shop, 2010 Sundance pick that a) may not have been factually accurate, and b) did more to build the artist Banksy’s brand than all of his previous work, but, most terribly, c) probably inspired a string of maybe-not-so-true-true-story docs.
Documentary is likewise a marriage between art and something akin to the journalistic. But, and maybe it’s because of my own background in journalism, I lean toward the work of people who don’t make films about themselves, who explore a topic of consequence and who stay behind the camera.
I realize the horse left the barn two decades ago in the substantial form of Michael Moore. Seeing a filmmaker squarely in the frame was not new when Moore first appeared in Roger & Me, but it had never been done so successfully. While that begat people like Morgan Spurlock vomiting McDonald’s out his car window, it also brought the curious Sketches of Frank Gehry, in which the famous architect was profiled by his famous friend, Sydney Pollack. The shots of the longtime feature-film director Pollack (a man with armies of film crews at his beck and call) shooting Gehry handheld, while himself being shot by a presumed film crew, stay with me.
Too many celebrity documentaries are marked by the filmmaker spending more time in front of the camera than behind it, rarely asking very involved questions, instead offering their mediations on a topic, and at times emitting a whiff of rank self-promotion. When I hear of Johnny Depp making a documentary about Keith Richards, I don’t expect any closure on questions left unanswered by Richards’ own generally forthcoming autobiography (although Keith may well repeat his assertions about Mick Jagger’s genitalia).
Beware documentaries that try too nakedly to lure star power. Tabloid fixture Lindsay Lohan signed on for a 2010 BBC documentary on child trafficking, delicately entitled Lindsay Lohan’s Indian Journey, a film that was pitched as Lohan “investigating” the topic. Who could take it seriously? The film was greeted with shock, and disastrous ratings. Lohan, apparently unscathed, was back partying in LA in no time.
Celebrity docs may have hit their most egregious with the comedian Chris Rock’s Good Hair. Rock invited documentarian Regina Kimbell to screen her film about African-American hairstyles, My Nappy Roots. Some time later he came forward with his own documentary, not only on the same topic, but also sharing many elements with Kimbell’s film. She lost a lawsuit against him, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have every right to see his effort as piggybacking on hers. The comparison between the films is, to me, chilling.
Second on my list may be William Shatner’s The Captains, a documentary about playing the captain on TV’s “Star Trek.” The New York Times‘ Mike Hale’s dutiful review of the film is far better than the film itself: “Much of the fun of watching The Captains is waiting to see just how shameless a huckster and self-promoter Mr. Shatner can be. You don’t have to wait long.”
Taking the bronze is a yet-to-be-completed Juliette Lewis documentary, which makes the podium based simply on headlines from September like this one: “Juliette Lewis preps rock documentary on herself.” Exactly! But the articles back in September say she was aiming this film at Sundance 2012, something that has not come to pass, for good or for ill.
And a dishonorable mention must be made for the Casey Affleck-Joaquin Phoenix disaster I’m Still Here, which they first said was true, until it got an awful response, and then they said wasn’t true. When the nonfiction part begins to fade from nonfiction film, I am given pause.
Documentary film has given stars, who might have spent their time trying to get attention in other ways, a new avenue. No one says documentaries have to be completely objective, but can Ethel do anything but forward the Kennedy legacy? Will Something from Nothing, with its roadmap title, tell anything but rags-to-riches stories that positions rap, and rappers, in a favorable light? Maybe we’ll be surprised.
I’m going to LA to shoot two interviews this week, and I’ve been sorting out how to do the best possible setup that is easiest to carry. I decided I’m going to leave my Sony EX1 at home and double a 5DMk2 and a T2i. First I tried them side-by-side, but I find this pictured setup works best. That’s a Manfrotto ballhead that usually would hold the monitor. My main shot will be wide with the 5D: the tight shot will be with the t2i. Here, I have a 50 mm on the 5D, and an 85 on the T2i, which is equivalent to a 135mm on the 5D. I may try a 35/50 combo as well. I’ll use a Zoom H4n and double lavs for audio, and a Flolight 500LED on a light stand.
Curious if anyone’s played with this sort of setup – let me know! I don’t take comments here because of spam fatigue, but email me at documentarytech at gmail and I’ll add any comments at the bottom of the post…
UPDATE: Brent G wrote,
Yeah I’ve stacked two DSLR’s like you’ve got pictured here. It definitely works in a pinch, but IMO the video doesn’t cut together as well as two cameras shooting side-by-side. The eyeline keeps jumping up and down when the cameras aren’t on the same level. But again, when in a pinch stacking can work and is better than many alternatives. Just my two cents. Hope it helps.
Brent, I hear you. I have been playing with eyelines and it seems that the raised camera works if you want a relatively wide difference in how wide the shot it. In the above, you’ll see on the 5D (bottom) I’ve set up a pretty wide shot, whereas I go in tight with the top camera. The 5D, I hope, will be the shot I use most, with the tight one for cutting rather than jumping. I think if the shots were closer in framing, then the side-by-side makes much more sense. Thanks!
I sometimes wonder not only if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences realizes it’s imposing 1930’s sensibilities on a 2012 world, but if in a sense it is pushing a Norma Desmondesque notion that, “I am big — It’s the pictures that got small.”
When it comes to documentaries, they did get small, and I think that’s wonderful. Small, numerous and meaningful – the antithesis of the studio system that created the Oscars as a self-congratulatory big-business exercise.
That silent-movie attitude about the way the Academy decides what’s good is appalling.
According to reporting Sunday by The New York Times, the Academy has decided, in its infinite wisdom, that it would only consider documentaries reviewed in one of the Two Timeses, The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, as if those two newspapers are the ultimate arbiters of what’s good.
On one coast is a bankrupt newspaper whose owner may not survive. On the other is a city where acclaim is recognized as coming from a panoply of critics, such as the double Davids, Denby and Edelstein. In between is a vast middle of people with names like Chris Vognar, Lisa Kennedy and Roger Ebert, who might as well stop reviewing nonfiction.
The fact that The New York Times posted what I read as a somewhat chagrined article indicates it has taken a “What, me?” approach. Suddenly, A.O. Scott is the go-to guy. Scott politely called the rule change “flattering,” but his tone may have also been one of sadness.
If power becomes concentrated, and publicists rule the game, will documentarians, who are all essentially independent filmmakers, have the money to play?
Look at the numbers. According to the Times article, the Academy considered 124 movies in 2011. That’s it? 2.4 docs a week? What were they watching otherwise? “Desperate Housewives?”
I’d love it if the arbiters were documentary lovers who wanted to see many more than that on a weekly basis. Armchair Joe watches many more hours of football each week, and then he goes to work in the morning.
In its Saul Steinberg view of America, the Academy only thinks a documentary film is real if it plays in New York or Los Angeles – not Park City, not Austin, not Columbia, Missouri. Certainly not Toronto, or Sheffield, or Edinburgh.
There are stunning and meaningful documentaries being produced at an unprecedented rate, which is the most happy outcome of the digital age — amazing work by “outsiders” who lack the speed dial of the L.A. players but who know how to tell a damned good story. They use cheap camcorders and HDSLRs and other DIY tactics to tell sublime and gripping tales. And there have never been so many channels to distribute them, but the Academy has yet to fully support them. It continues to shun screeners for documentary consideration. Though there are hints this might be relaxed, according to its official rules, “the Academy remains firmly committed to the principal that motion pictures competing for Academy Awards should be seen and heard in a theatrical setting.”
You’d have to go back a few decades to see sense in this. Since it wasn’t practical to ship reels to Academy members, documentary producers made sure their films played in NYC or LA for a week so voters could pop in and see them. (Academy voters in those days only lived in New York or LA, but don’t get me going on that.)
The stated policy that The New York Times reviews every film released on a commercial screen for a week in New York or Los Angeles, and reviews some new releases screened by nonprofit groups like the Museum of Modern Art, presumes they always will. Unlikely. Shrinking news holes defy that, and make me wonder why two newspapers suddenly have such cachet.
When I watch a documentary these days, it’s usually on TV or on a DVD, and it’s rare that I can tell what kind of camera was used. That’s a good thing. Technology has become so accessible that the cost of your toys doesn’t necessarily matter, and have decidedly taken a back seat to storytelling acumen.
Independent filmmaking has been a struggle between a tiny percentage of well-funded filmmakers using all the wealth at their disposal and the filmmaking 99 percenters using all the credit lines at their disposal. They may have talent and ambition, but little money. They string together projects from thin funding, or self-funding, or they use their documentary work as a loss leader that serves as a calling card for corporate gigs or work in advertising.
But, it seems, every time the masses find a way into the game, the game changes.
The most significant change to documentary filmmaking in the last decade was the rise of programs, such as Apple’s Final Cut, that brought editing work out of the rented post-production facility and onto one’s desktop, then laptop. But right up there were the development of HDV — the so-called “poor man’s HD” — and the sudden arrival of Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II, which put in the hands of people of modest means a camera they could use to make serious films.
Before those products arrived, most people were shooting on Mini-DV cameras like the Canon XL1 and the Panasonic DVX100. Any viewer could tell the difference.
But as we enter 2012, the gap is widening, with the manufacturers themselves ramping back up to more-costly offerings. In the past year, the long-awaited arrival of big-sensor camcorders that would overtake video-shooting DSLRs came at a disappointingly hefty price. The Canon C300 ($20,000), Sony’s PMW-F3 ($14,000), and the new RED Scarlet-X ($18,000) have not created the answer, but rather a carrot-and-stick conundrum: How far you can stretch your budget for definably better results? All of these camcorders deliver better quality, but in my opinion not so much that it’s readily apparent to most viewers. In the end, the HDSLR was not obsoleted in 2011, and so 2012 begins with rumors of what’s next.
The 2012 product season, highlighted by Photokina and NAB, thrills the equipment freaks but leaves many holding their breath. What’s next that will obsolete the equipment you own, and that you’re still paying off? For what it’s worth:
With the Canon EOS 1DX body announced already at $6,800 (and therefore implausible for most), the biggest talk is of a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, which rumors alternately say will and won’t have a huge leap in megapixels, and which will likely have far better audio capabilities and functions that are already in use by people who’ve downloaded the third-party Magic Lantern hack.
The anticipated update to Canon’s EOS 7D is for upgraded megapixels and improved features such as higher ISO. We’ll see.
A 3-D HDSLR? It seems that may be the way things go. And then add into that the new infatuation with using side-by-side cameras to create High Dynamic Range, and it seems those could work somehow.
Sony may announce a full-frame DSLR, according to some sources. Nikon seems, as always, to lag.
Magic Lantern is readying its “Unified Edition” for the Canon 5D, providing the features already in its 550D/T2i, 60D, 600D/T3i, 500D/T1i and 50D models. This free download vastly improves the ability of the camera, and the unified edition stretches it across all models except the apparently impenetrable 7D, which for that reason is falling out of favor with many DSLR filmmakers.
In short, the rumor mills are not looking at anything remarkably different for the lower-budget documentary filmmaker. And that’s good news in that everyone is not going to have to rush out to do an unwanted upgrade just to stay in the game. With HDSLR and even HDV documentaries having found their place in top festivals, broadcast and even Academy Award considerations, lower-budget filmmakers have not yet been priced out of the game.
Kurt Lancaster, who has contributed on DSLR filmmaking on this site, shot the 99 percenters at Occupy Wall Street: