In my few days of experience with this year's Tribeca Film Festival, I've constantly forgotten that there are fiction works being shown, too. And I've seen one or two of them, on assignment, but for the most part I don't even know what's going on in that area of programming. I barely care, either. As I somewhat noted in last week's column, Tribeca's documentary offerings have been traditionally more satisfying to me than the "narrative" selections, and so far this year I haven't been disappointed.
Maybe I'm just becoming more and more partial to non-fiction film, but I think the same is increasingly true for the choices at film festivals in general. Not that I've been to a whole lot of them recently, but I wonder how many regular festivalgoers out there are similarly drawn more to the documentaries, whether at a big event like Sundance or a small local fest, because they're a more consistent medium in terms of cost/benefit ratio. Considering film fests aren't cheap (individual Tribeca tickets can run you as much as $22 a piece), you want better odds in your crap shoot. With docs, even when they're bad they typically have some pay-off in the form of information or cinematic tourism.
For example, my least favorite Tribeca doc so far (Freetime Machos) at least brought me virtually to Finland and presented the local culture to me. I guess had it been a fictional film with the same setting and story that I'd sort of have the same exposure. Yet the truth, or the promise of the truth, makes a subject more fascinating to me than a made-up story. The enlightenment also feels more genuine. I can believe that The Killer Inside Me is virtually bringing me to 1950s Texas, but it'll always be 2000s Oklahoma and New Mexico (where it was shot) in the back of my mind. Unless I'm being duped, I can faithfully trust what I'm seeing in a doc as real.
Of course, fiction has its advantages. I wouldn't want to see a real prostitute get beaten into a coma by a deputy sheriff. Not that I want to see such a thing at all, though fake is better than actual in that situation. Now, how about a film like the Sundance senation Exit Through the Gift Shop, which may or may not be a work of fiction disguised as non-fiction?. Either way, it's still primarily a depiction of real-life events and a document of street art that's every bit as important to the art-world-doc discourse as My Kid Could Paint That and Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollack.
Honestly I didn't immediately love Exit, which is currently in limited release and set to expand wider in coming weeks. But the mystery and mythology surrounding it makes for a more interesting work. Had it solely been a documentary about an annoying wannabe pop artist, I'd be a bit bored. If it was a completely scripted and acted movie presented as such, I'd be even more bored. However, somewhere in between these two extremes is a highly compelling and contemplative narrative that exists in and out of the film.
Can a documentary give you no payoff at all? I think so, as indicated by the work of Doug Block, who I finally decided to check out after seeing the trailer for his latest, The Kids Grow Up, which I thought looked just like a man's home movies cut into a film of his daughter's life. It's like something parents give their kids as they're going away to college or getting married. Not something distributed theatrically or even to festivals for strangers to see. However, given the praise for his prior first-person doc, 51 Birch Street, I felt I had to give him a chance.
But no, despite comparisons to Ross McElwee, who infuses his first-person docs with historical context and great, humorous insight, Block's film is indeed little more than personal camcorder footage molded into an unnecessary, uninteresting and ethically questionable narrative based around his late mother's diary. And his voice-over, which includes such bon mots as "Dad brought home the bacon, Mom stayed home with the kids," is as common as his story.
Finally, this week I watched a very informative documentary about the history of burlesque called Behind the Burly Q. The film is directed quite conventionally by Robert Zemeckis' wife Leslie, and features actor Alan Alda, whose father, Robert Alda, worked as a singer in burlesque shows before becoming a screen actor. It's as pedestrian as docs get, but sometimes the basic idea of putting together anecdotal interviews and old clips and stills is all you need for a film meant to present the viewer with information. Want to know about burlesque? See Behind the Burly Q. It's as simple as that.
What docs have you seen lately?