This week I was at a loss for what to write about for Doc Talk. I'm still unsure of what this column should really function as. Should I highlight necessary documentary classics? Should I write about new doc releases, which most of our readers will not have access to at the time of posting? Should it be an examination of documentary as an art form? A journalistic form? A media format in general? Whatever the focus, if any, my main wish is to communicate with readers, which is why the column is called Doc Talk. I want to kickstart discussions of non-fiction films. I'll be happy if it sparks even a few comments each week, so I know Cinematical readers actually give a dang about documentary films.
So in addition to drawing a blank on what films to write about, I figured it would be best to put a vote to it. Maybe that would warrant some interactivity, I figured (and please, feel free to suggest or recommend further docs for me to see and write about). Through Twitter and Facebook I was given a number of options, and I ultimately chose two docs I'd seen before, each suggested by a different person, because they are both films by Ondi Timoner (they're also both Sundance winners). This week, I revisit the different yet equally magnificent DiG! and We Live in Public.
Another reason I decided on DiG! is that it has relevance to a new documentary opening in NYC today that I was disappointed with: Emmanuel Laurent's Two in the Wave, which tells the story of the friendship between Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. I already devoted some words to the film last week, but after re-watching DiG! I understood what I wanted out of it. More show, less tell, and more story, less onscreen leafing through old news clippings and magazines. On a basic level, the narratives of DiG! and Two in the Wave are the same. Creative people are friends, creative people become significant, creative people go in divergent directions, creative people fall out. I understand its a silly idea to equate The Dandy Warhols with Truffaut and The Brian Jonestown Massacre with Godard, but in a superficial way, the analogy fits.
If only the Dandies were now broken up (as in "dead") and BJM was putting out difficult and divisive albums that could be correlated with Godard's current films. Actually, I haven't listened to a new BJM record in a while. Maybe they do correspond? Hold on, I'd like to turn the thought around. If only Truffaut were still making entertaining, if not quite as popular movies, and Godard was best known for interrupting the making of his films by fighting with his crew and then disrupting screenings of his films by fighting with audience members? In any event, what I'm trying to say is I really wish Two in the Wave were as fun as DiG!
What is it that makes DiG! so fun? For me, initially, it was the fact that the Dandies have been my favorite band since the mid-90s coupled with the fact that I'd always wished I enjoyed BJM more. So the dichotomy in the film is related to the dichotomy in my head. But this subjective reasoning doesn't explain why non-fans of either band have loved the doc or why it won so many awards and critical acclaim. Really, DiG! is only as good as it is for two reasons. First, it has incredibly captivating characters, especially those members in BJM. Anton Newcombe is absurdly arrogant. Joel Gion is one of the most hilarious jesters ever to appear on film. Meanwhile, you've got this good guys/bad guys thing going on, which is more like a hero/antihero split I guess, that always works well in cinema, whether fictional or non-fictional.
The second reason DiG! works is because so much of the story was documented beforehand. That's not rare these days, with all kinds of docs constructed out of home video footage and increased television coverage of events. The thing that makes DiG! different is that Timoner was actually there from almost the beginning and much of the seven-years worth of footage is directly shot by her and her crew. Ironically, she initially set out to document BJM, met the Dandies through them, and ended up primarily on the side of the latter. That is the beautiful thing about documentary, though, the way it can change and evolve as the story unfolds in front of the cameras.
Timoner's patience as a filmmaker, her willingness to sit on a project for years, also works to the advantage of We Live in Public, a mostly biographical film about Internet pioneer Josh Harris that also documents the prehistory of web-based social media at the turn of the century. As incredible as it is to see how early certain web innovations existed, it's just as incredible to see that Timoner was documenting all of Harris' projects from the start. And her involvement throughout in turn allows for a film that feels more immersed and committed to its subject. Compared to many documentarians who can turn out multiple films each year because they mainly work with outsider-shot footage, Timoner's work has a connectedness that's as refreshing as the best specimens of direct cinema.
Somehow her personal attachment to the material and subjects don't adversely affect the end results. Even when Timoner shows up onscreen in We Live in Public it neither makes for overly subjective or self-serving filmmaking, which is also too common in modern documentary. Whether she is in fact too friendly with the Dandies or Harris, it doesn't necessarily show in her films. Rather, like direct cinema documentarians, she more than likely has just gained the trust of her subjects (well, I doubt Newcombe trusts her anymore, but he probably wouldn't trust her even if he was depicted more positively).
One thing that's interesting about We Live in Public outside of Timoner's access, is how much it continues to show how prophetic Harris was with his ideas about the Internet and its affect on society. Since the first time I saw the film, more relevant things have happened, from Chatroulette to further concerns with social networks, particularly Facebook's privacy issues. And I'm sure that we'll continue to see developments with online communities that can be traced back to websites and experiments documented for posterity in the film.
Finally, I want to note one new thought I had about Timoner's films while re-watching them. She captured elements of the late 90s and early 2000s that I imagine will be seen decades from now by young people who will wish they'd been there. Well, I was alive at the time and I didn't notice much of what appears in these films. Yes, I went to Dandies concerts, and yes, I did once visit Harris' early web-TV studios (which I'd forgotten about until seeing the Pseudo.com stuff in the film), but otherwise I was completely ignorant. Is this comparable to how I grew up viewing the 1960s? Would I have been just as ignorant of much of the hippie, free love and protest movements had I actually lived at the time? I think so, and in addition to being telling of what kind of person I am, it also tells how culture is historically documented.
My revisiting of Timoner's documentaries has me even more disappointed that she is moving into fiction filmmaking with the Robert Mapplethorpe biopic The Perfect Moment. Unless she has been observing the photographer since his birth, I don't see her best assets adapting to the change in format. We'll see.