Historically it's nothing new. Just look at Merian C. Cooper for a prime example. Or go back to the Lumiere brothers. But these days it's becoming more and more common for successful documentary filmmakers to jump ship, most of the time only temporarily, and give fiction a try. Michael Moore, Barbara Kopple and Errol Morris have all done it. Seth Gordon seems to be sticking with it. Werner Herzog has been balancing both mediums for a while. And now the latest documentarian to make the transition is Nanette Burstein, whose fiction debut, the raunchy yet sweet rom-com Going the Distance, opens this Friday.
Usually I'm disappointed with the filmmakers who try it, even while recognizing that maybe a cash-grab fiction project here will help finance a great non-fiction film there. The truth is few documentarians make good narrative features (see Canadian Bacon, Havoc, The Dark Wind, Four Christmases). Burstein is the exception, though. I revisited her three feature-length docs, two of them co-directed with Brett Morgen, and one made solo, and have to say she's better off doing stuff like Going the Distance, even with its faults. It's not that she's a bad documentarian, but her work in that medium is actually more pedestrian than this new Hollywood effort.
On the Ropes (Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen, 1999)
I'm not sure what the real tagline for this film was (if there was one at all), but it might have been as simple as this: some boxers fight their biggest battles outside of the ring. That's something that can be written before the film is even made and could work for a fiction or non-fiction project. Either way, it doesn't allow for much more than a concept illustrated on screen. There are no surprises to be found in On the Ropes, which follows the lives of three Brooklyn-based boxers, not even the sad turn of events in the narrative of Tyrene Manson, who winds up in jail just as she's experiencing great success as a fighter.
Documentarians don't follow strong personalities in bad situations -- Manson lives with a crackhead drug dealer -- for nothing. Either these people rise above, win a title match (or whatever the goal) and the film ends up uplifting, or more likely they end up on trial for possession, and the doc easily becomes an ad for an issue. In this case, the cause is a rather specific one, despite its desire to be about the problems of drug prosecution in general, because we never really know if Manson is innocent. The viewer is led to think she's a victim of the system, but who knows?
I feel like we've seen this film over and over. It can be about boxers or basketball players or something unrelated to athletes, like methadone clinics or the AIDS epidemic in DC, but it's a very familiar and now very tired idea to follow inner-city subjects through their hardships and attempts at reaching their dreams, which could be as basic as garnering housing. Not all can be Hoop Dreams, though, and many like On the Ropes are simple, insignificant yet not exactly bad films that maybe have a shot at HBO for a few airings before disappearing from notice. 11 years later it's hard to believe this was up for an Academy Award. There is no lasting value to this doc. All it did was make me look even more forward to Frederick Wiseman's new film, Boxing Gym.
The Kid Stays in the Picture (Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen, 2002)
Every true film fan loves the story of Robert Evans and what he did with and for Paramount Pictures in the '60s and '70s. It's one of the last really compelling stories of film history. The Kid Stays in the Picture is first and foremost a terrific autobiography by Evans. And if you're not into reading then the film adaptation is still filled with a lot of great stories. But it's the kind of doc that a monkey could have made so long as that monkey could get Evans to record a long and constant voice-over narration that often sounds like he's simply reading passages from the book. That and access to thousands of photos, film stills and a few talk show episodes is all Burstein and Morgen needed.
Again, there's nothing really bad about this film, and certainly as a cinephile I enjoy a whole lot of it, particularly the Wag the Dog-anticipating clip of Dustin Hoffman doing an Evans impersonation, which plays over the end credits. However, my enjoyment of this is akin to my love of all the little montages and oral histories on Turner Classic Movies shown between the features. And for once I'd actually have preferred the addition of talking heads, maybe some stars like Hoffman and Francis Ford Coppola and Roman Polanski and Ali McGraw talking about the producer and studio head. Sure it wouldn't have been an autobiography anymore, but an adaptation can deviate from the source when it's for the benefit of the audience.
American Teen (Nanette Burstein, 2008)
The other day I was flipping through channels and I stopped at MTV for what I honestly thought was an airing of American Teen. What it turned out to be is a new reality show I'd never heard bout called If You Really Knew Me. In a way it seems inspired by Burstein's film, but the main difference is that the series means to squash teen stereotypes and differences while the documentary wants to force those character models, such as jock and nerd. I had thought it was just the marketing that went for the whole Breakfast Club angle. But the doc is structured to be like a non-fiction John Hughes movie. Unfortunately, it feels even more scripted, and less genuine, than one of his movies, too.
Here at least Burstein had the benefit of finding and casting Hannah Bailey, who is the film's most fascinating subject and ended up being sort of its star in spite of being one of five equally focused subjects. I'm sure, though, that a lot of critics were drawn to her for the same reason they're drawn to Robert Evans' story: she's into movies and wants to be a filmmaker (you can see some of her film school work on her Vimeo page, by the way). Also, she's got maybe two or three notes to her personality and interests, while the rest of the characters feel so one-dimensional throughout. Which isn't to say they're boring people so much as they were edited in a way so as they fit their little character box.
American Teen has been criticized for being extremely manipulated, though this is the case with most documentaries. It's just that many others (such as Wiseman) are good at hiding the stagings and the reaction shots pulled from footage not related to the scene they're put with. Yet there's such a fraudulence apparent in the convenience of certain sequences and shots that it's difficult to even trust the narrative as a whole. The choppiness of fitting an entire school year into 90 minutes doesn't help us adequately involve ourselves in the stories, either. Maybe a reality series is actually the better medium for this kind of subject matter (though I must note that the MTV show only devotes about 44 min. to each group of teens focused on).
I'm sure to have some of you disagreeing with me about Burstein's films and career path. Her Rotten Tomatoes scores for her four features are currently, in order, 92%, 92%, 72% and 33%. That's a big drop there for Going the Distance (many more reviews are expected to be published through Friday, though, so it could go up or down). Maybe I just expect more from documentaries than I do from comedies about long distance relationships? But I also think her latest has more relevance to its time and will resonate more with audiences, and not just because people generally prefer fictional comedies to any kinds of documentaries. I look forward to what she does next and hope that it involves a script and actors.