Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How Much of That Documentary Was Real?

I finished "Catfish" last night, which means I've now seen all three of the 2010 documentaries that drew a lot of attention for featuring events that might have been partially or completely fabricated. The other two are "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and "I'm Still Here," and in the latter case the filmmakers already have fessed up that nearly everything the audience saw in the film was staged or planned well in advance. Thus, "I'm Still Here" cannot rightly be called a documentary proper, but rather must be classified as a faux documentary, or a film done in a documentary style. Those involved with "Catfish" and "Exit" have managed to keep a lid on the truth, though the "Catfish" creators have a lawsuit pending against them involving music licensing fees, which may hinge on whether the film is really a documentary or not.

All three of these films tackle the heady subject matter of false perceptions and distorted reality. "Catfish" charts the course of an online relationship where one of the participants may be misleading the other. "Exit Through the Gift Shop" starts out purporting to be a documentary about street artists and the guerrilla tactics they employ, and then takes a hard left turn into possible fiction when the documentarian decides he wants in on the action. Finally, the most publicized of the three was "I'm Still Here," where Joaquin Phoenix spent well over a year doing his best to convince the world that he was giving up acting to pursue an ill-advised career as a rap artist, and had the results filmed. Staging a personal meltdown as a piece of performance art was a keen idea, but the execution was lacking. In light of recent events with Charlie Sheen, however, "I'm Still Here" now feels bizarrely prescient.

So it's fitting that the filmmakers wound up blurring the lines between fact and fiction in their depiction of these stories. What we see onscreen in "Catfish" and "Exit Through the Gift Shop" seems plausible, but there's the nagging sense that the filmmakers must have staged certain scenes or recreated events that are being passed off as more genuine and spontaneous than they actually are. Could they have really set up some of those shots in "Catfish" so perfectly, and gotten such quality audio on the fly? Was Thierry Guetta's transformation from amateur documentary maker to amateur street artist entirely his own idea? I'm with the skeptics personally. While I can buy that everything in "Catfish" actually happened, and that all the people we see onscreen are the real people who were involved, there are some events in the early going that feel reenacted for the benefit of the audience, perhaps also condensed or altered to fit the narrative. As for Thierry Guetta, the sequence of events in "Exit Through the Gift Shop" makes it very difficult to believe they weren't scripted, or at least outlined.

But does this have any impact on quality? In both cases, I think the tactics end up strengthening the films and their messages. "Exit Through the Gift Shop" pokes fun at the art world, where money and acknowledgment are enough to turn even the most artistically bankrupt individual into a superstar. It's the perception that a certain art style or trend is valuable that gives it legitimacy, and the film offers up the example of Thierry Guetta's alter ego, Mr. Brainwash, as someone who takes advantage of this. Whether Mr. Brainwash is real, or perhaps an amalgam of others, he's a perfect embodiment of what "Exit" views as the worst kind of artist, an unoriginal, derivative leech who profits from hype instead of originality. So while Mr. Brainwash and the events surrounding him may not be entirely authentic, they're certainly representative of an underlying truth. The approach itself can be seen as a teasing poke at the documentary art form and its oft stated aspirations of objectivity.

"Catfish" is a more straightforward, cautionary tale about the anonymity afforded by the internet, but also makes a case that sometimes that anonymity can be beneficial too. After spending eighty-odd minutes making the case for fictions sometimes being as important as truths, it would be hypocritical to begrudge the filmmakers a few tweaks of their own to reality. "Catfish" is undeniably gimmicky, ran a misleading marketing campaign, and the filmmakers come off very amateurish and none too sympathetic at times. And yet ultimately the film turned out to be such an even-handed, gentle exploration of the kind of bad situation we always see mined for its most salacious elements by the media. I found "Catfish" far more subversive and interesting than it billed itself to be, and though horror fans may have been bereft of the anticipated gore and splatter, perhaps not all of them left unmoved.

I liked both films, and after wrestling with it for a while, I respect what Joaquin Phoenix was trying to do in "I'm Still Here," even though it was terrible. We're in an interesting age of filmmaking, where the concept of reality has gotten more fluid and ambiguous. But I wonder if these new line-blurring tactics are really that much more harmful than the misleading editing and poorly supported arguments that other documentaries have offered in the past. I guess I'm not so concerned with what's real in these documentaries as much as I am with what is true.

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