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Doc Dissect 2

February, 2018

There is a moment at 29:50 into the new Donald Trump documentary The Confidence Man, the concluding episode of Netflix’s Dirty Money series, when we find Trump confronted in his office by David Letterman via a Late Show segment from 1986. “You didn’t know we were coming, we came on up,” says Letterman brightly, a little taken aback at how easy it was to saunter into the office of The Donald. “How busy can you be?” 

“Do you want to know the truth?” Trump responds sheepishly. “I wish I had more to do.” 

The moment is meant to be the punchline for a section about a fallow period in Trump’s career, yet the effect is muted by the relentless pace of the cutting. While the words are telling us that Trump is spending Friday afternoon sitting idle in his office, the aggressive, fast-paced cutting says something different: Trump’s world is a compelling, lively one. 

Another segment of the film ably demonstrates Trump’s addiction to media attention, but inadvertently steps on its own message due to quick cutting. While the parade of archival footage from silly promotions gets the job done of showing him as a two-bit huckster (including a particularly painful clip of him standing next to Grimace in a McDonalds ad), the cutting silently makes a different point: Trump is everywhere

Do these examples prove the futility of trying to using television to critique a television phenomenon like Trump? That theory is attractive, but I think the answer is more complex. Form is content in editing, and in order to counteract someone like Trump, you need to slow him down and play out some of the clips to their full duration. (Think "Feed," the clever 1996 doc directed by Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway, which consists entirely of satellite feed footage of politicians and newscasters puffing themselves up just before their interviews go live.)

I recommend "The Confidence Man:" it's thought-provoking and paints a convincing picture of Trump as a paper-thin simulation of a successful businessman. I just wish the cutting could have left the breathing room necessary for us to feel the full weight of the contradiction.

Doc Dissct 1

January, 2018

At the close of Errol Morris' Wormwood, the film's 74-year-old principal subject, Eric Olson, who has spent most of his adult life trying to solve the mystery of his father's death, poses a series of rhetorical questions. "You think that finding the answer to this is going to restore the path of your own life," he says, reflecting on the folly of his project. "But how can it possibly do that if you've lost yourself along the way?"


Each of his subsequent lines are shown from a different camera angle, the rhythm getting more and more insistent with each cut.


"Do you think you're going to get a judicial decision? Do you think somebody is eventually going to pay the bills for all this?" Cut.

"Do you think you're going to find peace of mind?" Cut.

"What's that going to consist of?" Cut.

"You're going to find out that [content removed to avoid spoilers]." Cut.

"Do you feel better now?" Cut.

"Do you feel better now?" Cut.

"Is that better than not knowing? Is it?"


The editing has created a quickening pulse, which is finally relaxed as he comes to a close. "Wormwood," he says, referencing a passage in Revelation that he quoted at the beginning of the film. "It's all bitter." 


What follows is an amazing 10-second post-quote pause as we watch Olson's face cascade from dark amusement to a flash of barely concealed rage to a final movement of the jaw that seems to ask the audience to share in his trauma, before the film ends with a dramatic cut to black. The moment is riveting.


Why is it so powerful? Not only because of the raw power of the emotions that read on his face, but also because it is played in one continuous shot. Editor Steven Hathaway is using the power of dynamics to create a kinesthetic complement to the verbal/intellectual message. The shot durations had decreased from a relatively languid 7 seconds at the outset to a taut 2 seconds with "Is it?", which makes the 10-second non-verbal pause feel like an eternity. It focuses the audience's attention on the most minute details in the emotions that read on his face.


I've rarely seen rhythm and dynamics used in a more skillful and purposeful way. 

Book excerpt
Sundance 2016

November, 2017

The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to my new book Documentary Editing: Principles and Practice (Focal Press/Routledge, 2018)

Documentary editing is perhaps one of the most challenging intellectual feats on the planet. An editor begins with a mountain of shapeless footage—comings and goings of characters, interviews of varying quality, B-roll from myriad locations, hour upon hour of often uninspiring detritus—and is expected to arrive at the end of the process with a fully realized story, complete with finely tuned dramatic arcs, satisfying themes and subplots, and a carefully constructed climax. How does anyone do it?

To quote Frank Costanza from Seinfeld, “I’ve got good news and bad news, and they’re both the same.” On day one of the process, getting from point A to point B is impossible. Not even the most brilliant, experienced editor digests all that footage, sleeps on it, and comes back to the edit room the next day with a fully realized outline. It just doesn’t happen.

But here’s the silver lining: the impossibility of the task can be overcome. Documentary editing is a process, one that requires creativity, rigor, determination, and time—but not genius. With the right tools and approach, one can reliably start to count on those moments of inspiration that often seem so ephemeral, and plan for a workflow that will lead to strong results. is is not to say that editing a documentary is easy. An honest editor will admit that most of their projects included at least one harrowing crisis of faith. But this, too, shall pass.

When considering how to dive into this challenge, it’s worth getting specific about the nature of what makes documentary editing different from narrative editing. ough successful narrative films and documentaries often share the same attributes in their finished form—a strong story structure, relatable characters, a finely tuned dramatic arc—they start from very different places. In a narrative film, the function of every scene is carefully worked out before a single frame is shot, and in the best-case scenario the setting, staging, cinematography, costuming, and production design are all working in concert to define the meaning of each shot. ere is still a huge amount of work to be done in editorial in order to shade performances, solve previously undiscovered story problems, and craft the rhythm and dynamics. But by and large, we already know the intention of every scene and the approximate purpose of every shot.

Contrast this with a documentary. Even in a thoroughly researched film with several carefully planned shoots, the purpose of a great deal of the available footage is still up for grabs. It is in the very nature of documentary film practice that the story is created in the editing room

This brings us to a fundamental challenge in documentary editing, which is that every shot contains multiple attributes whose meanings are highly variable depending on context. A wide shot of a character sitting outside a school on a gloomy day could be used in many ways. We could use it purely for the existence of the dark clouds in the background, play up the sound of the thunder in the distance, and use it an establish- ing shot for a scene with “stormy” content inside the school. Or we could use it as an introduction to the character, cutting from this wide shot to a closer one revealing the emotions that read on her face as we begin to hear her story in voice-over (but never enter the school at all). Or we could let this shot play out and notice that the figure is tapping her toe in perfect time, and use this as the kick-off to a montage where a variety of characters move to the rhythm of a music track that grows in volume until we see her and her brethren suited up in their marching band outfits, ready to try to win it all at the state championships. Each clip of raw footage in a documentary has multiple possible meanings, each of which can be accented or diminished depending on how they are juxtaposed with other shots and scenes.

This fundamental fact about documentary is one that makes the genre’s claims to “truth” a richly problematic one. Indeed, the fact that most documentarians refer to the peo- ple who populate their films as “characters” is blasphemy to some purists, who would rather refer to them as “subjects” or “participants.” But using the word “character” is more honest. It acknowledges the fact that documentary editing is a highly refined form of storytelling, one that sculpts larger-than-life performances out of everyday people doing ordinary things. Jean Rouch, who borrowed from Dziga Vertov in referring to his filmmaking style as cinema verité, wrote with brutal honesty about this issue in his postmortem on the groundbreaking 1961 film Chronicle of a Summer he made with Edgar Morin:


How do we dare speak of a truth that has been chosen, edited, provoked, oriented, deformed? Where is the truth? . . . We have only provided a few pieces of a puzzle that is missing most of its parts. Thus each viewer reconstructs a whole as a function of their own projections and identifications. [Our characters are] perceived globally by means of mere fragments of themselves.

Chronicle of a Summer

Indeed, what documentary editors are attempting to do is exactly that: to construct a fable out of fragments. e critic Shanta Gokhale once argued that “unless an image displaces itself from its natural state, it acquires no significance. Displacement causes resonance.” Indeed, there is no greater joy in the life of an editor than to see a scene moved to a new spot in the cut (or a shot moved to a new spot in a scene) and suddenly see it take on new life. e content remained the same, but the alchemical mix of the ordering produced something new.

Lest you lose faith in the dignity of the project we are undertaking, or feel like you’re about to sink to the same ethical muck of reality television, consider the way Rouch underscored the duality of documentary truth later in his essay, when he spoke of the learning process that he and Morin had gone through:

We wanted to get away from comedy, from spectacles, to enter into direct contact with life. But life itself is also a comedy, a spectacle. Better (or worse) yet: each person can only express himself through a mask, and the mask, as in Greek tragedy, both disguises and reveals, becomes the speaker. In the course of [making the film], each [of our subjects] was able to be more real than in daily life, but at the same time more false.

This contradiction of “truth” is an enduring one that we should be well aware of as we march forward; it is also one we must exploit.

                                                                                      *           *           *

This book aims to give you the tools to find purpose and meaning in your raw footage, to help you build scenes that can make it resonate, and to construct a compelling story out of those scenes. By breaking the process down into a series of specific steps, each with its own purpose and timeline, you can realize your goal of crafting a great docu- mentary. And by hearing from some of the top editors in the field, you will learn the techniques and work practices that have seen them through many difficult edits of their own. Along the way, we will pause every now and then to consider the larger issues at play in the practice of documentary editing. rough patient effort, the elusive goal of reaching the finish line will begin to seem less and less an impossibility and more and more like an inevitable result. 


Looking for Transcendence at Sundance 2016

January, 2016


Does the Internet dream of itself? This tag line for Werner Herzog's new documentary could hardly have been more alluring, and as it stared up at me from my program while waiting in the ticket line at Sundance HQ, I silently implored every person in front of me to buy passes to something else. Every few minutes a staffer came out with a dreaded red dot sticker to mark another screening as sold out, and each occasion was a source of tremendous anxiety. Kelly Reichardt’s new feature Certain Women was also atop my list, as was a German documentary on Frank Zappa, and I started wondering what the chances were of sudden illness breaking out amongst those ahead of me—or perhaps spontaneous combustion?


I arrived excited to support The Bad Kids, a feature doc I edited that took a prize in the US Documentary Competition, but was sure in the belief that I would keep my head and remain immune to the Sundance hype. Fat chance! There is something electric about a festival that offers World Premieres of every single title, and as the lights go down on a new screening and the director introduces their work, the stakes feel like they couldn’t be higher…


Why? Well, seeing the new Star Wars on opening night is fun, but there’s a limit to the power of a highly processed commercial product that is also being viewed by a zillion other people at the same time in multiplexes across the land. At Sundance each screening is the occasion for something of genuine artistic value to reach its public for the very first time, and this creates a palpable sense of connection between audience and film. Waiting in that ticket line, it really feels like each of those precious little slips of watermarked card stock may hold the key to transcendence.


I placed my lot on a half dozen films. How did they measure up to this impossible standard? Read on.



Werner Herzog’s unique brand of filmmaking has always illuminated the beauty and the horror of the world in unexpected ways, and it seemed plausible that he might be the perfect person to make a film about what technology has done to our sense of our own humanity. Indeed, as he introduced the film at the Mark Theatre for the film's World Premiere, he offered that he did not own a cell phone, and other comments suggested a deeply skeptical attitude toward the wired world.


What unspooled for the next hour and a half was, by comparison, rather tame. Far from a coherent statement, the film is a grab bag of ideas and explorations, some mildly profound, some mundane. Hertzog interviews hacker legend Kevin Mitnick, who spills some details from his exploits. We learn that the electromagnetic disruption caused by solar flares has the potential to bring down all of earth's communications equipment in one cataclysmic swoop. We hear from Elon Musk about his SpaceX endeavors.


The overall effect is not unpleasant. Lots of crazy smart people musing about the intricacies of the connected world is not a bad way to spend 90 minutes. But some of the most enjoyable moments feel accidental rather than planned, and usually come from Herzog's talent for spewing extreme and semi-random comments on his way to a bigger idea. One of his first lines of narration—heard over shots of a sterile institutional building at UCLA—reads, “in this disgusting hallway, the history of the Internet is hidden...” Immediate laugh line! But that bold take on the aesthetics of the décor is not on offer in his dissection of future trends elsewhere in the film. Sure, he valorizes the person-to-person contact that results from living in a community with no cell phone towers or internet service, and he mildly questions the oddity of robots becoming more and more convincing as human companions, but there is nothing truly new here. Give this film two years and it will feel dated.


It’s also exceedingly conventional in terms of style. The images are blandly functional (talking head interviews mixed with moments of verité), and I can think of only one shot that was truly cinematic: an exceedingly uncomfortable tableau of the family of a girl whose fatal car crash was caught on camera and became a viral video sensation. (Herzog sets them up in a stiff, formal setting as they all look directly at the camera, an untouched brunch spread sitting awkwardly in front of them.) And it did not surprise me to learn that the film was first birthed as a series of web shorts, as its 10-part “chapter” structure mostly failed to create a sum that was greater than its individual parts.


The crowd cared about all these limitations not a whit. The film received generous applause when it concluded, and when Herzog came onstage for the Q&A he uttered a few more unscripted zingers . “Now, let’s say I hang myself from that beam up there, and then I need a second support from the side to stabilize my dead body, and a third one below wrapped around my feet,” he said at one point when making an odd analogy about the architecture of the internet. “Think about a world with no women,” he exclaimed in another riff. “It would be unbearable!” Maybe the crowd was right. Even second rate Herzog merits a second look.


Kelly Reichardt’s slow, patient films are arguably just what a world overrun with high octane distraction needs, and this latest offering did not disappoint. Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristin Stewart all play Montana women navigating the everyday challenges of their lives, and though the three stories only intersect in cursory ways the film feels completely of a piece as a wonderfully subtle piece of feminist filmmaking. In Reichardt’s vision, the wind and the skies are nearly as important as the narrative itself, as its mildly desaturated tones convey something unmistakable about the limitations that the characters face.


Certain Women may have made Herzog’s intended point about the perils of the internet better than Herzog himself, and it was fascinating to see Reichardt navigate the room in the post-screening Q&A as she repeatedly pleaded with the crowd to put down their cell phone cameras and “just have a conversation, right here.” (Stewart’s presence on the stage may have had something to do with the number of attendees hoping to snap a pic.) This is a film of subtle pleasures that makes you appreciate the contours of the physical and social spaces that each of us inhabit in our daily lives. Recommended!


Emphatically not a feminist, Frank Zappa was a musician perpetually at war with his own image. A longhaired troublemaker who famously scorned drink and drugs, and who referred to himself as a “conservative,” his music was uncategorizable. Was he a jazz musician? An experimental New Classical composer? A lazy songwriter whose most famous hit was the novelty song “Valley Girl”?


German filmmaker Thorsten Schütte spent years sifting through a trove of archival material made available with the cooperation of the Zappa family trust, and this goes a long way toward showing the logic behind Zappa’s seemingly contradictory actions.


Opening with a clip of a mild-mannered Zappa in suit and tie appearing on the Steve Allen Show in 1963 sets him up as an intelligent man hoping to open his audience’s mind to new sonic adventures. Is he an “icon” or an “iconoclast”? No, he’s a serious individual who uses a bicycle as an instrument.


Many of Zappa’s rants about the rapaciousness of the music industry and the utter stupidity of the American political establishment are legendary, but in this film one gets a new sense of the source of the man’s outrage. Zappa wanted to challenge his audience and to create art that was unique and difficult. He saw America’s unwillingness to properly fund public art as a catastrophe, and looked at the music business as a rapacious beast intent on dumbing down the tastes of the public to an easily exploitable common denominator. (More than one televised debate shows him chewing apart adversaries.) What made him most mad, it seems, was that public figures in American life did not ask more out of those who they represented.


His personal life is touched on here in only cursory ways and Schütte’s point of view is openly adoring, so Zappa’s tendency to wave the First Amendment flag when people objected to casual lyrics about rape is not given serious scrutiny. Given Moon Zappa’s characterization of her father on Marc Maron’s WTF interview, I had assumed that Frank wasn’t much of a father, either. But Moon and two of her siblings were there for the screening (Dweezl, on tour playing Frank’s music, could not make it) and they clearly relished the serious attention given to their father. Son Ahmet chatted afterward about how his dad asked him to think for himself and to follow his own muse.


A real treat for fans and possibly others, this one was picked up by Sony Classics and will be out later this year.


Craziest film I saw at Sundance. Not the best made, not the most original, but the one with the raw material that packed the most punch. Long story short, director Will Allen joined a secretive cult 20 years ago when he was fresh out of college, and quickly became the group’s resident filmmaker. As the years wore on and Allen's ties to his biological family diminished, the cult’s leader "Michal" became more and more strange. Holy Hell is Allen’s memoir, and his attempt to understand what happened to him and his fellow followers as they bought in to the leader’s BS and then later tried to get out. What you see in this film is one of the more creepy and bizarre megalomaniacs you will ever encounter on camera, and one comes close to understanding why his devoted followers wanted so badly to believe that they put up with mental, physical, and sexual abuse from him on a regular basis.


When Allen brought out many of his compatriots as the lights went up, the crowd roared in an outpouring of sympathy. Many had extracted themselves from the group only recently, and others had just seen the film for the first time. It was incredible to see their reactions to the material, and to have them re-engage with “reality” as if before our eyes. It was an intensely moving experience, because these people were not “crazy” at all—they were normal human beings who found such meaning in the sense of community that the group offered that they spent decades being willfully blind to the deeds of its leader.


The sheer shock value in this film is enough to get you in the door, but it also has something unique to offer about the nature of belief and the very human desire for love and connection.


If there’s one film I saw at Sundance that really took me somewhere, it was this one. It was full of flaws, and I spent the first 15 minutes trying to decide whether or not I despised the main character, but before I knew it the end credits were rolling and I was very sad to be sitting in a movie theatre again rather than floating through the streets of Warsaw.


Polish director Michal Marczak devised his own Steadicam-style camera rig to follow Kris and Michal, a pair of young 20-somethings exploring life, love, and the nascent rave subculture in Warsaw over a long summer. What results is a dreamy, sensuous, unapologetically hedonistic film that spends a lot of time just watching its subjects move from place to place. On paper it may sound insufferable—and to some audiences that will surely be the case—but I found it electrifying. Do you remember what it was like to be 23 and hungry for life? This film will take you back there.


The plot involves a couple of love triangles that develop and break apart, but this is completely beside the point. More relevant is the floating, languid camera work that documents the increasingly intuitive way that protagonist Michal is able to move to the irresistible mid-tempo EDM beats that flow through the film. In the early scenes the music feels like it’s external to him, and he’s intrigued but misunderstands it. As the film goes on and he discovers his body, the music gets inside of him.


Do these words make any sense at all? They might if you were on the drugs that these kids are taking, but short of that the next best thing would be to find a way to see this film.


As I made my way back to Headquarters on a cold Park City morning a couple days later, the line was already snaking around the corridors of the Marriot ahead of its 8am opening. I knew I had come too late, and I feared the worst: by the time I made my way to spitting distance of the counter, passes to Dazed and Confused with live commentary by Richard Linklater would be gone. This was rumored to be the second-hottest ticket of the festival (the first being Nate Parker’s Birth Of A Nation), and I was surprised that the red dot lady hadn’t yet blotted it out on the schedule. I waited, anticipation high.


And then it happened: the lady appeared, nudged by me apologetically, and slowly peeled the little red sticker off of its backing and onto… Dazed and Confused. Thus, dear reader, I cannot report on it for you here. (Check out Mashable’s report if you please.)


I had already been lucky. Lucky to be here, lucky to be seeing films with other lovers of film, lucky to have tasted traces of the transcendence I had come for. I tried to keep things in perspective as I sidled up to the counter and picked out a handful of fresh yellow tickets, eager to see what the next couple of days would bring.

Two Docs
Big Sky Festival Wrap-Up: Two Docs You Need to See

February, 2014

In the book Introduction To Documentary, author Bill Nichols makes a bold statement: all movies are documentaries. From here he cleaves the mass into two big categories: documentaries of wish fulfillment (i.e. scripted narrative films) and documentaries of social representation (i.e. “documentaries.”) Whether doing so by using actors to portray human events or by turning the camera on people acting out their everyday lives, all filmmaking, he argues, engages with our shared cultural moment.


The 11th Annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, which just wrapped on Sunday, is one place to see how that moment is playing out. Held over nine days in Missoula, Montana every February, it has grown into one of the major American venues for new documentary work. (I attended the festival to show my film Finding Tatanka.) This year it showcased about 60 new features from all over the world, as well as another 50 shorts and a retrospective of docs from the past. What does the world look like from the Big Sky stage?


For one thing, it’s a place where money seems to have ever more perverse impacts on our daily lives. From a disturbing look at the Koch brothers’ blitzing of the American political arena with cash in Citizen Koch to the plight of a single mom barely getting by in Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life And Times Of Katrina Gilbert to small Indian business owners being pushed out by mega-malls in Mallamall, there seems to be no arena untouched by filthy lucre.


It’s also a place where individuals achieve amazing things. Bending Steel profiles a man looking to break through personal issues by achieving uncommon feats of physical strength, Medora follows an unlikely group of small town heroes on a winless high school basketball team in Indiana, and The Whole Gritty City documents the aspirations of young members of New Orleans marching bands following Hurricane Katrina.


But it was the deep character studies that interested me most, and where the potential for documentary to provide true insight into our shared moment seemed to shine the brightest. In these extraordinary films, one sees the intersection of the personal and the political in profound ways that defy easy explanation.

Rent A Family, Inc.


Directed by Danish filmmaker Kaspar Astrup Schröder, Rent A Family, Inc. profiles Ryuichi Ichinokawa, who has started a business in Tokyo providing fake family members or friends to clients who need them at ceremonies and other social functions. Is your wedding party not impressive or fashionable enough? Just engage with I Want to Cheer You Up Ltd. and they can provide you with attractive actors to play “best friends” and “relatives” to show off to your new in-laws!


The titillating premise was enough to draw a near sell-out crowd to the Crystal Theater on Saturday afternoon, but the film is not a sensationalized look at a bizarre business venture. Rather, it’s a nuanced character portrait of Ryuichi, a man whose inability to speak plainly to his own wife and children mirrors the predicament of his clients.


It begins with a surreal scene in which Ryuichi himself is hired to play a client’s husband in a negotiation with her ex over their joint child support fund. Ryuichi calmly plays his part with skill, speaking very naturally to his “wife” and chatting amiably about the children in question. By the end of the session, his straightforward manner and subtle references to his own modest means have done their work: the ex agrees to his client’s wishes to cede control of the fund.


Later he is one of nearly three dozen actors paid a total of $25,000 to fill out a young bride’s wedding party. Pictures are snapped and bows are exchanged, and by the end of the night the bride has gotten her money’s worth by being in the company of a gaggle of adoring and attractive “friends.” Ryuichi himself is moved to tears by the ceremony.


Ryuichi enjoys his work, but when he returns home he finds mostly alienation and despair. His relationship with his wife is poor to nonexistent and he spends little time with his two children. The same societal expectations that have taken their toll on his clients have beaten him down as well, and he despairs about his inability to provide a consistent income for his family. No one—not even his wife—knows about the depths of their financial predicament or what he does for a living, and though his small house puts him in close physical proximity with others, he feels profoundly alone.


It’s the small details that make the film special. Ryuichi spends many quiet moments with the family’s tiny dog, and in these sequences one sees clearly Ryuichi’s capacity for intimacy. There is a scene where he stands for a brief moment near the railing of a bridge and the context alone is enough to make you wonder whether he might contemplate suicide. The moment passes, but in the very next scene he discusses exactly that.  In clips that play in the background on the family television set, talk show guests debate the merits of honesty in familial relationships: is it better to tell the truth, or to uphold appearances and avoid conflict? With patient certainty, the film is masterful at bringing us into the heart of Ryuichi’s dilemma, and by the end we can understand why someone would engage his services even though they are clearly a short-term fix for a deeper societal ill.


An equally lonely character is at the heart of Jacob Dammas’ and Helge Renner’s mesmerizing Polish Illusions. The film shows how unnecessary it is to pander to an audience when you have characters as fascinating as Mark Buller. Mark is a retired Army helicopter pilot who now lives in the small Polish town of Darlowo and spends his days maintaining, repairing, and driving around the numerous military vehicles that populate his huge compound. It’s never clear how he came by these things or how exactly he makes a living off them, but Mark himself is certain of one thing: he’s living the dream.


Cocky to a fault and clearly in need of the adoration of others, he whiles away the hours suited up in his Army jumpsuit fixing big machines and talking with a young Polish acolyte named Michał whose need for a father figure makes them a perfect match.


The film spends equal time with another character from the same town. Jan Konstantynów is an 82 year-old magician trying to get back into the game. Once a staple of variety shows throughout the region during the Communist era, Jan now finds himself without purpose, as his act is neither quick nor flashy enough to secure any work on the open market. Heartbreaking scenes ensue in which we behold a man whose self-worth is pegged to the certainties of a social system long since vanished.


The above description suggests a profoundly dour film, yet Polish Illusions is full of delights. Yes, Mark is arrogant and oblivious, but when he gets his due by being left behind by a string of Polish girlfriends we can’t help but feel for him, and his small acts of generosity to Michal make him endearing. One brilliant scene has him talking over his girl troubles with a German friend who tries in vain to help him see how his lack of demonstrated interest in anything but his work is killing his prospects.


Jan is endlessly optimistic about his chances for fame and finally catches a break when he auditions for a local talent show. In a subplot that comes to an exquisitely satisfying conclusion, he seeks out information on his brother’s whereabouts by calling police departments in a string of Kentucky towns and speaking to uncomprehending operators who try to make sense of his broken English.


Intriguingly, the two storylines never intersect. There is no causal or functional relationship between the two men’s lives, and this makes the overlapping themes that much more subtle and profound. Mark has material wealth but is lacking the emotional tools needed to accomplish the task of finding a long-term companion. Jan has a wife but is searching for the certainties of a social contract that is now gone forever, and lacks the one thing prized more than ever: youth. The secondary characters that weave in and out of the film further embellish the theme of this strange historical moment when we seem to be capable of amazing feats but are missing one of the basics of human existence: a clear connection to a larger purpose.


Neither film quite knows how to accomplish a smooth ending. The desire for closure is a strong one, and each filmmaker feels the need to wrap things up in something of a hurry. Yet both films are graceful and soulful, funny and profound, and show why documentaries of social representation can be some of the most powerful.

Cinema Verite
Cinema Verité and the Reality Infection

August, 2013

It pains me to admit it, but I enjoy watching reality television.  The Bachelor has long been a source of fascination for me, and when I have an extra hour to kill in the presence of basic cable I am not above flipping back and forth between MTV’s Teen Mom and whatever happens to be showing on Bravo.  Yes, these shows are exploitative, and that’s precisely the point for a “serious” filmmaker like myself: observing the contortions they will go through to dress up their cheap melodrama in the therapeutic language of self help (or the fantasy of an innocent quest for true love, or the promise that someone deserving will end up with a job) is part of the pleasure of the show.  I can see the insincerity of intention, and I get to feel superior.  I see through the façade, and marvel in a sort of queasy, disgusted fascination.


Yet when I head to the cinema to see a feature-length documentary, I expect some sort of firewall from the crass commercial motivations that dominate on the small screen.   If I pay an admission fee, I have in theory entered the realm of the Artistic and the Serious.  I have decided to give 90 minutes of my time to the director of this work, who is in turn unshackled from the need to endlessly entice me into coming back after the next commercial break with fresh promises of intrigue and humiliation.


So it was that while watching The Queen of Versailles a few months back that I had the uncomfortable sensation of worlds colliding.  The film had all the trappings of the Serious Documentary, from approving nods in The New Yorker and The New York Times to its placement among the International Documentary Association’s top five films of the year, yet in myriad tiny ways Reality was gnawing at the edges.  From the perfunctory wallpapering of the scenes with music to the breezy, shorthand style of the editing to the conveniently non-committal relationship between author and subject, the firewall was coming down.


The modern verité documentary traces its roots back to the pioneers of the form in the 1960s.  Whether using that phrase verité or rejecting it, trailblazers like the Maysles Brothers, Jean Rouch, and Robert Drew all had a great deal of hubris as they claimed to have found a sort of holy grail of truth.  As their fellow traveler Ricky Leacock put it, “[what we’re doing] is totally different because this really has to do with reality.” Why?  Well, for the first time the camera and sound equipment was small enough to be truly mobile, and they could get into social situations that were previously off limits.  Also, they created rules for themselves.  Narration was passé, as it told the audience exactly how to feel rather than letting them make up their own minds.  Ditto with the use of music.  They often even refused to conduct interviews, feeling it revealed too much of the author’s bias because it set up an artificial situation that would not have occurred had they not been asking the questions.  If they did do interviews, they would often be shown with the interviewer and the sound equipment in the shot as a nod towards transparency.  The idea of verité seemed simple: the subjects would be themselves, and the filmmakers would bring that reality to their audience.


The issue of exploitation came up almost immediately, however, with the Maysles’ now-classic Grey Gardens a great case in point.  This was a portrait of two society women—a mother and daughter—who now lived in squalor in their East Hampton mansion.  It showed raccoons roaming the house, trash piling up in the bedrooms, and Little Edie (the daughter) flirting with the filmmakers wearing a bedspread as a skirt.  Some critics scowled at the fact that the Maysles had shown the “aging flesh” of their fallen Hamptonites in such a raw form.  Yet the Maysles could claim with some credibility that they were in fact respecting their subjects by showing them as they actually lived rather than in a prettied up form that would have been more acceptable to the town that they openly despised for its refusal to accept them.  The women’s open embrace of the film when it came out was a convincing endorsement of its methods.


Critics also questioned the premise that these films were any less constructed or manipulative than the documentaries that came before them. Frederick Wiseman, who called his documentaries “reality fictions,” quickly derided the term cinema verité as a “pompous, overly worked, bullshit phrase.”  Yet many of the early pioneers of verité really did believe in the fiction that they were getting closer to Truth, and by doing so they gave the form a generosity of spirit that looks almost quaint today.  They really did want to speculate on the mysteries of human nature and to linger on the subtleties of character.  They were idealists and humanists at heart.


Reality television has no such high ideals, of course, and one way of producing drama rather than waiting for it to happen is to keep the knowledge of the authors and that of the subjects in a constant state of imbalance.  On a moment’s notice the bachelorettes may find that one of their number will be leaving town that very evening if they do not get a rose; the chefs on Top Chef will suddenly find ingredients added and kitchen tools missing; and the competitors on The Amazing Race will find that the pit stop they have been desperately longing for isn’t really a pit stop at all, and that they must keep right on going.  This imbalance is a defining characteristic of competition reality shows (and, one might argue, of the whole genre.)


Which finally brings me back to Queen of Versailles.  The film follows the travails of a timeshare property tycoon named David Siegel and his wife Jaqueline, who are endeavoring to build the largest house in America.  How does the film treat its subjects?  Are these people complex humans with idiosyncratic goals, dreams and desires, or experimental subjects on show for our amusement?


The opening sequences reveals a lot.  The couple is shown on a huge throne of a chair, basking in the attention of the camera and clearly enjoying their wealth. Then comes the click of a DSLR camera, and the reveal that they are posing for a photo shoot.


But this is not just any photo shoot.  It’s a shoot for the PR campaign of the very film we’re watching.  And listen to the music: it has the lilt and dreaminess of a fairy tale, as if we’re hearing the soundtrack to the fantasy that they are living in.  The film takes every opportunity to indulge the egos of its subjects, and as their finances sour with the onset of the Great Recession it gives them plenty of rope on which to hang themselves as spoiled, unsophisticated rubes.  The pleasure here is the same pleasure I get from reality shows, albeit in a more sophisticated form.  I see the filmmaker setting the subject up for a fall, and I get to enjoy the drama intended by the director as well as the disconnect between her stated goal (an honest portrait) and the actual result (a well observed documentary that is also a takedown of an easy target).  And while there’s no contest to win, the unequal power relationships of the reality show are still in full effect.


Now, I will readily admit that there are problems with the argument I’ve set up here.  Queen of Versailles never claimed to be a work of cinema verité.  One could argue that the photo shoot at the beginning of the film, by showing off the making of the documentary as just another piece of artifice, is offering exactly the kind of transparency that the verité pioneers would have approved of.  And even the most scrupulous documentary filmmaker has a point of view on their subjects that may not be fully revealed until the film is complete.   But even though The Queen of Versailles has a lot of very insightful things to say about how we think about wealth in America, I think the point still holds: we should be very aware of what kinds of pleasures this particular documentary is offering us.


The movie ends in an interesting way.  David Siegel is put back in the throne chair for one final interview, only now he is chastened and beaten down.  He reveals that things with his wife are not so good, and it is clear that he has told us secrets that he has not revealed even to her.  As the anonymous hand of a makeup artist enters the frame to pat his face down and pretty him up for a few final questions, he asks wearily, “are we getting near the end?”  The placement of the clip is brilliant, as it signals not only the end of the interview but also the beginning of the end of the movie, and the end of his humiliation as a subject of the film.  We have had our fun with him, and now it’s on to the next thing.


It’s hard to make the argument that the Serious Documentary is in any kind of trouble.  It is perhaps more alive than ever, as filmmakers from all around the world struggle to tell emotionally honest, politically astute, sociologically insightful stories.  Yet it is interesting how effortlessly the notions of Reality TV have infiltrated so-called “serious” documentary.  With its assumptions that you must titillate your audience to keep them in their seats, that you must judge your subjects in order to understand them, and that you must exploit to reveal, Reality TV is everywhere.

Armchair Quartback Review: Rampart

March, 2012

For those of us who grew up watching Woody Harrelson as the lovably boneheaded Woody Boyd on Cheers, there is something irresistible about seeing him so fully embody the tortured characters he’s taken on of late.  That winning smile that once seemed so innocent now hides something menacing and dangerous.  This attraction fully in play, I contemplated spending two hours and twelve bucks to see him as an irredeemably corrupt cop in Rampart.


I then listened to Elvis Mitchell’s interview with Rampart director Oren Moverman on KCRW’s “The Treatment.”  Moverman, who directed Harrelson in 2009’s excellent The Messenger, spoke of his unusual process in creating the film, one in which the script was used only as a loose guide during production and sometimes thrown out altogether.   Harrelson and the rest of the cast were free to improvise, and sometimes came up with new dialogue—even entirely new scenes—on the spot.  Amassing some 100 hours of material, they ended up with a shooting ratio more common to documentaries than to narrative features.


The result could, of course, be a mess.  But it also sounded tantalizingly close to genius. Moverman promised that narrative would take a back seat to character, overwhelming convention and cliché altogether.  Excited by his seemingly experimental approach, I was sold.


Too bad those promises aren’t kept by the finished film.


Rampart is not a disaster, but it’s a long, long way from genius.  It’s a flawed experiment in which narrative is surprisingly, frustratingly intact, and often an albatross that holds the film back from its true potential.

The frequent deviations and omissions from the original script result in a story that is thin.  The plot can be summed up in one sentence: an internal police investigation is uncovering rampant abuse and misconduct in the Los Angeles Police Department, and veteran officer Dave Brown (Harrelson), a bad man getting badder by the day as his paranoia intensifies, keeps getting hauled in to explain himself.  That’s it.  Brown is in trouble with his superiors at the beginning of the story, in deeper trouble in the middle of the story, and in really deep trouble at the end, but since the fine points of the plot have been scrubbed away the details no longer have any bite, and nothing really develops.  Sigourney Weaver as an LAPD higher-up keeps getting madder at him, and Ned Beatty as a retired officer keeps mumbling ominous words about his future, but since we never grasp the particulars and the words don’t have any identifiable result, they feel remote and disconnected from Brown and his world.


With the right choices, this confusion could have been made productive.  Moverman wants to create a subjective point of view in which we, like Brown, wonder what is real as the story progresses.  Some of Moverman’s camera choices (which feature cinema verité handheld camera and many shots in which Harrelson is blocked from easy view) seem to reflect Brown’s paranoia.  As we watch him, it feels like he himself is being watched.


But Moverman doesn’t take his own ideas seriously enough.  In order to really enter Brown’s head, the background plot elements needed to recede much further into the background; they are portrayed too clearly to play as subjective, and are too omnipresent to allow us to get very far into Brown’s head. For the “throw the script out the window” approach to work, we needed to understand less about the facts of the investigation, not more.  We needed to be put in a situation much more faithful to the principles of true cinema verité, in which ambiguity produces a tantalizingly partial account of a story in order to fully engage the audience in their own search for answers.  There are so many hypnotic scenes of Harrelson—brooding in his car, drinking in bars, staring red-faced at his daughters in a tragically inept attempt at reconciliation—that the mundane particulars of the investigation are simply much less interesting to watch.


Another question: does a pure character study mix well with a script by James Ellroy?  Judging from the result here, it seems the answer is “no.”  Ellroy’s hardboiled dialogue is always one step away from pure silliness, and while there are some real winners here (“I’m not racist, Brown states matter-of-factly.  “I hate everyone equally.”) there are far more losers.  One also has the uncomfortable suspicion that the film’s ostensible condemnation of Brown’s brand of vigilante justice is laced with an undeniable glee in watching him perform it.  Brown is certainly no hero, but neither is he an effective anti-hero, and the fact that the Rampart scandal is an all too real part of the LAPD’s history makes one all the more uneasy seeing it portrayed so casually.   One only has to go back to the baldly racist portrayal of African-Americans in LA Confidential to find evidence of difficulties in translating Ellroy to the big screen.


I walked out of the theater still intrigued by what else was hidden in those 100 hours of footage.  Was there a way to treat this film more like the hyper-subjective descent into madness that Moverman hinted was his intention?  Would the omission of 15 minutes worth of exposition in the final product have helped achieve the same thing?  Ah, playing armchair quarterback is so easy compared to the messy, complicated work of directing…


We Live In Public  vs.Catfish  re: Facebook

January, 2012

Last year at this time, I was complaining about the mystifying critical praise being heaped upon David Fincher’s entertaining but empty film The Social Network. Its vague wisps of social commentary were being treated like grand statements, and Fincher was being hailed as a genius who had tapped the zeitgeist.  Lately the question struck me: what have recent documentaries had to say about the issue?  I recently watched two newish docs that have also attempted to define the Facebook era, Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public (2009) and Henry Joost and Ariel & Nev Schulman’s Catfish (2010).  Each tries to say something about the way social media have changed the way we relate to each other, with different results.


The titles give clues to their different strategies.  Catfish has an oblique moniker that invites speculation about its origin, and the film plays out as a juicy mystery of the same stripe.  “Catfish” is just the MacGuffin leading us to the bigger question: what will 22 year-old Nev Schulman find when he finally drives across the country to meet the young woman who has friended him on Facebook, boldly called him on the phone, and since become the object of his intense fascination?   Here is a case in which a character is revealed to us (and Nev) exclusively through Facebook and phone interactions.  All we know about her is from what she’s posted on her wall and in her profile, plus the tantalizing sound of her voice through the limited bandwidth of a cell phone line.  Nev is fascinated, and so are we, largely because so much is unknown about her.


We Live In Public is also a great title, but it leaves less to the imagination:  it’s literally about a guy who took this phrase and made it into a way of life.   As its internet millionaire protagonist Josh Harris spends the 1990s devising ever more elaborate ways of documenting every second of his existence for public consumption (surveillance cameras by the dozen, viewable 24/7 on the web), he never tires of telling whoever will listen that he’s ahead of his time.  The fact that it turns out to be true proves less interesting than it ought to be, partly because the film declines to keep the same airtight controls on its flow of information that Catfish does.  And whereas Facebook allowed Megan Pierce to show her own (idealized, curated) story of her life and thus capture Nev’s imagination, Harris’ Big Brother-like experiment left the burden of narrative to the audience, and Timoner’s narration is often forced into the role of telling us what it all means.


To be fair, the directors had very different levels of access to the emotional lives of the characters that they profiled.  Catfish has the advantage of nearly unfettered access, as the film was made in part by one of its protagonists.  This approach can have all sorts of pitfalls (navel-gazing is a pretty dull sport), but Nev is likable and his character feels genuine, so we go along for the ride. The fact that he also invites a certain amount of self-reflexive criticism of the endeavor (“should we really be making this film?”) only adds to the perception that the filmmakers understand the ethical dilemas that they’ve invited upon themselves.


We Live In Public’s protagonist is more prickly, and while he’s quite forthcoming about what he’s thinking at any given moment, this ends up working to the film’s detriment: when everything about Harris has already been revealed by Harris himself, what is left to find out?  (And how much more do you really want to know about a guy who has installed a webcam inside his own toilet?)  Harris is an open book, which turns out to reveal more than we may want to see.  This may be a flaw in the way his character is drawn in the film, but more fundamentally it’s a test of an audience’s tolerance for non-“relatable” characters, as well as the limits on our desire for truly unvarnished versions of ourselves on social media.  By now it’s no secret that most of us tend to put forward our “happy face” online, such that the level of interaction only occasionally rises above water cooler intimacy.


The way the films deal with the visual logic of the online world is also revealing. Catfish feels instantly immersive: it marries the virtual world with the real one, integrating Google Maps graphics into many of its driving sequences, and fully exploiting Facebook’s layout circa 2009 as a way of driving the drama forward.  (Status updates and “likes” become significant events as the story unfolds.)  Some clever observers have noted that the Facebook iconography in the film is slightly more current than it should be given the stated timeline of the film; I take this as a forgivable error in the staging of the online reenactments, rather than a piece of incriminating evidence that calls into question the fundamental credibility of the story.  Regardless, it is thrilling and mildly creepy to see the “real world” as just another level in some sort of interactive video game, and it’s a great reminder that this is, in fact, the way many of us live now.  We peak out at the “real” world from the digital bunker we inhabit. This is the zeitgeist film that The Social Network never was.


We Live In Public’s Josh Harris had dozens of cameras operating at once in his Manhatttan apartment, and the film chooses the metaphor of a grid of television screens (a la banks of surveillance monitors) in many of its animated montage sequences.  This is completely appropriate for its subject, and is used as background for some fascinating sequences, in particular one in which Harris and his girlfriend immediately check the message boards after a fight to find out who “won” rather than contemplating their actions in private or trying to make up.  In the end, though, the film is somewhat confused about what this all means.  It never really decides whether he’s a sociopath or a genius, and seems content to call him both without getting too deep into what this means.  And when Public tries to equate Harris’ experiment to living on Facebook, the assertion feels like a stretch.  Facebook isn’t a panopticon, it’s more of a multimedia tabloid where the stories are about friends and family instead of celebrities and the ads are custom-generated.


In the end, it is Catfish that asks the more meaningful questions about how well we really know each other online, though neither film speculates about the deeper questions of where all this is heading.  What does it truly mean to channel social life through the commercial byways of Facebook and its competitors?  Does it change our idea of ourselves in the “real” world, too?  What part of our personal lives remains sacred, and does it matter?  Put another way, would Mark Zuckerberg’s famously derisive attitude toward old notions of privacy be any different if there were no money to be made from their obliteration?


Social Network
Why So Much Fuss Over The Social Network?

November, 2010

The Social Network is a decent film.  It has an intriguing protagonist, it’s highly topical, it’s got David Fincher’s signature dim/indirect lighting style.  Yet given the critical praise lavished on the film since well before its release, one would think that something truly special had been born.  From the pages of The New Yorker (“shrewdly perceptive,” “tragic”) to Rolling Stone (“lights up a dim movie sky“) to every possible section of The New York Times (“brilliant,” “resonant,” “possibly the finest movie about business ever made”) has come the impression that what we have here is something of importance.


But The Social Network is not an important film.  It asks very little from its audience, and it fails to challenge the assumptions of the world it supposedly seeks to critique. The fact that such critical adoration has gushed forth says more about the brilliant marketing campaign for the film than it does about the film itself.


My problem with The Social Network lies in the way it uses the excitement that its lead characters all share for fame and fortune to drive the interest of the audience as well.  When Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) teases Marc Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) that “a million dollars isn’t cool, do you want to know what’s cool?” we’re meant to be awe-inspired when the next scene begins with the line “a billion dollars” and we realize this man is about to become a billionaire.   When a young blonde (one of the myriad brainless female characters in the film) wakes up to find that she’s just slept with the Sean Parker (of Napster!!!) and suddenly gets a twinkle in her eye, we’re supposed to be charmed, too.  Nowhere in the film is there a counterweight to the rush of adrenaline that all of these characters get from the prospect of being seen and cashing in.


Most of the film’s plot revolves around the sparring between Zuckerberg, the socially awkward but brashly honest upstart, his more graceful but less brainy sidekick Eduardo Saverin, and the hip and savvy Parker, with the cartoonish blue-blood Winkelvoss twins thrown in for comic relief.  Yet they’re all just different variations on the same theme of hyper-competitive alpha male.  And since there are no other characters of conscience to contrast them with, their actions seem natural, inevitable.  Only in the film’s very last scene, when we are treated to the rich irony of Zuckerberg endlessly refreshing his browser page to find out whether his old girlfriend has accepted his friend request, do we get a hint of what is lost in a world awash in money and ambition.  But by this point, it’s too little, too late.  The idea that one might want anything more from/for the world than these people do is nowhere to be found.


Analyzing the texture and function of the well-composed score by Trent Reznor yields the same conclusion.  It’s glossy, attractive, seductive.  It propels the film forward, breathing life into the vapid, morally bankrupt surroundings.  Yet it never gets anywhere near as disturbing as half of what’s in Reznor’s back catalog.  It’s surprisingly tame, given his resume.   It asks us to share in the uncompromised lust of the lead characters, never suggesting that we look at them critically.


I am well aware that I may be asking something from this film that it was never designed to give me.  But it’s being sold as if it was, and there’s the rub.  I think it bears comparison to The Matrix, released over a decade ago.  Both films were the products of serious creative talents working within the Hollywood system, and both had ambitions of saying something Important.  Yet The Matrix held on to a good portion of its cyber-punk street cred even as it sold millions of tickets and enriched the bank accounts of Warner Bros. executives.   It was infinitely more visually creative than the TV courtroom drama dullness of The Social Network. And it asked us to question our assumptions about the underpinnings of the world that we all live in, even if concepts like “the matrix” and “the oracle” looked pretty silly by the time the god-awful sequels had done their damage.


A scene from the Chris Hegedus / Jehane Noujaim 2001 cinema verité documentary also springs to mind.  There is a scene early in the film when a former pro football coach who has signed on as a board member gives a pep talk to the hopeful young employees of GovWorks, the business whose quick rise and fall is chronicled in the film.   “We’ve got something here that’s a solid business, and it helps people, and that’s the best of both worlds,” he says with a smile.  He pauses, and then delivers the line that gets the room roaring: “and incidentally, we’re going to make a hell of a lot of money!”   The scene perfectly captures both the heady opportunism of the early days of the first boom, and the slippery moral logic still employed today by social media entrepreneurs seeking to add gravitas to their endeavors.


Of course, the characters in The Social Network don’t even bother with the do-gooder veneer, and perhaps this is what critics have been responding to.  “Finallly,” they seem to be saying, “a film that is honest about the naked commercialism of this business.”  Yet they are giving Fincher’s film too much credit.  One has to supply one’s own morals in order to come up with this reading of the film; the film itself is empty.

Brand called me
Burning Man
The Brand Called Me

June, 2010

In the Bio category on my Facebook page, one lone sentence appears: “Ambivalent about social networking sites.” This little scrap of irony, sandwiched between information about my political views and my current employer, was meant to make myself feel better about joining Facebook.  “Look,” it says to my present and potential Friends, “I’m going into this with my eyes open.  I want to participate, but only if you know that I’m not really going to enjoy it.”


But enjoy it I do.  I like keeping up with the daily doings of people I know.  I like broadcasting my opinions on music and politics and the satisfactions of fatherhood to high school classmates, ex-girlfriends, old pals, and whomever else I’ve decided to Accept as Friend.  Thinking of myself as the publisher of my own real-time memoirs is attractive.


I was creeped out by Facebook when I started getting “friended” (are the quotes even necessary anymore?) a couple years back. Not by the lack of privacy, but by the idea that something as intimate and seemingly autonomous as conversations with friends were going to be turned into a way to sell us stuff.  Really?  Aren’t the ads above the urinals and on the back of the supermarket receipts enough?  Has it come to this?


Yes, it has.  And we’ve all gotten used to it.  As the targeted ads recede into the background, part of the everyday noise that we all so expertly navigate to get to those nuggets of human interaction that are so satisfying, they seem to disappear.  The frontier of commodification of the human experience has been advanced another step forward.  Now get over it.


But what I’ve found equally strange is how Facebook has changed standards of familiarity.  It never ceases to surprise me that a Friend Request from someone who I haven’t seen in 20 years often comes unadorned with any personalizing message.  “Elaine wants to be friends with you.  Click to Add as Friend.”  Click. End of story, end of conversation.  If I had run into this person in an airport, common decency—to speak nothing of sheer curiosity—would have dictated at least a three-minute chat.


The intimacy of those moments of shared remembering, and the mystery made possible by actually losing touch in the first place, now seem lost to history. Now we can read each other’s intimate, private thoughts without ever acknowledging each other’s presence.  I feel closer to my Friends, but simultaneously further away.


And is it too obvious to point out the quantity vs. quality equation that can’t help but play itself out in the way we relate to our Facebook Friends?  In the physical world, we share different parts of ourselves with different people.  The history I share with my best friends from high school results in a different kind of conversation than the one I have when hanging out with my brother and sister.


But who exactly are we talking to when we post to Facebook?  With the motley crew of Friends most of us carry, it’s not a simple question to answer.  We’re forced to choose an identity that speaks to a group of people who would never otherwise meet in the physical world.


Thus, it seems inevitable that we think of our online selves more and more as a product. In books like The Brand Called You and Me 2.0, “personal branding experts” counsel us on how to “create a message and a strategy to promote the brand called You.”  One can see the immediate utility in thinking this way if you’re self-employed and trying to create a name for yourself.  But it goes beyond that, and not just because job security isn’t what it used to be.  We are not just branding our professional selves, but the whole shebang.


Which brings us full circle back to the commodification of communication and identity on Facebook. “Ambivalent about social networking sites,” true as the statement may be, is also part of my own personal brand.  So is this post.  Welcome to the brand called Me.


Burning Man at the Millennium

October, 2000

Riding on highway 357, anticipation was building.  The four strangers I met over the Internet who had picked me up from the Reno airport were eagerly asking me questions, wondering what to anticipate from their first Burning Man.  What did the camp look like?  How cold did it get at night?  Did everyone really walk around nude?  Surely the veteran of four previous burns would know. 


            As we came around the last bend with the Black Rock Desert now stretched out before us, a cluster of police lights caught our attention.  We were sure that the cops had arrived to shut down the fun--straight society imposing its rules on our glorious experiment in reckless creative freedom—but as it turned out, they were just trying to save a couple of lives.  The driver of a pickup truck on his way to the Man had let his enthusiasm get the better of him and, attempting to pass another car, slammed head-on into a minivan at full highway speed.  Getting out of the car, I walked up close to see the damage.  Another interested gawker got even closer, and one of the policemen came up to shoo us away.  "No spectators!" he barked gruffly.


            Thus began Burning Man 2000, a week-long artist/anarchist/nudist/ survivalist  event of 26,000 people in the middle of the Nevada desert.  What started out in the mid-80s as a small yearly party on a San Francisco beach has turned into nothing less than a large-scale Utopian movement, one that has captured the imagination of “fringe culture” enthusiasts from all parts of the globe.  To try to describe the event in words is almost a lost cause, its very raison d'être to defy categorization.  But it’s worth a shot, because Burning Man embodies all the glories, pitfalls, and contradictions one would expect from an explicitly anti-consumerist event taking place in the most voraciously consumerist country on the planet.


            One buys tickets to Burning Man over the Internet months in advance of its Labor Day weekend date.  When they come in the mail, the first words you see at the top are “NO SPECTATORS,” one of Burning Man’s signature slogans. At the bottom of the ticket, in large letters again: “LEAVE NO TRACE.”


            These two slogans, repeated ad infinitum at the event, make up the primary ideology of Burning Man: a participant-oriented happening with a seemingly strict environmental stand. 


            From the beginning, Burning Man was conceptualized as a rejection of capitalist consumer culture.  NO SPECTATORS was a radical critique of the producer/consumer dichotomy inherent in a system that treats culture as a commodity.  A ticket to Burning Man guarantees you nothing other than the right to participate, and assumes that the very fun of the thing is creating your own unique brand of performance.  While there are a couple small stages at Burning Man, they are used only on a sign-up basis, and most of what goes on in the form of “entertainment” happens in the chaotic din of camp.


            There is nothing for sale at Burning Man (exceptions = ice, espresso), so you have to pack in everything you plan to use.  This includes gallons of water to survive the intensely dry environment, food, and any shelter you wish to provide yourself.  These shelters can get very elaborate, and campers now regularly come prepared with plywood, PVC piping, and rebar.  You have to pack out what you pack in though, as “Leave No Trace” means that no waste facilities are provided, with the notable exception of every available Port-a-Potty in Nevada.


            What does it feel like to be there?  Here are a few snapshots:


            Midnight.  A scrappy rock band provides the soundtrack to a bizarre strip-tease/ritual sacrifice/fire-twirling performance by a half-naked woman with a flaming baton in one hand and a baby doll’s head in the other.  As she twirls the fire stick around her, some audience members turn on their flashlights to illuminate the other part of her performance, an erotic love dance to the glitter-covered doll’s head.  Yelps and cries are heard from the crowd, as she works herself into a frenzy.  Once the flames on her baton go out, the band takes off at an accelerated rhythm and what was her dusty desert floor stage quickly becomes a dance floor as the audience members mimic her moves, surround her, and lead the performance into uncharted territory.


            3a.m.  A hundred or so revelers are packed into a ramshackle wooden techno club in the midst of a chilly rainstorm outside.  The place pulses with energy, sweat, and joy.  The roof is beginning to leak in spots, one of them directly above the turntables on which a DJ is spinning deep house and hip-hop grooves.  Two resourceful dancers remedy the situation by taking a spare towel and hold it tent-like over the equipment.  They continue to dance, arms raised in the air with the towel, as the DJ smiles a look of thanks.


            10a.m., people just beginning to stir.  “Shampoo Camp” is getting busy, as revelers from the night before start to line up for one of life’s supreme pleasures in Black Rock City: a shampoo.  The people in this camp have set up makeshift salon chairs, and offer a free hair wash (biodegradable soap only, of course) to anyone who will donate a gallon of water to the cause.  It’s a popular idea.  The line is out the door.


            Midday, bright sunlight.  A man carries a large, empty picture frame around his shoulder, wandering the long distance from the north end of camp to the south.  He’s carrying it like it were a backpack or a camera, seemingly unaware of the unusualness of his action.  Or is he?  Maybe he’s making a statement.  He’s created instant context, framing images at will and turning the surrounding bystanders into a temporary audience.  The line between audience and performer is a thin one at Burning Man, and is always in flux.  As the following examples illustrate, one of the pleasures of being a participant/performer is to draw others into the dance, creating a constantly evolving street theater:


            A couple dressed up as giant, feathered ostriches passes you by, and you stop to clap or cheer, only to find that they’re carrying squirt guns and aim to soak you.  If it’s hot out, you’re only too happy to be their victim...  You wander into a maze of cloth partitions and find that to get by, you have to squeeze right up next to fellow maze-walkers on the other side of the sheet, inadvertently becoming temporary masseurs for each other...  A drum circle is in full swing, and someone comes up to an empty drum and gives a bravura performance, eliciting an ovation from the crowd that has gathered, when he abruptly leaves as quickly as he arrived...


            This is an American carnival, a grand experiment in make-believe, a celebration of amateur art.  It resembles nothing so much as a bunch of grade school kids who have somehow made a fortune on their lemonade stand and are using the spoils to build their own forts and spend a week living out their convoluted fantasies.  It’s like a hundred parties, each wackier than the last, all of them open invitation.  There’s the Fern Grotto, a piece of shade populated with an abundance of ferns that also happens to house a shrine to refried beans, and serves burritos daily at 5p.m..  There’s a roving “Beanmobile” (unrelated to the Grotto), a tub of uncooked pintos on wheels that invites you to disrobe and writhe to your heart’s content.  There’s Glitter Camp, where you cover your naked body in multi-colored sparkles.  There’s the Artist’s Republic of Fremont, an outpost on the edge of the desert that will give you a “passport” and stamp it for you, provided that you abide by their rules: “To exemplify a code of social conduct which furthers the freedom of artistic expression; to question authority; to wage a continuous assault upon the forces with seek to censor us; to be loyal to your own artist integrity; to stand united against the lies and injustices with which our enemies assail us....” 


            And then the Man burns.  On the Saturday before Labor Day, the festival climaxes in an orgy of fire.   A 50-ft tall stick figure, lit with neon by night, it has been everyone’s point of reference for the week.  Everyone waits in a huge circle as a mass of fireworks planted in the Man’s body go off.... and then he finally falls.  The audience rushes the scene, and the huge heaps of wood and hay bales burn brightly as thousands circle them and cry out, the whole scene resembling some sort of ancient ritual sacrifice.


            The fire represents something elemental--something dangerous--that Burning Man participants crave.  There is a celebration of the lack of rules here, a celebration of chaos.  People come not in spite of but because of the warnings on the tickets about “death or serious injury.”  Even though there have been only two of the former and very few of the latter in the nearly two decades of the event (no worse than your average rock concert, the organizers like to point out), the danger that does exist is important.  It is a grand rejection of the over-planned, de-humanized, creatively bankrupt landscape of contemporary American life. 


            Burning Man regulars speak with a near-religious reverence of the sense of community that holds the chaos in check.  As one of the signs reads near the entrance gate, “Welcome Home,” and this is neither meant nor taken as a joke.  The Man has become a yearly “home” for thousands of its regular visitors.  There are Burning Man traditions, Burning Man politics, Burning Man jokes, a whole highly evolved and participatory Burning Man culture.  The intense volunteerism that makes the event possible is a phenomenon in itself, and it is the basis for many gatherings during the rest of the year in the cities from which it draws participants.  Year after year the event has overcome attacks from conservative Nevada politicians and Bureau of Land Management officials who frown on the rowdy crowd, and this would only be possible with true grassroots collectivism.


            But to attend this euphoric, intense, highly unusual event is also to be exhausted and disturbed by it.  Gazing at the playa by night, seeing half a dozen fires belch their debris into the air (it is a tradition to burn one’s own sculptures when you’re done with them), and hearing the cries of thousands of drugged-out humans in the middle of an otherwise pristine desert landscape, one wonders about the true meaning of the event.  What does it all add up to in the end?  Does it make a difference that Burning Man exists?


            It is not a coincidence that one of the most radical artistic events of our day takes place in a near-complete geographical vacuum, occupying a vacant space in the middle of nowhere one week a year, then disappearing.  This is community as virtual reality, community as theatre.  It’s as if Burning Man participants had completely given up on the possibility of any of their values being put into practice in the real world, and decided to create a parallel universe instead.  “Black Rock City” is a Utopian dream in the most literal sense of the word--a “no place” place, a thing that does not exist in reality. 


            Burning Man is not “counter-cultural” in the traditional, political sense of the phrase.  It seeks not to fight the dominant culture but to circumvent it entirely.  It squeezes all the frustrated desires of the regular world and funnels them to this desert landscape.


            Burning Man is, in fact, supremely apolitical.  It supports no other causes, takes no positions on real-world issues, and in the end, stands for nothing other than itself.  The content of the artistic expression that it so forcefully seeks to liberate is all over the map, libertarian perhaps, but not liberal.  The liberation of sexual desire is a huge theme year after year, especially in 2000, when the theme was “The Body” and street names like “Sex Drive” and “Anal Avenue” were employed.  But the nature of the sexual content was, in most cases, a carbon copy replica of the sexist themes we are all so used to back in the real world.  Go-go dancing is a big attraction, with raised Plexiglas boxes in some of the makeshift clubs.  Walking in, one witnesses the same scene as might be encountered in your average strip bar--a half dozen scantily clad females writhing over a pack of horny, unsmiling men.  The twist at Burning Man was that everyone was invited into the cages, and often times women of less conventionally attractive proportions would play the role of seductress.  The role itself, however, went unchanged.  Fulfillment of fantasy was achieved, but the nature of that fantasy went unquestioned.


            Similarly, “Thunderdome” was a place to play out conventional fantasies of violence.  A huge steel geodesic dome with two swings hanging from the top, this was an area that would stage “death matches” between volunteers eager to put themselves in a Mad Max fantasy.  Each person would take their rubberized lance and try to joust the other off their seat while rowdy spectators played the role of blood-thirsty crowd.  None of the injuries sustained by the fighters was life-threatening, but neither was this child’s play; the attraction for participant and spectator alike was the possibility of real pain.  This may have seemed a unique attraction to its creators, but to me, it bore a strong resemblance to the TV show American Gladiators.


            Burning Man politics consist of a contempt for mass culture and a love of personal freedom.  By leaving it at that and refusing to engage the real world, it is a perfect expression of the fissure that has developed between political movements and musical/cultural events.  Whereas concerts of the 1960s often functioned interchangeably as entertainment and political statement, this is lifestyle politics, pure and simple.  The illusion is that living out radical forms of performance/audience interaction is political in and of itself.  The reality is that Burning Man is as unthreatening to the status quo as a Yanni concert.


            Indeed, how can one look at the immense expenditure of resources at Burning Man and take seriously its quasi-environmental pretensions?  By day the desert landscape becomes a sea of cars, RVs, and generators, each requiring gasoline and each spewing pollution into the air.  By night, the fires rage on.  The extent of Burning Man’s environmental impact is unknown, but to drive in on the Thursday before Labor Day and smell smoke from 60 miles away gives you the idea that it’s not small. 


            There are some extreme double-standards that go along with the Leave No Trace ideal.  At a very popular booth this year, one could get bags of fresh-popped popcorn for free.  While waiting in line, signs exhorted patrons to pick up after themselves.  “Leave NOT ONE KERNAL on the ground!”  “Recycle your BAGS!”  “LEAVE NO TRACE.”  I felt an odd sense of disconnection as I walked back to my camp, being ever-so-careful not to drop any popcorn, and saw huge balls of black smoke rise in the air from someone with a flame-thrower, delighting the crowd.  This is a very terrain-specific environmentalism: leave no trace on the ground (even of biodegradable popcorn!), but the atmosphere is up for grabs.  


            Burning Man enthusiasts have an answer for such arguments.  The Man is a “post-apocalyptic” event, they say.  They argue that the environmental impact of the entire week-long event adds up to only a fraction of the pollution released every day by a large factory, and that creating pollution in the service of human fulfillment is a much better use of resources.  How well this argument holds up for you may depend on your evaluation of the apocalypse.  Has the real world really proven its inability to serve human needs?  Is it truly beyond saving?  Burning Man is a tremendous rejection of commodified experience, but that rejection is almost too strident, or at least misplaced.  People spend months of time and large sums of money preparing for Burning Man every year, yet they leave the conditions of their everyday lives largely unaffected.


            To be fair, most Burning Man proponents have rarely claimed that the event is anything other than a kick-ass party, and that it certainly is.  The creativity expressed at Burning Man continues to astound, and that alone is something of a political statement.  I know more than one person who was moved enough by the experience of their first Burning Man to make significant changes in their lives, changes that involved a re-orientation of priorities towards creative work and a commitment to their “true calling.”  It is also impressive to see the organizational abilities displayed year after year that keeps the event relatively safe, completely commercial-free, and mostly self-policing.  The fact that the playa is left year after year without much litter, and that very little crime of any kind is committed, is a testament to the degree to which Burning Man has created a well-functioning civic culture.


            But I am left with the nagging feeling when I leave each year that it could be much more.  Once the thrill of riding drunk through the desert on a motorized sofa has worn off, what’s left?  When the week ends and the enormous traffic jams begin to wind their way back towards Reno on Hwy 357, we all have to go back to the same old world.  The apocalypse is still in progress.  We can still make our world a little more like the Man.


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