How Real Does It Feel?

The Hollywood Issue ~ The New York Times Magazine

The Faux Reality Spectrum

“Is it a documentary?” “Is it like a documentary?” I find myself hearing (and asking) these questions so often that I have started to wonder what they mean. It’s not just that the definition of “documentary” itself is mutable: unlike other journalistic and quasi-journalistic forms, no code of ethics has ever been agreed upon by practitioners of the art, and what rules of thumb there are tend to be temporary, controversial and broken as soon as they are made. To take examples only from this calendar year, a single generic rubric covers a muckraking, talking-head essay on Wall Street like Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job,” a ruminative memoir on parenthood like “The Kids Grow Up,” by Doug Block, and an exercise in intensive fly-on-the-wall objectivity like Frederick Wiseman’s aptly titled “Boxing Gym.” And those are just the easy cases — the nonfiction films that the academy might agree to consider for its award in the always-crowded and controversial feature-documentary category.

Movies that look or feel like documentaries are much more numerous, and far more perplexing, especially since video truthiness has become the default setting of so much media. When we say “like a documentary,” do we really mean “like one of those sitcoms pretending to be a documentary,” in which characters glance at and sometimes speak directly into the camera? “Like reality television?” “Like the evening news?” Or do we mean something less specific? Do we mean something that tries to make us forget we’re watching a movie, by giving us what seems like direct, raw, unmediated access to characters and their stories? Or do we mean the opposite: a film that reminds us with every awkward cut and jolting camera movement that what we are watching is not the literal truth?

Or both at once? The French critic Serge Daney once formulated an essential paradox of cinema, bringing to it the special polemical force that only a French critic could have mustered. It was an axiom, he said (the axiom of Cahiers du Cinéma, by the way, the journal that spawned the New Wave), “that the cinema has a fundamental rapport with reality and that the real is not what is represented — and that’s final.” Yes, of course. But this insight is less the solution to a puzzle than a description of its shape.

The basic epistemological conundrum of cinema has been there from the start. What has changed, though, is how cinema makes its inherent contradictions apparent. Reality in movies used to resemble the medium commonly taken as the most reliable sign of truth: the newspaper photograph. Reality was black and white (as documentaries and realist dramas remained for a time, long after more fanciful genres like westerns, musicals and comedies had gone over to color). Reality was grainy. Reality was the awkward opacity of the nonprofessional actor rather than the expressive polish of the pro. Reality, once the equipment became available, was shoulder-mounted or handheld cameras and portable sound-recording units.

Now, however, reality is everywhere you look, taking dizzyingly protean forms. For every blockbuster that conjures a brand-new, hermetically sealed cosmos of fantasy, there are at least a dozen movies chasing after that “fundamental rapport” in new and sometimes confusing ways: 2010 may be the year of the multiplying reality effect. We have seen outright hoaxes, possible hoaxes, movies in which real people play fictional versions of themselves, exercises in trompe l’oeil navel gazing and ruthless self-examination. Not to mention slickly packaged, meticulously detailed attempts to reconstruct the truth of history, occasionally by making it up more or less from scratch.

Take the movie everyone seemed to be talking about this fall. Is “The Social Network” accurate? Is it true? Do its polished surface and carefully engineered visual and sonic effects count as realism at all? Every commercial biopic invites this kind of scrutiny, and whenever a new one is released, someone publishes an article lining up the discrepancies between the historical record and the Hollywood version. Even before “The Social Network” was released, The New Yorker broke the news that Mark Zuckerberg (the real one, not the one played by Jesse Eisenberg) has had a steady girlfriend for most of the period covered in the film, a detail omitted from the movie, which makes much of its protagonist’s inability to sustain relationships, or even conversations, with women.

But the public surely knows — don’t we? do we? — that movies take liberties, and that the words “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events” appearing before the opening titles offer at best a loose and flimsy tether to reality. We are either sophisticated enough not to trust that what we see corresponds to what was, or jaded enough not to care. There may be an extra dose of cognitive dissonance when the biopic subject is, like Zuckerberg, still alive, not yet 30 and very much in the public eye. But surely we are used to that kind of feedback loop as well.

NOTE: Gotham Public Relations premieres the documentary ‘Candy Darling’ at the IFC Center in New York January 14, 2010 with Agency client Corinth Films. [RSVP to Gotham PR New York]


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