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July 5, 2004

Michael Moore, Superstar

Here's an interesting New York Times article by Sharon Waxman about the current popularity of documentary films. Waxman's main subject is (surprise!) F9/11, which broke the $50 million barrier this weekend, but she also notes the popular success of last summer's documentary mini-hits, Spellbound and Winged Migration as part of the larger trend of the popularization of the "nonfiction film."

Harvey Weinstein compares the F9/11 phenomenon to the popularization of indie film by sex, lies, and videotape and the breakthrough of foriegn film represented by Cinema Paradiso and Life is Beautiful, all Miramax releases (Harvey, you must be so proud!). Others have attributed this new-found popularity to a greater patience with documentary or nonfiction due to reality television, although I think the "popularity" is somewhat overstated (like Matt Dentler, I'm a little troubled that reality TV is being used as an excuse to declare televised fiction dead).

To some extent, I think F9/11 is a special case of documentary success, based largely (no pun intended) on Michael Moore's status as "star," someone who can guarantee a specific audience. I'd imagine that unless Moore deviates considerably from his muckraking style, he's going to have this built-in audience for some time (notice that previews for The Corporation have not been shy about pointing out Moore's presence in that film). And of course, the timing of the film's release is absolutely perfect. The issues at stake in terms of the elections and the various scandals in Iraq have also mobilized audiences to see the film.

Still, it's fantastic to see documentary film being debated so intensely in the newspapers, on the Internet, and on television. The article addresses the Big Question about F9/11, about whether or not it should be classified as a documentary, or whether another term (nonfiction film?) might be more appropriate. Errol Morris (who is set to direct a series of anti-Bush advertisements for MoveOn.org) addresses this question in the Times article:

"There are a whole number of really important questions here," said Errol Morris, a documentary pioneer whose Fog of War, about former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, won the Oscar this year. "Does it makes sense to talk about a movie being true or false? I'm not sure it does. In fact I'm pretty sure it doesn't. Movies are movies."

Still, he said, investigative documentaries have a responsibility to seek clear facts and clear answers. His 1988 film The Thin Blue Line contributed to the freeing of a man wrongly convicted of murder.

"It's not a question of the movie but of the ethics of the person making the movie," Mr. Morris said. "Journalism is not infallible, but we depend on journalists to do something of a good job in investigating a story, whatever that means — to be motivated by a desire to find out stuff."

Otherwise, he said, "you're just using the legal troubles of people as fodder for entertainment."

I'm not sure if Morris's comment about using other people's misery as entertainment is a veiled critique of Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans, but that's one of the questions I've been mulling as I prepare to write my SAMLA paper on that film. I'll also be thinking about this boundary between "true" and "false" in that paper. I don't have any clear answers yet, but I do think that Morris is asking the right questions. And, as the documentary or nonfiction film continues to evolve (and continues its popularity), I think we'll be looking at these issues for a while.

Posted by chuck at July 5, 2004 12:12 PM

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