The two most compelling series I’ve seen in the last couple months were about social misfits creating a quasi-fascist online planetary cult (think The Matrix crossed with Twin Peaks) and a world-famous author becoming unhinged as he grapples with the secret of his gender identity (Breaking Bad crossed with Transparent). Both shows had everything—intrigue, danger, politics, familial melodrama, epic implications—and if they sound like projects cooked up by Hollywood, in fact, they are documentaries. Not so long ago documentaries were a niche, which is a nice way of saying they evoked the dry, dusty landscape of knowledge rather than the amusement park of escapism. Still struggling to satisfy a cultural ADD all the more pronounced during the pandemic, audiences binged on the likes of Q: Into the Storm and Hemingway because, starved of experience by the long shutdown, they’ll consume the real world whatever way they can get it.
The status of the documentary has been changing in a way that’s reached critical mass these past 15 months. The genre has been around forever: Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North and the Soviet-made Man With a Movie Camera were landmarks of the silent era. Frederick Wiseman’s gonzo-verité docs have served as portals into everyday institutions (Hospital, High School, City Hall), while Errol Morris has told stories that served as searing exposés: The Thin Blue Line, about a man wrongfully convicted of killing a police officer; A Brief History of Time, which introduced cosmological theorist Stephen Hawking to popular culture; and, particularly, Fog of War, observing how good men made disastrous decisions as they pertained to Vietnam. If any single figure accounts for the documentary’s current vogue, though, it’s Ken Burns, now coming off Hemingway with Muhammad Ali, the story of the activist heavyweight champion, looming at summer’s end.
Burns is the Spielberg of the documentary, mostly for better and sometimes for worse. The Burns formula was perfected 30 years ago when The Civil War became a TV phenomenon. Part photographic sleight of hand (the camera gliding over stills), part performative tour de force (familiar voices delivering quotes of the day), part ambient seduction (a musical theme some can hear in their heads decades later), The Civil War introduced a new century of Americans to their country’s most horrific and heartbreaking chapter and brought alive for audiences a history of which too many remain woefully ignorant.
Burns occasionally gets the obligations of evenhandedness and exclamatory drama exactly backward: As masterful as The Civil War was, it could have been a bit clearer on that whole slavery thing that made the war inevitable. And while Ernest Hemingway certainly was the most celebrated American writer since Mark Twain, exactly as Hemingway claimed, Hemingway overestimated the influence of a novelist whose persona consumed his literary impact, which has given ground, for half a century, to contemporaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. Nonetheless, the documentary was a riveting and unsparing portrait of a man and his time, and for many, it was probably revelatory about the extent to which the author fetishized masculinity while grappling with gender ambiguity.
It remains to be seen how long the doc boom continues. At a moment when high-profile boutique theater chains like ArcLight are shutting down, no one can doubt there have been tectonic changes in our media viewing. And the audience’s new enthusiasm for documentaries isn’t always as elevated as Burns or Morris; half of the most popular documentaries streaming are about crime, particularly when it’s violent (Making a Murderer, The Staircase, and the fascinatingly meta I’ll Be Gone in the Dark), though seductive con artists and sociopaths (Fyre, WeWork, The Inventor) will sometimes do in lieu of a dead body. Much of the rest focuses on sex, either illicit (Hot Girls Wanted) or weird (The Vow), or the stuff of People magazine, including profiles of Michelle Obama, Michael Jordan, and Taylor Swift.
If few reasonable people would argue that more documentaries isn’t a good thing, the more information that becomes available, the more its quality demands examination. In the past, the rarity of the documentary gave its content an undue authority. Q: Into the Storm uncovers how, in an information age, otherwise intelligent people can believe some really nitwitted shit when it’s rendered in absurdly labyrinthine terms. Reality has been so vivid and often overwhelming these last few years that fiction can’t compete anymore. We may be coming full circle: when “information” is the fiction, and no one knows the difference or wants to.
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