John Milius! What movie nerd of a certain stripe (say, the stripe that's seen Apocalypse Now about a dozen times) wouldn't be excited about a documentary about John Milius? The semi-legendary screenwriter/director had a hand in the likes of Apocalypse, Dirty Harry, and Conan the Barbarian, and he served as the right-wing-nutjob older-brother figure to New Hollywood Cinema titans Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas. John Goodman's irascible, Nam-obsessed blowhard in The Big Lebowski? Based on John Milius, so the story goes. With a larger-than-life subject like this as the focus, how could Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson's Milius not be fascinating?
But mere minutes after firing it up on Netflix one recent evening, I was confronted with my current pet peeve arising from the explosion of documentary filmmaking over the past decade or so. Figueroa and Knutson had taken one of the more protean figures of the second golden age of American movies, and sat him down, lit him, trained a stationary camera on him, and started interviewing him. Then they went out and corralled Spielberg, Scorcese, Lucas, and a host of other Hollywood Young Turks-turned-silverbacks and did the same to them. And then they took their copious footage of talking heads, intercut it with scans of old photos, and called it a movie. The chair had struck again.
Cable channels, streaming services, art houses, and film festivals are lousy with documentaries these days, thanks to cheap and forgiving digital technology and a content-hungry audience primed to access and enjoy-even seek out-true stories. But the very factors that have caused a boom in documentary filmmaking have led to a bust in docs that make more than a minimal effort to get up and move around. The now-familiar mix of talking heads and archival footage/images does show rather than tell, at least nominally, but it mostly tells, and it doesn't feel like cinema anymore. Filmmakers need to ditch the chair and film something-anything-happening.
That was the prize once. Fifty years ago, the invention of portable 16-mm film equipment that could also record synchronous sound enabled a generation of now-legendary filmmakers to go anywhere and film anything-to become the proverbial flies on walls as the late 20th century unfolded. Several decades of observational classics followed: Dont Look Back; Salesman; Grey Gardens; Harlan County, USA; Paris Is Burning; Hoop Dreams. The list goes on and on. Movies have always allowed us to live other lives through the screen, but the best of these you-are-there documentary films allowed us to live other real lives existing unknown alongside our own, often with breathtaking intimacy. With 1978's Gates of Heaven, for example, director Errol Morris was able to craft unnarrated footage of the proprietors of a struggling pet cemetery into a wry treatise on the temptations and limits of the American dream.
Then Morris made The Thin Blue Line. The 1988 doc scandalized purists by using reenactments and sumptuous cinematography to tell the story of a man wrongly sentenced to death for murder, but it worked: Randall Adams was released from Texas' Death Row, and Morris had redefined how documentaries could tell their stories. Yet, among the many techniques he exploited in the film was the plopping down of subjects in chairs for extended interviews. He had used plenty of talking-head interviews before but usually captured in contexts that added their own cinematic interest (e.g. filming a bluff rendering-plant manager swiveling in his office chair for Gates of Heaven) and intercut with observational footage. But ever since The Thin Blue Line, Morris' films have been defined by the chair. He even built a special contraption, the Interrotron, to facilitate extended interviews on a soundstage. His imitators are now legion, whether they realize it or not. And precious few are anywhere near as skilled or inspired.
It's not that I don't understand why filmmakers rely on the chair. Even with the relative ease and affordability of digital video, making the most basic documentary film can involve months, sometimes years of work, not to mention thousands-sometimes many, many thousands-of dollars. Filmmakers may be exploring a past event or era or personage and forced to rely on the accounts of those who were there or authorities who can speak to what happened. Having a talking head relate an anecdote or emphasize a point is likely preferable to a voiceover or a title card. If money is tight and time scant, making sure you have footage you can bank on to tell your story is expedient at worst. But it has gotten to the point where, if I start a film and I see that now-familiar opening montage of talking heads establishing the key points of the tale to come and making tantalizing claims, I drop my expectations for what I'm about to see. Rarely does the film that unfolds exceed them.
Take Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary that has enjoyed a surprisingly lengthy run at the Charles Theatre. Maier, who worked as a nanny most of her life and died in 2009, has become a minor art-world sensation in recent years after a random auction purchase brought to light her decades of clandestine street photography. The contrast between her morbidly ordinary life and her astonishing work makes for a juicy topic, and directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel face a challenge in tackling such an enigmatic and poorly documented subject. But the predictable medley of talking heads and pan-and-scan images comes off more like an educational special or a DVD extra than a film one bothers to leave the couch to see.
There are filmmakers out there breaking away from the oppressive hegemony of the chair. Harvard University's Sensory Ethnography Lab has been behind a recent spate of documentary films that boldly reject recent doc tropes and HBO-friendly narratives in favor of pure observation, sending cameras and sound recordists out to shadow shepherds (2009's Sweetgrass), fishermen (2012's much-hyped Leviathan), and now Nepalese pilgrims (Manakamana, which played last week's Maryland Film Festival). It gives me hope that a new generation of filmmakers will substitute the influence of filmmakers like the SEL crew for Morris'. A new generation of film lovers, even one weaned away from the big screen, deserves it.