August 1st, 2005


I was never much of a documentary watcher until I hooked up with my man, but now I've become quite fond of them. We've watched a number recently, and I've begun to develop some theories about why some work and some don't. Specifically, we've recently watched one that was brilliant - Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation - and one that was sloppy and unsatisfying - Xan Cassavetes' Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. Put very simply, I think a great documentary must work like a great written essay: The theme(s) must be stated clearly up front; the body of the work must support the theme(s) and prove any point the writer/filmmaker is trying to make; and the conclusion must briefly summarize the theme(s) again.

Look at Tarnation: Caouette opens with himself as an adult, living in New York with his lover, and receiving a phone call informing him that his mother has overdosed on lithium. From there he segues into his childhood; we now understand that Caouette is going to explore his difficult relationships with his mother and with his own childhood. The film stays focused on these themes; we don't get long discourses on his adult life as an actor, his political views, what he eats for breakfast or any other meaningless time-filler.

Now, compare to Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession: The film opens by telling us that Jerry Harvey, the legendary programmer for the channel, murdered his wife and committed suicide, so we're led to think the film's theme will be a true-crime investigation or, at best, a look at the intersection between madness and genius. Instead, the film suddenly shifts into a sort of mondo documentary of global cinema in the 70s, with Harvey inexplicably sitting at the center of it all. And yet, just when we think the movie really is a movie about movies - we're back to Harvey's ex-girlfriends and wives talking about his mental problems. After interviewing various friends and co-workers who have told us how wonderful Harvey's last wife was, we're told with little more than a few brief sentences that he killed this woman, then himself. The film concludes with a sentimental song (Harvey's favorite, apparently) and a montage of clips from films that Harvey showed on Z Channel. Nothing about the murder, about the woman he slew; this bizarre - what, attempt to deify Harvey the Programmer? - comes as not merely inept, but downright distasteful. (And by the way, I adored the Z Channel, back in those halcyon days before there were 300 cable channels all showing nothing.)

I don't know why I'm not interested in making a documentary myself. Maybe it seems even more daunting to me than making a fiction film. It can't just be a badly assembled collection of clips and talking heads; it requires careful collation and editing of materials, to say nothing of talent and technical skill. Caouette proves that with the new home video technologies anyone can do it, but Cassavetes shows that - even with probably several hundred times Caouette's budget - not everyone should do it.