by Ola Zaltin
I’m channel surfing again, so what? I’ve already cleaned the apartment, colour-coded my books, re-potted the plants and flossed the cat’s teeth (ok, I don’t have a cat, but the neighbour’s volunteered - if somewhat evasively - the hurdle was to hold him still but as my niece says: if it ain’t working, you simply haven’t used enough gaffer tape.) For short: anything to avoid writing that horrid article for WWJ. “Non-fiction”. I mean, seriously, where DO they get it all from?
So I’m hopping from channel to channel, merrily procrastinating away another afternoon in a very clean apartment with some very happy plants and good-looking bookshelves and someone pounding on my door yipping away for cat and country about the RSPCA in the background. Which is when something catches my eye and I suddenly can’t make my thumb obey my brain and push the button for the next channel. And no, it’s not Playboy channel (not this time, at any rate).
In fact, I don’t know what it is. It’s utterly strange, what I’m watching. There’s black and white footage from some kind of eastern block country in the seventies. Oldsters being interviewed about I think Czechoslovakia back in the day. An English woman in her seventies, who I am starting to understand is looking for her heritage in the Jewish part of Prague that was before WW2. I haven’t watched any channel more than 10 seconds tonight, and now already 20 minutes have passed without me moving a muscle. Okay, truth be told, I just made up the specifics of the documentary. But you know the feeling: you just have to find out what the story is and so you stay on the channel. At least if you’re curious, and I believe most writers are, on one level or other.
In the image-saturated society of today we have become extremely adept at decoding moving images. I dare anyone reading this not being able to tell within five seconds after switching to a new channel what genre it is, whether made for tv or film, what decade it was produced, and round about where we are in the story. Sounds like a lot? Yet you do it without thinking about it 25 times per evening, give or take. If you watch the telly, that is. If not, stop reading. Now.
Genre is easy of course, rom-com, detective stories, comedy, thrillers, historical dramas etc; we all know them. TV-productions generally contains more talking heads, few movie-stars (for natural reasons), whereas films have another aspect-ratio, better lensing and more landscapes and so on. Production decade isn’t a biggie either, as we decode this fast as well, based on things like resolution, black & white or techni-colour or colour, the way the dialogue runs, the fashion and interior decorating of the sets, and more. Even historical dramas from another decade aren’t that hard (e.g. “Kelly’s Heroes”: a film from 1970 set during the second world war has Donald Sutherland as a hippie in a tank...).
Where one has landed in a film when channel surfing can be figured out through some easy tells: if the camera is zooming in slowly, it’s the very opening. If it’s slowly zooming out, the credits are about to start rolling. The beginning means a lot of talking, a lot of exposition, things are moving along at a rather sedate pace. Middle means things just got a lot more complicated and dangerous (spot the film: the Death Star is in fact fully operational, Jules is kidnapped by Davian, Cobb’s projection of Mal sabotages the plan, and so on and so forth ad absurdum). When it starts raining and the guy just lost the gun, the girl plus his nerve and the storm of the century is headed for the coast with 100 feet waves saturated with very miffed cyborg sharks - that’s when you can tell we’re beginning to see the climax and approaching the ending of the story. And so on, there’s a dozen other simple signs that we decode and understand more or less subconsciously.
This is part of my theory why documentaries make such fascinating viewing. Being so inundated with Hollywoodese and its formula story telling, well made documentaries has become a breath of fresh air, an anti-dote to the make believe world of been there seen that. Although knowing what’s around the corner can be very comforting in story-telling terms, we also need to be surprised, get to know new worlds, true drama and deep sorrows and real-life triumphs. After all, this is what fiction strives to portray.
So what makes documentaries so watchable? To find out more about this I called up Swedish documentary film maker Fredrik Gertten (whose film ”Bananas!” http://www.bananasthemovie.com/ is now out for distribution in the UK). It came as no surprise that his genre of documentary film-making, doesn’t have a script per se. More of an outline, a question he is curious about. Something worth exploring to see if there is a story behind the headline, the article or the tip-off. What came as more of a revelation was that he said good documentaries were character driven. Fredrik told me that once he has the subject matter researched, he goes looking for the character that can tell the story. Without this person, no documentary. Which blew me away, because this is so very much like fiction script writing. Without a strong protagonist: nada.
It hit me, upon a quick mental run-through of my favourite documentaries, that they all had amazing main characters or groups of characters. Hoop Dreams (1994), Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Dont Look back (1967 - easy: the main character is Bob Dylan) and The War Room (1993) are ones that immediately leap to mind. They all have amazing stories, strong characters and very involving story-lines.
Then there’s Grey Gardens (1975) possibly my favourite documentary of all time. It concerns the mother and daughter relationship of Big Edie and little Edie Bouvier and their solitary and impoverished, half crazed and vividly alive existence in the eponymous Grey Gardens, a derelict mansion in the posh East Hamptons. The fact that little Edie was first cousin to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis made quite the headlines when the film was first screened.
I won’t even try to describe the film, it has to be seen. I will never forget mother and daughter Bouvier (how can you, when the main character little Edie every other night goes up to the attic with a bag of cat-food to spread out for the visiting badger?). It’s one of those things, if you wrote it as fiction and showed it to someone they’d immediately say it was completely outlandish and wholly unbelievable. Man, you just couldn’t make it up. Larger than life and incredibly heart-felt. Stranger than fiction.