Thursday, January 09, 2014

The State of Documentary Criticism

A couple months back IndieWire (hat tip: Full Frame festival) pointed me to a going discussion about whether critics fail to understand documentary films or documentary aesthetics more generally. Robert Greene's polemic seized on a Manohla Dargis review to make the case that "there is a clear bias against discussing documentaries as movies first." I can't do full justice to Greene's argument, which is worth reading in full.

I happen to agree with Greene's fondness of Only the Young, a film I found well-made and affecting. And I do agree with his basic case for a) more discussion of the aesthetic implications of blurred doc-fictions lines; and b) more championing of formally interesting documentary work.

But would push back some against the notion there's a systematic problem with documentary criticism. Film critics do sometimes see things differently than filmmakers; they have different interests, different motivations, and different audiences. Moreover, it's hard for me not to read Greene's critique as a proxy battle for a particular kind of documentary. He's making the case for hybrid and otherwise formally innovative docs.  That's great, and I could see how he could be frustrated with New York Times critics. But maybe the problem with mainstream critics is not that they don't understand documentary but that they have a competing notion of what documentary does. In other words, this seems like just an ongoing struggle between the more aesthetically and more journalistically oriented parts of the documentary field.

I do think the whole discussion is (usefully) symptomatic of two deeper issues. First is that those who, broadly speaking, form the core of documentary culture - makers, critics, scholars, film buffs - face a dilemma versus the wider film culture.  On the one hand, they don't want documentary to be ghettoized. Tom Roston, blogger at PBS's Doc Soup, for instance, has been militating for inclusion of docs at the Golden Globes and for a recognition of the best documentaries as some of the best films proper. On the other hands, documentary has a distinctive community, canon, and (usually) production process. Ideally, we want film critics accustomed to fiction films to be aware of the documentary traditions.  Greene's complaint is twofold: he wants critics like Dargis to be more aware of the specificity of documentary, and at the same time he wants critics to recognize documentary as merely one version of a common cinematic experience, with "documentaries as movies first." I don't mean this as a gotcha statement but rather a paradox we all face in thinking about documentary as either autonomous or integrated with a dominant fiction film culture.

Second, I think Greene's polemic and the discussion around it is a delayed reaction to the proliferation and qualitative change of film criticism on the internet. It's a useful project to see the energy devoted to discussion fiction film and ask for the extension of this meta-critical energy to nonfiction cinema.

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