Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Documentary Aestheticization

There's a broader debate to be had with the aestheticization of documentary subjects, but I would like to visit the documentaries that signal themselves as aestheticizing, poetic, or otherwise formally rigorous approaches to nonfiction. These, I feel, invite the critique, often on the ground that aestheticized documentary not only resists documentary's Griersonian mission but actively perverts it.

Tom Rosten, for instance, remarks of Oxyana:
The problem arises largely because Oxyana is depicting serious social problems (poverty, drug addiction). And the aestheticization of real social issues can feel like documentary voyeurism or slumming. Some of the more wretched cases (a guy with clear mental impairment) reminded me of fetishistic quality that I’ve seen in the films of Harmony Korine and Larry Clark.
I've not yet seen Oxyana, so let me the example of Detropia. In some ways the film is purposive in its aestheticizing treatment, since one response to postindustrial decline in Detroit has been to reclaim the ruin as a positive. And yet, there is potentially something problematic in ruin porn, both ethically and politically. I happen to like Detropia, since I think it's engaged on more public sphere matters than ruin porn, whereas I gather the film has garnered some negative criticism among Detroiters. Still, I can see how the desire to hold the postindustrial as a perfect aesthetic object can get in the way of more productive engagement with community and social space.



But stepping back from the debate, I find myself interrogating the aestheticization effect. Take Nikolas Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread (2005), a documentary about the agriculture industry. It's almost a textbook example of a poetic documentary, eschewing exposition, voiceover, and testimony in favor of static, well composed shots of plants, animals, and agri-industrial processes.


Like in this shot: the pigs are being taken to slaughter in a semi-industrial manner, yet the film shoots them in a formal, symmetrical composition and the long take lingers to invite our contemplation of them just as art cinema might a landscape or cityscape. 

And, yet, phenomologically, the spectator does not mistake the aestheticizing treatment for the qualities of the subject matter itself. The frisson of Our Daily Bread is the spectator by and large does not want to see the soulless mechanics of agribusiness as beautiful. We're aware that the reality is not pretty, and aestheticization in fact opens up in that gap the vantage of knowledge and institutional critique. 

I am not holding up the poetic documentary as an inherently superior format in this respect. There are certain disadvantages vis-a-vis issue documentary, just as there are some advantages. But I wish to think more about how spectatorial structures are actually operating in them. 

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