Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Personal Documentary and the Collective Subject

Do I Sound Gay? 
dir. David Thorpe, 2015, US
Genre: Personal, issue documentary
currently in theaters in the US; available cable on-demand (US)

After watching Do I Sound Gay? I wondered if I saw the same film that Clayton Dillard did for his Slant Magazine review. On a literal level, yes, but I had a very different take than this impression:
Do I Sound Gay? is another link in an increasingly tiresome chain of navel-gazing think pieces posing as personal documentary.... Thorpe's approach is less historical or experimental than staid and solipsistic, as his own biography, which includes growing up in South Carolina and not acknowledging his own homosexuality until reaching college, is dutifully presented as a series of facts and tidbits which are meant to substantiate the film's interest in cultural norms regarding homosexual behavior and self-acceptance. 
Part of me understands where the review is coming from. I'm not always fond of personal documentaries and for instance dislike ones like My Architect where the more broadly interesting subject matter is deflected toward personal emotional therapy of the filmmaker. And like or dislike the genre, there's a real aesthetic dilemma in the choice to make the filmmaker a character: is the showmanship and box office hook of a personal story worth losing some of the objectivist dimensions (or just aesthetic evocativeness) that documentary can excel at?

But the other part of me has to ask: who are you calling solipsistic? The plural of anecdote is data, but Do I Sound Gay? has as a reasonable a claim as any personal or portrait documentary that its main subject represents something broader, much broader. The very point of the film is that the personal is political. Falling back on "critical, scholarly, or journalistic investigation" would be interesting (one can imagine any number of ways of making a documentary) but would not capture the subjective experience that gay men have of their voice. It's not an essential gay experience - not all gay men identify their voice as an issue -  but it's a common one. The experience, I would argue, and the film argues, is a collective one. 

To put my cards on the table, I too have had similar ambivalence about my own gay voice and mannerisms. So perhaps I'm the target demographic. And perhaps I prefer "communal confirmation over more rigorous, troubled grapplings." But I would argue it's bigger than me or Thorpe. With the gay marriage victory in the US legal system, gay rights has had a success that arguably gay liberation has not. It's a real crisis of sorts for the queer left, and it also poses an issue even for more assimilated gay culture. Are there still structures of oppression that (objectively) police gay people and (subjectively) act as self-oppression? These are not legal questions, and I think the documentary is timely to raise them.

Certainly, the documentary form is conventional and the narration cloying at times. But even here, voiceover narration serves the role of reminding the spectator of the sexuality of voice. It's not political modernism, yet there is some interesting work on the signifier going on. 

I do agree with Dillard that the conflict resolution is too tidy, or at least it feels like an imposition of the character-driven three-act structure on historical reality, which in fact offers no real resolution. Oe problem is that a film that does not adopt this narrative structure has a hard time for broad documentary distribution. But more charitably, I see the film in the tradition of feminist and gay liberation consciousness-raising, or a collective catharsis that's about connecting personal experience to social structures. Perhaps with that comes a desire for a progress narrative.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Conspiracy Documentary as Puzzle Films

The Forecaster
dir. Marcus Vetter, Karin Steinberger, 2014, Germany
Genre: Issue documentary
available German DVD ( and on VOD (for $50!)

I've been following the Greek crisis as it unfolds, and since the US news outlets have been frankly doing a miserable job at covering other than in the business press, this means a few overseas websites and lots of Twitter. One thing that is striking is how the situation seems to illustrate ideology in Mannheim's sense - a scattershot of versions of reality based in social situatedness. And, broadly speaking, there is the oddness of witnessing this from overseas. On one hand the crisis has brought out international alignment of right and left sentiment along the battle lines of austerity and anti-austerity. On the other hand 

I bring this up because I keep thinking back to the screening of the Forecaster that I attended at Transilvania Film Fest. The documentary is about financier Martin Armstrong, a fund manager who was convicted of running a Ponzi scheme in the 1990s. Armstrong in turn claims that it’s the financial system that is a Ponzi scheme and he is being persecuted for being a Cassandra and for his forecasting models. He presents the claim on the basis of both a “common sense” stance and a secret computer model based on cycles of the number Pi.

I am reminded of the Marxist economist Kondrateieff and his cycles (Amstrong seems influenced by him) but mostly, from my American vantage, this all seems like trumped up Ron Paul-ism, and in fact Paul has a new informercial peddling this very type of economic apocalypse. (I'm not the only one cynical about the film.) But the largely Romanian and presumably left-leaning audience I saw the film responded very well to its message. And I have to guess that it's inclusion in film festivals, including IDFA, speaks to the way its polemic speaks to the European left's suspicions about global capital and the US government. It's not that those suspicions are absent in the U.S. but they're tempered by the libertarian hard right's mobilization of anti-monestarism.

So, there is often a tendency for transnational ideological sympathy: those on the left in one country identify with depictions of political struggle in another. But sometimes, the nationally specific context changes this identification.

But I think there's something about the film itself and its documentary genre that's at play. Formally, The Forecaster is not a straightforward issue documentary and in fact would not be getting much play if it were. Rather something about the narration introduces both suspense and surprise. In their book on the puzzle film, Warren Buckland refer to “mind fuck” movies and Thomas Elsaesser refers to the genre as “mind game” movies. The analogy to the puzzle film is not perfect, but this film does rely on revelations of surprise information that is meant to retroactively provide the answer key for the enigmas of the film. 

By now we have witnessed a cycle of lefty conspiracy documentaries that have some variant on this technique. Art of the Steal comes to mind. I can see the appeal to filmmakers, since the genre provides an entertainment hook to otherwise dry material and a moral political clarity to what otherwise might be confusing or arcane economics. But the genre also imposes its own politics and own problems. I'm reminded of 1970s film theory's take on the matter - say, John Hill's reading of the conspiracy film. If anything, the conspiracy documentary is an even better example.

cited: John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in Fatherland, Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach