Documentary Media: Contradiction in Terms?

By coincidence I happened to see the new Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy (dir. Asif Kapadia, 2015), the same weekend that I finally got around to watching Noah Baumbach’s 2014 While We’re Young. It’s an interesting pairing with regard to contemporary documentary media. Most interestingingly, Baumbach’s film points to what might become of documentary filmmaking in the wake of everyone documenting themselves all the time. It’s a door opened, and Kapadia seems to walk right through it. Taken together, they got me thinking about what we mean by documentary media today (no longer only films) and the larger social and cultural implications of these changing media and representational practices.

Like much of his work, Baumbach’s film positions (traps?) a mildly unlikable Gen-Xer (Ben Stiller as Josh) between the superiority of his more successful Baby-Boomer father-in-law Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin) and the freedom of a millennial hipster, Jamie (played by perhaps the iconic ultra-cool millennial, Adam Driver from Lena Dunham’s “Girls”). The women in the film are relevant, if not really important and certainly not essential to the film’s main ideas. The film primarily focuses on the relationships among the three men, each standing in as a generational everyman for his peers. These are roles that Grodin (e.g., Rosemary’s Baby – 1968, Heaven Can Wait – 1978, and Midnight Run – 1988) and Stiller (e.g., Reality Bites – 1994, The Cable Guy – 1996, There’s Something About Mary 1998, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – 2013) have played often and effectively throughout their careers, and one that Driver is developing in his own distinctive way (Girls – 2012, Inside Llewyn Davis – 2013, This Is Where I Leave You – 2014). All three actors occupy a category of the inwardly quirky, socially awkward, yet familiar and ordinary character actor.

In Baumbach’s film, all three men are documentary filmmakers, roles that define them as individuals, their respective generational situations, and more importantly, their status with regard to each other. As one might expect from Baumbach’s other representations of generational (in)equality (e.g., The Squid and the Whale 2005), Stiller’s middle-aged Josh does not fare well in the trio. He’s been trying for more than a decade to finish a documentary film (shown to us as rambling, incoherent interview excerpts with a Noam Chomsky-esque intellectual who is not remotely compelling), and now finds himself reinvigorated by a developing friendship with Jamie, a young aspiring filmmaker. Josh moves from trying to imitate Leslie to an attempt to imitate Jamie, humorous, yet pathetic gestures  including a misguided evening with hallucinogens and his adoption of the unfortunate fedora trend. Unfortunately for Josh, it is Jamie who emerges as Grodin’s artistic successor. Although the film’s intergenerational power struggles are compelling, more interesting to me is Baumbach’s not-so-subtle critique of documentary filmmaking, interlaid among the generational anxieties.

In the film’s climactic scene, Josh confronts Jamie about his manipulation and lack of ethics in his fabricated construction of Jamie’s documentary project. Tellingly, their dispute occurs backstage during Leslie’s acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award in documentary films.  Echoing the major points on cinematic authenticity that comprise most of Leslie’s speech, Josh challenges Jamie’s approach as undermining the very meaning of documentary cinema in language that quickly reveals the generational tensions underpinning their relationship.

Josh: If everyone is filming everything, what’s a documentary anymore? It has no meaning, it’s just some shit you recorded!

Is that old man talk?

Maybe it is. You kids have been told you can do anything. You think everything
is out there for you to have. It’s not.

Jamie: Nobody owns anything. If I hear a song I like, or a story, it’s mine. It’s mine to use. It’s everybody’s.

Josh: No, it isn’t! That’s not sharing, Jamie, that’s stealing.

Jamie: That’s old man talk.

Josh: I am an old man!

The bitter irony, of course, is that the position Josh so passionately espouses is precisely that for which Leslie is being rewarded. Yet when Josh presents Jamie’s ethical manipulations to Leslie, the older main praises Jamie and admits he doesn’t care about the parts that were manipulated. Such is the fate of Generation X.

Baumbach’s film was released in September 2014 at the Toronto Film Festival. Eight months later, Kapadia’s documentary about singer Amy Winehouse, Amy, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Although the Winehouse documentary was in process before the release of Baumbach’s film, the fictional take on the future of documentaries feels prescient in Kapadia’s film.

Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, Winehouse’s film, although she was never able to finish it herself.

Most of the material in Kapadia’s film was generated by Winehouse herself. The documentary follows the rise and downfall of the singer from her beginnings in London to global fame, drug addiction and alcoholism, eating disorders, and untimely death. However sad and unfortunate (and, as the film seems to argue, preventable), Winehouse’s narrative is not unusual, particularly not for an international music celebrity. What makes this depiction most compelling is not the details of her short, troubled career, but that it is a documentary rendered overwhelming through social media recordings and private documents. Whereas past documentarians dug through archives of written and sometime photographic records (filmmaker Ken Burns has his own named photographic effect in Apple’s video program, iMovie), here Kapadia combs through Winehouse’s own collection of self recordings. These aren’t just home movies that have found their way into a documentaries since recording equipment became accessible to a wider population of consumers (Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation from 2003 is a particularly relevant example). These are recordings (most on video cameras and mobile phones) as a kind of running documentary of the self and often deliberately pointing to the future when these images will be part of a famous professional personae.

Home movies before digital technology were mostly private creations, made for family and friends. The time and expense required to shoot and develop the film and the need for a projector (to say nothing of the quality of the recordings or their content) meant that people rarely viewed their personal super 8 films outside the home. VHS, Super-8, and other videotape-based systems were a little easier to shoot and circulate, but very difficult and time-consuming to edit and thus even if they could be watched, were rarely viewed by anyone beyond close friends and family. (As anecdotal evidence, let me refer to the large box in my basement containing hours and hours of videotapes of babies doing very little. Without disrespect to the babies or their devoted videographers, these documents are unlikely to be viewed repeatedly by even the most devoted family members.) All of this changes when digital recordings made filming easier and cheaper to record and, subsequently simple to edit and distribute.

Born in 1983, Winehouse was 12 when the first DV tapes appeared and by the time she started her career at age 16 in 1999, social media was emerging first with peer-to-peer music sharing through Napster in 1999 and then penetrating other areas of youth culture: Friendster in 2002, Myspace in 2002-03, Facebook at Harvard in 2004 and widely available in 2005. Thus Winehouse’s career, echoed in the majority of the self-recorded videos used in the film, overlaps this transition from the private home movie to the self-conscious social media recording of mobile phone cameras and social media sites now integrated for frictionless capture and distribution of video images (e.g., Vine, Instagram videos, iCloud sharing, etc.). It’s a growing realization that we see in the evolution of the videos that Winehouse and her friends record.

Watching the two films together raises some intriguing questions about documentary cinema, social media, and their ethics. What Baumbach’s film points to in its climactic confrontation between Josh and Jamie is precisely what Kapadia’s project elides; that is, not just what gets depicted in the film, but who controls the images and their representation. Josh’s complaint with Jamie isn’t that he represents something inaccurate in his film; it’s that he fakes how he makes it. Jamie pretends to randomly find a former friend through Facebook, a set-up for the documentary known to everyone but Josh, who unwittingly provides authentic reactions to the fake set-up. Josh is angry because Jamie seems not to respect his audience, the material, or the process for the representation.

Kapadia creates a film guided by faith in the raw, unpolished authenticity of Winehouse’s talent as compellingly evidenced by her own recordings. Her abilities are clear in even the earliest and roughest recordings and as such, they serve to demonstrate not only Winehouse’s potential as an artist, but also her own authentic personality: what she looked like as a kid, before the make-up, drug use, and stage life that would soon define her publicly and hold her up to ridicule. Strikingly, some of the earliest recording show Winehouse hiding from the camera. She holds up her hands to block the camera’s view, even hiding under a blanket while her friends gleefully record an early morning. Watching these images and knowing the eventual outcome, I was struck by the way in which the scene plays as a child-like dress rehearsal for the paparazzi nightmares to come.

Such images establish the film’s larger theme of Winehouse as the reluctant talent; the vulnerable artist whose insecurities opened up the possibility for her eventual destruction by the fame she (ambivalently) sought. Kapadia’s juxtaposition of Winehouse’s own images with the media representations suggests is that we–the greedy, demanding viewing audience–are responsible for her destruction. This was the reaction most noted in reviews of the film and repeated in the film’s marketing campaign. To wit, the following quotes appear in the first 30 seconds of the film’s trailer:

  • “A case study of celebrity’s crushing onslaught and an indictment of its tabloid apparatus.” Associated Press
  • “Were the page views & ratings worth it? At the cost of destroying a vulnerable young woman?” BET
  • “Reveals the lethal effects of celebrity.” Vulture
  • “A requiem for her but it is also a condemnation of us.” flickfilosopher

But, this perspective ignores an important reality in the film: that most of the recordings are not from paparazzi or hungry media reporters, but from Winehouse herself.

The question of responsibility in this seems less interesting than the echo of Josh’s complaint in While We’re Young: who owns the images? Just because they’re out there, does that mean that they are freely available to us all? At a certain point, it’s clear that Winehouse lost control of her own narrative (assuming that she ever had this control in the first place; certainly a point for contention). But what’s clear is that Kapadia’s manipulation of the images and his relation to them is never revealed by the film. To whom do such images belong and how do we hold his role accountable? In watching the film, aren’t we just repeating the sins of exploitation that the movie rails against?

Seeing both films reminded me that the images we share online as not so different fundamentally than the performances by celebrities and that we may have as little control over their fate (though the size of our audiences may differ greatly). I’m also struck by the fact that in an age of ubiquitous recording and documentation, the documentary film may never be the same again.

Laughing Out Lulu

Who’s afraid of a little controversy? Not Megan Callahan, the director whose Lulu at Torn Space Theater (through October 12) takes an old story in exciting new directions. Nor is she afraid of humor: I’ve never laughed this much at a Torn Space show. It’s an unexpected but fascinating combination and one too rarely seen.Pandora's_Box_(film)

Lulu is, after all, the quintessential femme fatale (“die verhängnisvolle Frau”): the irresistible and immoral woman, who seduces all men (and the occasional lesbian) to their inevitable doom. As realized by Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film Pandora’s Box, Lulu became the global symbol of indulgence and immorality in the 1920s. Seductive and emasculating, Lulu is a familiar story of the beautiful woman as the source of all evil. Wedekind didn’t invent the sexual woman as destroyer of the good in men, but his creation served to popularize the image. After all, two of his central characters have the last name Schöning (Schönheit means beauty in German). Of course, Lulu isn’t deliberately evil since she doesn’t exhibit any of her own conscious power. She’s not trying to be cruel; she’s just born that way. Or, as Wedekind called her, she is the original, primal (“die Urform”) form of woman.

As realized in Callahan’s fascinating new version, Lulu comes alive in a radical new take on the old myth of feminine beauty destroying misguided, but innocent men. No longer a “naturally” dangerous sexuality, Lulu lives among competing forces, material needs, and the oppressive sexual desires of the many men who surround her.

10648310_10154657097945578_8712119259535423437_oThe new adaptation by dramaturg Katie Mallinson deftly moves the locus of Lulu famed debauchery to New York and Paris in the lead up to the global financial crisis (2006-2008, according to the program). Lulu’s experience as the object of desire is cast as ubiquitous throughout contemporary culture, even if we don’t recognize the earlier source material. Her opening pose in a Marilyn Monroe costume, for example, reminds us of femininity’s appeal when associated with tragically doomed women. Jessica Wegrzyn’s costumes subtly reinforce this iconography, while Brian Milbrand’s videos lend contemporary specificity to a 100+ year myth, linking the exploitation of Lulu’s sexuality (she is “worth” $20 million) to the global art market, contemporary human trafficking, and confused mass media messages communicated to women and girls. Listen for one particularly brilliant audio edit of Katie Couric talking about the risks of teenage sex and the release of the film Sex in the City. It’s worth the price of admission all by itself.

This is not to say that Callahan and company have created an educational theatre experience (and for goodness sake, don’t bring the kids). There’s not much in the way of teaching here. Instead the show shifts the focus from the singular notion of Lulu as the source of men’s destruction to a more complicated and engaging network of human sexual culpability. Sex in this context is not the result of a dangerous female nature, but one of many forces intertwining people–both men and women–within larger web of money, power, and material needs. It’s telling that the final scene leaves all of the characters suffering not from a lack of sexual fulfillment but literally starving to death.

What might have become a stultifying lesson in gender politics instead becomes an engaging, occasionally disturbing exploration of contemporary culture in which art, money, and sex become indistinguishable from each other as weapons. Tellingly, the entire set is a giant bed, covered in bouncing mattresses that add a perverse level of playfulness to the activities of its characters. In a nod to the play’s implicit voyeurism, various playing areas are separated by window blinds that characters manipulate throughout the show. Kristina Siegel’s set further provides a dynamic environment for the play’s physically adept performers who exploit the various surfaces to full effect. Christopher Evans as Schwarz, the pathetic, self-absorbed painter, flings himself from bed to bed in absurd anguish, while PJ Tighe as Alva Schöning humps nearly every corner of the set in a hilariously overblown demonstration of sexual frustration. Jon Joy, a frequent contributor to Torn Space productions, lends his unique and always compelling presence to the cast. Watching the high-intensity physical effort, it’s not surprising that the production included Nicole M. Dilwig as “Movement Consultant.”

Anchoring the cast is Sophie Howes as Lulu, who articulates an emotional range not often seen in Lulu, a character often played as emotionally unperturbed (all the better to destroy the emotional wrecks of the men who flock to her; again, see Louise Brooks’s portrayal). Howes’s emotional desperation rises and falls in response to her circumstances and these emotional shifts do not emerge from the chaos Lulu causes, but instead result from the overwrought reactions of the men who surround her. Howes’s performance against the backdrop of Milbrand’s video deepens and compellingly updates the myth of Lulu. This is not a Lulu born to haunt and torture innocent men, but a figure constructed by a society obsessed with sex but ambivalent about its obsessions.

For all of her revisions, Callahan and Mallinson’s version is ultimately much truer to the original than, say, the 2006 musical adaptation. The musical exploited the sexuality of Wedekind’s script to totally different and deliberately entertaining ends. (See Shawn-Marie Garrett’s excellent review for more on this.) Despite being branded a pornographer, Wedekind wasn’t writing his plays for pleasure. For all of his own sexism, he wrote to challenge and disturb the bourgeois moralists of his time, radically deviating from both the familiar content and dramatic structure. The social critique essential to his plays is too often stripped away in versions of his work that play to the sexual titillation at the expense of thought. Here, Callahan has managed to capture the fun of Wedekind’s work while also fully realizing his social critique. It’s a tricky move, but ultimately effective.

There are still some areas, particularly in the translation, that can be further refined. Translations from German texts sometimes retain rhythms of the original, which can sound clunky in US English. Some of the scenes could be further cut, since Wedekind was writing for an audience more accustomed to listening to text than today’s more visually oriented audiences. That said, I saw the show with a large group of students from both the University at Buffalo and Daemen College who remained engaged.

You don’t have to be a theatre student to enjoy this, but maybe it helps. Certainly, Lulu is not to everyone’s taste. Some will love it; others loathe it. And that’s a good thing. As a member of the Board of Directors for Torn Space Theater, I’ve always appreciated the adventurous quality of  TST’s productions, even when personally challenged by them. Lulu is recognizable within the theatre’s aesthetic, but is more subtly rendered, particularly in the costumes and video imagery. Sometimes Milbrand’s video images can overwhelm the space and actors, often as an intended effect. Here, however, his images meld effortlessly with the performances and text, creating a cohesion that allows the performers to stand out in a world that is both familiar and strange; as recognizable as it is horrible. The costumes, too, have more variety and without drawing overt attention remind us of the vulnerability of the bodies at work. Experimental theatre is not often known for its subtlety and restraint, but the aesthetic choices here convey a careful crafting that is worth seeing in action.

Howes is also an unexpected but brilliant choice. Unlike TST’s women characters who often appear as cold, seemingly empty or malicious figures, Howes exhibits a warmth and (dare I say?) vulnerability that enriches the figure of Lulu and deepens the experience of the play. She is not the familiar seductress who destroys the lives of those and deserves her ultimate punishment, but a more fully realized human being. Howes’s Lulu is a more complex figure, who is at times culpable and yet also victimized by a world she tries to navigate but often fails to understand. What this production makes clear is that the ubiquity of sexual exploitation and degradation is damaging to everyone, women and men. Given the current attention to the pervasiveness of sexual violence against women, both physical and rhetorical, this production of a 1904 play could hardly be more relevant today.

It’s certainly an original vision for both Wedekind and Torn Space, perhaps the best reason of all to see a new show.