Why Are Mainstream Documentaries So Invested in Resurrecting Personalities?

By  · Published on March 5th, 2013

Nobody was surprised last week when Daniel-Day Lewis took home the Best Actor Oscar for Lincoln. It was an accomplished performance by an actor working in a league of his own. But another reason the award seemed so very unsurprising is the fact that a well-known actor was rewarded for embodying a familiar real-life figure. Awards ceremonies have made something of a habit out of rewarding actors for portraying famous real-life persons. One of my major gripes about Philip Seymour Hoffman taking home the gold for Capote in 2006 was the fact that Hoffman, who had never been nominated before, had previously lifted so many original characters off the page and gave them incredible depth (of course, I’m referring to Twister). But the face of a known actor embodying another known face functions like a magnet of praise when accomplished convincingly.

The opposite can be said of non-fiction filmmaking. The critical and box office success of Searching for Sugar Man marks the culmination of a trend that’s seemingly particular to mainstream documentary filmmaking: the use of the medium to resurrect or elevate a previously under-appreciated or forgotten personality.

Compare the reception of Sugar Man to an equally lauded documentary portrayal of a 1970s pop musician with transnational influence: Kevin MacDonald’s Marley. The excellent doc was released last spring, did moderately well with audiences and quite well with critics, but by the end of the year went forgotten. While Marley is likely the documentary to see on the subject of Bob Marley’s life and influence, it must ultimately compete with so many other artifacts about the enduringly famous musician’s life, just as any documentary about the 16th President would. Now, if a prominent actor were to star as Marley in a biopic, it’s hard to imagine it being released without the mandatory awards buzz.

Of course, there are many reasons the Personality Rule doesn’t work in reverse. Despite the fact that such a project would have difficulty getting financed, it’s hard to imagine anybody pursuing a narrative biopic about a figure like Rodriguez, the Sugar Man being searched for, without his star image finding new currency via something like an award-winning documentary.

The disparate investments that feature and narrative films have in real-life personalities is perhaps best illustrated by the films about Harvey Milk. Yes, the politician was an inspirational, iconoclastic figure as soon as he had access to a megaphone, and the implications of his murder resonated far beyond the walls of San Francisco’s City Hall. However, there is little doubt that Milk’s story found continuous lasting currency through the incredible documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, and it’s difficult to imagine a Hollywood film about his life getting made (and winning so many awards) had Milk’s image not been so iconically captured in that 1984 non-fiction film. It’s quite difficult to imagine these cinematic events occurring the other way around.

It’s hard to say exactly where the line is between a personality whose prominence is elevated by a documentary about their life, or a personality famous enough that a documentary about their life seems warranted, even mandatory. If the given human subject is well known to a degree, then the project of “personality resurrection” seems to be a factor of what the director ultimately does with that person.

Aggressively unmemorable docs like Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry or the Ralph Nader documentary An Unreasonable Man can’t seem to get past hagiography, even if they’re interesting and informative. Sure, even Sugar Man can be accused of hagiography because the film glosses over Rodriguez’s 1970s success in order to construct an even more remarkable (if slightly insincere) comeback story, the existence of the film itself is an intervention into a subject matter heretofore little-known.

It’s telling when an admittedly great film like Bill Cunningham: New York, about a man who contributes one small section to The New York Times, gains more traction and lauds than Page One, a documentary devoted to The New York Times as a whole.

For this point I turn to Errol Morris, a filmmaker whose career has been defined largely by capturing exceptional personalities who speak directly to a camera. With films like Mr. Death (Morris’s best film, if you ask me) and Tabloid, Morris has demonstrated throughout his career an astounding capacity to turn already-fascinating figures into multilayered mysteries, complex humans, and even unresolvable enigmas. The Fog of War, his much-lauded profile of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, found Morris tackling his most famous subject yet. Yet the film is hardly a 60 Minutes sit-down with an already consequential figure; instead, it’s about a once powerful man reflecting on his power in only the way that a sensitive, haunted, intelligent human can. Morris’s work resurrects even the personalities that already come with a pedestal.

The Errol Morris Formula has often been imitated, but never replicated. Chris Smith’s Collapse, the 2009 film about Michael Ruppert’s predictions about the collapse of the global financial markets, and Bart Layton’s recently-released The Imposter, about a French serial impersonator who poses as a Texan family’s long-lost son, are two recent examples that show the influence of Morris’s style when dealing with extraordinary but not-very-well-known personalities. The styles of monologuing and visually arresting reenactments typical to such films may be on the brink of cliché, but the popularity of this approach speaks to the fact that there’s nothing quite like meeting an extraordinary personality for the first time face-to-face via cinema.

When it works, this involving of a practice isn’t replicable even with the Daniel Day-Lewis’s of the world, and it especially doesn’t work when the face seen is also available on the nightly news, or in numerous other films. When a documentarian simply gives us the space and time to figure someone out, it can result in a uniquely immersive experience.

Perhaps that’s why Rodriguez won the night last week even though his competition consisted of material that is far more consequential: documentaries about AIDS activism, institutionalized rape in the military, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even though the director’s aesthetics and process of selecting information can be readily apparent in these films, personality resurrection documentaries typically have to practice a certain degree of humility and directorial invisibility in order to be effective. Morris might be the major name with films like this, but his voice is barely heard more than a few times on the other side of the camera in his films (with the exception of Tabloid, it’s typically heard only in one selective instance).

But the most-seen (theatrically, at least) mainstream documentaries have been those films where the documentarian her/himself is at the front and center of the documentary: the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock/Catfish model of non-fiction filmmaking, if you will. When the non-fiction filmmaker is visible within so many frames, it’s hard to make the film about any other human subject but the documentarian. Imagine Moore, for instance, interviewing Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine in the style of Errol Morris. Spurlock’s work takes this trope to its most literal extent, making the body of the documentarian the subject of the documentary in Super Size Me and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. These directors have effectively sold their personalities, resulting in numerous TV appearances for Moore, and TV series for the more affable Spurlock and those Catfish douchebags.

One way or another, contemporary mainstream documentaries elevate personalities that would be lesser known otherwise. So if you’re going after gold with a biopic, choose someone incredibly famous, but if you’re trying to earn statues with a documentary, find someone semi-famous that you can bring back to the spotlight.

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