There’s something that irks me when I see these giant full-page ads in The New York Times like the recent ones that have been promoting the Rolling Stones, Martin Scorsese, and the recent rock doc, Shine a Light. When big-time feature directors make docs, the amount of attention they get is just a little bit unseemly. Everyone gets all excited when Mr. Scorsese crosses the line — it’s like when one of the cool seniors decides to sit at the freshman table for lunch. I know, I know; Scorsese is the consummate film fanatic and he has made many great documentaries in the past, both historical and musical. And there’s a neat symmetry in his following up the Maysles‘ Gimme Shelter, which was about the Rolling Stones thirty years ago. But, man, look at the expenditure put out on a guy who hardly needs the press. The same goes when filmmakers like Spike Lee, Michel Gondry, or Sydney Pollack — or any other big name director — makes a doc. Why not save some of those marketing dollars for a Judith Helfand (Blue Vinyl) or Richard Robbins (Operation Homecoming)?
I know I don’t have a leg to stand on here, for several reasons. First, the world just doesn’t work that way. Second, as every successful documentary filmmaker tells me, they’re filmmakers first, and they resist being pigeonholed as purely nonfiction directors. So it should go both ways. The greatest proof of that pudding is Werner Herzog, whom I believe is the greatest switch hitter ever. And I’m not talking baseball. When I stack my favorite Herzog movies together, I see an equal balance of greatness (Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, and Rescue Dawn on the fiction side; My Best Fiend and Grizzly Man on the other). In fact, I think I like his docs more than his fictional work. It makes me all the more eager to see his next one, Encounters at the End of the World, about Antarctica and the people who work at a research station there. It comes out in June.
I spoke to a successful feature director about his one attempt to make a documentary. He said he wasn’t any good at it, and he chalked it up to the idea that the two forms call for very different talents. Nonfiction filmmaking, he said, is all about collecting information and then arranging it, whereas fiction filmmaking is about creating it. It’s an interesting way of putting it, and although it’s way reductive (especially considering the doc filmmakers who use fictional elements to tell nonfiction stories), it shines a light on how truly impressive it is that some directors can do both. So, Mr. Scorsese, I applaud you for your versatility. Not that you need to hear it from me.