Independent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup. You can also follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.
I love fiction films. I love them for how they create other worlds that allow us to escape (The Matrix, The Bourne Identity) or reconsider our own (Schindler’s List, Do The Right Thing).
I also love documentaries. I love them for their ability to illuminate the most intriguing people (Crumb), shine a light on the worst injustices (Hearts and Minds) and entertain us through artistry (The Kid Stays in the Picture).
It’s never been an either/or construct for me… until now.
In a series of posts, I’m going to be looking at the relationship between fiction films and their poor, bedraggled stepsiblings — nonfiction films. This week it’s a mano-a-mano death match with five pairs of films.
Why? For the same reason kids crash toy cars. For the same reason presidential debates can (sometimes) be illuminating. Because we can see things in conflict, and because someone must win — after the punches fly, we’ll all need some closure anyway.
Here are the basic parameters: When a fiction film and a nonfiction film treat the same subject, which one is better? I’m talking quality here, so this a totally subjective and entirely unscientific exercise.
In this round, we’re joined by indieWIRE’s movie blogger–journalist extraordinaire, Anne Thompson (Twitter @akstanwyck), whose Thompson on Hollywood is a must-read for anyone who follows the goings on in Tinseltown. My former colleague from Premiere magazine will represent fiction; I gladly take nonfiction’s side. Anne is simultaneously posting our match ups on Thompson on Hollywood.
What are the spoils? No gold statues. No cash rewards. And no development deals with bungalows and good parking. Just some fun. (And a little pride.)
Check out our Round One dialogue and vote for which film — fiction or nonfiction — you think is better by Sunday August 28 at midnight Eastern. You can also leave a comment to let me know your suggestions for future matchups on Twitter at @docsoupman.
‘The Devil Wears Prada’ versus ‘The September Issue’
Tom Roston, Doc Soup Man: Can we start by talking about characters? Looking into the eyes of Anna Wintour, as RJ Cutler’s camera does in September Issue, is utterly thrilling. She’s been such an evasive yet dominant force in the world of magazines and fashion, that to see and hear her so up close is remarkable. And Vogue creative director Grace Coddington is such a vivid foil to Wintour; I found them a riveting pair.
Anne Thompson, Thompson on Hollywood: I’ll gladly take the side of the fiction movie based on The Devil Wears Prada, written by Wintour’s assistant Lauren Weisberger, starring white-coiffed Meryl Streep as the powerful yet vulnerable editrix of a major fashion mag. The complex power dynamics between Streep and her smart but initially green assistant Anne Hathaway are great fun to watch. The real woman, Wintour, is an opaque canvas; her botoxed face barely moves as she’s on her best behavior before the cameras. No wonder the livelier Coddington became the doc’s focus.
Doc Soup Man: How can you diss my girl Anna? (And how can I defend a woman who literally snarled at me in a job interview?) You’re right that Cutler’s friendly camera didn’t exactly melt her veneer, but he got closer than I could have imagined. As for Prada, it’s a sharp, funny movie (especially when Emily Blunt is on screen) but it has some major missteps (Stanley Tucci and that dull, flat episode in Paris at the end).
Thompson: After all the juicy nasty material in Devil Wears Prada, I was bitterly disappointed by the relatively flat September Issue. While I was fascinated by the real machinations behind putting such a magazine together — after all, we both worked at the late great movie monthly Premiere — Wintour was a very cold fish indeed. She lacked the full-dimensionality that Streep provided as mother, wife, boss, and power-monger. In this case, there’s no question the fiction version — with movie star at the height of her powers — beats the real thing. Another fashion world documentary worth considering is Matt Tyrnauer’s Valentino: The Last Emperor, which gets so close to its subject that the famed fashion designer’s emotional life, and dependence on his lover-partner, really come through.
‘Slumdog Millionaire’ versus ‘Born into Brothels’
Thompson: In our next fiction vs. doc match-up, it’s Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning 2008 Slumdog Millionaire against Oscar-winning 2004 doc Born into Brothels. Boyle takes advantage of new camera technology to race through the alleys of Mumbai, and cast talented unknowns to play the children who grow into young adults in this pitiless, rough-and-tumble, vibrant, exciting world. At the same time writer Simon Beaufoy deploys a brilliant time-strategy, using the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” show as a way to cut back and forth effortlessly in time. We know exactly where we are each time our young hero (Dev Patel) goes back to the moment that he learned any given answer. On top of that, there’s a perilous, heartfelt romance at the film’s core. In short, Slumdog Millionaire took full advantage of real locations, small hand-held cameras and a driving A.R. Rahman score to deliver a vital, moving and classic romantic adventure.
Doc Soup Man: I really enjoyed Slumdog but I found the structure of the game show forced and too pat. And although I know they used real kids from the slums for minor parts, those kids and the actors don’t compare to the real children depicted in Brothels, directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman. These kids’ lives are so bleak, but their spirits are so strong. And you feel the trust and connection that they had built with Briski. Is there a scene in Slumdog that is more dramatic or poignant than the one in Brothels after the kids come back from the beach and they return to the red light district? I don’t think so. And the scene is further heightened by John McDowell’s haunting score.
Thompson: One can’t help but think that Boyle recognized the emotional power of Brothels when he took on Slumdog. Brothels offers an opening in the trapped lives of these deprived kids who are given cameras as a means of expression. Slumdog makes you feel so good by its end that filmgoers forget how grim the story often is. The two films share a bond: they offer escape and redemption to people who in most cases are locked in poverty forever.
Doc Soup Man: It’s true what you say about Boyle; he’s often known as this cool, hipster filmmaker, but, really, his films are made with so much empathy and wonder. Still, his film can’t do what Brothels achieves: through slick editing, a compelling score, and a cast of kids who are so beautifully resilient, it tells both a heart-breaking and heart-warming story at the same time. And it does so much more: did you hear that Avijit, that ever-smiling smart kid with camera skills, was able to go to school in the United States because of Brothels? He got to go to Tisch! All of the kids from Brothels got a helping hand from the film, and most were able to capitalize on that support. Avijit once told me that the film, “gave me a voice,” he said. “It gave me a life.” That’s the power of documentary.
‘Mean Girls’ versus ‘American Teen’
Doc Soup Man: The previous two match ups were more balanced than this one, I think; I suggested this one as more of a gift to you. I could think of a number of great fictional films that effectively cut to the heart of high school existence — Fast Times at Ridgemont High comes to mind, but few documentaries. I’m not exactly sure why this is; maybe it has something to do with the universal themes, the theatricality of being a teen in school. Nanette Burstein’s American Teen was a noble effort, an attempt to distill the life of several teens in Indiana in a format similar to a John Hughes flick, but I have to admit, it doesn’t entirely succeed.
Thompson: Agreed; a better choice might be the Ross brothers’ 2009 SXSW doc award winner 45365, an unforgettable slice of Ohio life that captures teen restlessness better than American Teen did. This portrait of Sidney, Ohio is a must-see. But I digress. Mean Girls catapulted two actresses — Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams — into hyperdrive career trajectories that they could not possibly fulfill. And Tina Fey was revealed as a screenwriter with the gift for capturing the nasty side of high school girl cliques with wit and accuracy. Her career, at least, has flourished with no slowdown in sight.
Doc Soup Man: I’d like to see 45365, but I should say I don’t want to totally sell American Teen short. Burstein, who had her cameras tailing these kids for a year, manages to capture some incredible moments and depths of teenage life; the girl, Hannah, is most compelling in her conflicts with her parents, and we seemingly see every pimple and text message that these teens endure. I am sure there are some out there who’d say it depicts teen life better than Tina Fey’s clever script or Lohan’s momentary flash of brilliant acting.
Thompson: It was something of a mystery when Paramount Vantage acquired American Teen — which was rousingly well received at Sundance — and then despite all their marketing efforts, no one came to see the film. It struck me at the time that for all its merits and intimate access to these high schoolers, the teen terrain had been so thoroughly mined in so many venues that the marketers couldn’t promise anything new. That’s the accomplishment of Tina Fey and Mark Waters and those nasty, funny, biting, cutting Mean Girls. Sometimes fiction can heighten, sharpen, exaggerate and make hilarious our oh so painful reality. And make it a must-experience event.
‘Ali’ versus ‘When We Were Kings’
Thompson: When Michael Mann announced that he was taking on the biopic Ali with Will Smith playing the world heavyweight champion Mohammed Ali, born Cassius Clay, it seemed an almost impossible feat of derring-do. What balls for any filmmaker and actor to attempt to bring this already larger-than-life iconic beloved figure on the world stage to the screen. We all knew him so well, from talk shows and news clips and yes, the extraordinary doc When We Were Kings. And yet Mann and a phalanx of writers (Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson and Eric Roth) took on this task seriously and lovingly, and painfully with great verisimilitude, brought this extraordinary man to cinematic life. That doesn’t mean that audiences flocked to theaters back in 2001. The movie was expensive, and did not make its money back. Many folks preferred to hang onto their own memories and images of Ali. But that does not lessen Mann & company’s achievement. They made no concessions to mythologizing or softening this complex man.
Doc Soup Man: Some movies were never meant to be made, and I believe Ali was one of them. Maybe if a lesser-known actor, a Geoffrey Wright perhaps, who could actually transform himself, could have made this better, but Will Smith is a movie star before he’s an actor, and his Q rating could never come close to Ali’s. Like you say, Ali was larger than life in his prime, an absolute phenomenon to watch and to hear who needed no embellishments. In Kings, Gast not only delivers incredible archival footage, his interviews reinforce the impact Ali had, creating an echo effect of admiration for the legend. As for getting beyond the veneer, I don’t think any film, fiction or nonfiction, truly could.
Thompson: I’d argue that Will Smith performed a remarkable transformation, and came as close as anyone could to embodying Ali. But in this case I agree with you. Real life trumps biopic all the way.
Doc Soup Man: I think it also has to do with the problem of depicting boxing on film. It’s so hard to do it without being compared to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. But that’s also because the sport is so brutal and so vivid, that no form of fiction could do it (apologies to Mr. Scorsese) better than what really happens in the ring. And the insanely dramatic Rumble in the Jungle, caught in the raw footage, and as interpreted by the likes of Norman Mailer and Spike Lee, is without peer.
‘Gone With the Wind’ versus ‘The Civil War’ by Ken Burns
Doc Soup Man: I have to give you credit for coming up with our last contest. This is a great one, because GWTW is such an iconic, touchstone film. And yet, so is Ken Burns’ nine-episode The Civil War. His revolutionary use of still images and talking heads transported our nation into history. In fact, the series changed the way we look at history itself through genius editing, the now-named “Ken Burns effect” of panning and zooming over still images, and the best cast of taking heads ever assembled. The Civil War brought history to life like never before.
Thompson: As extraordinary and influential as Burns’ Civil War was — who did not cry over that soldier’s letter to his loved one on the eve of his death? — it’s up against the most popular movie of all time. David O. Selznick’s crowning achievement based on the Margaret Mitchell bestseller was hugely popular in 1939, cleaning up with ten Oscars, including African-American actress Hattie McDaniel, but also kept making money through nine re-releases, on TV, and on home video over the decades. This romantic epic treatment of the Civil War glosses over much real history — but the wartorn south is the setting for a most unusual, ill-fated romance, between carpetbagger Rhett Butler and wasp-waisted southern belle Scarlett O’Hara. Both are gorgeous and flawed, and their attraction makes perfect sense. We all can recall that Max Steiner score, the burning of Atlanta, the lines “tomorrow is another day” and “frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Doc Soup Man: This might sound ludicrous but I wonder if GWTW will stand the test of time in the same way that Ken Burns’ series will. How many people under the age of thirty have seen GWTW? Whereas Burns’s film will be used for decades to come as an aide to teachers. Burns’s film is a living portal, made most vivid by Shelby Foote, a historian who achieved near-rock star status (an accomplishment in itself) because of the series. And, finally, it’s worth noting that composer Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” waltz, played sweet and sad on a fiddle, channeled the war in a way that made the film a visceral experience, as rousing as your Braveheart and as romantic as your GWTW.
Thompson: Gone with the Wind, while it reflects as much as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation how America saw itself at that moment in time, is about a triumph of Hollywood storytelling, via ten screenwriters, four directors and producer Selznick who held it all together, somehow. It’s about movie magic, the whole as more than the sum of its parts, about sharing emotions in the dark over more than 70 years. Yes, this movie grabbed me young. But its DNA made Dr. Zhivago and Reds and Titanic possible. It’s still the standard against which all epics must stand. The Civil War is an admirable epic achievement of more noble and lasting historic import, but also a more prosaic sort.