Bland garnish burying a tasty dish: Halfhearted filler visuals end up diminishing sumptuous true crime documentaries
What recent true crime titles like It's A Robbery, Seduced: Inside the Nxivm Cult, and Operation Varsity Blues get right about reenactments and fillers in the docu-drama space.
The true-crime wave has turned out to be more of a true-crime tide, and it continues to roll in, with new tales of horrors and heartache washing ashore every day. Mysteries, miseries, the disgruntled. I have grown to accept the general appetite for others’ agony as entertainment, I guess, and whatever spiritual responsibility documentary-makers have to their subjects is their business.
What I cannot accept is another cheesy, bland reenactment wedging itself into an otherwise compelling story.
One need not watch as much of these shows and movies as I have — by all means, save yourselves — to pick up on the conventions of the genre. The general documentary format mixes talking heads with some local news clips, along with a few newspaper articles or yearbook photos getting the Ken Burns effect. When we are meant to perceive rawness, we see the subjects ready themselves in a chair before the formal interview begins, or maybe we hear the filmmaker’s voice from off camera, softer and subtitled because he or she is not wearing a microphone. These are among the ways to capture what the story is about.
But I also want to know what the story is about.
The extra element, the part that adds tone, imagery, energy, ideas. A visual imagination. The facts of the story are the bones, sure, but the doc still needs muscles, tissue, and nerves to make that body move.
So many of the blah aesthetic choices leave shows totally inert, wild tales flattened into PowerPoint presentations.
HBO miniseries from last year, McMillions, and Netflix’s recent Murder Among the Mormons are among the more egregious offenders in their use of murky, dialogue-free reenactments of such behaviours as sitting down on a couch, shaking hands, and holding envelopes — images viewers are capable of conjuring on their own. With its generic drone footage and repeated use of the same handful of photographs, This Is a Robbery, about an unsolved Boston art heist, seems to assume you will be playing on your phone while half-watching it, and it makes no demands on your visual attention.
Hulu’s recent WeWork documentary, WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, uses generic footage of, for example, New York City taxi rides but then also uses its own footage of a fan lazily whirring on a desk, shot with that dream haze so you know it is fake. We see an iPhone on the desk light up with the name “Masa” — Masayoshi Son, an investor — but the obsessive dweeb in me wondered if that is really how Son was listed in the rascal chief executive Adam Neumann’s phone. (You can tell a lot about someone by how they organise their contacts!)
But cornball fuzzy re-creations lack credibility, and the moment of not knowing whether that detail was legitimate summed up the imprecision of the film.
It does not have to be like this. Plenty of recent shows and movies have made compelling artistic choices that enliven the storytelling.
The Lady and the Dale, a four-part documentary about pioneering automotive entrepreneur and frequent fraudster Elizabeth Carmichael, uses quirky animated segments in which old photos become paper dolls that move around the map. It is a festive way to solve a “we have only a few actual pictures” problem, and it is also a tool for making crummy behaviour, including child abandonment, seem a lot jauntier.
For Heaven’s Sake on Paramount+ is a borderline spoof: It investigates a real disappearance, but the people doing the investigating are comedians, and the seriousness of the show always comes with a wink. It uses some costumed reenactments, but it also has a diorama and little figurines, like from a model train set. Real, yes, but play, too. Do not feel too broken up about a man who vanished 85 years ago. Instead, go along with his great-great-nephew on a family adventure.
Arty segments do not inherently lighten the mood. In Seduced: Inside the Nxivm Cult, on Starz, jittery illustrations accompany some descriptions of the group’s activities — images that would be at home in a children’s book about divorce or on a commercial for antidepressants or yogurt that wants to be aligned with feminism, which is fitting for the story of an abusive, misogynistic cult masquerading as a self-empowerment group.
Cable’s other Nxivm series, HBO’s The Vow, illustrates a more modern challenge for documentarians: footage abundance, not scarcity. People record themselves a lot more than they used to, and the question is not how to come up with a creative way to illustrate events beyond your meager archival imagery, but how to find the revealing portrait within a mountain of clips. In The Vow, the volume of material, thanks to Nxivm’s passion for self-documentation, clouds the show’s point of view.
The most interesting recent at bat in this space comes from Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal. The movie, directed by Chris Smith, uses verbatim dialogue from wiretaps, but it is performed by actors, primarily Matthew Modine, in feature-style scenes.
It is jarring in the best way, a total jolt, and a signal that the film itself and the story therein are less familiar than you might assume. It is also a canny way of poking at the Hollywood side of the scandal and the broader fraud in general: The thing that looks fake is real, and the things that looked real, like SAT scores or college application materials, are fake.
So much deliberation and precision goes into documentary storytelling, and halfhearted filler visuals diminish the rest of the piece.
Given the current tendency of the genre toward bloat, material that accomplishes nothing is doubly puzzling, bland garnish burying a tasty dish.
Margaret Lyons c.2021 The New York Times Company
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