Acting is pretending.
Good actors are people who are able to pretend while seeming not to pretend. They seem able to forget the audience is out there. This is not something everyone can do -- most people are too self-conscious to ignore the fact that they are being watched. And so when they are put before a camera and asked to pretend they become nervous and over-careful and ruin the illusion.
This doesn't mean they are stupid -- maybe it means the contrary. Some famous directors have famously preferred their actors not to be too bright. It just means they don't have a natural instinct for acting. Maybe it means they are bad liars.
I don't know whether anyone can be taught to act. It seems that you need at least some natural ability, but I could be wrong about that. Maybe it is a skill anyone can develop if they are willing to work at it. But most good actors are born being good actors -- they can get better if they work at their craft, but some people are just better at pretending.
So it's interesting when a director uses nonprofessional actors in a movie.
When Chloe Zhao was directing her first film, Songs My Brother Taught Me, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, she took horseback riding lessons from a young Lakota cowboy named Brady Jandreau, who was a rising rodeo star. As she got to know Jandreau, she thought he'd work well in her next movie -- whatever that might be. She told him that since he had "a pretty good vocabulary, a decent face," a sense of humor and wasn't afraid of what people might think about him, he'd probably be OK as an actor. All they had to do was come up with a script.
But then in competition Jandreau was bucked off a horse. Instead of being tossed clear, his foot caught in the stirrup and he found himself underneath the bronco. The horse stepped on his head, opening a three-inch-long gash that exposed his brain. He was rushed to a hospital where a surgeon picked sand and horse manure out of his brain. He was lucky. He lived.
And Zhao had her story.
But The Rider isn't quite a documentary, it's a narrative film in which Jandreau plays a character (Brady Blackburn) who suffers the same sort of injury he suffered (actual footage of Jandreau's accident is incorporated into the film) and faces the same sort of existential crisis as Jandreau.
Jandreau's father and special-needs sister co-star as versions of themselves. His friend Lane Scott, a bull rider who was severely injured in a rodeo accident in 2013, plays himself. Most of the other characters in the movie -- maybe all of them -- play themselves, or at least characters that have the same names as themselves. None of them had ever been in a movie before.
It's one of the best movies of the year.
I've heard it described as a hybrid docudrama, and heard some people wonder if it isn't somehow exploitative of the trauma of its lead actor. But it only makes sense to me as a work of art. It connects.
It's not my business how much Brady Jandreau is pretending -- or how much he's just being. (How much was Bob Dylan pretending in Don't Look Back?)
Still, some people get hung up on taxonomy. Some people want a bright line between what is true and what is made up. But there is no line in reality. A lot of made-up things are true. I would suggest that we could define poetry as a made-up thing that is true. I don't much care for nonfiction that doesn't have at least a bit of poetry in it.
I made a list of my favorite documentaries of the past year. The Rider isn't on it, mostly because the conventional thinking is that it's not a documentary in the way we're used to thinking of documentaries.
But then neither is Robert Greene's Bisbee '17, which topped my list, and maps the cognitive dissonance in an Arizona mining town that in 1917 was the scene of a remarkable atrocity. That was when Sheriff Harry Wheeler, at the behest of Phelps Dodge, the company that owned the Copper Queen mine, arrested more than 1,200 striking miners -- many of them of German or Mexican descent -- and exiled them to the New Mexican desert. They rounded them up, herded them into cattle cars and stranded them, penniless, in the Tres Hermanas mountains.
Greene is a provocative filmmaker whose movies (Kate Plays Christine, Actress) explore the possibilities of what he calls cinematic nonfiction. So Bisbee '17 slides between traditional journalistic storytelling methods (interviews with local residents, many of whom are descendents of the strikebreaking posse) and scripted re-creations of the events of 1917 featuring current Bisbee residents. As well as a few musical numbers.
I met Greene in 2013, when he organized a panel on creative nonfiction for the Little Rock Film Festival. He might have thought I would represent the critical establishment on that panel, but the truth is I have no problem with films that aren't easily corralled into genre bins. A documentary filmmaker isn't operating under the same rules of engagement as a newspaper reporter. (While a newspaper reporter who makes up quotes or invents scenarios is violating the basic contract between journalist and consumer, a filmmaker is allowed the perquisites of an artist.)
It's on the audience to decide how reliable the narrator of a movie is, and part of what gives some movies their energy is the tension between what we're being shown and what we're not. Every documentary, no matter how serious its intent, is a subjective argument.
While it might be easier to say exactly what's going on in a film like Free Solo, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin's film that follows Alex Honnold as he attempts to climb a 3,000 foot-high rock formation without safety ropes, than Sandi Tan's Shirkers, a novelistic mystery about different kinds of serial killers, the only real criterion for any movie is that it commands our attention.
With the proliferation of platforms -- streaming services, cable channels -- and democratization of the filmmaking process (not only is the digital equipment needed to make these sorts of films within reach of anyone with a credit card, it's also relatively easy to learn to operate it) it's no wonder that we seem to be in the midst of a filmmaking renaissance. I don't know that we have to draw clear lines between what is a narrative feature and what is a nonfiction film.
What we call documentary filmmaking is no more "true" than any other human attempt to get at what is real. Truth cannot be carved from marble or revealed by thrusting microphones; it can only be glimpsed sidelong, briefly apprehended in a serendipitous moment. Documentarians constrain themselves in ways that other artists do not -- they mightn't intrude on their frame, they might keep their voices still, they might not interfere with or abet the progress of their subject, but they are susceptible to the same errors of perception and translation as the novelist and the poet.
They have a greater, graver responsibility than other filmmakers. Their subjects are not pretenders paid to simulate some drama, but people whose lives are being recorded for display, perhaps to divert and thrill an audience, perhaps for some higher purpose. There is a greater moral dimension to documentaries. They are purported to reflect genuine human experience; they are not the private fantasies of some creator mind but engagements with the actual. We are supposed to believe in them.
By observing, by introducing a camera, a witness, into the laboratory of reality, they alter the trajectory of that reality. Whether it is their aim or not, they change the world.
MovieStyle on 01/04/2019
Print Headline: Real to reel: Documentaries inject a dose of reality into a world of pretend