Like Ezra, I loved King of Kong. And perhaps we were had:
What I'm saying here is that a good percentage of what makes the documentary "good" are made up conflicts, inaccurate reporting, smoothed-over narratives that are meant to make you root for one side or hate the other, when in fact reality doesn't hold up to these allegations. The whole point of the narrative is that Steve is wronged, denied his rightful place in the record books because of internal machinations. But he had the championship for 3 years! He had played Billy one-on-one. Billy was not on this campaign to cut Steve off at the knees at every turn so to humiliate him and dismiss him, to his own aggrandizement.
(Feel free to check out this collection of statements by Walter Day, head of Twin Galaxies, which is an excellent succinct review of inaccuracy in the film. There are notable amounts of others.)
If you're going to point and laugh at a subculture, hold up real people like pelts to be sneered at and dismissed as this documentary most obviously does, why even go further and make crap up in editing? Why even be in that business?
The director, Seth Gordon, is hard at work at a screenplay for The King of Kong, which he will then sell to have a fictional movie made. Or, as I am saying, a second fictional movie, but one where he can see 100% of the profits of the picture without having to cut in any of the people whose lives he just took a galactic dump on. Let me be clear: he fucked these people. He couldn't have fucked them worse than if he strapped them across a air-hockey table and sodomized them with a Wico Command Control Joystick. He interviewed them, had them retrieve archival footage and materials going back decades, recorded them at their homes, their places of work, and at events that they put up at their own expense and time, and then he painted them in clown makeup and threw pies at them for an hour and 19 minutes.
And by doing this, he fucked me, too. Doors that were open to me and my production are slammed shut, people who would have been interviewed by me freely and happily are now rightfully suspicious, and there are places I can no longer hope to go. Maybe, just maybe after I am deep in my production and I show people footage and where I'm going with it I might get some folks to open up, but the damage is pretty goddamn severe. A documentary that rips entire groups of good-hearted people as shadowy, conniving scumbags with razor-thin morality hurts the scene being portrayed and hurts the people themselves. All this effort, just to turn reality into a faked up drama worthy of a dime store pulp. Yes, I am saying the movie is so bad that it has actually sucked my future movie into darkness as well.
When I sit with people to interview them, I always say the same thing: I never want them to regret letting me into their lives. I never want them to watch my film and feel a cold shiver of realization that they were had. Maybe they're surprised at how their context is with other interviews, or that they fit into the film in unusual ways, but to make someone's life worse for having given you the gift of their time and story... dude, that's some high-octane bitchslap. I don't play that way.
I was always uncomfortable with an element of derision in the film. The subculture it portrays seems to have a lot of severe Aspergers running around, which is clearly very funny to the director, but it isn't to them--and the laughter is too often in a laugh-at rather than laugh-with kind of way.
But this goes rather beyond that. Reality very rarely makes a good narrative, which is why the best stories usually have a certain . . . poetic license. The problem is, the very medium inherently makes a strong truth claim--we're just not equipped to disbelieve our own lying eyes. So when it's manipulated, it's incredibly powerful. That's what makes Michael Moore so successful--he tells a great story, even when it's not there.
That said, I'd argue that the opening of that last paragraph is as inappropriate coming from a documentary maker as it is from a journalist. Obviously you should not deceive people, much less manipulate their words to present a substantively false image of them or reality. But if you sit down thinking that no one you interview should ever be unhappy with the result, you are committing to a project just as dishonest as the filmmaker who starts out with a narrative and trims the facts to fit it. Probably the hardest thing about being a journalist is disputing the truth claims of nice people who have spent hours of their valuable time talking to you about their issues. But that's your job.
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