This past summer I saw the critically acclaimed documentary, “King of Kong” at the inaugural meeting of a Full Sail documentary film club. Great film. When one of my fellow film viewers confessed that he wanted to punch the antagonist, Billy Mitchell, in the mouth and everyone in the room agree; it was clear that the documentary makers had achieved their goal. I remembered reading comments before watching the film that some critics felt that the film’s editors “crafted” the footage to make Mitchell look a bit worse than he actually was. I didn’t say anything about this at the meeting because everyone else was ready to lynch Mitchell for being such a self-important asshole. In fact, one person was amazed at how well the filmmakers let Mitchell show what a jerk he was. Maybe, or maybe it was just really good editing.
I grew up in the era of Tom Wolfe and the blurring of lines between non-fiction, new journalism and fiction. What I learned from those times was that good fiction locks the reader into a totally believable universe while good non-fiction equally employs all of the same the tools of storytelling with a beginning, middle, end, a protagonist, an antagonist and often a hero’s journey. I vaguely remember a Walter Cronkite special made after he retired during which he described the journalistic process of gathering news and then editing it down for broadcast and that this process of editing, deciding what parts of the story to include and what parts to lead with, meant that 100% objectivity was not really possible. Fairness, yes, but real objectivity was an ideal more than a reality. Alas, I’d say that the expectations for “Walter Cronkite objectivity” in news reporting has retreated back to a mythical simpler time before Nixon and the media conglomerate control of all things media. All the more, I’m a bit surprised when an educated audience, who wouldn’t expect complete objectivity from any of the cable or network news networks, swallow documentary presentations, simply because you have the characters saying the words and doing the things that leads you to believe that this is really the way it is. One would hope that documentary producers (as with journalists) wouldn’t completely fabricate stories out of carefully crafted clips. But one cannot forget that the process of editing is a form of subjective decision making entirely dependent on the story that the documentary creator wants to tell. And the “Best” documentaries are not necessarily the ones that tell the most Truth but the ones that tell the best story.
I’ve sat through many a documentary that just stuck the camera out there and tried to tell some semblance of an event or ongoing story, but “failed” because their efforts to “capture it all” resulted in an overly long, drawn out hodge-podge of footage that had no real narrative, no clearly defined beginning, middle or end and usually ended when they ran out of time and/or money. Sadly these unwatchable documentaries are often closer to the “Truth,” if there is a truth to be learned, than the highly crafted works by someone like Roger Moore or even the folks who put together the “King of Kong.” Don’t get me wrong, “King of Kong,” is an amazing film, well worth the viewing. Just don’t expect it to be a complete slice of reality. Billy Mitchell may be an intolerable asshole or just another human being with an overly inflated opinion of his own importance. The asshole makes for a better story.
* image & info: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_King_of_Kong:_A_Fistful_of_Quarters, retrieved on October 12, 2009
* And That’s the Way It Is, by Dan Rottenberg/American Journalism Report, http://www.ajr.org/article.asp?id=3612 retrieved on October 12, 2009
* YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3K7wpatALDQ