Film: Fast, cheap and out of control - but it sells

Degraded images and trashy, on-camera kookiness by real people are the signs of a new breed of American documentary.
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The Independent Culture
WHAT'S WITH the new American taste for weird-n'-trashy documentaries? In Hands on A Hard Body, the action centres on an only-in-Texas competition for a Nissan "hard body", or truck, in which contestants have to keep their hands on a truck for up to three days to win the booty.

The Cruise follows a verbose, pockmarked New York City bus-tour guide nicknamed Speed, a self-proclaimed exhibitionist who sleeps on friends' sofas and delivers rants to his captive tourist audience, including the line: "I see each double-decker loop as another loop toward my death, and therefore toward perfection."

It gets tackier. In The Lifestyle, a group of wrinkly Sun-Belt swingers "sportfuck" on camera, swapping wives' after coffee recipes. In Home Page, a new digital documentary about the weird world of Web confessors, there's a woman who wants strangers to know her as intimately as her husband does, and college student Justin Hall, whose Web diaries include numerous pictures and descriptions of women he's slept with.

This is American documentary film-making in the late 1990's - fast, cheap and (slightly) out of control. What's stranger than their David Lynch- like subject matter is that these movies are actually getting theatrical distribution.

Though grainily or strobe-ily shot on Hi-8 or digital video, and prone to low-rent subject matter, films like Hands on a Hard Body are making money. Hands has taken in $505,000 nationwide - a fine sum given that it was shot for $10,000. Similarly, The Cruise, somewhat smearily shot on digital film, has prospered in the art houses. It's director Bennett Miller then signed with a big-deal management company.

"A quarter of the films submitted to this year's DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival were either Hi-8 or DV," says DoubleTake's assistant director Karen Cirillo.

"Ten years ago you wouldn't have seen art houses showing such cheap-looking films. Now theatre owners are picking them up."

L. Somi Roy, the Executive Director of the New York-based International Documentary Seminars, believes audiences now have "a non-traditional understanding of the phrase "good visual quality".

"If you go from 35mm print to The Cruise, you will find The Cruise too gritty," says Roy. "If you've been saturated by television for 30 years, what you consider good images has changed. From watching cop shows and Rodney King on television, the grainy, gritty look has started to be thought of as the real."

Of course, there's a long tradition in American documentary films of infiltrating strange corners. Forty years ago, non-fiction film-makers first embraced cinema verite (film truth), a form well-suited to Americana's perversities. With the latest handheld cameras and lightweight synchronous sound equipment, directors like D.A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman and Richard Leacock tracked the construction of political masks (John F. Kennedy in Primary) and stardom (Meet Marlon Brando). They went places documentarians hadn't gone before and let the cameras roll, giving the illusion of unselfconscious happenings captured on film. And sometimes they were. In 1970, Albert Maysles' verite classic Gimme Shelter pictured the Rolling Stones in performance but also caught the killing at Altamount on camera.

Unwittingly, however, cinema verite became a part of the publicity machine it attempted to expose, with MTV and "real-life" telly shows appropriating its techniques.

Home Page's Doug Block criticizes classic cinema verite for its lack of truth. Block thinks digital film can help documentarians achieve more authentic results than film could. "Being a one-man crew let me get closer to his subjects," says Block. "Gone are the long lens and radio miking that kept the filmmaker thirty feet from his subjects." Block hung around and caught Justin Hall having an argument with a grizzled Netizen. "When I filmed that, I had twenty seconds to get my gear and follow them," says Block. "I couldn't have done that with a crew."

It's fitting that Home Page, with its rough-and-ready confessionalism, is playing on American cable in July. While classic verite found its audience, in part, through the new medium of television, the American cable television now commissions and buys real-life flicks - the sexier and more invasive the better (HBO's Real Sex documentary series, films full of footage of strippers et al, has been one of the stations biggest draws).

Could it be then, that film-makers and audiences alike are just getting cruder? Maybe not. In the last 25 five years, academic departments, from anthropology to cultural studies, have embraced the ethnographry of lowly living. Similarly, the new documentaries spurn lofty topics and celebrities, choosing instead to depict taste subcultures and not-quite everyday life.

The Lifestyle's director Dan Schisgall, a 31-year-old Harvard graduate, says he wanted to make "an X-rated Gates of Heaven". Like Hands on the Hard Body's 70-hour truckathon, The Lifestyle's verite climax is both freakish and banal - a group orgy in a suburban home. The film's distributor notes that the film will appeal not only to the estimated three million swingers in America, but also urban hipsters who "like to watch other people".

Urban hipsters are the same audiences that went for Hands on a Hard Body: cosmopolites in American cities snickered at the film's Texas hayseeds who standing around a truck in a dealership in the blazing heat, permitted only a five-minute break per hour. The loudest chuckles went to Hands' obese fundamentalist Christian woman, whose church prayed for her to win a truck. "It's an awesome exhilaration," says one of the film's hard-body contestants, Benny Perkins. "It's just like the first time you kill a deer."

Ultimately, though, these wonderfully coarse new films arise out of an aesthetic, rather than mercantile or anthropological, impulse.

Non-fiction film-makers and their viewers now share an understanding - degraded image quality and on-camera kookiness by real people are signs of authenticity. "We live in an age with lots of mediated images, home movies, etc, so the notion of entertainment has changed," says Somi Roy."People just want to see things that aren't products of an industry."