If you remember, “Blackfish” was about an orca named Tilikum who was a SeaWorld attraction for many years and allegedly mauled several people to death. Very nice stuff for casual watching.
“Blackfish,” in a way, kicked off a golden era of documentary filmmaking. I’m talking full-on reinvention of the genre: Forget Ken Burns, nature documentaries and cotton-mouthed anthropological inspections of what makes humanity human. Documentary these days is not about cinematography, the interview nor the sweeping breadth of the camera’s eye, but instead it centers around a new brand of compelling. We, as audiences and filmmakers alike, are dedicated less to clear-eyed surveys of life and more to capturing the surreality of it.
We see this thematic focus in recent standouts like “Wild Wild Country,” “The Unknown Known” and “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” As it turns out, we are captivated by bizarre people who do bizarre things, like contaminate local salad bars with salmonella to incapacitate enough voters in order to swing an election, authorize wars against nations that don’t actually supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups, or name themselves things like “Joe Exotic.”
Even in films that don’t outwardly advertise murder, mayhem and madness, we obsess over people in mirages, so skilled or isolated or just straight-up weird that they seem to not be part of what we might call “real life.” It’s a total paradox, but documentary can and does function as a form of escapism. In “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” a son aches for and dreads the day he must take up his father’s mantle. It seems like a well-trodden path, but when your inheritance isn’t a sword nor the kingdom, but a Michelin-starred sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station, the stakes get murkier. In “Honeyland,” a woman is the sole keeper of an ancient tradition of tending wild bees, and in “Paris is Burning,” we meet people so contemporarily alienated and cast out they create a secret, beautiful underground of their own.
Documentary as a genre is obsessed with holding people, ideas, phenomena up to the light of day. Under that instinct is a degree of care and attention to detail that would age very quickly in everyday life. Don’t get me wrong — there’s a definite answer for why humans create art and chase strong emotions. (It’s because real life is boring.) But as someone who watched way too many true-crime documentaries as a young child, my emotional barometer is three inches left of center and still confused about the weather. If we treated the world around us and the people in it with the same nuance documentary filmmakers give their subjects, I’d have keeled over five years ago with the weight of all that emotional labor.
In “Casting JonBenet,” for example, we see parades of blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls audition to play a murdered child pageant queen. Morbid, but unflinchingly self-referential in its analysis of how JonBenet herself kicked off a whole era of true-crime proselytizing. The auditioning girls are asked how they’ll embody the original, and a lot of the answers involve purity and innocence blah blah something or other. Watching them was not darkly humorous or comically morose, and I really wish that it were. JonBenét Ramsey was six, not the Virgin Mary, and the way we draped her death with the heavy implications of beauty, childhood and family obscured how simply sad it is when children die, let alone when they are murdered. It turns out documentaries do still move me, and I’m not happy about it.
Is it weird that documentaries are giving me compassion fatigue? I’m trying not to be glib about it, but I do think our relationship with documentary is seriously overwrought. I have a theory that when we are born, we all are endowed with gas tanks of outrage, wonder, fear, humbling awareness for lives not our own, all those great and inarticulable feelings, and then that’s it. You can refill your gas tank, but its capacity never changes.
Watching a particularly harrowing documentary flushes the tank, but I’m not a casual spring cleaner. Without the protective cover of fiction, it takes scrubbing on your knees to clean out the old valves and plumbing for feelings you haven’t felt in a while. Normal life, life as no documentary has ever captured it, is sheer emotional idyll. I get whiplash. Feeling stuff is hard work. It’s great once or twice a month or whatever — I don’t know anything about cars or tanks or cleaning — to be deeply, unequivocally moved, but my goodness is it exhausting.
I still call “Blackfish” the genesis of this particular era of documentary because even though many great works predate it, the feelings and outcomes of “Blackfish” are what we search for in every post-“Blackfish” documentary. Sixty minutes of grainy footage and sad porpoise noises got all of us to care about orcas in pens and, even better, to care about what our friends thought about orcas in pens. It’s great and all but also funny and a little pathetic, since it doesn’t take a genius to imagine that the animals at SeaWorld probably hate it there.
But can you imagine walking around all day ruminating on the death of a child or the suffering of an animal? Tank: empty. My real, everyday life is not stellar, but it does not make me feel that way. If I could, I would give the world’s tragedies their due wallow and still function, but I’ve never been that great of a multitasker. My tank of emotions was made to hold stuff, not lie around empty and immaculate.
Casey Li writes the Monday column on popular culture. Contact her at [email protected]