From Little Edie to Madonna: Know Your Documentary Character Types
It was announced today that Mistaken for Strangers will open the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. It's the story of two brothers, one an artist, the other the lead singer of The National, and besides a look into some great music, it's the story of brothers, Tom and Matt Berninger that promises to resonate for fans of the documentary form. Documentaries often are viewed for the issues they tackle— social justice, the environment, the horrors of war— but just as often, they present fascinating, compelling characters, just as well, if not better, than narrative film.
So with the Berninger brothers poised to enter the realm of memorable documentary characters, the question is what kind of characters will they be? The most indelible doc characters make their mark in familiar ways. Here are some of our favorites.
In many ways, a documentary makes spectacles of all its characters, but there are some who bear that spotlight better than others. Some who feel like they were made for it, in fact. Madonna: Truth or Dare is all about that spotlight, about how Madonna is dealing with international superstardom and fighting hard to do things her way. She knows she's serving herself up as a spectacle, showing herself off as an uncompromising artist, as a sexual jungle cat, a terrible brat, an electrifying performer. One thing's for sure, she's in control of her image-making the entire time.
The same can't really be said for Jacqueline Siegel, star of this past year's The Queen of Versailles, reference depicting her and her husband's obnoxious standard of wealth and their precarious position after the economic collapse. Jackie's ignorance of how she comes across isn't total—there are definitely times when she gets quiet and you can tell she gets what a performance her life has become—but it's her saving grace in that it allows her to get through her life without screaming. On a self-knowledge level, "Little Edie" Beale from Grey Gardens is probably halfway between Madonna and Jackie. She's clearly always performing, but she often doesn't seem quite sure of why or for what. But she may well be the most compelling subject of a documentary ever. She's utterly captivating.
The crusaders come in all sorts of varieties. Harvey Milk in The Times of Harvey Milk is probably the most classic example, a hero fighting for equal rights, putting his life on the line, ultimately martyred for his efforts. Philippe Petit's crusade in Man on Wire reference isn't remotely the same as Milk's, but his dedication is the same, and the film marks the same kind of "setbacks and successes" journey for both men. You could say the same for Mark Borchardt in American Movie, pushing and pushing to get his movie made.
Movies of all genres have been in love with the Misfit since the beginning. Documentaries give you that added level that these are real people living that far outside the social norms. The best part of Grizzly Man is Werner Herzog's narration betraying the fact that even he can't believe the bizarre lengths his subject, Timothy Treadwell, went to be close to the ursine wildlife in Alaska. Catfish, for all its issues of intent and veracity, ultimately leads to a meeting with Angela Wesselman-Price, a fascinatingly sad woman whose oddball behaviors are put in bracing context by the rest of her life. R. Crumb's life and work in Crumb place him on the fringes of any number of communities, though his talent manages to win out.
The Self-Promoter is such a great type because he or she can come from any line of work, big or small. Certainly, Billy Mitchell in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters isn't working on a fame level that requires such dedicated self-promotion, but it's the fact that he's notable in such a niche environment— arcade game tournaments — that the need for self-aggrandizement is so desperate. It's that desperation that makes Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work so fascinating.
Joan Rivers is a woman working in her seventies in an industry (showbiz) that values youth, and a subculture (stand-up comedy) that could not be less tailored to someone of her age and gender. She's scrapping for every bit of notoriety that she can get because she honestly doesn't know what's there for her if she doesn't. That kind of pathos can make someone like Mr. Brainwash in Exit Through the Gift Shop seem pretty silly, but Banksy's film makes Brainwash's brand of commercialized outsider art a self-reflexive meta-narrative.
The documentary structure relies so much on expertise, on supporting evidence. For every fascinating subject, there are interviews upon interviews with experts and witnesses offering their own perspective on the subjects. For some movies, those experts ARE the subject. There are no other perspectives in The Fog of War besides those of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, but it's McNamara's decades of experience (and most strikingly, his awareness of the mistakes he and his brethren made in the lead-up to and execution of the Vietnam War) that make Errol Morris's film so compelling.
Robert Evans is as fascinating a primary source as you can find for Hollywood filmmaking in the 1970s, and The Kid Stays in the Picture reference adopts his voice (literally) to great effect. It's not always so bombastic, though. Bill Cunningham's perspectives on fashion and New York City, and the changing face of both across decades, are just as wise and just as compelling. In Bill Cunningham New York , he's an observer, but in many ways, he's THE observer.
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