Is documentary the new memoir?

I am a sociologist who conducts historical research on race and social policy, so my work has something in common with a documentary filmmaker’s attempt to uncover some version of “the truth” (however defined). Maybe this is just my sociological training leaking out, but when I watch a documentary—especially a highly personal, idiosyncratic one—I want to see the bigger picture as well. What is the larger social context in which the story unfolds? Does the story tell me something about anyone or anything other than you? If not, you had better be pretty damn fascinating. And that does happen sometimes. But there appear to be a growing number of documentaries that come off more as exercises in self-help than as expressions of artistic vision with the intention of connecting with an audience.

Jonathan Caouette’s critical darling Tarnation (2003) is a prime example of documentary as self-help or, more pointedly, catharsis for the filmmaker. Caouette leaves no grisly detail of his life unexposed, using original, found, and staged, audio and visual sources. I was astounded to learn that the final cut of one hour and twenty-five minutes is less than half the length of the original. If the footage of his boyfriend making snow angels survived, one can only imagine what was edited out. (I guess we’ll find out when Tarnation 2 is released.)

I agree with much of the praise heaped upon Tarnation—it is stunningly self-indulgent, yes, yet undeniably original in concept and execution. The content of the film is disturbing, rife with allegations of child abuse, the debilitating effects of unnecessary shock treatments, and other tragedies, small and large. But what really scares me is the potential impact of Tarnation on future “self-help” films without equally powerful and skilled storytelling. Beware of imitators who feel empowered by Caouette. We are likely to witness the Led Zeppelin effect—a band that spawned countless horrible copycats who lacked the distinctive banshee screech and prodigious chest hair of Robert Plant, and the memorably crunchy guitar riffs of Jimmy Page.

Several recent documentary releases are by no means horrible films or even Tarnation imitations, but they do certainly highlight the cringe potential in self-help documentaries. Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect: A Son’s Journey (2003) documents the filmmaker’s quest to understand his father, Louis Kahn (who died in 1974), a brilliant building designer who juggled three families in secrecy. Nathaniel only met his father a handful of times throughout his childhood.

In Architect, we get to see people in Bangladesh marvel at the building Kahn designed. This is interesting. What is not so interesting is Nathaniel’s face reflected in the microfilm he is reading, or Nathaniel watching an interview with Kahn’s wife. We don’t need to see numerous shots of Nathaniel holding his camera, gazing wistfully. This sort of literal self-reflection is no less heavy-handed than the metaphorical kind—to wit, Nathaniel rollerblading in pirouettes on the grounds of a building his father designed. When I asked two film-buff friends of mine if they had seen the film, they both immediately mentioned the hokey transparency behind this particular scene, which somehow manages to come off as both an incredibly private moment that should stay that way, and a remarkably contrived, made-for-film means to manipulate. The purpose of therapy, as I understand it, is to unravel the emotions and experiences inside you, unedited, so you can process them. When you seek an audience of more than your therapist, some editing is required to turn your experiences into an actual narrative.

Another documentary, Spit It Out (2004), a little-known (and probably lesser-seen) film by Jeff Shames about his lifelong struggle with stuttering, comes to mind. Shames vaguely links his stuttering, a topic that has personal resonance for me as I have also stuttered throughout my life, to mistreatment he experienced by his father. We are never told that the causes of stuttering are still poorly understood, although most research points to biological, not social, factors. I suppose it’s hard to get a good, made-for-documentary cry when you’re talking about genetics.

This trend of obsessive self-documentation goes beyond the film world. In the past several years a flood of memoirs, in many ways the literary counterpart to docs, have hit the shelves chock-full of resolute self-involvement. Perhaps the most striking recent example of this sort of memoir is Koren Zailckas’ Smashed: The Story of a Drunken Girlhood (2005), documenting the hard-drinking (but not alcoholic) life of a 23-year-old woman who did some dumb (but not tragic) stuff when she drank a lot. Zailckas certainly shows some potential as a writer. To enjoy it, however, the reader has to plough through some passages that shouldn’t have left her journal. Recalling one of her first experiences with alcohol, Zailckas writes: “I…know what Columbus must have felt when he washed up on the American shore. Drinking has always been, but it’s a New World to me. It’s been waiting for me to discover it.” And, like Columbus did with America, promptly proceeds to strip away all that’s good about drinking and make it into kind of a bummer. But I digress.

Why now?
We can hardly blame people for wanting to immortalize their lives or at least add the sheen of credibility to their personal stories by turning their experiences into cultural products. But why are companies selling so much of this stuff, and consumers buying these exercises in solipsism? Self-involvement is, of course, nothing new. In the film world, probably the biggest factor is the increase in cheap do-it-yourself technology that allows almost anyone to document the most microscopic details of their existence and make them available to the larger public. There is a lot of good in this. Caouette’s ability to record large chunks of his life and edit them into a real film on his home computer, at very little cost, would not have been possible 30 years ago. When I first started recording music, I couldn’t release an album until I convinced someone to foot the bill to master my digital audiotape and press up a stack of records (club deejays didn’t play CD’s then). Now I can burn a CD with decent packaging for the cost of a pack of gum. Even if only a few friends and my four-month-old son hear it, it looks real, and I can say I have a new album out.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that people think their creations merit sharing, since I am guilty of this as well. Cheap technology has made it possible to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of culture: book publishers, film producers, record labels, and so on. Perhaps even more interesting are the things these traditional gatekeepers have discovered. The big benefit to the not-yet-famous is that they are much cheaper to hire. You can make almost anyone look and sound good (helpful in manufacturing recording stars). Just as important, you can make almost anyone look completely ridiculous, crazy or pathetic (helpful in producing reality shows).

What’s the harm?
Sometimes self-serving, sometimes self-incriminating, and sometimes both, the problem with self-help documentaries is the collateral damage, as once again, Tarnation illustrates vividly. When Caouette asks his mother, clearly somewhat debilitated from a recent lithium overdose, some highly painful questions, she protests: “We don’t need it on film.” His disagreement courses through Tarnation, as he ensnares other family members in his therapeutic exercise, despite their objections. Given their mental states, his mother and grandparents arguably could not have given their consent to be included in the film.

A second problem with these kinds of films is the message they send along with the rest of our therapeutic culture: Namely, that the problems of the world can be solved merely by navel-gazing, not through engagement with the world, helping others, and digging deeper. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the urge to share your every musing with the world is contagious. I now feel compelled to exhume moments from my life that I previously thought were merely absurd or funny to me, but that I realize are worthy of widespread recognition.

High school, 1984, Jersey suburbs, a late spring night with a hint of summer steam, bullshitting with my best friend Pigro in his mom’s Toyota station wagon, basking in the delusion of profundity stoked by the Garden State’s finest pot. Ahead of our time, as usual, we saw the attraction of self-documentation— recording our teenage rantings sure made the safe, boring world of north Jersey feel more dramatic. In doing so, we also stumbled upon one of the troubling dilemmas of this whole endeavor:

“Imagine if you taped your whole life.”

“But when would you watch it?”

Two decades later, the question has become: “How would you get a bunch of other people to watch it?”

About :

CHRISTOPHER BONASTIA is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the City University of New York, Lehman College. His book, Knocking on the Door: The Federal Government’s Attempt to Desegregate the Suburbs, will be published in 2006 by Princeton University Press. As a journalist, his writing has appeared in The New Republic, Vibe, SF Weekly, and The San Francisco Bay Guardian. If you want to check out his new “album,” you can email him at