Documentary

It all comes down to people and honesty.  Given the bald-faced lies that come from the White House these days, honesty is at a premium.  There are, however, always people involved.  And with people you never know.  This issue arises because I’ve been watching documentaries.  A documentary is classified as a nonfiction genre, but it will nevertheless have a point of view.  You need to question yourself about the motives of the writers and directors.  What are they trying to say?  Are they slanting the narrative a little too much in their own direction?  In cases like Ken Burns’ works, there’s little doubt everything is well researched and well funded.  They inspire confidence.  But I also watch more questionable films.

Recently I saw My Amityville Horror, a prolonged interview with Danny Lutz, the oldest child featured in the book and film.  In true documentary style, others are interviewed, some of them skeptics.  The film pointed notes that Lutz’s brother and sister declined to be part of it.  Lutz makes the case throughout that these things really did happen.  He’s obviously not a rich man—he drives truck for UPS—but he’s sincere.  Others interviewed cast doubts on the memories of over three decades’ fermentation.  The point of view here is one that seems to believe Lutz, who is a no-nonsense kind of guy.  At the very end when asked if he’d take a lie detector test, however, the subject seizes up.  It leaves the viewer wondering if we’ve all be taken down the garden path.  Is he an honest man or is he hoping to supplement his income?

A couple weeks later I watched Hostage to the Devil, a documentary on the life of Malachi Martin.  Martin was never a figure without controversy, and it seems that he enjoyed it.  Interviews with friends, and even the agent who did quite well from his book that shares the title of the documentary, argue for his sincerity.  The major players in the field, those who are still living, in any case, all make appearances.  The question that hangs in the air, although the documentary seems to lean towards his validation, is whether Martin was an honest man.  We always have to ask that question when money is involved.  Martin’s book, Hostage to the Devil, has sold over a million copies.  It made a living for an ex-Jesuit who then became part of the media circuit.  It leaves more questions than answers.  I wonder how Ken Burns would handle such topics.

A Little Bit

I don’t know about you, but I have a complicated relationship with genres.  As a fiction writer I have great difficulty classifying what I write, and that shows in the reluctance of publishers to embrace it.  We tend to suppose that some kinds of Platonic types exist out there by which we can map what we find here in the physical world.  These genres, however, are far more permeable than they seem.  My wife and I just finished watching the eight-part Ken Burns documentary Country Music.  Neither one of us is what you might call a fan of the genre but I can say that I learned an awful lot.  My stepfather was a country music fan, so many of the names and songs, particularly of the early years, were familiar.  What became clear throughout the century or so covered by the films was that the dividing line was always a blurry one.

While today we tend to think of country music as a southern phenomenon, the documentary made clear that its beginnings were folk music.  And folk lived most places.  While certain styles predominated in certain ages, across the years it was hard to tell some country music from pop music and rock (especially in the early days of the latter).  Even rock is difficult to classify.  What it often comes down to is self-identification.  An artist or band that identifies as country is country.  It is a distinctly American art form and it quite often identifies with religion.  Like rock, it also has some roots in gospel music.  When it becomes secular, gospel can go into many unexpected places.

Another association—again, a generalization—is country music and conservatism.  Partly it’s the promoting of Americanism, but partly it’s based on a false perception.  Performers are actors, after all.  Many of the “clean cut” examples of country singers struggled constantly with drug abuse (often considered the demon of rock-n-roll) and alcoholism.  It’s often right there in the lyrics.  The listeners, however, tend to think of them as stories.  That was the other great takeaway from the series—people are drawn to the stories.  I think that’s something we all know, but country music often excels at the hard-luck story that resonates with people down on their circumstances.  I’m not about to become a country music fan, but watching this series, like any educational venture, has opened me to a new tolerance for what I previously classified as a genre that didn’t have any appeal.

Presidential Race

RooseveltsMy wife and I have been working our way through Ken Burns’ documentary, The Roosevelts. At first, it took a little persuading on my wife’s part. Of course I thought Teddy Roosevelt was an interesting character, and FDR may have been the last true Democrat to inhabit the Oval Office, but they were a rich family. American aristocrats. I’m glad she convinced me. Subtitled “An Intimate Portrait,” the fourteen-hour mini-series doesn’t idealize the three most famous Roosevelts (Eleanor is included too); they have their faults and foibles. One thing, however, has won me over time and again—these three genuinely cared for other people. Sure, there was ambition and fame involved, but their personal writings reveal that they believed it was the obligation of the wealthy to give back to society. Industry bosses hated them.

More than once I’ve found tears in my eyes as the narrative unfolds that includes people writing personal letters of praise, petition, and always hope, to a president whose New Deal was intended to ensure that as many people could be helped were. I keep thinking to myself—when is the last time we had a president who really cared about the people? I voted for Carter, Clinton, and Obama. I think they did, and are doing, okay. Of the three I saw Carter building houses for the homeless after his administration. I have seen Obama fighting back emotion at the senseless shooting of black youths by police. I think they care about people. Franklin Roosevelt, even after an assassination attempt, however, rode in open-topped cars. He drove on his own to talk to people and ask them how they were. He was a president who cared. Our presidents are now behind bulletproof glass.

Politics has a disenchantment in its wings. It has become a game the wealthy play. Even the most well-meaning Democrat has no hope against the wealthiest one-tenth of one-percent who hold all the power in their hands. Watching The Roosevelts it’s clear that it has been so since industrialization. Seeing the J. P. Morgans and even the less enlightened Roosevelts declaring politics had no business stopping their astronomical earnings is down-heartening. I almost cut up my Chase card in protest. The wealthy despise the poor against whom only they can be declared extraordinary. Today our presidents, well-meaning or not, are behind bulletproof glass. They are in the shadow of big money. And some of the hopefuls have even convinced many of their fellow citizens that the only way forward is to follow their cash all the way to the banks they own. It’s not a presidential race, it’s a game where diamonds are trump.