Sunday’s New York Times piece, The Rise of the Winner-Take-All Documentary by A. O. Scott is about film, but it applies just as well to print, and to me, that’s a problem. Here’s an excerpt from the first graf and a half:
…For a screenwriter in search of third-act drama, the climactic sports showdown is a surefire winner. And also, of course, a cliché. Even in movies based on real-life sports figures and events – “Cinderella Man,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Seabiscuit” are some recent examples – the big game can feel a bit rigged. And yet, even if we know what’s coming – or, for that matter, what really happened – we can’t help succumbing to the rush of suspense and emotion that the spectacle of high-stakes, winner-take-all competition brings.
Why should documentaries be any different? Perhaps the biggest challenge in nonfiction filmmaking, as in some forms of journalism, is the shaping of cluttered, contingent experience into a coherent story. The world supplies an abundance of interesting personalities, important subjects and relevant issues, but narratives of a momentum and clarity sufficient to sustain 90 minutes’ (or $10) worth of attention are harder to come by…
Scott mentions journalism, and I draw a parallel between documentaries and narrative nonfiction. In fact, the movies “Seabiscuit” and “Friday Night Lights” were based on narrative nonfiction books of the same titles.* My problem is that I like to write about ordinary people going about their ordinary lives, and more often than not, there is nothing momentous at stake. As a nonfiction writer seeking to be paid and published, I must now look for narratives of a momentum and clarity sufficient to sustain a long feature, if not a book, because interesting personalities, important subjects and relevant issues are, in and of themselves, no longer enough.
There may be those who argue that those elements never were sufficient, but the climate has changed. I am deeply disturbed by the mass appeal of reality tv where everything is a contest, even finding a spouse and landing a job. The humongous prizes add components of upward mobility for the winner, devestation or at least serious disappointment for the losers, transformation, and maybe, just maybe, some self-revelations along the way. All the narrative elements are there, the stories are true (albeit manipulated), but I don’t want to buy into the life as a winner-take-all sport.
*Note: The screenplay for the movie “Cinderella Man” appears to be original, and not based on any of the books with that title; the hardcover by Jeremy Schaap and an upcoming paperback by Michael DeLisa (an historical consultant for the movie) were based on Braddock’s life, and the paperback by Marc Cerasini was based on the screenplay.