Thursday July 25th 2013
You might remember a little over a month ago when I returned from Sheffield Doc/Fest and wrote this piece arguing that documentary filmmaking was in a bit of a rut. Well, along with everything else I write here, that piece was eventually indexed on Rotten Tomatoes, at which point I was surprised to discover that a lot of the films I’d maligned (specifically Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and Blackfish) were in possession of dazzlingly high Tomatometer scores.
There were two possible explanations: either I was being unnecessarily harsh on these films, or the ‘critical fraternity’ was being uncharacteristically forgiving of documentary itself. Earlier this week I watched the 2008 festival hit Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father and got my answer.
The film’s a horribly made, morally hysterical and frustratingly simplistic true-crime story, told in the form of a letter from director Kurt Kuenne (pictured above holding an award that cannot possibly be for filmmaking) to the son of his deceased best friend Andrew. Like so many in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time documentaries, it’s a fascinating story ineptly told. Or at least thats’s what I — and the tiny handful of critics who didn’t help bolster its 94% Tomatometer score — think.
Skim through a few of those glowing appraisals and you’ll find that many barely mention the film, instead describing at length the particulars of its emotive subject matter. Where documentaries are concerned, this seems to be common practice among critics — the logic presumably being that a fascinating story ineptly told is still a fascinating story. Similar concessions are not made for fiction filmmaking: try as I might, I can’t remember any of Tony Scott’s films getting a pass on the basis that runaway trains are undeniably dramatic.
I figured it would be a worthwhile exercise to take a more scientific look at the critical response afforded to documentaries, and chose as my test sample the Tomatometer scores of the 32 docs released theatrically in the UK since January. The results are pretty damning:
|Jiro Dreams of Sushi||99%|
|The Punk Syndrome||100%|
|Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God||98%|
|Side by Side||95%|
|Fire in the Blood||100%|
|The Road: A Story of Life and Death||83%|
|Caesar Must Die||91%|
|Michael H. Profession: Director||100%|
|The Spirit of ’45||68%|
|We Went To War||100%|
|Fuck for Forest||50%|
|Village at the End of the World||100%|
|Beware of Mr. Baker||98%|
|The Stone Roses: Made of Stone||70%|
|Fire in the Night||100%|
|I Am Breathing||100%|
|The Act of Killing||98%|
|The Battle of the Sexes||88%|
|Stories We Tell||95%|
|Venus and Serena||76%|
|Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer||77%|
|The Moo Man||79%|
|We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks||95%|
|Springsteen & I||90%|
That Snoop Dogg documentary must have been really, really awful.