Documentaries are not supposed to bend in the winds of mass-cult fashion. They’re supposed to be unyielding in the pursuit of Truth (or, less grandly, some fresh angle on a gnarly social issue), devoid of ego or conspicuous visual style. But in a batch of recent films, including Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Joel Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, and Errol Morris’s recent Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter, traditional fly-on-the-wall techniques have received a drastic makeover. The once supersober domain of feature-length nonfiction has come within spitting distance of Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight. Enter the Tabloid Documentary.
Since 1960, with the introduction of lightweight sync-sound camera rigs, the only substantial challenge to cinema verité as a dominant style has come from the interview/archival footage branch of historical collage. As epitomized by Frederick Wiseman’s clear-eyed institutional exposés and Ken Burns’s slick epics, both approaches continue to attract public funding and a devoted niche audience. Adapting formal conventions from each camp while adding idiomatic kinks borrowed from Hollywood, tabloid docs seem less an innovation in the “look” of nonfiction than a radical repositioning of its “address” to the viewer. What’s different is how filmmakers inscribe their role in the process of image construction.
The new school makes no pretense of hiding its subjective involvement behind a veil of neutrality or objectivity. The maker becomes part of the action, inserting reactions and opinions via voice-over commentaries, on-camera appearances (in the manner of Michael Moore), and the use of devices such as editorializing background music (Paradise 2), visual distortion (Mr. Death), or surrogate kibitzers expressing the director’s unspoken perspective: Tammy Faye brandishes squeaky toy puppets to fill in expository information and make transitions between sections.
This stance carves out a crucial distinction from earlier docs. Whatever one can say about D.A. Pennebaker’s self-valorizing presence in Don’t Look Back (1966), he does not come off as Bob Dylan’s cryptopublicist. The verité camera is not quite a private confidante, but at the least serves as mediator between mainstream channels of representation and the “real” self. Tabloid docs invert this dynamic. There is no suggestion of behind-the-scenes intimacy, only multiple layers of public performance; the camera actively colludes with its subject to present a carefully crafted self-image different only in degree from other journalistic products. Moreover, the reality on display is secondhand—already the product of mass scrutiny and part of a wider cultural syndrome of media dogging the coverage of other media.
The portrayals of former PTL coanchor Tammy Faye Bakker and execution guru turned Holocaust debunker Fred Leuchter are in effect 90-minute infomercials on disgraced pseudocelebs for hip viewers who would never seriously read the Enquirer or schedule their evenings around broadcasts of Survivor or Big Brother, two series dedicated to the competitive making of pseudofame. As with the current rage for voyeur TV, the implicit contract in tabloid docs is that the camera gets to nose around in embarrassing situations in return for allowing the subjects ample face time and a chance to tell “their side” of a sleazy story. Tammy Faye, who only has eyes for the camera, takes part in a staged confrontation with a reporter who blew the whistle on hubby Jim Bakker, but is rewarded with nonstop opportunities to pitch lame TV projects. Execution meister Fred Leuchter strikes a similar bargain: His quack-science views of Auschwitz gas chambers are refuted by a knowledgeable historian, but he caps his extended plea for understanding with a talking-head ad for an unsold electric chair.
Paradise 2 enshrines an even more reflexive and ethically dubious arena of exploitation. Outraged by the spectre of injustice revealed in the original Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), a support group forms around three convicted teen killers, and Berlinger and Sinofsky revisit the scene of the crime to cover current legal maneuvering. Nearly all the principals in the case avoid the camera crew this time, save for a dogged defense lawyer and the parent of one of the victims: the revoltingly self-promoting Mark Byers, who we learn received an “honorarium” from the filmmakers (i.e., HBO). He lumbers about harassing members of the support group, spouting his gospel of Christianity and handguns, and enacting horrifying little skits of mourning and vengeance. Byers is in essence accused by the film of not only killing the kids but also murdering his wife—whose death was ruled, gasp, “undetermined.” Without question Byers is one of the most reprehensible characters you’ll ever meet on screen, but unlike Morris’s landmark The Thin Blue Line (1988), a palpable influence, Paradise 2 never bothers to advance a plausible alternative scenario for how the murders were committed.
To be sure, traditional docs are hardly immune from charges of collusion or exploitation. But recent tabloid features are not simply more upfront in their admission of mutually enhancing agendas—they also skitter along a slippery slope of evasions and equivocations couched in a rubric of entertainment. In Tammy Faye, it’s great that the former preacher visits AIDS patients—”Gay people like Tammy because Tammy likes gay people”—but what about Tammy’s complicity in the Christian Broadcasting Network’s assault on gay rights? By the same token, Fred Leuchter is not the same species of freak-show iconoclast paraded in Morris’s work from Vernon, Florida (1981) to Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997); Leuchter’s unthinking anti-Semitism should disqualify his status as romantic Outcast. Playing into the climate of postmodern relativism, tabloid docs suggest that since it’s all about parallel “image realities” anyway, the spectacle provides its own raison d’être, and social responsibility is an anachronistic illusion. This is a dangerous stance, even for the likes of Access Hollywood.
To date, only one filmmaker, Nick Broomfield, has managed to rise above—or, perhaps more accurately, burrow underneath—the pitfalls inherent in tabloid style. Fleeing the rigid confines of British verité, he has produced a set of cheerfully lurid exposés in which the hapless pursuit of a (female) headliner reveals a psychodramatic cache of submission and resistance, the unconscious law driving many a celebrity portrait. In Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1993) and Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995), Broomfield simultaneously defined and transcended the protocols of nonfiction sleaze. Where other films are at pains to conceal the messy details of pre-interview negotiations, often accompanied by demands for payment, his work revels in the commodity-driven motives on both sides of the camera. The latter film’s grand metaphor of prostitution, with filmmaker as eager john, poses a humorously blunt challenge to documentary’s pretense of high-minded investigation.