Say goodbye to single-camera setups and 1,000 hours of footage; say hello to crane shots and dick-joke quotas. With Going the Distance (reviewed here), Nanette Burstein jumps from award-winning documentarian to mainstream genre filmmaker. She’s hardly the first to make such a transition. Veterans like Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and Spike Lee toggle between the two forms freely, and even committed, career documentary filmmakers like Errol Morris, Barbara Kopple, and Michael Moore have directed scripted narrative films (The Dark Wind, Havoc, and Canadian Bacon, respectively). But whether or not Burstein ever makes another documentary, her passage is notable because she’s not sidling into fiction, not playing with form; she’s going all the way: from inner-city amateur boxers to Justin Long naked in a tanning salon. And yet Burstein is only the latest of her generation to make such an extreme leap. These four fortysomething American filmmakers, all in the relative early stages of their careers, have gone from works of committed reportage to more conventional genre films. Their dramatic features don’t represent a logical next step in an auteurist project—they seem like conscious rejections of that notion.
Maybe it’s not so surprising that Burstein, an Academy Award nominee for On the Ropes (1999), opted to make a narrative feature after her last film, American Teen (2008), packaged its footage of Indiana high school students into an MTV-style teen soap opera. But despite the stereotyping, pop-scored hook-up montages, and pimple-enhancing lighting schemes, the kids in American Teen prevail as complicated, compelling individuals. Burstein follows that up with Going the Distance, a film with no discernible vision or personality, and featuring characters more crass and charmless than could be found in any high school—or on MTV, for that matter.
The trendsetter of the group, Todd Phillips made his first narrative film 10 years ago, graduating from his gonzo, first-person exposé Frat House (1998) to the anonymous, forgettable Road Trip (2000), an American Pie knock-off starring onetime TV personality Tom Green. He went on to direct such box-office hits as Old School (2003) and last year’s The Hangover, and in a certain light these collegial fictions are of a piece with his on-campus documentary. But funny as they might be, it’s revealing that Phillips went from critiquing bad-boy behavior to indulging it.
As with the Phillips oeuvre, you could strain your eyes and see the thread between Ratliff’s doc Hell House (2001) and his follow-up, the bad-seed horror thriller Joshua (2007).They both touch on religion and paternalism and the horrors of everyday existence bleeding into fears of the supernatural. And both are more than a touch sardonic. But while the former is a macabre yet matter-of-fact look at a fundamentalist-inspired haunted house, the latter fashions a freak house of its own, this one inspired by such works of realism as The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, and featuring a meltdown by Vera Farmiga to outdo a paranoid charismatic’s most apocalyptic vision.
Oscar winner Jessica Yu is the thinking woman’s documentary filmmaker, drawn to subjects like the psycho-sexual folk art of Henry Darger (In the Realms of the Unreal, 2004) and the Euripidean echoes in contemporary masculinity (Protagonist, 2007). So it’s hard to imagine a bigger departure than Ping-Pong Playa (2007), a freewheeling comedy about a self-deluded Chinese-American pseudo-athlete. But unlike the previously mentioned fiction forays, Yu’s venture feels like an honest experiment, a handmade attempt at something entirely different. It belongs to another world of moviemaking—one dominated by whip cuts and silly reaction shots—but it’s got the same searching spirit at the helm. It’s a departure, not a disappearance.