Checks & Balances

The talking heads documentaries (overly) rely on are not only an artistic problem; they also pose an intellectual hole, because they provide — UNCHECKED — the educational legitimacy upon which the entire enterprise often resides.

Where’s My Roy Cohn? — a helluva title, especially because it’s not explained herein, a modern miracle in our telling > showing epoch (also, more unconventional punctuation marks in titles, please!) — is just the latest documentary to pass off its talking heads as unfiltered relayers of the historical record, another front in the genre’s campaign to mask its inherent subjectivity under an implicit facade of objectivity. Once more, for the hard-of-hearing amnesiacs in the back: HUMANS — AND THUS THE ART THEY CREATE — ARE SUBJECTIVE BEINGS. Everyone has biases…which can be overcome…IF faced head-on.

And that’s a palace-sized IF, because too few documentaries reckon with this unavoidable fallibility. Heck, they flat-out ignore it, seemingly taking a page out of Cohn’s book that unblemished shows of confidence are the most effective means of engendering authoritative trust in your audience; admitting to cracks in the armor, even in an attempt to shore them up, will further crack the armor, or so the logic goes?

Though talking heads tend to be experts in their fields — AKA hopefully their individual recollections are grounded in either copious research or personal experiences (always so reliable!) — it’s naive to believe they offer unvarnished reflections on the subject at hand, because perspectives always bear hints of the bearer (which is one of the many reasons documentarians should include in their documentaries how their interactions with what’s being documented may alter what’s being documented; holy tongue-twister!). Who we are colors — taints? — what we believe. Our opinions can transcend these epistemological limitations, but a total divorce sounds farfetched.

And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that…as long as this distance is both acknowledged and, preferably, analyzed. Overlooking the biographies and backstories of the gabbers, specifically their relationships to whatever they’re gabbing about, fails to paint a full enough picture for us to properly contextualize what we feel like we’re learning (the one-line vocational descriptions that usually appear on screen underneath their names when they’re first introduced ain’t cutting it).

And if the pontificator was a close friend with or active participant in whatever’s being discussed? Then why should we blindly trust what we’re hearing? And yet, documentaries like Where’s My Roy Cohn? rarely challenge their interviewees, probably as not to piss off the sources upon whom the movie leans on (have you ever wondered why bio-docs are frequently nothing more than puffy hagiographies? A six-letter answer: A C C E S S).

Fleshing out every head would undoubtedly take too long in a world of finite runtimes. One solution: cut some! Fewer talking heads would allow us to familiarize ourselves with each, facilitating at least some contextualization of what they bring to the table. But even if there are only a handful, documentaries should still parse any and all conflicting views, delving into any and all meaning derived from their contesting and contested interpretations. Oral histories — and too many documentaries are nothing more than glorified oral histories — are best when they’re not multiple voices building one story; each should both add AND complicate — which only adds more to — the greater narrative (an excellent example from this year: Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker, a documentary that deserves to be written about on its own…in the near future).

And this approach could theoretically fix talking heads’ telling-over-showing artistic problem referenced in the lede. On cinematic terms, showing trumps bald telling, but there’s a way to tell that elevates the showing; instead of using the talking heads primarily to simply and simplistically impart whatever information the filmmakers wish to convey, explicitly interrogating the telling — and who’s telling — will deepen the proceedings, especially if the audio, rather than merely complementing the inevitable archival/Youtube footage, substantively juxtaposes the imagery, thereby generating a more complex conversation for us to unpack.

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