Reacting Heads

Towards this end, let’s investigate a documentary convention that could distort what’s being documented:

When a documentary shows the physical reaction of a talking head without also showing the preceding moments that directly led to the reaction.

It’s a ubiquitous device that two recent documentaries got me thinking about, probably because media’s capacity to distort the perception of the audience is central to both movies.

The Lost Leonardo periodically inserts reaction shots from its interviewees, completely devoid of context. Granted, the way these shots are inserted does not imply that the talking heads are reacting to the part of the story they’re inserted into; the relation between the reactions and where we’re at in the story is up to us to decide.

But even as a study of human physicality, of what corporality reveals compared to human speech, it’s an imperfect study without the contributing context. 

The same holds true for the sequence in In the Same Breath about the repressed trauma sustained by nurses during Covid. There’s a montage of their emotional breakdowns, but the montage does not specify what happened immediately prior that triggered the tears.

Yes, we can make educated guesses, and it stands to reason that documentarians would include anything worth observing. Plus, this brand of incomplete context might be unavoidable in talking-head documentaries; if a documentary relies on talking heads to document whatever they’re documenting, then editing together snippets of different interview answers is basically inevitable. It’s a bedrock of the form, and really, of all interview-based journalism.

Which isn’t a problem in itself; delegitimizing every documentary that utilizes cutting would ensure the genre’s extinction. But we, as discerning audience members, should keep these necessary shortcuts in mind, in order to question the objective validity of the information we’re receiving.

Which is generally a wise approach to, well, life.

Oh, and for the record, I’m not faulting The Lost Leonardo nor In the Same Breath here, mostly because both try to train their audiences to become cognizant of these sorts of media distortions; a heightened awareness of how art is constructed can breed new interpretations.

Which is kind of Write All Nite’s founding principle.

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