Talking About the Heads

Let’s talk some more about talking-head documentaries:

Most of them treat their talking heads as objective vehicles of factual information.

Which, in my humblest, is oxymoronic.

Even a silent head sees from a subjective perspective, and as much as conscientious observers can try to subsume the influence of their own subjectivity when relaying their experiences, what a talking head says about a subject usually says more about the talking head than about the subject.

Eh, let me rephrase that:

What a talking head says about a subject usually says more about the relationship between the talking head and the subject than about the subject itself.

Rodney Ascher’s documentaries seem designed around this principle. Room 237, The Nightmare, and A Glitch in the Matrix are, ostensibly and respectively, about The Shining, Sleep Paralysis, and the Simulation Hypothesis. But instead of relying on the talking heads to give a Wikipedia-meets-Youtube overview of each topic, his movies are directly about the theories and experiences proffered by the talking heads. So in addition to shedding light on the subject at hand, their words and espoused beliefs can also be analyzed to understand who the talking heads are as people, why they are the way they are, and what their talk might reveal about the human condition (or, at least, about these specific human conditions; even if the heads represent nothing more than their own individuality, this individuality can still bear larger meaning).

Perhaps it’s easier to apply this framework to Ascher’s documentaries because of our ingrained skepticism towards their subject matters? Because we’re conditioned to doubt a talking head who actually subscribes to Room 237‘s interpretations of The Shining, or The Nightmare‘s demon talk, or A Glitch in the Matrix‘s Simulation Hypothesis?

And yet:

In theory, talking-head documentaries are about the “truth”, and the talking heads provide the truth. But is their truth really the truth? Can “what they think happened” be divorced from “why they think it happened”, the latter of which necessitates some attention paid to how their relationship to the subject might inform their testimony?

A 2021 documentary that boasts this approach: Enemies of the State, which uses talking heads to convey a narrative, and then pits their tellings against each other, when their versions of the narrative differ. In doing so, the documentary’s story becomes multi-layered; taken together, the talking heads tell one story, and through the way the documentary structures their talking to bounce off one another, the story of the documentary becomes partially about these contested versions, and how each interviewee’s relationship to — and role in — the story might shape their take on it, and what all this clashing might mean in regards to the documentation of truth when dealing with such stories.

Another recent documentary that makes its talking heads a part of the story, instead of merely the tellers of the story: No Ordinary Man, which eschews the typical bio-doc route by maintaining a focus on how the central biography can resonate with the present. Talking heads (and archival footage, obviously) tell the story of the biography, and the documentary documents the story of the relationship between the biographed and the talking heads who’re retelling and reenacting the biography.

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