Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Brew: A Fictionalized Documentary in Three Acts

I have taken upon myself the very difficult task of attempting to create a satirical essay film using only archive film. The film is actually for a documentary class, but I'm starting to realize that if I'm going to succeed, I must think of it more as a fiction.

That sounds contradictory, but it actually isn’t. Because, what is a documentary, anyway? Let’s start there. A friend and I once debated the subject for several hours and arrived at this definition: An internal narrative that tries its best to reconcile with external objectivity. The "internal" can mean any number of things, but the important thing I want to use for this post is the term "narrative." Anyone who is a documentary enthusiast will tell you that documentaries have narratives just as fiction does, and so the two are much more closely related than one might think.

The film I'm attempting to make is an assemblage film, compiled from old educational videos, cautionary tales, news reels, PSA's, etc. The subject is alcohol. Specifically, the education regarding the substance which children and young adults receive through media. I started this project with a vague sort of agenda about misinformation, and now I feel like I'm narrowing my scope and my argument.

I said at the beginning that I must think of this more as a fiction, and the reason is two-fold. The obvious reason is that a three-act structure is a strong and helpful framework upon which to build and tell most stories. The other reason is that most of the images in the film I plan to make are in fact originally from works of fiction. The interesting irony about doing an archive film, I've noticed, is that in "documenting" images in the media, works of fiction become real enough that their status as imaginative pieces of fiction dissipates and the images are then treated like artifacts that are functional as well as artistic, and in many ways just as truthful – if not more so – than those purporting to be nonfiction.

This can go both ways, too. For example, prior to the making of Atomic Café, the famous Duck and Cover footage was meant to be nonfiction. It was educational. But when it gets cut in with the other images and sounds in Atomic Café, it acts as a sort of cinematic vocabulary that transcends this original meaning (nonfiction). It is as if the makers of Atomic Café are now communicating with the elements of society that created the original video, and doing so through the use of media.

I believe that, as an artist, you have two approaches to expressing your point of view to the world. The first approach is to simply create something unique and original that did not exist before. Some may quibble over this by saying “there’s nothing new under the sun” and condemn this kind of thinking by calling it simple minded and naïve. In many ways, they may be right, but largely I think they would be missing the point. If I take a photograph of something, say a bird flying above me, it would be safe for me to assume that no one has ever stood exactly where I’m standing at the same moment and seen the world through that lens. Some may endeavor to recreate it, but the fact that I was there to begin with is the point. You may have been over there feeding a dove or walking your dog or arguing with your spouse while I was taking that photo. And that is why I show you the photo at all, isn’t it. You may not see something so special in a bird’s flight as I might see, and after viewing the photo you may not still, but you may.

And it’s not about me telling you that you should care about this moment, but just that you can. And perhaps more importantly, we can. Art of this kind allows us to share our experiences in ways that normal modes of communication (i.e. talking, technical writing, etc.) can’t. If you look at a painting and you “get it,” then there are no words necessary. If you read a poem and you “get it,” you need not write an essay about it.

In any case, that is the first approach. The second approach, the one I’ll be using for my doc, is for the most part kind of the opposite. An artist may instead look to elements that exist in his world already and reinterpret them, and mold them. Whereas the first approach asks the question: “This is how I see the world… do you agree?” The second says: “This is how you see the world… and I disagree (or agree).” In essence, the first is a question, and the second is a response.

I am not seeking to ask anyone to look at how I see the world with my doc. They may get a little of that anyway, but that is not my focus. I feel that we are bombarded with media everyday, which we did not ask for. I never roll down my car window as I’m driving down the freeway and shout, “I wonder where I could get a good deal on a cell phone!” just moments before passing a billboard with a cell phone advertisement. It just doesn’t happen. I may be signing a sort of contract by turning on the television, with the understanding that if I expect programming, at least network or basic cable programming, I must sit through advertising. It gets slightly more nebulous on the Internet, where any click may bring you face to face with media you didn’t ask for.

But what about non-commercial media? I know that most of the videos shown in my classes growing up were presented against my consent, and I was unable to opt out. I never really saw a reason to, of course, until after the fact. But I’m running the risk of sounding like a misguided hippie with all of this countercultural rhetoric. I’m of course not suggesting that we enter a world in which no media content can be shown without everyone’s consent. That sounds like a nightmare of different proportions. All I’m saying is we should be aware of it.

Now I told you that story to tell you this one: I want to respond. I want to respond to all of the melodramatic fear mongering that dominates the education of our youth.

I could do this by getting interviews, say from business owners, parents, kids, legislators, teachers, or a score of others. I could sit in on classes and record exactly what drug education looks like today. I could document the legal history of youth-centered liquor laws and map them out for my viewer. But all of these things, I feel, would not be in aide of my goal.

I am not going to focus on the reality, because it is not the reality that I want to critique. It is the fantasy. Among other things I could mention, this fantasy version of what we seem to think alcohol is affects reality in drastic ways, and ways I hope to make clear in my film.

Now, as for structure, Atomic Cafe used a chronological one. The only thing I see when I look at the media pertaining to alcohol education as far as time is concerned is finesse. Over the years, it seems like the message of "just say no" has become a bit stealthier. PSA's now may claim to be encouraging kids to think rather than outright telling them what to think, but only if they come to the right conclusion. Though these thinkers may be less likely to admit it, “What would you do if someone handed you a joint?” is a question that has a definite CORRECT answer; and if you don’t circle “C”, you fail in life.

And so I've chosen a different structure for my film. It is a Problem-Reaction-Solution structure, and it goes like this…

A problem arises. No one knows how or why, it just does. Maybe it's a conspiracy, maybe it's an accident, or maybe it isn't even real. But real or perceived, the problem demands a reaction. Think Pearl Harbor. For the best current example, look at global warming. The dangerous element in this whole equation, though, is how fear is often the driving force behind the reaction. Think about it: the problems that are easy to solve are the ones that are understood. We know how fire works, so we can prevent it and put it out when need be. We have maps to keep us from getting lost, traffic lights to maintain transportation efficiency, and calendars to keep track of time. These systems are not perfect, of course, but think about what would happen if we suddenly did not have one of these things, or if you lived in a time that had no concept of them. Lord knows what would be proposed as a solution.

But what about immigration? Or the economy? Or the management of healthcare? These things are not so easy to understand, and so the public outcry on these issues will undoubtedly be premature, irrational and probably detrimental. The first answer to almost any problem in a society seems to be: create a law, so it never happens again. It is my humble opinion that laws are only created when society is faced with a problem which it doesn't know how to fix. Some are new and some are as old as we are. The issue of murder is one we still have not dealt with fully, in my opinion. I offer as a simple observation the notion that people who are more civilized and – to put it bluntly – pampered are probably less inclined to resort to barbarism than people to whom survival is the imminent priority. But I digress.

Having said all that, it should be clear that the premise of my doc from the very beginning is one that is debatable. I understand this, and fully accept that the burden of proof rests inevitably on my shoulders. I only hope that it is at least clear, to any to whom it may concern, exactly what my aim is. Essentially, it is to show that the reaction to the problem known as “alcohol” in the United States has been one of poorly thought and mostly fear-driven reactionary responses based on a fictional version of its desired place in our culture, and that the ones who are most affected by this are young people. There is a perspective percolating in this society that is disseminating bad information in the name of what they feel is a moral cause. Unfortunately for those young people, it is impossible to make a good decision with bad information. The how of my doc will remain to be seen, but hopefully this puts to bed a lot of questions about the what or the why.