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Notes on Real Life

Adventures in Non-Fiction Storytelling. by Penny Lane

Notes on Bad Documentaries (Or, Can a Documentary Be So Bad It’s Good?)

by
in Columns
on Jun 19, 2017

Let’s talk about bad documentaries.

I don’t mean mediocre or boring documentaries; I mean documentaries so bad that viewers say, “That’s not even a documentary!” I mean the kind of badness so bad as to be ontologically bad.

Of course, this sort of ontological badness can be both intentional and unintentional. The intentionally bad dare you to ask whether they are really documentaries. They are bad like Michael Jackson — transgressive and provocative. Or, they’re bad like “bad feminist” Roxane Gay — contradictory and purposefully uncertain. This type of badness is an impossibly broad category, but I am thinking, for example, of docs in which performance and reenactment are both subject and methodology (The Act of Killing, Casting JonBenet), “fake” documentaries (David Holzman’s Diary, No Lies) and docs incorporating awareness of or critique of the documentary form (Land Without Bread, The Gleaners and I). These documentaries are bad because they are liars, blasphemers or sluts. They’re critical darlings or big bad controversies or both. It will surprise exactly zero people that I love docs that are bad in this sense.

But today I want to offer an appreciation for the unintentionally bad documentaries, the ones that sincerely want to be a documentary but fail in some wonderful and delightful way.

We are all familiar with the idea of fiction films so bad they’re good. (If you’re not, Google the term and check out dozens of listicles with names like, “27 Unintentionally Hilarious Movies That Are So Bad They’re Great” or “25 Movies So Bad They’re Unmissable.”) These are movies in which cinematic conventions have been sincerely embraced but with results poor enough to be deemed hilarious and endearing by (presumably sophisticated) audiences. Cultish fan communities sometimes form around movies like these. Some paradigmatic examples: The Room, Troll 2, Showgirls.

Before I go any further, I acknowledge that the idea of so-bad-it’s-good is full of problems. The biggest problem is one of attitude: the whole idea can be (accurately) interpreted as movie snobs proving what good taste they have by embracing bad taste. I get it. Making fun of something as a way of “loving” it can be a tough line to walk if you’re at all concerned about being an asshole. Who, after all, gets to say what is good or bad? But beyond the problem of taste, even thornier conceptual problems lurk. Artistic intention and audience reception are neither static nor objectively provable, so all definitions of so-bad-it’s-good are bound to be flawed. You and your smart friends can argue all night about whether Plan 9 From Outer Space is good, bad, both or neither — and get nowhere.

But put aside these problems for a minute. Let’s just acknowledge that whatever you think of it, the idea that there might be a fiction film so bad that it’s good is, at the very least, a legible idea — you know what I mean when I say it — and that these are movies that a certain kind of movie fan enjoys in a certain kind of way.

So… where are the midnight viewing parties for similar sorts of bad documentaries? When will my fellow doc snobs fill up the Alamo Drafthouse and Cinefamily and Nitehawk with programs called “Bad Nonfiction” or “Guilty Pleasure Docs”? Where are the listicles for “10 Documentaries So Terrible They Inspire Joy”?

I want to posit that if a fiction film can be so bad we might enjoy it for its very badness, then of course the same can be said of a nonfiction film. But why then does it feel so strange to say it? And why is it that when I have asked a half-dozen friends to name a doc that’s so bad it’s good, they can’t think of even one? Is it possible that a documentary cannot be so bad it’s good?

I don’t think the problem is a lack of criteria for what might make a doc bad. Documentaries are, after all, movies, and we could begin by applying all the same criteria one might apply to a fiction film: bad writing, implausible or incoherent narrative, bad technical elements. There is no shortage of cinematic conventions to be sincerely yet poorly executed in nonfiction. There are plenty of doc snobs (myself included) more than happy to provide criteria for what makes a doc bad.

No, lack of formal criteria for “badness” can’t be the problem. The problem seems to lie in the reception side of things. When I ask, “Can a documentary be so bad it’s good?” what I’m really asking is, “Is it possible to enjoy watching documentaries in this way?” Or is there something about the form that resists or discourages this type of reception?

You see, there’s this thing about documentaries where no matter how much we care about formal matters, our judgments always seem to ultimately and mostly concern whether we agree with the point of view of the film, or whether we accept the argument it makes about reality. Because, as Dirk Eitzen points out in his beautiful essay “When is a Documentary?”, we know we are watching a documentary only when it makes sense to ask of it, “Might it be lying?”:

I propose that the applicability of this question, “Might it be lying?” is what distinguishes documentaries, and nonfiction in general, from fiction . . . [I]t is not the representational or formal aspects of a movie that determine whether viewers “frame” it as a documentary but rather a combination of what viewers want and expect from a text and what they suppose or infer about it on the basis of situational cues and textual features. In other words, the question that distinguishes documentaries, “Might it be lying?” is one that is posed by viewers, not texts.

I would amend this framing question to, “Might it be lying or wrong?” but I like Eitzen’s idea. And if I take seriously the notion that documentary is a form uniquely defined upon reception, then perhaps there is something about this mode of reception which prohibits or discourages delight in its errors. After all, surely no harm can be inferred by the silliness of Shark Attack 3, whereas a lying and/or wrong documentary — well, suddenly we are in the realm of ethics. Do bad documentaries make us too angry to enjoy them? Or do we fear that making fun of some earnest documentarian’s point of view or understanding of reality is just… not very nice?

Maybe the real problem is simply that nobody really loves documentaries, not even me. We love Hollywood movies so much we even love the clumsy and amateur takes on it. We know the tropes and savor the clichés. Maybe because our whole approach to fiction is just… different. More escapist, more about having fun in the first place. Look, I mean, people don’t go to docs just for the laffs. I might be reluctant to admit that, but it’s true.

If I want to pitch a series of bad documentary midnight screenings to the Alamo Drafthouse, I would have to show that I can find a critical mass of people who love documentaries so much that they love the bad ones too. Not a giant audience, mind you; we’re not talking Bachelor Nation, we’re talking The Room. I think if these people exist, they might be my tribe.

As far as I can tell, the only so-bad-it’s-good documentary acknowledged as such is Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America. This is the only documentary to ever win a “Worst Picture” Razzie. Actually, I am pretty sure it’s the only documentary to be nominated for any category of Razzie. (I’m not trying to make the Razzies into some bigger thing than it is; I’m just looking for a heuristic.)

I think it crossed over for three reasons: 1) it is almost entirely made up of tacky dramatic reenactments, so it’s very easy to judge so-bad-it’s-good based on formal qualities borrowed from fiction (acting, writing, etc.); 2) it was a big movie — the highest grossing documentary of 2016 is an easy target; and 3) its politics are right of center, making it easier for a typical, left-leaning doc audience to not feel bad about making fun of its point of view.

I watched Hillary’s America, and I personally would not vote it so bad it’s good; I had a hard time getting through it. Maybe I just don’t find its political arguments ridiculous enough, but I found it more tedious than delightful. It was okay, I’d say. I’m sure someone else would put it on their own list of “10 Unintentionally Great Documentaries.”

But here’s my own list, or at least, what I’ve come up with so far:

1. Mermaids: The Body Found (2012).

Mermaids: The Body Found

This fake documentary was Animal Planet’s highest-ever rated program (until they aired Mermaids II: The New Evidence a year later). There’s a tiny disclaimer at the end saying it’s fiction but you could be forgiven for missing it, as it seems like almost everybody did. Mermaids marshals some real footage and actual facts, mixed up cleverly with fringe scientific hypotheses, actors playing scientists and faked footage, to argue that mermaids are real and the government is covering up all the evidence. This hoax made a lot of people angry — clearly, many people received it as a documentary and judged it lying — but I think it is pure genius in the way it hilariously skewers real documentary conventions. Still, I think a fake documentary might not be quite in the spirit of my thought experiment of looking for documentaries that are so bad they’re good. Arguably, this one is intentionally bad, which really disqualifies it from this list.

2. Zeitgeist (2007).

Ah yes: the conspiracy theory genre. We are firmly in documentary territory here, no? Since we ultimately base so much of our judgment of a doc on the plausibility of its argument about reality, here is a rich genre to mine for so-bad-it’s-good. And, hoo boy, Zeitgeist has it all: a confusing but visually enthralling conspiracy theory about the Christian Bible inexplicably linked to a 9/11 truther thing with some World Bank/New World Order stuff thrown in for good measure somehow bolstered by a lot of out-of-context Bill Hicks quotes. Why take on one conspiracy when you can have them all? And unlike most conspiracy theory movies, it’s really beautifully made — obviously made on a low budget, but with real aesthetic ideas. (As with most of the movies on my list, being stoned may or may not be a big assist in your viewing pleasure.)

3. Alive! Is Michael Jackson Really Dead? (2010) / Alive 2: Michael Jackson The Great Xscape (2016) / Alive III: Michael Jackson The Living Dead (2017).

There’s a woman named Pearl, Jr., who bills herself an investigative journalist, and she is here to tell you that Michael Jackson is alive. Boy, oh boy, do I love this trilogy of documentaries. I could watch the effervescent Pearl, Jr. smile with maniacal glee as she imparts utterly unconvincing pieces of evidence, often in the form of a question (“Could this be a clue?!” she beams), all day long. The bizarre music cues come and go seemingly at random. There are very short snippets of interviews which really, really seem edited to make the interviewees say something they did not say. Also, Comic Sans. So much Comic Sans. These films are utterly charming, not too long and move along at a brisk pace.

4. Bird’s Eye View (2009).

There has to be a UFO documentary in here, right? I certainly thought so, so I spent a few weeks watching UFO documentaries and I am pleased to tell you I have found the best of the bunch by far. This movie is insane in every way a movie can be insane — honestly, I am not sure I can do it justice by summarizing it. It’s a hybrid documentary with a scripted action movie/sci-fi/thriller throughline all jumbled up with interviews with alien abduction and UFO “experts” conducted by a woman with a giant parrot on her shoulder. It’s really way too long, just like Troll 2 is really way too long, but it’s still jaw-droppingly weird and I think deeply lovable. And if you want the same movie with all the scripted fiction elements stripped out, leaving just the crazy interviews, you’re in luck: the director, Cybela Clare — she’s also the lady with the parrot — released that one too, as ETs Among Us: UFO Witnesses and Whistleblowers (2016). This may be documentary as slapstick, but she is not kidding about the aliens. She believes.

5. Burzynski: The Movie (2010)

There are plenty of crappy documentaries that promote quacks and their bullshit cures, but this one really stands out to me for its horrifically bad production values and how unlikable and unconvincing its hero-protagonist (the eponymous Dr. Burzynski) is. Unlike the previous documentaries on my list, whose crazy ideas I essentially believe do no harm to the world, we are in the realm of evil with this kind of bad documentary. Oh, it gets my blood boiling to watch an infomercial for a cancer quack, but this movie is just so poorly made and full of conspiracy theory clichés that I personally manage to laugh at it (when I’m not yelling at it). I don’t know though… can I offer it my fullest recommendation? It’s about people dying of cancer and an evil man who takes advantage of them. Might be too acquired a taste?

This is just my list, so I suppose I don’t have to feel bad about this… but boy does this show my biases about what kind of arguments and points of view I find safe and enjoyable to mock/love. Yup: they’re all conspiracy theory movies. It’s worth noting that Hillary’s America is a conspiracy theory movie, too. It can’t just be conspiracy theory docs (or can it???) that fit the so-bad-it’s-good bill.

Readers, please help me expand my view. Have you ever seen a documentary so bad it’s good?

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