Notes on Real Life

Adventures in Non-Fiction Storytelling. by Penny Lane

  • Notes on Quotes (Or, The Problem of Quotation, Authorship and Authority)

    Part 1: Notes on a Quote Like all great adventures, it began with a grammar dispute. In preparation for the film festival premiere of my film The Pain of Others, I was recently preparing the online edit. The online edit is a sort of crossing-the-Rubicon moment, primarily marked by the dawning horror that the time has come to accept all of your artistic choices because there’s no turning back from them now. (No really, the film is great.) One of the things on my to-do list was to check the quotation serving as epigraph. The quotation was: “One of the…  Read more

    On Jan 30, 2018
    By on Jan 30, 2018 Columns
  • Notes on Bad Documentaries (Or, Can a Documentary Be So Bad It’s Good?)

    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…  Read more

    On Jun 19, 2017
    By on Jun 19, 2017 Columns
  • Notes on Truth (Or, Documentary in the Post-Truth Era)

    Since Election Day, many in the documentary community have been asking the question, “What do we do now?” The most common response is, “We need to make great politically-engaged films.” I hope a lot of people do exactly that; I might even do it myself. Okay, I probably won’t. My answer is a lot more basic: we need to love, seek and defend truth. I’m not fucking around, you guys: the truth might be hard to find sometimes, but it exists, and it is crucially important to the survival of our species. As plainly stated by the great moral philosopher…  Read more

    On Dec 13, 2016
    By on Dec 13, 2016 Columns
  • Notes on Under the Gun (Or, When is Fiction a Crime?)

    A work of art teaches you how to look at it. It builds its own user guide. In nonfiction, the user guide includes such FAQs as: how should one interpret this work of art’s relationship to reality? What type of trust should a viewer grant or deny it? And how does this film conceive of truth and beauty, which are sometimes but not always the same thing? Some documentaries come with confusing manuals. Some are purposely confusing; others are just confused. These films are “problematic” in the way they subvert expectations about the terms of the documentary promise. They push…  Read more

    On Nov 3, 2016
    By on Nov 3, 2016 Columns
  • Notes on Vaxxed (Or, Not Lying But Being Wrong)

    The thought stabbed itself into my mind, an ice-pick of fear: But what if I’m wrong? This was back in March. I had taken a short vacation from the hell of constant uncertainty in order to write an open letter to the Tribeca Film Festival about an anti-vaccination film called Vaxxed, directed by Andrew Wakefield. The letter contained the following premises: 1. Vaccines do not cause autism. 2. Wakefield is a well-known anti-vaccination quack. 3. Vaxxed is bullshit. I wrote the letter bolstered by the conviction that my premises were right, so I was pleased the letter received so much…  Read more

    On Oct 13, 2016
    By on Oct 13, 2016 Columns
  • Should Documentary Films Have Footnotes?

    Part I: Notes on the Footnote “Woe to details! Posterity neglects them all; they are a kind of vermin that undermines large works.” –Voltaire About a year or so ago I began to think about footnotes. First I wondered if I should write footnotes for the film (NUTS!) I was in the final stages of completing. Then I wondered if footnotes might be useful to the field of nonfiction cinema more generally. What purposes might such a practice serve? This question excited me tremendously. It felt unmistakably like an idea whose time had come. I started blabbing ignorantly about footnotes…  Read more

    On Sep 6, 2016
    By on Sep 6, 2016 Columns
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