Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking, or, Shut the Hell Up, Michel Negroponte

I left New York yesterday with a lot of reluctance and a copy of Jupiter's Wife from the Jonathan Alexandratos Movies You've Never Heard Of Collection. I snagged it because the subject of the documentary--a homeless woman in Central Park who claims to be the wife of Jupiter, but also is remarkably articulate and well-read amongst all the crazy--sounded intriguing. I did not select it because I was interested in what narrative director and voiceover narrator, Michel Negroponte, might impose over Maggie's own voice and story. Too bad it ended up shaking out to about 60% the former, 40% the latter.

The elements of the documentary that follow Maggie as she and her pack of dogs navigate the city, charm powerful strangers (including the director, but also a wealthy Upper East Side maven), and reveal a past both groundbreaking and heartbreaking, are pretty fabulous. And I understand that it was Negroponte who does the legwork to fill in the blanks of the "haunting real-life mystery" of Maggie's actual past, so he probably deserves a substantial presence in the film. But what bothered me was the way he seemed to co-author Maggie's understanding and articulation of her present.

As evidenced by the film's title, Maggie is fascinated by Roman mythology, and her disease (probably schizophrenia) partially manifests through layering the stories of the gods over figures and events in her own life that are, for various reasons, intolerable to her. This palimpsest is, as to be expected, incomplete and incoherent as a personal system of meaning. But almost as if to force this desperate and disordered psychic strategy into a stable narrative, Negroponte extends the metaphor through his voiceover, and connects different elements and people in Maggie's life to other elements of Roman mythology (deeming Central Park "Avernus," for example) in a way that felt not just obtrusive but proprietary and unethical. Maggie's way of understanding her world, distorted and delusional as it may be, is and should remain hers alone. Negroponte stumbled, quite literally, across this compelling figure and chose not to let the film follow where she might lead (as chaotic, but also as beautiful, as that might have been), but instead shaped the movie into a mystery he would solve, which necessitates casting Maggie as a puzzle, not a damaged human being.

This to me is worse than another documentarian pet peeve--the propensity to know what story you're going to tell before you start to tell it. (Looking at you, Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock). Even if I agree with the ultimate argument made by such films (still looking at Moore and Spurlock), one of the things I love about documenatries is the way a director's sense of discovery and possibility can become a joint experience with the audience. You know, I don't think anyone was shocked to learn that McDonald's is bad for you, though watching Spurlock prove that was undeniably entertaining.

I think an instructive point of comparison for Jupiter's Wife is my man Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man. The latter film also features Herzog serendipitously discovering a subject fascinating in his bizarreness, Tim Treadwell, a frustrated and lost man who compulsively films himself living amongst wild grizzly bears in Alaska, with which he imagines a mystical communion. Herzog maintains a strong presence in the film, narrating and documenting his intersection with Treadwell's life. But he never tries to explain or appropriate his subject's personal mythology (which makes about as much sense as thinking you're married to Jupiter--trust me). Instead, his narration becomes a conversation with his absent subject, an invitation to the audience to take Treadwell seriously as an autonomous individual worthy of respect despite his self-destructive mania, modeled through Herzog's baffled but curious and compassionate commentary. Jupiter's Wife would have benefited from the same sort of approach. Why can't Werner Herzog just direct everything?


  1. "I love the Jonathan Alexandratos Movies You've Never Heard Of Collection!"
    -Jonathan Alexandratos

  2. Next I'm going to borrow the gritty reboot of Bergman's Darkness and Fog and Shadows starring Rihanna and Nic Cage (two-disc edition).