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Doc Stars: Personality-Driven Nonfiction

By Lisa Mills

Documentary Superstars: How Today's Filmmakers Are Reinventing the Form
by Marsha McCreadie
Allworth Press 2009
256 pages


It's summertime (as I write this), and reading about important documentary filmmaking is easy--if you pick up the new page-turner by Marsha McCreadie. Documentary Superstars is conversationally written and informally organized, but this easy-to-read book takes on a difficult task. McCreadie wants to know how the revered doc filmmakers of the 1960s,'70s and '80s (wittingly or unwittingly) laid the groundwork for today's blockbuster "star/auteurs."

Her method for finding this out is to listen to what the veteran and contemporary superstars say about their work, and then look for connections. She combines her newly conducted interviews with those previously published in magazines, newspapers and books, as well as online. Quotes from speaking engagements and panel discussions are also included. Each chapter steers the discussion of both traditional and controversial documentary techniques toward their re-emergence in today's popular "neo-docs."

The author could have limited her book to quotes from Errol Morris, Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, but I was pleased to see that her definition of "superstar" included veteran filmmakers who now glitter quietly in their classrooms and edit suites. It had to, because she is also trying to get at how the "new creative meta mix" of techniques affects truth and the trust that audiences place in those who bring nonfiction with a social intent to the screen.

McCreadie is a documentary teacher and freelance writer in New York City. Her first two books focused on women in film, and I was glad to see her inclusion of Celia Maysles, Grace Lee and other women in this new work. Chapters divided into brief subsections compare, contrast and contextualize pairs or groups of nonfiction filmmakers. 

Chapter titles seem to be reframing the role of the documentarian, or "documentarist," as scholar Erik Barnouw called them. Whereas Barnouw placed Fred Wiseman and Albert Maysles in the "Observer" chapter of his famous A History of the Non-Fiction Film, McCreadie puts them together in a chapter she calls "The Purist and the Peekaboo." She places Werner Herzog and Errol Morris together in "The Practitioner and the Visionary." 

Pairing up Wiseman with Maysles and Herzog with Morris is predictable, and we don't read much that we haven't already read about their work. However, McCreadie has carefully selected what feels most relevant to what makes today's documentary blockbusters work. Maysles continues to promote direct cinema as the best way to reveal the truth about human nature, while Morris argues that human nature is too complex to reveal through any particular method. Later chapters about "Happy Hybrids" and "The New Breed" focus more on the relationship between film and filmmaker, fiction and nonfiction.

Among McCreadie's new interviews for this book, my favorites are the ones with Celia Maysles (about her battle over Wild Blue Yonder) and Davis Guggenheim (who admits that when he was presented with the idea of making a film about Al Gore's slideshow, he had no idea how to do it, but decided to try anyway). We hear Herzog declare, "Cinema vérité is filmmaking for accountants."  Morris' description of his camera-monitor-teleprompter invention, the "interrotron," is the clearest I've read yet.  We hear him explain why he uses it and what it means for his films. 

McCreadie's great admiration for the filmmakers can be gushing at times. She calls Herzog a "high priest," and Moore a "hero-interviewer," the "benshi" of our time and "a Falstaffian bastard child of the grim and serious Grierson." She may give too much credit to An Inconvenient Truth for making global warming a "recognized reality," and she classifies Sicko as an "ethnographic" film because "locals are photographed and talked to" in Cuba.

While McCreadie may be over-generalizing at times, her book made me realize the same thing has happened to documentary that happened to other forms of mass media: It has become personality-driven. When audiences go to a theater to see nonfiction, they want to be informed, but they also expect to be entertained. They are interested in the storyteller as well as the story. First-person narration, intervention, re-enacting, even acting are now more acceptable. McCreadie tries to get at whether that is a good thing or a bad thing; whether it better reveals the truth or further mediates it.

Her book also explores the cross-fertilization of reality with dramatic story construction.  While she reaches no new conclusions, McCreadie frames the topic in a new way, against the backdrop of documentaries that are also box-office successes. And, as we all know, in Hollywood, the definition of success often includes the word "superstar."


Lisa Mills is an assistant professor of film at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Her feature documentary Dear Mr. Gore screened in London and Logrono, Spain, in March 2009.