documentary doesn’t mean one kind of film anymore. There are so many overlapping subgenres. Among them: (via Edelstein: Why Documentaries Are Having a Moment — Vulture)
1. Vérité. “Fly on the Wall.” Think Frederick Wiseman and his landmark sixties and seventies films. The camera runs on and on, but the filmmaker still shapes our perceptions. The Maysles films (Salesman, Grey Gardens) were more shaped and even more influential. There’s not much rigorous vérité these days, because the audience won’t sit still. Albert Brooks made the definitive vérité parody, Real Life, in which a megalomaniac filmmaker burns down the house of the family he’s covering.
2. Investigative journalism. The most familiar subgenre: issue docs, exposés. Environmental catastrophes, cover-ups, injustices all the way up to genocide. HBO’s Memphis Three muckrakers that helped free three wrongly convicted kids. Lefty takedowns of right-wingers. Right-wing takedowns of lefties (less common). Sometimes these movies break through, but they’re bitter medicine.
3. Personality-driven investigative journalism (and essay). Michael Moore as a lumbering prosecutor. Morgan Spurlock eats at McDonald’s, gets fat, barfs.
4. Errol Morris, or Anti-Vérité. Stylized reenactments and talking heads shot from a fixed perspective, as in The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War, with Philip Glass music to provide momentum. Some purists don’t like how Morris makes implicit fun of his subjects. Others love how he lets liars hang themselves in front of our eyes.
5. Profile (individual). The biggest are celebrity-driven, in the A&EBiography mode, only more raw—Joan Rivers, Don Rickles, tragically dead comedians like Richard Pryor (Omit the Logic at this year’s Tribeca) but also laudable public figures (Jonathan Demme’s Jimmy Carter Man From Plains) and resonant weirdos (The Queen of Versailles, The Impostor).
6. Profile (place). Choose a city; chart its fall (Detropia). Towns with people doing odd things. Subcultures. The great Barbara Kopple (who straddles verite-individual-place lines). Les Blank, R.I.P.
7. Competition. Big these days. Pumping Iron is an early example, butSpellbound opened the floodgates. Chess teams, kid car racers, crossword-puzzle addicts, name a contest. Almost exclusively American, as we’re so competition crazy.
8. Ken Burns. Mostly TV. Photos, archival footage, talking heads. Panoramic. Excellent when the camera roams around still photos to give the frame some dynamism. Your video apps give you a “Ken Burns” mode.
9. Archival (related to Ken Burns). A comer. Old footage creatively edited, with fewer talking heads or narration. More story-driven than many fictional films.
10. Diary/Memoir. Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March inspired many of today’s doc filmmakers with its emphasis on real-time conflicts plus a big dose of (related) history. More cameras mean more docs with people chasing their crazy mothers around, as in Tarnation.
11. Odyssey/Mystery (related to Memoir). Tracking down a famous figure, as in Searching for Sugar Man, or the guy who swore in the outtakes of the Winnebago commercial. Catfish-style treks for strangers.
12. Performance. Concerts, musicals, and comedy, but sometimes with talking heads (or Talking Heads, as in Stop Making Sense). Can be related to Profile.
13. Arty/Collage. Chris Marker is the gold standard. Meditations on places, usually too impressionist to be commercial. Koyaanisqatsi gives it a head-trip soundtrack. Much love for the current Leviathan.
14. Nature. Penguins, migrating birds, underwater creatures with James Cameron in Imax. Cute but eerie (even primordial) sells.
15. Meta. What is truth? Can it really be documented? Brace yourself for Sarah Polley’s coming Stories We Tell, which blurs the lines between myth and reality.
16. Prank docs. The hilarious Exit Through the Gift Shop, which is almost too good to be true. Joaquin Phoenix pretending to be nuts.
17. Mockumentary. Not docs, but they have an impact. You can’t watch a rock-band profile without thinking of This Is Spinal Tap.
And then there’s the phenomenon of fiction films’ looking more and more like docs and docs like narrative-based fiction films. For Hollywood fauxrealism, you get shaky handheld cameras and the mixing of actors and real people, as in Richard Linklater’s Bernie. The mumblecore genre tends to be improv-based, pointedly fumbly. The Tribeca folks sent me a batch of docs to screen on DVD, and I watched one for fifteen minutes before I realized they’d slipped in a fictional feature.
Which of these subgenres is hot right now? It’s cyclical. Top sales agent Josh Braun, of Submarine Films, says that seven years ago, after the Moore and Spurlock moneymakers, companies were snatching up docs for the high six figures, and most tanked. But then came successes like Food, Inc. and profile docs Valentino: The Last Emperor and Jiro Dreams of Sushi (still going strong as a digital download) and distributors were back in again—although more realistic about their upside. What’s interesting, says Braun, is that docs have “more of a fallback plan” than, say, indie features with no star power. If you can’t get a theatrical release, there are multiple TV possibilities. There’s iTunes, Reddit. Over at online streaming service SundanceNow, Thom Powers curates a documentary club where you pay a monthly fee and have access to the sorts of films you can’t see in theaters.*