Fred Rogers, RBG, and 2018’s Documentary Market of Celebrity Hagiography

The 2018 Movie Club: another interruption.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Fred Rogers.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Fred Rogers. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Focus Features and Magnolia Pictures.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin Collins, Amy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.

Excuse me! I must interrupt.

As Bilge points out, it was a great year for the art of nonfiction film; the top slot on A.O.
Scott’s Top 10 list
was a tie between four documentaries, and I could easily compile a year-end list of docs so good you wouldn’t even miss the token fictions. It was a banner year for docs at the box office, too, with a whopping seven pulling in more than $5 million in theatrical revenue. The bad news: There’s not much overlap between the great docs and the ones that made all that money. I think Won’t You Be My Neighbor is better than Amy’s declaration it’s a “marshmallow”; the movie’s subject doesn’t lend itself to a hard-hitting exposé. But RBG, which followed it on the box office charts, was a rah-rah portrait of a figure who deserved, and could have withstood, a more incisive look. Three Identical Strangers contorted up an already astonishing story with ethically suspect twists. And Fahrenheit 11/9 stirred up outrage without insight. Go to festivals like Sundance or True/False and it feels like we’re living through a golden era of nonfiction film; turn up at your local art-house theater and you’d think the medium was nothing but celebrity-driven hagiography and cheap provocation.

I do wish more people saw Roma on a big screen, but at least they had—and, in many cases, still have—the chance. Hale County, This Morning This Evening and Minding the Gap were as lyrical and visionary as Roma—and, frankly, a good deal smarter about race and class—but if you live outside a tiny handful of major cities, your chances of seeing them in a movie theater were nil. We critics tend to talk about the theatrical experience as an end in itself, but the comic book blockbusters that dominate the top of the box office charts don’t really need the firepower of a multiplex to sear your eyeballs and eardrums; the sad irony is that the movies people actually do see in theaters are those that need it least.

This brings me, by a slightly roundabout route, to Shirkers. Sandi Tan’s movie is, for me, an imperfect film, but it’s also a film about its own imperfections, a debut 20-plus years too late. It’s also a story about access, about teenage Singaporean girls full of punk-rock energy and the older white man who gorged himself on it, pretending to help realize their dreams and eventually destroying them. It’s fitting that it ended up on Netflix, which also kicked in the funds required to pull Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind over the finish line nearly 50 years after he starting filming it and ended the year by giving us Black Mirror’s “Bandersnatch,” an interactive hoodad that can be completed but is never really finished. Shirkers feels as if it’s being assembled as you watch, and as if it might crumble the instant you turn away, which dovetails perfectly with the illusory immortality of the film’s digital-only existence.

I wouldn’t scorn a chance to see Shirkers in a theater, but watching it in the intimacy of my living room felt right, too. It’s as much a #MeToo story as The Tale, which it debuted alongside at Sundance, even though Tan’s violation was artistic and not physical; she had her future taken from her, and the movie is her means of taking it back. Shirkers got a small theatrical release, and The Tale got none, but they both, via Netflix and HBO, ended up in people’s homes—which, since they’re movies I wanted people to watch more than I cared about how they watched them, seemed all to the good. Going that route makes these movies’ impact harder to measure, especially where Netflix is concerned—the streaming giant doesn’t even share its viewership numbers with filmmakers, much less the press. All we can do is chart the impact they have on us, and on the people whose stories we hear.

Read the previous entry. Read the next entry.