Documentaries Taught Me How to Confess


Ask me about my literary influences, and I’ll reflexively cite what I imagine is the usual collection of MFA-program darlings for an American man in his 30s: Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Lorrie Moore, Tobias Wolf, James Baldwin. Then a number of personal fetishes: Julie Hecht, Jane and Paul Bowles, Nicholson Baker, Amy Hempel, R.V. Cassill.

I can list books I love for as long as you’ll give me, but when I stop to think about the works that actually influenced the writing of my first novel, Arcade—a story centered on a seedy peepshow where closeted men meet for anonymous encounters—my mind travels most readily to the world of documentaries.

My discovery of the subversive power of docs coincided with my discovery of Film Threat magazine in the early ’90s. Though it’s long dead now, I still fantasize about collecting its greatest hits into a single volume, so powerful was that magazine’s impression on my teenage psyche. Because I grew up in a small town, and even the nearest city with a movie theater didn’t shows the kinds of oddball films I was reading about, I spent far more time imagining the sorts of movies they wrote about than actually watching them.

Reading about the 1994 documentary Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys, I almost couldn’t believe it. That legendary movie, which I finally saw only recently, follows members of NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association) as they discuss their quest to lower the legal age of consent and quake with excitement when the neighborhood boys take off their shirts to shoot some hoops. Even without seeing it, I was able to envision the film, based on what I read in Film Threat. That was enough. It astonished me to learn that there could be art about such a bizarre, creepy subculture. I couldn’t believe people allowed themselves to be documented going about their pedophilic ways, or that there were filmmakers courageous enough to enter their fray.

Documentaries have been a favorite genre of mine all these years, and I’ve drawn inspiration and connection from such a wide variety of them. Movies about artists and their processes, like the film about fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, Unzipped, Terry Zwigoff’s feature length profile of the cartoonist, R. Crumb, or the more recent Gerhard Richter Painting.

I’ve related—sometimes wincing—to the protagonists of films centered on eccentrics, including floundering director Mark Borchardt in American Movie, the actor Spalding Grey in his frantic, neurotic monologues, and the unusually eloquent and mildly unhinged New York tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch in The Cruise.

I’ve also learned a great deal from documentaries filmed by eccentrics, such as Werner Herzog. And not just for that familiar and oft-parodied voiceover (some of the greatest hits of which Slate collected here). His “lesser” works are the most interesting ones. In Lessons in Darkness, in which he follows firefighters trying to put out flaming oil wells after the Persian Gulf War, he performs an unusual narrative trick while illustrating a lesson about the power of unexpected perspective shifts. He alters the movie from a workaday document by treating everything his lens captures as if it were being viewed by aliens visiting our planet, giving voice to their puzzled reactions as they attempt to suss out the meanings behind our inscrutable earthling acts.

I’ve looked at films like these a little differently for the past twenty or so years, partly because of a single piece of advice given to me by the Scottish Booker Prize-winning author James Kelman. He taught at the University of Texas while I was enrolled there. Without really knowing who he was, I asked him if he would read my stories and discuss them with me. He agreed, for some reason, and every week we met in his office to go over whatever I had cooked up since our last meeting. He gave me lots of advice during that period, much of which boiled down to the honestly-very-helpful “keep trying.” But the lesson that stayed with me most was his idea that sometimes the best technique is to write as if you’re recording all you see through the lens of a handheld camera, choosing what to zoom in on and what to pan over. It was a fitting bit of guidance given my love of film, and it shaped much about the way I would write in the coming years.

In writing Arcade, no genre of film or literature had a greater influence on me than confessional documentaries. My book certainly has a dimension of confession; I vacillate between calling the events I’ve written about 60 percent true and 40 percent invented or 60 percent invented and 40 percent true.

Whatever verisimilitude I achieve in my book is owed in part to four particular, and particularly unusual, documentaries. I returned to them again and again in my thoughts, especially when working on the earliest drafts of Arcade. I don’t hear any of them mentioned often enough, and they’re all worth seeking out.

The first, American Fabulous (1991), is an odd single-location affair directed by Reno Dakota in which he records his friend Jeffrey Strouth in the back seat of a 1957 Cadillac. Dakota, knowing that his friend had become HIV positive, feared that if he didn’t capture Strouth, his unusual friend would be lost forever. The film is a patched together monologue, with Strouth recounting his comedic and absurd adventures as a flamboyant gay man living an unconventional life filled with danger, excitement, and trouble.

Strouth died of AIDS at 33, just as the film was being accepted into festivals and gaining a bit of praise. I so admire the director for stopping everything to capture his friend on film before he died. Too many of us talk about the projects we’d like to complete, then wait until the moment has passed. An equally great lesson comes from Strouth, who in one story after another reveals how to be and how not to be in the world, all the while talking about himself with self-effacing frankness and humor. His storytelling style suggests that one’s dignity should always be secondary to a great punch line.

The Alcohol Years (2000) by Carol Morley shares a similar quality of ruthless self-examination, as she interviews people who knew her in her late teens and early twenties in Manchester, England. Their recollections aren’t pretty. Her subjects recall Morley—who must have sat behind the camera listening to every word—with varying degrees of pity, apathy, and distaste as a drunk, a tramp, a narcissist, and a shitty friend. I think about this movie all the time, the courage it took to make it, even at the risk of appearing to confirm the narcissism some of her subjects accuse her of. But I’m glad she followed through. It’s a brilliant reminder that freedom from shame often comes only after rushing towards it holding a spotlight.

At nearly six hours, Jennifer Fox’s Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman (2006) is broken into several episodes in which Fox travels the globe exploring the question of what it means to be a woman in the world today in many different cultures. This she does with skill and intelligence, while simultaneously grappling with her own desires, sexual and maternal, and the expectations of her lovers and family members who can’t quite understand what motivates her to function as she does. In truth, I’m not sure I get it either. Curious for another reaction, I once mailed the DVDs of this series to a friend with the handwritten caveat, “You might hate this.”

Whatever anyone might say of Flying, I certainly respect Fox’s willingness to expose herself, to speak so openly about her affairs, her abortions, her desperation and anxieties, all while maintaining such an air of confidence and certainty in her friendships and professional life. She never appears reluctant to give voice to a feeling or experience that might make people think less of her.

Last is the most well-known of the bunch: Sherman’s March (1985) by Ross McElwee. In order to make it, McElwee famously misused a grant that he’d received to document the lasting effects of Sherman’s March across the South. Instead, he adheres only generally to Sherman’s path as he travels the South angsting over a recent breakup and trying his damnedest to pick up women with the help of his camera. Following his instincts, he allows himself to become sidetracked by fresh faces at every opportunity. So much of this film about love is also about diversion and digression, aspects of storytelling often ignored in the desperate race to keep viewers (and reader’s) eyes dashing to the next scene.

Every time I see Sherman’s March—which, at nearly three hours in length, is just about as searching as they come—I appreciate more McElwee’s willingness to allow his lens to rest so squarely on his awkwardness and desperate horniness, and the various ways he’s willing to ask the objects of his longing—as so many of us would like to do—“Why not me?”

Among all their various achievements, each of these movies reveals such tremendous intelligence, nerve, and openness in baring our difficult and mortifying humanity. Even in our era of ubiquitous memoir and autofiction, these films move me as much as any book I’ve read, and I leaned on them as I wrote, drawing courage to make that 40 (or 60) percent of truth as relentlessly true as possible and the other 60 (or 40) percent feel—I hope—just as raw and real as if it were seen through the lens of a handheld camera.

Drew Nellins Smith has written for The Los Angeles Times, The Believer, Tin House, Paste Magazine, The Millions, The Daily Beast, and others. Arcade is his first novel. He lives in Austin, TX.

Image: Runner1616 via Creative Commons.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.