Free Writes: Why Do Film Narratives Sell Better Than Documentaries?
Welcome to Free Writes!
Let me start off by issuing another brief apology: I haven’t been keeping up with this specific blog series as of late. At first, I thought a daily blog would be great to increase in a productive work ethic, but after the first day, I had realized that that goal was simply too ambitious for me. I then decided to make it a weekly occurrence, having a much more manageable goal to stay writing. Unfortunately, because of many life factors, I was spreading myself too thin. Not only was the quality of my work diminished, but my life was as well. As a husband and father, I felt that the various projects I had taken on had also taken away from those very adult responsibilities. Without the support from my beautiful wife, I couldn’t do this blog. So, from now on, these free writes will be slightly more infrequent, but not to say you won’t see them very often. I plan on doing them as much as possible, whenever an interest in a topic arises. And of course, regular updates to the podcast will still come along, as well as other larger works that I take more time to finish. I am currently working a piece about the aesthetics found in the 2018 film At Eternity’s Gate. With that being said, let’s get into today’s topic.
If you’re like the millions of people who saw the recent Avengers: Endgame, like myself, then you’ll know (especially if you’ve been watching all the other MCU films over the last 10 years) that it was the culmination of almost every plot point in the previous films, with almost perfect satisfactory catharsis at its head. While it was certainly earned, I was taken aback after watching the death of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and the retired old man of Chris Evan’s Captain America passing off of his shield to Falcon. During the funeral of Tony Stark, I was very much teary eyed, even though the journey to this moment was full of laughter and turmoil. I am also very much invested in the future of these characters, knowing very well that Disney’s Marvel Studios has most likely another 10 years of comic book hero fun in store for us.
When I was recently attending a class in Environmental Philosophy, we were talking about a mid-term project that we decided to base off of the film described above, At Eternity’s Gate, based on the last few years of the life of Vincent Van Gogh. When A classmate described his experience with the biopic, he alluded not only to his enjoyment of the film, but also to the rarity in which he watches film narrative. He claimed that he much more preferred documentary film making, as it was “much more real… giving a glimpse at much more tangible experiences of the real world.” This got me thinking: why aren’t film narratives ‘real’? It brought up the intuition that, in fact, film narrative is the most real glimpse into human experience that we have.
Stories are all we have in expressing some of our most deepest emotions. Almost no story is original, but a slight variation on a narrative we’ve been telling ourselves for millennia, since we could communicate with one another. The characters in the stories of old fall into Jungian archetypes; whether it be the hero’s journey, or the wise old man, isolated from society, these types of characters relate to very real and very powerful emotional instincts that we can all relate to. Of course, this isn’t to necessarily take away from the meaningfulness of documentary films, but at least highlight why they are problematic.
Documentaries are purposefully aiming our attention at very real issues in our lives; either historical or present day. The issue is that there is, of course, a narrative agenda, behind each documentary. This is also not to say that many film narratives do not have this, but documentaries almost always conceal the film maker’s biases. They often carry with them the message that “we are giving you the most real perspective of the world, with no bullshit attached.” While I am sure that the meaning and purpose behind some documentaries are most certainly important to see and hear, one only has to look toward box office numbers of attendees and profit from the big Hollywood hitters. To date, the highest grossing film of all time is James Cameron’s Avatar (followed closely by Avengers: Endgame). Yes, Avatar most certainly has the message of environmental justice and colonial justice behind it, but the stories of the Na’vi, while alien, are very human. Endgame too, also carries with it deeply emotional and personal stories with it, following in the footsteps of some of the most highly lauded novels.
The written word is trivially obvious as the parallel to film. Like film, fiction can explore deep, psychological truths, philosophical paradoxes, and the scientific exploration of ourselves. Yes, written non-fiction sells incredibly well, especially within the realms of political journalism and history. But drama and tragedy in fiction will outsell non-fiction every year, no matter how many reiterations of the brave knight in shining armor, slaying the dragon, and rescuing the damsel in distress.
I think the most important thing to take away from this is that yes, we should all be concerned the myriad goings-on of our day-to-day lives, but it is also perfectly fine to keep our head in the clouds. Thanks for sticking with me! Check back often for new content.