Updated: Jan 17
This is a loaded statement: documentary is a broad typology to consider within cinema. There are several points of documentary, outlined by film theorists, that span from the initial use of the camera to capture to the contemporary use of the camera to reveal. Where does the documentary fit into this development? Of course, the categorical chart of cinematic development is broad, both due to the fact that the camera is a century and some change old, and rapid developments in technology that have recontextualized the camera, its use, and its purpose. The narrative of the history of a camera as a device is a linear one, a story tale based on antecedent technology forever cannibalized by newer forms. There is a death here, within the technology’s ever-born descendants, and within the time that any movie runs: when the movie ends, the camera goes to sleep having already fulfilled its tooled purpose, and the story ends, because it only existed within the boundaries of the run time. Speaking of ‘documentary’ as a term that holds this breadth reveals the impetus behind the camera as a tool, and how that tool is used to build a narrative. Speaking of ‘camera’ as a term in the like reveals speed as priory in its development. How might one synthesize the camera, the moving image and their respective deaths? How might one even play with these concepts? A film that exemplifies this inquiry is A Necessary Death (2008) through its mockumentary representation of suicide. While its content literally plays with death, this mockumentary highlights themes of documentary through its mocking, in similar ways, author Kathy Acker uses play as a tool to self-mythologize. To focus the proverbial lens onto these swirly questions surrounding documentary, how can Kathy Acker’s playgiarism act as camera to A Necessary Death (2008), as the metasubject?
Documentary’s distinct style and visual language can be defined through its initial evocation within the film community. Dziga Vertov saw documentary as a new cinematic language, one that re-complicates concepts of indexicality. These theories of communication problematize contingency between the object and its index. There is a unique issue here with film, because there is a language created that exceeds the will of the director of a documentary, and there, and because documentary practice is foregrounded in the assumption of non-fiction truth. Documentary gives retrospection in process, but by watching the work as an audience, there is a feeling of seeing something that has happened in the tangible world engendered by the truth assumed with the ‘real.’ This idea reflects a power documentary wields like a medieval sword of authority. Indexicality functions here like a rupture. If indexicality in its relationship to the object as a piece of fabric, documentary pokes a series of small holes where the effect is that of, say, a cheesecloth. Extending the metaphor, the cheesecloth allows the fluid which passes through the holes to distinguish, to the audience, the matter that should be kept, and the fluid allowed to pass through the fabric. Through looking, audiences can glean a feeling of “that was” from documentary. Indexicality has to do with traces, where in the documentary, “evidentiary value” becomes proof that the contents of the documentary are “real.” (Nichols, 87) In other words, indexicality functions like a form of representation that both suggests and, antithetically, probes the “real” as time defines it in the length of the film. Returning to the cheesecloth metaphor, what are the contents that are kept? Film philosopher Bill Nichols’ outlined elements of the documentary become increasingly important here in beginning to identify these contents. Nichols writes about six types of documentary voice, of which I am going to focus on 3. There is the observational voice, or, the unequivocal spectacle, which most closely represents the voice in A Necessary Death (2008), to be outlined further in the latter part of this essay. There is also the expository mode of voice, which refers to spoken commentary and a direct address of the subject matter to the audience, and the poetic mode, which creates the greater mood of the documentary through montage arrangements of images and sounds (Nichols, 102). Nichols also outlines story types within the documentary form, where three perspectives all combine to create the story: that of the filmmakers, that of the film, and that of the audience (Nichols, 13). These three perspectives refer to the production history and historical context, the actual image and soundtrack that unfurls as the audience watches, and the audience reception through the causal relationship that comes from the presentation of history, respectively. From these perspectives comes Nichols’ reference to Vertov’s distinction between denotative and connotative story structure. The denotative type has to do with the literal or explicit meaning of the information on screen. It is important to note that this mode is not independent of ideology, and while is does not directly address ideology, it is suggested through the visual and aural elements of the documentary (Vertov as cited by Nichols, 95). This brings about the question – what does the explicit information on screen engender? Separate from the ambiguity of the denotative story structure in its ability to suggest ideology while using a direct address of information, Nichols defines the connotative type as referring to the meaning of the documentary as it is related to learned cultural codes, of ideology, overtly (Vertov as cited by Nichols, 97). This type is most akin to the suicidal sentiment of A Necessary Death (2008), through its direct communication of “meaning” rather than a pointed meaning ambiguously suggested through direct information. With all of this information considered, it becomes clear that knowing about the elements of documentary cannot define documentary in a solid answer, but only raise more questions about how said elements in conjunction construct stories. While further complicating the “purpose” of documentary, as there is no unified purpose or origin to be found within documentary practice, the most indelible part of the theory has to do with the concept of documentary as proof of history, as a representation of time past.
A conversation between documentary filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris articulate these style typologies through documentary as a practice, where their respective impetus as directors addresses certain ethic problems with documentary that arise from the central idea of indexicality as a type of representation. Regarding cinema verité, Herzog speaks about Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure (2008), saying “We know the photos and we know the events and we know the dramas behind it. And yet I always walk out feeling that I have seen a feature film, a fiction film,” (Herzog, 1). Herzog’s ‘Minnesota Manifesto’ talks about the perversity of this relationship in filmmaking, and how, because it exists, presents a rife opportunity for directors to play with the audience. On Herzog, Morris brings about a concept he dubs “ecstatic absurdity;” “We think we understand the world around us. We look at a Herzog film, and we think twice. And I always, always have revered that element. Ecstatic absurdity: it’s the confrontation with meaninglessness,” (Herzog, 4). Morris’ points about meaningless are brought to a head when discussing the subject, specifically Timothy Treadwell, the real subject of Herzog’s film Grizzly Man (2005). Treadwell staged himself in the footage Herzog used to make his film which brings up questions about the role of the subject in such films; Treadwell filmed his own performances with a specific meticulousness that Herzog uses as structure, say in the sexy bandana sequence which, beside the subsequent shot of grass flowing in the wind accompanied by Herzog’s own narration and an ambient soundtrack presents a distinctly “verité thing,” as Morris points out. Is there a truth here, in Herzog’s construction of the real, past events of Treadwell self-representation, that could only emerge from representing the past in this verité style? Herzog directly interrogates this idea of truth, “Speaking of truth we have to touch it with a pair of pliers anyway, because we’ll never even get anywhere close…But trying and attempting it anyway, ant through illumination of trying to postulate an ecstasy of truth, well, that’s may an odd access to it. Still, I’m trying it,” (Herzog, 7).
The application of cinema verité to Grizzly Man (2005) is defined here as the difference between capturing a performance, and the performance itself, where ethical conversations use this difference to distinguish the latter as the ‘real,’ and the former as less true because it contains the added impetus of the director on the subject, in this case, Herzog over the deceased Treadwell. Morris objects to the idea that watching a performance is less real, because the performance is a part of the reality of what the audience is looking at: Treadwell, the grizzly man in the larger work, Grizzly Man (2005). In this way, it could be said that Treadwell tried to capture his reality from a set of images, where Grizzly Man (2005) becomes the narrative of Herzog trying to capture his own reality in watching Treadwell do the same. Ethics within documentary are implicated here; maybe Herzog has no right to Treadwell’s story, or, “…maybe it’s the human enterprise?” (Herzog, 9). Is there something objectively wrong in metastasizing the subject’s reality in the way Herzog does? Or does it just seem wrong because audiences seek comfort in being able to understand a documentary work as a clean mode of understanding history? Morris probes this: “I’m thinking about it even now, now that we’re talking about it, our attempts to understand what people are thinking. What is going on in another person’s mind? How do they see the world?” (Herzog, 14). Because we can’t know, is the documentary limited to any one director’s subjectivity, and could a right/wrong stance serve as a viable answer? Both Morris and Herzog end this line of inquiry when recounting a their presence at serial killer Ed Kemper’s trial, where a psychiatrist provides testimony about his mental state during the murders as not psychotic nor schizophrenic, therefore implying Kemper’s lack of empathy as some concrete, behaviorally scientific way of finding logical understanding for his crimes. The most apt question Morris and Herzog lead to, in terms of this ethical question within the documentary form and practice, is – how possible is it to actually understand what goes on in someone’s head? Whether it refers to Kemper and the psychiatrist, or the documentarian and their subject, Morris addresses “This kind of discrepancy between the accounts that we provide about ourselves and the world,” (Herzog, 16).
Re-enactment within documentary further complicates this ethic problem through similar arguments about history, and representation. Returning to Nichols, he establishes that “The reenacted event introduces a fantasmatic element that an initial representation of the same event lacks…history does not repeat itself, except in mediated transformations such as memory, representation, reenactment, fantasy— categories that coil around each other in complex patterns,” (Re-Enactment, Nichols, 73). I want to focus on Nichols’ realist, Brechtian, and stylized categories. The realist type uses the dramatization of the re-enactment sequence as a disclaimer, where stand-ins are used to re-enact real events in a controlled setting (Nichols, 84). The effect to the audience refers back to indexicality, in that the real events portrayed become associated with the actors who re-enact them, because the audience wasn’t there to eyewitness the actual events. A link is made within this type that connects the film-time to real-time, where, in other words, the filmic event as it is limited to the run-time of the film becomes a part of the past event its re-enactment sequence. Nichols’ Brechtian Distantiation refers to the performance of a highly dramatized re-enacted scenario used to create distance between the event and the film-event (Nichols, 85-86) whereas stylized re-enactment presents itself directly as a possible, yet not actual event. In all of these types, there’s a gap between the indexical nature of what happened in the film, and what’s actually happened, aka, the event that the re-enactment recreates. Re-enactment in documentary doesn’t present evidence to persuade an audience to buy in to a sense of “realness,” but rather, to verify something that already did happen by re-creating it. Back to the ethics question: do directors have the full, unadulterated liberties to do this? The question itself refers to a perceived power that directors possess with the responsibility to wield images as a means to sway index, and therefore, create a film with a unique point of view. Instead of ethical/unethical, the question becomes: did a director use this re-enactment tastefully/untastefully, in terms of the effectiveness in conveying that unique point of view. There is no connotation to ‘index’ in documentary because of the relationship between indexicality, history, and time as it bleeds from the filmic to the tangible world. An audience might be able to recognize a re-enactment as stylized, however, that re-enactment falls into the rolodex of information surrounding that event – it doesn’t become less real because it is staged.
The mockumentary is a necessary perspective to apply onto inquiry about documentary ethic, because by definition, a mockumentary is a work of fiction created in the style of the non-fiction documentary. This brings us to aspects of play in A Necessary Death (2008) by Daniel Stamm. The work is an independent film about suicide, piece-mealed by Stamm in a verité style – he films the filming of the documentary, which itself, is the content of A Necessary Death. The story follows young Gilbert, a real-life friend of Stamm, whose initial Craigslist call-out post looking for suicidal individuals to star in a documentary he wants to make exploring their motive quickly spirals into a complicated adventure involving secrecy, infidelity, guilt, and eventual murder. The crew, comprised of Stamm’s other friends Michael and Valerie along with a few unnamed sound people, are on camera at all times, and serve as principal to raising ethical questions about how to represent suicide tastefully in their final project, which is intended as Gilbert’s thesis film for his final year in film school. Ethical questions emerge in several aspects of the film, beginning with the interviewing process from the initial Craigslist post. Gilbert interviews a series or real people who want to commit suicide in a Morris-esque hot seat: the subjects revolve as Gilbert asks them questions surrounding their choice to kill themselves. The people who come in are a menagerie of average Joe’s that one would see walking around in West Hollywood – a housewife disillusioned by her monotonous life, a 20-something tortured with memories of his family’s difficult immigration to the US, and even a pair of adolescent sisters who want to take their lives to get their parent’s attention. After this sequence, Stamm makes a point to include a clip of Gilbert calling a social worker for the young girls, as their suicidal confession was alarming. Immediately after this display of directorial responsibility, the film shifts to a conversation between Gilbert, Michael, and Valerie eliminating the headshots of the people they had interviewed on the basis of whose suicide would make the best story. Their elimination criteria was based on how guilty they would feel exploiting someone’s death, and ironically, whose pain would make the most dynamic film. This scene not only highlights the ethical catch-22 of the fine line between exploitation and representation, but, knowing the film is a mockumentary, presents Stamm’s clear characterization of his “leads”: Gilbert is the mastermind taking risks with his choice of subject matter for his thesis film, Michael is the technical one, the devil’s advocate who ultimately goes along Gilbert out of respect for him as the director, and Valerie, an emotional woman-stereotype who, in addition to being Gilbert’s ex-girlfriend, voices her worries about exploitation only to invest her trust in Gilbert out of what the audience can assume is residual feelings for their past relationship. The team ends up settling on Matt Tilley, a twenty-something around their age, who wants to commit suicide due to his diagnosis of a rare and terminal brain cancer that eventually lead to a very painful death, both because “he’s going to die anyways,” and because it presents the documentary with the opportunity to implore the audience to think about suicide in a different light through Matt. The entire second act of the film toggles between staged interviews with Matt, fabricated “behind the scenes” handheld footage of the crew befriending Matt in the process of filming the documentary, and more disturbing implications into Matt’s preparation for his suicide. Effectively, this portion of the film represents a very macabre absurdity. There’s a montage-scene accompanied by a ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’-esque cringey, cheery soundtrack where Matt and Gilbert go to buy a coffin. The overly-helpful salesman gives Matt the paperwork which includes a field titled “Name of the Deceased,” and upon seeing Matt write his own name, the tone immediately shifts from cheeky to dark. This is a moment of very creative diegesis: the audience knows something that the real people Matt interacts with in preparing for his death don’t, we know that he’s going to die, and are encouraged to find the humor in suicide through the structure. Another instance of this oddball humor occurs when Matt introduces the crew to his Black sister to the crew’s shock. Jokes are made about his sister’s unexpected race, which leads to a little more on Matt’s family history; his father died rapidly from brain tumor he apparently inherited, and his mother eventually re-married a man who is assumed to be Black (though he doesn’t make an appearance in the film) based on his daughter’s race. Matt’s randomly Black sister can be seen as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the audience’s perspective here as operating on trust – white people can have Black sisters, it’s random, yet believable – the same is true for A Necessary Death (2008) as a whole; the film is random, extreme, and far-fetched, but it’s believed as real because it presents itself as a documentary, furthermore the film is a work non-fiction, and therefore, the film is a truth. Secrecy unfolds when Matt brings the crew to meet his mother, who’s blissfully unaware of the fact that her some is planning to kill himself so he doesn’t die of the same illness that his father, her late husband, died from. In her interview segments, Matt’s mother is happy that her son is doing something productive, starring in a movie with his new friends, while everyone on set has to keep the secret that the movie this interview will eventually be a part of is based on his own mercy-killing. The crew leaves the house before anyone wakes up per Matt’s instructions, and when she confronts him on the lawn, the footage cuts to a shaky zoomed-in shot of Matt giving his mother what she doesn’t know is the last time she will see her son alive. Before allowing the audience to process the profound sadness of this moment, Gilbert gets news that a TV network in Texas wants to buy the documentary for a sizeable amount a money as long as he and his team can provide the “deliverable” by the date decided – aka, as long as the film features Matt’s suicide. Continuing to blur the lines of comedy, seriousness, and the charm of the indie student production, the party celebrating the movie deal leads to Matt’s eventual romance with Valerie which is another inciting action that completely shifts the direction of A Necessary Death – with Valerie’s love, Matt retracts his initial desire to kill himself. The effect is twofold: Matt lives, but there is no more movie. Gilbert’s mastermind qualities quickly transform him into a villain, bittered by the man who not only ruined his chance at fame, but also took his ex-girlfriend, Valerie becomes the temptress, and Matt becomes a victim. Stamm becomes the mediator at this point, where footage of the creation of the documentary now transitions into footage between two parallel points in a Shakespearian love triangle; Valerie ends up falling into Gilbert’s arms, refocusing the film on Matt’s knee-jerk reaction to kill himself yet again in response to Valerie’s infidelity. The actual suicide is drawn out – the crew take a tuxedoed Matt to In N’ Out for his final meal, they pick up his sister, and set up shop at a Chevron garage where Matt plans to shoot himself on camera with one condition: Gilbert must film it. Stamm films the crew from outside the garage as Matt and Gilbert enter, shutting the door behind them – two gunshots later, and the films ends with both men in the love triangle dead, and a story with all of the hyper-specific elements to make a great documentary. Because it is a mockumentary, the film plays with the taboo subject of suicide rather than representing it where in the same way the double-think exists between real/fake and documentary/mockumentary, it also exists for suicide/ethic. A Necessary Death (2008) is more of a film about ethics than a film about a death, in the literal sense of a living person dying on screen, because they have died in real life. The film allows the world it carefully constructed to die by the time the 90 minutes are up; in this way, aren’t all mockumentaries little suicides, in their own way?
On the longform tongue-in-cheek suicide/ethic problem that is A Necessary Death (2008), I am brought to Kathy Acker’s playgiarism, which reflects these small cinematic deaths in analog form, if you will. Her Don Quixote, which was a dream and Great Expectations are a part of a larger genre she penned called playgiarism – to use her own words, “The only way you can get the real self is to rip someone off,” (Acker, Great Expectations, 60). Don Quixote is re-framed to tell the revolutionary story of a girl looking for love, the book is, by design, queering through its query: her girl-Quixote travels through time to see an Eastern European version of New York, the end of the Nixon administration. More than remarkably self-aggrandizing, Acker’s work embodies the prefix trans – a transcendence of time through the literal time orgies encountered by her heroine, a series of transsexual figures leveraged by her anti-TERF feminist pen who, in addition to participating in the time orgies, represent non-mutual exclusivity for the story, its characters, and Acker’s intention behind plagiarizing large sections of the book to make her point. Her work is all about disfiguring problems until they are unrecognizable, a theme most present in My Mother: Demonology, a novel about Kathy’s life as it is interchangeable with the learned history of her mother’s life in another self-made genre she calls autotheory, a mixture of autobiography and theory writing. The novel is a series of vignettes detailing feminine trauma all unified under Acker’s own grand concepts of motherhood, which foreground her stories by her heavy-handed self-documentation built on imagination and the exploratory nature of the mind’s ability to recollect memory. More than these works by Acker reflect the author, they reflect the importance of the interplay between narrative and rhetorical device. To honor Acker in her word play, this interplay is the medium for play. Kathy, as a woman, has the rights to take and remake even if she lifts large passages from iconic novels. Her novels don’t challenge ethic, they are merely written because they can be; that is the richest substance of play, that tension between what the title of the novel says, and what its contents say. Is this willing, neutral rejection of ethic as a guiding factor in Acker’s playgiarism something that could be transferrable to the question of documentary ethic, or can the abandonment of ethic by Kathy a uniquely authors-only process? Can documentarians play too?
Giving proper credence to the elements of documentary form, the typologies that surround documentary in its practice, and the pointed use of the aforementioned demonstrated by such films as Daniel Stamm’s A Necessary Death (2008) – why wouldn’t they be able to play? Considering an absolutist line of logic, all documentaries are constructed in the same ways all objects are constructed; the idea of purity, of an untouched capital-N ‘Natural,’ is a farce. This isn’t to say, on the other side of this absolution, that “anything goes” because everything is constructed, but rather, to say that documentaries highlight a specific relationship between story and event, where the subjective view from the director is the source of the representative forms audiences may receive from any given film. Like Stamm’s A Necessary Death, the entire story was fabricated, and the film is defined by the way the footage of the footage of the performance was metastasized into the work itself, not to probe suicide, but to play with perspective. Using Acker as a conceptual basis, any documentary plays, and then dies; perspective is combined, implied histories are squished into the run time of the film, and when the silver screen recedes, every life that once lived either on screen or in real life dies, because they must die.
Acker, Kathy, and Eileen Myles. Great Expectations: a Novel. Grove Press, 2019.
Acker, Kathy. Don Quixote, Which Was a Dream. Grove Press, 1994.
Acker, Kathy. My Mother: Demonology. Grove Press, 2000.
“How Can We Define the Documentary Film?” Introduction to Documentary, by Bill Nichols, Indiana University Press, 2017, pp. 1–28.
“How Did Documentary Filmmaking Get Started?” Introduction to Documentary, by Bill Nichols, Indiana University Press, 2017, pp. 82–98.
Millionaire, Errol Morris. Illustration by Tony, et al. “An Interview with Werner Herzog.” Believer Magazine, 20 July 2018, believermag.com/an-interview-with-werner-herzog/.
A Necessary Death (2008), Daniel Stamm
“What Types of Documentary Are There?” Introduction to Documentary, by Bill Nichols, Indiana University Press, 2017, pp. 99–138.