We finally finished watching No Direction Home: Bob Dylan the great documentary directed by Martin Scorsese that aired on PBS in 2005. Watching this film has been a multi-year project. I started watching it with my wife before she was my wife. The film looks back at Bob Dylan's life but it got me thinking about looking forward.
There's an expression often heard in edit rooms: "See apple, say apple." It refers to the practice of having the narrator talk about something and then showing that very thing. If the narrator is talking about apples, then we have to show some apples. When you extend that "see apple" concept to the whole film, your work loses depth. Example: You do a show about Donald Trump firing people and all you get is a treatise about a gigantic, throbbing ego. Entertaining for some, superficial for all.
Then you have Bob Dylan and Scorsese. Scorsese begins his documentary with two wonderful and borderline cryptic sound bites from Dylan:
"I had ambitions to set out and find, like an odyssey, going home somewhere, set out, I set out to find this home I had a while back and couldn't exactly remember where it was, but I was on my way there and encountering what I encountered on the way was how I envisioned it all. I really didn't have any ambition at all ... I was born very far from where I'm supposed to be so I'm on my way home."
That makes me want to keep watching, just to hear Dylan's tangled poetry. The more he weaves words, the bigger the tapestry surrounding him, the less he reveals about himself. The mystery only grows.
No Direction Home is traditional, but also strange, and it takes risks. Risk is important, because in documentaries, the world we once knew is over. Distribution channels have changed. Who can draw a line anymore between reality TV and documentaries? As Dylan says, we're all on an odyssey now.
While there's no doubt that reality TV has created greater acceptance for true stories, there's also a flip side. The influence of reality TV has made doc film-making too cautious and literal.
I say we need films that are moving, unexpected and bold. I miss seeing heroic films like Errol Morris's The Fog of War. I'm glad for Food, Inc. -- a brave and honest film. I argue for going deep. Content matters.
Some might counter-argue that going deep doesn't monetize well. "Truth is so depressing and people want entertainment." Well, two words: Stephen Colbert. When you enter the meta-reality of Colbert you aren't sure if he's a liberal playing a conservative or a conservative pretending to be liberal. This ambiguity has helped make him enormously popular. Colbert is a hybrid -- and I think hybrid is where the documentaries of the future are going.