As I have mentioned in my previous posts, I’m currently teaching an elective third/fourth year course on Cultural Studies, taking as case study the representation of the United States in 21st century documentary films (see one of the volumes that has inspired me, Jeffrey Geiger’s American Documentary Film: Projecting the Nation, Edinburgh UP (2013), here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/american-documentary-film/AA1BF73143D4FD1F33160FCA0CEDF3C9). I feel, therefore, bound to comment on Netflix’s current world-wide hit, the US documentary mini-series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (released March 2020), though I certainly do not feel bound to recommend it. I saw it on two consecutive evenings and I must say that while the first four episodes (out of seven) were thrilling ad hilarious, the last three were less enticing, mainly because the directors, Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode, somehow lose sight of the chronology of events in them. Incidentally, this is the first credit as director for Goode, whereas Chaiklin had already directed Last Party 2000 (2001), Lockdown, USA (2006, with Michael Skolnik) and Another World (2014, with Fisher Stevens).
Since the phenomenon around Tiger King is so gigantic right now –no doubt because the covid-19 quarantine has made the lurid series a favourite with audiences desperate for entertainment– it is arguably necessary to watch it and join the conversation. I don’t intend here to comment on the plot in detail but to take the chance to consider a) what makes a good documentary and b) how judgement necessarily varies if passed inside or outside the society portrayed in the film. I have noticed in work written by my students a worrying tendency to assume an insider position, using ‘we’ when in fact they should use ‘Americans’. I would agree that many aspects of American society are now universal, mostly thanks to 1990s globalisation, but this does not mean that US narrative, including documentaries, is not rooted in specific local concerns. ‘We’ are not ‘they’ and anyone who approaches American texts, and for that matter any foreign text, must bear this fact in mind. Of course, human beings have the ability to understand texts across cultural divides bigger than the one separating my students from the American films we’re analysing but I just don’t see US college students writing about a Spanish documentary using ‘we’.
A while ago I started preparing for my students’ benefit a list of criteria about what makes a documentary valuable, collated from several sources. Here it is:
• clear storyline (the documentary film tells a story, and if it tells several, these are presented in ways the audience can follow)
• powerful story/character arc (a good documentary makes us care about its topic, which does not necessarily mean that you empathize with the persons portrayed: it means that you google for more information the moment you’re done watching)
• originality of topic (the topic must be interesting and if it is not at first glance, then it should be made attractive by the film)
• quality of research /depth (audiences can see that an effort has been made to sustain the ‘truth’ presented with adequate fact-finding that can be double-checked)
• clarity of presentation / good narrative flow (or quality direction)
• creativity of presentation (also quality direction, though many documentaries while not necessarily creative narrate relevant stories extremely well)
• strong interviews (or actors’ performances, in case some scenes are staged, or most if the film is a docudrama)
• exclusive access (the filmmakers go where no members of the audience could not go, and have their subjects trust them as no one else did before)
• trustworthiness (the documentary stays as close as possible to the ‘truth’ which the filmmakers endorse, though this might not be the truth for other persons)
• complicity with audiences (the filmmakers assume that their audience is intelligent and do not patronize them)
• quality audio, cinematography, editing and music, with editing possibly as the most salient aspect
• adequate runtime (the film does not overstay its welcome, nor is its narrative too limited)
Just then I came across a similar list by a man who knows a thing or two about documentaries: Michael Moore. Here are his thirteen rules, summarized from IndieWire, 10 September 2014; https://www.indiewire.com/feature/michael-moores-13-rules-for-making-documentary-films-22384/), check the complete article for his comments. Please, note that he is thinking exclusively of the United States and addressing American filmmakers:
1. Don’t make a documentary—make a MOVIE (call yourself a filmmaker, not a documentarian, and don’t be ashamed of being entertaining or non-artistically inclined)
2. Don’t tell me shit I already know [taken verbatim] (and focus on the majority of intelligent US audiences)
3. Avoid the college lecture mode of telling a story.
4. Don’t make your documentaries feel like medicine your audience must swallow.
5. Make your left-wing position fun, as it used to be.
6. Name the villains and be serious about the political things currently going on in the United States of America, even if people sue you.
7. Make your films personal, let them show your concern to the audience.
8. Point your cameras at the media cameras and expose the lies and manipulation.
9. Make audiences care for documentary films as much as they care for non-fiction books and TV.
10. As much as possible, try to film only the people who disagree with you [taken verbatim]; or, the people you disagree with.
11. Try to imagine what audiences will feel seeing each scene you have filmed, be emotional.
12. Less is more. Edit. Cut. Make it shorter. Say it with fewer words. Fewer scenes. [also verbatim]
13. Finally… Sound is more important than picture for Sound carries the story. It’s true in a fiction film, too. The image may suck, but never the sound.
Now, back to Tiger King. For me, the problem with this documentary is that it uses as bait its main issue –the exploitation of big cats for entertainment in American private zoos– but turns out to be far more interested in the exploiters. Not only the titular Tiger King, the bizarre Joe Exotic, but also other men in his circle (Bhagavan Antle of Myrtle Beach Safari, Tim Stark of Wildlife in Need, crooked businessman Jeff Lowe, and even a mafia boss whose name I cannot find). Whether straight or gay, like our friend Exotic, these men embody a sense of entitlement, over the poor big cats and over the persons they attract as lovers or as audiences with their zoos, that the documentary fails to question. They are all criminals but the only actions that are questioned by Goode and Chaiklin are those of the main female character, Carol Baskin of Big Cat Rescue. Willa Paskin complains in a Slate article that Tiger King chose the wrong villain to focus on, not just because Baskin is the only important woman among this circle of misogynistic men (that too), but most importantly because in this “sordid menagerie of human beings” she is the only one who cares for the big cats as a pro-animal activist (https://slate.com/culture/2020/03/tiger-king-netflix-carole-baskin-villain.html).
As I watched the documentary, I missed with growing concern this angle of the story. It is hard to believe in the filmmakers’ trustworthiness given that although their series avowedly intends to show disgust at animal exploitation, the abundant images of cute cubs will most likely result in more Americans visiting one of these awful zoos or trying to buy a big cat as pet. The documentary begins by noting that there are more big cats in captivity in America than in the wild in the rest of the world but, ultimately, only cares for the business and personal imbroglios of the men it portrays and to bash Carole Baskin, throwing as much dirt as possible on her. This is why, if I look at the two sets of rules I have offered above, I cannot say that Tiger King is a good documentary. If you ask me, I believe it is actually a very bad documentary, mere docutainment to fill in five and a half hours of harrowing covid-19 quarantine. There are much better documentary films and series on offer, even on Netflix, but in our times, I guess, audiences crave for this kind of trash.
Now for the insider/outsider view. Writing for The Guardian, American writer Jessa Crispin (editor-in-chief of litblog-webzine Bookslut, and author among others of Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto (2017)), discusses Tiger King as “our world back to us –one run by megalomaniacs and amateurs”. ‘Us’, of course, means Americans, and she traces in her article a not-so-obvious comparison between the documentary and the current covid-19 reality, reading the mini-series as “the hidden realities of a society that can’t take care of its sick and poor” (see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/04/tiger-king-reflects-our-world-back-to-us-one-run-by-megalomaniacs-and-amateurs). The point she makes is that Joe Exotic and Donald Trump are part of the same American socio-cultural landscape, despite the apparent class and occupation differences, which I grant. “We are the Tiger King. The Tiger King is us”, Crispin acknowledges in dismay, for “This bringing of the wild into our domestic spaces is, after all, what got us sick”. Please, notice that though the origin of covid-19 is not a big cat zoo in America, it turns out that the so-called Spanish flu of 1918 originated in a Kansas slaughterhouse. The disease documented in Tiger King, “the drive for power, the constant need for more, the willingness to remove any obstacle to what you desire, even by using violence”, or in short entitlement, is the reason why America “can’t pass regulations that would reduce real suffering” right now, in the middle of the coronavirus-related horrors.
As an American, Crispin has the right to criticize her own country, but do I? Do my students? One of them asked me how come that most of the documentaries in our list maintain a similarly critical position, and I replied that this is because I have cheated, selecting only those with left-wing credentials. Noticing that quite a few of these documentaries have right-wing counterparts I joked that next time I should teach a course on the Republican documentary –maybe I should, if only for balance. The question is that watching Tiger King as a Catalan/Spaniard/European I feel compelled to say that the United States, as represented in this mini-series, appear to be a very sick society. Whether I should or should not voice that opinion, it is hard to find anything positive in Tiger King, not only in the characters’ actions but in the filmmakers’ intentions. I assume that Goode and Chaikin were not thinking of international audiences, only of shocking US national audiences. Yet, they must have realized that their mini-series confirms a lingering suspicion: that the United States are past their prime as a world-leading society.
Even a far less sensationalist documentary, 2020 Oscar Award winner, American Factory (another Netflix-backed product) gives the same impression, despite dealing with a story of working-class heroic resilience against all odds. Why, in short, I’m wondering, do American texts oscillate between the simplistic patriotism of so many run-of-the-mill action films and the crudity of the true-crime flood coming out of Netflix? Can’t American filmmakers see how deeply eroded the image of the United States already is, nationally and internationally? Arguably, they do, and products like Tiger King should be read as a waking-up call, though the mini-series seems to be just another very American freak show.
I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/