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Documentaries and the Cult of Personality

How documentarians pick a winner

By Josh Rosenblatt, 6:01PM, Wed. Mar. 12, 2008

Citizen George
Citizen George

I had a thought the other day while watching Frontrunners, Caroline Suh’s documentary about the race for student-council president at New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School. The teacher in charge of the election, talking about what he thinks students look for in a candidate, argues for the primacy of personality over ideology. He believes that a particular politician’s take on an issue can change depending on circumstance, while his personality is likely to stay the same regardless. This kind of consistency, he says, is what voters look for when they mark their ballots, whether during a high school election or in a presidential primary. Take George W. Bush, he says. The fact that Bush changed his campaign-era position on nation-building after the events of Sept. 11 didn’t change most of his supporters’ belief that, personalitywise, he was still the candidate they’d most like to have a beer (or two)) with and, therefore, the guy they'd most likely vote for come Nov. 2004.

This personality/issues debate is at the heart of Frontrunners, not just in terms of the election it documents but in relation to the audience’s appreciation of the movie itself. The film’s “lead,” George, is only one of four main characters, but his personality is so enormous, so idiosyncratic, so sui generis, that – win or lose - he is the guy viewers walk away from the theatre thinking about, discussing, and rooting for. Consequently, he is, in essence, the movie.

Without George, Frontrunners would have been an interesting but hardly fascinating look inside a community that otherwise provides little in the way of revelation. By being so undeniably himself, George becomes the movie’s center and saves it from being typical. And Suh knows it too. She follows George every chance she gets, making sure to be there every time he posts himself outside the school with a boom box to plead his case to his fellow students, every time he wanders into an ice cream parlor to eat himself to dyspesia, and every time he invites a guest into the “lounge” he’s set up (complete with music and beverages) in one of the school’s hallways. George is the glue, the blood, the life of her movie. His personality is the doorway into a world she wants us to want to enter.

Having seen so many documentaries recently I began to believe that personality is the golden ticket to a film’s success, that the potency of a movie's subject or the artistry in which it's presented aren't always enough. Obviously certain topics are strong enough on their own to stir emotional involvement on the part of audiences. God knows we don't need any quirky heroes to make genocide in Darfur or police corruption in Tulia significant. But for most documentaries, which aim to take us inside a particular, if unremarkable, world for a few hours so we can get a small taste of a life outside our own, the appearance of one truly great and original personality – serendipitously discovered and artfully drawn out – can be enough to make us care about just about anything, even things we never had interest in, had never thought about, or had even found or still find reprehensible or unseemly. Great personalities can make garbage-collecting interesting, entomology, sealant distribution, carpal tunnel syndrome, even Canadian politics.

Which reminds me of something. Some time last year I turned on a TV show called Beauty and the Geek and immediately dismissed it, thinking to myself, “What a perfect example of our culture’s lust for social divisions, faux-celebrity fetishes, and the pornography of self-perpetuated personal degradation. Look how far we’ve slumped!” And having lusts, fetishes, and personal degradation of my own to tend to, I reached for the remote control. Then onto the screen walked Richard Rubin, a nerd of the first order, a true schlemiel, all hiked-up pants, thick glasses, honking laughter, and sexual ineptitude. Like Woody Allen without the erotic power, he wandered through that show tossing off witty one-liners and engaging in bursts of self-deprecating madness and generally making a vaudevillian nuisance of himself.

And I couldn’t look away. The man’s personality was so huge, his presence so grand, his consumption of viewers’ attention so complete, that I had to see what he did next. And I wasn’t alone, apparently; the show actually got decent ratings. Its producer’s must have been counting their blessings the whole time, too, knowing full well their little exercise in human debasement and “reality” manipulation was being spared the guillotine because they had stumbled, blindly and entirely without design or hope, on to this little man who was overflowing with life.

And like a fool, I watched Beauty and the Geek till the bitter end.

So, the first rule of documentary filmmaking, I guess, is this: Be Lucky. Find a George or a George W. or a Richard to follow around and hold on for dear life.

Frontrunners is screening one last time during the SXSW film festival: this Friday, Mar. 14, 6:30pm, at the Austin Convention Center. See review in the Chronicle's Friday daily issue.

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