Monday, July 14, 2008

What's the difference...

between the "reality" genre and the "documentary" genre?

I don't have a punch line here. I'm just curious what my smart friends think about this. I've mulled it over and can't come up with a border that satisfies me.

10 comments:

swankette said...

I think the creator of a documentary goes into the experience saying "Here's something interesting, let's see what I can learn about it, then I'll share it with the world." So their goal is some level of honesty, because otherwise they aren't accurately meeting their vision.

I think the creator of reality programming goes into the experience saying "I want to entertain people." So their goal is to find the storyline that creates the maximization of entertainment within the footage that they're given.

So, in one word, intent.

tommyspoon said...

I'll see Swankette's comment and raise her two more words: Exploitation and Illumination.

Documentaries illuminate.

"Reality" TV exploits.

Another distinction:

"Reality" TV is carefully staged and its participants are either coached or manipulated into saying things that promote the storyline.

Documentaries are usually engaged in cinema verite: they set up the cameras and let them roll with little coaching or manipulation. Questions may be asked at the time, or narration may be added later, to clarify key points of interest. One documentary filmmaker told me that his maxim was: "Res ipsa loquitur". The thing must speak for itself.

Joe said...

There's also a kind of documentary film where the director goes in with the idea "here's something I believe; let's produce a film which convinces people I'm right." These people are honest to their vision, but not necessarily to all the captured footage. (I wish we had a name for this to separate it out from what Swankette and Tom describe. I suggest we use an existing term, and call it Op-Ed.)

The hallmark of reality programming, I think, is that it's a game. The core situation is known to be contrived. And, as Swankette says, it's for entertainment purposes, not informational.

TeacherRefPoet said...

I agree that anything with a prize cannot be considered a documentary.

I also think Joe's choice to add "Op/Ed" as a category is helpful.

This means several shows are probably mislabeled, however.

A show like -The Real Housewives of Orange County- or -John and Kate Plus Eight-, or even -The Osbournes-, would be labeled "Reality" everywhere. But according to all three of these definitions (setting aside the issue of exploitation for a moment), these shows deserve the high-brow title "Documentary."

And Morgan Spurlock, who I love, creates "Reality" movies with -SuperSize Me- and -30 Days-.

As for exploitation, that's an interesting word. If you're using something to score political points and make some cash, don't -all- documentary/op-ed/reality filmmakers exploit their subjects? Some are certainly more respectful about it, but I'm not sure anyone is innocent.

I say this because I think the terms have been used simply as shorthand for low-brow and high-brow, when I'm not sure there's as much difference as we think.

swankette said...

Look, I'll admit to being the reason you know several of those Reality shows you just mentioned (But not The Osbournes)... and I still hold that they are reality TV, and not documentary.

The people making Real Housewives aren't REALLY setting out to show us how the rich people live - or there'd be a lot of boredom and seeing there are a lot of things similar to what we do - they show the high drama of the rich. The botox parties, the hyper-controlling people who think because they have money they can dictate how the world turns, planning for the parties - including those at the Playboy mansion.

That's, in fact, where I think you can really draw the subtle line of distinction. The people making these documentary-appearing TV shows are really just trying to create an entertaining picture of life for people who are completely unlike us.

Spurlock is the prototypical example of Joe's op-ed category, both short-form (30 days) and long-form (Super-Size Me).

Joe said...

I think your high-brow/low-brow comment is interesting... I can't think of any "reality movies" out there in the theaters.

That said, it's always worth pointing out that high-low is not at all the same as good-bad, no matter how hard we try.

I also agree that "exploitation" is a really loaded word. Do American Idol or Last Comic Standing "exploit"? (Maybe they do, compared to the Ed Sullivan Show... or maybe not.)

Ultimately, though, I think the distinctions between Burns/Attenborough and Spurlock/Moore and the Bravo network are really important. I think we need a vocabulary which can address them.

So let me ask the next question... why do we not call sporting events "reality"? They fit the definition Swankette and I have put together. How is The Amazing Race different from the NBA?

TeacherRefPoet said...

Interesting. I think a -live- sporting event can't be considered a "reality show" due to the lack of editing. I can't think of a "live reality show" to provide a counterexample. But something like NBC's upcoming Olympic coverage...the "plausibly live" bit...well, that's no different from a reality game show in some senses. I'd say it's different in that NBC didn't invent the game, like TV people invented The Amazing Race, Survivor, Big Brother et al. But it's not different from "Hoop Dreams." It's an edited version of a sporting event, right?

Which makes "Hoop Dreams," a top-10 movie of all time for me (which I originally saw with Joe and Alison in a Maryland theater!), a reality show, I guess.

My original goal...a distinction between "reality" and "documentary" genres...well, I'm actually further from solving that than I was. Which is fine, by the way. I like feeling enthusiastically confused.

Joe said...

Now, I would argue that Hoop Dreams is a documentary. I don't think those kids were taken out of their element for the purposes of the movie, and I think the systems they were dealing with were all real-world rules.

But what's wrong with it if one of your Top 10 Movies is from a lowbrow genre?

I suspect that my suggestion that "all games and sports are a subset of reality TV" shows that the definition is too broad. I just can't put my finger on why. (Although I do judge TV sports to be more highly edited and produced than you seem to.)

TeacherRefPoet said...

"Now, I would argue that Hoop Dreams is a documentary. I don't think those kids were taken out of their element for the purposes of the movie, and I think the systems they were dealing with were all real-world rules."

Well now we're getting somewhere. Might reality be a piece where the producer sets up/influences the reality they film? "Let's take 18 nuns and have them run a Taco Bell and see what happens!"=reality. "Let's film whatever happens to 18 nuns at the convent to show the reality of convent life"=documentary.

"Hoop Dreams"=documentary. "SuperSize Me"=reality.

"Amish in the City" (a very underrated, actually kinda classy show during its run, by the way)=reality. "The Real Housewives of Orange County"=documentary.

It also prevents a brightline that a wanna-be documentarian cannot cross.

TeacherRefPoet said...

I also just realized that the "taking out of their element," "influence reality," and "sets up reality" phrases used in the two preceding comments might be why Spoon uses the verb "exploit." I would add, however, that documentarians probably exploit in a different way. Was Michael Moore exploiting the tragic deaths he put on the screen for "Bowling for Columbine" or "Sicko" to make political points? One could certainly make an argument that he is, or at least that one could. So I'm not sure it works as a distinguishing factor between the genres.

I also now think Joe's "op/ed" appellation isn't a third category, but a secondary label to use within the reality and documentary genres. A film therefore could be a straight documentary, an op/ed documentary, straight reality, or op/ed reality. Feels better to me than trying to carve out the borders for a third genre.