Directed by Nicholas Barker
The Slums of Beverly Hills
Directed by Tamara Jenkins
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Jeremiah Chechik
Now and then, a documentary film comes along that makes us re-examine the rules that unofficially govern the genre: Can there be a middle ground between fiction and fact? Can a documentary use scripted scenes and yet remain ontologically authentic? How much can you stylize material before you alter the reality that you're striving, at least in theory, to capture?
Unmade Beds, Nicholas Barker's " 'real life' feature film," has proudly worn its mongrel status as a "directed" documentary of single life in the big city, employing, in the face of criticism, what amounts to a cackling-punk defiance. The movie tracks four aging New Yorkers--two men, two women--through their lonely dating rituals, in the process depicting a universe of lusty, coupled-up haves and downcast, excluded have-nots, all viewed Rear Window-style through rectangular openings in the massive apartment houses in which they reside.
This is not cinemavérité, and nothing has been left to chance. The director selected his four subjects from many hundreds of potential candidates, followed them around for months, and then scripted their monologues and dialogues to reflect what he says he saw. Calling his own film "an exercise in mendacity," Barker goes on, "I'm quite happy to tell lies about my characters and even collude with their self-delusions if it enables me to communicate larger dramatic truths."
Spurned by U.S. distributors, Unmade Beds opened two weeks ago in a small screening room in downtown Manhattan, where it proceeded to set box office records and generate lots of (largely favorable) press. In part due to smart publicity, which has bannered some of the bad reviews and commentary ("I have to tell you that this film upset me so much that I really don't want to have anything to do with it"--a New York publicist), it threatens to become a causecélèbre--and to be coming soon to a theater near you. It's always nice to see distributors proved wrong about the merits of "difficult" films, but in this case I think they did the decent thing. Unmade Beds isn't just bad--it's obnoxiously, noxiously bad, a freak show for the empathetically challenged. The outrage it has prompted isn't the Puritan kind; it's more like legitimate revulsion at watching a blowhard pervert people's lives in the name of "larger dramatic truths."
Those truths are large, all right. Take Michael, the 40-year-old, 5 foot 4 inch lonely guy who has been looking for a wife for almost two decades. If you were to walk past him on the street, you might think that a man of his small stature might have some trouble getting dates and be rather bitter about it. The larger dramatic truth is that Michael has lots of trouble getting dates and is very bitter about it. Just in case you feel too sorry for him, however, Barker is careful to include a homophobic monologue in which Michael complains about young women who waste their lives hanging out with effeminate males.
Michael turns out to be the film's most sympathetic subject--by a wide margin. At least he's not Mikey, a paunchy 54-year-old who writes but can't sell screenplays and who always flees blind dates, because the women he gets fixed up with are "mutts." Sounding like one of the low-level gangsters who posture like kingpins in Donnie Brasco, Mikey talks a lot about mutts. He also reminisces about that 24 hour period in the '70s when he managed to sleep with three different beautiful women, whose pictures he shows off. These days, all he meets are mutts. He comes off as a pathetic little loser--a mutt.
Aimee, on the other hand, is a pathetic big loser, weighing in at 225 pounds. Determined to get married before she turns 30, she generally is filmed beside bags of groceries and assorted junk foods. She cries about her situation to her thin friend, Laurie, who, in one scene, gently mentions Aimee's weight. Clearly the scene is scripted, but Aimee does a good job acting taken aback. She has always been fat--and she's "OK with it," and a man just has to accept it. This is followed by more talk about how you attract men. Will they respect you if you call them back? If you express too much interest? "Or," the viewer thinks, "if you're 225 pounds?"
The only natural performer here is Brenda, a garrulous exhibitionist who blossoms with the camera on her--she could have a career as a Penny Marshall-style character actress. Divorced and aging, Brenda needs money and is willing to charge for her sexual services. It shouldn't be too difficult, because men are always showing her their dicks ("I'm up to two dicks a day"). They meet her and, a few minutes later, they show her their dicks. Weird, huh? What Barker leaves out (it's in a New York Observer article) is that Brenda, a former lap dancer, works in marketing at a strip joint. Presumably, men standing next to her in line at McDonald's don't show her their dicks. Nor, presumably, does she show them her breasts--although she bares them for Barker's camera, jabbering about her body while she doffs her clothes and steps into the shower and soaps up.
Barker might have crafted his subjects' monologues from their own words, but he has robbed them of their spontaneity--and, thus, of their essence. They aren't thinking or trying to come to grips with their situations in front of your eyes, because they already know what they're going to say: They've been fixed like butterflies on the ends of pins and held up for voyeuristic inspection. The scenes with friends and confidantes have a crude, programmatic purpose. You can imagine the director composing a shot (the shots are tightly composed and elaborately lighted) and reminding them, "In this scene she points out that you should lose weight and you get shocked and defensive. Ready ... Action."
Call me square, but I find this antithetical to the documentary spirit. An Englishman who trained as an anthropologist before going to work for BBC Television, Barker clearly made up his mind about his material before his cameras began to roll--so it's no surprise that it feels prechewed and predigested. When reality interfered (Brenda apparently did not go through with a marriage to an immigrant in search of a green card for $10,000, as she does on-screen), Barker brushed the truth aside as immaterial, following her up the steps of City Hall in her wedding dress because it was "true to her character." But what separates documentary from fiction is that real people are often more complicated, and more conflicted, than finished characters--as Brenda proved to be more (or, at least, other) than the sum of her parts. That's the kind of truth that reveals itself to documentary filmmakers after the fact, when they go over footage and discover unexpected patterns, dissonances, glimmers of a universe that's richer and messier than the one they set out to portray.