Michelle Orange is a contributing editor to VQR and the author of This is Running for Your Life: Essays (FSG, 2013). Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, the Nation, the New York Times, Bookforum, Film Comment, Slate, and other publications. Her next book, Pure Flame, is forthcoming (FSG, 2021).
If the case of John Berger’s debut novel, A Painter of Our Time, still enrages sixty-three years after its release in 1958, a writer’s wrath especially might be attended by the smallest, wistful pang. An idea-driven meditation on the rol [...]
Are there still documentaries? A glance at this year’s Oscar nominees, a thriving festival circuit, and my own Netflix history makes the answer plain. And yet the question persists. It squats at the end of long days spent consuming “real” images and “true” stories, navigating the apps and feeds animated by user content, the video-driven news homepages, the platforms that upload hundreds of vlogs and tutorials each minute. It confronts those who spend the same long days being captured, consensually and otherwise, by the cameras surrounding us, embedded in the screens we use to watch other people eat, unbox, talk into their bathroom mirrors, and react to other people in other videos. A world in which reality is screened by definition would seem to pose a threat to a genre rooted in its claim on real life. What now distinguishes documentary from the air we breathe?
Early in January, a few days into the New Year, I sat with four students on the ninth floor of a Twenty-Third Street Manhattan building. I have two dominant memories of our week together: The first is of the forbearance with which they withstood my raging head cold; the places they found to look while I filled tissue after tissue, stuffing various pills, sprays, and lozenges into my face, inflicting on them a six-day wrath that should have been mine alone. Grumpy and overmedicated, midweek I told a colleague, because she asked, that I felt like a jungle cat was sitting on my face.
A later episode of the debut Showtime series Couples Therapy features a wedding montage. Harvested from personal archives, the footage depicts real-life couples in their respective matrimonial costumes. They smile and preen for the camera, appearing as they should in their tuxedos and lovely white dresses: euphoric, beguiled, never more full of love and promise.
After a fallow period of about fifteen years, in 2014 I returned to driving. Having let my license expire out of pure indolence, I embarked on a process that ended with a road test in deepest Brooklyn. I had no car and no plans to buy one, but within a couple years I was doing more driving than anyone I knew. A needy dog five pounds too big to fly and a sick parent five hundred miles away sent me again and again to the closest rental depot, where I would be handed keys to a compact car of limited but occasionally stark variation. For the same price, I might settle into a vehicle loaded with sixty-seven computers and a heated steering wheel, or a shitbox with no USB port and a tire set to blow on a major Ontario highway. I would study the rental agent’s face as she clacked in the relevant data, looking for some sign of my fate.
Two women share a hospital room, separated by a green-blue curtain, at the end of a brief, beige hallway. Their prospects foreclosed by illness, the women have agreed to enter this room, if not to share it, and to find what peace is possible. Separated always by the green-blue curtain, the women receive their respective family members, making few requests, their needs muted in a way that humbles and vexes their visitors. They are aware of each other’s presence, vaguely yet certainly, in the way of animals on opposite sides of an open field, at night.
In life and in depictions of life, when is it better to look directly at instances of suffering, and when to turn away? When is looking a form of violation, and when is it a moral imperative? As the documentary image proliferates, so, too, does a discussion that has preoccupied feature storytelling: When it comes to images of violence and brutality, what needs to be seen to be believed, and which representations can’t be justified? Major news outlets now air images of death and suffering as matters of course; in a culture of mass documentation and dissemination, images that exist exist to be seen. Social-media platforms put kitten frolics and beheading videos on an equal footing. “Viewer discretion” and trigger warnings only grow more elaborate, even as they become superfluous: Who now sits down in front of any sort of screen, at any time and with even the most benign intentions, unprepared for some form of visual assault?
Autumn stalled, the heat lingered, and an interim season began. In lieu of leaves, the sky rained with tales of sexual predation. More curiously, the world took notice: On the ground there occurred a clamor for stories of harassment and assault, which were gathered with an altogether new sense of industry, indignation, and consequence. A bonfire subsisted on the shredded reputations of high-profile men; communal nests of solace and of recourse were fashioned from the feathered remnants of their careers.
Television may be remembered, among other things, as having entered a “golden age” even as it ceased to exist. As a term, television feels increasingly inapt, vestigial, at risk of acquiring the air quotes that presage irrelevance. Still, it refers to a form—episodic, moving-image narrative—for which we have not yet found a better alias, beyond awkward talk of streaming content and on-demand services, and the shorthand that is Netflix, a brand name that suggests the merger of two media, neither of which is television. As good “television” proliferates, television as a medium and as an experience is in decline.
“Career woman” is a term that enjoyed a certain vogue across the latter half of the twentieth century. An American idiom much bound to the eighties but coined in the thirties, under the guise of defining what a woman is, the phrase points emphatically to what she is not: “a woman whose career is more important to her than getting married and having children.” An archetype born of its time, the career woman is bound to that era’s signature medium: The movies helped midwife her into Western culture; on film she was made unruly (and almost always white) flesh, fed on drive and solo popcorn dinners, dressed in power colors, and sent into an unreconstructed world, where her success or failure typically depended on her willingness to obey a more natural order. There is, of course, no such thing as a career man.
Disgrace is a public phenomenon, defined by public measures—of perception, opinion, consensus. To suffer disgrace is to arouse a collective sense of betrayal, bounds demolished, moral or social compacts violated. Reprieve from disgrace is also a public phenomenon, something a certain kind of documentary makes plain. Having suffered disgrace, occasionally a public individual will sit for a documentary portrait, as both former New York congressman Anthony Weiner and Laura Albert, the writer behind the literary persona JT LeRoy, have recently done. Weiner and Author: The JT LeRoy Story apply documentary means to restorative ends, where a kind of suspense attends the effort to marry a frayed reputation to a private self, disgraceful behavior to mitigating context, image to some more tangible thing.
In Chantal Akerman’s work the element of paradox is everywhere, fractal, supreme. In this she is an artist of her time and place and perhaps most emphatically her gender: Born in Brussels in 1950 to Polish Holocaust survivors, Akerman’s is a life emerged from the death camps.
The view from Byblos castle. Stefan Sonntag / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
In my opinion, Lebanon is the scene of a historic test that will determine the future of humanity.”President Ahmadinejad, Iran, July 25, 2006Beirut’s hopelessness relies upon its resi [...]