If “How To With John Wilson” Can’t Solve The Limitations of Personal Documentaries, How Can I?
A good friend, cheering on my YouTube endeavors, told me to watch How To With John Wilson on HBO.
I’m trying to get this YouTube thing out of my system. I wouldn’t bother reading this unless you, too, are similarly afflicted.
In his third episode, How to Improve Your Memory, he begins to interview a winner of memory contests. She mentions the memory palace technique. I would have let the camera roll for 10 hours; it’s a deep subject. Instead, he moves onto a small group of oddballs focused on mistaken memories.
Problem #1: The deeper into my subject I go, the smaller my audience becomes.
That’s true for everything, but nothing more so than video. There’s a small audience of people interested in memory. There’s a larger audience when you make fun of that small audience. I’ll get to that later.
Problem #2: If you’re primarily a writer, concrete visuals get in your way
When writing, I can re-shoot as much as I want. Want to show a street scene in San Diego instead of New Orleans? All it takes is deleting out the latter and typing in the former. 10 seconds max.
Problem #3: Visuals comes first, logic comes in dead last.
If I show a scene of someone getting beat up, nothing said in narration is going to register with the viewer.
Problem #4. Generally, film is a young person’s art, both in the making and consuming. Writing, or reading, if anything, addresses an older audience. In short, my peers don’t watch much video. I have never heard a young filmmaker say, “I want to reach my grandparents generation.”
Problem #5. Film is more damaging to those you film
If I’m writing about Joe in a book and suggest he’s a pervert it isn’t remotely as damaging, to Joe, as showing him on film looking through a young girl’s window.
You either need multiple people or multiple personalities to do video
In the classic film, Dark Victory, Bette Davis delivers an amazing acting performance. Max Steiner, the composer, delivers a pitch-perfect score. In the last scene, when she’s ascending the stairway she was reported to say, “Max, only one of us is going up that stairway”. In other words, she felt the acting would deliver the more important emotional message than the music. No music ended up in that scene.
Even when done alone, filmmaking is a group effort. Everyone wants to ascend the staircase. Even if Wilson works alone, he must work as multiple personalities, to to speak. He must work as a cameraman, soundman, editor, colorist, writer and producer.
Okay, onto some examples with John Wilson.
Film is Never Objective
In personal video essays, one can’t help but judge others. That happens once Wilson gets on his vacation in the first episode. He becomes condescending to the young people at the MTV party.
Once you,the filmmaker, narrate your emotional reactions you leave behind the objective documentary approach. The film is about you.
If In Doubt, Get A Cheap Laugh
Some of the best parts are stupid humor. Like when Wilson throws the pillows around the toilet, etc. However, if you do too much of that you lose the seriousness of your subject.
Other People’s Stories
What saved Wilson’s first episode was filming Chris, the guy at the end. But that wasn’t Wilson’s story, that was his subject’s. So is it Wilson’s video anymore? What I’ll remember, if anything, is Chris’s loneliness and friend dying. His whole story. How much of it has to do with the episode’s subject, small talk? The last bit took up 20% of the episode, not counting when he talked to Chris at various points throughout the video.
In order to be entertaining, you often have to somewhat exploit others. I’m sure Wilson doesn’t look to exploit anyone. Nonetheless, HBO must choose between nice filmmakers who risk boredom and exploitive filmmakers who titleate the audience.
First Wilson exploits a guy going after child molesters. That was grade-A new York City snobbery. Then he turns to two young men at the MTV event.
He exploits them by eliciting an obvious reaction to his leading questions “are you guys gay too”?
John Wilson: Where are you going?
GUY: Back to our room, get some breakfast.
JW: Where’s your room?
GUY: In the hotel
JW: How do you guys know each other?
GUY 1: (walking off) I’m off this.
GUY 2: (also walking off) We go to school together.
Wilson spices up his 2nd episode by eliciting viewer catharsis by blaming a scaffolding businessman for many deaths.
John Wilson Narration: And when I went back to Bourbon Street, I found the same guy wandering around, half drunk, without a care in the world, trying to find the right strip club to go into, like Goldilocks tasting porridge.
I just don’t have it in me to do this type of filmmaking. I can rant for hours about politicians or people in general, but eventually I pull back from characterizing people in an unflattering light. Did that executive, who isn’t a public figure, deserve Wilson’s hatchet job?
One day, John Wilson may inspire me. He may solve my problems above. Until then, I’ll keep trying to do the impossible — make a non-exploitive video that many people want to watch.
From time to time, I reread the stories I’ve published. I’ve never rewatched one of my videos. That should tell me something.