“A documentary film, radio, or television program, etc.” – Amazon Alexa’s answer to the question, “What is a documentary?”
“A documentary film is a nonfictional motion picture intended to document reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record. ‘Documentary’ has been described as a ‘filmmaking practice, a cinematic tradition, and mode of audience reception’ that is continually evolving and is without boundaries.” – Amazon Alexa’s answer to the question, “What is a documentary film?”
There are two documentaries released in 2019, both of them Sundance premieres picked up and now distributed by Hulu, that begin with someone asking Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, who the film’s subject is. The first of these films to come out, Ryan White‘s Ask Dr. Ruth, features iconic sex therapist Ruth Westheimer amused at hearing a computer voice share a brief biographical entry on herself. The second is The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, in which filmmaker Benjamin Berman asks the machine about the titular magician/comedian while the subject is in the room being filmed.
Is it a coincidence? Is it a rising trend? I’m glad that Ask Dr. Ruth came out first, because that’s the one with foremost but lesser significance. While showing Westheimer’s playful personality — she asks Alexa to tell the future of her love life and is also misheard by the AI due to her thick German accent — the bit of narration provides the audience with the basics of who she is. Other documentaries use similar biographical shorthand as setup, usually in the form of a sampled clip from a news magazine show’s own introduction to the subject. This time, it’s a kind of audio encyclopedia that is reading the info aloud. It’s kind of a cheap tool, but it seems innocent enough in Ask Dr. Ruth because it was relatively unique, and also it’s funny how Westheimer reacts.
When The Amazing Johnathan Documentary opened with what appeared to be the same device for the same purpose, I cringed. But nothing in Berman’s film is worth judging so quickly. Ask Dr. Ruth is your basic biographical documentary, superfluous animations included. The Amazing Johnathan Documentary comes off as similarly elementary at first but winds up ultimately a sort of a play on documentary form, so much that halfway through, it seems to lean into the recent Documentary Now! spoof of pathetically self-indulgent first-person docs. It’s like the Cabin in the Woods of nonfiction film, albeit much more subtly.
Berman didn’t set out to make what sounds above like a contrived subversive pastiche of current documentary cliches. He really wanted to just direct a short profile on John Szeles, aka The Amazing Johnathan, after the performer revealed he had a terminal disease but then wound up living beyond his supposed expiration date. After many months following Szeles in his everyday life and on a comeback tour, Berman learned that his subject welcomed another documentary crew, one with more prestigious credits, to also make a film about himself. Then there turns out to be another. And another. The competition brings with it a challenge for Berman to stand out. In whatever legal — but maybe unethical — way he can.
Whether it just naturally became fortuitous to do so, Berman went to places, in his direction of the story, in his increased on-screen appearances, in his self-examination, and especially in his editing, that took the film to its final state as partially a satire of documentaries. But a sophisticated mockery that still also plays as genuinely poignant. It comments on how there are too many docs being made nowadays. It comments on how so many of them today are more about the filmmakers than their subjects. It comments on how the glut and the amateurish nature of the majority of docs is a good thing in that it drives good documentarians to be even better, more creative, and make higher quality films. And usually, the cream rises to the top.
You can’t just make a visual adaptation of a Wikipedia article, offering only information about a subject. We can ask Alexa who Dr. Ruth or The Amazing Johnathan is. Documentaries have to show us a story, not just tell us about something. And you can’t just anticipate that your subject will die, so that ending of your biographical profile will be as easy as it begins, with the subject’s birth. Not just because a lot of famous persons and events do indeed have multiple documentaries being made about them — look at the dueling docs on Lance Armstrong, the Fyre Festival, etc. — but because the films themselves should be interesting anyway and not just depend on their subjects to make or break the movie.
If these two documentaries were distributed by Amazon, the Alexa bits would seem like blatant corporate synergy. Instead, they come off together like a one-two punch rather than the accident they obviously are. Ask Dr. Ruth sets the stage by presenting it as a quick shortcut that other documentarians might wish they’d thought of and maybe would even borrow. The device might have become common. But then The Amazing Johnathan Documentary comes and immediately takes it to the next level, employing it for faint self-parody. We may still see more docs use Alexa as Ask Dr. Ruth does anyway. Genres persist even after they’re perfectly lampooned. And some filmmakers settle on not being distinct.
Berman’s achievement, as it is initially thanks to a touch of luck as much as any unforeseen documentary story, is not the first of its kind. A lot of first-person filmmakers have revealed, in a meta way, their own struggles to figure out what they’re making, and there are some who’ve even managed to make something more revelatory — about their subject matter, themselves, and documentary form — than they could have imagined. See Sherman’s March, Mistaken for Strangers, Nick Broomfield in his two Aileen Wuornos docs, for some of the best examples. Tons of personal docs in recent years have tried too hard to be so deep.
But we really needed one as inconspicuously rich as The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is, now more than ever. It’s a loving caricature of form while also presenting a loving portrait of its subject. It’s funny that Berman worried so much about there being too many documentaries being made about Szeles since he wound up basically making two in one. And both of them are exceptional, working together as evidence of that Alexa definition of documentary films as being without boundaries and continually evolving.”