One of my issues — or questions — regarding the idea of celebrating “the best” nonfiction characters of the year has to do with judging real people. It’s something we do on a regular basis in our lives with people we know, but documentaries aren’t necessarily real life. They’re depictions of a reality through a lens and a perspective. And we don’t really know those people. We do know them only as characters. That’s often fine for the storytelling purpose of the film. Maybe it’s okay to recognize them as great creations or performances depending on the intent of the filmmakers or the subjects themselves. We can definitely note those we find “unforgettable” without meaning to celebrate them as either cool characters or great people.
A way of continuing that discussion from last week is to consider the possibility of documentary-inspired Halloween costumes. We all have dressed up as a movie character before (last year I was Zod, the Superman II version, to my wife’s Ursa and son’s Superman). We’ve probably dressed up as a famous real person, too (I’ve been Harpo Marx and Salvador Dali in recent years). But what about a non-celebrity nonfiction film character? That means excluding a Michael Moore costume or an R. Crumb costume or a Borat costume. I mean, say, a Billy Mitchell from The King of Kong or Timothy Treadwell from Grizzly Man or the West Memphis 3 from the Paradise Lost films and West of Memphis. And are these fair game?
Treadwell might be the most acceptable because he’s deceased, which is a considerable factor. But there still might be a lack of respect there. Mitchell I think is more complicated because that movie villainizes him in a way that makes his caricature easily imitated yet is possibly disingenuous to who he really is. Does that matter? Isn’t anyone who allows their public image put on display in such a capacity signing on for the chance of cultural scrutiny? What if they never wished to be on the world’s stage, like the three guys wrongfully imprisoned for murder?
To bring it back to this year’s memorable documentary characters, I’ve made jokes and seen jokes about going as Tilikum from Blackfish. It’s an animal, though, so fairer game than any of the humans on Cinema Eye’s list, most of which would be difficult to costume-ize anyway. But there’s Anwar Congo of The Act of Killing, as much a monster as any you’ll see represented at the Halloween parties and trick or treating this year. Still, there’s something to dressing up as a character that shows approval for them, and Congo isn’t worthy in the way fictional killers and sociopaths are. On the other side of the coin, it might be easy to dress up as Larry King from Valentine Road since his style was so integral to his identity and story. Even if you meant it to be in tribute to him and even though he’s deceased, I could see the idea of reducing him to a costume as being in poor taste.
Looking through the long history of documentary, there are only a few non-celebrity, non-fictional nonfiction characters that could be easily recognizable as a costume and are completely okay as such. There’s Nanook (okay, he’s somewhat fictional), the Vietnam soldier with “Make War Not Love” on his helmet made iconic by In the Year of the Pig and the Beales from Grey Gardens. The last is actually what my family is this year — I’m Big Edie, my wife is Little Edie and our son is a raccoon. I’ve seen pictures of others who’ve done at least the mother-daughter duo. Partly because they’re long gone and partly because at least Little Edie enjoyed the attention, plus they’ve been dramatized to death already on stage and cable television screen, it’s probably the most acceptable and most achievable documentary Halloween costume there is.
This post was originally published on October 30, 2013. It is being reposted for Halloween 2014.