This is the second post in a series of blogs I am doing in preparation for my Viva. The aim is to watch at least one documentary a day and respond with some considerations. Stretch the mind, stretch my horizons. You are invited to join my thoughts.
In contrast to yesterday’s post this film is a walk in the park. Harmontown (Neil Berkeley, 2014, USA) presents the world of Dan Harmon – a unique writer entrenched in Hollywood, and the original creator and current show runner for Community – on tour as part of his podcast of the same name. Taking the show on the road, his journey across the USA presents us with a complex depiction of its protagonist as he interacts with the people that call themselves his fans.
The documentary is, by design, complex and self-obsessed. It is funded by Harmon. It is performed by Harmon. Elements are even filmed by Harmon – his body covered with cameras. As a diegetic character (referring to Harmon as he appears within the film as opposed to other iterations that surround it) there are moments where it is clearly “written” by him; inevitably his profession would warrant some awareness of the processes of a film, but his particular obsession with narrative structure take this to its extreme. Throughout the film, and the performances it captures, he is not only aware of this journey, particular the one that will have to emerge from the edit, but outwardly relates to it, sculpting the eventual shape of the film from within. If you are aware at all of Harmon’s typical fourth-wall breaking work, you will have few problems imagining the scope of its meta-analysis.
However, what is interesting is actually how little this becomes alienating – it doesn’t permeate beyond an entertainment of the film. Very rarely is this complexity dangled in your face as some obtuse statement of aggression that pushes an audience away from their immersion in the film; Harmon’s brilliance is that this tone merely echoes his talents as a masterful word-smith, not only capable of being open, sincere and emotionally involving in everything he creates, but able to unveil the methods of this interaction as they take place. Even more impressive, these elements further entertain each of his many audiences (though perhaps not his employers for whom scripts he is supposed to be writing are overdue while he is out touring the country).
It is here that I would like to interject with my own personal reading of this film – specifically, the resemblance this documentary bore to my own. On the basic level level of subject matter, it focused on a performer, taking his wares to audiences, and evaluating their relation to his attempts to be funny. Further to this, his “act” was one that not only subjected the protagonist to a psychological examination – in both instances a kind of therapy through endeavour – but both films follow an attempt to create work that reaches out beyond the stage and into the hearts and minds of a new kind of audience.
On first evaluation, the appearance of similarity is most striking. With this kind of subject matter you are forced to film in low light conditions, with cameras that are attempting to not only capture the performance but put across the sensation of it, particularly elements of their “raucous” nature – its intimacy, the fragments of improvisation, and pertinently, the presence of failure. Similar decisions in both were made to put across these performances’ authenticity, with more “dynamic” camera positions capturing events from spaces as close to, and at times even within, the action as possible. In my own project, I relied upon audience members to film my actions, lending a naive style to the captured images; in Harmontown, this develops into cameras that are physically placed on the body of Dan Harmon, capturing his performance from his own point of view – which leads to one of the most revealing sequences in the film. These similarities contribute to a similar visual style, though inevitably the comparison of these two films extends into some more fruitful juxtapositions.
Seeing this in Harmontown focused my attention onto my own process. In initial recordings, attempts were made to capture performances authentically, but these failed – although one could see the event in complete clarity, their effect was profoundly diminished; in the most lit venues, with professional cinematography and equipment – including multiple cameras and tripods, what you could see was crystal clear, but the performances came across as static and ineffective. We ourselves experimented with the use of “spy cameras”, inexpensive and low quality cameras that could be worn, thrown and flung without much fear that were handed to audience members to catch the event from their perspective – however the inconsistency of footage due to the equipment was… how do I put it? Too authentic.
|A series of stills taken from footage of early gigs – static and un-effecting|
As we continued to experiment, it made sense to play on our limitations; events were dark and cramped, my material was unconventional and provocative, while audiences were close and uncomfortable – the documentary had to reflect this. Our response focused on utilising audiences as camera-people; their relative inexperience gave a naive quality to footage, keeping it raw and real, while also permitting footage be captured within the interaction, rather than as a observer to it. We secured a high-end consumer DSLR which could capture footage at a very high quality, while also providing a tool that newcomers could adapt to swiftly; as material developed their role became integral to the action, controlling to an extent what took place, and the audience-camera was brought onstage as part of the action. The result was a theoretical joy: echoing the sentiment of my research, the audience were turned from passive spectators into active agents, informing the action, and becoming media creators, adding their own voice to the documentary. But from a visual perspective, the development was essential – moving the camera onto the stage allowed for a genuine intimacy. Add to this the performative relevance – the presence of the camera obscuring the objectivity, the documentary shown up to be an inescapable disruption, nothing like an invisible fly on the wall.2
Until seeing Harmontown I hadn’t properly identified the relevance of the camera being on stage, among the other decisions made to bring live stand-up to the screen “authentically”.
Importantly, the performative elements of Harmontown were less clear to identify; as previously expressed, Dan Harmon is an individual who enjoys and exploits the boundaries of what is being produced. To this, his audience are attracted, and thus to them he appeals. With some sort of media history hat on (you can imagine the large cowboy hat with a concealed camera inside from The Simpsons here), Harmon’s success perhaps confronts us with either specific audience demographic, or evidence of a wider trend in the evolution of audience taste (and potentially understanding). Both are valid arguments but regardless of how they are defined, Harmon’s audience tends to know its place; they are, without meaning to tar them with any specific brush, fans of other sitcoms and science fictions – specifically Star Wars, Star Trek, Seinfeld and The Simpsons, though not limited to these – the adoration of which often requires an understanding of the tropes and structures within which these shows are constructed. Harmon’s crowd is defined by its knowledge and awareness of movies and television – a culture of consumption and media diversity which is developing within generations brought up connected, it seems, to everything.
To this end, the employment of performative elements in some instances within Harmontown are inseperable from the subject matter; arguably, their use doesn’t constitute performative film-making. This for me is the crux of my response to the film – what truth does this film reveal?
Both documentaries respond in some way to this, revealed through a knowing awareness of media construction. For example, each documentary is framed by a bedroom/getting ready device – but one that uses the cliché knowingly rather than simply lean upon this as an empty framework.3. Though I cannot speak explicitly for Harmontown, my own work worked within performative documentary, a process that deliberately contemplates truth by complicating it, exposing objectivity to analysis; whereas the footage of Harmon – yawning in bed, getting in his car, opening a garage – seem tantamount to the very processes that Harmon would expose. The line between professional treatment and subversive intent might be blurred.
Contrary to this, attempts were made in I Did This to be as overtly and aggressively performative as could be contemplated. By example, the attempts of “getting ready” that remain in the film, develop me speaking direct to camera, narrating my own journey and commenting on the script I have written for myself are deliberately strange. I am speaking not only directly to the camera, but in the process of preparation, shaving badly – even cutting my raw flesh and bleeding – in a tight frame that is overly close to my face, all of which underpin narration that is speaking directly of performativity and utopian ideals, beyond the frame and narrative conventions an audience might expect. The term “warts and all” seems relevant here. There is nothing deliberately entertaining about the original footage of my indulgence, it was not a joke at the time, though in the film it is crafted in such a way as to be a relatively watchable sequence by editing.
Against this, Harmontown‘s objectives are less clear. In this audience interaction sequence (see above) Harmon deliberately orchestrates the audience into reaching for him in slow motion adoration suggesting to them that this footage could be used for some inspiring montage. Is this use merely a joke, or does he intend to provoke the audience into interrogating the film-making processes they are partial to? Under this Jeff, his co-presenter on the podcast, tells the audience “this is all a lie” – the ramifications of which extend Harmon’s performance from a maniacal self-indulgence into a potentially emancipatory commentary on media culture. These elements are perhaps inseparable; the pseudo-utopian objective of Harmon’s podcast suggest there is a political objective to all this, but first and foremost Harmon’s objectives are to entertain, himself as much as his audience. It would be disingenuous to claim that the performative nature of this documentary is merely a surface consideration, but similarly problematic to suggest its opposite.
However, Harmontown does have a number of striking moments which strengthen its case to be the latter, and which for other reasons exposed my own work to fresh analysis. Both films feature self-interrogation taken to the nth degree. As performers we both expose ourselves to an audience with an interesting sincerity, while also going too far.
|Stills taken from Harmontown; 1 and 4 – from a sketch in which Harmon plays himself interrogation himself, 2 – intimate bathroom self-examination and 3 – a more traditional exposure|
For Harmon these exposures are commonplace; the project is him going on stage and sincerely dropping truths that are beyond the pale – not least his previous sexual history played out on the podcast through his Dungeons and Dragons persona Sharpie. But these are not exceptions per say – the personal for Harmon is a seemingly endless mine for material, something that is to be exploited at the nearest opportunity. Likewise, revelations about his personal and professional history are played out through archive news reports (especially regarding his interactions with Chevy Chase) and through talking head interviews (shot with each figure centred and close on screen, highly aestheticised and intimate) – that, though slightly unusual in tone, give more of a sense of a traditional biopic then reek of an exceptional openness or excessive honesty. Harmon is an open book and happily performs any reading with aplomb.
This said, one of the most striking scenes – for me at least – arrives with Harmon alone, talking to himself in a bathroom, the camera attached behind his ear (see above, 2). In this moment, he delivers a very strange monologue that analyses his own behaviour as a human but also as a character within the documentary, probing his own reality.
“What am I doing?… Knowing you’re a dick doesn’t make it okay… we have 250 million man-children figuring out what makes them a dick and celebrating it, and nobody growing up, and not being a dick any more… I don’t think I can be a hero any more. I have to deal with the fact that I have gotten everything that I want. I have to grow up. I have to be a grown up”4
Previous attempts to delve into the narrative model of documentary become mere childsplay that has, until now, become a mainstay of his act to entice and entertain a growing public, like the bubbles on the forehead of a child, a party trick that elicits a response. Instead, this is his own contemplation of the idea, performed to himself where he knows his audience is already highly versed in the details and theories because it is him, the master of narrative structure; but likewise, it is knowing in that it is clearly performed out loud for the camera, to be used at some point in the documentary. This sequence is a playful encounter with the dramatic/revelatory nature of intimate documentary, of the confessional, while also resonating with his place against mortality.
Watching this has, bizarrely, given me insight into my own film. I saw myself in him, a genuine moment of the uncanny – because I too had a similar experience.
In the context of my film, I am dealing with my own immediate failure at the most mundane level possible – having arranged a dinner party for my friends, no one has turned up, and I am left facing with the reality that I alone. Further to this however, I am left to consider the epic failure of my project, in which I completely deconstruct the uselessness of my endeavours, even at a theoretical level beyond the uselessness that is inherent in the project. What is change? What do I mean by revolution? What was I doing with anything? For audiences these moments are revealing, evocative too – showing the true form beneath what can be read as a visage of process – which is heightened in both sequences by the presence of the camera. But as they are performed, these moments are beyond strange; I knew what it meant for him to know what he was saying would reconfigure his future behaviour, write in advance the actions he was about to perform. Knowing it is being filmed, knowing it is for the camera, and further reflecting on this knowledge that it is self-reflexive – I cannot explain the feeling. It is, unreal.
This experience emerged for me at a different moment in Harmontown – when Harmon is sat while engineer edits a podcast together from the performance of the night before, in which Harmon indulged in moonshine. Drunker than drunk – alcoholism a theme that is repeated throughout – he believes himself to have gone too far, and his genuine shame is palpable. The experience however is heightened – not only do we have him listening again to what he did, but fully HD footage of the event, where what took place can be seen in graphic detail.
“I drink myself to the point that I am either John Belushi or unprofessional… but I don’t think I have it in me to be Belushi… I have never made more shame based edits… I sounded like a monster”
What we see is limited, and it is made clear that the actual events of the night are not to be revealed, but regardless it is clearly quite bad – if not on screen then at least personally for Harmon. This was again an uncanny experience for me, as there are few experiences that are more transformative than encountering this horrific moment at which you have gone beyond – but having that experience captured in HD, in its crystal clarity, that not only perfectly encapsulated reality but overly emphasises it at a point in which your own internal comprehension of the world is in complete disarray.
|Stills taken from Harmontown; Left – the night before, Right – the shame of listening back to the night before.|
The image on the left, for me, took me back to my own documentary, in a sequence that was partially intended to be the emotional peak, neigh trough, of the narrative. As part of the performative complexity of the work, I wanted to develop a method of interviewing myself;5 in a moment of clarity, I hit upon the idea of filming questions for myself and then drinking far too much alcohol to the point that I had forgotten what I had asked, and then attempting to answer these questions. What took place was a highly charged, and disgusting, encounter with alcohol’s dark side: somewhere on my hard drive footage exists of my being quite quite ill.
This was supposed to be that moment in which I crossed the threshold, to use the narrative terms. But unlike Harmon, my own shame was publicly discovered and expressed – having never previously seen the footage I was left to try and answer for my actions on-stage in a live documentary show. For the audience, for any audience, this could only be real.
The value of Harmontown for me is incalculable – it has exposed an understanding of my own work that I am hugely grateful for. It truly is a remarkable accompaniment.6 As a film in its own right, it offers a wonderful insight into Dan Harmon for his fans – either of his work or his podcasts – as a very apt biopic that is suitable for the subject matter. But for anyone else the attraction may be limited. Perhaps if Dan Harmon saw my film he might find things to appreciate in his own portrait.
- This still is taken from early footage of one event, called Wet Paint, as I came to terms with the ideas of what I was attempting – but hasn’t made it into more recent drafts of the doc. ↩
- Performative here relates to Stella Bruzzi’s employment of the term regarding documentary, adapted from Judith Butler’s consideration of performativity – as a means to understanding gender as this process of construction – as opposed to Bill Nichols’ employment of the term. ↩
- I should point out that my own use of this device was partly dropped in later edits. For this sequence – originally improvised as part of an interview in which I tried to explain what performative documentary is – I am filmed waking up, preparing myself for the day, however it is clear that this sequence is staged as I am fully dressed in my “performance gear”, performing my own waking ↩
- Within the context of the film, this has a lot more gravitas and meaning. ↩
- Something Harmon achieves in his sketches, yet further tangential relevance ↩
- The resemblances are remarkable, even to the use of aspect ratio. ↩