Have you ever seen those hilarious recut movie trailers on YouTube—like the one that takes Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining, adds a jaunty score and a peppy narrator, and makes it seem like a romantic comedy? These knowing exercises in irony prove just how completely the cinema is a trickster medium, how it uses patently obvious but effective techniques to manipulate the viewer’s expectations and emotions. Anything can be made to seem ominous and foreboding; anything can be made to seem cheerful and upbeat. It’s all in the lighting, the scoring, the camera angle.
The same should not be true of documentaries, because documentaries purport to be works of nonfiction. They are supposed to capture reality like lightning in a bottle and keep it there for posterity. But a documentary is still a movie, and movies are manipulative at their very core. Whether a person is depicted as a hero or a villain, as a madman or a visionary, as a ghoul or a saint, is pretty much in the hands of the director.
There’s an interesting example of this in Comic-Con, a highly watchable, very funny, often moving, and utterly untrustworthy documentary just out in theaters and available “on demand” on most cable TV systems. The film offers an impressionistic portrait of the attendees of the largest convention in the United States: Comic-Con in San Diego, an annual gathering of more than 100,000 comic book, videogame, and science-fiction and fantasy enthusiasts.
Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope (the full name is a takeoff on the retitled version of the original Star Wars film) zooms in on a handful of fans. Two want to be comic book artists, one is a bartender, and one is an Air Force officer. Another is a 60-year-old hippie who owns a financially precarious comic book emporium in Denver and is thinking of selling his most valuable possession for a half-million dollars to save his business. There’s a young woman who designs outfits and engages in “cosplay”—in which she pantomimes bits from videogames while costumed as a character in the game.
A man who met his girlfriend at the previous year’s Comic-Con has decided he wants to propose to her by asking the question at a big public forum featuring writer-director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma). Smith appears as the ultimate success story of the conventions, a funny comic-book-obsessed child who turned himself into a multimedia star but still retains his boyish love of all things geeky.
Director Morgan Spurlock (best known for having fattened himself up on fast food in Super Size Me) does everything in his power to make you love these people. They are sweet, well-meaning, fun-loving, wacky, odd—delightful character studies in the joys of eccentricity, seeming to derive great pleasure and deep personal meaning from their own obsessive activities.
Spurlock’s movie is a paean to oddballery. But more than that, it is a salute to fandom—to the world of people for whom fantasy play and fantasy culture are a little more real than the real world itself.
Now, imagine for a moment the same material in the hands of another documentary filmmaker. Errol Morris all but invented the nonfiction portrait of obsessive eccentrics with his Gates of Heaven, a 1978 look at a California pet cemetery. His movies are stark and plain and concentrated, and they do not flinch from portraying the underside of oddity—the alienation from ordinary life, the often-questionable personal habits, and the allure that dangerous ideas can have for such people. Morris is the opposite of a sentimentalist, and he would look at the event and the people it attracts straight in the eye. He would not be a flatterer, as Spurlock is.
What about a portrait of Comic-Con by Frederick Wiseman, now 82? Wiseman makes movies about institutions. His cool, unnarrated, leisurely portraits of (among other places) a suburban high school in High School, New York welfare office in Welfare, and an animal-experimentation lab in Primate are probably the greatest achievements in the annals of documentary film. If Wiseman had made Comic-Con, he would slowly and surely get at the unutterable sadness in these lives, the effect of the retreat from reality a fantasy life represents, and the ways in which the emotionally stunted are being quietly and effectively exploited by giant media companies.
Not for nothing does Comic-Con list among its producers Joss Whedon. Whedon made the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and has written and directed the gigantic new comic-book movie Marvel’s The Avengers. The existence of Comic-Con fandom and the word of mouth that can spread from it helped make the fortunes and careers of these men.
In the end, despite its love of the little guy, and Morgan Spurlock’s own history as a crusading anticapitalist, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope is every bit as celebratory, and every bit as propagandistic, as one of those chemical-industry filmstrips about the wonders of zinc oxide our science teachers forced us to watch 40 years ago so they could go out during class and grab a smoke.