There is a machine somewhere that makes documentaries. I’m sure it’s just a couple of moderately powerful computers, maybe even just one, but the romantic in me still pictures it as one of those gigantic machines from the ‘50s, bleeping and blooping as operators feed it punchcards. It’s in an office park somewhere, probably in the exurbs of the Wasatch Front to minimize the time it takes accumulated output to travel to Park City every January. The machine’s algorithms have, at this point, been perfected. It knows precisely how to frame an HD video camera around an interview subject, and precisely when to cut to and from that subject to archival footage. It knows when to pan over old photos, and when to zoom. It projects with precisely which tier of celebrity to recruit to do voiceover work. It even writes the score. At this point, all the humans have to do is feed it a topic – a paragraph, a sentence, even a couple of words – and just a few bleeps and bloops later, your Slick and Professional Documentary™ is deposited. Once again, the romantic in me imagines it anachronistically analogue, a reel of film that rolls down a long belt into a big bin labeled with the year.
How else to explain documentaries like Citizen Jane: Battle for the City? The film, like so many other similar documentaries whose population rate grew exponentially in recent years, is technically unimpeachable. You could, maybe even should, show it in film school. “Here,” the prof would say, “is how to make the best possible cookie cutter documentary,” implicitly operating under a Robert McKee-esque theory that, to be original, you must first master the craft. You could also show it in film school for other reasons, though: firstly, as a lesson on how no amount of technical acumen can overcome deficiencies in structure, storytelling, and ideas; secondly, as an example of the kinds of films that only exist because of the rapidly shifting economic foundations of modern media.
There are a million ways and a million reasons to make a documentary, and Citizen Jane chooses the least-original ways at every juncture, and has no reasons at all. It has a deceptively challenging task, telling a story of which it has little to add and has been told brilliant before. The story itself, meanwhile, is a rich vein of characters and ideas, a vector for so many interesting threads that only a great deal of higher-order discipline can make the choices that bring cinematic order to any particular version of the tale.
Citizen Jane deals with these challenges purely though abdication. The film neither evinces nor instills passion or understanding in the vast array of complex but critical issues which are nominally its subject. Citizen Jane, instead, seems to exist because, all of a sudden, there’s money to be made in documentaries. This is not because of a growing love of learning on the part of the population. Rather, it’s an economic story that goes something like this: Hollywood is concentrating on low-risk globally-targeted blockbusters and Oscar-bait, while both legacy and streaming TV take up more of the space that vast second tier of films, like comedies, romcoms, dramas, indie films, and prestige films. This means that there is a glut of screen supply in movie theaters, creating space to be filled at low marginal cost. Those big-ticket movies, though, don’t hit the streaming services; they can be sold at high volumes a la carte. So the streaming services need content in volume to justify monthly subscription costs.
Enter a certain kind of documentary – cheap to make, and low risk, because it’s based on a known story that can be told largely through archival materials and interviews. It gets sent around the festival circuit to build buzz (and to help justify the festivals themselves), then it hits theaters in the kinds of cities where you have a critical mass of people with post-graduate degrees who want to go to the movies but don’t want to see Batman vs. Alien 2: The Preboot. They don’t linger long in theaters, but maybe they sell a few tickets and a few buckets of popcorn, just enough to justify the enterprise to everyone, and then the documentary hits Netflix, whose algorithm will occasionally recommend it because, hey, you’ve liked Documentaries About ‘60s Women With Cool Glasses before! You don’t need most of these movies to make gangbusters profits, though occasionally one will catch a little extra zeitgeist; but none of them will lose any money. From the standpoint of studios and investors, they’re the treasury bonds of movies. But having more money to make documentaries doesn’t mean there are more good ideas for them, or more documentarians available with the combination of skills required to make them. But hey, at least it’s keeping a few good middle class jobs in South Jordan.