Two stories have lure of fiction, power of truth

Critical Eye

August 03, 2008|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

Can documentaries be too good to be true? Critics and audiences have been debating that question as gifted filmmakers use traditional fictional tools to make factual stories as compelling as cutting-edge comedies or dramas.

Nanette Burstein's American Teen and James Marsh's Man on Wire, which open Friday in Baltimore, are two of the year's best documentaries - and best movies. Yet, Burstein has been accused of manipulating a handful of teenagers into a new-millennial The Breakfast Club.

If Marsh hasn't roused similar controversy, it's because his subject - Philippe Petit, the French high-wire daredevil who, in 1974, walked between the World Trade Center's twin towers - is a stranger-than-fiction fellow, as charismatic on a high wire as Barack Obama at a podium.

Burstein rearranged 5 percent of the footage that wound up in her finished movie to strengthen its clarity and momentum. Marsh used actors to recreate Petit's New York-based preparations for his assault on the WTC, fashioning scenes with the moody grit of European capers like Rififi.

Despite the filmmakers' legerdemain, these movies have an honest and resounding ring to them. They demonstrate that documentary filmmakers can take their work in novel, and often novelistic, directions without sacrificing truth and integrity.

As Marsh told me on his cell phone while en route to his Brooklyn home, documentary-makers have found two ways to break out of a narrow niche. One is to establish a dynamic onscreen persona in the manner of Michael Moore. The other is to "tell a great, gripping, rollicking yarn" - and that's what Burstein and Marsh do.

Burstein, also a New Yorker, applied her dramatic instincts and her built-in truth detector to American Teen, moving it closer to a Robert Altman ensemble-piece than to reality TV.

Marsh saw Man on Wire as equal parts fairy tale and urban legend, and ended up with a cross between an art movie like Rivers and Tides and an action blockbuster.

"You go see The Dark Knight and it's all CGI; here we have a flesh and blood man, and he exerts a strong appeal to the audience with a miraculous kind of vision," Marsh says. "He saw what he did as a spontaneous gift to the city, something that just happened, like a dream. I would never reconstruct any of that, or let trickery intrude on that part of the film."

Their personal commitment to their subject matter gives their work a vital hum.

Marsh viewed Petit as a European performance artist seeking his ultimate opportunity in the U.S. - just as Marsh did when he came here from his native England. (Sadly, he now finds it easier to make films in Europe, so he's going back.)

Burstein's high school years were the turning point of her life: She decided to focus on filmmaking after a junior year abroad, in Spain. She chronicled the senior year of a handful of high schoolers, both to revisit her own past and to see what kids were doing right now.

Burstein based American Teen in the Midwest, because she felt the region had a timeless, universal quality "and that anything that happened in that part of the country could happen anywhere in the country." She picked Warsaw, Indiana, because she wanted a town that was economically diverse and had a single high school "to make it that much more of a social pressure cooker."

Her goal was "finding people who felt they needed to accomplish something; if they feel that need, in all likelihood, their year will follow a dramatic arc." Burstein didn't seek to assemble a jock and a nerd, a mean girl and an art wonk. "All these people have sides that don't fit into the stereotype."

Her boldest stroke was to interlace the kids' stories with animation that depicts their inner lives; humorously and movingly, a social misfit morphs into a medieval warrior out of some sword-and-sorcery video game. Her teens provided candid interviews that supplied the cartoons with narration of all their dreams and fears.

American Teen derives potency from its unstated "back story" as much any fictional comedy-drama. In a sense, the back story of the movie is Burstein's involvement with the kids, which went beyond holding a camera to their faces. For a movie that features parents who don't know their own strength when imposing their desires on their kids, Burstein became an off-screen aunt, big sister or family friend, always ready to lend an ear.

The back story of Man on Wire was director Marsh's creative courtship of that visionary athlete-artist Petit. Marsh's recognition that Petit is a "superhero" who performs without the benefit of gamma rays or an iron suit helped him win the chance to put Petit's incredible saga on screen.

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