The documentary that I watched for this week's theme was Super Size Me. It follows filmmaker Morgan Spurlock as he embarks on a journey of eating three McDonald's meals per day for an entire month. By the end of the film, Spurlock has gained 24.5 pounds, his cholesterol has shot through the roof, and he is suffering health problems that reveal their extremity on the faces of the three or four doctors he consults during the process. Super Size Me not only serves its purpose as a sharp awakening to the intensely unhealthy food that McDonald's serves its patrons, but as a visualization of research about American obesity (especially among youth/teens) and why it has been on a steady incline (marketing focused on children, cafeterias serving fast food, etc.). Spurlock's film was well reviewed by critics, but not hailed as one of the members of an elite tier of sophisticated, darker documentaries such as Man on Wire or Grizzly Man (both options for our class this week). Putting aside this categorization, I believe that many, if not most, documentaries fail to provide the "dragging of one further from the cave" that Plato describes as the end goal of education in his "Allegory of the Cave," even though they have the same potential value as a scripted movie.
Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" describes the process of reaching understanding. In his most famous metaphor, Plato depicts a group of people who have been watching shadows for the entirety of their lives and shows the process of one member of the group realizing: first, the shadows are caused by light around some objects; second, the objects' movement is caused by humans; third, those humans manipulated the objects in imitation of The Forms (or the outside world); fourth, that the ability to see the outside world is caused by the Sun. The process of the man being dragged along this journey is supposed to imitate the process of education; that the ultimate good is not merely knowledge, but understanding. It is important to note that understanding is different than knowledge in that one can have knowledge of a subject, or a cause and effect without understanding why either exists. That "why" is crucial, and it would seem that documentaries, first defined as factual reports or records, cannot provide the Platonic "dragging," but this is untrue; they have that potential.
Recall for a moment what we learned from Aristotle about tragedies, they allow us to experience emotions, specifically pity and fear, that would otherwise be unbearable to experience in reality. The imitative nature of art is what allows this process to occur. Therein lies the problem of the Documentary genre.
Documentaries are real, that is, there is usually no script or acting involved. Super Size Me, for example, involves nothing more than a plan to combine Spurlock's gluttonous journey with information about the fast food industry and the current nature of obesity in the U.S. This manifests itself in an on-screen product with a factual basis that no one is likely to dispute, but that provides little more than base knowledge about one subject. Spurlock is choosing to go on a fast-food rampage, the parts of the movie that follow him, to me, have the least value. Because we understand his motivation, there is little to be gained from the effects of McDonald’s on his body that is higher than factual and physical data. More interesting are the interviews of students on where they like to eat their meals and how often they eat fast food-but the movie still does little to help the viewer understand "why." I believe that this is due in part to the way that we watch documentaries. Because the movie is perceived as real, and as revolving around its facts, the deeper interactions within are either less apparent to the viewer, or too extreme (think Aristotle) for the viewer to comprehend without the use of imitation. Of course, seeing a man like Petit from Man on Wire explain the nature of success in the last few minutes of the movie should be more powerful, valid, and valuable, than a made-up character or plot device doing the same, but this is simply not the case.
The “Allegory of the Cave” shows the importance of an idea, as opposed to its tangible counterpart. Art and film are valued in part for their ability to represent complex ideas in a way that allows the viewer to reveal them for him or herself. It is not that documentaries lack the ideas, but that they are bare-free from the veil of imitation. Ironically, this makes them harder for the viewer to digest, so we usually walk away from documentaries with more knowledge than understanding.