This post has the same title as the last book I have published, my second monograph in English. It came out a few weeks ago and will be followed this Autumn by my own translation into Spanish, Detrás de la mascara: masculinidades americanas en el documental contemporáneo (U València). Curiously, Anglophone publishers prefer the less alluring subtitle to come first, keeping the eye-catching bit that I consider my main title for the secondary position. I’m told this is because they follow the preferences of university libraries. You may also see that whereas in Spanish you need not say ‘película documental’ in English there is much hesitation between ‘documentary film’ and ‘documentary’, an adjective that can be perfectly used as a noun as we do in Spanish.
I have always been interested in documentary films on any subject but nature. Like all Spaniards my age (born 1960s) I was mesmerized by Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente’s document series El hombre y la Tierra (1974-81), but I eventually lost my appetite for the classic scene of the predator eating their prey, a reminder that nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’, as Lord Alfred Tennyson once lamented. No Richard Attenborough for me either, though I’m aware that I am missing much.
I cannot pretend to be a keen spectator of documentary films, to be honest, but I do like them to the point that I wanted to be a documentary director (I was the scriptwriter for a documentary on the 50 anniversary of my secondary education school, and I loved the experience). I was told there was no university-level training for that (there is now) and I chose Filología Inglesa. With my new book, then, I’m closing a circle: I may not be a documentary film director, but I have written a book on a selection of about 40 English-language, 21st century documentaries, all of them outstanding.
The idea for the book springs from two sources. On the one hand, I fell in love with Manuel Huerga’s documentary Son and Moon (2009) on Spanish-born astronaut Miguel López-Alegría. I wrote a very extensive article, published in 2014, “Rewriting the American Astronaut from a Cross-cultural Perspective: Michael Lopez-Alegria in Manuel Huerga’s Documentary Film Son and Moon (2009)”, which I translated later into Spanish, as I try to do with everything I publish: “Rescribiendo el astronauta americano desde una perspectiva intercultural: Michael Lopez-Alegria en el documental de Manuel Huerga Son& Moon: Diario de un Astronauta (2009)”. In the article I had a section on how nobody had explored masculinity in this film genre, and I included a list of Oscar-award winning films focused on men. I had at the time the impression that this could result in a monograph, but found myself unauthorized to write this type of book, not being an expert in the field. Then I read, in 2018, Jeffrey Geiger’s American Documentary Film: Projecting the Nation (2011), and I decided to focus my next Cultural Studies elective (2019-20) on how the USA is represented in documentary films of the 21st century, the period less represented in Geiger’s book. The result was the e-book publishing my students’ analysis of 90 films, Focus on the USA: Representing the Nation in Early 21st Century Documentary Film (2020), now past 2500 downloads (many more, no doubt, than copies I will sell of my book!).
I had myself selected the films my students worked on after a very intensive bout of watching all I could get my eyes on, following the Oscar awards and nominations but also many other lists of the best 21st century documentaries. I went back to their e-book, then, to select those films more closely focused on masculinity and added others. I did not want to work on a pre-selected list of masculinities, so that all the categories would be covered regardless of the quality of the films dealing with them. I proceeded the other way round: first I got a list of about 60 truly notable films in which men and masculinity played a prominent part (the films I kept stumbling upon in all lists) and then I studied what kind of men they portrayed, until I pared down the list to 40 films. The result were sixteen chapters subdivided into four sections. Each chapter deals with two documentaries (exceptionally three, four or five at the most), and I offer here the list not only to publicize my own work but as an enticement for the reader to enjoy the films (if you don’t know where to begin, go straight into Free Solo):
PART I – VALUES
Chapter 1. The Good Man: Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father (2008), Undefeated (2011) by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin
Chapter 2. The Activist: Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006), An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017) by Bonni Cohen and Jon Schenck, David France’s How to Survive a Plague (2012), Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger (2012).
Chapter 3. The Politician: Errol Morris’s The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), Marshall Curry’s Street Fight (2005)
Chapter 4. The Whistleblower: Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009), Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour (2014)
PART II – DAMAGE
Chapter 5. The Criminal: Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002), Joe Berlinger’s docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019)
Chapter 6. The Abuser: Amy Berg’s Deliver Us from Evil (2006), Erin Lee Carr’s At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal (2019), Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s Athlete A (2020)
Chapter 7. The Wrongly Accused: The Central Park Five (2012) by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon; Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s trilogy Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), Paradise Lost: Revelations (2000) and Paradise Lost: Purgatory (2011); Amy Berg’s West of Memphis (2012)
Chapter 8. The Dependent Man: Roger Ross Williams’s Life, Animated (2016), Clay Tweel’s Gleason (2016)
PART III – ACTION
Chapter 9. The Soldier: Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), Father Soldier Son (2020) by Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis
Chapter 10. The Capitalist: Inside Job (2010), by Charles Ferguson, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2016) by Steve James
Chapter 11. The Adventurer: David Sington’s In the Shadow of the Moon (2016), Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2016)
Chapter 12. The Sportsman: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Free Solo (2018), Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap (2018)
PART IV – ART
Chapter 13. The Architect: Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect: A Son’s Journey (2003), Sydney Pollack’s Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005)
Chapter 14. The Musician: Lauren Lazin’s Tupac: Resurrection (2003), Brett Morgen’s Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
Chapter 15. The Photographer: Christian Frei’s War Photographer (2001), Richard Press’s Bill Cunningham New York (2010), Mark Bozek’s The Times of Bill Cunningham (2018)
Chapter 16. The Writer: Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008), Raoul Peck’s I Am not Your Negro (2016)
I kept for the Introduction Jennifer Newsom’s film The Mask You Live In (2015), which is not only the inspiration for my own title but an excellent documentary on the restrictions that patriarchy sets on American boys and men. All the other films mirror those restrictions. Newsom complemented the theoretical framework, based on work by scholars in Critical Studies of Men and Masculinities, with the direct testimonial of a variety of men about how hard it is to bear the mask behind which they need to hide all the time their true feelings and emotions. I did expect to find this mask in many films but I was surprised by how absolutely consistent the discourse on masculinity is in all of them, whether the men are white or black, gay or straight, poor or rich. All the films I analyzed deal what I can only call intra-patriarchal struggles, either presenting men who fight to get rid of the mask or men who use the mask to abuse. I had the pleasure of discovering many absolutely interesting men but also felt an intense disgust at dealing with some of the worst. The section on Ted Bundy was particularly hard to write.
Apart from that, this book has been my most pleasurable experience as an author so far. I felt throughout it impostor’s syndrome because I am not a specialist in documentary film but I convinced myself eventually that I was authorized to write the volume because of my extensive work on Masculinities Studies and on Film Studies. In a way, the book itself is a documentary, in print rather than on film, about what documentary films say about men in the USA, which is plenty. There was nothing, believe me, on this subject, except for some articles (not written from a Gender Studies perspective) and a few books touching partly on my subject. Christopher Pullen’s Documenting Gay Men: Identity and Performance in Reality Television and Documentary Film (2007) did so most directly, but Zachary Ingle and David M. Sutera’s edited volume Gender and Genre in Sports Documentaries: Critical Essays (2013) considers masculinity and femininity together, within the domain of this particular sub-genre.
I must clarify that the volume is feminist but, above all, anti-patriarchal. I have read the films through these lenses, pointing out where solid role models could be found and criticising the shortcomings of films that either did not go far enough in their own anti-patriarchal critique (the majority) or were even complicit with patriarchy (just a few). In general, I would say that most films I dealt with criticize patriarchy, even when that is not necessarily their target. Yet, I always feel a certain frustration that male filmmakers (and writers in general) are not better aware of the mask behind which men function in patriarchal societies (which are all of them and no doubt the USA). This is easy to see in the immense ideological distance between the mini-series on Ted Bundy, which basically endorses rape culture, and the films by women filmmakers on Larry Nassar, the doctor who abused so many girl gymnasts. Whereas the victims’ are absent from the Bundy mini-series they are the core of the Nassar films. I am highlighting abuse, but please don’t believe for a second that my focus lies on how patriarchy victimizes women; there is much more on how patriarchy destroys men.
In short, I hope to have opened a new area of research both within documentary Film Studies and Critical Studies of Men and Masculinities. And I hope to call attention to a long list of films and directors that are absurdly undervalued. I have been saying for years that documentaries are much, much better right now than fiction films both as works of art and as a vehicle for potent storytelling. Enjoy them, (and enjoy my book!).