It’s on the radio two times a weekend, it’s on Showtime, it wins Emmy’s, it’s on Netflix, it tells true stories better than you and you will always be competing.
It is, of course, This American Life. I don’t know if there’s any way to really calculate the impact this life-affirming radio show/ television show / hipster-first-date-conversation-starter has had on nonfiction storytelling, but I’ll try: I’ve made a number of short form documentaries and every time if someone likes it – really, genuinely likes it – they will inevitably say, “It reminded me of This American Life.” That phrase alone is short hand for “It made me laugh/cry/think about getting a divorce/etc.” There is no escaping it and God save you if your documentary has voice-over.
The only thing worse than hearing that the documentary you made reminded someone of This American Life… is not hearing it. If the name of the great nonfiction monolith is not invoked then you have failed. Miserably. You have not had quirky characters, you have not made me feel anything, you have not had good music cues, you have not made me think about This American Life.
Despite all this. I like the show. The television episode Escape is some of the finest nonfiction narrative filmmaking I’ve ever seen. That being said – it is all of a very specific style, and one aspect of this style is – for me – problematic.
In 2004, Ira Glass wrote a Manifesto for the journal Transom. It’s a journey through Glass’ experiences working in radio but it’s also meant to tell you how to tell stories. Some of the advice I’ve clearly taken to heart:
“Force yourself to do a lot of stories. This is the most important thing you can do. Get yourself in a situation where people are expecting work out of you, or where you simply force yourself to do a certain number of stories every month. Turn the stuff out. Deadlines are your friend. “
But the problems arise when Glass gets to the Big Idea (Glass’ phrase and capitalization, not mine):
“A person can walk through lava, cure a disease, find true love, lose true love, discover he was adopted, discover he was NOT adopted, have all manner of amazing experiences, but if he (or the narrator) can’t say something big and surprising about what that experience means, if the story doesn’t lead to some interesting idea about how the world works, then it doesn’t work.”
The problem is that often it’s the narrator saying something big and surprising about the subject’s experience. When the subject is less articulate or less educated than the narrator it takes on a form of condescension, “Let me help you understand your life in a way that you cannot on your own.” It’s also spoon-feeding the audience an interpretation or conclusion that they may not agree with or that may not even be valid.
So far we’ve avoided voice-over, and that’s been in no small part due to the angry-beast of This American Life hulking in that corner. It’s also because – again, for me – when I watch a piece and slowly pull the threads together in my own head and my own heart — without any help — I’m more involved, more engaged and feel like I experience the story instead of just hearing it.