A movie directed by Stephen Walker
On the quiet, sunny morning of September 11th, 2001 the horrid face of terrorism violently crept up on America. Being the strong and proud Americans we are, we did nothing more than band together to show our strength, hope, bravery, and heroism during … see full wiki
Except for the purely historical documentary, documentaries are nearly always biased. Very few documentaries recover even the money to cover the costs of making them, so what we get is something driven by a strong passion or an over inflated ego. So the first question I tend to ask is “why” make the film. The motive will shape my take on the subject most strongly. Since the maker determines the way the story is told, then I want to know how I’m going to get the information. “Plot” is last; my assumption is I wouldn’t bother finishing, let alone watching, a documentary whose subject bored me.
Given this, I wasn’t bored I was mildly angry and modestly annoyed.
Daryll Roberts decides to take on the idea of why so many Americans are driven by beauty or driven to become beautiful; the film is not even 2 hours long. If the focus had been tight, as it seemed it might be, I would have less to review.
America the Beautiful is the worst sort of documentary with regards to bias.
Mr. Roberts chooses the personal narrative for the film. The problem with this is that he has nothing personal at stake. Despite what it may seem at first flush, this does not mean the story will be balanced; it means that he will have even less control over his chosen topic too massive to control under the best of circumstances. What I am about to say concerning possible motive should be taken only as it is presented, a logical possibility, not an accusation. He does attempt to maintain a controlling metaphor—which frequently gets lost. The metaphor is the modeling career of a young girl. I never got the sense he was a dirty old man. However a filmmaker has almost unfettered abilities to add/change/remove anything from a documentary, so when something seems odd, it makes the “why” question loom even larger. If Gerren was his daughter or his best friend’s daughter or something along those lines, then the personal presentation would not be as potentially weird. This method is strike one against the film.
Using archival footage, we see Gerren strutting the catwalk. She is tall, thin, pretty. She looks 20. She’s 12. I reckon this is supposed to shock. It doesn’t. Most of us are familiar with the concept of young girls tarted up for beauty pageants or modeling gigs—we probably find it inappropriate or other adjective, but shocking isn’t really near the top of the adjective list. If he had stayed focused on the anecdotal story from Gerren and her mother, he would have had something solid, coherent anyway. Gerren’s mother is the kind of parent most of us despise: amateur model herself, now being stage-mother to her young girl for the vicarious thrill of being pretty by proximity—replace model with baseball pitcher and Gerren to Garrett and you get the same thing typically with dads . . . I didn’t want to make the category of proxy-star parent sexist). The choice to deviate from a controllable structure is strike two.
Mr. Roberts talks to one certified plastic surgeon about enhancement surgery on adolescent girls. He brings up an example of a very young girl wanting breast augmentation to represent a point. His nurse has the statement that sums up just how poorly Mr. Roberts presents his case. She says to the doctor that he cannot use the extreme to represent the whole (this statement is the one I use in all arguments because it almost immediately ends the debate—the extreme example is the indication that the debaters don’t want to continue the debate, but are also too invested in it to quit). Mr. Roberts uses the extreme at every turn.
His choice of interview subjects proves this out.
He uses three men to illustrate . . . I’m not really sure. Given the general context, he seems to want to know why the men want the stereotypical starved model look. Two of the men are interviewed together. One of them seems to be honest enough, giving somewhat couched answers to his idea of “hot” and he admits to everyone watching that his penis is, in his words, small (at the end of the documentary we learn his girlfriend dumped him after seeing the film for always “coming up short” a direct quote). His friend is the loudest-mouthed frat guy we would all rather avoid. Here is a bit of wisdom from the mook who claims that his penis is impressive: “Thank God for cloning . . . if you like your Pamela Andersons and other kinds of hot women, we can run them off at a manufacture and eliminate the nasty chicks [sic].” There is nothing about his delivery or himself as what passes for a person to indicate he was kidding. For him “since the film’s release, his success with women has never been better.” The third male he interviews seems to be a stoner that may be 20. He claims he needs 6-pack abs. When he is asked why, his response is the childish: I don’t know. These three white men, none of them appears to be out of his twenties, are the cross-section of society he uses to represent a far larger group.
And just how seriously are we supposed to take the film when we find out this childish information at the end? Even had the documentary been solid before, this poor choice could wreck it.
He does interview half a dozen plastic surgeons, most of whom are not truly qualified and not certified at all, but he presents all as if they were pimps, explaining how valuable their job is. You may believe this to be true, but there is no attempt to balance this out. In fact, one of the doctors he interviewed went nuts talking to a woman about skin tone and started insulting her—later we discover he is bi-polar. The interview with the bi-polar doctor is the best example of keeping someone in the documentary that is so far to the extreme that they represent only themselves.
The women, apart from the Taylors, are mainly authority figures of some sort. For example, Gerren’s principal is in the position of deciding if Gerren can be out of school for several weeks for modeling opportunities.
He also interviews Atoosa Rubenstein (editor in chief of Seventeen who either left or was fired before documentary was aired); Susan Schulz, editor in chief of Cosmo Girl; Denise Fedewa, a marketing exec; and Jill Ishkanian who does marketing for Us Weekly. These women are all brought on to explain the obvious: the American focus on exaggerated (my word) beauty is driven by ad revenue. The implication is that if advertisers would use realistic women, then the current beauty-ideal would change.
Then there is the requisite sociologist to explain how a culture is affected by unrealistic expectations of beauty. You can’t cover beauty without showing the woman living with botched plastic surgery. And you have to have a few celebrities, most of whom are pretty, to say you should have a healthy respect for your own body and blah blah blah; forgive me if I think that coming out of Jessica Simpson’s mouth leaves me unconvinced.
Choosing poor representatives and editing (presumably) to show only the tiny segments of the bell curve is the massive strike three.
Finally, I just get the sense that Mr. Roberts understood no more about beauty than anyone else chosen at random. Since he doesn’t present a coherent theme, there is no theme to wrap up; since there is really no structure, it is difficult to know if he learned anything. I know I only learned that I didn’t like the documentary at all.
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