“What is ‘real’? How do you define ‘real’?” – Morpheus, The Matrix

No mainstream film of the last decade and a half dealt with the question of how to define reality better, or more extensively, than The Matrix. It took what we saw as fundamental truths about the world and created a universe that turned every last one of them upside down. It subjugated the world as we know it to a world of fantasy, created to nourish the human mind so that our future robot overlords (Who I, for one, welcome!), could continue to harvest us and lord over the world or whatever the fuck (this was the one part of the movie I was unclear on).

While the question of what is real is a fundamental question to humankind and one that has been wrestled with since the dawn of civilization, it’s not one that figures into day to day life for most of us. I probably think about it more than most because I work in a trade where perception is reality, but most of my engineer, geologist, and finance compatriots function in spaces where reality is generally drawn with clearer borders. That’s why it was with great interest (and a note of muted glee) that I was so happy to watch my professional world thrown into minor upheaval, and why I realized the documentary is simultaneously the most powerful and most dangerous form of entertainment today.


I was flipping through the channels a few lazy Saturdays back and happened upon Beyond the Mat on Current TV. For those who haven’t seen it, Beyond the Mat is a documentary that follows professional wrestlers at various points in their careers. Aging veteran Terry Funk has two rickety knees and should retire, but can’t pry himself away from the pure joy of mutilating himself in front of rabid Philadelphia wrestling superfans night after night. Darren Drozdov is set to debut in the WWF under the moniker “Puke.” Former Superstar Jake “The Snake” Roberts traverses the country wrestling in high school gyms and VFWs. Mick Foley overcomes a career of adversity and wins the WWF Championship.

It’s a thoroughly engrossing documentary that shows all of wrestling’s oddities, carnies, and idiosyncrasies in all their glory. Better and worse. I hadn’t watched this in at least a couple of years, and I was sucked right back in. While watching it, Current TV kept advertising “50 Documentaries to See Before You Die.” I like documentaries. Recording shit in this day and age is easier than working your toaster oven. So I record the series.

And as I settle in, I begin to think about work.


If you work for a big company, you know that every couple years, some consulting firm will actually breakthrough the impenetrable forcefield of upper management and convince them their particular brand of corporate brainwashing will take the executive’s company to the next level. Every company puts whatever portion of its employees through this training, it stays fresh on everyone’s mind for a couple of weeks, then everyone goes back to normal.

Not at my company. Our new philosophy has been ongoing for about two years. And it’s now filtering down to every level of the company. Almost everyone has to go through this training, which is why I found myself in Houston at the sweltering ass end of August for four days last week.

Admittedly, it’s better than most trainings. It provided a basic philosophical framework to start from, a common vocabulary for everyone to use, and a path forward to push the company into the next echelon of business for years to come. I went in cynical as hell, came out pleasantly surprised.

What was terribly amusing was that this wasn’t any brand new thinking, it was basically re-heated communication theory scrubbed within an inch of its life and re-purposed for corporate consumption. It’s sort of like the character Jordan Chase from Season 5 of “Dexter” who admits he bases his entire “fractured self” motivational speeches on material lifted from Plato’s “Symposium.”

I also realized I’m fucking wasting my time in my current career. I need to go back and read my old textbooks, rearrange some shit, and then charge corporations out the gazoo for my services. I’m pretty sure my company is getting bent over a table for the cost of these services, and they pay with a smile. And a big ol’ fat check. Gotta find those old textbooks…

Anyway, we spent three days talking about semiotics, the study of signs, and, more specifically, Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Beaudrillard without naming the theories explicitly. In a nutshell, the opening quote on that Wikipedia page probably summarizes this theory the best: “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth–it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” In essence, nothing has inherent meaning, only the meaning we imprint on it.

This is the philosophical construct lifted by the Wachowskis in writing The Matrix. They managed to turn obscure modernist French philosophy into a badass action movie crossed with a meditation on the limits of human perception, a claim not many action movies can make. The second and third movies both eat hog.

Before we go any further, I cannot describe to you how much fun it is to watch 300 left brained people who are very much oriented in process and science be forced to sit there and think abstractly about the meaning of reality for hours at a time. It was exquisite karmic justice for everyone who made fun of my college major.

Despite quite a bit of resistance, most everyone climbed on board by the middle of the second day, and where the first day was like remedial study in graduate level communication work, the remaining two days proved much more useful as they provided creative real world application and an interesting path forward for considering new projects.

What was most amazing was that over the course of three days, this training basically got a bunch of scientists to admit there is no such thing as universal reality. Science is continually proved wrong (Example: Intelligence used to be a measure of cranium size; There is nothing smaller than an atom; The Earth is flat; etc.), and our definition of what’s “real” changes ever more rapidly. Our biases, experiences, life circumstances and a whole shitload of other factors influence our reality every second of every day, and until we confront that, we take our concept of reality for granted.

Then I started watching documentaries.


“50 Documentaries to See Before You Die” is hosted by Morgan Spurlock and includes the following sentence in its opening sequence: “Documentaries a tribute to human curiosity, the meeting of art and journalism.” I can get on board with that. Journalism is a particular form of storytelling and art is basically everything, so that seems like an adequate explanation. Skip ahead a couple of expository sentences in this intro: “And sometimes they can even change the world, because they’re not just films, they’re real. Welcome to a celebration of that reality…”

Awwww shit, Spurlock. You almost had a good intro. But instead of making like a surgeon and using a scalpel to choose your words, you opted for the machete.

“They’re not just films, they’re real.”

The more I thought about this, the more pissed off I got. I got pissed off because this was airing on Current TV, a network founded by Al Gore, a man I find utterly despicable who uses blatant fear mongering and outright mistruths to further an agenda that will fatten his own wallet and line his own pockets.  And it’s hosted by Morgan Spurlock, who apparently has become America’s documentarian despite making only one successful movie (Super Size Me), a TV show no one watched (30 Days), and two giant flops (Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold).

I enjoyed Super Size Me. I guess. I hadn’t thought about it until I read Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas when Klosterman thoroughly disrobed its entire premise. And he’s right, Super Size Me does not have a valid point and underlines a bullshit premise of alleged victimization at the hands of corporations. I didn’t buy it then, and I buy it even less now.

What I remember about watching Super Size Me was finding Spurlock charming, but thinking he was trying too hard. And that’s fully on display as he sells even the most specious premises as unassailable truths during the interstitials on “50 Docs.”

Number 28 on the countdown is a movie called “Gasland” by Josh Fox. Fox is an accomplished storyteller and has a clear agenda at the film’s outset. He then sets forth to prove his premise, and to the shock of no one, does. Knowing what I know from being so professionally close to the film’s subject matter, I can say with certainty that Fox’s film is filled with blatant inaccuracies and incomplete information. Yet it’s hailed as an inside look at the natural gas industry.

Likewise, “Bowling for Columbine” is a manipulative piece of shit designed solely to get you pissed off about America’s gun policies. I don’t even like guns and wish we could somehow rid the world of them, yet I saw through Moore’s blatant exploitation and diabolical emotional hectoring.

Hell, even something innocuous (and unbelievably engrossing) like “Man on Wire” plays fast and loose with reality with its frequent use of re-creations. Director James Marsh justifies it. “As if style, or the absence of style, will somehow get to the truth.” Well, that’s generally what truth is regarded to be. Just a bland glob of facts that exists as it is, free from interpretation. But since we defined the documentary as the intersection of art and journalism, I see what you’re getting at.

And that speaks to my central concern about documentaries. We accept them as “real,” and when we do, we let them get away with much more. Documentaries are much more successful when they confirm what an audience already knows or wants to believe. Because I am pissed off at Wall Street and what I perceive to be the swindling of America, I am much more likely to embrace “Inside Job.” I haven’t seen this movie, but I suspect it’s right on the money. That’s dangerous thinking.

We want truth and stability in our lives, which is probably why sports are so popular. Sports exist in a finite universe with eminently enforceable rules and clearly defined boundaries. The rest of the world is way more fucking complicated. So when a documentary comes along and declares boldly, “I’ve got the truth!” We’re much more inclined to listen.

“Fahrenheit 9/11” is the highest grossing documentary of all-time. It made over $119 million at the domestic box office, and why is that? Half the country (possibly more) was royally pissed off that Bush won the 2000 election and that we were dragged into a war under what appeared to be false pretenses. So was this movie real? Let’s ask Christy Lemire of the AP: “Michael Moore definitely had a major and sweeping and ambitious agenda. He wanted to change the direction of the country. And he has enough of an ego and enough ambition, he felt he could do that kind of thing.”

Truth does not have an agenda, reality does not have a goal. The above quote from Lemire seems to undermine the entire premise “50 Documentaries to See Before You Die” is based upon. Remember, they’re not just films, they’re real.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t watch documentaries or that we can’t learn anything from them. Rather, that because we accept them as “real,” their impact can be that much greater. I have no doubt “Fahrenheit 9/11” is 100% real to Michael Moore. I’m sure he sees it as incontrovertible gospel. But that’s his reality. It’s not ours.

As part of owning my own reality, I realize I only bring this up because I have fucking Beaudrillard on the brain and spent three days in a room full of science dorks re-learning communication theory. But that doesn’t mean that I’m wrong. And as I fell further down the rabbit hole of considering this, something odd occurred to me. Fictional stories are often more true than their documentary counterparts.

Superbad is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of what it feels like to be in high school. In a completely different way, so is Election. High Fidelity holds a mirror up to music snobs better than any documentary film has probably ever dared to try. I myself found Forgetting Sarah Marshall to be the funniest and most accurate examination of how to get over a long term relationship more than any practical experience captured on film could.

Fictionalized movies basically never have to establish credibility and sidestep the scrutiny documentaries face. I don’t question the reality of “I Love You, Man.” I just accept it for what it is and then suddenly my mother-in-law is revealed in Jane Curtin, and the familiar beats of establishing male bonds show up. It’s a real experience hidden inside art. Yet, when I watch “Fahrenheit 9/11,” I think about Michael Moore’s choice of edits and arrangement of facts. When I watch “Gasland,” I think about the motivations of Josh Fox’s interview subjects. I wonder if Banksy is just fucking with us in “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”

So what is “real”? How do we define “real”? I don’t know, and I’m pretty sure Morgan Spurlock doesn’t either. All I know is what I see. I’m not advocating for solipsism, I’m just curious.

I want to get in your world, and I want to find out how you see it. Had Morgan Spurlock opened “50 Documentaries to See Before You Die” this way – “Check out these 50 viewpoints and live in their world for a while,” you might not be reading this right now. I could be writing about this again.

But that’s reality. And more than 2,300 words later, we’re back where we started. I don’t have any answers. And maybe when we get right down to it, like Jordan Chase on “Dexter,” like the highly paid consultants currently indoctrinating my company, and unlike the “real” documentaries being counted down on Current TV that function as propaganda pieces, we’re all just appropriating communication theory from well before us as we create our own realities. But who knows…

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” – Socrates