‘Where does the journey look…?’
– W.H.Auden, ‘The Voyage’
‘It’s been such a journey.’
We hear a nauseating amount about journeys – almost as much as we hear about stories.
‘My journey’ – every television documentary must, of necessity, be ‘a personal journey in search of…’
Because if it isn’t, it will just be facts and pictures with a voiceover. Documentaries must be authored, and the discovery of facts must be also a progressively intensifying emotional trajectory (a journey).
But the falsity is this, and it is total: in order to get the TV documentary commissioned to begin with, the endpoint of ‘discovery’ must already be known. You will not get production money with the words ‘and we may find nothing of interest whatsoever’.
The documentary of failure and anti-climax is its own subgenre. (See Nick Broomfield’s films, i.e., Kurt & Courtney.) But bafflement is not what viewers want midweek primetime. They demand satisfactory emotional catharsis.
So, the most successful shows often take the form of Who Do You Think You Are? where the producer and their team have already to reached the journey’s endpoint, but have kept the star in ignorance of it.
Then, neatly emotionally staged, on camera (don’t forget that – if a revelation occurs anywhere but in front of the lens, it’s worthless, in TV terms) – on camera, the star can ‘discover’ what happened in the lives of their ancestors. From this they may draw a moral applicable for their own lives, and/or for those of the viewers. Here, the viewer can be privileged to witness ‘genuine’, by which I mean not acted, not Take Four, surprise, dismay, wonder, grief (on camera, in focus). Because the star doesn’t know. (Although, because they are aware of the commissioning process, they are aware there is something specific they don’t know.)
But in many other documentaries, the presenter is the star, the emotional centre, and they are in on the pitch (they are a major part of what sells the idea ).
Therefore, when they reach the endpoint, it is not genuinely an unexpected endpoint for them (except, perhaps, of the shoot). They may transfer the emotion that the six weeks of standing in front of the camera, emoting, at various picturesque locations, has finally come to a successful, well-lit ending. They may weep.
W.H. Auden’s words in his poem ‘The Voyage’ are, for these stars, definitive: ‘No, he discovers nothing: he does not want to arrive.’
A true but untelevisual discovery would ruin the programme, make it unbroadcastable. The hero turns out to be a creep or vice versa – the genre (feelgood or investigative) is broken, and the documentary becomes too radical (morally complex) to fit within TV. The director, if truly determined, has to head out into the wilderness of film festivals.
‘The journey is false…’
Every time someone on TV says, ‘It’s been a real journey…’ this isn’t true. They’ve not been on a journey, they’ve been on a coach excursion within a package tour. Their emotions may be real, but it has all been timetabled (as real journeys are not).
I can book, today, to have a profoundly unsettling moment in exactly two weeks time – on a tourist visit to Auschwitz. This would not, according to my definition, be a ‘journey’. It wouldn’t be setting out from your front door with no idea what you’re likely to encounter, and facing the possibility of ultimate, profound anti-climax.
Some knowledge of commissioning and production makes watching TV hard to endure. Everything has been pitched, discussed, cast, staged. Of course. It is all showbiz.
And I didn’t want to do that for Wrestliana – to showbiz it.
‘..the false journey really an illness / on the false island’ TV ‘where the heart cannot act’ giving act its full dignity, an act rather than an enactment or re-enactment: “Here I am at the graveside…”
Rewind to the pitch: He’ll be able to stand beside the grave and do the weepy bit. ‘..cannot act and will not suffer.’
Again, to suffer is to be lost in the tempest out at sea, not surrounded by water cannons and special effects in a swimming pool.
A while ago I made a documentary for Radio 3, about the Armenian composer Komitas. And I cried when I reached Komitas’s grave, and the producer was pissed off because I wouldn’t let him record it.
I wanted to say something interesting, but what he needed was the absolutely simple choked, broken voice saying, ‘Such a sad life. Such a sad life.’
I wasn’t able to get beyond that. There wasn’t much more to say.
The Producer even said, in advance, ‘If you’re going to cry, make sure I get it on mic…’
So, I did go to Armenia, I visited and learned things I didn’t know before, but I wouldn’t dignify my trip there with the word journey.
Where does the journey look which the watcher on the quay,
Standing under his evil star, so bitterly envies?
When the mountains swim away with slow calm strokes, and the gulls
Abandon their vows? Does it still promise the Juster Life?
And, alone with his heart at last, does the traveller find
In the vague touch of the wind and the fickle flash of the sea
Proofs that somewhere there exists, really, the Good Place,
As certain as those the children find in stones and holes?
No, he discovers nothing: he does not want to arrive.
The journey is false; the false journey really an illness
On the false island where the heart cannot act and will not suffer:
He condones the fever; he is weaker than he thought; his weakness is real.
But at moments, as when the real dolphins with leap and abandon
Cajole for recognition, or, far away, a real island
Gets up to catch his eye, the trance is broken: he remembers
The hours, the places where he was well; he believes in joy.
And maybe the fever shall have a cure, the true journey an end
Where hearts meet and are really true: and always this sea that parts
The hearts that alter, but is the same, always; and goes
Everywhere, joining the false and the true, but cannot suffer.