“You’re going to mock us, right? You want to make your version of Trekkies.” This was how many of the professional air hockey players responded when my crew showed up in Las Vegas to begin shooting my documentary feature, Way of the Puck.
“Personally, I think that most of these filmmakers have a fondness and respect for their subjects. The landscape that these characters travel in may be absurd, but their passion and commitment is laudable, and usually that shines through.
Others may disagree.”
Now, I’ve never seen Trekkies, but I understand it is often cited (perhaps unfairly) as a film that relentlessly pokes fun at its subjects – a film that finds the most foolish and socially inept characters and places them front and center. Over the past ten years there have been plenty of films that have been accused of operating in this mode, many of which are populated by fringe characters participating in outsider sports and activities. Air guitar, Dungeons & Dragons, beer pong, bowling, LARPing, rock-scissors-paper, and, of course, Donkey Kong: these are just some of the competitive, borderline-absurd subcultures that have been explored in documentaries, often with hilarious results. Personally, I think that most of these filmmakers have a fondness and respect for their subjects. The landscape that these characters travel in may be absurd, but their passion and commitment is laudable, and usually that shines through. Others may disagree.
So when a few air hockey players questioned the purity of my motives, I told them I wasn’t interested in devoting many years of my life to the simple mockery of the very thing I was trying to document. How could that possibly be gratifying for any filmmaker? To start and finish each day thinking that the subject of one’s long-form work was trivial and meaningless, even ridiculous? I was not interested in that.
“We began our work: the slow process of interviewing players and learning what the stories were, what the mythology was, and who the pivotal figures were in air hockey’s conflicted history. “
This answer satisfied some players but not others. So we entered the tournament space – modest compared to the foosball venue across the hall and the much larger billiard room further down – and the noisy racket of air hockey play commenced on a dozen shining blue tables. We began our work: the slow process of interviewing players and learning what the stories were, what the mythology was, and who the pivotal figures were in air hockey’s conflicted history.
It soon became apparent that everyone had an agenda, not just us. Who, after all, consents to being the subject of a documentary film? Who consents to being followed around by cameras and having his or her life turned inside out for the public to gape at? Well, there were players who already saw that Way of the Puck could effectively write the text of air hockey’s history, and they wanted to be sure of their place in that written record. There were those who had business goals involving air hockey and saw the film as a potential marketing tool for themselves. There were players who just loved air hockey for itself and wanted to help – however they could – to get air hockey some kind of recognition. There were those who saw the opportunity of being in a documentary as some kind of validation – if a person was deemed to be narratively worthy could one not say the same thing about their very lives?
“During the editing of Way of the Puck I felt a nagging responsibility to be respectful of these players and their personal lives. My friends and associates felt no such compunction.”
So we did what all documentarians do: try to get inside of them and get the truth. And they resisted. It took years for some to open up. Essentially, I made an unspoken promise to be human if they would allow me access to the real humans inside of them. Some never came out; they stayed on message until the very end. And some took me out for dinner. One let me stay at his place when I couldn’t find a hotel available close by. Some made overtures of friendship. I’m not sure if this was calculated and cynical but the result was the same as if it weren’t: The more humanized they were the less inclined I would be to screw them over in the final edit. Because this is how it works: We break them down and earn their trust, and then we expose them, right?
During the editing of Way of the Puck I felt a nagging responsibility to be respectful of these players and their personal lives. My friends and associates felt no such compunction. At all. “Who cares what you said?” seemed to be the prevailing opinion. “Now you’re in post and you must make the best film possible. You have a responsibility to your audience to tell an open, engaging story.”
Was that right? Was I not getting to the guts of the story because I was pussyfooting around? Was I in danger of making a subjective, adoring “love letter” that just pitched softballs and probed nothing? Or was I doing all of the cheap things I promised not to do? Was I manipulating footage for easy laughs? Was I artificially pumping up conflict to create drama? Was I focusing on a disproportionate amount of “foolish” and “socially inept” players, or was I focusing on “unique” and “interesting” players and including them because boring, well-adjusted people make for unengaging cinema?
In spite of all of this wrangling, once the DVD came out many players still thought they were misrepresented, and some thought they were mocked! Conversely, I felt like I didn’t push hard enough and go after more juicy bits! I felt I was too soft on them and yet everybody was still unhappy. Players started to approach me and express unhappiness with certain aspects of the way their lives unspooled on film.
“I was reminded that there is no such thing as objective truth, and that my truth, and your truth, and every other player’s truth
are completely different.”
“Okay, I hear you,” I’d say, “but what did you think about the way everyone else was portrayed?”?
“Oh, it was totally accurate!” they’d say. “Those guys are exactly like that.”
And then I’d go to the next player and he’d say the same thing.
I was reminded that there is no such thing as objective truth, and that my truth, and your truth, and every other player’s truth are completely different. Everyone plays the protagonist in the movie of his or her life, and when a reality is presented that skews that particular narrative, people cry foul. It is only natural. At the end of the day, the film is the director’s version of the truth, and as long as you are honest with yourself and the material, and respectful to your subjects, I think that’s all that matters.
I’ve started thinking it might be impossible for the people who star in documentaries to be one hundred percent satisfied with the way they are portrayed on screen. I’m very interested in hearing from other filmmakers about their experiences in this situation, because I’m sure all directors want their subjects to love their film as much as they do. It just seems like an impossible request.
There’s just no way your filmed, edited footage can square with the stream of sequenced, heroic images in the mind of your characters.
If it does, maybe your movie’s too soft.
The DVD of Way of the Puck is available at www.wayofthepuck.com and elsewhere.
Eric D. Anderson has worked as a professional cameraman on award-winning music videos (Green Day, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce), commercials (Nike, Coca-Cola, Levi’s), and features (Law Abiding Citizen, Powder Blue).
Currently, he is revising his first novel, Tacomaland, and polishing the script for his next film, an existential comedy about ping pong and failure called The Secret Unbelievable. In 2012 he is rolling out a new Internet venture called Creative Ape Magazine that will feature the web series, Films About Humans.
Eric was once the twenty-fourth ranked air hockey player in the world. Way of the Puck is his first feature film.