Monday, October 22, 2018

Mockumentary ethics or "American Vandal director Peter Maldonado is a dick"

A fun feature of the mockumentary genre is that we're often watching a reality that has been specifically shaped and crafted by one of the player in that reality. From Marty Di Burgi in THIS IS SPINAL TAP to Taylor Gentry in BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON, most mockumentaries can't resist showing us the person behind the camera. In the cases of those two films and many like it, the result is to portray an interloper in the world they're exploring. It provides someone who can react to the eccentricity of the subjects of the documentary.

But this also means that every thing we see on screen was left in purposefully by the observer we often see on screen. That means a smart mockumentary filmmaker will be constantly asking themselves, "What is the director saying by choosing to show this? What's their agenda? What does this choice reveal about them?"

The trick is that when we're watching a "finished" mockumentary, we don't know what the ostensible director chose to leave out. A problem child getting a "villain edit" could be a total asshole in "real" life, or he could just be the victim of a hatchet job. It's hard for the viewer to perceive the intent unless the hatchet job gets heavy-handed enough that the film communicates "this director has a bias."

This possibility is one of the things that fascinates me the most about mockumentaries. Surely there are a number of examples in the genre where the filmmakers don't want us to be aware of the invisible hands behind the camera. (Many Christopher Guest films fall under this classification.) But when done right, it can add an extra layer of depth.

The first season of AMERICAN VANDAL didn't forget about this. Presented as a student-produced documentary, the show followed two filmmakers efforts to determine who was responsible for a vulgar act of vandalism. In presenting and discarding suspects, filmmaker Peter Maldonado often disseminated or verified embarrassing rumors and dug into personal lives of his classmates to an embarrassing degree.

One revealing moment came in episode 4 of season one when Peter and his collaborator Sam conceded that they both fit the profile of the perpetrator. As they had done a deep dive on the pros and cons of other suspects, Peter and Sam each produced a segment on the other. Sam blows it off as a joke, producing a segment with voiceover that goes, "Could Peter Maldonado have done the dicks? He's never done anything else wrong in his life. He had perfect attendance last year. He's a total puss. So, could he have drawn the dicks? No, no, no, he couldn't have, no. Again, no."

Peter, on the other hand, takes the gloves off, brutally outing Sam's crush on his friend Gabi and suggesting that Sam might have done the prank out of jealousy, hoping to get prom canceled because he didn't want Gabi to go with Brandon Galloway. Peter doesn't pull any punches in using embarrassing evidence of Sam's crush, either. At one point he shows Sam took 32 selfies before he found the perfect casual one to send to Gabi. It would be a savage embarrassment for Peter to do this segment on any classmate, but that he does it to a best friend AND keeps it in the documentary after Sam gets pissed about it... well, it kinda shows us who Peter is, doesn't it?

Peter is equally insensitive when debunking another theory that centers on Sarah Pearson's hookup list. While initially it seems like it might be part of a chain of evidence that exonerates Dylan Maxwell, it's soon revealed as a dead-end red herring. Peter could have told his story without putting Sarah and others "on blast." In the final episode of the season, Sarah actually confronts Peter about it, telling him, "Your documentary fucked with people's lives... What did my hookup list have to do with the truth? It didn't prove anything. It had nothing to do with Dylan. It was just humiliating. My dad saw it, Peter."

Here's what's interesting - Peter leaves that confrontation in. It's a moment where he comes off terribly, but he doesn't try to hide it. You might think that means he's learned his lesson. Maybe he even felt he deserved it. Either way, you would hope that such a call-out would merit self-reflection.

And then season 2 of AMERICAN VANDAL shows Peter to be just as callous a dick as before. Again, when examining suspects and their motives, Peter goes for the jugular. One student recently suffered severe embarrassment when photos of him wearing a diaper and baby bonnet were leaked online. This plot point turns out to be somewhat important to the resolution, but Peter probably had ways of addressing it without re-humiliating the poor student. Instead, Peter goes for the shock value, probably showing more than is necessary and delivering this humiliation to a much wider audience than just the teen's classmates.

That's something else to consider. As seriously as Peter took his duty as a filmmaker in season one, at the time he had no reason to think it would ever be seen by anyone outside of his school. There's a very thin defense he could mount that no one beyond those depicted in the documentary would ever care to watch it. But after AMERICAN VANDAL became a viral hit, season 2 informs us that the first season was a Netflix sensation before Peter even started work on his follow-up.

So he knew there was anticipation for the next run of the series. He knew there was a wider global audience that would see this, and he put it all in without a second thought.

Peter learned nothing. And I love that the show committed to that. It makes us reevaluate his decision to keep in his callout from Sara Pearson. Did he think it made him look like the victim? Did he put it in to use as a shield against attacks that he manipulated the editing? Does it help him feel honest and objective if his own documentary calls him out, and is doing that an even greater act of manipulation on his part?

Peter produces compelling documentaries, but a subtext running through them is that he doesn't really connect to people. He sees himself in the mold of an investigative reporter or documentarian, with everyone else just being a player in the drama that unfolds, collateral damage by their very nature. In pursuit of the truth, he'll punish anyone who presents a threatening counternarrative. (Think of how relentlessly Alex Trimboli is shredded by the documentary in season one.)

This is perhaps too meta, but I feel like the next season needs to put Peter's ethics on trial somehow. The groundwork has been laid over two seasons, and while he's gotten pushback, it's been fairly timid (at least, Peter has portrayed it as such.) In the world of the show, Peter has two popular documentaries out there. That's more than enough time for some serious consequences to result from one of them.

Peter Maldonado has shown us who he is, and AMERICAN VANDAL has shown us they know who he is. It's a grenade just waiting to be armed and I am HERE for it.

1 comment:

  1. His taunting of the Turd Burglar in the final episode really put a fine point on this too. There might have been no Dump without the heads up that their identity was about to be revealed. More lives were ruined because he couldn't help but brag (and has no self awareness surrounding it).

    If they get picked up by a different streamer for season three, I could see there being a sub-plot about Netflix ditching them because of Peter's ethical lapses and the complaints it generated.