Tuesday, October 4, 2011
In Home Viewings: "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop"
In my mind, there are three types of documentaries:
1.) Informative/investigative documentaries - These are the documentaries that generally get the most attention. The idea is to bring light to the truth of a given situation or event and usually involves background information and often interviews with the subjects. Joan Rivers: Piece of Work would be a recent example. Another would be my favorite documentary of all-time and my pick for best film of 2009, It Might Get Loud.
2.) Faux-umentaries - A documentary that is clearly scripted, at least in part. Think Catfish, I'm Still Here, or even some parts of Waiting For Superman.
3.) "Turn the camera on and see what happens" documentaries - To be clear, this is an element of almost every documentary. Perhaps the best part of It Might Get Loud is when Jimmy Page, Jack White, and The Edge sit around in front of a camera and simply talk about music. But whereas other docs might take it a step further and delve into the details of the subjects past or a given event, this category of films stays at home and lets the subject do the storytelling, so to speak.
Above all else, Can't Stop is incredibly honest. It does not pull any punches or attempt to paint Conan in a positive light. In fact, there are plenty of moments in which Conan comes off as a jerk and a demanding one at that. Much of Conan's humor is of the self-deprecating variety and his work ethic is legendary and the truth is, those two traits often make one a sarcastic and sometimes harsh employer. It isn't that he's mean-spirited but rather that he's made a living for 20 years making fun of others and pushing himself to be funny all the time. That doesn't happen without making a mark on your life. To their credit, you get the impression that all those around him know this and have accepted it. And as an audience, you must remember that when Can't Stop was being filmed, Conan had only just been booted from the network where he'd worked for almost two decades. There is an undercurrent of depression and anger that runs through the film and while it never boils over or becomes the center of attention, it is a pretty big supporting player that has a little more to do with the man's mood than might seem readily apparent.
At the same time, Conan's affection and understanding for his fans shines through throughout the film's runtime. He takes the time to sign every item that is pushed in front of him and heads out into the masses even when his handlers tell him not to. In his trailer he complains about the toll all the handshaking and storytelling has taken on him but when push comes to shove, he jumps right back into it on each and every leg of the tour. Conan has built a rapid fan base over the years and what sets him apart from Letterman, Leno, and the rest is his endearing understanding and appreciation for those who have made him popular. As a lifelong and loyal Conan fan, it is this quality that keeps me coming back for more, whether he's at NBC, TBS, or BET and a big part of what makes Can't Stop so engrossing.
And while there is certainly some creative editing at work, Can't Stop does a wonderful job of displaying Conan's greatest strength (and maybe his biggest weakness): he cares. He cares what his friends think, what his family thinks, and perhaps most of all, what his fans think. It is this caring that drives him, that pushes him to the edge of sanity at times. It is also what makes him successful and what will probably kill him at some point, hopefully many years in the future. Like so many performers, the stage, whether it be a late night television program or a tent at Bonnaroo, is where he gets affirmation and at least part of his self-worth. While neither he nor anyone involved with Can't Stop comes right out and says this, it becomes clear that in many ways, Conan needs his fans as much if not more than his fans need him. This is why the title of the film is Can't Stop rather than Won't Stop or Doesn't Want to Stop. It is an excellent, well-made film and its subject rivals even the best documentaries in terms of complexity and intrigue.