James Toback’s The Big Bang resembles certain film work I’ve done. It especially reminds me of a very early documentary I made for some friends entitled The Philosopher’s Journey.
Then again, there are also important differences. Besides the obvious one that The Philosopher’s Journey is extremely amateurish in terms of its video and audio (it was one of my first ever projects after getting a camcorder), there are differences in style.
Basically, The Big Bang is a lot more conventional and commercial. Some people might find that a surprising claim, since The Big Bang is a documentary that probably doesn’t seem conventional and commercial at all, but I’m just saying comparatively. In The Philosopher’s Journey, and to some extent in other films of mine, I let people talk at much greater length. The films are of something of a hyper-realistic style. If some people think and speak quickly, and other people need a long time to gather their thoughts and tend to pause a lot, then that’s how I present them. Because that’s how they were when I interviewed them; that’s reality. I’m not looking to pretend they’re something more entertaining or more typical of “people in movies” than they happen to be.
Same thing with people who answer in monosyllables, people who ramble on and on, people who are animated, people who are wooden, people who answer my questions, and people who evade my questions. They are what they are, and I don’t present them as something else.
Now, I don’t mean to overstate that. Certainly there is plenty of editing in my films. But still considerably less than in a film like The Big Bang, and enormously less than in more commercial films intended for a general audience. Within limits, I let people think and speak at their own pace and in their own way. It’s not that I won’t shorten something or change things around, but the presumption is against doing so. I need compelling reasons to exclude things, whereas a conventional filmmaker trains himself or herself to require compelling reasons to include things. (And I used very much that same approach with my one oral history book—Prison Conversations. I edited the interviews a certain amount for readability and such, but what ended up in the book was usually pretty darn close to the original, raw transcript.)
Anyway, The Big Bang consists of a medley of clips of interviews with nineteen people, mostly about “big” or philosophical questions about personal identity, an afterlife, love, the origin of the universe, etc. There are also exchanges about some of the individuals’ lives, but usually these are related to these same “big” questions.
And it’s mostly well done, and to me very interesting.
One thing that got me thinking was the fact that the interviewees are each introduced with a label, with something that categorizes them—this is the nun, and this is the model, and this is the writer, and this is the artist, and this is the Holocaust survivor, etc.—kind of like the opening theme song to Gilligan’s Island. I think that helped in terms of keeping straight who was who (though with nineteen people I still lost track of some), but I felt myself reacting against the pigeonholing, the equating of an individual with just one of the infinite or nearly infinite number of types he or she falls under.
And it’s interesting, because later in the film, the filmmaker talks to a few of the interviewees about how they see their identity or what labels they use for themselves, whether it be racial, religious, gender, or whatever. But it’s like the filmmaker had already taken that out of their hands and imposed his own categories on them from the beginning.
I didn’t come away strongly disliking any of the nineteen people. The ones that rubbed me the wrong way to some extent, though, are the ones who come across as pseudo-intellectual, overconfident, pretentious, grandstanding, striving too hard for the bon mot, etc. Because to me there’s a certain phoniness to that, a feeling that we’re seeing a performance instead of the real person.
I liked the people who maybe dig a little deeper, and try to answer as sincerely as they can without worrying about how clever or funny they’re coming across.
To their credit, some people were willing to be humble and admit they didn’t know certain things, or had never really given some subjects serious thought. But really, “I don’t know” would have been the correct and honest answer for a lot more people to a lot more questions, though I don’t suppose that would make for a very entertaining movie.
Some of the theories and claims espoused are frankly silly, and certainly unknowable. Even assuming “The universe came about as God’s orgasm” means something—which it almost certainly doesn’t—what possible grounds could there be to believe such a thing, beyond that you like the sound of it or “it’s no worse than what other people believe,” which are no reasons at all?
For that matter it would have been nice to see some objections to some of the questions. To some of the more abstract and obscure ones, such as whether the self could disappear and there would be a “void” in its stead, I would have responded not just that I don’t know the answer to that question, but that I’m not convinced it’s a well-formed question to begin with. I felt myself reacting as a logical positivist at times, that I wouldn’t know what conceivable verification there could be for a yes or a no answer, and thus that the question itself was nonsensical.
As far as other reactions I had, the model lives down to the stereotype; she may be the dimmest of the interviewees.
Basketball player Darryl Dawkins is probably the most entertaining. He mostly is superficial and just going for laughs, but there’s still something genuine about that, like that’s who he really is—all appetite and just enjoyment of life. Plus he does drop in a few more revealing or insightful remarks later in the movie.
One of the interviewees—a teenage girl who I think said she intended to study medicine and use it to do good in the world—very much got off on the wrong foot with me when her first or second clip contained an ignorant and offensive statement that if it weren’t for religious believers, the whole world would consist of people running amuck and murdering each other. And from her use of the example of abortion as one of the terrible things nonbelievers do, she pretty clearly means believers in her—presumably Christian—religion specifically, making it even worse. It’s too bad, because almost everything else she said would have inclined me to like her.
The hardest part for me was the woman describing the death of her sixteen year old daughter. The Holocaust survivor’s stories were certainly powerful as well, but maybe they’re just too enormous to really get one’s mind around, because the mother who lost her daughter hit me even harder.
There’s no doubt I’ve become more emotional and softer about a lot of things in recent years. In the past I could have taken something like that more in stride, but now I struggle with it. It’s just heart-wrenching to contemplate experiencing such a loss. I was choked up; I had to force myself to watch that.
Overall I liked The Big Bang quite a lot, since it is the kind of subject matter that interests me.
Of course I would have made different editing decisions. The persistent violin music through the first half of the film I actually found rather distracting. The cutesy device at the beginning and end of the film depicting the filmmaker trying to explain to the potential producer why he should invest money in a movie with no stars and no plot and such didn’t do anything for me—how many documentaries have stars and conventional plots and sound like they’d be blockbuster moneymakers after all? Is that really what makes this project unusual? Having fewer interviewees and getting deeper with them would have been nice. I would have liked more “regular people” and not so many celebrities and artists and elite or unusual professions.
But The Big Bang is a highly thought-provoking film, and one I have no hesitation recommending.