As we potter around Manchester diving into our various video production projects, it’s easy to forget just where the inspiration for our work comes from. Once the work comes flooding in, it goes from plan, to shoot, to edit with not much time for reflection in between. The video that’s seen on screen is a reflection of our own style, however, this style didn’t come from nowhere, it was inspired by hours of TV and film. My name’s Marcus and I’m the Managing Director of Glacé Media. Over the course of this series of blogs I’m going to take a step back and reflect on those who’ve inspired our work and the video content we produce at Glacé Media.
For me, there was only one place to start when it came to inspiration. I must warn in advance that this will probably take the shape of a fanboy stream of consciousness rather than an articulate analysis of his work. But as long as we’ve cleared that up from the start, here we go.
The Joys Of Louis Theroux
Ever since I saw my first Louis Theroux documentary I was captivated by the way he dived into a story. Was it entertainment? Was it informative? Was it art? I wasn’t sure, but what I was sure of was that I thought Louis Theroux was amazing. Looking back now, what I think was the initial attraction to his work was that it felt human. The technique he has forever used of taking part in the story, interviewing the subjects on their terms and just keeping the camera rolling no matter what, is what made it feel so real. The fact this guy who looked so out of place in many of the situations he found himself in was managing to develop such interesting, often wacky, but always deep conversation with people was mesmerising.
Before I take this adoration to a dissertation sized outpouring, I’ll give you a little structure. Let’s run through some of my favourite Louis Theroux documentaries and what I think is so amazing about them.
(If you want to watch any of these documentaries, they are now all available on BBC iPlayer)
Gambling In Las Vegas
The perfect place to start is with the first ever Louis Theroux documentary I saw and that was ‘Gambling in Las Vegas’. Based out of the Las Vegas Hilton, Louis spends his time in Vegas, chatting to a variety of people, but most importantly, gambling himself. An area that has been covered in film and media countless times might seem like a light hearted subject matter. Cocktails, lobster dinners and easy money. However, this doc doesn’t get bogged down in the lavish lifestyles of the gamblers, this merely serves as a footnote to Louis’ exploration of these people’s lives and what gambling actually means to the viewer and to me.
I must admit that believe it or not, the complexities of Louis Theroux’s documentary style isn’t what initially attracted to this film. It was exactly what other depictions of Las Vegas provided that grabbed me. The bright lights and never ending chance to win the big bucks. As a young teenager I was more than fascinated with the concept of the American dream. So in many ways this documentary was the first step towards me lifting the lid on what I thought was so great about American culture as a teenager to the perception I have now.
The main focus of the documentary is one regular high roller who’s friend works at the casino and acts as his personal assistant throughout the trip. A couple of businessmen who aren’t short of a few quid and a retired millionaire who spends everyday on the slots. The most intriguing of the subjects has to be Martha. A former doctor who spends her days slowly whittling away at her son’s inheritance courtesy of the slot machines comes across as a cartoon like character. Louis builds a good relationship with her which is seen on screen and he even gets to put a few questions to her son about what he thinks about her rampant gambling. He’s blown away by the $4 million she’s blown away over the course of a few years.
What’s so magical for me about the relationship he builds with Martha and the subsequent chat he has with her son is how close he gets. People seem to want to tell Louis the truth and express themselves to him. This is clear from Martha’s son’s interview with Louis where he discusses his mum’s behaviour while she’s in the room. Despite his concerns about his mum’s behaviour she continues in the same way and her and Louis carry on throwing coins into machines and talking about the complimentary funeral service the casino laid on for her late husband.
No major insights are gained into their personal lives, but his documentaries aren’t about this. He’s saying, look at the face of casino culture. Now let’s lift the lid and look at the human emotions behind this. Without ever playing with the subject’s emotions, he leaves them be and goes back to showing the face of casino life. But something looks different now the viewer has had a peek beneath the bonnet. We start to see what the casinos are built on and it isn’t just money. It is the very technique which drew me to his work so much, fascination with the ‘dream’ lifestyle. It’s personal, without being invasive. We’re not necessarily learning about the subject, but what their lives tell us about the bigger issue. It’s this formula that enables Louis Theroux documentaries to have the ability to be so heart warming yet so soul crushing at the same time.
His rollercoaster through the personality of casino life is captured at the end where he partners up a guy staying at the hotel and goes for a blowout on $3,000. He is resigned to losing all his money, however, it goes the opposite way and he goes to bed with $4,500 in his pocket. As Louis goes to cash in his money, he turns to the guy who was looking after the high roller all weekend and asked him in the light of his financial triumph why he doesn’t gamble. The guy simply tells Louis it’s because he’s smart.
This should really rap up proceedings, but the real story is in the look Louis gives to him. In that moment of success, he is experiences everything that draws people to the casino tables time and time again. We are left we Louis Theroux gazing as the casino employee with dazed look in his eye and an almost ‘I Love Big Brother’ dedication to the casino God. Louis stroke of look in the casino is also a stroke of luck for the film. This serves to highlight how why gambling is so captivating even against the logical line of questioning Theroux has put forward all the way through the film. If the rational, voice of reason journalist can be suckered in by it, then anyone can.
Most Hated Family In America
Next up is one of the more controversial subjects that Louis Theroux tackled, the Westboro Baptist church. This group in America was already well known for their verbally aggressive and offensive interpretation of the bible that lead them to picket the funerals and organise rallies against those they deemed to be sinners or enabling those who were sinners. Whether it be fallen soldiers or members of the gay community, the Westboro Baptist Church generated a lot of hate against themselves. The reason this is one of my favourites is because it sees Louis dive into a situation with a calm and inquisitive demeanour in a situation most would struggle to contain their disgust.
The classic immersive Theroux technique is at play once again as his attends pickets with the family, goes to their church services and takes on their day to day tasks. We jump into the film at the beginning knowing the controversy of the church and imagine its members as being beyond reason and rationale. This is re-affirmed by various pieces of footage of them engaging in slanging matches with the general public. So when Louis throws his naive innocence into the mix along with his to the point questioning, it allows us to look deeper into the psychology of the Church’s members.
I think every Louis Theroux documentary is a journey through the psychology of people from a range of fringe societies and groups. But unlike Gambling In Las Vegas, The Most Hated Family In America is especially driven by the exploration of the subjects’ mindset. Seeing Louis take part in the day to day lives of the Church’s members doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know about them. Yes, they spout a lot of hate, yes they are very active in their distribution of their hateful messages and yes, the children are brought up to believe and live by these values.
The real insight is gained when these values are challenged on a one to one basis by Theroux’s unique line of questioning. His ability to know what to say, in what environment to say it and of course his famous extended pauses are what makes this documentary so compelling.* It’s what isn’t said in these moments of silence that says the most throughout this piece of film.
The scenes speaking with the children of the family are for me the most powerful. Throughout his stay, Louis is trying discover what these people believe and why they share their views in such an aggressive way. Conversations with the adults feel like a battle of wills where Theroux is trying to shake them from their seemingly rehearsed lines and the church members are holding strong and not showing any cracks. But when he speaks with the children, we see that these cracks and fault lines are clear. The children have to be prompted to repeat the mantras of the church and seem unsure to why they believe what they believe.
By speaking to children and posing the same questions as he is to the adults, the point the film is making becomes clear. To the innocent mind of the child, these views don’t come naturally. They get confused in what they are saying and end up contradicting themselves. However, to the trained, experience mind of the adult, their arguments are watertight and unwavering. They may not be fully justified, however, their line of reasoning has become strong over the years due to a repetition of thought that hasn’t come naturally to them. The point that strikes me so powerfully isn’t that these views are wrong, but they aren’t logical. If a child confuses themselves trying to justify a view they are meant to live their life by then that view needs a little re-thinking.
* A special shout out to the ‘Louis Theroux extended pause’. I couldn’t publish this without writing more about it. To me this is one of the biggest characteristics of Louis Theroux’s interviewing style. Where as to most of us, we naturally gauge when another question or comment is necessary in a conversation, Louis just rides out this urge and maintains the silence as if he is waiting for more of an answer. If you watch through his documentaries, you find this is when some of the most revealing comments are made by the interviewees. They almost feel as if they have to speak and the next thing they have to say is what they were holding back from the first exchange. The ability to do this is nothing short of magical and what makes him so successful at creating an environment where people feel they can talk candidly. Not only showing his success as a documentary maker, but as a conversationalist.
Part 2 To Come
As predicted, this blog has turned into a bit of a rant. So I think it make sense to publish it is two parts before the internet runs out of digital paper to print it on. So keep your eyes peeled for part two where I’ll go through my other two favourite documentaries by Louis Theroux.