There’s something about Louis Theroux, that’s for sure. The man should really consider police work, counselling – becoming a member of the clergy – based purely on his ability to elicit even the most odious of confessions from his documentary subjects. Having starred as an extra in a gay porn movie, attended a swingers’ party, lived with prostitutes for weeks on end in a brothel in Nevada, and hung out with (among others) white supremacists, professional wrestlers, neo-Nazis, televangelists, and survivalists – even inviting some of these to his house for Christmas – Theroux’s documentary films of late have focused on darker subjects: meth addicts, inmates awaiting trial, dementia and autism. From bunking with Jimmy Savile to tackling ultra-nationalist Jews living on the West Bank, this definite shift in tone over the past decade of Theroux’s film-making is one which can be traced despite the erratic subject matter of his films.
Son of famed travel writer Paul Theroux and brother of novelist Marcel Theroux, Louis’ draw to film-making was one which was bemoaned by his family. “There was a kind of snobbery about books being better than everything; books were considered the acme of everything the human mind has to offer,” he told journalist Decca Aitkenhead in 2011. Graduating from Oxford in 1991 with a degree in History, his journalism career was quickly fast-tracked by Michael Moore, with whom he worked on news program TV Nation. Still in his mid-20s when his first series of documentaries was commissioned by the BBC, in Weird Weekends (running from 1998-2000) his onscreen persona is irrevocably open, objective and empirical. His enthusiasm knows no bounds: in Swingers he chats comfortably as all around him swap partners, later jumping naked into the pool. In Porn he becomes an extra in a gay porn movie, while in Off-Off Broadway he auditions (badly) for a Broadway show with an off-tune version of “A Little Help from My Friends.”
Weird Weekends feels somewhat like a series of mostly-frivolous, occasionally depressing jaunts through subcultures which are, on the whole, relatively harmless. Dangerous undercurrents occasionally emerge, however – the seediness and the sadness of the male performers in Porn, the media-titled ‘most dangerous man in America’, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, in Black Nationalists and the quiet desperation of women willing to marry men they’ve never met in Thai Brides. Are these documentaries, immersive as they may be, representative of their populations as a whole? Occasionally they feel somewhat like travelling ‘freak shows’ – the television viewer little more than a spectator at a zoo, the bars replaced by the cool glass of the TV screen. Nevertheless, they are incredibly entertaining, their populating documentary subjects inflating somewhat to become caricatures within the constraints of the context and the timeframe of the documentary.
When Louis Met… focuses on Theroux’s interactions over a space of a month or so with a variety of then-topical celebrities and media personas. The series opener is one which has since become contentious: citing him as his ‘childhood hero’, Louis spends a series of days and nights investigating the life of Jimmy Savile, with ever-increasing yet intangible discontent. Tweeting in late October this year, he addressed this uncertainty: “To answer question: when making doc, I was fairly sure he had a secret but didn’t know what”.
While the documentaries can be considered a sort of investigative journalism, it’s fairer perhaps to conceptualise them as a series of snapshots or probes which reflect only the subject or the area at that very moment in time. These visual ethnographies have tended towards the darker in recent times – what is the rationale behind this shift? Famously objective in his earlier documentaries, Theroux of late can be seen to challenge and distance himself from his oft-contentious subjects.
Bar the very human interest in the weird and wild of our own species, why the universal interest and acclaim for Theroux’s movies? If I may offer a tentative suggestion, it is both their accessibility and their ability to rouse emotion – whether it is sadness (Dementia), disgust (Porn) or anger (The Most Hated Family in America).