Netflix is in the content creation business. It’s a machine-tailored operation that’s algorithmically perfected its audience-driven productions based on the kind of user data that marketing companies would kill for. When this kind of power is granted to a media company with the ability to drive artistic expression, sometimes the output can be somewhat mechanical. It can make you feel sad for the future of art and film.
And then there are times when the factory product is made so well, it’s all you want.
The Alpinist. Bad Sport. My Octopus Teacher. Icarus. Untold. The 13th.
With all their massive films and TV series, their documentaries, despite being widely seen, are rarely ever discussed. In my opinion, they are the crowning jewel of Netflix’s produced content. And while enormously varied in their subject matter, the style and editing feels of a piece. Every Netflix documentary is quickly paced and meant to be easily consumed. And Tinder Swindler is no exception.
The story is already world-famous. An Israeli con man pretends to be a billionaire’s son (hint: if he has to put it in his profile, he’s probably not). He manipulates the women who love him into taking out loans to fund his lavish lifestyle, leaving them in enormous debt. If you peruse Netflix’s offerings, they hunger for stories about people who are not what they appear. As they should be. It’s what their audience wants. There’s not a week that passes by where I don’t have a friend tell me, “You know what I hate more than anything? People who are dishonest.”
Netflix agrees with my friends. Tell Me Who I Am? Made You Look? Voyeur? Netflix loves a liar. And Simon Leviev/Shimon Hayut/David Sharon/A Guy Who Kind of Looks Like My Tracksuit Wearing Cousin is very good at the business of lying. Scenes of his frantic girlfriend rushing to get loans for him because she’s been told he’s in fear for his life, intercut with Simon on the other side of Europe spending lavishly on another girlfriend is enough to make you distrust men who show off their watches in dating pics, forever (note: you already should).
But what really caught my eye is something that Netflix has done with their documentaries that they do better than any other producers of documentaries.
The talking head interview.
When I was in college, I worked for a sports media production team. We interviewed college athletes in the typical three-point lighting, which makes everyone look like they’re about to take the “fun” picture in their headshot portfolio. It’s usually too bright and set in front of a “neutral” background. Neutral, in most documentarians’ minds, seems to equate to plain white walls with a snake-plant on an IKEA side table for some pop.
The talking head interview is so staid and boring that any innovation to it would be welcome. Asif Kapadia (potentially the best documentarian alive) eschews them entirely. Netflix could just keep it simple and save their money. But instead, they are lavish and loving with their talking heads.
Watch almost any Netflix documentary I’ve listed above. They’re done in real locations, not on sets, with rich, moody lighting, with what look to be wide-angle lenses. The interviews with the women in Tinder Swindler look like they’ve been shot by Stanley Kubrick during the year he filmed Eyes Wide Shut.
It seems like a microscopic technique to hyper-focus on. But talking head interviews usually make up the bulk of any given documentary. This is how we see our characters telling their story. And not only does improving the interview’s quality serve a visual purpose, it serves a storytelling one.
I notice that in Netflix’s talking head interviews, the subjects seem more comfortable than in other documentaries. I think it’s because of the on-location shooting. Imagine having to tell the story of how you fell in love with a man who conned you out of all of your money and humiliated you. Would you want to tell that story to a camera crew in a production office in Burbank? Or would you rather tell your story in a darkly lit restaurant that you might frequent? These choices in Tinder Swindler empower these women. Instead of embarrassing them further with flat lighting and bland backgrounds, Tinder Swindler goes out of its way to make them comfortable.
This is the mastery of Netflix’s seemingly company-wide artistic mandate. Spending time, money, and love on the portion of a documentary so often ignored, yet most pivotal to the telling of the story, pays dividends.
Anyways, just use OkCupid.