Documenting the Documentary
Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video, New and Expanded Edition
Publication Year: 2013
Published by: Wayne State University Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
Foreword to New and Expanded Edition
Preface to First Edition
1. The Filmmaker as Hunter: Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North
The field of film study has only recently shown significant interest in documentaries. In part, the scarcity of critical studies of documentary films is indicative of film study’s general neglect of criticism, a consequence of the revolution undergone in the past quarter century by a field that accords precedence to what it calls “theory” and (more recently) to what it calls...
2. “Peace between Man and Machine”: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera
In 1930, when Dziga Vertov’sMan with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, 1929) was the first Soviet film he saw, the young critic Jay Leyda found himself “reeling” from a New York theater, “too stunned to sit through it again” (Leyda 251). This was, one could only surmise, the desired effect. Vertov’s film was, like the speeding cars, the intersecting...
3. Paradise Regained: Sergei Eisenstein’s Que viva México! as Ethnography
There is a telling photograph of the Soviet director, Sergei Eisenstein, taken in Merida, Mexico, during the filming of his historical epic, Que viva México! (1932). A film cameraman stands in the foreground with his back to us, lining up a shot through his viewfinder. From the viewer’s perspective, it appears that the shot will be composed along three planes extending...
4. Synthetic Vision: The Dialectical Imperative of Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes
Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes (Land without Bread/Tierra sin pan, 1932) is a film of undeniable power. Indeed, alternately or simultaneously viewed as a bizarre surrealist film and an extraordinarily searing social documentary, this short work has often provoked and moved its critics to metaphor and poetic generalization. Octavio Paz, for example, says of Las Hurdes: “Reality emerges from this encounter stripped to the bone” (187). André Bazin, referring...
5. The Art of National Projection: Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon
The Art of National Projection—this is the title of the enterprise that the British documentary movement embarked on in the 1930s. The phrase belongs to Sir Stephen Tallents, secretary of the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), who formulated the idea of a massive public relations campaign under government sponsorship designed to stimulate trade with the Commonwealth. The EMB’s explicit mission was therefore propagandistic...
6. The Mass Psychology of Fascist Cinema: Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will
Frank P. Tomasulo
Most of the scholarly literature on Leni Riefenstahl’s mammoth spectacle Triumph of the Will (1935) deals with the hoary questions of whether or not the film’s director was a Nazi, supported the National Socialists, or had an affair with Adolf Hitler. Over the past sixty years, these biographical issues have been addressed by many cinema critics, a series of postwar “denazification...
7. American Documentary Finds Its Voice: Persuasion and Expression in The Plow That Broke the Plains and The City
If we accept that documentary filmmaking has gravitated toward a limited number of broad functions—identified by Michael Renov as preservation, analysis, persuasion, and expression (21)—then independent American nonfiction films of the 1930s demonstrably embraced the latter two tendencies. And as Willard Van Dyke’s statement reveals, documentary filmmakers during this period understood the medium of film...
8. “Men Cannot Act before the Camera in the Presence of Death”: Joris Ivens’s The Spanish Earth
In July 1936, when General Franco launched his revolt against the Spanish Republic, Joris Ivens, the thirty-eight-year-old avant-gardist-turned-militant, was in Hollywood showing his films to industry progressives. One year later, Ivens was in Hollywood again, this time officiating at the glittering world premiere of The Spanish Earth. A hasty, spontaneous response...
9. The Poetics of Propaganda: Humphrey Jennings and Listen to Britain
The films made by Humphrey Jennings during World War II are widely regarded as the peak of his achievement as a filmmaker. In particular, Listen to Britain (1942), Fires Were Started (1943), and A Diary for Timothy (1945) have been recognized as key examples of a “poetic” style whose beautiful images and striking montage effects seem to challenge John Grierson’s emphasis on the social purpose of documentary...
10. “It Was an Atrocious Film”: Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts
Blood of the Beasts (Le sang des bêtes) (1949) is one of several controversial documentaries that use exceedingly cruel and violent images to assault the spectator.1 Certainly it is one of the most emotionally grueling films imaginable. Made just after World War II, it is part of a documentary triptych that also includes En passant par la Lorraine (1950) and Hôtel des Invalides (1951)...
11. The “Dialogic Imagination” of Jean Rouch: Covert Conversations in Les maîtres fous
In recent decades much attention has been devoted to the issue of the production of ethnographic texts, both literary and filmic. Anthropologists have had to confront the ideological problems inherent in the ethnographic enterprise— namely, the power relations inscribed in their construction of “self” and “Other,” the representational frames and discourses utilized, and the...
12. Documenting the Ineffable: Terror and Memory in Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog
The common assumption about documentary film is that it confers on its subject the authority of history. Documentary commits its actors and events to the historical record—assertive, inviolable, and impervious to the distortions of perception, passion, or psyche. But it is precisely these “distortions” that have concerned Alain Resnais throughout his career. Whatever...
13. Making the Past Present: Peter Watkins’s Culloden
John R. Cook
Tuesday, December 15, 1964. Time: 8:05 pm. Culloden—Peter Watkins’s groundbreaking documentary reconstruction of the last land battle to be fought on British soil—was first broadcast on British television. Many who saw it for the first time that night never forgot the power of its images. Its influence over subsequent film and television has been immense. Directed...
14. “Don’t You Ever Just Watch?”: American Cinema Verité and Dont Look Back
In the early 1960s, members of the Drew Associates recorded the exploits of American politicians, diplomats, musicians, and movie stars in “crisis moments,” treating them all “equally” (if not “objectively”) as celebrities, and finally subordinating them to the real star—a documentary movement known as cinema verité.1 Dont Look Back (1967), directed by D. A. Pennebaker and co-produced by Richard Leacock, both Drew Associates...
15. “Ethnography in the First Person”: Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies
Barry Keith Grant
Titicut Follies (1967) is a powerful documentary that exposes the appalling conditions at Bridgewater, a state institution for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The first in a series of documentaries about American institutional life by Frederick Wiseman, it has also been one of his most controversial. Testifying to its power is the tangled history of litigation it engendered.1...
16. The Two Avant-Gardes: Solanas and Getino’s The Hour of the Furnaces
If there are two avant-gardes—the formal and the theoretico-political—then La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968) surely marks one of the high points of their convergence. Fusing Third World radicalism with artistic innovation, the Solanas-Getino film revives the historical sense of avant-garde as connoting political as well as cultural militancy. It teases to the surface the military metaphor submerged in the very expression “avantgarde...
17. Seeing with Experimental Eyes: Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes
Stan Brakhage’s Pittsburgh Trilogy, three films each approximately one half hour long, are regarded by many as exceptional in his large and brilliant oeuvre, which virtually defines the American experimental cinema in its lyrical, subjective dimension. The reason these films stand strikingly apart in Brakhage’s oeuvre is that they are documentaries. Eyes (1970) focuses on the...
18. “A Bastard Union of Several Forms”: Style and Narrative in An American Family
Jeffrey K. Ruoff
An American Family (1973) bridges the stylistic conventions of independent documentary film and broadcast television, marrying the innovations of American cinema verité to the narrative traditions of TV. The twelve-episode series chronicles seven months in the lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California, including the divorce proceedings of the parents...
19. The Documentary of Displaced Persona: Michael Rubbo’s Daisy: The Story of a Facelift
My critical framework for analyzing Michael Rubbo’s Daisy: The Story of a Facelift (1982) concerns the documentary processes that foreground Rubbo’s onscreen interventions into a woman’s personal narrative and addresses the implications of the facelift in late twentieth-century culture. Rubbo troubled documentary cinema with his onscreen presence, opening...
20. Gender, Power, and a Cucumber: Satirizing Masculinity in This Is Spinal Tap
As a military term in the nineteenth century, “heavy metal” signified “large guns, carrying balls of a large size” (Walser 1); today “heavy metal” refers to a kind of rock music practiced by bands such as Metallica, Black Sabbath, and Mötley Crüe. The two meanings are not unrelated, as the satiric This Is Spinal Tap (1984) implies. During a concert tour of North America, a member of the fictional band Spinal Tap has trouble clearing an airport security checkpoint. With each pass through the metal detector, bass player Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) trips the alarm...
21. Documentary Film and the Discourse of Hysterical/Historical Narrative: Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March
The film Sherman’s March (1985) takes its name from the events of 1864– 65 when Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman trekked through the South, crossing many geographical and political borders along the way. The opening of Ross McElwee’s film, with its momentary assumption of standard documentary conventions, presents us with a map of the region and the animated trajectory of Sherman’s infamous march to the...
22. Subjectivity Lost and Found: Bill Viola’s I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like
In his description of filming possession rituals, Jean Rouch reveals the ultimate goal of participatory ethnography: to transcend the divide between observer and observed. Through the possession ritual, culture is performed, and in the display empirical knowledge is seemingly displaced by a more spiritual understanding of the Other. Bill Viola articulates this desire in his...
23. Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History, and The Thin Blue Line
The August 12, 1990, Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times carried a lead article with a rather arresting photograph of Franklin Roosevelt flanked by Winston Churchill and Groucho Marx. Standing behind them was a taut-faced Sylvester Stallone in his Rambo garb. The photo illustrated the major point of the accompanying article by Andy Grundberg: that the...
24. Documentaphobia and Mixed Modes: Michael Moore’s Roger & Me
There was a startling vehemence to the journalistic critics’ denunciation of Roger & Me (1989), Michael Moore’s insightful and bitingly funny exposé of corporate greed in the 1980s. Pauline Kael accused Moore of “gonzo demagoguery,” whereby “members of the audience can laugh at ordinary working people and still feel they’re taking a politically correct position” (91, 92)...
25. Silence and Its Opposite: Expressions of Race in Tongues Untied
When Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989), a video by, for, and about black gay men, was broadcast on American public television in 1991, it unleashed a wave of unprecedented controversy and heated debate fueled by right-wing conservatives and their supporters in Congress. In an obvious attempt to win office by exploiting homophobia during his 1992 election campaign, candidate Pat Buchanan used a clip from the video in a television...
26. Containing Fire: Performance in Paris Is Burning
The question of the performative has always dogged documentary. Traditional wisdom maintains that one should not stage or imitate reality; instead, the documentary filmmaker is supposed to capture it. Conventional criticism takes documentary’s more performative features—conspicuous signs of manipulation such as editing or restaging events—and places them against a stable, irrefutable “reality” believed to exist...
27. Contested Territory: Camille Billops and James Hatch’s Finding Christa
The self that everyone has is not singular but plural selves. And these selves change over time. Contemporary autobiographers, both in literature and the visual media, seek new formal strategies to bring into public consciousness images of and narratives about what some authors have called “the postmodern condition”—that is, the fact that we live in a rapidly changing...
28. Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls: The Politics of the Documentary Interview
Paula J. Massood
In July 1997, Spike Lee released his first feature-length documentary film, 4 Little Girls. Made with backing from the Home Box Office cable network, the film played briefly in theaters before it premiered on television in February 1998. Unlike the majority of Lee’s fiction films about African American history, such as Malcolm X (1992) and Miracle at St. Anna (2008), 4 Little Girls was notably lacking in controversy...
29. The Gleaners and “Us”: The Radical Modesty of Agnès Varda’s Les glaneurs et la glaneuse
In both its formal and thematic choices, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, 2000) is one of Agnès Varda’s most experimental films to date. The documentary’s delicate themes of poverty, aging, filmmaking, and art warrant this shift toward a more unconventional style. Gleaners explores the agricultural tradition of gleaning, the legalized practice of culling leftover food...
30. “You Must Never Listen to This”: Lessons on Sound, Cinema, and Mortality from Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man
David T. Johnson
For all of the theories we have used to cocoon ourselves against the intrusion of reality in cinema, none has been able to expunge the fundamental sense of presence—or “presence of . . . absence,” as Christian Metz so famously put it (57)—that the medium always returns us to. And perhaps no other experience accomplishes this effect better than seeing someone on film who no longer exists. Normally it is easy enough to repress or simply...
31. Cultural Learnings of Borat for Make Benefit Glorious Study of Documentary
Genre designations can reflect cultural understandings of boundaries between perception and reality, or more aptly, distinctions between accepted truths and fictions, or even between right and wrong. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006) challenges cultural assumptions by challenging our...