restricted access Elia Kazan and the Semidocumentary Composing Urban Space
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patrick keating Elia Kazan and the Semidocumentary Composing Urban Space D uring the production of his 1950 film Panic in the Streets, Elia Kazan spent several weeks agonizing about the title. He considered a variety of options, only to reject them because they sounded like they could be titles for all the “pseudo-documentaries” being produced by “cheap companies.”¹ In one note to Twentieth Century-Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck, Kazan wrote,“If there is anything staler at the moment than just another documentary I don’t know what it is.”² The production notes are revealing, not just because they name some of the rejected options (Port of Entry, Outbreak, Ring Waterfront Three) but also because they show us how anxious Kazan was to escape the limits of a genre that had become one of Fox’s specialties: the semidocumentary. In 1947, Kazan had directed one of the most celebrated examples of the genre, Boomerang! Even in that film, Kazan had begun to push the boundaries of the format, taking advantage of the genre’s preference for real-world locations to compose remarkably original images of urban space.In Panic in the Streets (1950), Kazan would go even farther, abandoning the genre’s tired clichés while taking full advantage of the semidocumentary’s primary strength: the ability to reproduce the modern city in dynamic visual terms. Together, these films represent a major advance, reconceiving the limits and possibilities of the semidocumentary. Under Kazan’s direction, what had started as a curious mixture of documentary and Hollywood conventions had become a new vocabulary for commenting on the complexity of urban space. The typical semidocumentary is a fiction film loosely based on a true story and filmed on location—sometimes the very location where the original events took place. The plot often takes the form of a procedural, showing us how an institutional group, such as the police, tackles a particular problem. Some of the semidocumentary films feature a stern narrator explaining the events for us, a convention drawn from the documentary proper. Since the plots often contain an element of crime, some semidocu- Kazan and the Semidocumentary 149 mentaries are occasionally classified as film noirs, but most semidocs lack the mood of pessimism that characterizes the noir cycle.³ For instance, Henry Hathaway’s The House on 92nd Street (1945), often considered the first semidocumentary, tells the story of a well-adjusted protagonist doing good work for a smoothly functioning bureaucracy, all in the service of patriotic ideals. Aside from a few shadowy images, the film lacks many of the defining noir conventions. Instead, the film’s most proximate inspiration is the wartime newsreel, which is no surprise, given the fact that the film was produced by The March of Time veteran Louis de Rochemont. We might expect the semidocumentary, with its focus on institutions, to make a significant departure from the classical Hollywood film, which emphasizes individuals.As David Bordwell has argued, the classical Hollywood film is unified by a particular sort of character-driven causality. The characters are “goal-oriented”—in almost every scene, characters advance the plot by pursuing specific goals.⁴ Although semidocumentary films occasionally stray from these norms by offering long montages detailing the intricacies of institutional procedures, the films never fully abandon goalorientation . The House on 92nd Street opens with documentary footage of anonymous German spies, but it gradually focuses our attention on the battle between the goal-oriented FBI heroes and the equally determined Nazi villains. Frank Krutnik describes the semidocumentary as a “hybrid of fiction film and documentary conventions.”⁵ This hybrid quality also characterizes the visual style of the semidocumentary. On the one hand, semidocumentaries usually observed classical principles of composition, using style to call attention to the most important story points. On the other hand, the films could also offer style as spectacle, encouraging audiences to appreciate the location shooting as an attraction in its own right. Kazan’s Fox colleague Henry Hathaway was particularly good at creating this balance between story and spectacle. For instance, Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 (1948) has a thoroughly classical story to tell, with Jimmy Stewart playing a reporter who grows increasingly determined to learn the truth about a wrongly decided murder case. Fittingly, Hathaway’s compositions are designed to draw our attention to the goal-oriented individual driving the story.Figure 1 shows McNeal (Stewart) interviewing Tillie (Kasia Orzazewski), the hardworking mother who wants someone to help her clear...


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