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  • A New History of Documentary Film
  • L. Clare Bratten
A New History of Documentary Film Jack C. Ellis and Betsy A. McLane. New York: Continuum, 2005, 3850 pp.

Jack C. Ellis and Betsy A. McLane have produced a survey of documentary film that updates an earlier volume by Ellis. A New History of Documentary Film includes new sections on the latest flowering of interest in the documentary—including the box office phenomena of films by Michael Moore, Errol Morris, and Morgan Spurlock; the activist films of the women's and social progressive movements in the US; the branded television products of "the Ken Burns phenomenon"; and the more mutant and shoddy form of reality programming for television.

The book is encyclopedic in its coverage of English, Canadian, and US films; it does acknowledge the early influence of Soviet and European avant-garde filmmakers but rather quickly turns to the UK and North America. It's an excellent introduction for any student wishing to understand the major trends in documentary production in the UK and North America and the major films of various eras. Chapters trace first the beginnings of the documentary form in the UK, Canada, and the US, then its institutionalization and expansion in each of those nations. The book examines the stagnation of the form after World War II and assesses the effect of television as a new distribution channel. Further, it briefly analyzes the films of the British Free Cinema and the impact of social-realist features on the form.

The end of each chapter lists the most influential or seminal films of the era under discussion, and with so many to choose from, the authors have had to restrict themselves to fairly cursory descriptions of many of these. They make an exception, however, in the early chapters, devoting a good bit of discussion to the impact of Robert Flaherty and John Grierson on the birth, establishment, and development of the documentary form.

The earnestness of the methodical lists and the need to discuss so many titles makes the strength of its encyclopedic summary also its weakness. Rather than engage in conversational narrative or extensive back stories of individual films or filmmakers, the authors are constrained by the immensity of their project; they must keep the discussion of individual films brisk, and sometimes merely list them as part of a larger body of work. But telling details are scattered throughout that lend the narrative charm, such as the quote pulled from Gary Cooper's voice-over for the 1961 documentary The Real West: "The longhorns were as treacherous as the backlash of a bullwhip. Later, the breed was white-faced and dimple-kneed, but spookier than a wing-busted bird in cat country." A discussion of the British Free Cinema films centering on the leisure time pursuits of the working class are described as having a "vaguely anarchic, nihilistic, iconoclastic air," and it is pointed out that Grierson saw these films as "implicitly revolutionary [and] . . . observed of them that they seemed strangely French."

The authors do manage to interject some of the political realities that influenced the form: these include the Suez Canal crisis, which prompted British Free Cinema documentary in the UK; the shifting organization and funding of the National Film Board in Canada (with a fascinating chapter on Unit B during the 1950s and 1960s); and the diminishment of government funding for documentary film in the US following World War II. They also astutely note the transition from films of social critique or commentary to films centered more on individual lives and problems in the post–World World II era—films they label "films of reassurance." Other shifts in tone and content are linked to the effect of the Vietnam conflict and [End Page 60] of the 9–11 attacks. Further, the book traces the impact of globalization and of the widespread dispersal of film and video through the distribution and publicity possibilities that have proliferated because of the Internet.

The authors clearly revere the accomplishments and establishment of documentary through the 1940s. And though they admit that the challenges to the social order during the 1960s and 1970s produced films and videos...


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