Welcome back to class students. I trust you are doing well. This week's lecture is the first in a two-part series on documentary films. This week will be about the form. Next week will be about notable filmmakers.
In a previous installment of the Free Film School here in the ivy-covered cyber-halls of CraveOnline, I wrote an article on how films lie to you. That particular lesson was a fun compilation on the way the typically-used language of film differs from reality in small but noticeable ways (phone numbers that begin with “555,” for instance, or the fact that movie characters can punch each other for extended periods without hurting their hands). I have also talked about (in an early lesson) Jean-Luc Godard's theory that “Cinema is truth at 24 frames per second,” and that movies, by shooting actual actors and actual sets and actual environments, are, by default, going to be actual truth.
This week we'll be talking a little bit more, however briefly, about the truthfulness of film, and how honest and “real” films actually are, and we'll be doing it by discussing the form of documentary filmmaking. I'm fairly certain you all know what a documentary is, and you've probably seen many (even if they were just the special “Making Of” documentaries on your DVDs and Blu-rays), but I will still, for the sake of clarity, be giving definitions. I will also be reaching into my bag of film school tricks and yanking out some impressive words you can use to impress your next date. Let's dive in.
A documentary film is any film that purports to be the truth. Most films you see in theaters will, of course, be fictional melodramas, and will aim to tell a fictional story about fictional people using actors to play fictional characters. I've used the film school word “diegesis” in the past, which is a term to describe the world within a fictional film (the example I used was that “diegetic music” is music that the characters within the film can hear; non-diegetic music, or perhaps “memetic” music, is music that the characters cannot hear, which includes the film's score). All fictional dramas feature the diegetic element. They all have a fictional world wherein they take place. For an obvious example, you can cite something like The Avengers, which takes place in a world where superheroes actually exist. Even realistic, non-melodramatic films like, say, The Battle of Algiers are specifically set up to tell a fictional story. This acceptance of the fictional – the suspension of disbelief, if you will – is an instinct that all filmgoers have developed. Few people are convinced that what they're seeing on the screen is a depiction of real life. We can separate fiction from reality.
Documentary films, however, ask the viewer to suspend their suspension of disbelief. It jettisons diegesis. I now, incidentally, want a bumper sticker that says “Jettison Diegesis.” The documentary filmmaker, usually through mere style, seems to naturally communicate that what they are filming is unscripted, unprepared, and is merely documenting the world as it is. And while editing and narration are used to construct a fiction-like story around the real-world documenting of most documentaries, we immediately sense that we're being told the truth. This is a direct, and, some would argue, more cracklingly alive form of filmmaking. The barriers of aesthetics crumble away, and we are left with nothing but ecstatic truth. Most documentary filmmakers say that they prefer this form of ecstatic honesty over any oblique fictions or sell-constructed falsehoods. Even though Godard has made mostly fiction films, his famous saying implies that he is more interested in the truth lurking under the fiction. We can watch Marlon Brando read Don Corleone's lines, and truly embody the character in a hugely impressive way, but, at some level, we know that we are watching Marlon Brando himself, and the pieces of his own personality are floating in there somewhere. It was that directness that Godard, and indeed most documentarians, are interested in.
The world as it is. And while that may sound dry and scientific, keep in mind that all films, all arts, indeed all scientific studies, contain an element of human interest, as they were all made by humans. What we chose to observe alters the thing being observed, to get metaphysical about it.
Documentary films have been a vital part of film ever since its inception. Indeed, the earliest films were mere motion experiments, as the earliest camera operators were simply tinkering with these newly available tools. No stories. No aesthetics even. But a new way of recording movement. You've probably seen those famous photographic studies of horses running or people walking. You're probably also familiar with the first film ever put on public display. It was that train pulling into the station as seen in last year's Hugo. As the film form quickly evolved, and different forms came into being, and it began to be seen as a potentially new form of art, new kinds of documentary emerged. Many documentary forms pioneered in the early days of cinema are still the types being made today.
Talking Head Documentaries
As the name implies, these are films that compile unscripted interviews with real people. They are commonly filmed in close-up, so you can only see their head. Sometimes you can hear the reporter, although the form is usually just letting the subject do the talking. You know this form. You've seen it on every single news program ever filmed. The subjects of these interview docs can vary wildly, although they tend to be testimonials on history or some social phenomenon that requires a witness or a critic. Any documentary you've seen that features someone talking to the camera or to a slightly off-camera interrogator (from Tabloid to Sicko) is a Talking Head documentary. Assemble experts together to comment philosophically on an immediate and socially relevant topic, and you can make a very good film. I recently saw a film called Surviving Progress which made much of this approach. Although it doesn't have to be so serious. I saw a 2005 talking head film once, whose title is a mere four letters long, and which is a word I cannot type in the pages of CraveOnline, which featured comedians and porn stars giving their commentary on a certain English word that you can't say on television.
One of my favorite documentaries is Errol Morris' 1997 film Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control, which interviews four men with strange jobs (a robotics engineer, a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, and a naked mole-rat expert), and weaves their words together with footage from an old, cheap 1940s adventure serial. It's essentially a meditation on the phenomenon of outsider interests, and a look at the nature of genius. I'll have more to say about Morris next week.
Direct Documentaries, or Cinéma-Vérité Documentaries
These are the films that seem to be spying on real life. There may be a few interviews in this form, but they mostly just sit back and record events as they happen. These films will, of course, edit the real life down to an easily consumed film-length feature (or short), but will, through their style, try to capture an immediate piece of the present, following people as they go through a real-life event in real time. Events wherein the filmmaker does not know the outcome. Or where they simply want to observe life, and glean a mood, a tone, or a theme from a small piece of real-life humanity. One of my favorite films of 2012 (so far) has been Frederick Wiseman's Crazy Horse, which offered no interviews and no narration, and simply looked, casually and with little flair, at the life backstage at a famous Parisian strip club. The much-lauded 1994 film Hoop Dreams is also of this style. There is a great 1976 vérité film called Harlan County, U.S.A. about a miners' strike that I recommend. “Vérité,” by the way, is the French word for “truth.”
It's this form that, I think, most documentarians are drawn to. It's here that the above-discussed notions of ecstatic truth are to be found. By observing real life, by turning them into images, we're encouraged to become philosophical on them. For once, we are looking at real life objectively. This can be emotionally engaging in a way that fiction films cannot be.
All concert films and performance films are of this form. The camera will be simply trying to capture an important concert, and then edit together the performance as it happens. Some concert films are glorious looks great rocks stars at the height of their powers. Watch Jonathan Demme's 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense sometime (which is, kind of ironically, about a band called Talking Heads). Or, better yet, the epic 1970 concert film Woodstock. Although some concerts don't go so well. One of the best documentary films of all time is probably The Maysles Bros.' 1970 film Gimme Shelter, which recorded the unfortunate events in and around an ill-fated 1969 Rolling Stones concert. The music was fine, but the crowd was unruly, the concert was poorly planned, and, perhaps most ill-advised, the security was handled by real-life Hell's Angels. Yes, someone died, and the death was, perhaps, captured on camera. Gimme Shelter was more than a litany of bad logistics. It, perhaps, was the first legitimate death knell of Flower Child idealism.
In the era of the internet, this type of film has exploded in popularity. A compilation film is what it sounds like: a compilation of various, seemingly unconnected strips of film, edited into a cohesive whole. And while this sounds like it could be random, most compilation films tend to cleverly use edits and choice of subject to make a comment on its content. It's essentially using editing as a form of criticism. These films don't necessarily have to be made from original footage, and many compilation documentaries make comments on popular culture by merely editing together footage from old films and TV shows to skew the images in their favor. I've heard the “found footage” style of documentary sometimes referred to as “reality hacking” or “culture jamming.” Good culture jamming website: TV Carnage. Another one: Everything is Terrible! If you go to those sites, be prepared to lose an entire afternoon.
One of the earliest and most-praised documentary features was a 1929 compilation film called The Man with a Movie Camera, by Dziga Vertov, which shot original footage of everyday life around modern-day Moscow, and edited it together to form an abstract meditation on the joys and horrors of modern urban living. I love the film, although many find its lack of straightforward storytelling to be frustrating. One of the most famous compilation films is Godfrey Reggio's 1982 nature film Koyaanisqatsi (pronounced koy-YAN-iss-KOT-see), which is a long series of very well-photographed images of natural phenomenon, each typically juxtaposed with images of ever-growing cityscapes. Koyaanisqatsi, without a word, makes a bold statement about the encroaching human destruction into the natural world. The title is a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance.”
The actual aesthetics of documentary filmmaking can, of course, be faked. Many enterprising filmmakers have, over the years, made fictional films as if they were documentaries, featuring natural camera movement, cleverly scripted “testimonials,” and a loose storytelling form. These so-called “mockumentaries” cast a playful and dubious light on the entire documentary form. Heck, if it can be faked, what's to say that any documentary is real? Of course all docs, however real, are going to be a commentary of some kind.
Mockumentaries have been, for the most part, comedy films. Rob Reiner's celebrated 1984 film This is Spinal Tap follows the exploits of a burned-out (fictional) British metal band as they run into personality conflicts, bad luck, infighting, outright stupidity, and ever-dwindling audiences. It's hilarious. Although the fake-doc form has also been recently used in films like Paranormal Activity to make the everyday seem horrific.
All of these forms are legitimate and moving and a vital part of the cinematic landscape. Documentaries, perhaps more than fiction films, capture the truth. It can be said that it is just another way to tell a story. This is true. Documentaries are texture, living, theatrical objects, and let us look at life objectively.
Homework for the Week:
Watch any one of the documentaries I listed above. This is Spinal Tap counts. Do you like the documentary form? Which of the types I listed above do you prefer? If you were to make a documentary film, which form would you use? What topic would you make it about? Which form is most appropriate for your subject? If you wanted to make a polemical film, intended to make a salient political point, would it be better to make a documentary, or a fictional film? When is “documentary style” used in a fictional film going to be appropriate?