Welcome back to the Free Film School, my gentle students. This school is, you’ll find, perhaps the finest free film university in the world. True, I may be challenging you with bouts of occasional theory, but I also occasionally take time out to teach you about Godzilla, or the films of Irwin Allen. What’s more, I openly encourage you to attend the lectures in the nude. Have you been doing your homework? What’s that you say? You say the dog ate it? But my assignments are typically to watch a movie or two. Did the dog eat your memory of Gimme Shelter? Go watch Gimme Shelter, you. Yes you, Steve.
Last week’s lecture was, if you might recall, all about documentary films and the documentary form. I made the distinctions between Interview Documentaries, Direct Documentaries, Compilation Documentaries, and Mockumentaries. I also brought up, once again, the notion of cinema-as-truth, inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s famous saying that “cinema is truth at 24 frames per second.” Documentaries may be staged, and certain portions of certain doc films may even be scripted, but documentaries, more so than fiction films, claim to be an actual report of facts. By definition, you can’t fake ecstatic truth. If you have a camera, it has to record something real.
I also pointed out that there are a few important filmmakers who seem innately drawn to the documentary form. Some directors are not so interested in constructing fictional stories or constructing morals out of carefully-written screenplays. They’d rather cut straight to the heart of the matter, and interview real people, film real events, and construct a loose narrative from the events around them. We’re all concerned with notions of our own personal truth, but we have different ways of interpreting and expressing the truths within us. Pretentious enough for you?
Anyway, last week was all theory and definition, so this week we’ll be zeroing in on a few notable documentary filmmakers, talking about some of their films, and I’ll do my best to explain why they are important figures in the documentary world. You may have heard names like Errol Morris or Frederick Wiseman, but have you seen their movies? Let’s look at a few documentarians, and discuss what they do, what kind of films they make, and which of their films you should perhaps see.
Robert J. Flaherty
Often considered the father of the modern documentary, Robert J. Flaherty (1884-1951) was a filmmaker who openly incorporated real footage into his staged dramas. Flaherty was described by Orson Welles as the next Henry David Thoreau, as the bulk of his documentary films were about man living in blissful congress with nature. His first film Nanook of the North (1922) is still his most famous, and while it did have some fictional scenarios, it was mostly just a calm observation of a family of Inuits living near the North Pole. Flaherty spent months living in the frozen tundra, filming this small family, and becoming friends with his subjects. Flaherty managed to capture, with Nanook, the universality of the human experience. The film was ostensibly going to be about “the other,” and it ended up being about all of us.
Flaherty would spend the rest of his career documenting the lives of remote people living in extreme natural circumstances. Yes, he staged a lot for his cameras (I hear that the Polynesian tattoo ritual in his 1926 film Moana was specially requested, even though such a ritual had ended generations ago), and he has been accused by some of being a white male in search of “freakish non-white weirdos,” but I feel he managed to bring to the public the vast swath of humanity, and gave a keen look at other cultures. Flaherty made one fiction film in 1937 called Elephant Boy starring the famous Indian heartthrob Sabu.
Norwegian entrepreneur Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) is known to cineastes as a documentarian, but he was, in actuality, a full-fledged, well-rounded Renaissance man and legitimate adventurer. He was an expert in zoology and geography, and regularly built ships out of primitive materials in order to sail to exotic locales. His most celebrated boating experiment was documented in a famous 1950 film called Kon-Tiki, wherein he posited that the anthropological origins of the Polynesian people began in South America. The anthropological society scoffed at this, claiming that primitive South Americans could not have sailed to the South Pacific in their primitive boats. What was Heyerdahl to do, but to build a ship in the ancient style, eat only the ancient diet, and make the voyage himself? The result is a fascinating look at not only primitive humanity, but also the way human societies evolved thanks to resourcefulness and a wondrous sense of adventure. There is a twist at the end of Kon-Tiki which I don’t feel like I should reveal here, but you probably know it if you’ve seen any of the many parodies that have cropped up over the years. Monty Python did a funny spoof, positing that people from one small London suburb were actually from a different suburb about 10 miles away.
Heyerdahl only directed four features in his film career, but each is a stirring look at the power and obstinacy of a bold adventurer, and a fascinating anthropological look at boating. If you like sea life, Heyerdahl is the man for you.
Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) directed what is one of the most stirring and one of the most chilling documentaries of all time in Triumph of the Will, a Nazi propaganda film made during the terrifying “glory days” of the Third Reich. With historical perspective, we can see through the glorified self-aggrandizing of the hateful Nazi regime, and we can also see that, perhaps at the time, this film must have been one of the most stirring political statements in a country’s history. Riefenstahl, hired by Adolf Hitler, was asked to film a particular Nazi rally in Nuremburg. Without irony or comment, Riefenstahl glorified the Nazi party. Modern audiences may likely be shocked by the images of boosterism, and the blatant lionization of Hitler himself, but the film may also serve as a reminder of the grandness of the evil that existed during WWII, and how Germany wanted the world to see it at that time. Triumph of the Will is an important historical document.
Riefenstahl did make other documentary films in her day, including a look at the 1936 Berlin Olympiad called Olympia. She also had a lifelong passion for scuba diving, and made a film in 2003 called Underwater Impressions on the topic. A polarizing figure at best, and a fascist sympathizer at worst, Leni Riefenstahl is, most certainly, a fascinating figure in filmmaking. Perhaps someday I’ll write a Free Film School lecture on propaganda. She’ll come back then.
Many documentary filmmakers like to set up scenarios, stage certain actions, and try to direct reality as best they can. Frederick Wiseman (1930 – ), however, is the master of standing back and letting his camera capture all the minutiae and foibles of humanity without interfering at all. Wiseman has made over 40 films in a career that has lasted over 40 years. His films all have very utilitarian titles (Zoo, High School, Meat, Blind, Central Park) and, without a jot of affect, sit back and record the thing in question. He is not one to politicize or proselytize, and finds much more truth in the actual life of his subjects. Wiseman is a master of subtlety and observation, and making seemingly commonplace people into very central and important figures in human life.
His most recent film, Crazy Horse, was a 2 ½-hour film with no narration and only a few title cards of cursory information, about the famed Parisian strip club The Crazy Horse, which still, to this day, puts on one of the classiest and sexiest strip shows in the world, even in a world where hardcore porn can be instantly accessed on all pocket devices. It was a look at the mechanics of the show, the choreography, the costumes, and all the hard work that goes into a Crazy Horse show. It’s been one of my favorite films of 2012. Some may be frustrated by Wiseman’s lack of interferences, but I personally appreciate his style.
Ross McElwee (1945 – ) has a curious habit. He seeks to make films about diverse and interesting subjects, but often winds up making films about himself. His most famous film is Sherman’s March, a 1986 film, which set out to trace the famous march made my General Sherman through the South during the Civil War, and aimed to document the devastation left by the Union soldiers and see just how much Sherman was responsible for the war’s outcome. Instead, McElwee finds himself interviewing old girlfriends, and ends up spending the bulk of the film tracing the long line of women who have come and gone through his life, and commenting on himself and his romances. He then begins spinning off into other fantasies about a potential nuclear holocaust.
The documentarians who seek to make films about real history as it unfolds (like Frederick Wiseman) often say after the fact that the conclusion they came to wasn’t the conclusion they sought. How can they, after all, predict the outcome of a life they are filming? McElwee turns that notion on ear by doing what all artists must inevitably find themselves doing from time to time; they start talking about themselves. McElwee tries to make films about universal truths, and only ends up making mirrors for himself. There is something kind of grand about that.
An ass-kicking, awesome troublemaker with a penchant for the dangerous, Werner Herzog (1942 – ) is a figure that looms large is the world of cinema. Herzog famously did not see any movies until he was a teenager and became fascinated with the way the cinematic form could convey philosophies and ideas. He made his first films in the late 1960s, and, even at that early date, was keenly skilled at mixing the truthful notions of documentary and fiction. Many of his films are scripted fictions, but contain an element of documentary truth to them. Likewise, his documentaries have a veneer of artificiality. His famous classics Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Stroszek (1977), perhaps three of the best and most intense films you will ever see, are all fiction features, but all contain an ecstatic element of actuality. One film shows the true harsh conditions of the deep jungle. Another featured an actual (and almost literally Sisyphean) attempt to drag a huge boat over a hill. The third was about a real man whose story may have been fictionalized, but whose character could not have been.
Herzog has always had a keen eye on the destructive and indifferent force of nature, and man’s futile hubris to conquer it. One of his more famous recent documentaries Grizzly Man (2005) was about a would-be zoologist, and his attempts to be friends with a pack of wild grizzly bears. It should, perhaps, come as no surprise that he was killed by a bear. Werner Herzog has also been drawn to extreme personalities, and seems more interested in the madness and chaos of a human’s life than their attempts at order. There is a reason he worked with notorious nutcase Klaus Kinski so many times. He even made a documentary about Kinski called My Best Fiend (1999). I would recommend almost all of Herzog’s vast library. Someday, I’ll devote an entire Free Film School lecture to Herzog.
Errol Morris (1948 – ), like Herzog, has an eye for extreme personalities, but is a far more playful and optimistic filmmaker. He prefers to center on the notions of outsider geniuses and their in-born awkwardness than their hubris. Using calming music, dream re-enactments, and a special kind of interview camera (Morris invented a camera called The Interrotron, wherein the interview subject is forced to look right into the camera lens, making eye contact with the audience), Morris constructs dream-like meditations on the foibles and joyous peculiarities of life. He is, essentially, a quirky man who celebrates quirkiness. Even if it’s self-destructive quirkiness, as in the form of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., the subject of his 1999 film Mr. Death. Leuchter is an expert in execution devices, and unwittingly became a hero of the Holocaust deniers’ circuit after his admittedly dubious investigation into a certain Concentration Camp turned up negative evidence for poison gas.
Morris recently won an Academy Award for his 2003 film The Fog of War, which was an interview with Robert S. McNamara, former US Secretary of Defense. He is best known for his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, wherein he followed the ins and outs of a murder investigation, and ultimately turned the tide of the case with his interviews. He also made a famous 1978 short film called Gates of Heaven, often hailed as one of the best documentaries ever, about a put upon family who runs a prestigious pet cemetery. My favorite film of his, however, is the 1997 film Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control, which I mentioned last week. This bizarre collage of interviews, odd topics, odd men, and old film serials is a playful and penetrating look at the notion of outsider genius. Seriously. It’s one of the best films of the 1990s.
Albert and David Maysles
Albert (1926 – ) and David Maysles (1931 – 1987) have made some gloriously contemplative films about artists (Christo) actors (Marlon Brando) and musicians (Vladimir Horowitz), but they’re probably best known for the way they’ve been able to capture the tragic breakdown of certain people and situations. Last week, I praised their film 1970 Gimme Shelter as one of the best documentary films ever. The Maysles managed to capture the tragic death of a Rolling Stones fan at a poorly-planned concert, and the regret that the band had over the incident. It stood not only as a tragedy, but as an unfortunate breakdown of hippie idealism.
The Maysles’ other famous film is their 1975 classic Grey Gardens, which follows the lives of two eccentric women, a mother and daughter, both named Edie Beale, who are tangentially connected to the Kennedy family. The two Edies live in a mansion in a remote area of the Hamptons, and they never leave. The mansion is in a state of extreme disrepair when Jackie O., in what is perhaps a PR move, fixes it up. Grey Gardens traces the lives of these two women as their agoraphobia and deluded view of themselves proves to be a form of entropy. The mansion breaks down and rots before our very eyes, and we begin to see the Edies as these childish and insane women. Many admire them. I pity them. It’s a very sad film.
Homework for the Week:
Look over the filmographies of the eight filmmakers I have profiled in brief. Which of them seems the most interesting to you? What kind of subjects do you like to see documentary films about? Become familiar with these names. See a few films of the ones that most interest you. Morris and Herzog are kind of a must, but they’ll all do. Most of these filmmakers seemed to make films about outsiders and extremists. What is valuable about studying outsiders? Is everyday life more valuable? What kind of person or group of people would you like to make a documentary film about?