What exactly is a documentary? Ryan Jerving describes it as any film "presumed by its viewers to have a more or less direct relation to reality." Pretty weird definition, eh?, since most films have some relationship to reality. The key word here is "direct." In other words -- a documentary purports to show some version of reality, without the heavy artifice of an artificially imposed narrative. Any shape that you've given to a documentary alledgedly comes from the material itself.
There are different types of documentaries -- observational, analytical, ethnographic, impressionistic, and many more. Some attempt to avoid imposing a point of view, others are blatant in their "selling" of one. All of them, if they are well made, attempt to make a point.
To get at how each film makes its arguments, it is helpful to list all the kinds and sources of visual and aural materials that each film uses (including the title sequences). You can then start to analyze what the overall style of each one it. This ties in with our discussion last week about style.
Tonight we will take a look at several different documentaries, depending on how much time we have and how we define the term "documentary." The first two are two very different looks at the same subject -- the immigration station of Ellis Island, set in New York City's harbor. The first, a 1997 Arts and Entertainment channel doc, directed by Lisa Bourgoujian, is traditionally constructed and edited. You will notice the use of voice over and archival footage. The filmmaker makes an attempt to unite the past and the present (a theme of both of these documentaries) by desaturating the color in the opening fly-over of the island, taking us into the past. Notice the use of dissolves from one piece of footage to the next, prelaping and postlapping interview voices, and the juxtaposing of images that attempt to make the old footage
Here is a description of the film, from Harvard University's Teaching Global Studies web site.
Ellis Island. Producer: Lisa Bourgoujian, 1997. 150 mins.
This "locingly assembled" (People Magazine) three-tape program uses hundreds of interviews, photographs, films and recreations from the Ellis Island Oral History Project to tell the incredible stories of immigration to America through the "golden door," whose entrance, for over half a century, meant an opprotunity for a new life.
The second film, on the other hand, is a 1981 documentary, directed and written in an experimental style by performance artist and composer Meredith Monk. This version, also called ELLIS ISLAND, is told without voice over and without archival footage. It, too, attempts to make a contrast between old and new images by creating new images and old ones, and making them all look similar. The music is entirely different than Bourgougian's version, (it would be valuable to go through the exercise we did during our lesson on music and try and ascribe adjectives to each musical choice), and the storytelling structure is different, but after a while it becomes clear that the filmmakers had similar thoughts in mind.
What do you think they are?
Here is the description of Monk's film from her own web site:
Ellis Island. Directed by Meredith Monk. Produced and co-directed by Bob Rosen. Camera by Jerry Pantzer. Music by Meredith Monk. A film about the experience of immigrants entering America at the turn of the century, ELLIS ISLAND was awarded the CINE Golden Eagle, aspecial Jury Prize from the Atlanta and San Francisco Film and Video Festivals.
In the unlikely even that we have time, we will take a look at another example of documentary work -- the film LOOKING FOR RICHARD, which was directed by Al Pacino. This is a sampling of Shakespeare's "Richard III" as Pacino tries to figure out if and why the play has relevance to today's world and today's people. Pacino is also at the film's center as he puts together a cast for a performance of the play, researches its menaings, and interviews people in this country and Europe, about what Shakespeare means to them. The structure of the opening of the film, once again, attempts to find the contrast between the old and the new. Shots are cut togehter to create mood, connectivity and to announce to the audience what and who is important in this film. This is a structure that you will have noticed in all of the documentaries that we look at tonight; in fact, it is a structure in every film that is made.
As a side notes, I present here a quote from Scoutt Foudras' review of Arlene Donnelly's documentary feature NAKED STATES, from Variety. The film follows photographer Spencer Tunick on his five-month quest to find people in each of the 50 states to pose nude (en masses) in public spaces for his camera.
"Naked States" settles into a too comfortable rhythm of showing tunick setting up for a shoot and then cutting to a print of the finished photo, and it is Donnelly's unfailing attachment to this methodology, at the very moment the film needs to take off in a new direction, that reveals her limitations as a documentarian. Donal seems so passively enthralled by Tunick himself that she never really stops to ask him why he does what he does; nor is she interested in deconstructing the artist or his photos."
In fact, the above criticism should be something you ask yourself constantly about every work that you create -- whether it is a documentary or a narrative fiction film. Why do characers do what they do? Am I too caught up in an intellectual rendition of style or too stuck on my original ideas, to move past them to the point where I can make my film really work. Editing is re-editing, re-examining, re-experiencing.
Two leaders with different philosophies about battle and leadership wage war with each other in this tense military thriller. Capt. Frank Ramsey (Hackman) is the commanding officer of a nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Alabama. Ramsey is a distinguished veteran near the end of his career, and he leads his men with an iron hand. Ramsey is assigned a new second-in-command, Lt. Cmmdr. Ron Hunter (Washington); Hunter is much younger than Ramsey, Harvard educated, and believes the goal of the military in the nuclear age is to prevent war, not fight it. While at sea, word reaches the Alabama that a splinter group of Russian forces have seized missile silos, and the ship is put on red alert. The Alabama has orders to fire, but as it is receiving a new incoming order the radio malfunctions. It's Ramsey's contention that an order is an order and they are to move forward with the attack, while Hunter feels if there is any question at all about their mission, they should wait until they can receive further instruction, with Hunter going so far as to threaten mutiny against Ramsey if the missile strike is carried out.
--Tony Lucas, Resident Scholar
Note to aspiring directors: If something's not working, don't keep doing it again and again and again in the hopes that it will magically work itself out. It won’t. For fuck’s sake, stop, fix the problem and then soldier on. We understand. Really we do. We’ll even re-light and won’t blame you.
• You're very likely to survive any battle in any war, unless you show someone a picture of your sweetheart back home.
• When you are alone in the back seat of the car, make sure you sit in the middle.
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Last Modified - November 25, 2013