Thursday, June 01, 2006

First Love & Chats Perchés

Over the weekend, I motored up to Toronto to visit with la famille de Sirène before they fly off to Paris and move their household to New York soon after. I also took the opportunity to catch a juicy double bill at the Cinematheque. I was looking forward most to the new Chris Marker, and while it was terrific, it was the Kieslowski on the bill that unexpectedly proved to be the knockout of the evening.

A funny thing: I often find myself looking hard for traces of fictional elements in documentary films and traces of documentary elements in fiction films. Krzystof Kieslowski made the (ostensible) documentary First Love in 1974. It’s about a young Warsaw teenage couple, Jadzia and Romek, who have a baby. Kieslowski filmed them for a year, beginning when Jadzia was four months pregnant.

In the Faber & Faber book of interviews with him (my favorite in the series, although many others, including the Lynch and Sirk, are great too), he remarks:

When I was finishing film school I wrote a thesis called ‘Reality and the Documentary Film’ where I put forward the argument that in everybody’s life there are stories and plots. So why invent plots if they exist in real life? You only have to film them. That’s the subject I invented for myself. Then I tried to make films like that and I didn’t make any—except for First Love….There was masses of manipulation in the film, or even provocation, but you can’t make a film like that any other way. There’s no way you can keep a crew at somebody’s side for twenty-four hours a day….So I had to manipulate the couple into situations in which they would find themselves anyway, although not exactly on the same day or at the same time. I don’t think I put them in a situation in which they wouldn’t have found themselves if the camera hadn’t been there.

For instance, they are painting their apartment when a policeman knocks on the door and tells them that they are not officially registered to occupy it. Kieslowski actually found a policeman and informed on the couple (!) and filmed the visit, knowing (he says) that the cop would be lenient and wouldn’t really penalize them (or, with the shock of the visit, induce labor in the expecting mother!). Kieslowski gave the couple books (Young Mother; Developing Foetus) and asked them to read and discuss them without letting us in on it. And after the baby is born, and Romek calls his parents to tell them—through tears—the good news, we see the microphone jammed into the frame, not letting us forget that we are watching a (constructed) film. All of which I found fascinating.

The girl seems much more mature, resourceful, and worldly-wise; the boy still appears to be an overgrown adolescent. As the film unfolds and their personalities begin to emerge for us, the presence of the boy begins to recede in terms of screen time. Kieslowski simply finds the girl more interesting and the film slowly becomes more about her. Kieslowski shoots her in extended close-ups, riveted, and one can’t help but think ahead to the Three Colors trilogy and its woman-centeredness.

The other film of the evening was Chris Marker's new hour-long video, Chats Perchés ("Perched Cats," although the official English title is “The Case Of The Grinning Cat.”) Soon after 9/11, a mysterious perpetrator began stencilling large graffiti of a cat with a gigantic grin all over Paris. The images appeared on buildings, roofs, trees, and the Metro. (Coincidentally, Marker’s film about the history of the Left, made in 1977, was called Grin Without A Cat.) Marker begins to investigate the case of the grinning cat graffiti, and finds himself at a large anti-Le Pen demonstration held on the eve of the French election four years ago. (Along with a documentary filmmaker-friend, I remember spending most of the day marching in this demonstration on my last trip to Paris.) Marker spots the cat there, and then again at a right-wing rally where the speech-makers appropriate surrealist Paul Eluard’s words to their own ends. (Marker dryly mutters: “Causes are a matter of fashion. Sometimes it is an asset in life to not know what you’re talking about.”)

The movie quickly sketches a history of grinning cats, unearthing both Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat and Miyazaki’s cat from My Neighbor Totoro. Marker visits the Louvre and hunts down Egyptian cat sculptures. (Come to think of it: Agnès Varda, another Left Bank filmmaker like Marker, has a feline obsession too, as you may remember from The Gleaners and I.) But Marker’s real destination, where he spends most of his time, is la musée de la rue. He prowls the streets and the Metro looking for graffiti and discursively riffing on the Iraq war, Bush, and the French political scene. Like with all Marker, a first viewing only gets you so far; the density of allusion and epigram leaves you gasping to keep up. One gets the feeling that enjoyable though the film is, it is willfully smaller and a shade minor in comparison to Remembrance Of Things To Come (2001), his essay-portrait of photographer Denise Bellon. Still, I’ll be looking for the next opportunity to see them both again.

UPDATE: I just got an e-mail from Brian Sholis, who writes for Artforum. He pointed me to the summer issue of the magazine, which went on-line yesterday. It contains a Top Ten list by Monsieur Chat, the secret artist behind the grinning cat graffiti.


Blogger girish said...

"Watching Movies: Circumstances Matter" by Wagstaff at MZS's place.

June 01, 2006 11:10 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Great post! The Kieslowski comes to Berkeley next Wednesday (don't know if I can fit a viewing in, but I'll try), and the Marker played sans subtitles in San Francisco a couple months ago. Hopefully a subbed version will arrive soon...

I often find myself looking hard for traces of fictional elements in documentary films and traces of documentary elements in fiction films.

Me too. These two strands of filmmaking had a painful split-up in the silent era, and they've been trying to get back together ever since.

June 02, 2006 12:11 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I'm not so sure they did, Brian; nearly everything in all of Flaherty's movies is staged. He'd go somewhere, hang out for months while the studio sweated buckets about mounting expenses and no footage to show for it, and then once Flaherty had decided what the basic story was he'd start to shoot it, often making people do things they normally wouldn't (like hunting with a harpoon instead of a shotgun).

I'm often puzzled that people tend to expect absolute truth from a documentary, when it's quite impossible (first, I doubt anyone could see absolute truth even if it punched them in the nose, and second, I doubt anyone could capture it even if they could see it--lensing affects perspective; framing affects context; and things of course have to be left out in both images and storytelling. And, uh, also in making comments on a weblog.... And here I am on a soapbox. Let me step down. Thank you. Pet peeve of mine. Sorry.)

Ah. Yeah. Well, anyway, Flaherty is supposedly the father of documentary--according to various documentarians and film historians--yet Pennebaker and Wiseman and National Geographic get the accolades and Michael Moore is considered an editorialist, in spite of ample historical precedent for his kind of films. It's all very strange.

June 02, 2006 1:27 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I think we're probably on the same page, tuwa. What I was trying to say with my "painful breakup" remark is that documentary and fiction began as intertwined as early as the Lumieres, who made films that you could try to sort into one category or the other but it would be rather pointless, as what they were really interested in showing was to put it simply, moving images audiences had never seen onscreen before. It didn't matter how the images were captured, which is why even in a film like Arrival of a Train it's clear to a careful viewer that at least some of the people are acting or reacting to the camera.

Eventually people grew more and more interested in the narrative aspects of cinema, and began seeking out films that weren't merely presenting unseen images, but also helping to stir up emotions like suspense and sadness. As the literary strand of filmmaking grew and grew into the Star System, the documentary strand (though it wasn't called that) remained popular through records of events like boxing matches, for example, or of non-actor celebrities. It became more isolated from "the movies" and more like the journalism we associate with the term "documentary" today.

Flaherty's making of Nanook of the North is for me another example of "trying to get back together", as he was trying to bring the emotional content of narrative form to a film that would bear no other trace of similarity to the Hollywood films of the time (no recognizable actors or even the usual stereotypes, no artificial sets or special effects, no literary credentials), and its popularity as a feature film made it seem like something new on the cultural landscape. But what he and his followers like Cooper and Shoedsack do is certainly not pure journalism; it's more like a form of realism or naturalism, like that of Rossellini or the Dardennes.

That's how I see it anyway; I'm no scholar of the period though and I've probably grossly mischaracterized something, or everything.

June 02, 2006 2:21 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Yeah, we're probably on the same page. It just strikes me as ahistorical and naive to call something "not a documentary" based on political arguments the film puts across. Or maybe it's really just rhetorically expedient to make those kinds of charges ... I don't know about you, but they often strike me as code for "this film is incongruent with my political beliefs, which are, of course, completely and utterly correct."

I'm not surprised at the reactions of people to the camera, even in the actualities. Cameras of the day were light years away from being even as quiet and versatile as what the Maysles were working with in the 1960s (not to mention requiring someone there to crank them). It was really kind of visionary what Flaherty and Vertov were after, though the technology wouldn't catch up with them for quite awhile.

Now that I think of it, Vertov seems to fit into a "journalism with an agenda" school, along with Grierson and Lorentz and Reifenstahl and Capra, on through to Errol Morris and Barbara Kopple and really anyone who isn't saying anything so bland and self-evident that the attention drifts to more pressing things like watching the paint dry.

Your comment about the relation between documentary and naturalism is interesting. I could see Flaherty's work fitting in quite well with the great Italian neorealist films like The Bicycle Thief and Rome: Open City.

Back to the actualities, have you seen some of the films in the Edison Archives at It just occurred to me because you mentioned special effects. ^_^ They have some great ones, including various magic tricks like walking into and out of mirrors.

I've probably grossly mischaracterized something, or everything.
That's one of the greatest things I've read in weeks. And I've read some Terry Pratchett recently.

June 02, 2006 2:56 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Ah. The other connection between the films and your earlier comment: is the film of the magic trick meant to be a fiction film about, for instance, someone walking into a mirror, or a documentary of someone performing a magic trick? "The Kiss": fiction or documentary?

It reminds me of Rick Prelinger's theories about ephemeral films and how the ones shot on location, even the social guidance films, can often have documentary value (showing landscapes, cars of the time, commodities and their prices, etc.)

You made the point already, and better. Narrative seemed to muddy the waters somehow. It's worth thinking about, but I'm still skeptical even of "pure" journalism. I think that for any narrative there has to be someone deciding what goes and what stays, which in turn points out value judgments and fundamental problems of objectivity. I'm not a philosopher, but I am a skeptic. :-)

June 02, 2006 3:06 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I definitely share your frustrations with the people with axes to grind willfully ignoring the history of documentary when they rant that something like Fahrenheit 9/11 is not a documentary. This is eventually where I'd like to go with my exploration of the history of blurred lines between doc. and fiction, but I don't feel I'm on solid enough ground in my own knowledge yet to form arguments as strong as I'd like.

I brought up Arrival of a Train because I not too long ago read an article in a film archivists' journal that convincingly argued that at least some of the people in that film must have been instructed by the filmmakers (or someone) to play for the camera. I wish I could remember the specific evidence or just the name of the journal.

I haven't checked out that Edison site, though I've looked at a couple of the discs released by Kino a year and a half ago. Thanks for the tip. When I'm using a computer with better a better internet connection I'll do some poking around.

Have you seen Thom Anderson's Los Angeles Plays Itself? Anderson's initial argument (and the very existence of the film) play right alongside Prelinger's theories.

I'm skeptical of "pure" journalism too, and this is one place where I feel my preparation to really delve into the problems caused by the fiction/documentary divide is at its weakest. I really ought to take a good class on the history of journalism and journalistic principles, or at least find a few good books on the subject.

Another major weakness is my understanding of developments in Europe; for example I've seen a few Vertov films but none of the newsreels he was reacting against with his methods.

Back to your first comment where you mentioned National Geographic: I love how they're involved in the US release of the Chinese narrative film Kekexili: Mountain Patrol. This is not a documentary, but it resembles a nature or travel documentary in its presentation of an exotic ecosystem. The fact that it's based on real events makes it even more doc-like. And clearly the National Geographic name brings certain associations. After a year when a documentary with an Americanized soundtrack is by far the most successful foreign film, are we going to see more fiction films made in faraway places almost trying to pass themselves off as documentaries? And what does it mean?

June 02, 2006 3:52 AM  
Anonymous Jim Flannery said...

Conveniently enough I've just got in from seeing Kieslowski's student films; the earliest, Office from 1966, is about as constructed a documentary as you could imagine. Shot in a pension bureau office, it hovers around a mob of confused elderly people trying to work their way thru a maze of endless, contradictory paperwork. There are only a few fragments of apparent synch sound, he went for the "all reaction shots, all the time" approach -- an apparent continuous speech by a clerk on the soundtrack might be accompanied by shots out the window at a sequence of three or four different clients, only cutting back to the outside view of the clerk when one of them asks another question.

The film is basically constructed on the armature of the soundtrack, which is arranged almost musically, like a 70s text/sound collage piece ... the end, for example, takes a clerk saying "answer all the questions yes or no, then fill out this form explaining everywhere you've been in your life, you worked from 19-- to 19-- here, then you went to there ..." and cuts back into and out of it at various points centered around "everywhere ... life", over and over, while the camera wanders around the file room looking at shelf after shelf filled with overstuffed file folders. The MOS shots of the pensioners and the clerks are recycled mercilessly as well (hey, they're all reaction shots anyway).

This all sort of works to the dreaded "fallacy of imitative form", since the whole experience of the bureau is mind-numbingly repetitive and depersonalizing. But it kinda works too.

re: Marker, a subtitled DVD of Chats Perchés is available from or, if you've got a region-free player (it's a 2).

re: Flaherty, at the Pennebaker/Leacock retro at Docfilm this year it was next to impossible to keep Leacock from drifting off into the "Flaherty was a God who walked among men" speech at every Q&A. And no apologies for the blatant constructedness of Louisiana Story either -- rather a revelling in pointing out the "real" versions!

June 02, 2006 4:53 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian and Tuwa ~ Awesome discussion; great reading. Thank you.

I'm very under-read in the documentary area. I recently picked up Bill Nichols' Introduction to Documentary, which (from what I've read of it) is a strong text.
I wonder if there are any key/touchstone essays, either print or web, that are must-reads.

Jim ~ Thank you for telling us about the student films--very interesting.
(They actually played the night before, and I missed them.)
If you happen to see more docs in the series, and would like to record your thoughts here, you're of course most welcome to. Or feel free to post a link here if you write about them elsewhere.

June 02, 2006 8:56 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Excellent, detailed write-up of the films Brian Darr saw at the San Francisco filmfest.

June 02, 2006 9:05 AM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

What an amazing double-bill. Kieslowski and Marker have always been strangely connected in my mind, and it's nice to see that others have made that connection as well. Somehow, Marker's films never seem to make it to my neck of the woods. I've been wanting to see Grin for a long time, and this most recent film sounds wonderful.

I think I've read that Kieslowski interview--I wrote on the trilogy and on Blind Chance in my dissertation--but still haven't taken the time to see the film. I will now.

Like Brian, I liked your line about seeking traces of documentary in fiction and traces of fiction in documentary. Of course it reminded me of Ross McElwee's films, especially his most recent.

June 02, 2006 11:04 AM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

BTW, where did you find these videos? I don't see them on Netflix or Amazon and I know I can't get them at local video stores....

June 02, 2006 11:10 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Chuck, I saw these at the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto. The Kieslowski was on 16 and the Marker on video.

June 02, 2006 11:37 AM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

Okay. This is why I'm feeling pretty grumpy about moving to a much smaller city....

June 02, 2006 11:42 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Brian: I haven't yet seen Los Angeles Plays Itself, but I'd love to. Will check around in town for it.

Jim: That Kieslowski films sounds awesome.

Girish: Erik Barnouw's Documentary is a slender history but has a giant reputation.

Chuck: Girish has a room under his house that connects, via tunnel, to a chamber at the center of the Atlantic. This chamber is filled with raw Awesome, which is where Girish gets his film and Rev. Frost gets his music.

June 02, 2006 11:45 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Heh heh.
Tuwa, I have that Barnouw book somewhere (bought it used ages ago) but haven't looked at it in a long while.

And I just added an "update" to the post, above.

June 02, 2006 11:58 AM  
Anonymous Darren said...

"This chamber is filled with raw Awesome, which is where Girish gets his film and Rev. Frost gets his music."

When I finally get around to forming that band I've always dreamed of, I'm totally naming it "raw Awesome".

June 02, 2006 1:53 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"When I finally get around to forming that band I've always dreamed of, I'm totally naming it "raw Awesome"."

Of the few bands I've been in, the one with the best name was probably The Absolute Whores.

June 02, 2006 3:24 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Two interesting posts by Anthony Kaufman:

On why syndication of film criticism is a bad idea.

On what (he wonders) do Manohla Dargis and J. Hoberman see in Southland Tales that he doesn't.

June 02, 2006 3:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa posts mp3's of the Melodians and asks about your experience with emusic.

June 02, 2006 3:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Eric Henderson on Erotikon.

June 02, 2006 9:11 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Fun: Digging into the 24 fps archives.

June 03, 2006 9:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

The Listening Ear watches some Astaire.

June 03, 2006 9:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Sasha in the New Yorker on British pop.

June 03, 2006 9:13 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello on "Johan van der Keuken's sublime and exhilarating riff on the city symphony and musical documentary, Brass Unbound."

June 03, 2006 4:12 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Sasha--he so cool: A fine interview with him on the differences between American and British pop music.

June 03, 2006 8:36 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Sightings of Monsieur Chat in the streets. ;)
I thought the film was too literal, too matter-of-factly, without the formal and poetical invention Marker is used to. But as you say, I've seen the film only once, so I probably missed something.

re: Documentary.
The "pure" documentary would be a footage of a crowd looking into the lens, waiting for something to happen... Cause the first "directing" a documentarian must do is to conceal the presence of the camera crew.
There is probably less cheating in Flaherty's "re-enacting" than in today's live TV journalism with prejudices and leading questions.

The documentary truth is in the ethics, not necessarily in the footage acquisition.

June 03, 2006 9:23 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Actually, Harry, I tend to agree with you.
Like I mentioned in the post, it struck me as relatively minor. But minor Marker is still interesting Marker!

June 03, 2006 10:07 PM  
Blogger girish said...

My brain is turning into a sieve.
Meant to link to Darren's post on Birth earlier but clean forgot.
And here's a related response from Zach.

June 03, 2006 11:09 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Funny, Girish, I'd thought your mind was more like a can opener.

Harry, documentary ethics is an endlessly fascinating topic. I doubt I'll ever forget hearing a fast-talking runny nosed hotshot documentary director tell a group at UF that he had told his subjects what to say in some of the scenes because it would make a better film. One for-instance had a coach give a losing boxer an understanding & accepting speech, after which the director lowered his camera and the coach immediately turned foul-mouthed and livid and gave the boxer the dressing-down of a lifetime.

In spite of my general thoughts about objectivity, I thought this director was a smug unethical jerk.

Others that visited the campus, like D.A. Pennebaker, Mark Jonathan Harris, and Marc Singer, struck me as much more humble and level-headed.

June 04, 2006 1:12 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Re: Harry's comment, "The "pure" documentary would be a footage of a crowd looking into the lens, waiting for something to happen... Cause the first "directing" a documentarian must do is to conceal the presence of the camera crew."

Harun Farocki's Workers Leaving the Factory address this exact issue, of the inescapability of a subject's affectation with the consciousness of being filmed, and that the only true unaffected gaze is surveillance. To illustrate this, he repeatedly plays the opening sequence of the Lumière film, where we see a woman playfully tug at another woman's skirt, but the other realizes that the camera is rolling (or at least, that their bosses, the Lumières are filming), and hestates in retaliating. So in this sequence, Farocki illustrates the behavioral "alteration of reality" that the presence of the camera clearly elicits.

It also should be noted that the Lumière brothers strived to capture social realism, not "reality as-is" per se; it's an encapsulation of the idea, so even from the beginning, the aesthetic definition of documentary was never quite so clear cut.

Another is in the field of ethnographic filmmaking, and I think Trinh T. Minh-ha articulates this best when she talks about cultural hybridity. For instance, I think it was Bérénice Reynaud who talked about how Trinh can cross certain bounds more easily and take the intimacy of shots further (such as those of African women in their environment) because she is also a woman of color (even if the race is different) than Johan van der Keuken ever could because as unintrusive as they both are with their cameras, JvdK is still a white man viewed from a privileged, colonialist perspective, and Trinh comes from a place of colonized dispossession (Vietnam). In other words, just the presence of the filmmaker brings his/her own bounds of what becomes transgressive, which aren't always the same clear cut demarcation.

June 04, 2006 8:55 AM  
Blogger girish said...


Acquarello, since most documentary films do not fall into the "surveillance" film category, I guess they are automatically "impure"...

If this is the "profilmic" side of the equation (what is in front of the camera), it's also very interesting to ponder the other side, which is the array of deliberate "filtering" or "mediating" choices made by the filmmaker in "constructing" the documentary film from footage (what to leave in/out and why), not to mention the initial choices made about the choice of what to film (or "find") in the first place...

On a related note, there's an essay by Kees Bakker on Joris Ivens that might be of general interest here.
An excerpt:

"Where fiction invents a possible world, documentary is about the real, natural world; where fiction has a narrative structure, documentary draws on arguments; the fiction filmmaker constructs whereas the documentarist reconstructs.

But a reconstruction is also a construction in itself, and many documentaries use narrative structures (if not all, because narrative structure is not synonymous with fictional structure, if one considers narrativity to be the basic characteristic of all discourses, fictional or non-fictional). In recent years some so-called “fake-documentaries” have proven that “documentary structures” can be used to tell fictional stories."

June 04, 2006 9:34 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Dennis Lim on Rivette's legendary 12-hour Out One: Noli Me Tangere in the NYT: (It plays in New York in November.)

"Building on his improvisational experiments of "L'Amour Fou" (1968), Mr. Rivette worked without a script, relying instead on a diagram that mapped the junctures at which members of his large ensemble cast would intersect. The actors came up with their dialogue; the only thing Mr. Rivette actually wrote were the enigmatic notes Mr. Léaud's character receives. In a 1999 interview Mr. Léaud described the director's methods as "vampiric."

"Out 1" uses documentary techniques — uninflected observation, unscripted situations — not to capture reality but to generate fiction. For Mr. Rivette, narratives — or, more precisely, our hunger for them — can be dangerous. In his best-loved film, "Céline and Julie Go Boating" (1974), a giddy parable on the pleasures and perils of storytelling, the heroines are literally thrust into a haunted house of fiction.

The director Claire Denis, who worked with Mr. Rivette in the mid 70's and later made a documentary about him, spent an afternoon on the set of "Out 1" as a student. "Everything was political then," she said in a telephone interview. "Making the film was political. So was watching it." She has fond if somewhat dim memories of the legendary 1971 screening. "It was like an acid experience," she said. "Everyone was more or less stoned.""

June 04, 2006 2:19 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Matt Zoller Seitz declares: Deadwood Week.

June 04, 2006 3:07 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

what is these Prelinger's theories you mentionned above?

Yes, like what Girish said about Kieslowski's manipulation to "get" something happening for his documentary... This is cinema, ok. But as far as documentary goes, something is fundamentaly flawed there.
Manipulation should at least be made evident in the making. For instance Flaherty films a set of Nanook interacting with westerners (and the phonograph) to remind us of the camera crew invading his life.
Still, film footage is the best evidence invented by humanity to record truth to date. Unlike oral culture and literature, the further you go from truth, the more efforts and money it takes to mask the manipulation. It's difficult enough to get trained actors to be credible, so regular people and documentarians can't lie much without showing. That's the job of a critic to scrutinize the ethics of documentaries actually.

what you say of the intimacy and cultural hybridity is obvious in the case you cite, and we can imagine it also happens at a micro scale between any two persons, even of the same gender and milieu.
Nanook has no reason, nor motive, to play pretend or act out of character. Today, everybody is conscious of the screen fame and are ready to deform truth to look good on camera.

Maybe we'd reach closer to truth when the camera will be invisible. People are not as self-conscious about the surveillance eye, but then the content depends on chance for something to "happen" on camera. So it's not a practical technique in most cases.

Van der Keuken is an atypical "documentarian" because of his experimental formalism, yet the humility and pertinence of his point of view is admirable. So the manipulation of the form is less distractive than the one of content. One can use the cinematic language to deceive or to transcend.

"the documentarist reconstructs"
really interesting quote there from Joris Ivens. ;)

the controversy about fiction/documentary is as absurd as the one about criticism's objectivity/subjectivity... It's not a matter of taking the words literaly in their absolute sense. This is not abstract theory. Pragmaticaly, "pure truth" means ethics integrity in the production of a result, like acquarello said, it's "social truth" a documentarian is after, not hyper-realism. Raw truth is too dense and complex for anyone to read it. Selective angles, contextualization, relativization are necessary to make a documentary meaningful.

June 05, 2006 10:57 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Harry, in case you're still reading this: my mention of "Prelinger's theories" was in reference to tuwa's previous comment in which he mentioned that Rick Prelinger has pointed out the documentary value of so-called "ephemeral films". Prelinger is almost certainly this country's leading archivist of educational films, industrial films, home movies and other films made completely outside both the studio system and the sphere of "art". I suspect tuwa's more familiar with his theories than I am though. Perhaps he'd be willing to expand.

June 08, 2006 3:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi Harry, just a few random thoughts:

"the controversy about fiction/documentary is as absurd as the one about criticism's objectivity/subjectivity"

Not so sure about that, Harry. It's a debate that has been raging for decades and can't be dismissed quite so casually.

"Selective angles, contextualization, relativization are necessary to make a documentary meaningful."

But by doing this, you are altering the "raw reality" in a crucial way--mediating and inflecting it through a person (and the sum total of their ideologies and beliefs and values) both consciously and unconsciously. There are critical ethical implications to the resulting product emerging of this mediation/filtering process. By ignoring or dismissing these implications, we may be committing grave ethical errors (of blindness) ourselves...

June 08, 2006 9:52 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Thanks Brian, I'll look it up.

Precisely, ethics matters, not versimilitude.

If you stick to "raw reality" recorded live, unedited but from the wrong angle and with a narrow point of view, you risk to lose more truth than if you grasp the right understanding of a situation and make sure your footage will translate this correctly.
Take Fox News one-sided "reality" for instance, or CNN's coverage of the Gulf War... this apparent "raw reality" might lull us into thinking we witness Truth, while the selective point of view makes all the difference. Everything else ignored off screen, is what makes wrong the "raw reality" we see.

I was looking for an extreme example of fictitious documentary and came up with the animated short film of Aardman studios, Creature Comforts. The raw material is real life interviews of real people, and totally re-enacted by claymation characters, animals in zoo cages! We can't get more manipulative, although the manipulation is unmistakeable. Yet the original message is given a new dimension by this shift of ironic perspective, that doesn't betray, IMHO, the truth in the voices.

The informed mediation, provided the manipulation is announced one way or the other, isn't as dangerous as a de-contextualized found-footage without sources.

What truth do you want as a viewer? A raw truth you are unable to understand? Or an interpretation giving a faithful perception of what is going on out there?
The simple fact that a documentary is a condensed capture of a larger scope, both in space and time, implies a process of selection that is already a betrayal and leves room for a lot of unethical manipulations... without even staging fiction. So I don't trust the "raw reality" argument.

If you've been to an event covered by a documentary, you know how editing can make things look very different without altering reality.

So to consider documentary solely from the material acquisition is underestimating the power of visual language, and the implications of the camera point of view.

June 09, 2006 1:56 PM  
Blogger Raphaël Zacharie de Izarra said...

Un texte peu connu de Paul Eluard


Je marchais en direction des blés, le regard instinctivement attiré par l'azur. Juin chauffait la campagne, l'espace était rayonnant. Une colline devant moi rejoignait le ciel. Je la fixai tout en ralentissant légèrement le pas. Soudain un vent emporta mon esprit en direction de hauteurs inconnues.

Je fis un voyage extraordinaire, debout, pétrifié, les pieds bien posés sur le sol.

La tête ailleurs, je partis je ne sais où. Tout y brillait d'un éclat mystérieux. Un autre soleil pareil au soleil éclairait ce monde. Et je vis la colline, la même colline qui me faisait face. Mais avec une perception différente. La colline était vivante, je sentais en elle une essence vitale, une respiration intérieure. Elle échangeait des pensées supérieures avec l'azur qui lui aussi semblait imprégné de vie. Très vite je m'aperçus que toutes choses communiquaient avec l'ensemble du monde en se faisant passer entre elles un souffle universel plein de sagesse.

Les blés à côté de la colline formaient un choeur de millions de voix suaves, chaque tige ayant son chant propre, accordé avec tous les autres. La terre sous ces blés psalmodiait je ne sais quel étrange cantique. Le ciel avait pris un autre sens. Le bleu le définissait et je ne le nommais plus ciel mais le nommais Bleu. Les oiseaux dans les airs prenaient un prix infini. Créatures éternelles, rien ne pouvait les corrompre et leur vol se prolongeait dans des immensités sans fin.

Tout cela était à la fois tangible et impalpable, présent et invisible, proche et insaisissable.

Je redescendis aussi vite en moi que j'en étais sorti. Je me retrouvai les pieds toujours bien ancrés sur le sol, me réadaptant à la lumière du soleil habituel, qui me parut terne.

Dubitatif, perplexe et à la fois parfaitement convaincu de la réalité suprême de cette curieuse, inexprimable expérience que je venais de vivre, j'avançai vers le champ de blés comme si je devais poursuivre ma flânerie.

Poussé par une puissante intuition, je tendis la main vers une gerbe de blés pour la saisir.

Un éclair illumina ma main et la rendit transparente un bref, très bref instant. Si bref que l'oeil de la mouche l'a déjà oublié et que le soleil en doute encore.


June 10, 2006 3:00 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

About Prelinger's theories about the potential documentary value of ephemeral films: in the film Girls Beware, a girl unwise enough to take a ride from two men in the Sid Davis universe is driven out to a deserted area where the two men begin (simultaneously) to lean in and kiss her, with the implication that a rape will surely follow. As they pull in, you can see oil rigs at work in the background. If you know that Sid Davis filmed in and around Los Angeles, and that this film was made around 1960, and that Davis made all his films for $1,000 or less, then you know that he surely did not have a crew go out and build that oil rig for the shot, but that somewhere in that area in 1960 there were operating oil rigs.

Another example is in, I think, Boys Beware, when the pedophile drives his victim to a taco stand. As the car pulls in, you can see the price of tacos on the sign. (19c, if I remember right).

More generally, the films document social anxieties of the time. There's a tendency to allow nostalgia to haze over the shadier aspects of the past, but Davis' films dealt with a number of problems that parents and teachers were concerned about--he sold his films to schools, mostly. Some of the problems include child predators, juvenile delinquency, and even heroin abuse among white children in the suburbs--giving the lie to the notion that it was strictly a black and urban problem. His films also dealt with the rape and murder of children and teenagers, giving the lie to the notion that things were so much safer then. (Davis began making films as a result of the abduction, rape, and murder of a very young girl in the late 40s/early 50s).

I'm sure that Prelinger could explain his theories much better than I just have, but I think the general point is that the films were typically made to address common concerns, and that recognizing those concerns can cast a different light on received history. The smaller details are sort of a bonus, and more open to interpretation--for instance, we don't know if the taco stand's prices were fairly high or low--or completely typical--but in the absence of other evidence it does give us an idea of the general cost.

June 10, 2006 7:41 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Really interesting Tuwa! thanks a lot.
I heard there was an Art Design University in the USA (can't remember which State) that maintains a comprehensive catalog of porno movies because the set furbishing always reflects the everyday taste of the time. And as we know the artistic value of 60ies "tacky" furniture skyrocketed. And pornos feature a great variety of authentical furniture. ;)

June 14, 2006 3:08 AM  
Anonymous love said...


June 27, 2006 3:53 AM  

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