Many Faces of the Profile

There are three discussion starters attached to this blog. You can write about 1, 2, or all 3.

The three documentaries that we have recently watched in class all have one thing in common – they are all profile films.

The self explanatory WERNER HERZOG EATS HIS SHOE (1979) was directed by Les Blank who has defined his career by shooting profile documentaries. This film is one of two profiles about Werner Herzog. Herzog has been making films since the late 1960s, coming to prominence in the 1970s during the German New Wave. Unlike many narrative filmmaker, Herzog has always made a mixture of narrative and documentary films. The narrative films that he directed were often based on documentary subjects (nonfiction characters) and were often shot in very difficult locations to capture the reality of setting. His documentaries are subjective and poetic which make classifying them difficult at times. In this linked article the author comments on his documentary filmmaking by stating: “One: he is at heart a truth seeker – factual truth, historical truth, experiential truth, and emotional truth. Of course, the more astonishing and unearthly the truth is, the better. But where most documentary makers are motivated by political ideals or an urge to inform, Herzog’s only agenda is to make you look.” (Atkinson, Michael. “A Wild Walk with Werner.” – Theage.com.au. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. .)

Discussion Starter: After watching this short profile on Herzog, watching one of his documentaries, and reading the above article, blog a little on your thoughts about Werner Herzog.

Herzog’s view of documentary truth is also very different from others that we have seen this semester. In his “Minnesota Declaration” from April 30, 1999, Herzog claims the following as “Lessons of Darkness”

“1. By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.

2. One well-known representative of Cinema Verité declared publicly that truth can be easily found by taking a camera and trying to be honest. He resembles the night watchman at the Supreme Court who resents the amount of written law and legal procedures. “For me,” he says, “there should be only one single law; the bad guys should go to jail.” Unfortunately, he is part right, for most of the many, much of the time.

3. Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones. And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable.

4. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.

5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

6. Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures of ancient ruins of facts.”

Discussion Starter: How does Herzog approach the truth in his 1997 documentary LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY (1997)?

Alan Berliner has established himself as one of America’s more unique filmmakers. Seeing himself as more of an artist than documentarian, his films tend to be more experimental in form. Berliner’s collage of archival footage, found footage, and personal family footage woven together creates a very aesthetically different style of documentary. His films have become more and more personal. In the following interview, Berliner discusses his theme of family. You may watch the entire interview (22 minutes) or from minute 13 to minute 19.

Discussion Starter: Comment on NOBODY’S BUSINESS (1996)

The Purist of Direct Cinema

Robert Drew might be considered the creator of American Direct Cinema, but it is Frederick Wiseman who is one of the only filmmakers who have stuck to the strict rules in all of his films.

ImageIt class we watched his first film, TITICUT FOLLIES (1967), which is about the Bridgewater State Hospital.  Wiseman films his subjects over several months, shooting an enormous amount of 16mm footage.  He never interviews.  He never uses additional lights.  He never stages any of the actions.

ImageBelow are a couple of quotes from Wiseman about Documentary.

“Any documentary, mine or anyone else’s, made in no matter what style, is arbitrary, biased, prejudiced, compressed and subjective.  Like any of its sisterly or brotherly fictional forms it is born of choice – choice of subject matter, place, people, camera angles, duration of shooting, sequences to be shot or omitted, transitional material and cutaways.”

“Sometimes, in his lofty condescension, a filmmaker seeks to bring enlightenment to the great unwashed and force feed this or that trendy political pap to an audience which has not had the opportunity, or perhaps even the wish, to participate in either the experience or the mind of the filmmaker.  This…suggests to the filmmaker that he is important to the world.  Documentaries like plays, novels, poems – are fictional in form and have no measurable social utility.”

Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. 279,282. Print.

Discussion Starter: After reading the above quotes comment on your viewing of TITICUT FOLLIES.

Dawn of a New Cinema

Today the term “cinéma vérité” describes the look of narrative or documentary films – grainy, hand-held, real life (or at least real locations).

Advancement in film and sound technologies in the 1950s and the early 1960s lead the way for major changes in cinema. Lighter and smaller cameras allowed for hand held camera work. Film manufactures began developing 16mm film, allowing documentary filmmakers to shoot twice as much for the same cost of a reel of 35mm. Faster film stock allowed for the ability to shoot in darker locations – freeing the filmmaker from the need of additional lights. The development of smaller sound recording devices made capturing audio on location possible. All this technology lead to filmmakers asking “What kind of stories can we tell using this technology?”

Cinéma vérité is often used to describe the two major film movements – Cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema. It is important to know the differences between the two. “They both valued immediacy, intimacy and ‘the real’; they both rejected the glossy ‘professional’ aesthetic of traditional cinema, unconcerned if their images were grainy and wobbly and occasionally went out of focus – in fact, these ‘flaws’ in themselves seemed to guarantee authenticity and thus became desirable, eventually developing into an aesthetic in their own right.” Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. 249-250. Print.

Where the differences are came down to the question of filmmaker intervention.

The French, lead by CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER (1961) directors Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch, were drawn to the theories of the Camera eye by Dziga Vertov. They used the camera as a tool to provoke their subjects. They intervened with their subjects. They used the process of filmmaking as a way to explore the lives of their subjects. The style they developed was named Cinéma vérité – a direct translation of “Kino-Pravda”

Robert Drew, who lead the American film movement, was interested in developing a new kind of journalism – that would be like “a theatre without actors.” He wanted to capture reality without interrupting it.

“The advocates of Direct Cinema were always quick to codify exactly what they thought was the ‘right’ way to make a documentary and what was the ‘wrong’ way, drawing up a kind of filmic ten commandments: thou shalt not rehearse, thou shalt not interview; thou shalt not use film lights; thou shalt not stage events; thou shalt not dissolve. Paradoxically, the filmmaking movement which seemed to stand for iconoclasm and freedom became one of the most codified and puritanical.” Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. 250. Print.

In 1960 Drew Associates filmed PRIMARY using new technologies that were being developed. Part of the crew were using sync sound set up, while others were shooting with older “noisy” cameras and “wild” audio recorders. Ricky Leacock, one of the ‘associates’ commented on the experience. Ricky Leacock writes about the experience in his memoirs:

“It worked! We made a film that captured that flavour, the guts of what was happening. No interviews. No re-enactments. No staged scenes and very little narration. When we returned the New York we showed our film to a visiting British documentary filmmaker Paul Rotha, he was astounded and said, ‘…my God! We have been trying to do this for the last forty years and you’ve done it…’ He was in tears! We went out and got smashed!

“Soon thereafter we had the equipment we had dreamed of, and sometimes it worked. The important thing is that we were experimenting. All the rules were new. We were in fact, developing a new grammar which was entirely different from that of silent filmmaking and of fiction filmmaking. we were acutely aware that by this emphasis on sound we might be losing the visual basis for our medium. Looking back at the results it is apparent to me that the visual strength remained largely because of the avoidance of the interview, which I still regard as the death knell of cinematic story telling.” Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. 253-254. Print.

Discussion Starter: In the Direct Cinema movement the freedom of the filmmaker paradoxically came with constraining rules – the above list of ‘thou shalt not’s. Why did Robert Drew come up with these rules? How did you see them used (or broken) in PRIMARY?