Documentaries Essay, Research Paper

In the final years of the twentieth century, rare is the documentary that attracts mass audiences or attention. At a time when people get to declare their desire for entertainment in a multitude of media, the fate of the non-fiction film that attempts to tell a true story is not a happy one. But there are documentaries that succeed at the box office and even achieve status as popular fare, mostly either by appealing to a specialized audience of sufficient size, or taking a point of view that mass audiences can relate to comfortably and easily. A superb example of the former is The Sorrow and the Pity (1970), Marcel Ophuls' 4?-hour account of life in France during World War II under the Nazi and collaborationist regimes, which not only became a major international hit, but was so familiar to filmgoers that Woody Allen was able to use it as a familiar reference point in his most successful picture, Annie Hall (The Sorrow And The Pity is the movie that Allen's Alvy and Diane Keaton's Annie are planning on seeing). The best recent example of the latter is Michael Moore's 1987 hit Roger & Me, a film depicting Moore's efforts to confront General Motors chairman Roger Smith about the policies that led to the loss of 40,000 jobs in Flint, Michigan. The documentary has its roots in the film-going habits of the early twentieth century, when audiences were willing to look at almost any decently made (and often not-so-decently-made) visual material in movie theaters. In the days before television, theaters were expected to show not just feature films, but a wide range of diversions for their patrons, sometimes including live entertainment as well as movies. During the 1890s, the vast majority of films shown in theaters were of a non-fiction nature, covering actual events. By the beginning of the twentieth century, producers had begun presenting short movies depicting or re-creating events, essentially fragmentary newsreels, and occasional longer films dealing with celebrated events, especially recent tragedies. The most notable of these films in America was D.W. Griffith's 1914 Life of Villa, which mixed footage of actual events and dramatic reconstructions to tell the story of the celebrated Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa. World War I was the first war in which motion-picture cameras were available to capture events and for which a movie audience existed — the movie industries of most of the combatant nations produced propaganda films justifying their respective roles in the conflict. Actual footage shot in France during the fighting managed to make its way into D.W. Griffith's drama Hearts Of the World (1918), but the movie itself was a fictional drama dealing with survival in a French village under German occupation. By the end of the teens, every major studio had a newsreel unit that specialized in capturing news events on film and fashioning the material into five-minute digests for distribution to theaters. The documentary — the word derives from the French term documentaire, referring to travel films — as we know it began in 1922 with director Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North, which told the story of an Eskimo's survival. Although it was later revealed that some of the material was manipulated by Flaherty, the dramatic power of this true story was undeniable, and the film was widely seen and honored. Other major documentaries of the 1920s included Grass (1925), by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (later responsible together for King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game) and Chang (1927), and Flaherty's Moana(1926). In Russia, however, the documentary fully came into its own, highlighted by such works as Sergei Eisenstein's October/Ten Days That Shook The World (1928). The 1930s saw the advent of documentaries with political purposes and specific agendas in the United States and England. Apart from the newsreel industry, which by then had crews working in seemingly every corner of the globe (the 1938 Clark Gable action/comedy Too Hot To Handle gives a good representation of what the business was like), both the American and British governments sponsored movies intended to bring important social issues home to audiences. England created the General Post Office (or GPO) Film Unit as a means for producing non-fiction films such as BBC–The Voice of Britain (1935) and Night Mail (1936), which were among the most celebrated documentaries of the decade. In America, Pare Lorentz's The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936) dramatized the crisis facing farmers from soil conservation, and The River (1937) dealt with erosion in the Mississippi River basin. Flaherty worked in England, where, in addition to making documentaries such as Industrial Britain (1932), he was hired by Alexander Korda's London Films to shoot a movie in India — this material was taken by Korda and reshaped into the dramatic film Elephant Boy(1937), which was a major hit and made a star out of a young actor named Sabu. Perhaps the most celebrated and controversial documentaries of the period, however, came from Germany during the Nazi regime and from the work of Leni Riefenstahl, an ex-dancer who turned to directing in 1932. Riefenstahl was responsible for Triumph of the Will (1935), a documentary depicting a 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremburg, and Olympiad(1936), a dramatic enactment of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The coming of World War II saw an explosion of interest in documentaries in America and England. The American contribution came from the military, in the guise of films such as the Why We Fight series. Made under the supervision of director Frank Capra for the purpose of indoctrinating newly drafted troops over the need for their participation in the war, these movies proved so effective, that they were eventually made available to the public at large and explained many aspects of the history leading up to the war, the interests of the different countries involved, and the areas of concern that they shared with the United States. The British government began making documentaries within 30 days of the declaration of war, dealing with just about every permutation of the war, from England's readiness for war (The Lion Has Wings, 1939) to the need for secrecy (Next of Kin) and morale boosters intended for domestic and overseas audiences such as London Can Take It and Diary For Timothy. In England, many new directors, including Carol Reed, showed their potential in the making of wartime documentaries (although established filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock also made films supporting the war effort), while in America, it was old veterans such as John Ford (The Battle of Midway, 1942), John Huston (Report From The Aleutians, 1943), and William Wyler (The Memphis Belle, 1944 — which later became the basis for the dramatic film of the same name from 1990) who distinguished themselves. And some of their work, such as John Huston's Let There Be Light 1945), depicting the recovery of combat fatigue victims, was considered too strong for viewing by the general public at the time and was not seen for several decades afterward. The end of World War II brought an end to massive government investment in documentary production and coincided with a general withdrawal of activity in non-fiction film work as many of the studio newsreel units found their budgets cut back. The growth of local and network television news during the 1950s and early 1960s wiped out the domestic audience for newsreels, although private industry occasionally sponsored documentary features, such as Standard Oil's backing of Flaherty's The Louisiana Story (1948). The advent of the so-called Atomic Age, and the public's unfamiliarity with nuclear weapons and nuclear power fostered the making of numerous films meant to reassure them about the former and sell them on the latter. Many of the most over-the-top examples of these films were assembled by directors Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader, and Pierce Rafferty into a documentary of their own entitled The Atomic Cafe (1982), which had ferociously political fun at the expense of the originals' lies and half-truths about the hazards of atomic warfare and the ways of surviving nuclear attack — The Atomic Cafe became a major box-office hit and was heavily distributed in theaters, on television, and on home video. By the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, television had become the source of most documentary activity. The CBS News production Harvest of Shame (1959), depicting the plight of migrant workers in America, became the model for network activity in this area, and the years that followed, with the advent of the Vietnam War and the so-called war on poverty, generated television specials dealing with American actions overseas and poverty within our own borders. War has always been an especially compelling subject for documentaries, beginning with the World War II Navy celebration/tribute series Victory At Sea during the 1950s and continuing through such programming as CBS's World War I, narrated by Robert Ryan, up through Thames Television's The World At War (probably the best World War II documentary series there is), narrated by Laurence Olivier, and American Public Television's 1980s series Vietnam: A Television History. The latter also proved extremely controversial, as various political figures on the right demanded (and were ultimately granted) equal time to respond to what they perceived as the program's left-wing, anti-American slant. In theaters, however, the documentary virtually disappeared, apart from exceptions such as Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow And The Pity, which, despite its four-hour-plus running time, became a major hit around the world. Audiences no longer looked to the theatrical film experience as one that was supposed to educate as well as entertain; to reach modern filmgoers, documentary filmmakers discovered that they had to do both. The Rafferty/Loader/Rafferty film The Atomic Cafe did so, using gallows humor and politics as a hook that drew millions of people to it. At the other end of the decade, Michael Moore created an even larger splash with his delightfully deadpan, devastating Roger & Me, which skewered General Motors and chairman Roger Smith, as well as numerous other targets and by-standers. Moore's technique, apart from an unflappable demeanor even in the most ridiculous situations with the camera rolling, seems mostly to involve letting the camera roll, and permitting people to speak their minds and, often as not, make fools of themselves, all with the purpose of questioning the way the public and the conventional media present information and stories. When Moore's movie was nominated for an Oscar, however, controversy erupted from the ranks of more traditional documentary filmmakers, who questioned whether the movie was really a documentary or, in fact, a comedy using documentary techniques. Additionally, some political pundits on the Right cited the nomination of Roger & Me as evidence of Hollywood's anti-business attitude. They questioned whether a movie that takes a specific political point-of-view should be judged as a documentary. Actually, the picture was just damned funny and raised real questions about the motivations of General Motors, Smith, and the various players in the farce surrounding Flint, Michigan's decline. Their criticism ignored the fact that virtually every feature-length documentary from the 1930s and 1940s that is still remembered today took its sponsor's point-of-view, whether it was teaching farmers about soil conservation for the government, justifying our entry into World War II on the side of the British and the Soviet Union, or presenting Standard Oil as an enlightened steward of the land in The Louisiana Story. Moore — an iconoclastic filmmaker with a background that indicates a keen appreciation for making waves, including a stint writing for Mother Jones magazine — didn't seem to suffer from the controversy, however, and has since been given access to prime-time on the NBC network, as well as other film opportunities.

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