THE DOCUMENTARY CRISIS
BY IAN F. SVENONIUS
ILLUSTRATIONS BY JIM KREWSON
Oil painting has been pursued for around 600 years. Screen-printing was developed during the Song dynasty in China during the tenth century, making it around 1,000 years old. Perhaps the oldest-known poem is the
Epic of Gilgamesh
, written in cuneiform in the third millennium BCE, making written poetry at least 5,000 years old. Music probably emerged along with
in Africa as an intrinsic feature of human culture 160,000 years ago. In comparison, cinema has had the life span of an American box turtle: approximately 124 years. Yet although just a babe in “art years,” today it faces an existential crisis.
Hailed by Lenin as “the most important art form” during its infancy and still transfixing the world just a generation ago, film now struggles for life, for relevance, for viewers, and even to resemble something worthy of discourse at all. Since film developed out of topsy-turvy industrial capitalism, this condition of crisis is not so strange. In fact, since capitalism’s persona is perpetual crisis, it makes sense that film—a chip off the old block—would be marked by the same manufactured hysteria that typifies the system that spawned it.
When it first developed into something more than a novelty, film was an extension of the theater, a way to tell stories about the world. But as opposed to theater, film was the industrial era’s contribution to art, and therefore—unlike other, more ancient media—it inevitably resembled new industries, such as steel and oil, with the same stratified division of labor, unions, strikes, insidious contracts, pitiless exploitation, and a monopoly-minded owner elite.
Indeed, since ownership of the means of production is the central issue in such types of industry, the great film houses—Warner Bros. and MGM—contrived a stranglehold on film, processing, supply, workers (actors and directors were bought and held under contract), and distribution so as to stifle, destroy, and otherwise discourage competitors.
Thus, like rock ’n’ roll in its “classic” phase, film in the USA was, almost from the beginning, an unaffordable venture for all except the Hollywood studios, with a few designated “auteurs” holding forth with their new offerings each season. Humanity was hypnotized by the fables they were taught in the hermetically sealed movie houses that dotted every city block. To be a participant in “the movies” was a glorious dream. Would-be actresses hurled themselves toward the merciless megalith of Hollywood like so much sacrificial foodstuff, and to be a director was a laughable, fanciful ambition, akin to being president or king of the world.
When video technology was proliferated on the cheap beginning in the 1980s, it was, like all new consumer gizmos, hailed as a revolution for the everyman. Video was cheap and portable, and it existed outside the film industry’s monopoly over the means of production. Now anyone who had the smarts and the ambition could make a film, not just those with show-biz connections, family ties, or the willingness to surrender on a casting couch. Like most supposed triumphs for “the people,” this was in truth a matter of one industry (Japanese electronics) asserting itself over another (Hollywood movies).
The only problem with video was its crudity and ugliness. The picture was rough, and it didn’t have the same magic sensibility that viewers saw in celluloid. Therefore, despite the almost immediate mass proliferation of video cameras, few films of any note were produced using the new equipment. Instead the now ubiquitous camcorders were carted dutifully to underground rock shows until another use—documenting sex acts—was discovered.
Hollywood responded to the threat of video democracy, though, by making their means of production even more unassailable. Films were driven by super-celebs and special effects more than ever before. Storytelling became a low priority next to monster makeup, interstellar explosions, and megastars. As cable television and rental video continued to smash away at the revenue of the cinema house, the desire to produce spectacle was more and more the overriding concern of the studios. For a film to have a theatrical release, it had to resemble a carnival ride with the attendant thrills, chills, and nausea-inducing spills. Breakneck editing, zany camera work, excruciating volume, and lurid, freakish violence have now rendered many films, ironically, unwatchable. Every year or so, due to forgetfulness, one may wander into a theater, lured by a hysterical advertising barrage, convinced that seeing a particular film is indispensable to one’s continued cultural literacy. Then, emerging sullied, degraded, insulted, and $20 poorer, one swears never to be tricked again. This life lesson is typically learned about once a year. In fact, movie watching in a theater is generally an exercise in nostalgia, akin to hearing a Drifters song on an oldies station.
This decline has been long coming. Jean-Luc Godard once memorably noted in an interview that when he discovered cinema in the 50s it was in fact “already over.” Indeed, in 1946 America, with a population of 141 million, 100 million film tickets were sold each week for a total of 36.5 billion tickets that year. Now, with the US population more than doubled, ticket sales for all of North America in 2007 (including Canada) were just 1.4 billion.
Of course, people are still passively watching their master’s morality plays, but now at home on television, so picture quality is no longer as important. Sensing an opportunity for breakthrough, video makers—people not necessarily anointed by the studios—started trying to exploit the enormous potential for a decentralized movie industry comprised of real auteurs and enthusiasts, similar to decentralized scenes of musicians, painters, and poets. But the video camera’s initial utilization as a tool of documentary was never shaken. Nor was the universal disdain for something that could film just anybody or be afforded by anyone. In a society with an institutionalized contempt for poor people, video’s very cheapness was actually a liability.
Because of its roots in recording music shows and pornography, video was seen as “truth.” Therefore, the new generation of filmmakers, barred from the use of film by its untenable expense, bothered themselves with making “documentaries” instead of dramas with their video cameras. Documentaries are now produced at an unbelievable rate. They are typically portraits of an unusual person, such as an archer with no arms or a vegetarian who hunts, or a political diatribe about a war, or a historical piece celebrating a particular rock group featuring testimonials from people who were “there” or were profoundly affected. Grants for documentaries are comparatively easy to come by, and documentary festivals abound.
While a portion of these video documentaries is interesting, what is truly fascinating is the volume that is being produced as opposed to traditional fictional narratives. What does it say about a generation that can’t seem to write a story with characters or a plot with tension? While music has gone absolutely fantasist (rife with “psych-folk” singer-songwriters warbling about magic and elves, electro composers proposing sex with robots, and alt-country crooners lamenting the passing of an imaginary world), new filmmakers are obsessed with presenting a picture of “reality.” They have a doomsday cult’s concern with presenting their time as they see it since they are disbarred from the official surreal dialogue that is being inscribed by imperialist lechers like the
New York Times
s Bob Woodward.
While this impulse to present one’s own era to the earth’s inheritors echoes a human need seen since the cave paintings of yore, the artlessness of the video medium needs to be taken to task. These films are usually bad-looking, un-nuanced, propagandistic tellings of events. The camera work is almost always execrable, the narration is simplistic, the method of storytelling is usually a parade of talking heads; they feel like audiovisual presentations in a grade school. While utilizing this powerful medium and trying to express a particular ideological argument could be admirable, the aesthetic decisions of the video auteurs often reveal an infantilized weltanschauung, a stunted artistic vision, and a linear and impoverished mindset.
It all raises the question: Who is the imagined audience for such expositions? Is it one’s contemporaries? This seems highly unlikely since the retold Iraq-war tidbits and rock ’n’ roll mythos featured in such pictures are well known to their watchers. If the point is a mere recitation of folklore, that is a defensible raison d’être, though the trappings of cinema hardly seem necessary for such a task when a pamphlet or magazine article could do the job at least as well, without all the self-important fuss. Making money can’t be the reason, since these projects are typically a financial risk.
The obvious answer seems to be that videos are produced to explain ourselves and our situation to some future alien race. The documentary’s careful and childlike elucidation of events is calculated to be understood by an exotic sensibility, and the genial idiocy on display seems to speak to an interstellar consciousness of which no subtlety can be presumed for fear of misinterpretation, and for which no common culture can be assumed. Why else would a film like
Standard Operating Procedure
be so asinine and simpleminded? Every human who saw that particular film must have been baffled at its apologist stance for what everyone knows is an ethics-free killing machine, the United States Army.
Other apparently pointless documentaries are legion.
No End in Sight
, for example, is a propaganda piece that suggests that the war in Iraq was “mishandled” and then raises the specter of Iran as bogeyman in its closing statements, leaving the door open for a spectacular sequel. With these views palpably omnipresent on television and in the papers, who are the intended viewers for such abominable drivel? Perhaps a future race that will sort through the detritus of our civilization and to which the filmmakers feel a responsibility in explaining their damnable capitalist ideology, the system that spelled an end to such a luscious planet. Perhaps they believe that while the transmissions of television will be lost and newspapers burned away in the nuclear holocaust, the video documentary will survive, protected by its tough plastic sheath. Maybe their propaganda is supposed to mitigate the disgust the aliens will feel when witnessing human senselessness, the same feeling you get when you find, at a thrift store, a great record collection that’s been stepped on, scratched to hell, and left to molder.
The clues are all around that documentaries, and video in general, are meant for aliens. Why are DVDs shaped like flying saucers? To appeal to aliens. Why do porn performers shave their genitals? Because their directors imagine this will appeal to the aliens for whom the video porn is actually meant—the same aliens who are commonly depicted as hairless. Who determined that video would be used this way? No one in particular. It was unconscious. Something about video screams “The Future” to people. Video fonts and screens always feature in futuristic television, records, and films. Perhaps there is some astral travel we’ve made through which we’ve witnessed this posthistorical environment.
This impulse, to create explanations of our time for a future superior race or being, is understandable, of course. It’s been the impetus for many esoteric and religious writings through the ages. But it’s a mistake to assume that the aliens are so aesthetically stilted that they can’t appreciate a little artistry in their propaganda. What the videos are really explaining to this future race is how stylistically impoverished our era is. From the new buildings authored by a diabolical breed of “architects,” to the office workers’ khaki pants, to the artless business signs in the same few computer fonts, to the cars that are designed using the same horrible computer, the population is being aesthetically defecated on, and they know no better. Years of artistic retardation and philistine admonitions against art from everywhere, whether it’s Jesse Helms of the federal government or the rock ’n’ roll stars of the culture industry (“A French Small Faces EP cover can piss all over any of [Picasso’s] paintings”—Paul Weller), have resulted in a kitsch country (the USA) that looks like shit, and through that country’s outsize influence on the rest of the planet, a kitsch world that also looks like shit.
Of course, it’s important not to be too harsh in one’s judgment of the auteurs of these mediocre video movies. They are working under a fascist dictatorship, after all, with its attendant psychic torments, idiot citizenry, and nasty bedfellows born of the need for funding. It is especially difficult to produce anything worthwhile when one feels there is no audience for it. The mass media has successfully made us all feel remote, hapless, crazy, alone. Certainly, relatively little interesting art was produced in Pinochet’s Chile.
In Bob Dylan’s famous interview in the D. A. Pennebaker documentary
Don’t Look Back
where he chastises a
reporter by saying, “There’s no ideas in
magazine… just these facts… the article you’re writing, it can’t be a good article; it doesn’t mean anything,” he might as well have been discussing this new documentary craze. When, upon being pressed for an alternative approach, he suggests, “The plain picture… the plain picture of, let’s say, a tramp vomiting in the sewer and next to it a picture of Mr. Rockefeller,” he could easily be talking about the collage newsreels of Santiago Álvarez.
The work of Álvarez points the way toward the solution to the current quagmire in which the documentary world finds itself. A Cuban filmmaker who Fidel Castro charged with producing newsreels upon the revolution’s successful bid for power, he created an average of a film every two weeks for 30 years. He did this with almost no materials at his disposal, and yet his constructions are fantastic evocations of the circumstances in which they were constructed. An alien viewing his work would certainly be delighted at the humanity that created it, would understand the complexity of their breed and the circumstance and the contradictions in their characters that ultimately led to the destruction of the planet. It would be sort of like if the aforementioned ruined record collection at the secondhand shop had a poignant explanation that elaborated the owner’s struggle against the dire forces that created the calamity that ultimately befell it.
One of Álvarez’s films worth watching is
, made in 1969. It insinuates that LBJ killed MLK, RFK, and JFK (L for “Luther,” B for “Bobby,” J for “Jack”) and does so with almost no words or narration. The tools are stark: a few
magazines, détourned and slowly panned across. Ingenious editing. Bewitching use of music. This is a documentary that could be played to speakers of any language to similar effect, and it also works divorced of its political program, as beautiful collage art for the ages. Music by Carl Orff, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, the Trashmen, Pablo Milanés, Leo Brouwer, and others follows LBJ’s daughter’s marriage through to his dastardly deeds. The film closes with the birth of his grandchild montaged with a clip of a Vietnamese peasant burned alive by napalm. Almost all of it uses pictures from newspapers or the society pages of magazines. Álvarez is free to take whatever newsreel footage, magazine photographs, found images, and pop, jazz, or classical tunes he chooses, from whatever sources he wants, since he is working for El Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos of the Republic of Cuba, which was and still is in a state of war with the capitalist world and therefore disdains copyright laws.
Envious filmmakers will watch Álvarez and cry “No fair!” when they see what this allows him—but they should quit their bellyaching and get with the program. Modern licensing and intellectual-property laws have destroyed art and expression in this country. It’s time for a rebellion against filmic conventions and, yes, the laws that enforce modern film’s mediocrity. Santiago Álvarez, who made over 700 films in his career from 1959 until his death in 1998, would be much better appreciated by any aliens who happen to wander by our planet than the hokey simplistic garbage that the documentary makers typically churn out nowadays.