No documentary is objective. Even when a nonfiction film lacks narration, a storyline, or Michael Moore, someone has to decide what to leave in and what to leave out. That’s what any kind of art is: deciding what to leave in and what to leave out. The particular art of the fly-on-the-wall documentary has been practiced and perfected for a half-century now by Frederick Wiseman, the wizened octogenarian who won an honorary Oscar last year (a very hip choice on the Academy’s part). In an age when documentaries continue to push for telling stories—easily digested, preferably with a theme of redemption, and accompanied by an insistent musical score, because the goal is to uplift and energize you—Wiseman stubbornly disdains all that. His new film, Ex Libris: New York Public Library, is like an old card catalog organized according to the Dewey Decimal System: calm, useful, elegant.
There is no shortage of documentaries on war. The subject fascinates us as history, as sociology, and as drama. Some documentaries chronicle history in great detail, some grapple with the issues and forces behind the conflicts, and some flat-out propagandize. But very few of those documentaries actually engage with the human experience. So for Memorial Day we look at films about the diverse group of men (and in some cases the women) in war—not just why they fight but what they saw, heard, and endured, and how it changed them.
The Battle of Midway (1942)
American director John Ford (The Quiet Man, The Searchers) served his country by offering his talents as a filmmaker to the Armed Services. His first assignment was to photograph what turned out to be the first major American victory in the war against Japan. “Yes, this really happened,” informs one of the film’s four narrators during the combat section of the film, but audiences didn’t need to be reminded. The authenticity was evident. One bomb landed so close to the camera that it knocked both Ford and his camera assistant off their feet.
We think of the cinema of activism in documentary filmmaking as a relatively modern phenomenon, something first awakened in the 1960s and 1970s and popularized by the likes of Michael Moore and Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney. But the success films like Bowling for Columbine (2002) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006), both Oscar winners and box-office hits, not to mention such devastating investigative documentaries as The Cove (2009), the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War (Independent Lens, 2012), which directly led to a change in policy towards the prosecution of rape in the military (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015), were built on a tradition that goes back decades.
Here are some of the landmarks in the cinema of advocacy and activism: documentary as investigative journalism, as an educational tool, as exposé of injustice and inequity, and as a vehicle for political or social change. [Note: All these films are available on various streaming services and DVD rental, while the first two are in the public domain.]
The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) / The River (1938)
In The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both directed by Pare Lorentz and funded by the U.S. Government, two currents of non-fiction filmmaking met: the educational project and the propaganda film. These were pro-New Deal films but they addressed the dangers of over-cultivation of American farmland. The Plow casts its lens to the Dust Bowl and The River on the Mississippi River, each documenting the specific conditions that caused the ecological devastation of the regain and offering a more sustainable approach to farming. Both films are in the National Film Registry, and Lorentz now has a filmmaking fund named after him. [Watch The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River]
Public intellectuals,” as a species, once roamed the American airwaves. If you flipped on a talk show in 1963 or 1971, you might easily have heard Norman Mailer or Lillian Hellman or William F. Buckley orating at great length and with enormous erudition on the issues of the day, whether the subject was modern art, baseball, or the Vietnam War. There was the presumption that some people were so learned they could spout off on just about anything and come up with penetrating thoughts.
We’ve pretty well demonized the term “intellectual” in America since then—certainly no political candidate would ever dream of using the word as a self-description.
Do we need another documentary on The Beatles? Yes, they are music legends, rock royalty, and a popular culture phenomenon, and they have been duly studied, appreciated, dissected, and celebrated practically from the moment they set foot on American soil. Is there anything left to say?
Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years hasn’t much new to add apart from perspective but that makes all the difference. The title is a ungainly but accurate. After sketching in the birth of the band, it follows the familiar career arc from club favorites to pop hitmakers to sophisticated songsmiths pushing the boundaries of our conception of rock and roll in “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which (apart from a fitting coda) is where this study ends. The focus, however, is on their non-stop activity from their first chart success to their last live concert.
Werner Herzog has been making films for 50 years, and when an artist lasts that long, the distance between his original defining self and his latest work can be dizzying. For instance, who could have predicted Herzog would become a kind of holy-oddball celebrity, renowned for his films but also for his sonorous all-purpose voice, his unexpected acting roles (bothering Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher), and his presence in inexplicable encounters (pulling Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck in Los Angeles; being shot with a BB gun in the middle of a TV interview)? We seem to be living in Herzog’s world.
As for the films themselves, consider that when he reached his full powers in masterpieces such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), he was working in a raw, mystic style that examined man and nature in a strange new way.
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
After nearly being consigned to oblivion by its would-be distributors, I.F. Stone’s Weekly was withdrawn by its creator, 26-year-old Jerry Bruck, and rereleased for a small engagement in Washington, D.C. Its popularity led to a New York showing, and then a San Francisco run which broke all records for the exhibiting house. Bruck and his modest, 62-minute, black-and-white documentary have unpredictably become the sensation of the year. How to explain the phenomenon? Certainly not in terms of cinematic achievement, for there are no particularly new or inventive techniques employed in the film. In fact, Bruck frequently indulges in some rather worn ones (an Amherst ceremony honoring Stone is intercut with a Marine Corps parade honoring Lyndon Johnson and news footage of napalm bombings in Vietnam, while the Amherst choir sings on), and uses them sometimes unfairly, as when he loads the dice in Stone’s favor with news film of Ron Ziegler and Tom Jarriel playing tennis under the watchful eye of Tricia Nixon Cox while Stone’s voice describes how mainstream journalists play ball with the White House. Not that the device doesn’t work. It’s good for a jolt—which is precisely why it shouldn’t have been used. Jarriel is one of the least collusive of Washington pressmen, and to resort to a misleading visual pun to indict him cheapens an otherwise solid film.
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
Joyce at 34, the half-hour personal film accompanying I.F. Stone’s Weekly at the Movie House, is touted as a feminist film. Believe me, the cause has had better exponents. This little piece of autobiography concerns the 34-year-old filmmaker’s decision to have both a baby and a career, and chronicles the first months of her life as a working mother. The film presents arguments for and against having both job and child in the form of ill-thought-out “soul-searching” and selfrighteous emotionalism insulting to the intelligent viewer. The conclusion is right, but the approach is both shabby and wrong. There is a lot more to feminism than a gaggle of self-serving yentas talking over coffee about raising children and finding jobs during the depression.
“And that’s when I came up with the flying utensils.” A seemingly innocuous phrase, right? If the speaker is a Disney animator, you might be visualizing a charming sequence of movie magic. But no—the speaker is Brian De Palma, so this out-of-the-blue comment can only lead to something perverse. His fans will know that the notorious director is talking about Piper Laurie’s death scene in Carrie, his 1976 horror hit. On the page, the telekinetic Carrie gives her mother a heart attack. Speaking to us in the documentary about him, De Palma rolls his eyes over how uncinematic this would be. Why have a character simply clutch her chest and fall over when you could send an arsenal of flying cutlery toward her, crucifying the evil witch in her own contaminated house?
This is one of dozens of stories in De Palma, a feature-length interview in which the filmmaker, 75, tells anecdotes, copiously decorated with clips from all his films. The tidbit about Carrie is typical of the documentary at its best: It’s a colorful story, but it also underscores De Palma’s keen, sometimes lurid grasp of what cinema is. That scene in Carrie may be over the top, but it is cinematically alive in a way that De Palma’s better-behaved colleagues rarely touch.
When Walker Evans traveled into 1930s America and photographed the people hit hardest by the Depression, he captured the perseverance and dignity of poor folks in the rural South. A similar journey is traced in the new documentary The Other Side, but here perseverance has become hostility and dignity is in shreds. In modern-day West Monroe, Louisiana, the faces are distorted by methamphetamine and alcohol, animated by fear, and given definition by resentment toward an enemy (the black man in the White House, gun-safety advocates—any enemy will do).
For two-thirds of the film’s running time, we follow Mark and Lisa, lovers and lost souls. They cook and sell meth, sometimes tenderly injecting each other. We first see Mark waking up naked along a roadside, the first of the film’s startling images; director Roberto Minervini shoots the scene as though it’s the first morning in an American Eden (the sculpted photography is often in direct counterpoint to the squalid living conditions).
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
Phantom India is subtitled “Reflections on a Journey.” For Louis Malle the film represents not only a journey out of the Western environs of his previous films, but also out of the fiction film into the documentary. Not that he hasn’t been there before: one of his earliest involvements in the cinema was as co-director of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Silent World. But the remove of India as a location and the documentary as a cinematic form may well have—must surely have—had their effect on his subsequent narrative filmmaking. The movie, actually seven 50-minute episodes shaped for presentation on French television, leaves one steeped not only in the spectacle but also something like the sensations of life in India—or, if that be too presumptuous for one who has never gone there, of a special country of the cinematic experience. Malle does his utmost to appreciate his subject wholecloth; a couple of the episodes could handily be abbreviated (the fifth, I think it was, is unprofitably long on the subject of Indian politics), but in the main we can only be grateful for the opportunity to live with some of the scenes and situations long enough to move beyond their surface exoticism into their essence.
Even the title of the documentary is a punch line. It could’ve been given a tragic title like The Last Crusade, or something soberly ironic like Public Service, or maybe the Raymond Carver-esque You Would Know If This Was Your Underpants (taken from perhaps the greatest thing Wolf Blitzer ever said to anybody on CNN). But no, the documentary is called Weiner, and its title character is just going to have to live with that. As he will have to live with many things for the rest of his life.
Anthony Weiner is a former seven-term U.S. representative (a New York Democrat) whose career collapsed after a 2011 sexting scandal. He sent indelicate messages to women who were not his wife, some of which included explicit photographs of himself, or parts of himself. Before the scandal broke, Weiner was a lively—indeed fiery—congressman, prone to splendid displays of temper on the House floor. He was also a reliably eloquent and bellicose guest on cable-news shows.
True stories have been a prime inspiration for movies for as long as there have been movies. Early films recreated historical events and breaking news for eager audiences and films as disparate as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1921) and In Which We Serve (1942) to All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015) turned recent history into compelling drama. Books, newspapers and sometimes TV and radio news reports were primary sources for years, but more recently, documentary films have become an inspiration for adapting real-life stories and riveting events. In fact, a fictionalized version of the story told in the Independent Lens film The Great Invisible is due out this fall: Deepwater Horizon stars Mark Wahlberg as an electrician on the doomed oil rig.
While dramatized versions, with their movie stars and big budgets and carefully crafted screenplays, are invariably more popular, the original documentaries have their own, more compelling stories to tell. It’s not just a matter of “the original is better” or “documentaries are real.” Non-fiction films are shaped as surely as feature films but the immediacy, the authenticity of subjects who haven’t been polished for prime time, the messy historical records that don’t necessarily hew to the structure of the traditional three-act story all offer a different kind of drama. And the best of these non-fiction works are as dynamic and powerful as Hollywood’s greatest fictions.
We look at the relationship between eight films and the documentaries that inspired them, and why the original documentaries are still essential. Read on to plan some quality based-on-a-true-story double-features.
The Walk (2015), inspired by: Man on Wire (2008)
Robert Zemeckis dramatized the story of Philippe Petit, the French wire-walker and street performer who strung a tightwire between the Twin Towers and walked between the newly-constructed buildings in 1974, in his 2015 feature The Walk, using 3D technology to communicate the awe and wonder of the event from Petit’s perspective. Filmmaker James Marsh had neither the budget nor the technology for his 2008 documentary Man on Wire but he didn’t need it. Petit and his collaborators tell their own story, a mix of performance art and heist thriller, and Marsh illustrates their tale with news footage and brief recreations of their rehearsals. The documentary is just as compelling as the dramatic retelling, a reminder that storytelling is at the heart of great documentary filmmaking.
Let There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.
You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.
Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.
The “making of” documentary has become a lively subgenre of nonfiction filmmaking, thanks in large part to the explosion of home video and the proliferation of cable channels in the past few decades. Once a purely promotional creation to run in theaters or on entertainment TV shows, the mix of behind-the-scene peeks, production footage, and cast and crew interviews have become standard items on DVDs and Blu-rays purchased by fans eager to devour every last detail behind their beloved films. From the five-minute puff piece to the epic three-and-a-half-hour Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner, it’s become part of the immersive cinema experience.
Far less common but often more interesting is a relatively recent phenomenon of documentaries on films that were never made, an “unmaking of,” if you will. Whether shut down in the heat of production due to outside forces or abandoned before even coming before cameras, these documentaries look at the creative energy that goes into the planning of a film and hint at what might have been. They also remind us just how complex making a motion picture can be, especially when passionate creators are engaged in a labor of love in the face of studio resistance, production setbacks, or financial troubles.
Here are the stories of a few films that might have been.
The Epic That Never Was (1965)
Made for British television, The Epic That Never Was looks at the ill-fated attempt by producer and aspiring British film mogul Alexander Korda to turn Robert Graves’s novel I, Claudius into a lavish historical drama.