Present Tense: Notes on American Nonfiction Cinema, 1998-2013

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9781941629055: Present Tense: Notes on American Nonfiction Cinema, 1998-2013

In the past fifteen years, nonfiction cinema has experienced something of a renaissance in America. A slew of formally ambitious films have emerged, spanning from 1998, when future Hollywood director Bennett Miller's low-fi The Cruise proved that digital video could be theatrical with a narrative hook and a compelling subject/star, to 2013, when two Harvard-connected masterpieces, Leviathan and The Act of Killing, received massive critical success, the crashing of long-building tidal wave. Examining these films and many others that came between them, Present Tense is a year-to-year, personal journey through this era from filmmaker Robert Greene. Featuring essays and interviews with those on the front lines, Present Tense is an exploration of how documentary filmmakers, enabled by cheap technology and driven to create films at all costs, boldly embraced the most exciting narrative and formal techniques of the past to create a true, undeniable movement.

Robert Greene is a filmmaker and writer. He directed Kate Plays Christine (2016), Actress (2014), and Fake it So Real. He's edited films as diverse as Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip and Douglas Tirola's Hey Bartender. Robert writes about documentary for several places, including Sight & Sound.

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About the Author:

Robert Greene is a filmmaker and writer. He directed Kate Plays Christine (2016), Actress (2014), Fake it So Real. He’s edited films as diverse as Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip and Douglas Tirola’s Hey Bartender. Robert writes about documentary for several places, including Sight & Sound.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
On Cinematic Nonfiction

Documentaries are acts of fictionalizing the real world. They are full of inherent tensions between structure and chaos, between filmmaking decisions (directing a scene, framing a shot, intervening in a moment, editing, etc.) and the wild, unkempt real. To work on a high level, they must simultaneously function as fully formed movie experiences while embodying the unpredictable rhythms and nuances of everyday life. Documentary is an artistic practice built on the power of observing our world and showing it back to us. Nonfiction films can immerse us in a story as it happens, can be expressively poetic or can blur lines between the staged and the witnessed, but all the great work bristles with energies that emit from the dialectical conflicts built into the form. Frederick Wiseman calls his movies reality fictions,” Allan King called his actuality dramas.” These are strange things: chimeras of the real and the constructed, at once true and false, uncanny amalgams that are uneasily rendered and, at their best, vigorously alive. Filmmakers strive to create empathy and understanding by way of the imperfect, complex, occasionally perverse acts of recording and reordering. As Steve James once said, quoting longtime collaborator Dana Kupper, every documentary is a thousand lies in the service of the truth.”

The qualities that make documentaries cinematic,” i.e., the things that transform them from strict journalism into works of film art, emerge when these inbuilt contradictions are explored. This is nothing new; cinematic nonfiction was an essential method of filmmaking even before John Grierson coined the term documentary” in 1926. As Catherine Russell notes in her book Experimental Ethnography, the dominant mode of film practice before 1907 was the actuality.” The very first films were semi-staged documentaries. Beginning in 1895, the Lumière brothers made one-reel portraits of workers leaving factories, trains arriving at stations and parents feeding their children, putting real people in semi-artificial situations. In 1903, Thomas Edison’s cinematographer, Edwin S. Porter, made what might have been the first hybrid” film with his influential Life of an American Fireman, mixing staged scenes with stock footage of real firefighters in action. Frictions between truth and fabrication were thus present at the very birth of cinema.

In 1914, Edward S. Curtis applied dramatic narrative structures to his ethnographic In the Land of the Head-Hunters and Charlie Chaplin made his first appearance as The Tramp” in Kid Auto Races at Venice, a film that saw the comic performer interacting with an actual car race and real spectators. In 1922, Robert Flaherty controversially popularized what could be called the interventionist documentary” with Nanook of the North. By asking his protagonist to use out-of-date methods of hunting and gathering on camera, he turned the real Nanook into the first great nonfiction character. In the near-century since Flaherty, there have been countless examples of boundary blurring, evocative, reality-based cinema, from canonical works like Man With A Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) to under-seen gems like Farrebique - The Four Seasons (Georges Rouquier, 1946) to the oeuvres of filmmakers like Joris Ivens, Jean Rouch, Johan van der Keuken, Shirley Clarke, Frederick Wiseman, Albert and David Maysles, John Cassavetes, Peter Watkins, Harun Farocki, William Klein, Chantal Akerman, Chris Marker, Werner Herzog, Abbas Kiarostami, etc.

Recently, though, thanks in large part to a revolution in technology that has yielded cheap quality equipment, more and more aspiring filmmakers have decided to take the plunge into the invitingly murky waters of cinematic nonfiction. Since 1998, when future Hollywood director Bennett Miller’s quietly provocative The Cruise became the first digital video movie released in theaters, adventurous documentary filmmaking in America has exploded. Fifteen years later, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (co-directed with multiple collaborators), both released in U.S. theaters in 2013, together helped cement the movement The Cruise started, making the best case yet that documentaries could be as commanding, personal and culturally significant as any works of art. Leviathan, shot with tiny GoPro cameras and featuring an astonishingly immersive, freeform aesthetic, was widely hailed by critics as a boundary-pushing reinvention of the form. Meanwhile The Act of Killing, a groundbreaking mix of performance art, psychic portraiture and political intervention, made such a crossover commotion that it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (and later screened for members of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee). Cinematic nonfiction had arrived in America.

Hailing from all across the country, filmmakers have emerged to tell innumerable kinds of stories, and they just happen to be telling them in the mode of cinematic nonfiction. In another era, these filmmakers might be making independent narrative fictions or experimental art cinema. But with so many real life characters, so many consequential tales to tell, so many images to see and sounds to hear (and with so many cheap new ways to record and edit it all), ambitious filmmakers in droves have turned to documentary. I know this because I’m one of them. As of this writing, I’ve directed four nonfiction films with a fifth on the way Owning the Weather (2009), Kati With an I (2010), Fake It So Real (2011) and Actress (2014) and I’ve edited many more. So attempting to define what we do it is a decidedly personal quest.

The best place to start is with our most important element: the subject. Our subjects are delicate amalgamations of real people and performed characters and our job is to collect meaningful observations of them and put them in some comprehensible order. These observations can come in various guises; they can emerge while following actions as they happen, by detecting spaces between behavior and spoken language in interviews or by unearthing half-buried narratives in archival or other found footage. Documentaries are inherently exploitive the camera turns people into products, and into the filmmaker’s version of them. But this just means that we need to become obsessed with ethics at every turn, at least out of practical necessity, if not a sense of moral responsibility. Furthermore, we better learn to build trust with the people we film, because the relationships don’t end when the cameras stop rolling. Nonfiction films are, in a sense, lifetime collaborations between filmmaker and subject. Few of us can complete our films (or make our next films) without grasping, to some crucial extent, the ethical dilemmas that teem at the crux of every filmmaking choice. We must restlessly strive to be honest, even while objectivity is impossible. As Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky has said, Documentary is the only art where every aesthetical element almost always has ethical aspects and every ethical aspect can be used aesthetically.”

Documentaries happen when something revelatory occurs and someone has pressed the record” button in time. The images we capture are often stripped-down and unadorned, but they can also be poetic or even surreal. The moments we get can be of vast historical significance or can be subtly revealed personal traumas. They can be shrewd representations of everyday life or impressionistic renderings of interiorities. They can be acts of bearing witness or wholly fabricated dramatizations of emotionally true psychologies. They can even be animated. We often just pick up our cameras and go, and the most exciting material we get is layered with an intrinsic complexity, authentic yet wholly subjective. Great documentary moments can feel downright magical. How did they know to roll camera at that precise moment? Luck is our lifeblood, but to paraphrase what my longtime cinematographer Sean Price Williams would often say about the great Albert Maysles: you have to always be in the right place.

The real world is a swarm of actions, impulses, accidents, prejudices, vanities, banalities and distortions, which the nonfiction filmmaker is compelled, for whatever personal reasons and with whatever viewpoint, to wrestle into something coherent. Without the order we impose in the editing room, the materials we collect would be mere recordings. The contraptions we build often require techniques derived from centuries-old forms of storytelling, structures passed down like inherited cages to trap the wild animal of actuality. Or we can disregard the rules of traditional narrative altogether, allowing the perceptual rhythms of lived experience to thoroughly guide us. However we shape our material, what we call "compelling" is made from the interaction between innate and constructed qualities. Aesthetics and ethics collide in editing bays as we give form to disorderly, often disobedient footage. The key is to embrace the built-in struggle, to relish the churn, to suss out a buried veracity from the noise. We impose order as a way to try to clarify what we’ve captured and to see what makes it all tick. The process can be described as serendipity, structured.

These unstable acts of corralling reality into movies rightfully invite scrutiny. This tends to position our viewers in varying states of healthy suspicion, whether or not they are overtly conscious of or even deeply interested in the exact nature of their curiosities. For example, the most common question we get asked at screenings could well be the classic, what camera did you shoot on?” The ubiquity of this question is at least partly due to the audience’s general desire to imagine the process. Whether seen onscreen or not, the filmmaker as much a character” in his or her nonfiction film as the subject, and the interactions between capturer and captured create an added, extra-dimensional layer of volatile, perceivable tension. It might be said that in all art, the act of making is as much a part of the story as the product created. What appears onscreen is just as much a portrait of the maker as it is of the subject, which contradicts the generally accepted notion by audiences that documentaries are simply windows on reality.” The best films work with these swirling viewer uncertainties to create new ways of seeing.

In America, there remains a broad, stubborn misunderstanding about what we nonfiction filmmakers do, especially those of us trying to push against conventions. Viewers want to be entertained, provoked and moved by what they spend their time watching, but with documentaries, there is often an additional assumption that what’s being shown is something audiences need to know” to be well-informed members of society. The voyeuristic impulse (the desire to peer into other worlds on which movie art depends) thus interacts with the desire to be a good citizen,” informing and sometimes deforming perceptions of the work. Documentary is still, by and large, not considered an art form by the public (and, seemingly, many critics), but instead as a stepchild of journalism, meant for educational purposes or, very often, as a vehicle for advocating for a specific social or political agenda. Many documentarians may use journalistic standards as a guide, and many indeed want to inform the public or even change the world, but the most audacious and arresting nonfiction cinema has little in common with news journalism. We’re making movies with all the fetishizing of mystery, tension, beauty and artful storytelling that cinema demands. To paraphrase Joshua Oppenheimer, journalism” is meant to tell us something we urgently need to know and art” is meant to show us something we can’t fully recognize on our own.

Cinematic nonfiction is not medicine to be taken reluctantly. What we are doing is making art and that art has unique methods. This book, then, is a series of observations on the many under-discussed aspects of how we construct nonfiction cinema and how I perceive its development in America between 1998 and 2013, a time that coincides with my own emergence as a filmmaker. Documentaries are indeed what scholar B. Ruby Rich once called empathy machines,” and adventurous films might just have the best chance to shake viewers into seeing the world a little differently. Of course, if the old maxim that all art is autobiography” is indeed correct, then a book by a filmmaker about filmmaking can’t help but be self-portrait. Whether there is or isn’t value in revealing my own preoccupations, it remains an honor to mount a defense of what we do.

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