Through The Documentary Looking Glass

Though full-length documentary films go back to the work of Robert Flaherty in the 1920s (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran), they have always been the uncommercial stepchild of movies that tell made-up stories. In their marginal way, documentaries have flourished in times of social crisis, and they enjoyed a special vogue in the 1930s, when independent filmmakers, inspired by politically committed Soviet artists, banded together in such organizations as the Film and Photo League.

Prone to advocacy, documentaries have often been criticized for manipulating their material. In Germany, Leni Riefenstahl perfected propaganda into an art form. The U.S. government itself sponsored Pare Lorentz's Great Depression documentaries, The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, as well as Frank Capra's morale-building "Why We Fight" series during World War II.

But documentary films all but disappeared from theaters after 1945, although their aura of authenticity influenced narrative films, including depression movies like The Grapes of Wrath; postwar films noirs in the United States, and neorealist films in Italy; politically engaged films about the 1960s like Robert Kramer's Ice and Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool; as well as docudramas about real events-half history, half thriller -- such as Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers and Costa-Gavras's Z, State of Siege, and Missing.

As television grew more sophisticated, it began, timidly at first, to pursue public issues behind the news headlines. The work of Edward R. Murrow and his CBS producer, Fred Friendly -- their measured but brave expose of McCarthy, for example -- initially had no successors, especially at the networks.

But the turmoil of the 1960s created a new generation of cinema verite artists who used lighter, more mobile equipment, beginning with Frederick Wiseman, who immersed himself in social institutions such as an asylum for the "criminally insane" in Massachusetts and a high school in Philadelphia; D.A. Pennebaker, who pioneered rock concert movies such as Don't Look Back (on Bob Dylan) and Monterey Pop; and Albert and David Maysles, who made Salesman and Grey Gardens as well as the darkest of rock movies, Gimme Shelter, about a Rolling Stones concert at Altamont where a fan was knifed to death. The decade culminated in one very long documentary, Woodstock, in which the music, the counterculture, and the promotional hype converged, a film that gave a whole generation the vicarious feeling of having been there.

But the real story of documentary filmmaking picked up a year or two later with a movie made for French television although not shown there until many years later, Marcel Ophuls's The Sorrow and the Pity. Unlike cinema verite, with its deliberately raw technique and sense of total immersion in the moment, it was a somber, reflective investigation of a taboo subject -- French collaboration under German occupation, the myths and facts of the French resistance -- and it transformed not only how nonfiction movies were made but how the world, and especially the French, understood those soiled pages of history. The Sorrow and the Pity coincided with a new wave of interest in the Holocaust, an outpouring of memory, shame, and moral witness that had been dammed up for a quarter of a century.

Without its example, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah might not have been made fifteen years later. Along with the war itself, the hidden history of the Holocaust and the memories of survivors would provide an inexhaustible flow of material for filmmakers for decades to come. It's hard to imagine another subject on which the film medium has so amplified the historical record. But our present lives are often as shrouded from each other as the past, and this has repeatedly challenged filmmakers to excavate the buried dramas of family relationships.

The great breakthrough for television documentary in 1973 was the 12-part PBS series, An American Family, about Bill and Pat Loud and their five children, an upper middle-class family in Santa Barbara. It reflected many of the tensions in the post-sixties American family, from the homosexuality of one of the sons to the conflicts that led to the divorce of the parents. But above all, because the film crew essentially lived with the family for seven months, the movie tapped a surprising vein of eager self-exposure that has since become endemic to Americans. In the wake of the sixties, barriers between public and private life were falling everywhere; suddenly, very little seemed off limits. Documentary authenticity became an elusive thing as everyone performs for the camera.

In An American Family the uneasy self-dramatization of the subjects answered to the voyeuristic curiosity of the audience, which showed an unexpected interest in other people's daily lives. The pop sociology of the 1950s had migrated into television as viewers looked for a glass that would mirror their own experience.

To keep the documentary fresh, the best historical documentaries go to great lengths to avoid stereotyped archival material and imagery deadened by repetition. Lanzmann's Shoah, in a spirit of purism, eliminated newsreel footage entirely, substituting marathon interviews with survivors; conversations with a historian, Raul Hilberg; and subtly ironic images of antiquated railway cars and tranquil killing sites as they appear today.

In Capturing the Friedmans, the home movies serve as the archive of family life at its most carefree and most troubled. These are punctuated by David's anguished assertions of his father's and brother's innocence and by the level-headed comments of a journalist named Debbie Nathan, who sees evidence of a classic case of recovered memory, with all its distortions, and a tabloid-fed mass hysteria. Without taking a stand, the film leaves us with the impression of a painful miscarriage of justice.

If any film could serve as an antidote to this acrid sense of shattered lives and a dysfunctional family, it might be another of this year's widely seen documentaries, Jeff Blitz's Spellbound. Its unlikely subject was the 1999 National Spelling Bee, sponsored by the Scripps Howard newspaper chain since 1925. Like most other movies, documentaries are essentially about people, the look on their faces, the inflection of their voices, the wrinkles of mind and character implied by their body language and their interplay with others.

Movies about children always run the risk of cuteness, because kids often play to the camera with little self-consciousness. Spellbound escapes this pitfall by embedding these nerdy, striving kids solidly in their family settings, which range from that of a Mexican American ranch hand in Texas or an extended black family in Washington, D.C., to the middle-class homes of Indian Americans and Northeastern Jews. Some of the families are puzzled but proud to have raised a mutant, a child with a phenomenal memory, unshakeable determination, and the focus and discipline of a champion athlete. Other parents, acting out their own ambitions, coach the kids so relentlessly that it borders on child abuse. One Indian American father drills his son on seven to eight thousand words a day and calls in specialists to work with him on words from foreign languages. Like so many immigrants, he believes that there's "no way you can fail in this country if you work hard."

As they converge on the finals in Washington, the film interweaves eight separate family histories that demonstrate the diversity of America's population at its most attractive. These families' attitudes range from relentless joint effort ("We all had to pitch in to help," says an Indian American mother) to detached but beaming pride or wonder that such a prodigy could appear in their midst.

The most moving is the taciturn reaction of the Mexican, who still speaks no English after twenty years on a ranch in rural Texas. His fully Americanized daughter, Angela, becomes a local celebrity, yet has somehow, like most of the other kids in the film, remained "normal" and unaffected. His grown-up son, so Mexican yet already American, tells us the older man's story with simple but piercing eloquence: his flight from Mexico, his years of hard work, his hesitation about venturing as far as Washington to see his daughter compete. But the spelling bee has already taken his family beyond his wildest dreams. Even when Angela loses, his son tells us that if his father "were to die today, he would die a happy person."

If families have become a key subject in the current surge of documentaries, politics and history remain central to the genre. There appears to be no limit to our fascination with the political turbulence of the 1960s, a period not only colorful in itself but the bedrock of so many of our political divisions today.

Two recent documentaries probe the still-open wound of the Vietnam War and the radical movements that sprang up against it: Errol Morris's The Fog of War, essentially a long interview with former secretary of defense and Pentagon whiz kid Robert McNamara, and The Weather Underground, directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, which chronicles the political journey and second thoughts of antiwar radicals who took the Students for a Democratic Society from protest to violence and low-grade terrorism. In a sense it's unfair to compare these films because Morris, in works like The Thin Blue Line , A Brief History of Time , Fast, Cheap and Out of Control , and, most recently, Mr. Death , has developed into one of the most quirky, creative, and deeply respected documentarians.

Whereas the directors of The Weather Underground are talented novices, Morris has a restless, probing mind, a true cinematic imagination, and an unpredictable affinity for offbeat subjects. Yet these two movies, both grounded in interviews, share a common problem. Their larger subject is history, a vexed and contested history, yet they keep us too much enclosed within the point of view of their protagonists: their memories and reflections, their insights and self-deceptions, their cunning or unconscious efforts to vindicate themselves even as they fault their own past thinking. Invariably, we respond to the quality of their performances as much as we judge their political choices. When the subjects in a movie are as articulate as these people, their way of explaining and defending themselves, if it goes unchallenged, can badly skew our understanding of the issues.

Both the Weatherpeople and the former secretary of defense have a great deal to answer for, though the cabinet secretary, of course, wielded incomparably greater power. McNamara convinces us that plans were afoot for a gradual withdrawal from Vietnam just before John Kennedy's assassination, but he never explains why he went along with Lyndon Johnson's escalation and kept silent even after he had been forced out as secretary. He is much more frank about his role in Curtis LeMay's firebombing of sixty-seven Japanese cities in 1945, which might have left the two of them open to trial as war criminals had the United States lost, than he is about Vietnam, where he simply argues that "the fog of war" clouded everyone's judgment.

This is curiously similar to the repeated assertion by the aging veterans of the Weather Underground that "the Vietnam War made us crazy," to which one of them adds, "When you feel you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things." Green and Siegel offer some sharp and angry criticism by Todd Gitlin as a counterweight to these superficial rationalizations, and they give the last word to the more self-critical speakers.

But like most documentary filmmakers they essentially identify with their subjects, giving them a forum for reflections that are often engrossing but clarify very little. Despite their initial idealism, the Weather people were a self-destructive splinter group caught up in fantasies of violent revolution. Above all, the film gives little sense of other options open to the antiwar left during the Vietnam era. Instead we get lines like this excerpt from an unpublished memoir by Mark Rudd: "I was overwhelmed by hate. I cherished my hate as a badge of moral superiority." This is a kind of self-criticism, but it is far from illuminating.

The film adds up to some interesting although unrevealing character studies of mostly invisible lives, lives that travestied the deep convictions and moral anguish of so many Americans during the 1960s. The characters come across as attractive figures who have shielded themselves from any real insight into their own past. It has always been a paradox that many young sixties radicals, including some of my students at Columbia, were immensely appealing as individuals -- morally engaged, funny, drunk on ideas -- but stopped making sense when they disappeared into the group, especially after the summer of 1968 and the election of Richard Nixon.

Both The Weather Underground and The Fog of War seem to be political films, but they actually peel us back from politics to personality, which is the subject of most movies anyway. Though The Weather Underground brings back a sense of the times, and both movies find fresh, unhackneyed historical footage, The Fog of War stands out as the full-length portrait of a brilliant advocate locked in a morally dubious position, using confession as a form of self-exculpation. McNamara and the former radical terrorists are people who made terrible mistakes when they were young. Unlike some of their contemporaries, they lived long enough to reconsider, but they are not especially introspective. The ex-Weather people are so masked that in some ways they still seem to be living underground, adrift, cut loose from their historical moment.

Discussing his film after a press screening at the New York Film Festival, Morris anticipated that it would be criticized for not "contextualizing." Plenty of books about the Vietnam era offer context, he said, but he had always wanted to make a film about one person, history from the inside out.

"This movie is deliberately unbalanced, with only one side, one point of view," he admits, disarming criticism as effectively as McNamara. In the course of his interviews he had come to sympathize with the man, though he understood that, like the rest of us, he was vain, ambitious, and self-justifying. "People reveal themselves through language," he argued.

Clearly, he counts on viewers to understand more about McNamara than the man himself was willing to expose. This was precisely the bet he placed in his previous film, Mr. Death , a profile of an American eccentric, Fred Leuchter, whose specialty was the technical side of capital punishment, the mechanics of execution, but who got caught up in the twilight zone of Holocaust denial and ruined his life.

With McNamara, Morris's wager, really, was on the power of the film medium to reveal character, on his own uncanny gifts as an interviewer, which rival those of Ophuls and Lanzmann, and on the ingenious ways he finds of counterpointing his subject's story -- with Philip Glass's eerily effective music, for example, or with mesmerizing images of long lines of gigantic dominoes falling across a map of Southeast Asia. Working with mood, metaphor, animation, or recreation, he expands the terrain on which documentary operates. More formalist than historian, he extracts eleven "lessons" from McNamara's story, but uses them mainly to serve as chapter breaks.

Whatever its limits as a political investigation, The Fog of War is a singular specimen of the documentary film as a personal portrait of a key historical figure and as a gripping work of art.

This article has been edited for length. For the longer original version, visit Dissent Magazine.

Morris Dickstein teaches English and film at the CUNY Graduate Center. His most recent book is "Leopards in the Temple."

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