Tag Archives: documentary

Goodbye Chantal Akerman (1950-2015)

Chantal Akerman, one of the most aesthetically fascinating and innovative filmmakers who ever lived, was reported dead today. This is a huge loss for the world cinematic community. Other websites and newspapers have already published numerous articles on Akerman’s life, broad overviews of her work, appreciations. I presume they will continue to do so throughout the day. Given how little known I thought she was, the ubiquity and volume of the memorials has been heartening.

Since the other bases are being covered more extensively and faster than I could possibly cover them, I’m going to limit this essay to exploring a single shot.

Dennis Grunes, the spiritual forefather of this website, claimed Akerman’s 1993 documentary D’Est was the 8th greatest film ever made. A nearly wordless series of shots of people waiting for things in places that are never specified, the faces or shadowy outlines of figures give what needs to be given in terms of context.

The shot I’d like to discuss, for those following along at home, takes place, at least in the copy of the film I have, between  31:05 and 35:45, right after this portrait:

This portrait goes on for a solid minute. The old woman’s head tilts slightly to the right. The television plays unclear hyperactive gray scale images as her head continues to very slowly tilt. The specters of the past and future are present but resist solidifying into anything like a point; the woman in the shot in some sense simply is-the sense of a haunting is brought out as just another thing in the room.

This shot is a master class in film portraiture, up there with the portrait shots in Tarkovsky’s Mirror, but it’s the shot after it I’d like to discuss-a long tracking shot taken, I presume, from a bus or a train.

The shot goes on for a while. There’s nothing clever in it; she wasn’t a filmmaker given over to cleverness. She didn’t need it. But for 4 1/2 minutes, with a remarkable smoothness that gives a paradoxical sense of stillness to a shot that technically never stops moving, she follows the surfaces of a town. Snow is falling and the camera, as it moves past it, makes it look almost three dimensional, haze and patient enchantment all at once.

When I first saw this I was mesmerized; I never walked through a snow storm or took public transit quite the same way ever again. I can’t say I learned any special intellectual point from it; I simply learned to see differently. Perhaps this is what film teaches us at its most sublime-to see. The world seems more dynamic for having been cast in genuine straightforward mystery. Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers’ feet, the effortless complexity of Akerman’s eye patiently dazzles as my own eye learns the steps and by the end dances in unison, changed. She teaches by example, her own eye dancing the intimate simplicity of a tango with the buildings and objects and people she passes.

The silhouette of a man behind the bare trees that line the sidewalk walks somewhere. People go about business we will never know. Signs blink and sometimes mirror each other. Grunes claimed the film was about the Jewish diaspora; others have claimed it’s about the uncertain future after the collapse of the two-state power structure after the Cold War and the uncertain future thereafter. I’m not sure the best way to approach this film is with the presumption it’s about any specific thing. There’s a context, but context takes one out of the simple jouissance, a jouissance that is not simple joy, horror, or anything. It doesn’t play hard to get; I hesitate to call it mysterious as that would imply it actually is headed toward a resolution. This is not the case, despite the tracking shot running right to left.

The shot ends then cuts to a crowd of people waiting.

What are they waiting for? On one level, yes, the bus. But on the level the image is engaging us…we don’t know. They don’t know. And if Akerman knew she had the good sense not to tell us.

The world looks different than it did. That’s enough.

Rest in peace, Chantal Akerman.

Domestic Violence 2 (2002)

Frederick Wiseman is one of America’s foremost documentarians, and, perhaps, the most important proponent of the cinema verite movement. He has made 36 films, and is one of the few filmmakers (less than ten) who has received a MacArthur Genius Grant. His often lengthy documentaries sport simple, matter of fact titles like High School, Canal Zone, Central Park, and Meat. Each title is a fair summary of the film’s contents.

High School shows the day-to-day goings on of a fairly typical high school. Meat shows how cows go from farms to grocery stores. Wiseman doesn’t editorialize in any capacity beyond as an editor, and even there he acts more as a curator. Seemingly innocuous events build up until the viewer comes to a moment of realization; what seemed tedious in the watching is revealed to actually be the root of something deeper, more troubling.

The illogical enforcement of authority by gym teachers and principles is brought to a haunting conclusion when a letter written by a former student who is killed in Vietnam is read over the school’s loudspeaker system. The white coats worn by the workers in Meat are associated through montage with the white sheets thrown over the freshly slaughtered racks of beef. Wiseman has a law degree, and has also served as a producer for the great early American independent film The Cool World by Shirley Clarke.

Domestic Violence 2 is a continuation of his earlier film Domestic Violence. Both follow a southern Florida social service system as cases of domestic violence are reported and dealt with. While Domestic Violence is focused on counseling and the recovery of the victims, the sequel goes into what happens to the perpetrators. Both films begin with police fielding a domestic violence call, but 2 goes directly to video court where sentencing occurs, while the first goes into a shelter and counseling center. The second film possesses a more comic air simply for the extremity of the cases aired; the judge in the video court, a mustached man, reviews a seemingly unending series of cases to decide on sentencing for them.

The monotony slowly begins to take an air of comic absurdity. A public defender tries to defend an accused man only for the Judge’s assistant to read that the man has a murder charge, leaving the defender looking foolish. The audience’s assignment of guilt shifts as the layers of each case are pulled away. The final case heard involves a woman. At first all that is revealed is that she tried to run over her husband with a car, but as the assistant pulls up the man’s record and her testimony reveal his insanity and violent possessiveness, the tables turn. Finally, the judge glibly states “You should’ve run him over with the car. You can go home ma’am.”

An abrupt cut to landscape shots of suburban Florida follows. A judge hears disputed cases, obviously bored and, having seen most of these people to the point she recognizes them, has questions of futility written clearly on her face. Finally, a third judge who ensures that restraining orders and similar papers are upheld sees several couples in his office. While not as bored as the second judge, he clearly has no tolerance left for nonsense. The film concludes its 160 minute run time with more shots of suburban Florida, only this time taken at night.

The film is a superlative historical document on several fronts. Wiseman unflinchingly confronts the modern institution without reductive generalizations, and his extensive portraits will provide perhaps the most accurate and useful portrait of American life in the second half of the 20th century that the cinema has provided. His landscapes, taken as a piece with the landscape shots of his other work, show clearly the monotony and repetition of the American town in the era of the conglomeration. Dreary architecture and fast food restaurants dominate, and it’s difficult to distinguish between this town and any other. (In fact, it looks a great deal like where I grew up in upstate New York.)

In a cinema dominated by childishly romanticized road trip movies, this sort of documentation is of paramount importance. His look at the inner workings of the social welfare and judicial systems preserves their actual tone (at least the tone I remember from years of following around my father, a forensic traffic engineer, from courtroom to courtroom) more honestly and complexly than any of the number of courtroom dramas in the post-war cinema or television canons. His judges reflect the air of cynicism that has permeated the American drive toward progressive social reform. Is society something that can be reformed through courts and social work, or are the poor people of Florida simply doomed to repeat their cycles of misplaced affection and physical violence?

The first film, showing the care centers and classes takes a more optimistic look at this issue, showing where it does in fact help, but Domestic Violence 2, by showing the couples interacting, gives a better view of this strange and destructive magnetism that permeates these relationships. Even after being hit with a hammer, choked, or threatened with a gun, the women will still wish to remain friends with their abuser, and the abusers need their victims to the point of ignoring threats of prison time for harassment and stalking.

Regional dialects are recorded and we see how much training and breeding really do shift one’s demeanor. The pervasiveness of product in American life is also shown somewhat here, but not to the extremes of the first film, where the only visuals seemed to be white walls, faces, and garishly out of place soda cans.

Olympia (1938)

(This review originally ran in the textbook Documentary Film: Contexts and Criticism, ed. Carl Rollyson.)

Leni Riefenstahl was in many ways the perfect filmmaker to represent the Nazi regime; her work signifies both the astonishing grandeur and formal perfection of their outward displays, and the heartless technocratic beliefs that lay underneath these sleek surfaces. This aesthetic is played out in all its hollowly technical forms throughout her 3 ½ hour chronicle of the 1936 Olympic Games, Olympia.

Olympia has many elements for which it can be commended; tellingly, all of these elements are purely in the technical realm. Her use of natural light is excellent; the action is never unclear and the surface is so sleek as to make the entire production unerringly smooth in spite of the necessary shakiness of the camera in most segments. She has a fairly set schematic of shots in each event, which varies little outside a couple bravura sequences(such as the ‘flying divers’ montage toward the film’s end.) The extremely abstract montage that begins the film shows Riefenstahl at her most engaged; even in Triumph of the Will, she seemed a filmmaker uniquely fascinated with turning reality into high abstraction; mythologizing it beyond the imperfect and mundane. Here she explicitly compares, by a carefully spliced transition, the glory of antiquity and the impressive physiques of the then current Olympic athletes. This opening; with its soft dream-like lighting, is the film’s peak; here Riefenstahl is allowed to fully explore her obsessions and thoughts without the need to represent reality in all its messiness(if such a heavily staged and orchestrated event as the Olympics can even be dubbed “reality”). Still, despite the impressive technique, her need to blatantly telegraph her meaning in each shot hampers any artistic ambiguity that might have enlivened this spectacle. Riefenstahl is a film artist capable of great displays which captivate audiences, but has little capacity for any sort of critical thought.

Especially troubling here is her portrayal of idealized forms; her focus here is entirely on the body, not the mind or the imaginative expressiveness that differentiates men. Outside some elongated focuses on her boyfriend, none of the athletes photographed seem like distinct people, but rather are just running or jumping meat. Riefenstahl is no Thomas Eakins. She sees no spirituality in motion; her rowers are shot from the back more often than not; no internal liveliness is conveyed. And for all the fuss made about her background as a dancer, she shows none of the sensitivity and smaller moments which define the artistic peaks of that form; her ideal is a purely physical one defined by a masculinely characterized dominance and stoic poker faces. Her women are androgynous with hard expressions, and more delicate and characteristically feminine movements, such as many of the gymnastics events, were purposely cut out of the film.

The ability to capture the unexpected and the extended period of editing that documentary film offer as an advantage over fiction film hold no interest to Riefenstahl. All of her editing is done solely with the intent of manipulating the audience in the most shallow and superficial ways. A cloyingly melodramatic score runs throughout and each event is edited as a rapid series of repetitive actions, which she usually removes from context so as to deliver an aimless surge of adrenaline to the viewer.

To further this end, she cuts to crowd reaction shots, which traverse the spectrum from bored distraction to fervent screams punctuated by violent gesticulation. Far from offering a self-reflexive commentary or meditation on the rather tribal nature of spectatorship in such a setting, she uses these shots to color her previous rushes of motion with a simple and palpable emotion for the audience to feel. Granted, it is a bit excessive to ask for a critical view on the simplifying nature of crowds from the woman who was Hitler’s filmmaker. Were she possessed of such a capability for reflection she might’ve done the ethical thing like Fritz Lang and left before the complete downfall of Weimar Germany.

Though she comes up with a number of gimmicks like digging trenches to create smooth tracking shots and uses some time-worn tricks like reverse angle shots to liven up the repetitions, they still start to wear down even the most sports crazed viewer; this is no doubt part of why she decided to break it into two parts. Even split over several viewing periods, this is far too much of a technical exercise to inspire any more devotion than an uncritical appreciation of aesthetics; a joy at soulless mastery and animal appreciation of idealized forms. If World War II should have shown the world anything, its the dangerous nature of such a combination. It preys on the weaknesses of men’s minds, and tellingly this film’s greatest aesthetic legacy is in advertising. The innovations seen here are now used to create subconscious desire in the masses for Gatorade or underwear. Not unsuccessfully, but one would hope for art to aspire to higher realms than this.

Riefenstahl’s fiercely claims that she was thinking in artistic terms; but this intent doesn’t exonerate shallow art. After all, wasn’t Hitler convinced he was an artist at the academy?

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)

(Spoiler warning for people concerned with such things. If you’re just looking for a recommendation, I recommend this film with no reservations. Go watch it.)

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On by Kazuo Hara is my favorite documentary ever made.

The film follows a mentally troubled Japanese WWII vet named Kenzo Okuzaki. Before the film was shot, Okuzaki had done 12 years in solitary confinement for killing a man, distributing pornographic fliers depicting the emperor, and attempting to kill Emperor Hirohito with a slingshot. In a series of confrontations and interviews, he attempts to make his way to a Captain Koshimizu. Okuzaki suspects Koshimizu gave an order during the war to execute two deserters so they could be cannibalized by the other troops during the last days of island hopping.

Okuzaki reveals himself to be a man wholly given over to an insatiable desire for avenging the injustices he witnessed during the war; an insistent avenging angel of the truth. He also comes across as a madman, wholly obsessed with a certain envisioned restitution that will always elude him. What he wants refuses to define itself and is instead obfuscated by an elaborate verbal maze of the seemingly blunt and straightforward. Okuzaki lives as the avenger not to avenge but to justify his living entirely without a filter.

Hara’s portrait here is a descendant of John Ford’s earlier fictional portrait of an obsessive crusader, John Wayne’s Ethan in The Searchers. However, Ford paints Ethan as a man driven mad by the ghost of racism. Ford doesn’t suggest solutions but does place his mad man in the context of America’s greatest sin and runs with it. The Searchers, for better or worse, can be read fairly cleanly as a cautionary tale. Emperor’s Naked Army, despite its engagement with the Japanese sin of the cannibalism committed during the war, resists this impulse. The viewer comes to a fair amount of certainty that Koshimizu did in fact order the execution and later eating of two Japanese deserters. However, this clarity does little or nothing to reassure us that Okuzaki is not in fact a mad man.

Hara pretty much just follows Okuzaki on his rounds and lets his editing do all the talking; this makes sense as Okuzaki is given to directing his life like it was a film. When we first hear him speak, he’s giving a wedding toast to a man and woman who met through the man’s correspondence with Okuzaki while the latter was in prison. Okuzaki ends this speech claiming not to believe in the institution of marriage or families. When he meets with the often decrepit elderly men that he served with during the war, Okuzaki comes on initially with the aggressiveness of a Michael Moore pursuing a street interview except that when he doesn’t get the answers he’s looking for, he physically attacks them. That is, he attacks the ones that aren’t already in the hospital when he finds them.

A pile of lies builds up in the search for Kozimizu, but Kozimizu, never actually shown, may as well be a macguffin; the unspoken mechanism that pushes Okuzaki into further being Okuzaki. Okuzaki picks up two relatives of the people who were executed and (presumably) eaten to follow him along for the interviews. When they find closure, they leave. Okuzaki, not content to be without this entourage, is forced to hire an actor and tell his wife to pretend to be a sibling of the deceased. In the scene that follows, both his wife and the actor fall asleep in the middle of the long drawn out interrogation. At the film’s conclusion, it’s revealed that Okuzaki was sent back to prison for another 10 years for trying to kill Kozimizu, finding his son, and shooting the son instead. “His son will do,” he says when asked by the newspapers in the epilogue.

Unlike Ethan in The Searchers, Okuzaki’s seeming madness is not portrayed with the lament of unhealth surrounding it. Okuzaki simply seems to “be”. When reality denies him what he wants he recreates it to the best of his abilities. That he didn’t direct the film himself allows us a level of ironic distance that enriches the film overall. When his “actors” fall asleep, the audience looks on in shocked amusement. His truth is constructed, like a movie, and despite the rightness of his aim, his attempts to construct it keep falling apart. His heroic charisma is not in spite of his disengagement with his surroundings but because of it.

Important questions on the nature of documentary, performance, truth, and justice are broken open in ways that suggest no easy or whole answers. The horrific and comic dance uneasily together with neither allowing the other to lead. A masterpiece.