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Posts Tagged ‘Documentary Films’

Frame by Frame Video: Documentary Films

Friday, November 9th, 2012

I have a new Frame by Frame video episode out today, directed by Curt Bright, on documentary films.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the video.

Curt and I have done a lot of Frame by Frame videos, but we’ve never really delved into the world of non-fiction filmmaking, until now. In this video, I very briefly highlight some of the key documentary filmmakers in the history of the medium, along with some of their most important works, so this should be a handy guide for further viewing for those who aren’t familiar with this area of cinema. You’ll notice that I jump around in time a lot in the video, highlighting documentarians of both the past and present, roughly arranged according to the themes they were attracted to.

For the record, in the image above, David (left) and Albert (far right) Maysles, two of the most prominent filmmakers of the 1960s in this area, are working on a film about Truman Capote (center), who had just published his groundbreaking “non fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. This video is just an introduction to the documentary presence in cinema, and lists only the major players — with some left out for reasons of space — but the still runs a full 7 minutes. Enjoy, and thanks to Curt Bright for doing such a superb job of editing the piece.

Documentary films hold up a mirror to life that we simply can’t ignore.

Guest Blogger: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on The Maysles Brothers’ Salesman

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film theorist and historian, has graciously agreed to do four short essays on some of her favorite films for this site.

Salesman

Salesman (1968) is one of the pioneering works of American documentary filmmaking, created by Albert and David Maysles, with Charlotte Zwerin serving as the editor who co-created the film in the cutting room. The Maysles brothers were some of the first filmmakers to use hand held sync-sound 16mm filmmaking equipment; indeed, they helped to create the equipment, along with other filmmakers, to document the world around them in a more immediate style than contemporary technology would then allow.

The structure of the film is simple; Salesman follows four door-to-door salesmen for a New England Bible company. We are introduced to them, one by one, in the beginning moments of the film, and then follow them on their rounds as they try to sell ornate Bibles to relatively poor people who clearly can’t afford the then-steep $50 price tag for each volume.

Joking, cajoling, shaming and wheedling their customers into purchasing the Bibles, sometimes on a monthly payment plan, the salesmen start their work in Boston, then move to Chicago, and finally to Miami, in search of new customers, and virgin territory.

When Salesman was made, The Maysles brothers were the “go-to” men for documentary filmmaking assignments, often at short notice; such earlier works as Showman (1963), documenting a day in the life of film producer Joseph E. Levine, and What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (1964), focusing on the Beatles’ first visit to America, in addition to filmic portraits Meet Marlon Brando and A Visit with Truman Capote (both 1966), consolidated their reputations as the key documentarians of the pop culture of their era. Salesman was their biggest commercial success up that point, and paved the way for Gimme Shelter (1970), which covered the disastrous concert by The Rolling Stones at Altamont, California.

Shot in gritty black and white, Salesman is at pains to show that what the four man do is brutal, unrelenting, and lonely, consisting of seemingly endless hours of driving, pitching to potential customers, nights spent in cheap motels (in one of the happier moments in the film, the four men are seen doing “cannonballs” in a hotel swimming pool to relieve their stress), and the constant pressure to sell, sell, sell.

Like their contemporary Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles’ documentary style strives to be as unobtrusive as possible, with no narration, minimal editing, shooting hundreds of hours of film to capture the essential moments that depict the tragically nomadic life of these men of the road.

The Maysles split the duties of filmmaking, co-producing and directing their films; Albert, however, emerged as the cinematographer of the duo, while David handled the sound. Working with primitive equipment that would only allow 400 ft. of 16mm film to be shot at one burst, or less than 12 minutes of running time, Salesman stands as a bleak, compelling time-capsule of a lost era that would, like the phenomenon of the door-to-door salesman, vanish into obsolescence with the advent of the new digital society.”

You can access Professor Foster’s website directly by clicking on this link.

Guest Blogger: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film theorist and historian, has graciously agreed to do four short essays on some of her favorite films for this site.

Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital

“Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital (1970) is one of the most brutal exposés of the American health system ever made, and perhaps the most shocking thing is that since the film was made, matters haven’t improved much at all. Using his trademark “never apologize, never explain” hands off camera style, in which no narration is allowed to intrude on the image, and Wiseman essentially keeps filming and filming even when “nothing” seems to be happening, Hospital emerges as a ringing indictment of a system that is collapsing under its own weight, where the rich get measurably better care than the poor, and where a distant and uncaring bureaucracy controls the actions of everyone involved. The doctors and nurses try to attend the multitude of patients, but are seemingly overwhelmed; the incoming wave of supplicants never strops.

Never exhibited commercially in theatres, Hospital was originally commissioned by PBS, and won two Emmys, in addition to garnering a rave review from film critic Pauline Kael in The New Yorker. Wiseman’s central sympathy here, as in most of his films, is with the poor, the disadvantaged, the ones who flock to the emergency room seeking help that sometimes never arrives.

Wiseman, born in 1930 in Boston, originally trained to be a lawyer, and initially pursed that career. Fascinated with the possibilities of cinema, however, Wiseman broke into film by producing director Shirley Clarke’s fiction film The Cool World (1963), covering the activities of teenage gangs in New York. Convinced that reality was more interesting than anything staged, Wiseman soon began making 16mm black and white documentaries, creating as his first film the groundbreaking film Titicut Follies (1967), which chronicled the crumbling infrastructure of a Massachusetts mental hospital with such unsparing ferocity that the film was soon barred from public screenings until a 1993 court order overturned the initial ban.

Similarly, Hospital is set in the operating room, emergency ward and outpatient clinics of New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital. The hospital sees it all; victims of violence, drug overdoses, elderly patients at a loss to help themselves because of age or infirmity. Wiseman’s camera manages, in the midst of chaos, to become invisible simply by virtue of its omnipresence; and inasmuch as Wiseman functions as the producer, director and editor on all his films, the end result in Hospital is a deeply personal document of human suffering and redemption.

Wiseman typically shoots more than 100 hours of material for the documentaries he makes, and then discovers the rhythm of the material in the editing room. In some of his films, he favors fast cutting; but in most films, long takes predominate, in which the viewer is required to join in the work of “directing” the film, finding things out in a step-by-step fashion as an actual eyewitness observer would.

Wiseman wants us to experience the events he’s documenting without undue mediation, as any observant bystander would. With a list of more than forty films in his canon, Wiseman is perhaps the preeminent documentary filmmaker working today.” — Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

You can access Professor Foster’s website directly by clicking on this link.

Guest Blogger: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film theorist and historian, has graciously agreed to do four short essays on some of her favorite films for this site.

Harlan County USA

You can view the entire film by clicking here, or on the image above.

“In the landscape of the American documentary film, there are few films as a harrowing and heartbreaking as Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA (1976), which explores the effects and aftermath of a 1973 strike by coal miners against the Duke Power Company in Harlan County, Kentucky. Unlike many documentary films, which are shot over a matter of weeks or months, Kopple’s film took years to complete, during which time she covered the strike from every conceivable angle. She followed the miners in their daily lives, living with them and sharing in their struggle, and soon became a part of the strike itself; Harlan County, USA is thus a film in which the filmmaker shared in the struggle with the film’s protagonists, and the intensity of her involvement with the project is manifest in every frame of the film.

Born in Scarsdale, New York in 1946, Barbara Kopple attended Northeastern University, majoring in psychology, but soon became interested in film, and worked with the Maysles Brothers on some of their earlier projects to hone her skills. Like her contemporaries Frederick Wiseman and The Maysles Brothers, Kopple elected to simply shoot the film and see what happened, without adding narration to help to shape the flow of the narrative. Kopple filmed Harlan County, USA in an atmosphere of unrelenting violence; the company hires thugs to break up the union, and the union fights back in kind.

When a young miner is killed during a fight brought about by the strike, the company and the union are finally forced by the public outcry to the bargaining table. Kopple’s continual presence on the scene also played a factor; indeed, many of the miners after the fact credited Kopple with being a decisive factor in ending the strike. The film was released in 1976, and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1977. It was Kopple’s first feature length film as a director.

In the aftermath of the success of Harlan County, USA, Kopple went on to a variety of projects, but stayed true to her organizing roots with the 1990 film American Dream, documenting a similarly heart-rending strike at a Hormel meat packing plant in Minnesota in the late 1980s; as with Harlan County, USA, the film took many years to shoot, and when it was finally released in 1990, it, too, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1991.

Kopple’s numerous other projects include Keeping On (1981), a dramatized account of a strike at a textile mill; Civil Rights: The Struggle Continues (1989), a documentary marking the 25th anniversary of the killings of civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in 1964; and in a lighter vein, the documentary Wild Man Blues (1998), which follows director Woody Allen and his Dixieland band on a tour of Europe, with remarkably revealing results. Eclectic, evolving, and continually searching for new subjects, Barbara Kopple keeps working in both the commercial and independent cinema, resolutely independent, answering only to herself.” — Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

You can access Professor Foster’s website directly by clicking on this link.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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