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Monday, November 12, 2007

Reality Cinema, Part 1 (originally published 2/01)

It's probably a forlorn hope at this point, but I keep thinking that sooner or later the viewing public will grow weary of these war-of-attrition game shows featuring sequestered groups under dire conditions and vote them right out of the global village. They offend me on multiple levels, beginning with the fact that they require the contestants to summon the worst elements of human nature to prevail instead of striving for excellence.

Most of all, they offend my cinematic sensibilities by having the gall to refer to themselves as "reality programs." Take a group of people and confine them to a wilderness area where they must live off the land, with a million dollars at stake for the last survivor. Meanwhile, a short distance away, there is an encampment for the producers and crew where all the comforts of home are flown in. This is reality?

Still, it is certainly true that the chronicling of reality can hold great fascination for viewers. If the pseudo-reality of "Survivor" and its siblings has caught your interest, you might consider sampling the rich tradition of documentary filmmaking to be found on home video. Here are some titles to look for.

"Nanook of the North" (1922). Although the very first moving pictures were simple actuality footage, movies quickly adopted storytelling as their primary format. It soon became accepted wisdom in the industry that the mere recording of reality could not be made to pay at the box office. The man who proved that assumption wrong was Robert Flaherty, an explorer and prospector who used a movie camera to record the lives of Eskimo families he had come to know in the Hudson Bay area of northern Canada. The resulting silent film was released to theaters and proved sufficiently popular with audiences to largely dispel the showman's prejudice against nonfiction film. The trick that Flaherty discovered was a simple one: the fact that a filmmaker's footage is of actualities rather than scenes staged with actors doesn't mean that he can't tell an interesting story using the same narrative techniques that make fictional films so engaging.

"Night Mail" (1936). Another significant name in the history of nonfiction filmmaking is British producer John Grierson, who is credited with coining the term "documentary." His work for the General Post Office film unit informed his countrymen about the lives of other working Britons, including but not limited to postal workers and other communication industry laborers. "Night Mail" takes a simple subject, the postal train making its overnight run from London to Glasgow, and transforms it into a kind of cinematic lyric poem. In fact, the narration includes actual verse, a poem written for the film by W.H. Auden, who worked for Grierson briefly. Auden's words combine with the music of Benjamin Britten and the images of co-directors Basil Wright and Harry Watt to make delivering the mail seem downright romantic. Look for "Night Mail" as part of a videotape from Kino Video ( called "The British Documentary Movement: Benjamin Britten."

"The Plow That Broke the Plains" (1936). While Grierson was creating classic nonfiction films for the British Empire, over in the United States government-sponsored filmmaking also produced a significant documentary director in the person of Pare Lorentz. Working for the Roosevelt administration's Resettlement Administration, Lorentz movingly documented the plight of Dust Bowl farmers driven from their land by the fierce and unrelenting dust storms that ravaged the Southwest during the Thirties. He followed the success of this film with "The River" (1937), a lyrical call to action promoting flood control and soil conservation around the Mississippi River.

"Olympia, Parts I and II" (1938). Although German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl has caught a lot of flak for her Nazi propaganda documentary, "Triumph of the Will" (1935), this monumental record of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games stands as an untainted tribute to her skills. Part I even includes Jesse Owens's victory over the pride of the "master race" in track and field. But the topper of the whole show is the diving sequence from Part II, in which skillful editing converts a diving exhibition into a stunning aerial ballet.

Although none of these films has ever been a television network ratings centerpiece, each has stood the test of time to become a classic. Next week we'll look at more nonfiction cinema classics.

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