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Monday, November 12, 2007

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

Last week I commended to your attention some classics of nonfiction filmmaking. My hope was that a portion of the current groundswell of interest in "reality programming" might be channeled away from exploitative game shows that have very little to do with reality and into the long and honorable tradition of documentary cinema. In that spirit, let me recommend a few more nonfiction titles to look for on home video.

"The Man With a Movie Camera" (1929). Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov set out to chronicle life in the Soviet Union, but with this remarkable film he hit upon the idea of chronicling his own process of capturing daily life on film. He shows us not only real people going about their daily business but also the cameras that are filming them. Then he takes us into the editing room to show the pieces of film being assembled. Through clever editing, Vertov creates for the viewer the heady sensation of watching the creation of the very film the viewer is seeing.

"The City" (1939). One of the most interesting trends in documentary filmmaking was the proliferation of films known collectively as "city symphonies." As the name implies, these films organized scenes of city life into a collage of images more closely resembling a piece of music than a traditional cinematic narrative. The prototype was "Berlin: Symphony of the City" (1927), followed by "On the Subject of Nice" (1930). The American equivalent, "The City," was produced by Willard Van Dyke and Ralph Steiner specifically for exhibition at the New York World's Fair of 1939, although it later received wider distribution. Intended as a commentary on urban blight, it combines incisive camerawork with clever editing and an unusually creative use of the soundtrack to paint an artful portrait of New York City that transcends the film's social commentary.

"Let There Be Light" (1945). During World War II, a number of Hollywood directors made films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. John Huston, director of "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), was commissioned to make a film about the emotional casualties of the war. The subject of the film was what would now be called "post-traumatic stress syndrome." At the time, it was simply known as "shell shock." The point of the film was to be that shell shock victims were not insane. They were, rather, simply suffering from a wound of a different kind, requiring a different kind of bandage. The resulting film, shot at a V.A. hospital, was so deeply disturbing that the Army waited until 1980 to declassify it. Even now, more than 50 years later, it remains an emotionally wrenching film to watch.

"Night and Fog" (1955). There have been many documentaries about the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, but for me none is more compelling than this short film by French director Alain Resnais. Cross cutting between contemporary footage of an abandoned concentration camp and period footage of the camp in operation, Resnais focuses relentlessly on such telling details as the scarred walls of the gas chambers, bearing silent witness to the thousands of fingernails that scraped at the concrete in a futile attempt to escape.

"The Sorrow and the Pity" (1970). A more expansive look at the horror of the Nazi domination of Europe is Marcel Ophuls's mammoth four-hour-plus chronicle of the Nazi occupation of France. Historical footage is alternated with contemporary interview footage to get at the question of French collaboration with the occupying Nazis. As revealing as the descriptions of Nazi atrocities are the recollections of those who claim to have been unaware that anything was amiss.

"Harlan County, U.S.A." (1976). Barbara Kopple has emerged as a significant voice in the documentary field over the last 25 years. Her first significant success was this account of a 1973 strike by miners at the Brookside coal mine in Harlan County, Kentucky. Telling the story from the miners' point of view, Kopple takes the viewer through every phase of the brutal, year-long strike. The film received an Academy Award as the best documentary feature of the year.

These films, and many others like them, represent the high watermark for the creative use of reality. Cheesy TV game shows don't even begin to compare. If "reality programming" fascinates you, your best bet is to vote yourself off the island and head for the video store.

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