Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Random observations and thoughts

Every so often—and sometimes oftener—I have ideas for these columns that prove insufficient for an entire column. Or if they aren’t insufficient, they’re too much to be tackled here in the detail they deserve. Let’s call those “subjects for further investigation,” but there’s no real guarantee I’m going to find time for those further investigations. With this in mind, I’ve decided to pull a few of these things out of the drawer—perhaps two at a time—and at least give them a little airing out. They’re doing no one any good where they are.

The problem(s) with documentaries

A few years back someone who specializes in documentaries and in programming festivals of documentaries remarked to me—quite off the record—that he’d never seen a documentary film that wasn’t at least twice as long as it needed to be. Since I’d just watched six or seven activist documentaries on human rights violations, I wasn’t about to argue with him. Six or seven of those viewed in rapid succession and I’m completely ready to go out and oppress a third world country myself out of revenge for having been made to sit through all this high-minded outrage, no matter how noble it is.

Without getting into stylistic differences, documentaries come in two basic flavors—informatonal and activist. The former is pretty simple and has always been with us. Charlie Chaplin’s second movie, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)—the one where he introduced his “Tramp” characters—was a split-reel affair with an informational short called Olives and Their Oil. I know, it’s hard to understand why—with a topic that exciting—it’s Chaplin’s film that’s the one remembered nearly 100 years later. The informational documentary generally rises or falls—as far as audience appeal goes—on the level of interest the viewer has in the subject, or in how much interest can be generated about the topic. I doubt it was so much a passion for Eskimos that drove audiences to Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North back in 1922, as it was the prospect of seeing something they’d never seen before.

The second kind—again I’m speaking in broad terms here—is the activist documentary. These are works that are designed to alert the viewer to some kind of social or political ill. These films have agendas far beyond showing you something you’ve never seen before, or a filmmaker wanting to share his or her personal passion for tatting or collecting antimacassars. These are movies that are meant to rile you up, to outrage you into action—if only to the point of writing a stern letter to a newspaper. That’s fine except for the simple fact that most of the time these films are viewed only by folks who are already in agreement with them—and the “loyal opposition” who enjoy getting worked up over the fact that these are agenda-driven movies. (The latter is on the ridiculous side, since the agenda is the whole point of the movie.)

Setting aside questions of bias, fudging, general veracity and preaching to the choir, I’ve come to believe that there’s a larger problem with these films that actually makes them not wholly unlike their informational counterpart. It’s the hobby-horse tunnel vision effect. Just like documentarian who wants to share an enthusiasm over scale models made out of sugar cubes, the activist documentarian becomes so focused on his or her important topic that everything else has become insignificant.  Their particular cause is the cause—the one that matters. It’s really immaterial whether or not you agree with the cause. Hell, I’m in agreement with probably 90 percent of the activist documentaries that come my way, but how many times can I be shocked by government or military or corporate corruption?

I’m no longer shocked. I’ve come to expect it. I’m overwhelmed by it and I’m on my way to becoming numb to it. With the best intentions in the world, the activist documentarian is paralyzing me into a state of inertia on these topics. The average viewer probably doesn’t encounter this so much. Well, let’s face it, the average viewer doesn’t exactly flock to documentaries, but those who do still don’t get hit with them in rapid succession. The reviewer, on the other hand, does. And—shallow as it may be—this reviewer would be delighted right about now to be confronted with a documentary on Mr. Sneed Hearn of Oxtail, Nebraska and his reproductions of the paintings of Vermeer in bottle caps.

How do you define “modern film

What makes a movie “modern?” What does that even mean? Some considerable time back I asked what makes a movie “old” in a subjective sense, and I guess this is related. It occurred to me this past week with the realization that Stephen Frears probably qualifies as one of the Grand Old Men of British cinema. Now, how on earth did that happen? I remember quite clearly when he was a relative newcomer 25 years ago when My Beautiful Laundrette came out. Of course, he wasn’t anything like a newcomer, since he’d been around for some years since his first theatrical film Gumshoe dated back to 1971. But it was Laundrette that put him on the world cinema radar. And that was quickly followed by Prick Up Your Ears (1987), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) and Dangerous Liaisons (1988).

So is Frears a modern filmmaker? Well, in the 21st century he’s given us Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005), The Queen (2006), Cheri (2009) and now Tamara Drewe. That seems sufficient to call him modern, I think, but he’s also in Grand Old Man territory. He is certainly not new to the movies and he’s evidenced a good deal of staying power. He eschews the term auteur and claims to have never had a “vision” in his life (I find both points arguable). His style is relatively classical, which might in some quarters argue against modernity. It depends on how you define the term.

I think most of us—whether we admit it or not—have a certain difficulty in thinking of filmmakers we’ve followed from the beginning of their careers as anything other than modern. Quite probably that stems from a desire to think of ourselves as modern. For me, “modern film” probably starts with the French New Wave or the British Invasion movies that followed in its wake. It then continues into the present day, though a case can be made that the 1990s represent a move toward post-modernism. But is post-modernism really anything other than more self-aware modernism? Terms like “new” and “modern” are slippery and misleading, since things remain neither one. The “New Forest” in England, for example, was new—in 1079. I have a book called The Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking. Any book with recipes for groundhog probably isn’t all that modern.

Even though I might simplistically or conviently use that New Wave definition as a starting point for modern, I can’t say I adhere to it very strongly. I’m often struck by how very modern Fritz Lang’s German films are. This was brought home quite recently by seeing Metropolis (1927) and Spies (1928) in rapid succession. But it’s hardly possible to say that Lang is where modern film starts, is it? Or is it? That’s the question. And the question I’m throwing out here is what do you call modern film?

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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12 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Random observations and thoughts

  1. davidf

    This won’t help you categorize film history any better, but I would argue that the art of film is one of the keystone art forms of modernity, and all films are modern. This is based on an academic definition of the word ‘modern’ and not on the colloquial use of the word modern to mean “new.” When people use modern to mean “new” I’d say what they really mean is “contemporary.” You could argue that early films that constitute little more than filmed stage theatre were less modern than what came after, but even the mere reproduction and commodification of the moment that is an inherent part of film-making puts these films in the modern category for me.
    I’m sure there could be some good arguments made for the identification of post-modern films, (think: films that engage the viewer in participatory ways that subvert the typical film/audience relationship, etc.), but that definition is messier and I don’t have enough spare time to find some good examples.

    Since filmmaking is a multi media form, including music, visual art, and story-telling, it is tempting to categorize a film based upon the artistic elements contained within. A film may feature Baroque architecture or Impressionist Modern art or representations of post-modern performance art, but I think it would be an error to define a film based upon individual elements that it contained. It may be more tempting to define a film based on its narrative structure (or lack thereof), but I’m not sold on that either. Its hard for me not to think of filmmaking as an inherently Modern form.

    These are my initial thoughts, and I would enjoy challenges to them. I’d also enjoy reading about any suggestions as to what films may be considered “post-modern.” What films have challenged, deconstructed, or transformed the assumptions of modernity, not just in content, but in form?

  2. Ken Hanke

    This won’t help you categorize film history any better, but I would argue that the art of film is one of the keystone art forms of modernity, and all films are modern.

    Academically speaking, yes, all films are modern in the grand scheme of things, but realistically it’s a hard-sell, especially since we’re now at a point where you’re finding people who think of the 20th century as old in terms of movies. It’s ridiculous, but it’s true. Some folks think of Tarantino as one of the Old Masters.

    You may or may not recall that I once asked people what constituted an old movie in their minds — and in a lot of cases anything pre-1950s Hitchcock was deemed as virtually too old to consider. Good luck on trying to get them to call a hundred year old movie modern.

    I don’t agree with their view, but neither do I find all film modern. I think that — regardless of the relative newness of the art form — fails to take into account the fact that probably no art form ever expanded at the rate film did, because it is so tied to technology expanded at a terrific pace in the last century.

  3. Dread P. Roberts

    …we’re now at a point where you’re finding people who think of the 20th century as old in terms of movies. It’s ridiculous, but it’s true. Some folks think of Tarantino as one of the Old Masters.

    Interestingly enough, Tarantino was the first thing that popped into my mind when you mentioned “a case can be made that the 1990s represent a move toward post-modernism.”

    Out of curiosity, did you intentionally put both of these stories together, to indirectly suggest a possible corellation between ‘modern‘ films and ‘documentaries‘? Obviously docs are far from new, but “wide release” popular documentaries are a fairly new thing, aren’t they? The reason I ask is that when Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) came onto the scene, it seemed (at least from my perspective) to change the way the general public viewed docs. Before that, docs seemed a lot more specialized, and they didn’t have as much of a widespread appeal (or attention, anyway). After that, the public seemed to want more – which I theorize can be parallelized with the publics consumption of the growing fad known as “reality TV”. Then came Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004), which invariably added to this whole newfound idea of a moviestar documentarian filmaker. So is ‘popular’ docs the most recent evolution (because that’s all that any of this really boils down to) of filmaking, or mearly a one-time fad that’s (it would seem) now dying out?

  4. Ken Hanke

    Out of curiosity, did you intentionally put both of these stories together, to indirectly suggest a possible corellation between ‘modern’ films and ‘documentaries’?

    Nope. Completely coincidental.

    The reason I ask is that when Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) came onto the scene, it seemed (at least from my perspective) to change the way the general public viewed docs.

    I think you’ve got the right filmmaker, but I’d say it started with Roger and Me.

    Then came Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004), which invariably added to this whole newfound idea of a moviestar documentarian filmaker.

    Talk about an unfortunate development!

    So is ‘popular’ docs the most recent evolution (because that’s all that any of this really boils down to) of filmaking, or mearly a one-time fad that’s (it would seem) now dying out?

    I’d be good with that, though I think that’s partly because wanna-be filmmakers tend to head for the documentary form because they think it’s easy. But in truth, we’re probably just at the end of a cycle. Somewhere down the road someone with a lot of charisma will come along and do something similar to what Moore started and there’ll be a flurry of it again.

  5. To my mind, modern is a relativistic term that constantly changes meaning depending on when it’s being deployed. What “Modern Cinema” meant in 1952, is different to what it meant in 1982 and what it means now. Unless there’s a particular movement of filmmaking called ‘Modern Cinema’, in which case I’m too uneducated about it to contribute to the conversation.

  6. JonathanBarnard

    “Please Vote for Me” is a fantastic documentary on the psychology of electoral politics. It describes the election of a third-grade class monitor in China. Coming in at a little under an hour, it never dragged. Maybe that’s the right length for a “full-length” documentary.

  7. Ken Hanke

    To my mind, modern is a relativistic term that constantly changes meaning depending on when it’s being deployed. What “Modern Cinema” meant in 1952, is different to what it meant in 1982 and what it means now.

    Now that strikes me as using “modern” to mean current. What came about in 1952 or 1982 that was a break with any tradition and was subsequently assimilated into the basic lexicon of film? That, to me, is an essential element of any consideration on the question. I’d add that it needs to still feel fresh today.

    To continue with the arbitrary years you reference, the only film of either that occurs to me off the top of my head as markedly different is Frank Tashlin’s Son of Paleface from 1952. That may be the most self-aware feature film ever made at that point in constantly reminding the audience that they’re watching a movie, but comedies had always tended to be ahead of the curve in that.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Coming in at a little under an hour, it never dragged. Maybe that’s the right length for a “full-length” documentary.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case. In many respects, I tend to believe that TV is a more congenial home for documentaries precisely because it doesn’t require the same kind of length a theatrical feature does. Unfortunately, TV has become so polluted with speculative trash (did ancient alien beavers build the Hoover dam?) and “reality” shows (we might as well be back with the Lumiere Brothers filming a train coming into a station) that its credibility seems compromised.

  9. DrSerizawa

    Humanity has been on earth for a long time. The earliest recordings of human civilization date back some 50,000 years. Movies have been with us for about 100 years. By that standard all movies are “modern”. The cultural concentration on “modern” as “new” can lead people to believe that “old” movies have little entertainment or educational value. How many people today will refuse to watch a black and white movie? Most of them. Ridiculous.

    And, frankly, with the rise of the ease of digital filmmaking I think we are getting inundated with crap. Yes, I know that we’ve always gotten a lot of crap movies but I perceive, rightly or wrongly, that the problem has gotten worse. So, in my usual contrary way I equate “modern” as in “new” in the last decade with crap. When someone has to spend the money and time and engage the people necessary to make a movie on film one cuts out a lot of the really dumb ideas that no one would back in a million years. I’ve lost count of the movies I’ve been suckered into getting on Netflix that were nothing more than glorified home movies promoted as “ground breaking”. For every great idea that has to go the cheap digital route there are 100 bad ones. I no longer feel like wading through a knee deep pile of sewage to find one silver dime.

    As far as documentaries go I much prefer the TV variety. With commercial breaks these are normally limited to about 42 minutes of screen time. This requires the makers to make their product nice and lean. The movie theater format (90-120 minutes) is just too long for documentaries, IMHO. Heck I might even watch a Michael Moore documentary if it were slashed to 40 minutes.

  10. Ken Hanke

    Humanity has been on earth for a long time. The earliest recordings of human civilization date back some 50,000 years. Movies have been with us for about 100 years. By that standard all movies are “modern”.

    Yes, I’ve conceded that point.

    The cultural concentration on “modern” as “new” can lead people to believe that “old” movies have little entertainment or educational value. How many people today will refuse to watch a black and white movie? Most of them. Ridiculous.

    I know such cretinous beings exist, though I haven’t actually met one who was more than 12 years old. Regardless, such people aren’t going to be likely to listen to any argument made for anything older than last Tuesday, so I think it’s irrelevant to fret over the term “modern.” I actually consider that we’re more or less “talking among ourselves” here, since I don’t see this topic holding the interest of the “we won’t watch black and white” set, i.e., they probably bailed as soon as I mentioned documentaries and never even made it to the second topic.

    Really as far as trying to make a case for people who are resistant to what are loosely called “old movies,” I think it’s useful to have some notion of where antiquity ends and something that feels kind of modern — something easy to relate to — begins. That’s subjective, of course. What I can relate to and what someone else can relate to may not be the same. (I try to be aware of that, which is why I might love the 1929 George Arliss film Disraeli — and I do — but I’d be hesitant to show it to a regular audience.) I think, however, that anyone could watch Metropolis (1927) and realize it uses techniques that are still a part of film today, and watch something like the 1910 Italian film L’Inferno and realize it has little to do with movies as we know them.

    And, frankly, with the rise of the ease of digital filmmaking I think we are getting inundated with crap. Yes, I know that we’ve always gotten a lot of crap movies but I perceive, rightly or wrongly, that the problem has gotten worse.

    There’s probably no more crap now than ever, it’s that there are too many people peeing down their legs about how wonderful some of this crap is. Yes, I am thinking of mumblecore, which is the biggest “emperor’s new clothes” balderdash I’ve ever seen. I have yet to see a single example of this style that I thought had even the slightest merit.

    So, in my usual contrary way I equate “modern” as in “new” in the last decade with crap.

    I understand where you’re coming from, but I think you’re wandering over into baby and bathwater territory. There have, I’d say, been some mighty good movies in the last decade, too. But I’d be skeptical of any of these “groundbreaking” films that come along where you’ve never heard of the movie, the filmmaker, etc.

    Heck I might even watch a Michael Moore documentary if it were slashed to 40 minutes.

    Bear in mind that my worldview and Moore’s are pretty close to being the same, but I’d still say that — with the possible exception of Columbine — all of his films would have benefitted from being shorter.

  11. DrSerizawa

    Fortunately I don’t have to wade through piles of cinematic sewage when I have guinea pigs like Ken and Justin to do it for me. I’ll recommend a bonus for you guys.

    Also, re: Michael Moore. It’s not his opinions that bother me. I’m a Libertarian, not a Conservative. It’s the propaganda nature of his very one-sided documentaries. The only one I saw (Bowling for Columbine) was so over-the-top that I’ve never bothered since.

  12. Ken Hanke

    Fortunately I don’t have to wade through piles of cinematic sewage when I have guinea pigs like Ken and Justin to do it for me. I’ll recommend a bonus for you guys.

    It’s nice to know we have our uses, but, trust me, a bonus would be nice.

    Also, re: Michael Moore. It’s not his opinions that bother me. I’m a Libertarian, not a Conservative.

    Yes, I’m aware of that. This is sort of beside the point, but my basic problem with Libertarianism (apart from the Ayn Rand contingent) is the tendency for most of them I know to end up in the conservative column by choosing an anti-tax and anti-regulation candidate, regardless of whatever comes with them, on those two bases alone. That, by the way, is not an accusation, merely an observation of what I’ve experienced personally.

    It’s the propaganda nature of his very one-sided documentaries. The only one I saw (Bowling for Columbine) was so over-the-top that I’ve never bothered since.

    Let’s be honest here — all activist documentaries are one-sided propaganda whether left or right. They’re much like internet arguments. In internet arguments, it’s a case of “you bring your links to sites that support your views and I’ll being mine.” In activist documentaries, it’s one of “you bring your experts and I’ll bring mine.” Any film — documentary or narrative — with an agenda cherry picks. (This is even true of informational docs. Just check out the stories behind Nanook of the North and Man of Aran.) Moore has — or had, since his popularity has waned — the knack for making ones that are entertaining. That might more honestly be called “essay films,” but they get lumped in with documentaries because it’s convenient shorthand. Of course, he has the advantage there’s simply a larger liberal audience for documentaries than a conservative one.

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