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?