Friday, October 10, 2014

Experimental Practices in Documentary

The documentary takes many forms. Some talk about the past to make commentary on the here and now. Others digest contemporary events, aiming to prevent the unsavory future these events suggest. Some docs, like those of Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore, center around the filmmaker's personality as they interact with subjects on camera and make each investigation a personal matter. Alternatively, others, like Our Nixon or The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, consist almost entirely of vintage video clips, making what's generally relegated to dusty history books fresh again, while the filmmaker and the present day recede in importance. From the complex, interview-driven stories documented by Errol Morris to the poetic meditations of Werner Herzog, the documentary sports a wide variety of approaches to the medium and they all have the capacity to be done well.

Personally, I feel the most interesting of these is the avant-garde or experimental documentary. Often featuring little to no dialogue, these films rely on imagery and montage to create visual tapestries of a place/environment, a culture or an experience. In my eyes, this represents the documentary in its purest form. Uncensored observation meets expressive organization. Of course, these films don't always hit the mark (Take General Orders No. 9, for instance. While a nice idea, the film was a misjudged, overly-prosaic exercise in navel-gazing, in my opinion). However, when they do find the right balance, something transcendent can be achieved and I'd like to take this opportunity to highlight three of my favorite examples.
Dziga Vertov's Man with the Movie Camera was one of my earliest encounters with experimental film. Just as the title suggests, the picture follows a man with a movie camera as he travels throughout a city, documenting the many events that take place there over the course of a day. Inside, outside, on busy street corners or at the beach, there is nowhere his camera cannot go. More than just a spectacular extended montage capturing the rhythms of urban life in late-1920's Russia (the Soviet Union, then) it was a grand demonstration of what film can do...what it can see and where can it go. This wasn't the first film to bring the medium's power to the spotlight, but it was a startling accomplishment nonetheless. Widely known and written about over the 85 years since its release, there's isn't much of anything new I can add to the discussion, but in closing, it's worth noting that it set the stage for another  comprehensive masterwork...
It's fitting that Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi should follow Man with the Movie Camera in my discussion, because it is basically Vertov's film, circa 1982 (or maybe 1975, because that's when production started). This is a gross simplification, though, because it definitely distinguishes itself and there's a lot going on, philosophically in Reggio's film. It's less than 90 minutes, and yet, it feels gargantuan in scope. It's morbid and apocalyptic, but also vibrant and full of energy. It takes a bird's eye view of the cities and the deserts, but routinely returns to ground level to observe the people in their varied uniforms and social statuses. In the Hopi language, the title means "Life Out of Balance" and the film explores this concept. Beginning in the natural environment, it soon transitions into the urban world, where the cacophony and rapid pace of modern life is on display. The film thrives on visual juxtapositions. City layouts and highway strips resemble circuit boards and massive housing projects, once shown as formidable and impressive are demolished one by one. Technology is on the rise and artificial constructs are taking over and this neglect of the natural world, this rapid secession from our roots has led to a deceptively normalized chaos and disorder that has already begun to alter who we are. Koyaanisqatsi is stunning and a one of a kind experience.
Released only last year, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's Leviathan proudly continues the tradition of the non-verbal experimental documentary, incorporating several nuanced touches in the process. Simply put, it is one of the most unique audiovisual experiences out there. Set on a fishing trawler in the North Atlantic, somewhere off the coast of Massachusetts, the film is as immersive as it gets, placing fisheye cameras along the side of the boat, in the water with the net and on the main deck with the fishermen, as well as their eviscerated catch. There is a complete lack of talking-head interviews or voice over commentary. The images speak for themselves...and they speak volumes. Non-distinct soundscapes and inky, unnerving visuals cause the film to take on a surreal quality (that absence of voices to give the viewer a sense of comfort adds to this as well). The boat gradually becomes like a living being (perhaps the sea monster "Leviathan" of the title), a shuddering, groaning behemoth with the fisherman acting as its silent, downtrodden servants, endlessly repeating a series of routine motions and mundane tasks.

I would describe the entire experience of watching the film as: riding a mechanical monster through the sinister waters of an alien planet on which no dry land exists. No part of the film is fantasy, but that odd sense of mythologizing and the notion of creating a surreal narrative out of real life footage works its way into every aspect of Leviathan, from the otherworldly glow of the debris in the underwater sequences, to the way the nets look and sound when lowered into the waters at night (like a lengthy, metallic tongue) to the way the birds are shot (an intense low-angle shot bobbing up and down in the sea, as the creatures glide along just above and occasionally dive violently into the water, hunting for what treasures the trawler has excreted). The sea takes a toll on the people, the ship takes a toll on the beings of the sea and the aesthetics of the film emphasize this mutual harshness. Many will find it tedious, but as far as I'm concerned, it's one of the most impressive documentaries of the last decade.

If it's not already obvious from the write-ups, all three of these films come highly recommended from me. Experimental documentaries have the unique opportunity to engage with audiences on both a visceral and intellectual level and they must be celebrated for this reason. It's important to note that they do not necessarily stand above all others, though (as my use of "pure" maybe alluded to earlier). Hoop Dreams is ambitious and heartbreaking, Grizzly Man is a fascinating character study and Grey Gardens is compellingly voyeuristic. All of these films are brilliant, but none of them stayed with me quite like Man with the Movie Camera, Koyaanisqatsi and Leviathan have...

...and I think there's something to be said about that.

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