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Talking Back to Documentaries

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Talking Back to Documentaries

In the spring of 1972 I was teaching a course in the history of motion pictures at Los Angeles City College. Rick Stanton, the head of the Cinema Division, asked me to write a proposal for a course on the history of documentary film, which he hoped to add to the curriculum. I did, putting the entire sum of my knowledge of documentary film into it. The course was approved and, two days before the course began in the fall of 1972, I was hired to teach it. One slight problem. That proposal, with the entire sum of my knowledge of documentary film, was one page long.

Obviously, I was not going to be able to lecture a lot. Just as well, since the varying lengths of documentary film made standard one-hour lectures impossible. So I decided to let the students tell me what they thought of the films. I would give a little introductory material about the film, show it and then we would discuss it. It turned out to be the way to teach the course. Now, 37 years later and knowing a lot more about documentaries, I still teach it the same way—although a few years back I had students complain that I let other people talk too much. Imagine that: students wanted the teacher to talk more. I started talking more, but the focus of the class is still on what the students have to say. What all these years have given me is a front row seat on how people respond to documentaries. Not what I think about the films, or what historians and critics think about the films, but what a wide variety of people think and feel about them.

A word about our students. What makes teaching at LACC so much fun is that you never know who or what is going to walk in the door. I have had students ranging in age from the late teens to the seventies and eighties. We have students from every continent except Antarctica, and representatives of all five major sexual orientations and several minor ones. Needless to say, their responses run the gamut.

I generally start the course with a reel of early actuality films from the late 1890s and the early 1900s. The reel includes a couple of staged recreations from the Spanish-American War and the students are shocked, shocked to discover that documentaries were staged from the very beginning, but at least this prepares them for Robert Flaherty. We usually show Nanook of the North (1922), which charms today as much as it did then. Students are surprised at the nudity in the film, and I have to explain that the film is a demonstration of the double-whammy of American sexism and racism: in those days nudity in film was socially acceptable as long as it was a) female and b) non-white.

Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon (1934) often splits the class down the middle. Half love Wright’s poetic images and his equally poetic cutting. The other half hate the film because it is non-linear, i.e., does not tell a story, or focus on a single character. The complexity of the structure makes for an interesting discussion, which sets up a context for them to deal with later non-linear films. The exoticism of the film appeals, and not just to western students. I had an Indian student who on his summer vacation went over to Sri Lanka, as Ceylon is now called, and did a video documentary on the temples Wright had photographed. And once I had a student from Sri Lanka who left the screening with tears welling up in her eyes. She said, “It makes me so homesick.”

Wright and Harry Watt’s Night Mail (1936) works better, at least partially because it is a very linear film: the train goes from London to Scotland. W.H. Auden’s poetry in the narration of the last section usually leads to someone commenting that they did not know England had rap music back in the thirties. The poetry in Pare Lorentz’s narration for The River (1937), on the other hand, just seems too much, and only those who paid attention in English class recognize the imitation of Whitman. As overbearing as the narration seems, at least it cements firmly in their minds the concept of Voice of God narration.

I shift the chronological order and show Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) before Triumph of the Will (1935). Although every ten years or so I show both parts of Olympia, usually I just show Part II, since it has the most cinematically inventive sequences (the diving sequences, the gymnastics, the bicycle races). Students are dazzled by her techniques and style, and those who have watched a lot of sports on television recognize where it all started. Those who are familiar with Riefenstahl’s reputation are amazed that there does not seem to be any propaganda at all in Olympia. Once I get them to admit that, I tell them I have them right where I want them to spring Triumph of the Will on them the next week. I show the complete 110-minute version and they stagger out of it at the end, often thinking what one student said to me at the door on the way out, “How did the Germans ever lose the war?” Riefenstahl’s images and sound are so overpowering that one afternoon when there was a small earthquake during the long parade sequence at the end, the class just thought it was part of the film. It takes a full two-hour discussion to sort out all the ways the film works, both as a film and as propaganda.

The next week they get the American response, in the form of two of Frank Capra’s Why We Fight (1942-45) documentaries. I generally have found that I have to start with Prelude to War (1942), since the younger students often have no idea who was fighting whom in World War II. Once I had an older gentleman in the class who had been a junior officer during the war. He had the job of delivering the lecture series that the films supplanted. He brought in his copy of the lecture notes. Looking them over, one could easily understand why General George C. Marshall wanted the film series instead.

One issue that comes up first with Riefenstahl, if not sooner, and then gets a thorough airing with Capra, is the question of the moral responsibility of the documentary filmmaker. Not surprisingly, when you look at some of Capra’s more obvious manipulations and his occasional racism (referring to the Japanese as Hitler’s “buck-toothed pals” always gives students a start, and not just those who are Japanese or Japanese-American), some students end up thinking Capra was less morally responsible than Riefenstahl. (And then there was the student who tried to do a parody of Hitler before the screening of Triumph of the Will and managed to offend both the Jewish people in the class and any neo-Nazis who might have been enrolled. I am still not sure how he did that.) Needless to say, there are those students who criticize Capra’s films for not being more critical of American society. This is especially true when I show The Negro Soldier (1944), which seems incredibly naïve and evasive today (check out how Capra whisks through the Civil War with a shot of the Lincoln Memorial, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” on the sound track and no mention of slavery). Part of my job, of course, is to help them understand the historical context of the films and the attitudes in them. Sometimes it helps. And sometimes it is unneeded. When I ran the World War II films, including the ones listed below, in the Spring 2003 semester, they happened to fall right at the beginning of the Iraq War. History provided the context.

We show two of the John Huston documentaries, San Pietro (1943-45) and Let There Be Light (1945-80). The first works better than the second, since it seems more modern in style, a forerunner of the Direct Cinema filmmaking of the sixties and later. The staged quality of Light, particularly the artificial Hollywood lighting of cinematographer Stanley Cortez, dates the film, as does the simplicity of the cures. Contemporary audiences know a lot more about psychiatry and that it is just not as easy as the film shows. World War II ends with Night and Fog (1955), still the most devastating film about the Holocaust. The students are so drained by the end of that half-hour film that I have to arrange a short break afterwards, since I have found that people are unable to say anything coherent for about ten minutes.

After the horrors of war, we take a break with a week of Walt Disney documentaries from the late forties and early fifties. Often these are films students have grown up with and seen either in school or on television, so it takes them a while to get into discussing them in any depth. Once it is clear that it’s open season on Uncle Walt and the middle-class messages in the films, students examine them with great glee. Why does the lost baby seal in Seal Island (1948) look different in every shot? Why is the “suitor” of the beautiful female beaver that the boy beaver in Beaver Valley (1950) runs off with not the “husband” of the female? Where did the female beaver’s babies come from? Is she a single mom? A divorcee from Encino? How can nature possibly have squeezed all that into half an acre in Nature’s Half Acre (1951)? What were the animators smoking when they came up with the vision of what life on Mars might be like in Mars and Beyond (1957)? (According to Ward Kimball, the producer of the film who was a guest in class once, they were not smoking, but drinking: stingers.)

Contemporary students are astonished to discover that once upon a time, the commercial television networks actually produced hour-long documentaries. Nightmare in Red (1955) is a history of communism in Russia that is a particular favorite of my students who escaped communist regimes in the seventies and eighties. Harvest of Shame (1960) can’t be the sixties, can it?: there’s no rock-and-roll on the soundtrack. Hunger in America (1968) raises the question of why doesn’t somebody do something to eliminate hunger; Congress did, and then discovered it was not all that easy. Black History: Lost Stolen or Strayed (1968) shows that Bill Cosby was once actually angry about something other than what he has been angry about lately.

The textbook I used for the course until recently was Erik Barnouw’s Documentary (Oxford University Press). Before that I used to use Richard Barsam’s Nonfiction Film (Dutton), which is a little more straightforward, but one day a student came up to me, waving Barnouw’s book in my face and saying, “Mr. Stempel, you ought to use this book. He writes just like you talk.” I read the book again and could see her point: both Barnouw and I are willing to stop for an interesting anecdote or two. I also like the distinction he makes between “Direct Cinema” (using the lighter weight camera and sound systems to follow the action) and “Cinema Verité” (using them to interview people). I have recently moved to the more up-to-date A New History of the Documentary Film by Jack C. Ellis and Betsy A. McLane, which retains that distinction.

We begin our section on Direct Cinema with Primary (1960), which I used to describe as “the first time most of the new equipment was working most of the time.” After talking to Richard Leacock, one of the filmmakers, a few years ago I had to amend that to “some of the equipment was working some of the time.” For students who have grown to love the visual beauties of Song of Ceylon, The River, and Olympia, the rough-hewn quality of Primary is a shock. Others feel this is the first modern documentary we see. Because producer Robert Drew and his filmmakers have made an effort to be fair to both John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, the two candidates in the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic Presidential Primary, the class often splits on who they think the film favors most. The preponderance of the students feel it favors Kennedy, but after Humphrey’s death in 1978, the next class or two felt it favored Humphrey. For younger students, who know Kennedy only as the president who slept with Marilyn Monroe and was shot by one or more people, it is a surprise to see how charismatic he was. For older students, the film brings back memories, sometimes very painful ones.

The same is true, only more so, for the companion piece to Primary, the same filmmakers’ 1963 Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment. That film deals with the Kennedys’ (John and Attorney General Robert) attempt to integrate the University of Alabama in the face of George Wallace’s announcement that he would “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent it. For older black students, the film brings back memories of why their families had pictures of the Kennedys on their walls. For younger students, black and white, there is the shock that less than forty years ago, black students were not allowed in some colleges. When I showed the film in the Fall 2008 semester, it was the day after Obama’s election. The night section of the class, mostly older students, were moved, some almost to tears. The day section, mostly younger students, followed the lead of a foreign student who spoke up first. He thought it was “silly.” By that he meant it was silly that the federal government had to go to all that trouble just to enroll two black students. Well, yes, but that is part of this country’s history. And very much on the other hand, there was the black student several years ago who agreed with Wallace: he thought there ought to be separation of the races. I have only had that reaction once.

What is also a shock about Crisis is the sheer intimacy of the film: Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and James Lipscomb shooting in the White House, in Bobby Kennedy’s home, in the Governor’s mansion. Seeing the film in an era in which non-government filmmakers would not be allowed within miles of any of those places makes students mourn the loss of that kind of access. Especially given the level of political discourse in the Oval Office scenes, which was particularly awe-inspiring after the release of the Nixon Watergate tapes.

Intimacy with the subjects is one of the hallmarks of both Direct Cinema and Cinema Verité, and audiences can have mixed feelings about it. Crisis, Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. (1976), Tom Cohen’s Family Business (1982: from the PBS Middletown series), and Keva Rosenfeld’s All-American High (1986) all introduced the audiences to characters they loved. On the other hand, Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’s Seventeen (1982: the film in the Middletown series that PBS and Xerox declined to run), split the audience. The first time I showed it, in the mid-eighties, the class loved Lynn, the smart-mouthed “heroine” of the film. I last showed it a few years ago and one section of the class just hated the whole white trash bunch, including Lynn. I am a big fan of Jill Godmilow and Judy Collins’s 1974 Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman, a film about Antonia Brico, the woman orchestra conductor who was denied conducting opportunities for many years, but some students, especially the men, have not liked her or the film.

And then, as it must to all documentary students, comes a Frederick Wiseman film. I rotate the Wiseman films, having shown nearly all of them over the years (except for the REALLY LONG ones). The discussions of Wiseman film usually begin with ten minutes of students ranting. There are six standard objections they raise. Some classes raise only a few, some all of them. The are: 1) It’s too long; 2) It needs narration; 3) It’s boring; 4) It does not tell a story; 5) It does not follow a character; and, inevitably, 6) Why did you show us this? Once they are done venting, and get curious about my saying “That’s number two” as I check something off a list they cannot see, I quote the line from the end of the first part of the play Angels in America: “And now the great work begins.” And we get down to the serious business of figuring out what Wiseman is up to, how he goes about it, what the themes are in his work, how they relate to other themes in his other films, how the films are structured (thematically rather than narratively, among other ways), and finally, why weren’t you all laughing? Wiseman’s ear for the absurdities of American life and behavior is astonishing, and a lot of it goes right by first-time viewers. Wiseman is one of the few filmmakers I show whom former students, now in advanced filmmaking classes, come back to look at in following semesters. Sometimes they help me get the current classes laughing. Sometimes it does not help: once I had a former student come to see Racetrack (1985) and he and I cracked up at the shot near the beginning of Metropolitan Hospital, the location of Wiseman’s previous Hospital (1970), but there is no way Wiseman virgins would get the joke.

Not getting the jokes is a problem with my students, who have grown up, as we all have, with the idea that documentaries are serious films about serious subjects. The fact is, the best documentaries, like Wiseman’s, can be hysterically funny, but that is not part of the conventional wisdom about documentaries. In 1990, when every magazine was making up ten-best lists of the 1980s, I wrote an article on the ten funniest documentaries of the 1980s. Needless to say, only one of the ten was nominated for an Academy Award, and I think Marcel Ophuls’s Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988) won in spite of the dark humor Ophuls found in the former O.S.S. and C.I.A. personnel’s explanations of why it was really in the best interests of the country to let Barbie escape. It may not surprise you to learn that I could not get the article published anywhere.

In the latter part of the course, I often run “theme weeks,” where I combine films on a single or related subjects. One area is music, which can mean anything from a paring of the Pennebaker-Leacock Company: Original Cast Album (1970: I have to remind Sondheim fans not to sing along) and Charles Braverman’s The Making of a Live TV Show (1971: the Goldiggers are musically not quite up to Sondheim’s standards) to the Maysles’s Gimme Shelter (1970) and what I announced simply as “another documentary about a rock group,” This is Spinal Tap (1984: some people knew the joke, some got it as the film progressed, and some had to have it explained to them afterwards, so good was the filmmakers’ imitation of rock documentary style).

Since we tend to have a fair number of women students, I often have a week or more of films by and about women. Partly this is payback (no, not for the nudity in Nanook; the payback for that comes from the nude men in the sauna at the beginning of Olympia Part II) for the World War II and Vietnam documentaries. One semester I had some women complain about the amount of blood and gore I showed in the World War II section. The reactions of the guys in the class were, snap, “Hey, that’s reality. Get used to it.” Later that semester I showed Claudia Weill and Joyce Chopra’s Joyce at 34 (1972) which begins with a very explicit birth scene. Now the guys were complaining and the women did not miss the opportunity to go, snap, “Hey, that’s reality. Get used to it.” Documentaries are not for wimps.

As we have seen, context can be crucial in terms of reaction to a film. A film I often show is Nick Broomfield and Sandi Sissel’s Chicken Ranch (1982) about a legal bordello in Nevada. It is the best of several documentaries about prostitution because it lets the women speak for themselves, and their nasty put-downs of men in general and young men in particular is a much-needed shock to young male students who grew up with the likes of Pretty Woman (1990). From time to time I have run it with Ted Reed’s 1989 film Coming Out. On its own, it’s a moderately interesting film about the annual Debutante Cotillion in Washington, D.C. Seen after Chicken Ranch, it immediately provokes a discussion about who is more honest about selling young women to men.

Toward the end of the semester I usually run documentaries that are “self-reflexive,” that is, call attention to the fact that they are films, and raise questions about the nature of documentary. One of my favorites is Robert Stone’s Radio Bikini (1987), where he uses not simply footage taken by the Navy at atomic tests in 1946, but the outtakes and multiple takes of that footage to show how “constructed” the earlier documentaries were. An audience seeing that in the context of the history of documentary film can understand without much prompting what Stone is up to.

Given the amount of war and other evils that a semester of documentary films shows, I try to end on an upbeat note. One film I have used as a closer is John Korty’s Who Are the Debolts? And Where Did They Get 19 Kids? (1977). If seeing the Debolts deal with all their adopted kids and their medical problems with robust good humor does not warm the cockles of your heart, your heart needs a new set of cockles. Another ending series of films begins with Lois Shelton’s Ernie Andrews: Blues for Central Avenue (1986). This look at the jazz scene on Central Avenue in Los Angeles was begun as a student film at LACC and is an encouragement to our students. I follow this with Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss’s International Sweethearts of Rhythm (1986), about a 1940s interracial all-woman jazz band, and the same filmmakers’ closer look at one of the members of the band and her companion, Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women (1988). One time I had shown a documentary on an abortion clinic and one of the women in the class had said that I should also show a film about a mother. I decided that Tiny Davis, singer, trumpeter, mother, lesbian and grandmother was the greatest mother of them all. And my classes, even the homophobes, seem to agree.

In early 2002 I heard about a film on George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign called Journeys with George. It was playing the liberal salon circuit in Washington and the word was that it really showed Bush to be an idiot. When I saw it at a sparsely attended, hardly advertised screening the film knocked me out. It not only showed that Bush was a fairly likable guy, but that he was not an idiot. Journeys with George vividly demonstrated how the media completely, and I mean completely, geeked their coverage of the campaign. When its filmmaker, Alexandra Pelosi, was on Charlie Rose a few months later, promoting the HBO showings of the film, she tried to convince Rose that the film did expose the media coverage as terrible. Rose, who also works for CBS, simply found it impossible to believe. As the years have gone by, more and more people not only realize the film did this, but that it was the first of many, many documentaries that picked up on all the stories the mainstream media were geeking: the campaign and the Supreme Court decisions afterward, the run-up to the Iraq War, the war itself, and on and on and on. I have shown Journeys with George almost every semester since, and students have had the same reactions I did to that first screening: Bush is personally likable and the media did geek the campaign. I usually pair it with a film like Gunner Palace (2004) or Baghdad ER (2006) to show the outcome of that 2000 campaign. I realized after the Obama election, I never have to show Journeys with George ever again.

Even with the Bush and Iraq documentaries, I still try to end on an upbeat note, as difficult as that may be to do. One film that works, especially if there are a number of foreign students in the class is Marlo Poras’s Mai’s America (2002), about a teenaged Vietnamese girl named Mai, who comes to this country as an exchange student. We not only see what she goes through, but get her perceptions on the people she meets and on America in general. Mai is charming and funny and smart, and she is the best I can do after Bush and Iraq.

I am planning on retiring from teaching in 2011, which should give me enough time to run what I am sure are going to be some very interesting documentaries about the Obama years. All I am waiting on is for people to make them.

Tom Stempel, in addition to teaching at Los Angeles City College, writes the “Understanding Screenwriting” column for The House Next Door.