Friday 30 July 2010

Is Every Film A Documentary?

There has long been a groundswell gathering in favour of increased recognition for Documentary film-making. There is a school of thought stating that the creativity, the compositional and editing skills shown by Documentary film-makers mean that these works should be considered alongside their fictional counterparts. Within this argument lies the insecure feeling that fiction film-making is the more lauded and more laudable discipline.

I think that, if there is to be a rapprochement in the way we treat these two disciplines, then it should be fiction that makes the first move. Documentary shouldn't move closer to fiction but fiction closer to documentary.

When this thought, such as it is, occurred to me, I researched what I could and discovered that this idea has had plenty of traction over the years:

                  Every film is a documentary of its actors
                                                                        Jean-Luc Godard 

Yes, every film is a documentary of its actors. It records them at a particular point in their lives for posterity and for eternity. Whatever the on-screen persona or character, whatever the makeup, it is nigh on impossible to obfuscate the person.

Not only that, but it records them doing what inspired them the most - acting. A film is the plate on which a butterfly is preserved.

                Every feature film in Hollywood is a documentary about Hollywood.
                                                                         Hartmut Bitomsky

A similar thought. In this case, Bitomsky proposes that the nature of the film - its subject, its style, its actors, its length - provide an insight into the concerns and needs of the Hollywood machine.  That is the theory, at least.

However, all the film can tell you with complete accuracy is that it was made in Hollywood. It cannot say if it was part of a trend, or a radical departure. It cannot say if it succeeded or failed.

                Every film is a documentary of its own making
                                                                          Jacques Rivette

Following on from Bitomsky and Godard, Rivette's pensee folds the two ideas together. What is on the screen cannot be argued with - it exists. And yet, Rivette goes further than Godard to imply the world beyond the frame through the certainty of what is in it.

However, all of these thoughts are incomplete. They have something of the aphorism about them. The statements are cheeky because they are aware that the films cannot document things in the way they describe.  They want to provoke thought. Accepting that documentaries can never be an immaculate realm of fact, individual films are still a too imperfect document of Actors, Hollywood and their own creation.

One must move on to where fiction film may lie side by side with Documentary and closer towards what I think may qualify (I too am being a little mischievous) fiction as documentary.

It is often heard that even the most fantastical fictions give evidence of the culture that produced it. They are a window into the politics of the time, a vane to the prevailing winds. Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders are two of the foremost directors who espouse this view but they speak for a consensus. It's hard to avoid reading into a film what one read in the newspapers the morning of the screening.

But, despite there being much to recommend it, this perspective is too simplistic. There are films that seek to be allegorical of or to grow organically from the world around them and those that cannot help but be. Yet there are many artistic demands on a fiction film that pull the focus away from the 'real' and blur it. Fiction films are extrapolations or simplifications of situations that are far better represented in traditional documentary with its notions of full responsibility to the truth.

In my mind, the similarities between fiction film and documentary film lie elsewhere and I will try and elaborate them here.

When Directors and Screenwriters discuss their works, they, more often than not, acknowledge that there is a world beyond the frame, that the character's world is part of a wider fictional world. We don't see certain planets and star systems in Star Wars but they exist. We also assume that there is much in that galaxy that we are not told about but lives on the edges of our minds and of the minds of the film-makers.

One could say that this world beyond the world is ill-defined, a mere backdrop, an afterthought, a creation that lives and breathes only to serve what the film is fundamentally 'about'. One could also point out that this microcosm of the wider world, the microcosm we concentrate on, with its characters and stories, exists first and the rest later comes later. Even so the outside is there.

Therefore, it stands to reason that one edits not by meticulously clipping away threads of what we already see but that one edits like a sculptor. You begin with a vast hulk of stone that represents the entire fictional world and you hew down to the essentials. What is on screen, then, is of what isn't rather than what is off-screen being a ghostly echo of what is on screen. A subtle change in emphasis may reveal fiction to be documentary.

If one is prepared to take these (not so) logical steps, every fiction film is a documentary of a fictional world.

Is what we see in A.I. not faithfully representative of the future world it takes place in? Perhaps I am clutching at straws, distorting and over-reaching. Perhaps I am putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps I am being mischievous for the sake of it. But it is a debate worth having. Only by stating the ridiculous can one properly think anew.

                                              *              *              *

Why is it that we watch fiction and documentary so differently. Is there a switch that we push when we know it's 'real' and when we know it's 'fantasy'? The narratives could be the same, the emotions created the same but we react differently to each. It's a mind-set.

Sure, in documentary the people, however artistically or manipulatively they are depicted, are real. We want to learn from a documentary and its immediacy invites us to learn about ourselves. This is less important in fiction film. Entertainment and stimulation come first partly because we want and expect them too. Documentary doesn't need to entertain or stimulate but inform with a modicum of flair. It's not the quality of the film-making so much as the quality and nutritional value of the unmediated story. We rightly hold them to different standards when it comes to 'agendas'.

Nevertheless if we go into both experiences with an open mind we will see that they are closer than we think.

Friday 23 July 2010

A.I. : Love, Self-Love and Self-Hate

The floodwaters of man-made cataclysm raging as A.I. begins speak of creation, whether the primeval soup or the waters of Genesis over which "God's spirit hovered", as much as they do destruction. A.I. is framed as an origin story for the Supermechas and is introduced by the one who leads them.

The icecaps have melted and humanity is struggling on dwindling resources. Pregnancies are licensed. Professor Hobby of Cybertronics therefore proposes that he and his team design, build and sell child robots, robots that can "genuinely love" and that "[do] not consume resources beyond those of their first manufacture". Accepting that love can indeed be synthesised and that there is such a thing as an energy free lunch, the benefits for a threatened populace are evident. The inference is this: Real, 'organic' children, take. Robot children only give.

At this point it is worthwhile to address the nature of Monica's decision to accept David as a substitute for her comatose son Martin. The decision is not only born out of a desire to love something but desires to be loved and to not grieve. In Greek the word 'Monica' means solitary. There is a loneliness and emptiness that needs to be filled, much as the 'formless void' confronting God at the beginning of time.

Why do we create life? To fend off the abyss? To love or to be loved? Do we, truthfully, know? Although it is a fair assumption that love can and does exist in an unrequited and unreciprocated state, I believe A.I. posits a world where the pain of loss and the fear of nothingness have proven corrupting. Monica wants a mirror for her love. She is not selfless. As an example, take the baptismal act of imprinting*. It is a prayer, bathed in sacred light, that ends with an echo:

                                     Monica, David, Monica

It's logical that, once David can no longer act as an effective mirror, he will cease to fully serve his purpose. That is not to say that Monica is heartless, but that her inner tumult and David's relative passivity and disposability enables her more egoistic side to hold greater sway. It enables her to self-love or, to put it more kindly, self-preserve. These creations bring out such an approach. She simply cannot love David as she loves Martin.

It is easy to see why. As much as the audience is reminded that David is "one of a kind" (a splendidly ambiguous phrase), Martin's uniqueness cannot be replicated. There is no escaping David's oddness. It is an oddness that Spielberg repeatedly points up and not merely from Monica's perspective - shot through an halatious light fitting, split by a ridged door, turned into a four-eyed fuzzball, his neck elongated in silhouette.

Of paramount importance to the characters of A.I. is what someone or something can do for them. If you are not giving, then you are not:

                                     I love you. Don't kill me

                                     Don't forget. You killed me first.

They have been turned into consumers. Knowledge is sold at 3 Newbucks a question. Sex is openly on offer at Rouge City. Now love is a product too. We are consumers of what Professor Hobby describes as "the key" to refilling the arid channels of the subconscious. Love creates compassion, fear, anger, jealousy. It is of the soul, and Monica can buy it. It is interesting, though David cannot consume, that when he does greedily stuff himself with spinach his face crumples and sags. We are left in no doubt: consumption deforms.

Humans have grown uglier. It could be the impact of what has befallen them.  Maybe they feel the guilt of perpetrators. Possibly it is as simple as the hunger to survive. "The world is more full of weeping than you can understand", says Carlo Collodi in Pinocchio, quoted here. The sight of water gushing from the eyes of lions into the rising ocean suggests a world drowning in tears. The lion weeps, the waters rise, the lion weeps and suffering intensifies. David, hopeless, attempts to take his own life, and falls as a tear reflected upon Joe's face.

 Flooded by Tears

What is valuable is protected from being washed away. frozen and preserved in cryosleep: Martin for Monica, David for his 'offspring' Supermecha.

The humans project their pain on robotic constructs that are built in their image. As Sheila's face splits open, an odious sight in and of itself, a tear drops softly from her lifelike 'human' eye onto her metallic endoskeleton. If love is a uniquely human trait that flourishes into pain then it is seen, paradoxically, as a vector for our virus.

Pain and fear, and a tumorous sense of self make themselves known through exploitation and violation. Oral penetration recurs: Professor Hobby inserting his  finger into Sheila's mouth; the amphibicopter soaring through gaudy red neon lips; bridges that thrust deep into the throats of agape tunnels.

                                                    Oral violation

One feels that they mistreat Robots because they dislike and mistreat themselves. The flesh fair is not a demolition of artificiality but a genocide as mass suicide once removed. Self-preservation may lead to self-hate when the mechanics of raw survival and the battle for family are laid bare as being instinctive and automatic. We hate the thought of being robotic, soulless, cheap.

We cannot afford to these Mecha the same liberties we afford to our own. Monica abandons David when, given the same circumstances, she would never have abandoned Martin. David disconcerts her. Despite his naive sweetness he bothers us. He is the shell of a human, a carnival mirror that reflects that which is rotten inside. We see and imagine the worst in them. They look too much like us.

How do the makers of these robots perceive us humans? Gigolo Joe, the nanny, David, they are all dry and flimsy pastiches of their human analogues. Yes, we built them in our image. Maybe we fear them because they do not have what we have: Sin. Sheila has no shame and will willingly disrobe for a roomful of scientists. They lack suffering too and we must, with ironic futility, punish them for it.

A chinese whisper evolution of robot generations links humans to supermecha, beings that look, uncannily, like the aliens we have long imagined. We are thus detached from ourselves, aliens in our own midst.

                                    *               *               *

Love is a form of worship as illusory as faith. It demands a vulnerability. It cannot be fully understood as it may have more to do with the lover than who is perceived to be loved. It may only be a call echoing off the walls of one's own mind. When David encounters the blue fairy beneath the sea his face melds into hers. One's own dreams. "We wish for things that don't exist", says Gigolo Joe.

                                         Blue Fairy as projection of David's self

This love, or something like it, can be flawed (grasping and thirsty or devotedly meek) but it inspires Monica to accept David and David to recreate Monica. It is a powerful force that transcends time and space. The reversal of the relationship between David and Monica invites thoughts of Monica and other adults as being childlike, exactly like David, feeding off of each other. There is no mature figure that can offer emotional stability.

We can throw away the snake's nest of fibre-optic cable but love is not biodegradable.

Monica, Blue Fairy, Mary, they are all visions, objects of an impure and uncertain affection, who may love in return and may not. They are aspects and visages of the same idealised devoted mother. A peaceful blue surrounds these figures whilst the red of Rouge City stands in vivid contrast, the painted faces and lurid stockings is of lust and danger.

We are dreamers who want this fantasy to be flat fact and for us to be more than just bits and pieces. We want ourselves to be the stuff of dreams (it is this very yearning that turns selflessness into selfishness).

In the end isn't it fitting that we search for truth with Dr.Know who resides in a miniature cinema.

*When she has completed the ritual, David mouth opens and he gasps. Genesis says God "Breathed into" Adams "nostrils the breath of life". A beautiful moment that shows love, however imperfect it is throughout the film, as the essence of life.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Six images recalling the Passion and Resurrection

A few days ago MovieMan, at The Dancing Image, invited people to pick a few images around a theme of their choice.

I have enjoyed posting similar projects before, tone poems if you like, and I am delighted to contribute again.

I didn't want these snapshots to be of throwaway religious allusions but witnesses to characters who are undergoing a real passion of their own.

I hope you will put up your own themes and ideas that bring together diverse films in a celebration of Cinema.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Golden Age Gals

...or Why the Stars shone brighter in the Forties

Claire Trevor

Mae, Rita, Lana, Barbara, Marlene, Vivien, Gloria, Veronica, Myrna...

In my mind Hollywood Actresses, in the main, no longer have the power to hold us in their thrall as they used to, no longer inspire awe and intimacy in equal measure, no longer turn our eyes heaven-bound, demanding to be called stars.

This piece is based, unapologetically, on this generalisation, this assumption, this challenge: Why is it so rare in modern Cinema for a performer to wear an aura as comfortably as they do their character? I am not sure, but I am going to offer a couple of thoughts as to why this might be...


Below I have plotted a graph using data collated at Cinemetrics. It shows the number of Close-up shots in a film against the date the films in question were released (click to enlarge).

As you can see, there is a clear trend. The later the film, the more Close-Ups. In terms of answering my question, the reasons for this are unimportant. It's the effect that matters. 

The natural assumption would be that closeness would add to the intimacy an audience feels with its character and that a ten-foot high face would be (literally) larger than life and represent an overwhelming imposition of the actress's personality. 

I don't believe this to be the case. Fewer Close Ups mean more Medium and Long Shots. With distance, albeit with the use of a few judicious Close Ups, comes mystique. At a distance you may not see the eyes glowing or the lips trembling but, it goes without saying, you see more. At a distance, movement becomes more important - the sway of the hips, the curve of a wrist. Relationships and moods are subtly expressed in the commanding of or retreat from the space in which the scene takes place. At a distance we see the deportment of these women, the way they hold themselves. We get the whole picture, a person in the round.

And when we do see her in Close Up it is often pointed and startling, a portrait in melodrama. In Modern film Close Ups are forensic - we study the emotion in minute detail. Many decades ago, we could do this without sticking a lens in their faces, but rather by scenting the sweet perfume of a hand pulled back, a recoil from horror, a poignant rejection.

Black and White

Black and White are the colours of a different world. A different world of a past caught in old photos, a past seemingly less real than the technicolour now. They are the colours of fiction. They are the colours of mystery and of preservation. 

However, this cannot explain the hollow presence of Cate Blanchett in The Good German or of any number of Actresses in stagnant modern Black and White films. These works labour under the impression that the magic of old lay in the surface, as if the great Film Noir directors had a choice over their palette.

Black and White is a factor but only in conjunction with other, perhaps more pertinent, factors.


Clothes maketh the woman.

There can be no doubt that female characters of the films of the 1940s were beautifully dressed. This begs the question: Are modern characters normalised? Are we making the most of our actresses? Were the characters of the 1940s glamorised? Perhaps. I think the Cinema of the Golden Age meant not so much to glamorise as to emphasise - emphasise a role, a trait, an emotion. To fight a little harder and to love a little fiercer.

Modern films set in the Art Deco period such as The Black Dahlia understand style as a cloak that can be worn and discarded. A surface. They think a period can be evoked through the most superficial of means.

Twenty-first Century movie-makers fail to realise that, in the films of the Golden Age, the characters were as designed as what they wore. They were crafted and loved.

The Studio System

From the 1930s/40s actors were contracted to a particular studio. They were prize assets. The nature of this arrangement logically entailed the cultivation of a certain brand, a personality, a performance carried over from film to film.

I think it's fair to say that Actresses found themselves freer to be themselves and indeed encouraged to act with the force of their own individuality.

Now there is a compulsion, particularly in the pursuit of awards, to show one's versatility, to bury oneself in a part. Before, the Director would bend to their will (the will of the star's image) and any acting 'inadequacies' could be ironed out by the power of a dignified, natural charisma


I am dismayed by the absence of intelligence, of poetry and, most of all, wit in recent Cinema. It is preoccupied with the visual and the political but not with the most verdant, fecund landscape of all - language.

One no longer reveals character through a phrase turned as elegantly as a cabriole leg. One no longer lets the character free, or lets the actress revel in a game of verbal oneupmanship.

Concepts of Beauty and Femininity

The women of Golden Age cinema, even when they were being grabbed, shaken or slapped, were strong. Their presence was strong. Supremacy was less important. Self-control and self-knowledge.

Female characters weren't loaded with the baggage of the politics of employment, motherhood, relationships. It was all there, beneath the surface, but what counted for something was the woman at hand, not what she stood for.

Beauty was in the temperament. In 21st Century Cinematic parlance pretty and sexy are purely visual terms. In the Golden Age they were about spirit, where the tangible slips into the intangible - the way they spoke, the way they walked, what they made of themselves. In the eyes of Directors today, people are commodities, tropes, archetypes. Characters are tokens to be pushed into a slot machine. The heart and soul tumbles out with the cash.

In the Forties there was an inner class, a humanity, to the most classless of creatures. In the phrase Femme Fatale people may believe the accent is on Fatale. It isn't. It's on Femme.

Barbara Stanwyck

A Distorted 21st Century Perspective?

It can be argued that a fair comparison cannot be made by someone of my age, someone who hasn't lived through both periods. While it is possible that I am unwitting prey to the way in which Golden Age Cinema has become inextricably synonymous with star power, I think there is more to it than a second-hand Pavlovian response.

You see, new films can replicate the look, the colour, the music, maybe even the mood. They cannot, even with the utmost care, replicate the star quality of those actresses. I am not wearing rose-tinted glasses.

It was a combination of things that made the stars shine brighter. It could simply have been that the culture and the society of that time created these personalities, personalities that the studios could turn into icons, icons that the Directors and the Ad Men could sculpt into legends.

I look about me now and I see only a couple of stars, and they 'imported' into Hollywood. They have the talent and the verve, the charisma and the style. They are the only ones who may yet be remembered in 7o years time by their first names:

Marion, Penelope...