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Multiple Perspectives: Ten Documentarians Talk About Their Craft

By Tom Powers

The Art of the Documentary
By Megan Cunningham
Berkeley : New Riders
$44.99, paper, 351 pps.
ISBN 0321316231

Megan Cunningham's The Art of the Documentary is an engaging new collection of conversations with ten contemporary documentary filmmakers. Cunningham kick-starts her book by interviewing Ken Burns, a "brand name" filmmaker whose public-television stature too easily overshadows the complexity of his work and his dedication to the documentary form. Cunningham is a good interviewer; she asks good follow-up questions and, at her best, encourages filmmakers to talk about their working method in concrete detail.

Burns, for instance, describes the way he sets up "an easel and two umbrella lights" in the paper print collection at the National Archives or the Library of Congress, takes multiple exposures of each old photograph, and "listens" to the photographs: "Is that horse whinnying? Is that cannon firing? Are those trees rustling? Whatever it is, you trust it to come alive." In films like The Civil War, Burns has brought still images to life, not only though sound effects but also through the emotional use of music. Surprisingly, he reveals to Cunningham that his films are pre-scored, then cut to the rhythm of the music, an approach he prefers, he says, "rather than lock the picture, hand it over to somebody who's providing us not with jewels of tapestry, but wall-to-wall carpeting..."

Burns is arguably one of the twin pillars of documentary filmmaking in the US today. The other is HBO executive Sheila Nevins, who has pushed cable television into producing documentaries that can compete with fictional dramas. In a sidebar, Nevins tells Cunningham that her "Aha!" moment came when she watched An American Family on PBS and thought to herself, "Why don't I pick violent families and violent people and crime and prisons and whorehouses?" It's one testament to Nevins' success that the résumés in this book (though not the interviews themselves) are lightly sprinkled with HBO titles like G-String Divas and Pornucopia: Going Down in the Valley; but Nevins also organized the creative forces that made the Emmy-winning In Memoriam: New York City, 9/11/01 and has mentored dozens of documentary filmmakers. While her presence is not foregrounded in Cunningham's book, Nevins' spirit seems to hover over it, as if the art of contemporary documentary can be proscribed by Burns' meticulous epics on the one hand and Nevins' flashy narratives on the other.

Cunningham does pay tribute to alternative styles of documentary filmmaking--and to the history of documentary art--by including such landmark figures as Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter), Errol Morris (The Fog of War) and DA Pennebaker with his partner, Chris Hegedus (The War Room). She even manages to create a conversation across the interviews, inviting different subjects to join debates over the merits of cinema vérité or the impact of rapid-paced, MTV-style editing. On the former topic, Burns describes Werner Herzog taking a verbal swipe at Pennebaker at the Telluride Film Festival, telling him, "Cinema vérité is the cinema of accountants." Morris touts his own film, The Thin Blue Line, as being "a reminder that the claims of cinema vérité are spurious." And editor Geof Bartz likens the "rules" of cinema vérité--"There should be no narration, no music, no interviews, no talking heads, no voiceover from the characters in the film"--to the artificial restrictions imposed on the adherents of Dogma 95, the playful DV aesthetic movement launched by Danish filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg.

In response, Maysles and Pennebaker make the opponents of cinema vérité sound like they are flailing at a straw man. In describing the stylistic approach they helped originate, they champion cinema vérité's "immediacy," rather than its direct pipeline to the truth, and they extol the impact on the audience of seeing and hearing something as it happens, as compared to receiving it through the filter of a narrator. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler even sweeps aside the notion that cinema vérité filmmakers adhere to some prime directive of nonintervention. In a sidebar, Wexler relates how, during the making of Salesman, he encouraged co-director David Maysles to phone the wife of one of the Bible salesmen profiled in the film, "and tell her that we're here in Las Vegas with her husband in room so-and-so and that he's having a good time. Just euphemistically." The filmmakers then recorded the salesman as he squirmed during the wife's subsequent phone call.

If Cunningham's book ultimately comes up short, it might be because of the author's parochialism--her reluctance to acknowledge that documentary films are produced west of the Hudson River. Consequently, there is too much overlap in her choice of interview subjects. Cinematographer Buddy Squires (Jazz, Baseball) has a lengthy and varied filmography, but much of it was built in collaboration with Burns, and his thoughts could have been included as a sidebar in the book's opening chapter. Editor Paula Heredia (Unzipped) has worked with two of the book's other subjects, Bartz and Morris. Bartz (Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth) co-edited one of the films shot by cinematographer Kirsten Johnson (Barbara Kopple's The Hamptons; Kopple, in turn, wrote the book's forward), and he now works with Sheila Nevins at HBO. Bartz also has collaborated on several projects with editor Larry Silk (Pumping Iron), the interview subject to whom Cunningham dedicates her book. Lauren Lazin made a powerful documentary, Tupac: Resurrection, but her inclusion in the book seems to derive primarily from her role as an executive at New York-based MTV.

The world of documentary filmmaking may be small, but it's not this claustrophobic, and the artistic vision of documentary filmmakers is not as narrow as several of Cunningham's subjects suggest. In particular, the editors interviewed in the book, with their repeated emphasis on "cutting out all the boring stuff," building a "classically dramatic" structure and "making the film entertaining and watchable" (Cunningham's paraphrase), seem to be sidestepping the wider range of possibilities implied by the book's title.

The Art of the Documentary, with its big pull-quotes, plentiful white space, color-coded sections and copious illustrations, appears to have been designed as a supplemental college textbook. Cunningham could have made the book stronger by grouping her three editor interviews into a single roundtable discussion, thereby opening up room to include some alternative visions of documentary art. It would be great, for instance, to hear Cunningham, with her skills as an interviewer, tackle Herzog or Les Blank or, venturing overseas, Kim Longinotto or Heddy Honigmann.

Perhaps Cunningham was too attached to the overall structure of her book: four directors, three cinematographers, three editors. If so, she should have learned from the examples she cites in her book. As Morris discovered in making The Thin Blue Line and the Maysles Brothers found in filming Grey Gardens, sometimes you have to let go of your preconceptions and just follow your material where it leads you.


Tom Powers teaches Cinema Studies at Illinois State University.