The first films were documentaries. Louis and Auguste Lumiere, the French brothers credited with the invention of the cinema, called their short films “actualités.” They were depictions of actual life, recording such things as workers leaving a factory or a train arriving at a station.
However, even in these early films, some of the human figures acknowledge the camera, and are sometimes characters in rudimentary narratives – as in The Waterer Gets Watered (1895). I also noted, in class, the subjective nature of the camera. Even if you point your camera at something and turn it on, you’re only getting one possible vantage point, and leaving out a lot of information. Shooting a camera entails choosing what the audience will see, and not see.
So, from the very beginning of film history, the line dividing the objective from the subjective, the factual from the fictional, the real from the artificial, has been blurred. This is still true, perhaps even more so, in film today, as I explain below.
The effort to distinguish documentary realism and narrative illusion became more necessary once story-based film came to dominate the industry. Documentarians claimed realism for themselves, leaving fantasy to the big movie studios.
We see this in the ethnographic films of Robert Flaherty, in the 1920s. However, critics now question Flaherty’s realism. Your textbook authors write:
Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), about the Inuit people in Canada, and Man of Aran (1937), about the Aran Islanders off the west coast of Ireland, are voice-of-authority documentaries organized by intertitles that explain the activities depicted. In his zeal to valorize what he considered the blissfully primitive cultures of the Inuit and the Aran islanders, however, Flaherty misrepresented the cultures he intended to document (290).
The example they give in the textbook is when Nanook (or Allakarillak, his real name), “feigns awe at the sight of the gramophone,” something which Nanook had actually seen before (290). Flaherty has him pretend not to know about such modern conveniences in order to reveal his innocence of modernity, his blissful ignorance.
I gave a couple other examples in class. Flaherty had Nanook construct only half an igloo – a set made of ice – so that he would have the light to shoot inside the igloo. The way the film is shot, the half-igloo appears to be whole. Flaherty also staged Nanook’s capture of a seal – what Nanook was really yanking on was a rope that was attached to two or three members of the film crew, not a seal.
When all this came to light, exposed in films like Nanook Revisited, some critics concluded that it was difficult if not impossible, even in documentaries, to separate what is real and true from what is imaginary and false. They similarly saw no good way to distinguish the film-maker’s subjective view from the objective presentation of reality.
Towards Postmodern Documentary
One prominent response to this situation was to embrace fictionality and subjectivity in the documentary. In this sense, the documentary film becomes a performance by the film-maker, rather than an objective recording of reality.
Errol Morris was one of the first film documentarians to do this. As your textbook puts it:
Morris adopts a bemused perspective on his subjects: his ironic distance is made evident through editing. He juxtaposes images of one subject with interviews with another, so it seems as if the people he interviews are making comments about the lives and work of other people. . . . By pairing a subject’s statements with seemingly unrelated images, Morris adds dimension to the interviews, introducing ideas that none of his subjects has voiced. Morris gets at one truth by allowing the interviewees to tell their own stories yet his editing encourages the audience to make unusual connections. (284).
Michael Moore, the director of Fahrenheit 9/11 (which won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2004) is a film documentarian that you’re likely more familiar with. Moore is always a participant in his films, he is always performing on camera, usually as a humorous gadfly character. Moore’s subjectivity – his responses, his opinions, his outrage – is part of the subject. Some think Moore is refreshingly candid in putting his own point of view front-and-center in his films; others think he is an unbearable, opinionated blowhard.
Morris and Moore were early practitioners of postmodern documentary, a form of documentary that has become popular – largely because of film-makers like Morris and Moore.
Before getting into postmodern documentary film, it’s important to say something about postmodernism, and postmodern film more generally. For our definition of postmodernism, we go to Margaret Wertheim, of the Faith and Reason program on PBS.
A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.
Postmodernism is “post” because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody – a characteristic of the so-called “modern” mind. The paradox of the postmodern position is that, in placing all principles under the scrutiny of its skepticism, it must realize that even its own principles are not beyond questioning. As the philosopher Richard Tarnas states, postmodernism “cannot on its own principles ultimately justify itself any more than can the various metaphysical overviews against which the postmodern mind has defined itself.”
This can be broken down further. Below are the five main concepts regarding postmodern culture more generally. Postmodernism
- calls into question “grand” theories that purport to explain everything for everyone forever (Enlightenment, liberalism, Marxism, Freudianism, etc.)
- claims there is no universal/objective truth; everything is subjective and relative
- holds that the self is socially constructed (undercutting individualism, agency, and freedom)
- is suspicious of media, particularly the power of visual media to recreate, represent, and replace the real (Baudrillard’s “simulacrum“)
- blurs the border between reality and representation
In terms of aesthetics, postmodern works of art are characterized by
- non-linear, fractured narrative
- self-referentiality/self-reflexivity (irony)
- pastiche/bricolage/intertextuality/fragmentation/genre bending
- the leveling of high/low culture
- blurring the border between fact and fiction
It should be evident that fiction films would have less problems with postmodernism, as defined above, than documentary films. Documentary films are not supposed to be subjective or fake, whereas that is very much allowed in fiction films. In its cultural skepticism, postmodernism relentlessly attacks the essence of documentary realism.
Postmodernism and Documentary Realism
Representing the postmodern perspective, Krystin Arneson writes of documentaries:
Like photography, documentaries are a representational medium: They record and occasionally reconstruct the everyday reality viewers typically cannot experience themselves. Because photography is an indexical sign signifying truth, audiences understand the documentary, a moving photograph, to signify truth also. However, they are able to make the distinction between the everyday reality presented by documentaries and the fictive reality of cinematic films.
But the documentary’s version of reality is not as innocent as it presents itself to be. Because of the perceived indexical truth-value of the film, the audience is drawn into an everyday reality that seemingly doesn’t need questioning. There is a sense of co-presence between creator and viewer that gives the viewer the sensation of being both here, now, looking at the image and there, then, looking at what the image represents or evokes.
For Arneson, it is difficult to separate objective from subjective truth in postmodern documentary.
As a human document dealing with not only the hard facts but also the social and personal aspects of the theme, the documentary is a representational, recorded version of the everyday created through [the directors] personal interpretations of what he or she chooses to place in front of the camera lens. The informational value is mediated through the perspective of the person making it, and it is presented as a mixture of emotion and information (Stuart Hall, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices [Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1997], 83)
This mediation, or personal interpretation of the topic, is influenced by any number of factors: preconceived attitudes, biases, and what story they hope to get out of the filming. Frederick Wiseman, a documentary maker himself, writes of the impossibility of objectivity in representation: Any documentary made in no matter what style, is arbitrary, biased, prejudiced, compressed and subjective. Like any of its sisterly or brotherly fictional forms, it is born in choice – choice of subject matter, place, people, camera angles, duration of shooting, sequences to be shot or omitted, transitional material and cutaways (Toby Miller, Technologies of Truth: Cultural Citizenship and the Popular Media, ed. Michael Renov, Faye Ginsburg, and Jane Gaines [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998], 225). No matter how objectively a filmmaker approaches a topic, they will always be filtering the topic through their personal lens - not just the camera’s.
Subjectivity, and therefore a departure from the real, is thus introduced in the documentary as soon as the filmmaker makes a decision on how the everyday should be represented. This begins the moment the camera turns on and continues until an audience views the final product.
Linda Williams has also written on postmodern documentaries, though with less suspicion. In an analysis of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (about someone’s wrongful conviction for murder) and Claude Lanzmann’s monumental Shoah (about the Holocaust), Williams focuses on the
low-budget postmodern documentary borrowing many features of the fiction film. My goal . . . is to get beyond the much remarked self-reflexivity and flamboyant auteurism of these documentaries, which might seem, Rashomon-like, to abandon the pursuit of truth, to what seems to me their remarkable engagement with a newer, more contingent, relative, postmodern truth—a truth which, far from being abandoned, still operates powerfully as the receding horizon of the documentary tradition. (312)
The lesson that I would like to draw from these two exemplary postmodern documentaries is thus not at all that postmodern representation inevitably succumbs to a depthlessness of the simulacrum, or that it gives up on truth to wallow in the undecidabilities of representation. The lesson, rather, is that there can be historical depth to the notion of truth – not the depth of unearthing a coherent and unitary past, but the depth of the past’s reverberation with the present. If the authoritative means to the truth of the past does not exist, if photographs and moving images are not mirrors with memories, if they are more, as Baudrillard has suggested, like a hall of mirrors, then our best response to this crisis of representation might be to do what Lanzmann and Morris do: to deploy the many facets of these mirrors to reveal the seduction of lies. (325).
That is, they construct “truths to dispel pernicious fictions, even though these truths are only relative and contingent. While never absolute and never fixed, this under-construction, fragmented horizon of truth is one important means of combating the pernicious scapegoating fictions that can put the wrong man on death row and enable the extermination of a whole people. (325).
Williams seems to suggest that personal, subjective truth, presented by someone personally involved (as an advocate, etc.), is better than no truth at all. Pure moral relativism, the absolute denial of objective truth, leads to paralysis, whereas engagement in the issue gets us a little closer to the truth.
Chicago 10 as Postmodern Documentary
Chicago 10 is generally recognized by critics and reviewers as a postmodern documentary (as defined above). Jim Emerson writes that the film
bursts with Yippie-ish irreverence and political fervor. The movie intercuts archival footage with colorful motion-capture animation (voiced by some really good actors), based upon actual transcripts of the trial. These play, quite intentionally, like countercultural Looney Tunes, with Hoffman the Younger as the Tasmanian Devil and Hoffman the Elder as Elmer Fudd. . . .
The irreverent attitude of Chicago 10 is in synch with the times it portrays. Giddy, funny and sometimes nightmarishly absurd, it’s an apple-cart-upsetting performance piece shot through with blasting music from Eminem, the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine [and let’s not forget “War Pig,” performed by Black Sabbath, during a key juncture of the film]. As an activist documentary with a contemporary agenda, it doesn’t pretend to be “objective” (whatever that means), but to find inspiration in the passion and irreverence of its heroes.
Chicago 10 is “irreverent” and “doesn’t pretend to be ‘objective’.” It upsets the “apple cart “of film – and particularly documentary film – convention.
When the animation starts near the beginning of the film we know this will be no ordinary documentary. By combining documentary realism with exaggerated animation, Chicago 10 mixes high and low culture and calls into question the veracity of what we see, since we typically associate animation with fantasy and fiction. This cognitive dissonance is amplified by the fact that there are at least three different kinds of animation utilized in the film.
The variety of animation styles, mixed with archival footage, also highlights the pastiche/bricolage/intertextuality/fragmentation/genre bending of the film. It is edited together in a seemingly sloppy, slap-dash manner, which is not poor work but rather the film-maker’s attempt to use the deconstruction of film form as a way to challenge the authorized version of reality, which passes itself off as universal, objective truth.
Chicago 10 is fragmented in its form. It is also fragmented in its narrative. You are no stranger to fractured narrative. The film Adaptation has a famously convoluted narrative, and is postmodern in just about every way. But, again, fiction films are allowed to play around with narrative (even in Hollywood films), whereas documentaries are meant to reflect the real, without bias or a subjective viewpoint. The best way to interrogate this is to present a historical narrative that jumps around in time, and refuses to privilege one account over others. This is what Morgen does in Chicago 10.
Relatedly, Chicago 10 is self-referential. Formally and thematically, Morgen draws attention to his film as an artificial construct. He makes visual “jokes,” he “winks at the audience.” The best example of this is early on in the courtroom when Abbie Hoffman blows a kiss towards a juror and the “camera” follows the kiss to its destination, on the juror’s cheek (which the judge according to the transcript, tells the jury to disregard). The mimicry of live-action cinematography in fiction films is common in animated films, but here, in a documentary, it is meant as an ironic commentary on film-making.
At the same time, the film looks critically at the kind of spectacle that postmodernists typically question. In the film, it is Abbie Hoffman who examines the topic, in the form of political theater. Hoffman argues that politics is nothing more than “theater and magic.” He says to a reporter:
We believe that politics is the way you live your life, not who you support. It’s not in terms of rallies or speeches or political programs. It is in terms of images and in terms of transforming people’s lives.
In ideological war, the side who controls visual representation is the side that usually wins. Hoffman and his Yippie cohorts understood this very well, which is why they managed so successfully to dramatize the protests at the Democratic convention, and the trial itself, on their own very colorful terms. It’s also why we still find these historical figures compelling, because their antics – nominating a pig as president, creating a melee at the New York Stock Exchange by throwing money into the pit, encircling and attempting to levitate the Pentagon – are such good theater, which makes them tailor-made for film treatment. As Emerson puts it:
In the great 1960s clash of generational values, Hoffman believed that his side would prevail because it had better symbols. As he framed it, the comedic/dramatic faceoff was between peace, love and freedom on one hand, and war, repression and oppression on the other. When you look at it in those terms, it’s hard to argue with him.
In the end, Morgen’s documentary follows the template of the postmodern advocacy documentary described by Williams. Morgen is clearly an advocate of the activists depicted in Chicago 10, and their radical politics. Though he uses postmodern techniques, it seems very likely that Morgen did not intend to cast suspicion on the actions or even the ideology, of the anti-war counterculture.
Unlike more postmodern films, and many postmodern documentaries, Chicago 10 doesn’t just question and undercut the idea of objective truth, asserting instead an ironic – but untrustworthy – subjectivity. Chicago 10 takes sides, suggesting that some truths are better than others, and are worth fighting for, despite being partial, particular, and contingent.
University of Maryland
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Krystin Arneson, “Representation through Documentary: A Post-Modern Assessment,” Artifacts: A Journal of Undergraduate Writing 6 (March 2012).
Jim Emerson, “Review of Chicago 10,” rogerebert.com (February 28, 2008).
Margaret Wertheim. “Postmodernism.” Faith and Reason. PBS. December 11, 2013.
Linda Williams, “Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History, and the New Documentary,” eds. Brian Henderson and Ann Martin, Film Quarterly: Forty Years – A Selection (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999). http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft5h4nb36j/