Style and Imagination

Four men see a beautiful woman on a hill and instantly fall in love. All want to court and marry her. One writes her a letter, plods up the hill, and lays it at her feet. The second rushes toward her and garlands her with flowers. The third stands on his head, then dances for her. And the fourth hires a plane that trails the message "I'll love you forever!" Each is exhibiting his own particular style in accomplishing his objective. The first is thorough and plodding, the second is dynamic, the third tries comic relief, and the fourth adds a little imagination to the whole business.

Style is as important in documentary as in love, and it may be straightforward, comic, experimental, elaborate, fantastic—whatever you want. In brief, think of where you want to go and what you want to do, and then find the most appropriate style to reach the objective. But watch out for baffling boredom, the dull discourse, the esoteric essay, and long-winded piffle. For many people, documentaries are synonymous with everything that is tedious. What hurts is the amount of truth in that comment. Today, the form seems to have settled into familiar patterns, with too many documentaries that are excruciatingly dry. This is unfortunate, because there is no need at all for documentaries to be like that.

Many filmmakers seem to think there is a standard pattern for making documentaries. That's nonsense. What should dominate your thinking about style (and many other things) is the knowledge that there is no prescribed, hallowed way of making documentaries. Grierson's group understood that in the 1930s, when their experiments in editing and sound revolutionized documentary. And Drew, Leacock, Wiseman, Rouch, and others understood it thirty years later, when they turned the documentary movement on its head with their ideas about cinema verite. More recently, Ellen Bruno's groundbreaking film Satya: A Prayer for the Enemy showed how a poetic and lyrical visual style could be applied to the hardest of subjects—the political film. On another level, Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied, about the problems of being both black and gay, illustrates how both theatrical elements and standard documentary techniques can fuse together to make a powerful plea for racial and sexual tolerance.

So where do you begin? For starters, give your style a bit of freedom. Remember, the only boundaries are those of your imagination. For inspiration, simply look at Bert Haanstra's classic short Glass. In an eight-minute love poem on the making of glass, he uses humor, jazz, sly jokes, invented sound, industrial techniques, studies on hands in movement, and a variety of experimental editing possibilities.

The style used in most documentaries is straightforward, realistic, prosaic. But think for a minute. You could opt instead for fantasy, humor, farce, parody. But if these latter elements are so good, why aren't they more widely used in the realm of industrial and educational films? One answer is that too many television stations demand news-style documentaries and frown on imaginative gimmicks and humor. I think they are misguided; the limits they impose are to be regretted because imagination can invigorate even the dullest subject.

As a writer, it is useful to remember that you can choose from a tremendous number of tools. Some people argue that a documentary should consist only of sequences filmed from real life, archival material, or stills. This stricture has always struck me as nonsense. If you want to use dramatic or fantasy sequences, then go ahead. A few years ago, Carl Sagan's noted series Cosmos used every filmic trick the producers could think of. First, they designed a control cabin for a futuristic spaceship and used it as the main setting of the series. It was from this cabin that Sagan looked out onto different worlds. The series then played between the cabin, real locations, computer graphics, models, dramatic reenactments, and archival film. Purists may have quaked, but the series, done with verve and panache, became one of the most popular on American television. Above all, it showed what a documentary series could do with imagination and a decent budget.

In the past, the U.S. commercial networks, whose forte was the news documentary, unfortunately tended to restrict their documentary writers and producers to a very plain, realistic style. PBS seems to be continuing that approach. Sometimes the writers have rebelled at the constraints and have tried to break out of the confines of the network method. One such writer was Arthur Barron, who talked to me at length about problems of style and imagination in The Berkeley Rebels, which he made for "CBS Reports."

I didn't want analyses or objective reporting. I wanted to invoke the world of the students with as much dynamism and strength as I could. After a big of discussion CBS agreed to go along with this approach. The film was a mixture of things. On the one hand there was the simple, diarylike following of people. But then I tried deliberately shaping scenes to evoke a particular mood. For example, I tried a sequence which I called "Facts, Facts, Facts!" One of the criticisms of the university was that the kids were being fed information and facts but were not being taught wisdom or how to think. So "Facts" was to illustrate this point.

We had a bathtub filled with soap bubbles and suddenly out of this bathtub emerged a huge, bearded student with water dripping off him. He looks at the camera and says, "The square root of the hypotenuse is so and so," and then he sinks back into the water.

In another shot I had a guy racing down a hill on a skateboard and as he goes past the camera he screams, "The Athenian wars began in . . . " For another evocation sequence I took a dog and gave him molasses candy to eat. As he chewed it looked as if he was talking, and we put a voice under the dog with a German accent. (Alan Rosenthal, The New Documentary in Action [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971])

The small touches that Barron wanted to add were very funny, but in his own words, they "drove CBS completely up the wall." In the end, the network deleted both the "Facts" sequence and the dog sequence. Humor and imagination were elements they felt very uneasy about. Luckily, the BBC has always been open to experiments, and one of their best recent sponsorship roles was to support Tony Harrison and Peter Symes's The Blasphemers' Banquet.

This film, a damning critique of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Moslem fundamentalism, is interesting for both its concept and narration. Its gimmick is to invite you to join the poet, Harrison, at a banquet. At the table, places are set for Omar Khayyam, Voltaire, Molière, Byron, and Salman Rushdie. These are the "blasphemers," whose courage has pushed the world out of religious darkness toward the light. The story of each one's historic difficulties is told by Harrison on and off camera against a background of theatrical pieces, Paris demonstrations, auction parlors, ranting politicians, Khomeini's funeral, and fundamentalist rallies that burn Rushdie in effigy. From time to time, we return to the simple restaurant, the Omar Khayam, where the banquet is being held, and we also look at the city of Bradford today, where fundamentalism is daily becoming stronger.

The magic that binds the whole piece lies in Tony Harrison's narration, which is written in sparklingly witty verse, and which comments dryly and acidly on the abominations of religious fundamentalism of all kinds. But wait a minute! Using verse and poetry for documentary—didn't that go out with Pare Lorentz and Night Mail? Yes, the verse is strange, but its very strangeness, together with the concept of the banquet and the film's humor, creates a much stronger and effective polemic than one usually sees in most political documentaries.

This inability to see where imagination and humor might work in a documentary seems to be a problem for many television executives and sponsors. Maybe that's the reason so many documentaries lack spark. In effect, the executives are saying that serious and important subjects can be treated only in a heavy, dull way. That's sheer nonsense, whether one is talking about documentary or features.

Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove was a brilliant farce, but at the same time, it offered a devastating critique of nuclear strategy. Putting it simply, humor can enliven even the most serious documentary, perhaps saving it from drowning in its own profundity.

One of the best examples of humor enlightening a subject can be seen in the series Connections, written by James Burke for the BBC. The series was really a history of technology, and the binding theme of all the stories was the strange and unexpected ways in which change has been brought about. Burke's sense of humor was exhibited both in his offbeat, throw-away commentary and in the visual jokes he inserted in his scripts. In Distant Voices, one of the films in that series, he discusses early experiments with electricity: "A flamboyant French friar called Nollet, who gave private courses in electricity to beautiful women, decided to run a charge through multiple monks to see if the effect would produce an uplifting experience. It did!" The visuals accompanying the narration show six monks joining hands and then receiving a communal shock from an electrical jar. Thus shocked, the monks jump up and down very solemnly in slow motion; in fact, they appear to be skipping to music, and the effect is quite hilarious.

Many feature films use the device of the running gag, and it also works quite well in documentary. In 1992, I had to do a low-budget film on sports for television. The film, essentially a sports survey, was informative and full of action, but it needed something to bind the separate sequences together. As a solution, I wrote in four or five short scenes that utilized the services of a slightly plump friend of mind. In the first scene, he plays an enthusiastic football fan who is content to watch everything on television. Later, in a sequence dealing with automobile racing, we see him in a close-up in his car, battling with the wheel. When the zoom opens, we see that the car is being towed by a pickup truck. Another sequence features marathon walkers and concludes with an exhausted Dave in baggy, short pants thumbing a lift. I realize that these weren't the world's most marvelous gags, but they worked well in the context of the film. They also did something else: They told us silently that we shouldn't take sports too seriously.

Ross McElwee's 1986 film Sherman's March also uses the running gag, but in a slightly different way. The pretense of the film is that it is an investigation into Sherman's destructive march through the South during the American Civil War. In reality, it is a very personal and funny look at McElwee's search for love and sex among Southern women. Thus, though the main film follows McElwee's encounters with a variety of strange and wonderful women, the film occasionally touches base with the running gag: the idea that we are somehow interested in Sherman's march.

Imagination and humor are tremendously useful elements for helping odd sections of films, and they can do wonders when they inform the picture as a whole. When this happens, as in The Road to Wigan Pier, the basic film can be turned into a small work of art. Made for Thames Television by Frank Cvitanovich, The Road to Wigan Pier deals with labor and mining conditions in England in the 1930s; it is based on George Orwell's book of the same name. What one expected from the title, and from a knowledge of Orwell, was a serious historical documentary using Orwell's text over stock footage of miners, coal pits, crowded factories, and slums. And that almost exactly describes the first half of the film.

I say "almost" because Cvitanovich does two other things that alter the feel of the film. The first departure from the expected approach is the insertion of six or seven industrial ballads between portions of the stock footage. The songs, sung in different mining locations by an English folksinger, comment humorously on Orwell's text, turning the film into a documentary musical rather than just a historical study.

The second surprise comes close to the end of the film. We have been following a history of the 1930s and expect the film to conclude with war breaking out in Europe, marking the end of an era. This expectation is shattered when the narrator suddenly asks, "But what of your dream of socialism, Mr. Orwell?" The scene abruptly shifts to a modern but empty television studio. The folksinger then appears, seats himself at the television control board, and studies the monitors. They flicker, and various British prime ministers appear on the scenes, ranging from Baldwin and Chamberlain to Churchill and Wilson. One after another, in sequences lifted from electioneering speeches, they promise Britain prosperity and a glorious future. However, the footage is edited in devastating fashion. When one politician states, "Britain never had it so good," he is answered by a politician on another screen exclaiming, "Rubbish!" When a Labor prime minister says the workers are going from strength to strength, a Conservative prime minister answers, "Utter poppycock and nonsense." Finally, when Harold Wilson talks about Britain's New Jerusalem, an edit cut makes Edward Heath respond, "Shut up, belt up, and go home." It's a wickedly funny, satirical sequence, and we occasionally cut back to the folksinger in his cloth cap, watching the screen and grinning at all this political balderdash.

The film then abruptly takes another turn as the folksinger dashes down endless corridors of computers and revolving disks. As he pauses, computer reels spin, cards spill out of machines, and various anonymous voices proclaim the appalling state of industry and labor conditions in the 1970s, implying that little has changed since Orwell's day. The conception of this last sequence is brilliant, changing a good documentary of mild interest to the general public into a very strong comment about present-day England.

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