Altering Meaning Away From The Literal

The imaginative documentary uses the tools of editing to fashion a unique interpretation from documentary footage. That this can be done is a tribute to the power of editing and to the imagination of such filmmakers as Robert Flaherty, Humphrey Jennings, and Lindsay Anderson.

The editor has many options for creating a new interpretation of reality. The editing style of Leni Riefenstahl in Olympia (1938) is an excellent example. Sound offers many options, as does the juxtaposition of sequences and the use of different types of shots. Close-up can be used effectively, and pace can be used to create a fresh interpretation.

Sound effects and music play a role in the success of Basil Wright's Night Mail (1936). A poem that is written and read to simulate the motion of the wheels of a train creates a mythology in that film about the delivery of mail. The playful sounds of the amusement park are modulated to underscore the fun and to emphasize mystery and danger in Lindsay Anderson's O'Dreamland (1953). Narration and sound are used ironically to alter the meaning of Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon (1934), and sound is used to under mine what is being shown in I Was a 90-Pound Weakling (1964). In all of these examples, sound shifts the images to another level of meaning.

The editor can also choose to crosscut sequences or shots to elicit another meaning from the visuals. In Diary for Timothy (1945), Humphrey Jennings crosscut between a theatrical performance of Hamlet and a dispassionate canteen discussion about the mechanics of a V1 rocket as it is launched. On one level, this sequence connects culture and everyday life, but on another level, it allows the content of each sequence to comment on the other. The gravedigger scene in Hamlet is black humor about loss; the canteen conversation about the destructive power of an enemy rocket connects to that scene with its anticipation of death. The explosion of the rocket during the sequence accentuates the imminence of death. By crosscutting the two scenes, Jennings linked past and future in a present that, although it might be momentary, embraces both high culture and the everyday pleasure of a canteen conversation.

Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story (1948) is instructive about the power of juxtaposing individual shots. As he did in Man of Aran (1934), Flaherty juxtaposed a tranquil image of great beauty with an image of great danger. In Louisiana Story's opening series of shots, an image of a beautiful leaf is followed by an image of an alligator slinking through the dark water. A bright shot is followed by a dark shot, and in this brief juxtaposition, which Flaherty resorted to more than once, he revealed the natural order of the bayou. Wonder and danger coexist, and neither is preeminent over the other. Because Flaherty and editor Helen Van Dongen don't pace the footage to editorialize, there is an egalitarian sense about this natural order. Tension is evident, but it is not an inordinate tension. This sense of the egalitarian is at the heart of Flaherty's work, and in his juxtaposition of shots, we see how it is suggested in microcosm.

The close-up can also help shift the meaning of documentary footage away from the most truthful interpretation. This is accomplished by using the close-up as a cutaway—a new idea—introduced into a sequence of shots with a general continuity. Flaherty's famous opening sequence of Louisiana Story proceeds in a gentle but mysterious way to introduce us to the bayou and its natural inhabitants: the flowers, the insects, the alligators, and the snakes. Into this milieu, Flaherty positioned the main character of the film, a Cajun boy named Alexander Napoleon Ulysses Latour. The boy's presence in the scene increases until he is as natural a part of the bayou as are the flora and fauna. Flaherty and Van Dongen then introduced two images of bubbles coming to the surface of the water. The first time, the narrator refers to the bubbles as "mermaid bubbles," but the second time, there is the sense that the bubbles signal a new presence. We don't know yet that the film is about the construction of an oil rig in the bayou and about how the discovery of oil affects Alexander and the creatures and plants of the bayou. Nor do we necessarily know that the film was sponsored by a large oil company involved in oil exploration. At this early stage of the film, the close-ups of the rising bubbles suggest that another, as yet unidentified, element will join the boy and the other inhabitants of the bayou.

Finally, pace can alter the meaning of documentary footage. The director and editor have the option of slowing down or accelerating the pace of the footage. These options will affect meaning in different ways. The slow motion shot is an alternative to slowing down the edited pace of the footage. The impact of picking up the pace is perhaps most readily understood. Consider, for example, the stop-motion sequence in Godfrey Reggia's Koyaanisqatsi (1983), with its accelerated speed of urban traffic, or the quick pace of the cutting in Arthur Lipsett's Very Nice, Very Nice (1961). Both film sequences give the impression of an urban metropolis rushing to its demise. Pace of this speed changes a film from a document of life in New York, for example, to a comment on the quality of life in New York. So great is the strength of the pacing in these films that we must draw the conclusion that speed is destructive to humans and to the human spirit.

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Film Making

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