Cinema verit

The wide screen forced filmmakers to give more attention to composition for continuity and promoted the avoidance of editing through the use of the foreground-background relationship. Cinema verité promoted a different set of visual characteristics for continuity.

Cinema verité is the term used for a particular style of documentary filmmaking. The post-war developments in magnetic sound recording and in lighter, portable cameras, particularly for 16 mm, allowed a less intrusive filmmaking style. Faster film stocks and more portable lights made film lighting less intrusive and in many filmmaking situations unnecessary. The cliché of cinema verité filmmaking is poor sound, poor light, and poor image. In actuality, however, these films had a sense of intimacy rarely found in the film experience, an intimacy that was the opposite of the wide-screen experience. Cinema verite was rooted in the desire to make real stories about real people. The Italian neorealist filmmakers—such as Roberto Rossellini (Open City, 1946), Vittorio DeSica (The Bicycle Thief, 1948), and Luchino Visconti (La Terra Trema, 1947)—were the leading influences of the movement.

Cinema verité, then, was a product of advances in camera and sound recording technology that made filmmaking equipment more portable than had previously been possible. That new portability allowed the earliest practitioners to go where established filmmakers had not been interested in going. Lindsay Anderson traveled to the farmers' market in Covent Garden for Every Day Except Christmas (1957), Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson traveled to a jazz club for Momma Don't Allow (1955), Terry Filgate followed a Salvation Army parish in Montreal in Blood and Fire (1959), and D. A. Pennebaker followed Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back (1965). In each case, these films attempted to capture a sense of the reality of the lives of the characters, whether public figures or private individuals. There was none of the formalism or artifice of the traditional feature film.

How did cinema verité work? What was its editing style? Most cinema verité films proceeded without a script. The crew filmed and recorded sound, and a shape was found in the editing process.4 In editing, the problems of narrative clarity, continuity, and dramatic emphasis became paramount. Because cinema verité proceeded without staged sequences and with no artifical sound, including music, the raw material became the basis for continuity as well as emphasis.

Cinema vérité filmmakers quickly understood that they needed many close-ups to build a sequence because the conventions of the master shot might not be available to them. They also realized that general continuity would come from the sound track rather than from the visuals. Carrying over the sound from one shot to the next provided aural continuity, and this was sometimes the only basis for continuity in a scene. Consequently, the sound track became even more important than it had been in the dramatic film. Between the close-ups and the sound, continuity could be maintained. Sound could also be used to provide continuity among different sequences. As the movement gathered steam, cinema verité filmmakers also used intentional camera and sound mistakes, acknowledgments of the filmmaking experience, to cover for losses of continuity. The audience, after all, was watching a film, and acknowledgment of that fact proved useful in the editing. It joined audience and filmmaker in a moment of confession that bound the two together. The rough elements of the filmmaking process, anathema in the dramatic film, became part of the cinema verité experience; they supported the credibility of the experience.5 The symbols of cinema verité were those signposts of the hand-held camera: camera jiggle and poor framing.

Before exploring the editing style of cinema verité in more detail, it might be useful to illustrate how far-reaching its style of intimacy with the subject was to become. Beginning with the New Wave films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, cinema verité had a wide impact. Whatever their subject, young filmmakers across the world were attracted to this approach. In Hungary, Istvan Szabo (Father, 1966), in Czechoslovakia, Milos Forman (Fireman's Ball, 1968), in Poland, Jerzy Skolimowski (Hands Up, 1965) all adopted a style of reportage in their narrative films. Because the hand-held style of cinema verite had found its way into television documentary and news the style adopted by these filmmakers suggested the kind of veracity, of weightiness, of importance, found in the television documentary. They were not making television documentaries, though.

Nor were John Frankenheimer in Seconds (1966) or Michael Ritchie in The Candidate (1972), and yet the handheld camera shots and the allusions to television gave each film a kind of veracity unusual in dramatic films.6 The same style was taken up in a more self-exploratory way by Haskell Wexler in Medium Cool (1969). In these three films, the intimacy of cinema verité was borrowed and applied to a dramatized story to create the illusion of reality. In fact, the sense of realism resulting because of cinema verité made each film resemble in part the evening news on television. The result was remarkably effective.

Perhaps no dramatic film plays more on this illusion of realism deriving from cinema verité than Privilege (1967). Peter Watkins re-created the life of a rock star in a future time. Using techniques (even lines of dialogue) borrowed from the cinema verité film about Paul Anka (Lonely Boy, 1962), Watkins managed to reference rock idolatry in a manner familiar to the audience.

Watkins's attraction to cinema verite had been cultivated by two documentary-style films: The Battle of Culloden (1965) and The War Game (1967). Complete with on-air interviews and off-screen narrators, both films simulated documentaries with cinema verite techniques. However, both were dramatic re-creations using a style that simulated post-1950 type of reality. The fact that The War Game was banned from the BBC suggests how effective the use of those techniques were.

To understand how the cinema verite film was shaped given the looseness of its production, it is useful to look at one particular film to illustrate its editing style.

Lonely Boy was a production of Unit B at the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada. That unit, which was central in the development of cinema verite with its Candid Eye series, had already produced such important cinema verite works as Blood and Fire (1958) and Back-Breaking Leaf (1959). The French unit at the NFB had also taken up cinema verite techniques in such films as Wrestling (1960). Lonely Boy, a film about the popular young performer Paul Anka, brought together many of the talents associated with Unit B. Tom Daley was the executive producer, Kathleen Shannon was the sound editor, John Spotton and Guy L. Cote were the editors, and Roman Kroitor and Wolf Koenig were the directors. Each of these people demonstrated many talents in their work at and outside the NFB. Kathleen Shannon became executive producer of Unit D, the women's unit of the NFB. John Spotton was a gifted cinematographer (Memorandum, 1966). Wolf Koenig played an important role in the future of animation at the NFB. Tom Daley, listed as the executive producer on the film, has a reputation as one of the finest editors the NFB ever produced.

Lonely Boy is essentially a concert film, the predecessor of such rock performance films as Gimme Shelter (1970), Woodstock (1970), and Stop Making Sense (1984). The 26-minute film opens and closes on the road with Paul Anka between concerts. The sound features the song "Lonely Boy." Within this framework, we are presented with, as the narrator puts it, a "candid look" at a performer moving up in his career. To explore the "phenomenon," Kroiter and Koenig follow Paul Anka from an outdoor performance in Atlantic City to his first performance in a nightclub, the Copacabana, and then back to the outdoor concert. In the course of this journey, Anka, Irving Feld (his manager), Jules Podell (the owner of the Copacabana), and many fans are interviewed. The presentation of these interviews makes it unclear whether the filmmakers are seeking candor or laughing at Anka and his fans. Their attitude seems to change. Anka's awareness of the camera and retakes are included here to remind us that we are not looking in on a spontaneous or candid moment but rather at something that has been staged (Figures 7.6 to 7.8).

The audience is exposed to Anka, his manager, and his fans, but it is not until the penultimate sequence that we see Anka in concert in a fuller sense. The screen time is lengthy compared to the fragments of concert

Figure 7.6 Lonely Boy, 1962. Courtesy National Film Board of Canada.

performance earlier in the film. Through his performance and the reaction of the fans, we begin to understand the phenomenon. In this sequence, the filmmakers seem to drop their earlier skepticism, and in this sense, the sequence is climactic.

Throughout the film, the sound track unifies individual sequences. For example, the opening sequence begins on the road with the song "Lonely Boy" on the sound track. We see images of Atlantic City, people enjoying the beach, a sign announcing Paul Anka's performance, shots of teenagers, the amusement park, and the city at night. Only as the song ends does the film cut to Paul Anka finishing the song. Then we see the response of his audience.

Figure 7.7 Lonely Boy, 1962. Courtesy National Film Board of Canada.

The shots in this sequence are random. Because many are close-ups intercut with long shots, unity comes from the song on the sound track. Between tracking shots, Kroiter and Koenig either go from movement within a shot, i.e., the sign announcing Anka's performance, to a tracking shot of teenagers walking—movement of the shot to movement within the shot. Again, overall unity comes from the sound track.

In the next sequence, Anka signs autographs, and the general subject (how Anka's fans feel about him) is the unifying element. This sequence features interviews with fans about their zeal for the star.

In all sequences, visual unity is maintained through an abundance of closeups. A sound cue or a cutaway allows the film to move efficiently into the next sequence.

In the final sequence, the concert performance, the continuity comes from the performance itself. The cutaways to the fans are more intense than the performance shots, however, because the cutaways are primarily close-ups. These audience shots become more poignant when Kroiter and Koenig cut away to a young girl screaming and later fainting. In both shots, the sound of the scream is omitted. We hear only the song. The absence of the sound visually implied makes the visual even more effective. The handheld quality of the shots adds a nervousness to the visual effect of an already excited audience. In this film, the handheld close-up is an asset rather than a liability. It suggests the kind of credibility and candor of which cinema verite is capable.

Lonely Boy exhibits all of the characteristics of cinema verite: for example, too much background noise in the autograph sequence and a jittery handheld camera in the backstage sequence where Anka is quickly changing before a performance. In the latter, Anka acknowledges the presence of the camera when he tells a news photographer to ignore the filmmakers. All of this—the noise level, the wobbly camera, the acknowledgment that a film is being made—can be viewed as technical shortcomings or amateurish lapses, or they can work for the film to create a sense of candor, insight, honesty, and lack of manipulation: the agenda for cinema verite. The filmmakers try to have it all in this film. What they achieve is only the aura of candor. The film is fascinating, nevertheless.

Others who used the cinema verite approach—Allan King in Warrendale (1966), Fred Wiseman in Hospital (1969), Alfred and David Maysles in Salesman (1969)—exploited cinema verite fully. They achieved an intimacy with the audience that verges on embarrassing but, at its best, is the type of connection with the audience that was never possible with conventional cinematic techniques.

Cinema verite must be viewed as one of the few technological developments that has had a profound impact on film. Because it is so much less structured and formal than conventional filmmaking, it requires even greater skill from its directors and, in particular, its editors.

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