What style is this movie?

Ricardo in a panicHaving shot much tape at Alan’s retirement and birthday party, I am now wrestling with the theme and style of the film. These questions can’t be answered with finality until we’re in the thick of editing, but still must be grappled with now. Without some sense of purpose and direction, we might as well just set up some surveillance cameras, then edit whatever we catch.

Or maybe get some camera monkeys. This lady’s blog (10,000 Monkeys and a Camera) doesn’t really address the authorship thing, but this guy (Being the camera monkey) is getting closer. Some photographers seem to think of themselves as camera monkeys, like myspaceloser or kamat. What if we duct-taped cheap DV cameras to a bunch of monkeys, then…

Probably wouldn’t help the film.

One of the main threads in documentary film since 1960 has been direct cinema. Pioneered by Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker, Albert and David Maysles, and others, it is a rare movement in that it makes sense to filmmakers and critics alike. Filmmakers and critics, or more generally artists and critic, don’t usually seem to understand what one another are talking about. So, direct cinema – the idea that the filmmaker should be immersed in reality, the camera simply soaking up what happens around it. No writing, no directing participants, no staging, no lighting or set dressing – just capture what’s really there. This is an appealing philosophy – show, don’t tell – which eschews narration and any pretence of omniscience. It has produced outstanding films (like Primary, about the 1960 presidential primary campaigns of Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, or Salesman by the Maysles brothers), and continues to influence contemporary documentary filmmakers.

A related movement is cinéma vérité, which even has an entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Cinéma vérité, like direct cinema, tries to find objective truth by naturalistic production methods. Many would lump the direct cinema films and their makers as examples of vérité, in fact. Where vérité differs is in the tendency to poke the film’s subjects – provoking and stirring things up in order to record them. Proponents of direct cinema, in contrast, strive for a friendly aloofness. Vérité acknowledges the presence of the camera (and its crew), which will inevitably effect the film’s subjects. Don’t you act differently when the camera is on?

Both cinéma vérité and direct cinema have a problem: presenting the past. To understand Alan, especially in the context of the legacy of the 60s, means presenting material from the past. If only I had been there! Even if much of the film presents current events in a direct cinema or vérité style, we’ll need to show older material too.

Does that mean we need a narrator? That is the worst thing a filmmaker can do, according to the tenets of direct cinema. Show, don’t tell. No omniscient POV. And especially no omniscient white male POV. But some of the most successful documentaries are narrated. For example, Bowling for Columbine. Or Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. I guess we’ll have to see what we come up with. But I suspect some of what the film is about is complex and abstract enough, that a narration will help viewers. Not that these themes can’t be shown on the screen, but that it will enrich the visual presentation to have a verbal guide.

I also toy with injecting an element of reflexivity. An outstanding example is Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. I don’t imagine being nearly so self absorbed – the film is about Alan, not me. But one of the outstanding things about Alan is his ability to mentor people. He has certainly been a mentor to me, a great influence. So injecting some self-awareness, breaking the fourth wall of the cinema, could serve as a lens through which to examine mentorship. And it is in line with my ideas of collaborative film-making, that is collaborating with the subject.

I’ll have to keep experimenting.

If we make a straight biography of Alan Steinbach, then Ken Burns‘ style of historical film production might be the order of the day: panned-and-scanned photos, historical film clips, readings from diaries and letters… Some of that will probably fit, and I have been busily scanning a shoebox full of photos Alan lent me. But it mostly doesn’t seem to fit stylistically, does it?

Reenactment is another approach to bringing history to life. Nice, but… This is a shoestring production, best case, with a budget in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Reenactments would demand many millions.

How about an animated allegory? Something like Yellow Submarine? Well, I’m not an animator. Unless we’re talking stick figures… I keep trying to teach myself to draw so that I can storyboard, and my buddy Hassan says anyone can draw, but I’m not making very fast progress. Maybe if I just tried harder.

ismach-2.gifWell, this is all very modern: style before substance. I have thought about theme and content much more than style, and I’m not completely sure why I chose to write about stylistic choices first. SO, next time I’ll delve further into the themes I hope to weave into What’s Inside, Professor? Until then, ciao.

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