I delve into the metaphors present in Shyamlan’s Unbreakable series, and how they impact the delicate social and political climate.
Check out this inside look at the dark inspirations for RKSS’s 2018 film, Summer of 84.
In my article I speak about what makes Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) a horror gem as we prepare for the highly anticipated remake by Luca Guadagnino.
The annual Academy Awards, and the film industry itself, have been dominated by cisgendered white men for far too long. With recent mold-breaking and empowering movements such as Time’s Up, and hashtags such as #OscarsSoWhite, minorities of all kinds are speaking out, demanding justice, and proving their talents.
At Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony, we saw history being made, as Jordan Peele is the first black person to win an Oscar for Original Screenplay, winning for his film Get Out. Tiffany Haddish even made a joke about questioning if the Oscars became “too black,” following the backlash regarding lack of minority Oscar nominations which started the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in 2015. And Rachel Morrison is the first woman, and out lesbian, to be nominated for an Oscar for Cinematography, for the film Mudbound. Although these are some amazing achievements that made 2018’s Oscars one to remember, this is only the beginning. Greta Gerwig, nominated for both Original Screenplay and Directing for her film Lady Bird, was the only woman in the Directing category.
According to a 2018 report by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, a mere 8.1% of film writers and 12.6% of film directors are minorities. Only 13.8% of film writers and 6.9% of film directors are women. You do not have to be a statistical analyst to see that these numbers are low.
Despite these low numbers, 32.9 million people watched the Oscars on Sunday, which represented women and minorities more openly than past years. Lupita Nyong’o, a Kenyan-Mexican, and Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani-American, both minorities and immigrants in the film industry, gave a beautiful speech highlighting the importance of believing in yourself no matter where you come from. No dream is too big, and they are both proof of this. Frances McDormand, who wound up winning the Oscar for Actress in a Leading Role for her work in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, dedicated her winning speech to not only empowering women, but by encouraging equality. As the quirky and outspoken Frances McDormand asked all of the nominated women to stand up from their chairs, there was a sense of pride and hope in the room that could be witnessed by watching the ceremony from one’s living room couch. With the freshness of the Time’s Up movement in Hollywood, which battles sexual misconduct in the workplace, having been birthed from the primarily female victims of sexual misconduct who have spoken out, the feminist energy in the room was welcomed. Although some do not like the Hollywood scene putting in their two cents when it comes to politics, Sunday night’s Oscars was uplifting and seemingly unproblematic. These stars spoke with positivity, as if voices belonging to the voiceless were emanating out from them.
People are standing up and fighting for equality, which is all good and dandy, but the numbers still need some work. So what can we do to further improve these statistics? Go to the theater and see films that promote diversity and consist of diverse casts and crews. Speak up on social media, using hashtags to encourage and critique these films. Everyone has a say, everyone has a voice; you may just not know it yet.
Check out Rachel Morrison’s inspiring interview with TIME:
Brian De Palma’s 1984 crime drama, Body Double, offers an intoxicating mystery that is saturated with sexual metaphors and themes of voyeuristic pleasure throughout. We are first introduced to the protagonist, Jake Scully, played by Craig Wasson, when he has some sort of panic attack due to claustrophobia while lying in a coffin for his starring role as a vampire. Due to his fear of small spaces, his acting suffers, causing him to be fired from the film. As he arrives home, he catches her in bed with another man; the audience can only view the man’s body but not his face. His face serves no importance, as the abilities of his body and the sexual imagery are more important during this scene. He overpowers Jake’s physical abilities by a landslide. Towards the very beginning of the film it is known that Jake is insecure and feels as though he has no power or control over his body.
He soon befriends Sam Bouchard, played by Gregg Henry, who he meets in an awkwardly humiliating acting class. After struggling to perform during the acting class, Jake opens up to Sam about his current life problems, including not having a place he feels comfortable staying at, considering the apartment which he lived belonged to his girlfriend. Jake is at the lowest of the low, and Sam then offers him to stay at the house he is house sitting for. Although Jake is impressed with the gorgeous observatory-esque building, which he is staying in, he is more impressed by the beautiful neighbor who Sam encourages Jake to peep at through a telescope. Decked out in jewels and fancy lingerie, the mysterious woman puts on a “show” every night, slowly removing her clothes and dancing erotically. Sam informs Jake that this happens every night like “clock-work.” Jake becomes mesmerized, watching her every night as if he was the predator and she was the prey. Jake finally is in control; peeping through this woman’s window and viewing her at a vulnerable state is feeding him; he cannot get enough. Jake takes comfort in this scopophilia; voyeurism is fulfilling his sexual desires, yet while not having to face how shameful he is about his body. She is not only a vision and a spotlight for erotic gaze for the male protagonist, but also for the audience who assumes the role of the protagonist upon viewing the film. The trance-inducing neighbor, Gloria Develle, played by Deborah Shelton, plays a controversial role in the film, as she is created simply to be a sexual object, an image of physical perfection and nothing more. The audience never truly learns about Gloria’s life, her passions, or her feelings; her image and her sexual appeal are the extent of who she is. She serves the male protagonist, as Gloria is the Eve to Jake’s Adam; she was created for him.
Jake’s fascination with Gloria continues, as he soon begins stalking her. Even this allows Jake to possess her, she is being investigated, and she has no choice in this matter. She had purchased a new pair of underwear while out running errands and threw away her old ones in a public garbage can, leading Jake to fish them out. This gave him a sense of ownership over Gloria; the intimacy of the just-worn underwear enhances this ownership. Once she has served her purpose as sexual property, she is murdered, which Jake witnesses while spying on her through a telescope. After having watched a pornographic film exhibiting a famous adult actress, Holly Body, played by Melanie Griffith, Jake realizes that she dances just as Gloria had. Holly Body is even more literally depicted as a sexual image, an erotic spectacle if you will, considering her career is based on that entire concept. Jake meets Holly Body to confirm that she was in fact hired to pretend to be Gloria and dance with the blinds open in hopes of seducing Jake. This manipulated Jake into being a witness to Gloria’s murder, as he had watched it happen all through that telescope. Although Holly Body is an erotic spectacle, even her name being superficial, she is still depicted as powerful in some sense. Despite being hired by a man, she was able to control Jake’s actions. Gloria on the other hand, was exploited sexually just to be brutally murdered in a scene involving a metaphorical phallic electric drill. Nothing is subtle about this scene, as the audience watches Gloria’s perfect body be mutilated, her blood vividly spilling out of her. This scene satisfies the audience’s pleasure of looking, as the intimacy of Gloria’s body has been exploited for the last time. Using a more current term in horror cinema, “torture porn” strongly represented in films such as James Wan’s 2004 mystery horror film Saw, is present here as it feeds the audience’s wish (whether conscious or not) to view the woman as an object and a fetish.
Some less important scenes to the plot still act as a reminder from De Palma of the recurring sexual themes throughout the film. A scene where a man is feeding a woman a hot dog directly adjacent to a giant hot dog statue is intently phallic; the man dominates the woman yet again. Metaphors and suggestive imagery are present throughout Body Double, making the audience aware of and crave to partake in scopophilia of exploitation of the human form, more specifically the female form.
With film comes opinions, and with opinions come controversy. This often is a reality when it comes to documentary filmmaking, because one person’s perspective on reality may differ from another’s. With this being said, certain social issues crave the needed attention society is choosing not to provide, such as the neglect of LGBTQ issues present within the black community, brought to attention by documentary filmmaker and poet, Marlon Riggs in his 1989 film Tongues Untied, leading to quite the fuss. As Tongues Untied is a film with alarming and unconventionally graphic commentary and visuals, it is no surprise that fuming right-wing conservatives had something to say (Petty 416). Due to the fact that sensitive issues such as these have not quite been publically discussed as thoroughly and unapologetically before, an uproar ensued. Because of this, consciousness of blackness in the LGBTQ community began to creep into the limelight. Documentary filmmaking has the power to bring normally quieted social issues to light with the use of vivid imagery of real life events and emotional intent, birthing a strong reaction and increased awareness.
“I was mute, tongue tied by shadows and silence. Now I speak, and my burden is lightened, lifted, free,” Riggs says himself in a particularly dark yet liberating scene in Tongues Untied. In this long take we see the director himself, standing in front of a black backdrop. There is no music. The only things present to stimulate the audience are Riggs’ face and voice, his eyes hyperfocusing into the camera making eye contact with his audience, the very people he is expressing his struggles to. The scene starts as a close up, slowly zooming into an extreme close up shot, emphasizing every feature and expression present on Riggs’ face. His words are haunting, and his face matches that, giving birth to a scene filled with emotion and pain. An audience connects with a scene so pure and real. Just a man, his camera, and a message, no special effects or elaborate editing are necessary. With scenes like this, which are present throughout the film, emotion exudes through poetry, as gay, black men express their anger, fear, and obligated silence they have endured in their lives. Riggs’ film acts as a rebirth, a new age. “Tongues Untied is truly a breakthrough documentary, for it penetrated ‘the walls of silence by which oppressive norms and taboos erase any ‘evidence of being’ among black lesbians and gay men’ (Mercer 22)” (Petty 417). The way in which Riggs “penetrated the walls of silence” was shocking to many, as the neglect of gayness and blackness was revealed in an explicit way. Extreme close up shots of the mouths of both white and black men spewing unsettling profanities targeting the gay and black community flash in-between scenes of gay, black men illustrating their stories of pain through poetry. The audience sees these obvious villains’ faces uncomfortably close to the camera, their eyes hidden as if to give them an inhuman quality. Strong editing is what makes these scenes so profound; the audience listens to the exquisitely real poetry while scenes of pure hatred are inserted aggressively and surprisingly, interrupting their stories just as this hate had interrupted their lives. In some of these intimate scenes, the men are not saying anything; the audience sees their facial expressions exuding hurt, while the only thing audible is evil. “We need strong black men,” and “I don’t want them around me or my kids,” are just some of the sayings that echo in the background, as if to mimic how this hate has echoed in their lives, producing a sort of meta, or self-referential moment.
Although Riggs’ message is arguably clear, people still focused on the shock factor of the explicit nature of the content rather than the shock factor of the negative experiences of gay, black men. During Pat Buchanan’s 1992 election campaign, he had accused President Bush of using taxpayers’ money to pay for “pornographic art,” referring to a scene in Tongues Untied. But what was interesting about this situation was that the clip mentioned portrayed nudity of white men, the original controversy having nothing to do with the meaning behind the entire film (Petty 416). This only emphasizes Riggs’ point; LGBTQ struggles and neglect in the black community are brought to the public eye. Although it is necessary for the content to be understood in regards to the social issues that are attempted to be exposed, the focus of male whiteness makes Riggs’ message that more important. He speaks about how at one point in his life he craved being with white men, as they were the only “flavor” that interested him. If a black man looked his way he would not pay him any attention, without even a question as to why he was this way. As he talks about this saddening fact of internalized neglect of diversity and his own race, images of only white porn stars flash on the screen, not a black man in sight, making the audience understand why Riggs was so drawn to them. As the audience listens and watches, they get a glimpse of just how hidden gay, black men truly were in the media during this time, which led to a form of internalized racism and self hatred. Soon the audience sees eerily racist images of black men in porn, many suggestive of slavery, it being obvious that there were no positive black idols of sexuality for these men to relate to. Riggs begins to describe himself as invisible, an alien unseen, and even calls himself racist slurs. As he is narrating this, a wide shot image of himself walking alone on the sidewalk in public midday slowly fades away, as to literally illustrate how invisible he feels. Editing choices such as these truly cater to the emotional aspect of the film. “Thus, Riggs’ own experience, and those of black poets, becomes universalized as metaphorical constructs of black gay identities. This leads to a proliferation of voices and gives the video its sense of polyphony,” (Petty 418). The way the visuals and the audio are married to each other gives the film a sort of musical vibe, the use of poetry creating lyrical hints throughout (Petty 418). Often the audio and the visuals are connected in clever way, the visuals acting as a metaphor for the poetry, the poetry that is so rich in feeling and despair.
Although much of the documentary is oozing with pain and deeply ingrained feelings of being outcast, there are plenty of scenes, which offer comic relief, as to balance out shame and pride that is felt within the gay black community. In a scene exhibiting gay, black men sassily snapping their fingers at each other, one man proclaims, “Don’t mess with a snap diva!” This scene is very much staged, as these men give a lesson to the audience on different kinds of snapping via a “grand diva rap.” The audience is first introduced to snapping through a wide shot of a group of men, then jump cuts to medium shots of individual men educating the audience on different types of snaps, such as the “Point Snap!,” the “Mini-Snap!,” and the “Classic Snap!.” There are titles written on the screen specifying the different snaps as well as a message saying “courtesy of The Institute of Snap!thology.” The construction of the visuals along with the audio of a jazzy sounding bass let the audience assume it is okay to laugh a little, as this scene is not taking itself so seriously. Part of the successful impact of Tongues Untied relates to its ability to be able to covey a message involving pain, politics, emotion, and history while still keeping some scenes lightweight. Since not all people can relate directly to the subject of the documentary, it is important for people to be able to relate to some aspects of the film, which is why the comedy interlaced between the serious poetry and imagery just works. In this scene, these men are portrayed as free and confident, as they are the only people present within the scene. There are no flashing images of racist or homophobic figures in between the shots of the gay, black protagonists, nor are there echoing slurs aggressively dominating and belittling their free nature. While this scene of snapping variety may serve as comic relief, Riggs finds ways to construct a lighthearted scene still rich in emotional and political intent. Some of the more politically charged scenes show detailed images with upfront themes of racism, homophobia, and neglect, such as imagery of black pornography possessing blatant intent of slavery performing as a fetish. “The Snap! Can be as emotionally and politically charged as a clenched fist; can punctuate debate and dialogue like an exclamation point, a comma, an ellipsis; or can altogether negate the need for words among those who are adept at decoding its nuanced meanings (“Black Macho” 392),” (Petty 420). Although these Snap! divas may come across as sassy and comical, them and the snaps themselves represent a symbol of rebellion and opposition to the society and the system that has quieted their confidence and their pride. Other scenes show these men “voguing,” a form of dancing, in groups, completely letting go of insecurities and fear. These groups, in some cases called “houses,” often in drag culture, celebrate their bodies, acting flamboyantly and expressing themselves with every part of their body. Riggs took these scenes, often wide shots, of liberation and slowed them down, distorting the movement of their bodies, as to appreciate the freedom felt by these houses. Marcos Becquer describes voguing as a way to appropriate the dominant popular culture while also incorporating “African diasporic practices and gay-identified attitudes,” (Petty 425). Riggs’ use of voguing in his documentary emphasizes his urge for acceptance and awareness of gay, blackness within mainstream society, as voguing represents a concoction dominant culture, African culture, and gay culture. His sluggish and exaggerated portrayal of voguing, emphasizing the movement of every limb, is perhaps a proposal for mainstream society to appreciate the beauty and elegance the gay, black community contributes. Riggs uses dominant popular culture in a more direct way to illustrate the neglect of gay, black men by inserting clips of famous, black stand-up comedians expressing hatred for the community through homophobic jokes. Clips from the likes of Eddie Murphy and Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988) are inserted back to back, as to have an ongoing list of black influencers in pop culture who use homophobia as a casual tool for entertainment. Eddie Murphy talks about how while performing on stage he has to keep pacing back and forth so the “faggots” will not be able to get a great look at his bottom. The crowd erupted in laughter, seemingly okay with, possibly even delighted by, the homophobic joke. The montage of clips also includes visuals portraying violence against gay, black men. Essentially Riggs gathered evidence of black men spewing hatred towards gay, black men, possibly suggesting a correlation between violence and how the mainstream media represents gay, black people (Petty 423). The fast paced clips, one after another, really create an obvious point of view, Riggs showing the audience what they might not have noticed before. Not everyone will be able to relate to Riggs’ personal struggles, so he decided to send a message through what a large amount of people would be able to relate to. Riggs wants people to wake up, and really absorb the content that they are force-fed every day, and make them question how this treatment could be okay.
Riggs’ efforts did not go unnoticed, the controversy finally opening up a discussion. Riggs was able to create a revolutionary piece of gay, black content, changing the typical boundaries of documentary filmmaking. He had extended the limits of documentary filmmaking set by his predecessors, such as William Greaves, St. Clair Bourne, Henry Hampton, Louis Massiah, and Carroll Parrot Blue (Petty 417). There are even questions as to whether or not Tongues Untied is truly documentary, as rather, it can be considered a “mediation” of the lives of gay, black men. In Tongues Untied, Riggs decided to use performance as a way to document reality, whereas his previous film, Ethnic Notions, included traditional interview scenes, making for a more conventional film. Tongues Untied throws conventional structure in the garbage, as Riggs is not only the director, but a performer as well. The emotional intent and dedication to breaking a pattern of silence, as well as breaking the traditional mold of documentary filmmaking, could be the push that got this film to be recognized and talked about. This film is unapologetic self-expression at its finest, Riggs injecting his own reflections on serious topics such as childhood sexuality, the fact that he is HIV-positive, and racism. However, many men in the film reveal their own life journeys, making the film factual like a traditional documentary and distancing itself from an autobiographical piece (Harper 71).
Documentary filmmaking can captivate audiences enough to create open discussions about normally quieted social issues with the use of stimulating visuals and emotional themes, birthing a viral reaction and increased awareness. Marlon Riggs’ ability to break the mold in documentary filmmaking caused people to open their eyes and ears, and whether or not they were positively captivated by his shameless revolt, people woke up. His surprising use of nudity, blatant exposure of racially offensive and homophobic language, personal tragedy, and artistic vision led to an impactful piece. I believe that shock value is not always authentic, but in this case I think Riggs used shock value in a meaningful and necessary way, as to say he is no longer fearful; he is angry and proactive. I am astonished by Riggs’ courage to not only break the silence and challenge the mainstream media’s portrayal of gay, black men, but also his courage to reinvent what documentary filmmaking is.
Harper, Phillip Brian. “Marlon Riggs: The Subjective Position of Documentary Film.” Art Journal 54.4 (1995): 69-72. Web.
Petty, Sheila. “Silence and Its Opposite: Expressions of Race in Tongues Untied.” Documenting the Documentary, Grant & Sloniowski, eds. Wayne State Press, 1998.
Riggs, Marlon T. “Notes of a Signifyin’ Snap! Queen.” Art Journal 50.3 (1991): 60. Web.
Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs (1989)
Cinema verite is a genre of filmmaking that celebrates the simplicity and authenticity of reality through the obscure eye of a lens. Film was born in the late 1800’s in France from the inspiration of Edison’s Kinetoscope, which displayed moving images in a box (Rabiger 37). Auguste and Louis Lumiere enhanced Edison’s technology, combined with the functions of a sewing machine, and created the first hand-cranked camera. This led to the first films consisting of 50-seconds and scenes of the natural occurrences within the lives of people surrounding the Lumiere brothers. Their film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1986), authentically exhibits people waiting on a platform for their train to transport them; its simplicity elegant and beautiful, yet the naturally flowing allure of a mundane moment such as this had never yet been captured. This new immortality brought to a scene of life has been called “the present eternal.” Cinema verite is spontaneously brilliant, as its magic can never be pre-produced or planned. The 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens, directed by Albert Maysles, Muffie Meyer, Ellen Hovde, and David Maysles, is an exquisite piece of film that is a prime example of unpredictable imagery and emotion that can arise when cinema verite filmmaking is put into action. Although its concept is simple, a film about the life of two relatives of Jackie Kennedy, Edith Bouvier Beale and Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, living in the Hamptons, New York, whose unpredictably come to life when the camera is pointed at them. These ladies had no direction or sense of authority while being the subject of this film, and possibly because of this fact, cinematic magic was made. Although cinema verite illustrates real life, perhaps the filming of this documentary contributed to the exaggerated eccentricity of the Edies. This in no way means authenticity was not captured though, as the unexpected swagger these women exuded only represented their personalities, and their lifelong battle for attention and wishes of fame. In a scene where Little Edie, as she had been nicknamed, is speaking directly to one of the Maysles brothers, she confidently expresses the reasoning behind her outfit, or as she calls it, “costume” of the day. In a centered medium shot, the camera slowly pans toward whatever article of clothing Little Edie is pointing at and describing, Little Edie herself seeming to be the director of the scene. She talks about how her mother wishes she worn a Kimono, which caused them to have a fight. Little Edie tries to exude cockiness in this scene, as if her outfit choice was absolutely superb, yet the audience gets a sense of tension when she brings up what her mother would have wanted. There is so much emotion and longing for attention within these women and the directors fabulously capture this with extreme close up shots of their facial expressions, and simply allowing the camera to naturally pan and follow their lead. This necessary sense of spontaneity has been questionable in other documentary filmmaking however.
Robert Flaherty, a director famous in the 1920’s, has been time and time again questioned for his biased and objective motives during his documentary filmmaking process of films such as Man of Aran (1936) (Rabiger 43). Flaherty has been slammed for putting together a family whom he thought was photogenic, as opposed to shooting an authentic kin. He had also focused Man of Aran on the Aran Islanders’ historical issues with nature while neglecting their important stresses of abuse within an outrageous social system. What here lies is a case of an artist, one with aesthetic preferences, a soft spot for the treasures of boyhood, and interests that outweigh necessities. These qualities that Flaherty possesses does agree with cinema verite, which led to controversial intentions and an unauthentic finished work. Flaherty’s work brought up questions of truth in documentary filmmaking, this rose a debate whether anything can be completely true if there is a camera involved. Flaherty was blind to his own personal theoretical assertions in terms of narrative preference and creative explorations in terms of aesthetics, which results in his films lacking in truth.
Although cinema verite involves simplicity, even in terms of limited equipment, which includes a hand-held camera, it also “indicates a position the filmmaker takes in regard to the world he films” (Mamber 1). When it comes down to it, the filmmaker should not have a strong position, he or she should be there to simply document an uncontrolled reality, often a reality that is hidden behind the scenes. Although film is an art form, cinema verite involves almost no artistic insight. After footage is shot of “real” people in an uncontrolled environment, the director may edit the video in order to accurately display how he or she witnessed it, any more than that may be manipulative and unauthentic (Mamber 3), which is why Robert Flaherty’s work is so controversial.
Dziga Vertov, a Russian filmmaker active in the 1920’s, has stated that, in relation to cinema verite filmmaking, “there was no one truth, that editing could serve to support any truths (or lies) that one wished” (Mamber 5). Vertov’s standpoint argues that there is always in fact influence of the director. Perhaps the same reality could be told in more than one way, which is contradictory to the definition of cinema verite, but maybe these grey areas are unavoidable. In the documentary film High School (1968), directed by Frederick Wiseman, there is a scene exhibiting some sort of sex “education,” a word that should be taken loosely in this case, assembly in front of only male high school students. A male gynecologist gives a crude speech about sex to these male students, making extremely inappropriate jokes bragging about the hymens of his patients, and even using the slang term, “cherry.” His cocky attitude and “cool guy” approach made the teen boys erupt in laughter, the audio very aggressively capturing their enthusiasm, clearly hyping up the gynecologist’s ego. This is filmed as a medium shot, but as his speech continues, the camera zooms in to a close up, capturing the emotions of pleasure and satisfaction on his face. The camera pans back and forth between the students and the gynecologist. This raises the question, was it necessary for the camera to zoom in on facial expressions, is that implying something? Does the director want us to notice a change in mood in this man as these young boys praise him, or is he being a ham for the camera? Although this scene is superb and shocking, these choices, as well as Vertov’s points, are all things to be noticed.
High School was a pretty eye-widening film, as it exposed Philadelphia’s Northeast High School for its extremely questionable treatment of its students and the abuse of authority taken place there. Much of the documentary includes scenes where students are belittled and/or treated unfairly. For example, a scene exhibits a fashion design teacher having her students walk on stage wearing the garments they created for class, while she proceeds to make negative comments on their appearance like “she has a weight problem, she knows it.” Situations like this, and the sex education scene, are not favorable, which is why the school was not happy with the documentary. “The very style of cinema verite documentary made it the perfect form for an ‘enquiring and critical press’” (Grant 225). Cinema verite allows the public to see what is usually kept under wraps, which is quite moving in a situation where there is some sort of social injustice. It is interesting to realize the fact that the subjects of the film are the ones exposing the truth about themselves, rather than being exploited, which is part of what makes cinema verite so powerful (Grant 225).
It also must be considered that the filmmaker has the power to choose when to start filming, even if it is a spontaneous decision based on a favorable occurrence (Bordwell 337). Yes that is right, it is very easy for cinema verite to become biased, even if it is unintentional, which goes against the whole authenticity factor. High School would be a lot less interesting if it consisted of shots of students simply learning trigonometry or eating lunch, which likely did happen, but did not make it into the feature. It seems almost impossible that 80 minutes can be picked out from 40 hours or raw footage without some personal insight creeping in, which leads to death of neutrality. Angles and framing can also skew neutrality, as those are also decisions that can emit from creativity or political/social issues (Bordwell 337). Examples of this can also be seen throughout director D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (1967), a documentary illustrating the events that occurred during Dylan’s 1965 England tour. Much of the documentary shows Dylan acting somewhat bratty to be perfectly honest. Dylan does not seem very appreciative or enthusiastic about much while on tour, his cocky attitude seeming to define him throughout the film. A scene shows a man trying to talk to Dylan, Dylan hardly giving him any attention as he loudly plays his guitar, the audio vividly picking up every strum, possibly to accurately show how rude Dylan is being. They talk about friendship, and Dylan seems to taunt the man, teasing him and questioning him about what makes his friends truly his friends. Dylan tells the man that some of his recent interviews consisted of “lies and rubbish.” The man starts getting frustrated as Dylan loudly plays his guitar and barely looks at him, obviously not so enthralled with the conversation. He questions Dylan’s attitude and Dylan exclaims that he has an attitude when he doesn’t like or know a person. Dylan cockily questions the man about his motive and purpose in life. This awkward encounter goes on for quite a while, and the director captures it all very well. Although the director gets both of their faces in the frame at certain points, Bob Dylan is the star of this frustratingly-cringe-inducing conversation. The director keeps his camera pointed at Dylan for quite a while, getting extreme close ups of him as he smugly furrows his brow and smokes a cigarette. The audience hears the whiny voice of the man getting more and more upset with Dylan, but the audience sees Dylan’s reaction to all of his surroundings. Now the director could have used a medium shot to absorb the emotions of both people, but rather chose to focus on Dylan. It’s hard not to pay attention to him and his pill-like behavior, and it seems as though Dylan feeds off of this attention, so was this the goal? Some of Pennebaker’s work is seemingly suggestive, encouraging the audience to feel a certain way about Dylan, whether or not that was entirely Dylan’s own doing, and this may just be an unavoidable circumstance of humanity seeping into the morals of cinema verite.
When it comes to ethics in cinema verite filmmaking, consent from the subject is one of the most important factors to consider, as that is what gives the filmmakers the A-okay to use footage (Pryluck 256). However, getting consent to use footage can be examined as somewhat manipulative. “The method of obtaining consent is stacked in the filmmaker’s favor. The ethical problem raised by such approaches is that they give the potential subject no real choice: the initiative and momentum of the situation favor the filmmaker” (Pryluck 256). Large, fancy camera equipment and a crew of people all wanting the same thing from you may seem intimidating, and because of this, subjects often give in to consent. All of this may seem harmless in goofy prank hidden camera shows like Allen Funt’s Candid Camera (1948), but when capturing more serious topics and personal lives of the subjects become the goal, this slanted form of achieving consent may be more sinister. The fine lines of ethics in cinema verite start to blur “when we use people in a sequence we put them at risk without sufficiently informing them of potential hazards” (Pryluck 258). This particular question of ethics can be present within Frederick Wiseman’s startling, yet powerful film Titicut Follies (1967). While it documents the daily lives and horrors that occur in a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane, the differences between exposing and exploiting start to get fuzzy. On one hand it is debatably downright necessary that the abusive conditions were brought to public attention, but on the other hand it is hard to say how much consent was given from the actual patients of the hospital, considering they are mentally disabled, some more severely than others. One particularly graphic scene focuses on a patient being very aggressively force fed through a large tube, which is shoved up his nose in a motion that is anything other than slinking. The man who stands above the nude patient barbarically pours some sort of liquid food into a funnel attached to the tube while simultaneously smoking, ashes falling onto the patient’s skin. This shot is not shy at all, the director constantly panning and zooming in to extreme close ups of the patient’s skin-and-bones body, as well as the faces of the men who are holding him down and the man who is doing the force feeding. In this particular scene, audio is extremely important, as the audience can hear that these men who are attending to the patient are just bantering about irrelevant nonsense, as well as loads of commotion happening in the background. Nothing here is private, the scene feels so exposed, easily being one of the most anxious scenes within the film. The patient is speechless, uttering nothing in this catastrophic moment. There is a sense here that the director was completely eating up this scene, the great attention brought on the graphic details of this horrendous moment never interrupted. As important as it was for this treatment to be brought to the attention of the public, perhaps the patient’s decency was not appropriately considered. This can be harmful, especially considering this mentally ill patient may not have fully understood the hazards of being exploited in this way.
Cinema verite style filmmaking is in my eyes beautifully simplistic, but perhaps an unattainable goal. I do not believe there is a way to record real life without inducing one’s own thoughts and biases into the work. Nor could anyone be exactly like his or her truest self when completely aware of a camera in his or her face. Existentialism will always win when it comes to this particular battle. Although techniques within this genre are often controversial and contradicting, overall cinema verite aims to honor the realism that is not always visible in society from a quiet and unbeknownst perspective.
Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. “High School.” Film Art: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990. N. pag. Print.
Grant, Barry Kieth, and Jeannette Sloniowski. Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of. Detroit: Wayne State Univ, 1998. Print.
Mamber, Stephen. “Cinema Verite : Definitions and Background.” Introduction. Cinema Verite in America: Studies in Uncontrolled Documentary. Cambridge: Mass., 1974. N. pag. Print.
Pryluck, Calvin. “Ultimately We Are All Outsiders: The Ethics of Documentary Filming”. No1 ed. Vol. Vol. 28. Illinois: Illinois, 1976. Print. Journal of Univ. Film Assoc.
Rabiger, Michael. “Documentary History.” Directing the Documentary. Burlington MA: Focal, 2015. N. pag. Print.
Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, D. A. Pennebaker (1967)
Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles, Muffie Meyer, Ellen Hoyde, David Maysles (1976)
High School, Frederick Wiseman (1968)
Titicut Follies, Frederick Wiseman (1967)