II: Continuing a theme
By Ron Steinman
I am returning to a theme I first posited in the essay
in which I warned that the digital revolution is far from the answer
to the future of film making on any level, in any venue, but
especially the documentary. Often quality, in shooting, composition,
editing and pacing, what we call ”the look,” suffers at the hands of
the amateur, or the cinematographer who hopes to perhaps become a
professional. Call that the art of the piece, though some would say
that it is only technique and should take a back seat. Technique,
which anyone can learn, is different from storytelling, but the two
complement each other to make a whole. Storytelling is real art, born
to a person, maybe even found in a gene, and that makes the difference
between journeyman and master. The combination of what is inside the
filmmaker, instinct, coupled with skill, what is learned, is difficult
In this, the 21st Century, anyone can point and shoot a video camera.
The new machines all but think for you, but the camera cannot compose
a shot, create a sequence nor edit what you shoot into a coherent
whole. You must still control what is an inanimate, though highly
I may be missing something in the digital revolution, but the
democratization of video cameras, because they are so cheap and
usually reliable, and the continuing use of them, does not mean we
will have a new class of documentary filmmakers anytime soon. Too many
in our culture who think it is fashionable to be in the counter
culture are singing the praises of this new technique to convey
emotion, deliver facts and perhaps, if we are lucky, tell a good
story. There is growing belief that low grade and inexpensive
equipment can hurry art to the masses by no less than the masses
themselves. We must beware of downgrading quality in the name of
artistic expression. I do not mind if you call me an elitist, but art
by the masses is no art at all. It does not exist. It never has. If
everyone thinks he or she is capable of making art that will last, why
then does it not last? Art is about making something for the ages, but
few are capable of that creative leap.
Most critics do not understand the process of documentary filmmaking.
All they usually care about is content. Form is secondary for them.
Execution of filmic devices often plays a less important role to them
than what the film says. Critics for major newspapers and magazines
are the biggest offenders.
Many mainstream critics, often to be current and hip, seem to welcome
what they feel is this latest version of outsider art, thinking that
experimentation and often ignorance of the tools used, is better than
what they consider stasis. It makes me think how critics of jazz
welcomed the free style screeching of Ornette Coleman and others
because bop, swing, and the blues had lost their appeal, except to the
musicians and the audience. Each successive new wave in jazz picked up
a new name to describe it, but if it did not swing, it crashed. The
documentary film is like jazz. Free style rarely works except for a
few but those few rarely have the power to affect change or move
mountains or create tears or make hearts sing.
No matter how experimental you think you are, if what you create is
incoherent, you will not succeed. You must connect with your audience.
If you fail to communicate, you fail as an artist. Little else
remains. Do not be fooled by critics looking for the new. Some believe
that creating a revolution in art is more important than coherence.
They want the audience to work for you, rather than you working for
the audience. It should work both ways to be successful. When the
audience has to struggle with your ideas and ultimately your message,
you did not do your job. Certainly content can and does sometimes
prevail over weak execution, but not often and rarely memorably.
The Brownie camera revolutionized still photos for the masses and so
made family, home style pictures available to everyone. Just shoot.
Drop the cartridge off at the drug store. Pick up your photos a week
later. Look them over lovingly. Then arrange them carefully in an
album. Despite many millions of photos, there is only one Ansel Adams,
one Robert Capa, and any number of other great still photographers.
Having used many photos from Brownie cameras in my documentaries, I
owe an undying debt to that camera and the people who used it, but I
have yet to see a great photo made with that or any other point and
shoot camera even in this era.
A group of filmmakers, many of whom are new, but all with the same
purpose, are moving to DV because they believe small is better. Less,
though, is not really more. Using small equipment allows the filmmaker
to get closer to the subject without seeming to intrude, though all
documentary filmmaking is an intrusion. However, the smaller the
camera, the worse the picture. This is something we cannot ignore. The
resolution suffers; meaning the amount of information carried in each
frame drops dramatically, at least until the microchips used house
Despite the many who are trying to be professionals, we should not
disregard quality in the factors society uses for judging artistic
achievement. Creativity and quality are inseparable. However, not
everyone has the same degree of each. It is like magic when the two
come together because a fire is blazing inside a person's heart and
head. That and the application of hard work, makes all the difference
in what you produce.
The prolific writer Margaret Atwood in her book, “Negotiating with the
Dead, A Writer on Writing,” has much to say about art and the creative
process. Any of us, in whatever we create, and however we do it,
should keep it in mind, for it applies, as she says, to each of us as
we struggle for clarity in our vision.
To be an opera singer you not only have to have a voice, you have to
train for years; to be a composer you have to have an ear, to be a
dancer you have to have a fit body, to act on the stage you have to be
able to remember your lines, and so on. Being a visual artist now
approaches writing, as regards its apparent easiness when you hear
remarks like, “My four-year-old son could do better,” you know that
envy and contempt are setting in, of a kind that stem from the belief
that the artist in question is not really talented, only lucky or a
slick operator, and probably a fraud as well. This is likely to happen
when people can no longer see what gift or unusual ability sets an
With this in mind, let me offer a perspective on two major
documentaries currently in theatrical release that created a stir in
the public and in the film world in 2003. Each is far different in
art, technique, attitude, and the information they convey. One film is
by an old hand at documentaries and something of a star in that world,
and the other is by a first time director.
We know the story of Louis Kahn, the world famous architect, how he
died alone with no identification in the men's room of Penn Station in
New York at age 73. We know about his son Nathaniel, 11 at the time,
now 40 and his search for his father, and thus himself, in his moving
film, ³My Architect: A Son’s Journey. Though a first time director,
Nathaniel Kahn employed professionals and his own windup
sixteen-millimeter film camera which we see him using. The trade
papers estimate he made his movie for a cost of $800,000, including a
long and complicated transfer from video to film.
Kahn's film is successful on almost all levels. Looking at the
credits, you can see he used a small crew and did not overload his
natural sets with hordes of technicians the way that some documentary
filmmakers do. I bring this up because I believe the documentary to be
successful must have about it a guerrilla feeling. When documentaries
are too carefully wrought, they lose the possibility of achieving
something unique. Polish is important, but a slightly rough feel
enables us to experience the nature of the filmmaking art, its hit and
run, in the trenches, down and dirty, sometimes makeshift methods. In
other words, some imperfections must show through.
Whether Kahn intended it or not, the use of very long shots in almost
every interview does two things in his film. One is the obvious need
for the long shot as cutaway, which enabled him to run any comment he
wanted under himself and the interviewee. People or objects when
photographed from a great distance, place the subject in isolation.
With the subject or subjects so distant, you must concentrate on who
they are, where they are, and ask yourself, what are they doing there
in that room, on that hill, along the shore, in the field of flowers.
The filmmaker now has imposed his will on you by using those shots. He
makes you think more than you thought you would, and he gets you to
enter his mind where the mystery dwells, still unsolved. In “My
Architect,” Kahn used long shots to good effect whether intentional or
As Nathaniel Kahn travels the world, we experience his angst as he
searches to discover who his father was and uncovers the bizarre life
he lived. He talks to architects who worked with his father and along
the way, discovers the spiritual and nomadic sides to this man,
perhaps attributable to Louis Kahn's deep and rarely touched
mysticism. As a son, he hardly knew his father. Mostly Nathaniel does
not succeed in breaking through the wall his father, ever the
architect, constructed around himself and his three families. I did
not need a pat conclusion because I have no problem with an unsolved
puzzle. It made me think, and for that I am thankful. In the end,
humanity and soul rule this film, and for that we can all be thankful.
Another documentary has become the darling of the critics, and of
academics. It is the opposite of “My Architect” in style, substance,
production and slick professionalism. Everyone by now should be
familiar with Errol Morris’ polemic, “The Fog of War” the 2004 winner
of the Oscar for best feature documentary. It is, I am sure, heresy to
attack an icon of the non-fiction film world such as Errol Morris.
When watching it I thought it dull, self-satisfied, boring, lacking in
innovation and nothing near the best of Morris’ earlier work. It is
not brilliant filmmaking. Its slickness is troubling. Look at the
credits that go on for what seems forever. It is as if Morris has
become entranced with using film as if he were producing a feature,
but with none of the attributes of feature filmmaking. It is hard for
me to understand how so many worked so long and so hard to produce so
little in creating a film. Maybe it is here I should sing the praises
of DV, small cameras, small crews and small budgets. The huge size of
Morris’ team makes me conclude he could have spent his money better
using fewer people over a shorter time. If you produced “The Fog of
War” for cable television, it would go unnoticed because it is the
kind of documentary producers in niche television do all the time.
From a journalist’s point of view, the film offers nothing new about
the Vietnam War and absolutely nothing new from Robert McNamara, the
film’s only on-camera subject. I believe Morris went into the McNamara
interview and knew exactly what he was going to get. McNamara had
published his recent memoir, had traveled to Hanoi, had been meeting
with opponents to his policies and performance in the Kennedy and
Johnson administrations and had been spouting his theories for years.
Morris simply converted McNamara's book to film. There were no
revelations, divine or otherwise.
I have no doubt that McNamara used Morris as Morris used McNamara.
Each was preaching to the converted. Each had an audience of one,
equally self-serving. That Morris could get McNamara to sit for what
must have been many hours of interviews is a tribute to him, but
McNamara had his own agenda and in his way he used Morris to get
across his experience with war and his own, often very affecting,
point of view. We cannot parse or codify war to make sense. War,
killing, death and destruction exist as the purest form of confusion.
The Vietnam War was a military fiasco and a political mess that the
United States will live with forever. Is that new? Did Morris reveal
anything new? It is easy to say the two wars in Iraq have parallels to
Vietnam, but thinking they will come close to what happened in Vietnam
is not only a stretch, it is fundamentally a poor reading of history
then and the time we live in now.
Some critics with their praise of Morris' film must have been living
in a vacuum all these years since the Vietnam War ended. Not to
realize who McNamara was, his role in World War II, what he did in
Vietnam, and that, of course, of LBJ, is unbelievable. Did Morris
think it was a journalistic achievement to stick it to McNamara by
allowing him to speak without remorse? The war did not belong to
Robert McNamara. To his shame, when he realized American could not win
the war, he said nothing in public. Had he done so, I do not believe
he could have stopped the war nor brought sanity to the policies then
roiling out of control. McNamara's silence was his weakness in the Big
Business oriented Department of Defense he had been running. To have
expected Robert McNamara to come out of the closet is naïve. It rarely
happens in big government, and given the way Johnson ruled in the
White House, it would have been impossible. I knew this before
I found the editing ordinary. Consider the film was only an interview
with film clips. It does not take much imagination to produce a film
using an interview and archival footage. Morris employed a stylized
use of his carefully chosen footage, principally the use of slow
motion. At times, the horror of bombs falling looked like a romantic
dance as 500-pound bombs eerily fell to earth and then exploded with
gusto. I thought the footage had too much contrast, a Morris signature
in his attempt to manipulate our emotions toward McNamara and his
This brings up another point. Whether using DV, Beta or even film,
when doing an interview, the fewer people involved on the set, the
better the interview will be. Interviews for a documentary work best
when they are intimate, direct, head-on, one on one, not shot in the
stylistic manner used by Morris. Robert McNamara wanted to talk so the
interview worked. Had he been reluctant, no amount of coaxing or
trickery would have changed McNamara and how he performed. Having done
thousands of interviews for documentaries, I can attest to getting the
best from people when we are virtually alone without a big audience,
even if the audience is only the crew doing the shoot. A large room is
important to allow the cameraperson the best throw so field has decent
depth. However, unless the two people are close, the interview will
always look staged and, thus, never really work.
Did Morris think that by his choice of archival footage juxtaposed
with the often serene, and still confidant Robert McNamara that he was
creating a film that would open our eyes to the reality of all war.
Morris is truly naïve. He shows a willing bias toward McNamara without
trying to understand the time we lived in then or the attitude
governments lived by in a Cold War that went hot in Vietnam.
Polemicists such as Morris have no patience for reality. Being a good
historian means understanding a period in context. You cannot create a
context to fit your philosophy, especially so many years after the
events described in this film. For Morris, there is no context. He
masks his advocacy journalism by his surface lack of emotion, enough
so that he fools most of the people most of the time.
Errol Morris believes we can learn from the past. I agree. However, it
is not necessarily always the case. Obviously, we can only hope that
the past will teach us not to make the same mistakes again. Iraq is
not Vietnam. It will never be Vietnam. Yes, it will cost too many
young lives and affect many more of the living. Yes, it will cost more
money than we can imagine. War is unrelenting in its wanton
destruction. In the end I believe Morris says too little too late. In
Iraq, the fox is already in the hen house. We have to be vigilant,
trap the fox, and protect the hens. In time loses will be cut, but not
because we have learned anything from the dictums of Robert McNamara.
It will be because the American people will say, enough, let us spend
our money elsewhere, let us stop sacrificing our young in a place
where people care nothing for our ideals, ideas and most of all, our
There we have it. Two filmmakers, each with his own approach,
technique and vision. One, Errol Morris, a proven professional with a
formidable body of work. The other, Nathaniel Kahn, new to the world
of filmmaking with a surprise critical and box office success. Will he
choose to exercise his creativity and speak to us again through film?
Creativity has many hats. Morris has his; Kahn has his. I feel Morris
is already hard at work in pursuit of his next passion and despite my
criticism of "Fog of War," I look forward to his next film. Only time
will tell how each man will continue to pursue his muse, but both do
proud their love of filmmaking.