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Perspective II: Continuing a theme
By Ron Steinman


I am returning to a theme I first posited in the essay
"Perspective" 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 to beat.

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 sophisticated machine.

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 more information.

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 artist apart.

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 not.
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 Morris's film.

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 pronouncements.

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 culture.

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.

 

At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.

 

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