March 9, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
The Documentary Expands
Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life. 1925. USA. Directed by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack

Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life. 1925. USA. Directed by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack

These notes accompany The Documentary Expands, which screens on March 10, 11, and 12 in Theater 3.

Calling Merian C. Cooper (1893–1973) and Ernest B. Schoedsack (1893–1979) auteurs may seem like fudging a little bit, but I don’t think it is. Yet the doubt creeps in on two levels. First, while film is undeniably a collaborative medium, the auteur theory argues that there is a singular dominant creator. The bond between these guys, however, seems so seamless in their films as to be almost unique. The other reason for hedging is that they first made their collaborative mark in documentary film, a form that presupposes that the director cannot mold his material as freely as can the maker of narrative films. (It has become obvious in subsequent decades that even the most “pure” cinéma vérité is subject to manipulation at the hands of masters like Jean Rouch or Fred Wiseman.) And it is, of course, true that immediately after Grass, Cooper and Schoedsack began to move away from authentic actuality.

Both had notable careers while not working directly with one another. Schoedsack photographed the Keystone Cops for Mack Sennett, codirected The Most Dangerous Game (1932) with Irving Pichel, and directed The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) on his own (the latter two produced by Cooper). Cooper partnered with John Ford to produce most of the greatest Westerns ever made, from Fort Apache to The Searchers, not to mention Ford’s Oscar-winning comedy The Quiet Man. Together, they moved from the somewhat ersatz documentary, Chang (1927), to fiction films including the 1929 silent version of Four Feathers and, most notably, 1933’s King Kong.

Although documentaries had existed from the very beginnings of cinema in the actualities of that other famous collaborative pair, the Lumiere brothers, little creative talent was brought to bear in the genre until the arrival of Robert Flaherty (1884–1951). Flaherty’s first two features (Nanook of the North in 1922 and Moana in 1926) documented the frozen North and the South seas, but they were also the narrative products of a Romantic sensibility, replete with heroes and a semblance of plot. Grass (which preceded Moana by several months) was different. It offered a spectacular canvas with a multitude of “performers,” a throwback to Griffith and De Mille extravaganzas—except this time it was real. These were not Hollywood extras pulling their sheep and goats out of an imaginary Egypt, but authentic Persian tribesman in their treacherous annual migration to find grass for their livestock. The result, in the estimation of Dennis Doros, the head of Milestone Films and the current distributor of Grass, is the greatest documentary ever made.

I would be remiss not to mention the contribution of journalist and one-time spy Marguerite Harrison, who traveled with Cooper and Schoedsack and raised substantial funding for the project. The trio’s extraordinary adventures are recounted in Grass: Untold Stories, by Bahman Maghsoudlou, and Cooper’s life is told in detail in Living Dangerously, by Mark Vaz. Most filmmakers aspire to—and sometimes achieve—a pretty bourgeois existence, but not these guys.

Joris Ivens (1898–1989) rivals Flaherty in terms of importance in the development of the documentary. Rain and The Bridge were early attempts to capture the poetic beauty of his native Netherlands. After a series of similar but longer films, Ivens became political, and after several pro-Bolshevik films in Russia, he returned to the West for his most famous work, The Spanish Earth (1937). In spite of his leftist credentials he was employed by the New Deal to make Power and the Land (1940). All his life, Ivens was a committed humanitarian, covering the entire globe many times over. One of his major works later in life was the six-part How Yukong Moved the Mountains, a detailed study of post-revolutionary China. It is hard to think of any filmmaker more devoted to both the potential of documentary and the potential of cinema to improve the world.