January 21, 2014  |  An Auteurist History of Film
The New Social Documentary and Television

These notes accompany screenings of a program celebrating the New Social Documentary and Television on January 22, 23, and 24 in Theater 3.

Documentary films had been there at the very beginning of cinema. Even before it occurred to filmmakers that they might create their own images, the example of still photography had paved the way for capturing the real world. It didn’t take long for these “artists” to realize that that reality could be shaped by where they placed the camera, how a shot was lit, and whether the frame might be moved or intercut with other shots. Thus, ostensible actuality and authenticity were conditioned by a personal point of view—a nascent auteurism, if you will.

Gradually, this artistry outgrew the brevity and primitiveness of the Lumière Brothers’ films and became a genre unto itself, developing alongside the fictional narratives of pioneers like Méliès, Porter, and Griffith. Filmmakers could take their cameras to the equator or the poles and bring back the wonders of the world. They could also juxtapose the images they photographed in a narrative that was superficially truthful but that argued for a particular set of principles, and the resulting propaganda could (arguably) pass for truth. With the ultimate development of television, some 65 years ago, a whole new market became available to such films, vastly augmented by the growth of cable in recent decades.

The films in this program scratch the surface of what was happening in the 1960s. The filmmakers make little pretension to art, and the films are less memorable than the more ambitious documentary works we have looked at recently—such as Emile de Antonio’s polemics, Chris Marker’s “vérité,” and Frederick Wiseman’s immersive cinema. These films do, however, point in a direction that is still with us. This very week, for example, PBS’s Frontline showed an expose of life in North Korea, containing mostly jumpy footage that was secretly filmed at great risk. Two of the best documentaries of last year were Blackfish and Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out (a sequel to the earlier Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired). Blackfish chronicles the alleged mistreatment of orcas at Sea World. After a theatrical run, it was shown many times on CNN. Similarly, the Polanski documentaries, which argued that the director was badly treated by the American European legal systems, were shown on cable. These films skillfully interweave existing footage and commentary to present their case.

Essentially the same techniques were used in the two Willard Van Dyke television documentaries, Ireland: The Tear and the Smile and So That Men Are Free. Willard was soon to become the head of the Department of Film here at MoMA, where he hired me. Although he had been making films for three decades, he seemed content with a desk job and the pursuit of still photography as he entered his seventh decade. (Van Dyke had been a protégé and close friend of Edward Weston.) In these two films he made for CBS’s The Twentieth Century, he had the iconic talking head of Walter Cronkite. Although it would be hard to argue that Van Dyke was an auteur, his films over the years do reflect a progressive/humanistic bent. He was an ardent New Dealer in his work with Pare Lorentz (The River), with whom he later had a personal falling out. Some of his subsequent work was for business firms. As historian Erik Barnouw pointed out, Willard had been part of the left-wing Film and Photo League in the early years of the Depression, but Ireland, 30 years later, was exemplary of a “play it safe trend” at the broadcast networks.

George Stoney, on the other hand, seemed relatively consistent in his liberalism, and You Are on Indian Land is a clear example of using of cinema as an instrument for social change. The handheld camera, however “inartistic,” lends itself to a sense of immediacy. Of course, by the end of the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam protests had opened up film to less “tasteful” portrayals of political reality. American rebellion crossed the border into Canada, and Stoney and his Indian compatriots were there to film it. As Richard Barsam has written, “Stoney’s work is marked by a concern for the disadvantaged, especially blacks and Native Americans.”

I would not argue that Van Dyke or Stoney were major auteurs, nor were they singular figures, but they both helped push the documentary movement into provocative new territory and, thereby, expanded the medium.