Transformations in Film as Reality (Part Two)
the Coming of Sound
As part of this year's commemoration of the 100th anniversary
of the birth of cinema, Documentary Box is running a four-part series of
articles exploring the history of film's relation to reality. Each piece, written
by a different film historian, will investigate how both documentary as a genre,
as well as the "realistic feel" of cinema itself, have evolved over the last century.
Following Komatsu Hiroshi's discussion of early nonfiction cinema in Documentary
Box #5, Professor Bill Nichols of San Francisco State University considers
in this issue how the coming of sound helped form an orthodoxy in documentary
practice in the 1920s and 30s.
|Documentary occupies a complex zone of representation in which the art of observing, responding, and listening must be combined with the art of shaping, interpreting, or arguing|
Nowhere in the world does the coming of sound to documentary correspond exactly to the coming of sound to the feature fiction film (1926-1928). Like cinemascope, color, and most optical effects, sound films were a possibility long before they were a reality. If the exact moment when sound bursts upon the feature fiction film is a matter of technology, financing, aesthetics, and audience expectations, it is no less a matter of similar issues, resolved in a different way, for documentary film. (In many cases silent documentary filmmaking remained entirely viable well into the 1960s and is exemplified by such work as John Marshall's films of the Bushmen shot in the Kalahari desert and in the 8mm and Super 8mm home movies that remained prevalent until the rise of the home video recorder.)
Just as the advent of sound for the feature film industry in the late 1920s prompted lively debate (principally about synchronous or non-synchronous uses of sound, and between subordinate or contrapuntal relationships to character and image), so the advent of sound in documentary posed an array of alternatives. These ranged from poetic narratives to evocative portraits and from studio-produced commentary to the actual speech of people in their everyday life. The choices made among these alternatives are part of a larger story of the nature and function of documentary film in the period from the late 1920s to the late 1930s when a dominant mode of expository documentary took hold and became the equivalent of the classic Hollywood mode of production.
In the silent film era, documentary as a mode of representation that offered perspectives on the historical world - sustained by an institutional framework and community of practitioners, and armed with specific conventions corresponding to distinct audience expectations - did not yet exist. We now write about this early history with a retrospective knowledge we cannot deny but which we also cannot project back onto a time that precedes its arrival. Cinema lacked the taxonomic divisions we may now think natural, or inevitable. Early cinema casually blended the staged and unstaged, actors and non-actors, fact and fiction. Only as feature fiction films gained a dominant position did all other forms become relegated to a subordinate or marginal status which still did not necessarily differentiate carefully among these alternative forms. From the vast array of possibilities that early cinema offered, some have been remembered, others forgotten, some adopted, others ignored, some praised, others ridiculed. Every new history opens the possibility of reconstructing this array of the remembered, adopted and praised, and of deconstructing the histories that have come before. It must do so, however, on the terrain of what has survived (and nothing survives by accident).
Compared to the amount of material that has survived and earned praise in the history of narrative cinema, it is striking how few examples of what we now call documentary are commonly identified from the period before 1930. Ellis, in his standard history of documentary, for example, cites only 26 titles from the 1920s in America, Europe, and the Soviet Union as significant works,1 while Jacobs lists only 22 significant titles from the 1920s.2 Some of these, such as Alberto Cavalcanti's Rien que les heures (1926), could just as easily be classified as part of the early history of experimental cinema, but, given the vague state in which all non-feature fiction existed, it can just as properly be considered an early example of the documentary tradition. These lists suggest how severely limited the field of reference has become. It is also noteworthy that not a single one of these films from the 1920s makes use of sound.
When Louis Lumière privately demonstrated his new invention, the cinématographe in March, 1895, by showing La Sortie des usines, it had the shock of seeming to place life itself upon a screen. Erik Barnouw described the effect this way: "The familiar, seen anew in this way, brought astonishment."3 Lumière may have acted out of convenience or from insight when he choose to film his own workers leaving the Lumière factory for his demonstration. Viewers could attest that what they now saw on a screen was what they could have already seen in reality. If there was a trick, it was the trick of appearing to duplicate reality. What could have been more overwhelmingly convincing of the powers of the cinématographe than to see something already recognizable and familiar re-presented in a totally unfamiliar but remarkably recognizable manner?
Clearly, a central aspect of the early fascination with cinema generally was the ability to recognize the world we already inhabited. The extraordinary power of the photographic camera to take slices of reality and freeze them within an illusionistic frame rose exponentially in this breathtaking succession of cinematographic images that restored motion, and life, to the frozen image. The living, seemingly embalmed on a strip of film, suddenly came back to life, repeating actions and restoring events that had, until that moment, belonged to the domain of the irretrievable: the historical past.
Cinema made possible an archive of reality distinct from any that had preceded it. The act of recognition gave this archive a remarkable hold on the viewer. In moving images a viewer might distinguish several levels of recognition: from historical periods and their inhabitants generally, to well-known figures from those periods (Roosevelt, Lenin, or Hitler, for example), to individuals already personally known to him or her but never seen in the form of moving pictures before.4 The impression of reality conveyed by film depends heavily on this act of recognition and it gave early cinema a distinctiveness that would remain at the heart of the documentary tradition thereafter.
It was not until some 15 years after Lumière's first public demonstration of his new device in December, 1895, that fiction film seized upon a functional equivalent to this distinct form of historical recognition: the star. The use of stars to create a powerful level of recognition (and identification by such complex means as acting style, plot structure, and film editing - matched movement, eyeline match, point of view) began to center the image around a complex figure of body, individual (or actor), character, and the aura of the star. It simultaneously began a movement away from equally plausible figures of social space, specific groups, coalitions, or collectivities, cultures and their transformation. The representation of workers begun perhaps inadvertently by Lumière remained central to the tradition of social representation in the Soviet Union but seldom elsewhere. The extraordinary range of works by Esfir Shub (The Fall of the Romanov Empire (1927), The Great Road (1927), etc.) and Dziga Vertov (Kino Pravda (1922-25), The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), etc.), as well as works sometimes criticized for their reliance on staged situations such as Eisenstein's Strike (1925) or Battleship Potemkin (1926), all belong to a range of cinematic possibility that gradually became marginalized or suppressed by mainstream documentary.
This act of suppression is nowhere more evident than in the fate of the workers' newsreels produced in a number of countries from approximately 1928-1939. These American, European, and Japanese counterparts to the newsreel work of Dziga Vertov, produced by the U.S.'s Workers' Film and Photo League, The Association for Popular Culture in the Netherlands, the Popular Association for Film Art in Germany, and the Proletarian Film League (Prokino) in Japan, are typically neglected in histories of the documentary.5 With the example of the Soviet pioneers only poorly known elsewhere, workers newsreels usually considered themselves as alternatives to the commercial newsreel makers such as The March of Time in the United States or those produced by Polygoon in Holland. The basic strategy was either to re-edit (and sometimes add new intertitles to) commercial newsreels to change their point of view, or to present footage of more specifically working class issues and topics. These efforts were generally associated internationally with the New Revolutionary and Popular Front policies of the Communist Party (1929-1939). As such, these political newsreels and documentaries often had to resolve a tension between reporting topical events and analyzing basic contradictions. This tension often drew film activists in two different directions: toward political organizing work as such or toward more elaborate forms of filmmaking. The second choice was the one eventually made by filmmakers like Joris Ivens or by the American Film and Photo League members who went on to form Nykino (1934) or Frontier Films (1937). In general, these groups represent an important effort to develop a documentary film form directed at groups, processes, and issues, free from the government sponsorship and control that characterized the work of people like Pare Lorentz or John Grierson.
Documentary begins with the viewer's recognition of images that represent or refer back to the historical world. To this filmmakers add their own voice, or perspective, by various means. Documentary therefore occupies a complex zone of representation in which the art of observing, responding, and listening must be combined with the art of shaping, interpreting, or arguing. Viewers came to realize that what they see when they see a documentary is a complex, often semi-visible mixture of the historically real and the discursively constructed. To the pleasure of recognition are added moral imperatives, political exhortations, spiritual warnings, cautionary tales, romantic longings, and enchanted idylls. The re-presentation of the historical world combined with the distinctive voice of the filmmaker began to give the domain of documentary a use-value that drew the attention of politicians and governments, poets and adventurers. It was possible not only to represent reality with great exactitude (something that might have remained primarily of scientific interest), but also to give audiences a view of the world that had never been seen in quite the same way before.
These impulses gradually bifurcated into the two main divisions of nonfiction film, the documentary and the avant-garde, but in the beginning such distinctions were readily blurred (as the lists of films discussed as documentary in both Ellis and Jacobs suggest). Those setting out to explore the world around them and represent it in recognizable form were simultaneously interested in discovering how they might reshape that world through cinematic techniques.
Another way to think of these two, nonexclusive tendencies (documentary and avant-garde) is to think of them as cinematic versions of a twentieth-century anthropological impulse, bent on broadening the scope of the familiar and recognizable, and a corresponding surrealist impulse, bent on shocking or shaking up existing assumptions about the familiar and recognizable within our own culture.6 Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler's Mannahatta (1921), Ralph Steiner's H2O (1929), Rien que les heures, Joris Ivens' The Bridge (1927), and Dimitri Kirsanoff's Ménilmontant (1926) are among the films discussed in Ellis and Jacobs that emphasize the surrealist impulse toward strange juxtaposition most vividly, whereas Nanook of the North stands as the most celebrated instance of the strange made familiar.
This question of the filmmaker's voice and the extent to which it remained unobtrusive or highly noticeable often took precedence over the fiction/nonfiction distinction. Much of Robert Flaherty's remarkable success in exhibiting Nanook of the North, for example, results from his astute combination of a documentary attitude toward a preexisting world and a narrative strategy with its unobtrusive - because so recognizably humanist - representation. In Flaherty's romantic voice, Nanook becomes the first "star" of the documentary film, and his tale of struggle against nature the documentary equivalent of the folkloric and classic Hollywood tale of a hero's quest against obstacles and adversity.
Flaherty's success in gaining theatrical release for his film is a key factor in his elevation to founding pioneer, and that success is clearly due to his ability to draw on aspects of the fiction film, narrative structure, and a specific, appealing (humanist) perspective on man's [sic] relation to his world. The centrality of Nanook contrasts with the marginality of Paul Strand's The Wave (1936), which shares Flaherty's use of fictional technique and narrative structure, but replaces his humanism with a loosely defined socialism, closer in spirit to the work of the film and photo leagues.
Flaherty did not want to string together a series of semi-connected scenes of disparate events, as the less commercially successful Edward S. Curtis did before him in his In the Land of the Head-Hunters (1914), restored and retitled In the Land of the War Canoes (1972), a narrative nonfiction set among the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest in a spirit clearly akin to Flaherty's tale of the Inuit and the Arctic. Flaherty went beyond Curtis's proscenium stage camera style, where a single long shot often constitutes each scene, to adopt many of the editing devices of fiction film (close ups, continuity editing, match actions, and so on) while also retaining great respect for the long take when the actual duration of an event had distinct importance. Flaherty also substituted the familiar (and heart-warming) tale of a nuclear family (Nanook's) for Curtis's more lurid story of sexual jealousy, dubious ceremonies and rituals such as head-hunting, and general sense of melodramatic excess.
Flaherty wanted to tell a story and to document the life of a people. Whether or not these two aims were at odds with each other, or in what ways they combined to produce specific effects depending on the voice of the filmmaker, may not have troubled Flaherty himself as much as they have troubled documentary filmmakers and theorists ever since.
Initially debated as fakery, the question of how telling a story intrudes upon the historical world has since broadened considerably to include issues of authentication, verification, and the effect of narrative as such.7 At first the issue seemed more simple. It revolved around the question of intentionality. If the historical artifact was not available (footage of Teddy Roosevelt shooting a lion, or vivid details of the battle for San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War) or if it was inaccessible to the camera (the interior of an Inuit igloo), then the filmmaker might take the license to recreate or stage the needed event (replacing footage of another lion for one Roosevelt actually shot, filming aspects of the battle of San Juan on a table-top complete with exploding ships and cigar smoke, or building only half of an oversize igloo for Nanook of the North8). If the event itself demanded careful planning and choreography, camera positions and movements could be plotted out in advance as they were for Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1936).
Reenactment or reconstruction was a logical solution to the paradoxical quandary a documentary filmmaker often confronts: how to film an actual event that occurred before a camera could record it, or record it to telling effect. Nanook of the North was certainly not the first film of its kind in this regard. At least since Curtis's In the Land of the Head-Hunters in which he "painstakingly reconstructed [settings] for precontact authenticity,"9 the goals of the filmmaker, the anthropologist, and the story teller seemed entirely compatible.
As long as the intentions were honorable (as long as viewer's shared the apparent intentions of the makers), these ways of giving creative shape to reality were readily accepted. They were, in fact, the foundation stone of the creative re-editing of existing footage in the work of Esfir Shub and some of the workers' newsreels. They were also readily accepted by most viewers of the British films made under John Grierson in the 1930s, despite the high degree of staging or reenactment found in films like Night Mail (1936) or The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1936). Similar strategies of reshaping and constructing what would then be presented as reality was also central to Pare Lorentz's U.S. government sponsored films The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937), films which also effectively introduced sound to the American documentary. Flaherty's igloo, for example, escaped criticism since he was "intent on authenticity of result."10 Less scrupulous filmmakers may have also been intent on achieving a similar authenticity of result, but to less well-intentioned ends. Such ends, once detected, no longer justified the means. For much of the early history of documentary, it was the individual shot that retained a special relation to historical reality (and even this left considerable room for fabrication if done in the spirit of well-intentioned authenticity). The combination of shots remained less easily bound by principles of faithfulness or authenticity in any straightforward empirical sense (as Vertov's and Eisenstein's films and the heavily experimental films cited by Ellis and Jacobs remind us vividly). At this larger level, techniques of joining together an array of artifacts or fragments closely related to modernist collage remained at play until the introduction of sound compelled a tamer version that was more compatible with the principles of realism.
Only when the viewer's sense of the historically true and the filmmaker's sense of creative license diverged did an issue arise. This left the charge of fakery or distortion on clearly subjective ground. A documentary could seldom be called authentic or fake on its own; external standards and expectations had to be brought into consideration. The early actualités, or newsreels, often avoided controversy for precisely this reason; when they staged or recreated events, it was to reinforce feelings that were believed to be already present in their viewers (such as anti-Spanish feeling in the United States during the Spanish-American War). Fakery became the alternative charge to excessive frankness or truthfulness sometimes made when films revealed too much of a world whose miseries are not all of natural origin. Barnouw, for example, cites the example of an early film shot in the West Indies by an anonymous Edison cameraman, Native Women Coaling a Ship and Scrambling for Money (1903), as a work that "must have left some disturbing feelings."11
To a considerable extent, Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North - and, to a lesser extent, Moana (1926) - stand as the American documentary films of the 1920s. Some of the larger context in which they appeared has already been suggested and, to the workers' newsreels, the avant-garde experiments, and the work from Europe and the Soviet Union, films of travel and anthropology must now be added, such as Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack's Grass (1925) and Chang (1927), Léon Poirier's La Crosière noire (1926), In the Land of the Head-Hunters, and Marc Allegret and André Gide's Voyage au Congo (1927).
Another strain of work, close to Flaherty in its willingness to merge story telling with claims of authenticity, goes back to documentaires romancés like Mèliés' Loves of a Maori Chieftaness and the even more sensationalistic films of Mr. and Mrs. Martin Johnson, such as Wonders of the Congo (1931) or Congorilla (1929) about "big apes and little people,"12 and those of Frank Buck like Bring 'em Back Alive (1932), or their savage subversion in Luis Bu˙uel's Land Without Bread (1932). Some of these works also enjoyed commercial success but none received the admiration, and principled criticism, reserved for Robert Flaherty.
Flaherty clearly sought to occupy the anthropological rather than the surrealist side of the documentary impulse. Like the figure who may well be his fiction film counterpart, Charles Chaplin, Flaherty's sensibility and attitude harkened back to an earlier time. Without resorting to sound (neither he nor Chaplin ever fully embraced sound, preferring the style and structure of silent cinema well into the 1940s) and resisting the temptation to preach or explain, Flaherty relied on his narrative tales of individual heroes to convey a sense of commonality among disparate peoples. Romantic, or perhaps classical as Ellis suggests,13 Flaherty is also, like Chaplin and Renoir, best understood as a humanist. Humanism, though, involved projecting aspects of our own culture onto the kinship system and social values of another culture (particularly a nuclear family structure and a repertoire of strong fathers, supportive mothers, and sons in the process of coming of age). Flaherty's film families were carefully cast and assembled for the duration of the filming, but the projection is an extraordinarily compelling one despite its limitations, partly because few of us have adequate knowledge of the cultures Flaherty filmed to separate what is authentic from what is projection.
One compelling example of this blending of projection and authenticity is the core narrative story of Nanook's struggle for survival in a harsh, forbidding environment, retold later in Man of Aran (1934). In both cases the authenticity of the ardors of the hunt were those of a bygone era which Flaherty had to recreate, sometimes at the price of imperiling his own actors, sometimes at the price of refusing to lend active assistance in order to film his actors' travail. A frequently told story is that when Flaherty went to Samoa to make Moana he could not find any conflict between man and the elements. Here was a land where coconuts fell at your feet. Flaherty was stymied until he once again discovered a bygone practice (body tattooing) that could approximate the ordeal he needed to tell his story.
At this point, the degree to which the struggle with nature was a projection of Flaherty's own brand of romantic humanism that could not place hunting, or tattooing, within its own cultural context becomes more evident. As anthropologists since Margaret Mead have demonstrated, Pacific Island society is hardly idyllic simply because ample food exists and painful tattoo ceremonies do not. The intricacies of tribal relationships, kinship structures, sexual desire, self-esteem, and social standing can more than compensate for more rudimentary forms of man-nature conflict. These, however, lay beyond Flaherty's extraordinary, deeply respectful, and patient but also highly nostalgic, culturally-determined view.
Ironically, Flaherty might be considered American documentary's first celebrated historiographer and Pare Lorentz, with his poetic, government-sponsored films on flood and drought - The River and The Plow that Broke the Plains - its first acclaimed ethnographer. This is not history or ethnography as historians or anthropologists might define it, but rather two distinct but not exclusive impulses to represent the past (Flaherty and Curtis) or the present (Lorentz and Grierson). If so, then Lorentz also stands in closer proximity to the form of documentary that ushered in the use of sound and constituted a dominant mode of representation well into the 1960s, if not beyond. Exhortation, warnings, and proposals gradually replaced longings, enchantment, and idylls as the dominant tone of documentary. It was a tone carried by the sound track more fully than by images.
Lorentz's films, with their vast catalogue of images culled from across the American Midwest, stepped far beyond the confines of a hero and his struggles. Here was man against nature on a far vaster scale (but one that government could still tame). The visual principle of juxtaposing images from clearly different times and places still belonged to the modernist tradition of collage, but by the time it was adopted by Lorentz in the United States and by Grierson in England, it had lost much of its radical bite. The complete reversals of meaning achieved by Esfir Shub or the workers' newsreels were lost in favor of a more unified style of argumentation.
Collage administered shocks of an unprecedented kind. It turned up everywhere in the period surrounding World War I from Picasso's The Violin (1913), Joyce's Ulysses (1922, the same year as Nanook), Proust's The Remembrance of Thing's Past (1919-25), Tatlin's First Exhibition of Painterly Reliefs (1914) and Appolinaire's Calligrames (1918). Fernand Léger, who later made Ballet Mécanique (1925), wrote in 1923: "The war has thrust me, as a soldier, into the heart of a mechanical atmosphere. Here I discovered the beauty of the fragment,"14
Collage belonged to war and the city, the ultimate and the everyday forms of dislocation, alienation, fragmentation. Flaherty managed to escape all this but no European or Soviet artist could. Collage became an aesthetic correlative to disjointed social experience. The jarring effect of unexpected juxtapositions and strange associations became a founding principle of Russian formalism. As defamiliarization, dadaism, constructivism, Eisenstein's montage of attractions, or Brecht's alienation effect, the collage principle operated to reconfigure time, space, and the world it supports into fragments, fragments that could terrify, or, as Walter Benjamin would argue, fragments that could liberate us from the tyranny of tradition.
The nonfiction film generally offered immense opportunity for collage. It was not bound by the conventions of continuity in time and space that governed the character-centered fiction film, particularly in classic Hollywood narrative. It could mix together images from anywhere to support or create a point. It was not bound by the need to show only what could plausibly be part of a fictitious character's world where dream, flashback, fantasy, or abstract summary provided the outer limits of visual montage. Documentary could combine any and everything as long as the voice of the filmmaker and interpretive action of the audience remained to lend shape and meaning to the result.
This opportunity to rearrange fragments of the world was common to both the avant-garde and documentary tendencies in cinema, but the two tendencies gradually began to diverge as sound came to the nonfiction film. Again, the process was slow and did not correspond to the time period associated with the feature film. Through the first half of the 1930s, the use of sound took many forms, often furthering the principles of collage through contrapuntal and non-synchronous forms (in The Song of Ceylon (1934), Night Mail (1936), Vertov's Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Don Basin (1931), Rotha's Pett and Pott (1934) and Flaherty's Industrial Britain, produced by John Grierson (1933)). Grierson's efforts to define and make popular the documentary as an alternative to Hollywood in fact led him to encourage considerable experimentation with sound in the early 1930s. As Lovell and Hillier note, under Grierson the documentary movement became "a laboratory for experiments in the non-naturalistic use of sound."15
Eventually, however, a dominant mode arose within the British documentary movement that took hold in America as well. It concentrated sound into speech and yoked speech to a rhetorical assertion. The speech became known as the voice of God and the assertions became labeled didacticism, or propaganda. It was into this increasingly dominant tradition, which included later British works like Housing Problems (1935) and The Smoke Menace (1937) as well as sound newsreels like The March of Time (1935), that Pare Lorentz stepped when he made his two most famous films. The ethnographic impulse became argumentative rather than observational, as it was to remain in anthropology or in the later work in cinéma verité and cinéma direct. Collage became flattened upon the Procrustean bed of expository logic, in which images serve primarily as illustration for the rhetorical claims of a spoken commentary with its problem-solving bent rather than allowing the potential of images as assembled fragments to attain full force. Collage, sound, and documentary became tamed, placed at the service of sponsors. The sponsors could vary radically in their politics and ambitions (from Stalinism to the New Deal), but their impact everywhere was both to give to documentary a dominant form at the same time as they robbed it of more complex diversity and potential subversiveness. By the late 1930s the coming of sound was complete (if not entirely embraced) and documentary was both richer (in potential) and poorer (in its prevailing practice) for it.
5. As argued in William Alexander, Film on the Left: American Documentary Film from 1931 to 1941 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); Bert Hogenkamp, "Workers' Newsreels in Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan During the Twenties and Thirties," "Show Us Life": Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary, ed. Thomas Waugh (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1984); and Bill Nichols, "American Documentary Film History," Screen 13.4 (Winter 1972-1973): pp. 108-115.
The original version of this essay was published in Spanish in Historia general del cine, co-edited by Manuel Palacio for Catedra Publishers in Madrid.
Professor of Cinema Studies at San Francisco State University. Edited two widely used anthologies, Movies and Methods I and II, and is author of Ideology and the Image, Representing Reality, and the recent Blurred Boundaries.