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Towards Day 15: Finding That Thin Blue Line (of Law? Order? Truth?)

Anne Dalke's picture

Class Notes by Smacholdt

I. coursekeeping

*signing in; notetaking by Sarah and Maggie

*on Thursday afternoon, I'll be in Indianapolis talking about "accessing wonderland" @ the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts; I have not been able to find a colleague to come help you talk w/ one another, so...

I'm proposing that you meet without me, but with assistance from my notes "Towards Day 16"; Bryn will stop in to take attendance; two of you might volunteer to act as moderators (?), and two others will take notes (Cassie and Aya have already volunteered for this task).

This seems to me a great step in self-directed education, playing out the experiment of thinking and talking w/out a teacher; cf. Peter Elbow's "teacherless writing class"....; what do you say? (alternative suggestions welcome...)

* for Thursday, watch Jonathan Caouette's  2005 documentary Tarnation (on 3-hour reserve @ Canaday)

* By 5 p.m. this Friday, you have a 4-pp. paper due on-line; if you chose to write about film, please review these guidelines; whatever you write about, please remember to tag it "Non-Fictional Prose Web Paper 2"

* for next Tuesday, try to read all of the graphic adaptation of "The 9/11 Report" (available via Amazon from $1.78)

* questions?

II. some old business:

PostSecret is an initiative to get people to anonymously spill their secrets ... I wonder how many of these are true, how many are exaggerated ... for the sake of public recognition/publication...and how many are totally fictitious? ... the idea of anonymity as something which allows the truth, or facts, to become clear is one we haven't discussed

your further thoughts on the film:
I think that this slight ambiguity (who everyone was, what was going on) was part of the air of confusion that Orson Welles wished to create in his documentary.

SandraG: The way it was constructed was so difficult for me to follow that I was confused for the most part about everyone and everything occurring in the story.

why make a film that is intentionally confusing?

veritatemdilexi: F for Fake for me was not about trickery and truth, it was about a search for legitimacy and fulfillment for an artists work.

from Richard Combs, Monthly Film Bulletin Review:
fast switching subjects, styles united by proposal that
fiction-making in any form is a lie, puzzle, disappearing act; most important distinction not genuine or fake, but good or bad fake

no "key": fiendishly constructed to frustrate any single attempt to unlock it/identify one all-determining creator

irony of Byzantine permutations directed @ "experts" who "speak to us with the absolute authority of the computer," extensively taken in

created a maze in which commentators might lose themselves: "centreless labyrinth" parodies very notion of "pure" creativity and autonomous, attributable authorship

finale: "Art is a lie ... that makes us realize the truth ...." but how little that truth has to do w/ what we think of as real: toothbrush, bus ticket, the grave

talk some more about this distinction between
"the truth" and "the real": is it useful? or do you think of the two terms as synonymous? (if not, what distinguishes them?)

Owl: this clip of  "Friends" shows us another side of what reality is.

III. good preparation for our new business: discussing Errol Morris's 1987 documentary film, Thin Blue Line

want to begin by giving you some background, a mini-lecture about the history of documentary films

Kevin Mcdonald and Mark Cousins' 1996 Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary;
William Rothman's 1997 Documentary Film Classics;
Alan Rosenthal and John Corner's 2005 (2nd edition) of New Challenges for Documentary 

tensions between documentary’s artistic ambitions and imperative to "show the world" have been present since its origin

landmark documentaries all involve a camera penetrating an ostensibly alien region, w/out envisioning a way back: there is no world outside the world on film

early cinema divided into two camps: real world subject matter, and filmed performances
cf. contrivance and control in Edison's first fiction film, Fred Ott’s Sneeze, w/ the work of the Lumiere brothers, who made vignettes from everyday life
observers were struck by the rustling foliage, the movement of waves:
they were accustomed to theater, but not a mirror of a past reality, the "spontaneous essence of life"

1895-1903: majority of films were "actualities" (indiscriminate subjects, lots of movement); fiction films were rare
but with development of fictional techniques,
films of unmanipulated reality seemed dull, lacking strong narrative and characters, and became much less popular

in the silent period, proto-documentary makers were forced to the film extremes of human experience: going to war or exotic corners of the globe

first satisfactory synthesis adapting editing style and dramatic structure to real life was classic 1922 documentary, Nanook of the North: tension built up around question of survival

all documentary filmmakers claimed its inheritance;
made before distinction of “documentary film” was made, with many actions performed for camera: “Eskimos were knowing actors and active collaborators”

way of life portrayed as timeless, when it and environment are under threat (film sponsored by fur company)
real people are always actors (we play the characters we, others imagine us to be)

after 1917, Soviets considered film the most modern and objective art form, least encumbered w/ bourgeoisie associations; in the two decades after the Revolution, there was unprecedented government support for filmmaking

Lenin recognized it as a tool for communication and propaganda: the need to educate illiterate peasants, who spoke dozens of different languages, in the basic tenets of communism, to set into motion the enormous socio-political changes of the Revolution

were factual or fiction films best suited to re-education and agitation? “The Leninist Film Proportion” specified that a certain percentage of all film production be factual (fiction films were "opiates")

the avant garde also found its way to film: cubism and futurism were fascinated w/  modern, mechanical, rhythmic celluloid experimentation; these were apolitical films, taking as their subject matter was the automized environment of cities, factories as their subject matter

the term "documentary" was the self-conscious creation, in the 1930s, of John Grierson, who had a Scottish Calvinist distrust of sin of play-acting and entertainment (vs. the "fresh art of observation and reality")

he also had a Marxist concern for community, believing that the only worthwhile cinema factual and useful: “I look on cinema as a pulpit and use it as a propagandist”

the pervasiveness of his ideas about documentary as a tool for social betterment has meant that the diverse imaginative possibilities of the form have been underestimated, and documentary films were thereafter largely a medium for propaganda (Nazis recognized its power; in WWII, Allied powers made training films, both to provide soldiers with psychological preparation, sustain civilian morale)

Asia initially filmed by outsiders; gradual emergence of authentic Asian voices in post-war era, w/ new forms and styles from Asian philosophies, aesthetics; consider the great film industries of India, Japan, China and Hong Kong, and the work of anti-ethnographer Trinh T. Minh-ha, read interestingly as a descendent of Flaherty

the 1950s rejected this restrictive notion of “social betterment”: documentary was seen as a means to express strong personal opinions and points of view; emerging belief in documentary filmmakers’ social obligation to NOT be objective led to intellectually elite  “essay films” (such as Orson Welles’ F for Fake)

shift to 16mm in the ‘60s meant revolutionary technical innovations in sound and camera equipment: more mobile cameras meant increased access and fluidity of shooting; needing less light meant new spontaneity and freedom in filming; portable sound recording, synchronic w/ the picture, opened the floodgates to direct cinema, cinema verite and observational documentaries

lead to increasing creation of the documentary in the editing room, and a more colloquial personal voice

the new aesthetic rejected a glossy “professional” aesthetic for the values of immediacy, intimacy and “the real" (flaws were desirable: they guaranteed authenticity)

there were different answers to questions about film-maker intervention (the French specialized in interviews; Americans radically opposed them, believing in recording w/out influencing reality: they chose subjects so involved that they forgot the camera); codified and puritanical commandments emerged, as the revolution became a style choice

the common idea about documentaries are that they are boring films about social problems (documentary as “discourse of sobriety”)

although traditional left-wing social documentary had real aesthetic power and social impact, and was motivated by a noble ambition to change the world (ex: Michael Moore), a newer generation of filmmakers reacted against the perception of preachiness, and looked for more imaginative, challenging, visually stimulating styles

documentary is less constrained now by ideological and aesthetic dogmas: there are more varied, imaginative, challenging films that are educational, informative, and unashamedly entertaining; this shift in terms of engagement followed from an intensified market for entertainment

the non-linear interactive properties of the web have created new possibilities, but are also an obstacle to public “confrontation” that happens when a  viewer lacks many immediately available options for negotiating their route through the material: they just have to look and listen; this extends inclusiveness, but does it divert rather than inform and challenge?

there's an increasing willingness to challenge the boundaries between documentary and fiction, w/ documentary seen now as a statement of attitude, not content: images no longer have a definite, secure relation to actuality, but are known to be liable to digital manipulation and distortion, to provide access to, escape from, or neglect of aspects of the real world; the role of documentary in providing “evidence” is now very much open to question; so what other justifications are there for making these films?

IV. this brings us (back) to Thin Blue Line

go 'round giving your reactions: what you learned, what confused you, what your questions are...

Smacholdt: David Harris’s interview underscores the fact that everyone has his or her own reality .... The documentary brings up the point that “truth” is not by any means absolute.

maht91: The Thin Blue Line ... brings out a lot of good points about ... how the "reality" for one person might be a "lie" for another person .... This relates back to Shields [who] said: "When memory is called to answer, it often answers back with deception" .... the testimonies of the witnesses should not be taken as a reliable source of "facts" .... Who's testimony was truthful, was real! How can you decide ....?

... the World English Dictionary defines documentary as: "presenting factual material with little or no fictional additions" .... the Thin Blue Line presented the facts of the case, but the testimonies of the witnesses and Harris were not factual.

rachelr: I too am always struck by the discrepancy between different individuals' accounts of the same events .... And the fact that we can convince ourselves of the validity of something AND that others can convince us is both amazing and terrifying ....

V. critical responses to the film:
meticulously styled, tangential relationship to reality
detached and intense; heterogeneous materials,
heedless comprehensiveness of a dossier
spiraling circular form; obsessive repetitive visual motifs
echoed in Philip Glass’s hauntingly monotonous score; an epistemological thriller: brings us to paranoia of a detective’s hallucination, trance like, lyrical rendering of small messy murder case

Morris the true detective, investigator reshuffling evidence
came on story by accident, interviewing prisoners abt.
psychiatrist James Grigson, ‘Dr. Death," he met
Randall Adams and became convinced of his innocence →
urgent compulsive quality of the film

Morris has degree in philosophy, once worked as private detective; here he investigates the nature of untruth: with a sophisticated understanding of relation between art and reality, he turned the case into tabloid poetry, a meditation on the uncertainty and fascination of violence
ironic then that it operated as an expose of the miscarriage of justice, and had an actual effect on American legal reform

Linda Williams, "Truth, History, and the New Documentary": TBL as prime example of postmodern approach to trauma of inaccessible past that intervenes in the construction of those truths

stylistically remarkable: film-noirish beauty, studied, slow-motion, expressionistic reenactments of different versions of murder scene, Philp Glass’s hypnotic score

acutely aware that individuals are not self-coherent and consistent identities, but actors in competing narratives constructed, staged by documentarian

near-confession in audio interview, in context of manifest staging, temporal manipulation, intrusive, self-reflexive style
interview: “There is no reason why documentaries can’t be as personal as fiction filmmaking and bear the imprint of those who made them. Truth isn’t guaranteed by style or expression. It isn’t guaranteed by anything.”

confessional, talking-cure mode of interviewees: rambling, free-associating discourse collides w/ and is sacrificed to juridicial narrative about guilt

psychological complexity of innocent man also sacrificed (what was Adams up to that night?)
Morris’s strategic approach to truth: deployed to expose lies; witnesses cozy up to camera to indict themselves

Morris closes down representation of Adams’ story to show convenient scapegoating; axiom of new documentary: films cannot reveal truth of events, but only ideologies

yet these films still have a special interest in the relation to the real: truths which matter but cannot be transparently represented; too simple dichotomy between naive faith in truth of image and embrace of fictional manipulation: many gradations of fictionalized manipulation (Morris’s scrupulous reconstructions of subjective truths of events viewed from different p.o.v.s)

instead of careening between idealist faith in documentary truth and cynical recourse to fiction, define documentary as set of strategies designed to choose from among a horizon of relative, contingent truths

this definition holds on to the concept of a real in face of tendencies to assimilate documentary entirely into rules and norms of fiction: TBL shows that it is possible to intervene in the political and cultural construction of truths that matter: the narratives we live by

TBL: truth of past is traumatic, violent, unrepresentable in images, obscured by official lies masking individual responsibility for miscarriage of justice

Morris refuses to fix one truth, goes on seeking reverberations, repetitions (cf. problem of Michael Moore films: too narrowly oppose a singular fictionalized truth to singular official lie)

replace argument about commitment to objectivity vs. fiction w/ one about appropriate strategies for representing meaning; Morris animated not by opposition between absolute truth and fiction, but awareness of inaccessibility of moment of trauma irretrievably located in past; reactivates past in images of present; shows lies as partial truths

“getting back @ the father” cliché for explaining male violence gains resonance in Harris’s audio interview: “if he’d had a place to stay, he’d never had no place to go, right?” “he didn’t have a place for somebody to stay that helped him that night”; Randall Adams played an unwitting role in the psychic history of 16-yr-old, repeating his father’s rejection: revenged

David Harris proclaims innocence of man he personally condemned: Dallas county legal system helped him accomplish scapegoating; individual guilt both manifest and viewed in larger historical context

some form of truth is the always receding goal of documentary film....But...not...a simple unmasking or reflection. It is a careful construction, an intervention in the politics and the semiotics of representation.

the choice is not between two entirely separate regimes of truth and fiction...rather in strategies of fiction for the approach to relative truths. Documentary...can and should use all the strategies of fictional construction to get at truths

 Class Notes by Smacholdt