The Filmmaker and critic John Grierson is commonly credited as being the first to use the term ‘documentary’, in a 1926 review of Robert Flaherty’s film Mona, as a definition for any non-fictive cinema medium. The term documentary itself derives from connecting document with authenticity and truth. Today we interpret the term ‘document’ with connotations of legal and official status: we need to agree upon its status for an object to become a document. This legal concept is quite central to the idea of documentary both for its ‘scientific’ evidence, and for the interview technique; yet shaping and treating elements of reality to arrange comments in order to disclose ‘the real’ was present from the very beginning of documentary filmmaking. The truth-value of it relies upon a shared set of values; the idea, the author, the production, the audience and the distribution. In other words, this belief-system depends on the viewer’s interaction with the artwork/document/object presented: we can appreciate or dislike the information that the documentary offers to us, but all this comes after we agree upon a technique.
In this essay I am going to investigate the difference in techniques between documentary makers. I am going to look at both artists and musicians being the subject of the documentary. I want to find out if truth is important in documentary filmmaking. As the viewer are we happier to view our heroes (the artist or musician) on a pedestal or do we want to see the real person. Is it in fact true that ‘you should not let the truth get in the way of a good story ’? I am going to try and achieve this by looking at two methodologies in documentary filmmaking, the fly on the wall approach (cinema verity) and the talking head style of documentary. I will also touch on a more question and answer, casual interview style methodology too.
I am going to start by comparing two Bob Dylan documentaries, Don’t Look Back (1967) by D.A. Pennebaker and No Direction Home (2005) by Martin Scorsese. I want to also speak about Gerhard Richter Painting by Corinna Belz (2010), The Last Waltz (1974) (Scorsese) and Francis Bacon’s South Bank Show documentary (1985).
Don’t Look Back; shot in 16mm, black-and-white, shows a young, childish, immature, spoilt, arrogant, frightened but most of all, explosively creative, Dylan. Don’t Look Back follows four weeks of Bob Dylan’s solo acoustic tour across England in 1965. Virtually absent are the standard documentary conventions of archival or interview footage. Nor is the film a concert picture, with very few live numbers captured in their entirety, and more than half of the film following Dylan backstage and between gigs. Instead the camera acts solely as a fly on the wall and for 96 minutes (of 20 hour recording) the viewer watches Dylan’s ongoing evolution as performer and personality. It’s this fly on the wall style that I feel should capture the real person, as much as anyone can capture what is the real Dylan. He often acts up to the camera telling jokes or playing the ‘rock star’. Here in lies the worry that perhaps when someone is being filmed something happens where they can’t be themselves.
Pennebaker’s hand-held camera is neither reverential nor antagonistic. Every now and then a particular framing reeks faintly of composition, but there never appears to be any effort to sanitize the more sordid moments or glamorize the subject. The camera is unflinching, capturing the bad and the worse, the uneasy and the indefensible. There are no cutaways to talking heads rattling on about the meaning of it all. There are no shots of Dylan peering earnestly into the lens extolling the virtues of world peace. Pennebaker, himself, is caught within the frame on several occasions, goofing around with Dylan, recoiling in horror, huffing mightily on a cigarette. He is not the invisible fly-on-the-wall, the hidden voyeur, and this is not candid camera. He has introduced himself into the environment and is interacting with his subjects. His presence is simply part of the equation. There is no overarching theme or thesis imposed on the action. The film is not narrated and famous figures go unidentified. If you don’t recognize Marianne Faithfull or Allen Ginsberg or Alan Price, or even Joan Baez, you might not note their ephemeral presence (or odd disappearance).
I’m afraid while talking about honesty in documentary we fall at the first hurdle here. While Scorsese was credited with directing No Direction Home he conducted no interviews with anyone for the talking head sections of the film and had no communication with Dylan throughout the recording. He only agreed to ‘direct’ after all interviewing and archiving was completed, mostly, by Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen. No Direction Home starts and finishes with excerpts from Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back with a few more clips dotted about in the middle. Scorsese has often been criticized for doing so by critics; myself included. I felt it showed a lack of imagination and inventiveness. No Direction Home chronicles the career of the singer-songwriter during the tumultuous years between 1961 and 1966. Scorsese being a personal friend of Dylan knows he won’t let you into his world. So, instead of probing Dylan for stories or information, No Direction Home interviews musicians and friends of Dylan who were around during that time. They cover the issues and major performances he was involved in. Yes, there are plenty of Bob Dylan interviews but one would wonder are they in fact just responses to the interviews by his fellow musician. In saying that it is as frank as you will hear him speaking. No Direction Home ends with a special dedication to Pennebaker for his “extraordinary contribution”. Pennebaker even makes a brief appearance as one of many talking heads.
It is a good contrast to Pennebaker’s ’67 documentary although I do find No Direction Home more accessible. It is a much slower paced than Don’t Look Back where we were looking at this wired kid running in and out of rooms manic like one of The Beatles in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. Here we are talking to a mature Dylan who is remembering what happened back in the day. We are looking at a series of interviews, broken up with archive footage of Dylan’s childhood and his early days on the road up until the point where he meets The Band (then known as The Hawks) and he goes electric. This leads me on to my next documentary I want to investigate The Last Waltz.
The Last Waltz blends concert and sound stage footage with director Martin Scorsese’s interviews with members of The Band. They discuss the group’s history, including its early-Sixties beginnings as The Hawks, backup band for rockabilly trouper Ronnie Hawkins, and then becoming Bob Dylan’s band. The Last Waltz made music and cinema history. This was to be the final concert by The Band. Starring their famous friends, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Neil Diamond and Eric Clapton to name but a few it was to become the best rock movie of all time. But behind the scenes, there was mayhem. We are led to believe throughout the film that we are dealing with a band of really good friends who went on the road and after 16years grew weary and decided to have a farewell concert to mark their career on the road. This was not the case. In his book, Levon Helm says, ‘I didn’t want any part of it. I didn’t want to break up The Band. And I told this to Robbie Robertson one day in October at our lawyer’s office. It was one of many acrimonious meetings. Although I always got there on time, I always had the feeling the meeting had started an hour earlier. So The Last Waltz got set up with very limited input from me. And another interesting point was that the powers that be would only finance the flick if Bob Dylan appeared in it, which he did briefly. For something that was to be a celebration and certainly looked like one on screen, there was so much falseness looking back at the film knowing these facts. The point I want to make here is that, had I not researched the facts and had not been a massive Levon Helm fan I would never have known The Last Waltz to be a lie. But in this case it’s down to the crafty editing by Scorsese and Robeson not down to people acting strange in front of a camera like in Don’t Look Back. Scorsese gives us the impression in back stage sequences of The Last Waltz that we are watching a fly on the wall style documentary, when in fact, it is contrived, in that it was highly edited to portray Robbie as head of the band which he was not. And the fact that nearly the entire thing is over dubbed is a kind of falseness or lie. Not to mention the entire re-edit of Neil Young’s appearance where he came on stage and sang his set with a rock of coke hanging out of his nose, this had to be removed frame by frame. So even though he was visibly ‘out of it’, for some reason this seemed a step too far. There are interview segments in which the camera cuts back and forth from Richard to Robbie, for instance, and it is very clear that Richard’s portion was cut, and not in the most flattering way. Robbie, on the other hand, is never caught off-guard and, consequently, his segments, both in performance and in the interview sequences, come off, at first glance, as calm, cool, and collected. But time has a way of both mellowing and elucidating, and 30 years later, his sequences seem stiff, fake, and scripted. I guess this is a kind of poetic justice. An astute viewer can see, feel and sense what’s real and what’s put on.
Scorsese uses a mixture of talking head/fly on the wall styles, which is very interesting and does lead a first time viewer to believing that interacting with the members of The Band back stage is very natural and un-choreographed. One almost feels like you’re there on the couch sitting beside Richard. Up till this point I may sound bitter of what happened during the making of The Last Waltz but in cinematic terms it’s a masterpiece. Scorsese employed a who’s who of great Hollywood cinematographers, including Michael Chapman, Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs. There are, quite frankly, few fiction films, much less documentaries, that are as beautiful and well-shot as The Last Waltz. Scorsese’s extensive storyboarding of every song provided his camera operators with ideal lighting and photography conditions and their camera movements were coordinated and controlled by Scorsese throughout virtually the entire concert recording – and certainly in the studio sequences.
In Gehard Richter Painting, Richter certainly recognises the difficultly in being honest or true in front of the camera. He compares it to being in hospital, except worse, he says. He feels he is giving away something, being in front of the camera, he feels exposed. He strives for honesty in his paintings and wants to come across the same on camera but, he says, with a laugh, being filmed ‘makes me walk differently’. This line made me immediately think of Dylan in Don’t Look Back bouncing around everywhere flamboyantly, smoking a cigarette as if the whole world was watching (and he knew it was). Richter is not like this and, I sense, he never was, he comes across as a genuine guy and, when asked how does he deal with fame, simply says, ‘it’s wonderful’ and laughs. In Gehard Richter Painting we see Richter in the studio and occasionally his assistants come in to lend a hand. You get a real sense, from the way Belz directs, that he still loves the work. She manages to capture him (after he gets used to the camera) deep in thought, struggling with the squeegee on the canvas and the joy in his face when the mark making process goes to plan. This is where the film is at its strongest, when Richter is not aware of the camera, when the beauty of his process is captured in his actions, from applying paint to his squeegee, to his delicate sensual brush strokes. The fly on the wall approach is now working. Like in Don’t Look Back it does some of the fly on the wall stuff like going to exhibitions and walking down the street. It became clear to me that a film about a painter must focus on painting. It was the actual work in the artist’s studio that interested me most: the authentic and immediate process of putting paint to canvas, and the instruments, gestures, and movements involved, emotionally as well as physically.
Working on a series of recent abstracts, he brushes big swaths of primary colour onto canvas. Then comes the more physical part: He takes a squeegee loaded with a single pigment and drags it across the surface. Each swipe covers the old painting and reveals a new composition. Watching this can be fascinating, even exciting.12
“Painting is a secretive business,” he tells us at the start of filming. Except when creating very large pictures, he always works alone — which made me question if he would be able to cope with a small film team in his inner work sanctum for weeks and months on end. My task was to establish a mental and emotional space that would allow us to co-exist in the uncluttered studio, each pursuing his work unhindered: Richter painting and our team filming.
“The main shooting period between April and September 2009 was an exceptional stroke of luck, as well as a process punctuated by the occasional crisis. A fundamental skepticism of the status quo is both inherent to Richter’s worldview and a key element of his painting technique: the giant squeegee he uses to apply and scrape off each monochromatic layer of paint becomes an instrument of assertion as well as doubt in his hands. And as we watched the painter at work, we too, became caught up in the tension and dynamics of the process, as we saw pictures emerge and then often disappear. Like the paintings themselves, we had to withstand the artist’s skepticism”, Corinna Belz, June 2011.
Francis Bacon’s South Bank Show documentary starts with Bacon and his interviewer Melvin Bragg walking down the street. We see them from an aerial view then from ground level where Bacon, ever aware of the camera, is smiling and ‘trying’ to ignore it. They go to the vaults of the Tate and view his work and critique others. This segment in particular seems full of loaded questions and rehearsed answers. They then go to his studio where the interview takes a turn for the hilarious but cringe worthy. Bacon gets stuck on one of the questions and takes a piece of paper out of his pocket, and reads from it the beautifully-written answer. When the studio segment came to a close a photographer took their picture. This was a very interesting tool to capture documentation within documentary. It was highly staged for us the viewer but I was not sure whether it was in fact a real photograph or was it just for the purpose of the documentary viewer. They use both of the methodologies I spoke of, the talking head and the fly on the wall, which I will speak about soon. When interviewing Bacon, the interviewer Melvin Bragg, is both out of shot and right in shot alongside Bacon. There is a segment in a restaurant where they are both drinking red wine and, at this stage Bacon is visibly worse for wear, and Bragg is right in shot with Bacon. He has become part of the documentary. He is very important to this documentary at this point as he almost plays a character and acts up to Bacon trying to make him relax in front of camera, perhaps. It has now also become about him just by his being filmed. Bacon seems to be reading from a sheet here too, at points. In looking for an honest portrayal of an artist there are lots of reasons why this fails, until the end of the documentary where he visits a drinking club in Soho, of which, he is a member. It’s a wild place full of ‘eccentric characters’ everyone completely ‘out of it’. It’s tragic yet somehow beautiful for here, for the first time, we see the real Francis Bacon on home turf. It’s proper fly on the wall; it’s like he doesn’t know the camera is there. Perhaps he is too drunk to realise, but, nevertheless, he is honest and real among the locals and at this point the interviewing has stopped and we just see him wandering through the crowds in this pub and laughing and talking and drinking. I would have loved if Scorsese and Roberson were brave enough to show The Band like this. to show them pissed or on drugs. Not to glamorize the affair, just to show what they were really like, to show what was actually going on behind the scenes. REAL LIFE!
“Art is a lie that tells the truth.” With so many quotes attributed to Picasso, it’s hard to track down where they actually came from, or whether they were even said at all. This is key to the ideas I have been trying to get across in this essay. Even what we think is honesty or truth, is only that because the artist tells us so, be it the painter or the director. So at this point I guess the question is do we care if we are getting honesty or truth from the artist? Perhaps if we hear the truth it is less interesting than the made-up truth, or the real person, Dylan, for example, would be boring if the cameras we turned off. Or do we actually (which I suspect we do) want the truth whatever that may be. Is the truth exciting? Perhaps real truth is impossible to obtain. If we perceive the truth to be that which conforms to reality, fact, or actuality then we have to ask ourselves what is reality? Can an edited concert or someone painting in front of a camera be reality or does the presence of the camera make it false? As we know people act different in font of cameras so is this false or just a different reality? I guess it’s the kind of debate that will go on forever. But it’s this that makes documentary filmmaking and, art in general, interesting. I, for one, as is quite evident from the title, want the truth no matter what. As we have discovered, it is difficult to get honesty on screen but not impossible. Truth is reality.