Friday Film Festival 005: Sixties Documentaries

I honestly don't remember what impulse suggested that I download a bunch of old documentaries. I think I might have been looking at Wikipedia's list of the films that have been selected for preservation in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. I guess I was still trying to get examples of as many wide-ranging genres as possible, before I started focusing deep on my immediate interests. But I've had these three films grouped together for a while now, and I really wanted to watch the first one, so here goes.

01. Jazz On A Summer's Day
(USA) Aram Avakian & Bert Stern · 1960

It did not disappoint: I spent the entire hour-and-a-half running time with either a big dopey grin or a look of revelatory awe on my face. If you haven't seen this movie, you should. Even if you don't (think you) like jazz, even if documentaries bore you, even if you hate the past and want to think only of the future — you should see this film.

It's not a documentary in the way we usually think of documentaries today: talking heads, arguments being advanced, a narrator with one of those "trustworthy" voices. It's rather an impressionistic concert film (I'll go ahead and say way better than Woodstock, even though I haven't seen Woodstock) showing what it might have been like to attend the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, especially if you wandered into town or down to the shore for much of the afternoon. And it's beautifully, even gorgeously, shot. Bert Sterns, the principal cameraman, was a fashion photographer, and it shows; his eye for composition, light, and color make this an exquisite document of a (somewhat) vanished era. (Mad Men fans, take note. Except also get ready for your fantasy of a past when everyone always looked elegant everywhere to crumble.)

The music is, predictably, awesome. Anita O'Day's performance here was one of the highlights of her career, and of the acts I know well, Thelonious Monk, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong (with Jack Teagarden!) and Mahalia Jackson range from good to breathtaking. (Plus a rock & roll interlude with Big Maybelle and Chuck Berry! I danced in my seat.) But I'm even happier to have been introduced to people I didn't previously know, especially Chico Hamilton's minimalist rhythm piece (with guitar work from John Pisano that invents post-rock forty years early).

In addition to gorging myself on the imagery and delighting in the music, I enjoyed the movie as a sociological document. The cameras take in the audiences nearly as much as at the performers, and we get to people-watch among the crowds who came to Rhode Island to listen to jazz (and blues). The older, whiter audiences that came out for the day fade into a younger, hipper, multiracial audience for the after-sunset crowd, and the way Sterns captures all kinds of moods from boredom to reverence to gotta-dance excitement with his camera made me wish that more documentaries today would just let images of people speak for themselves. It's not Jazz On A Summer's Day isn't manipulative — it's as much a misrepresentation of reality as any concert film (e.g. it pretends everything happened in one day when the footage was shot over a period of weeks), and the emotional crescendo it takes towards the end (particularly if you know your music history) is as artfully edited as anything by Hitchcock or Kubrick.

But if you like movies, if you like music, if you like people, or even if you just like pretty pictures, you should see this film.

02. High School
(USA) Frederick Wiseman · 1968

But it may be that what planted the seeds of interest in old documentaries in my mind was a Battleship Pretension episode on which guest Matt Champagne talked about the films of Frederick Wiseman. Wiseman is (very limitedly) famous as one of the few "pure" documentarians, a man who advances no argument and doesn't even exist as far as the camera is concerned. He simply shoots and edits; no voiceovers, no interviews, no breaking the fourth wall.

This movie was his second full-length documentary (his first examined the workings of a mental institution), and it's immersive as hell. In fact I had a hard time watching it at points: the consistent focus on school staff as conflict managers (few of whom are any good at it) only needed a joke or two to be as uncomfortably hilarious as The Office. But actually, the television show it reminds me of most is Friday Night Lights — the handheld camera work, the fascinating characters, the attention to small gestures and overlooked detail in high school life.

But there's no Coach or Tami Taylor here. The adults are serving time just as much as the kids, and at best are trying to mold their sullen, whining charges into an adulthood thirty years out of date. (There's no Tim Riggins here either; these kids are gawky and underdeveloped and miserably inarticulate, like real high schoolers.) I've read a little bit of what people online have said about this movie, and the unrelieved atmosphere of oppression that they see doesn't match what I saw: the school is as dull and institutional as any school, but the teachers are just as human as the students -- and the worst of the bullying couneslors is shown in a classroom setting to be smart and challenging, even if he doesn't apply the lessons of the labor movement to his charges.

As a snapshot of its time (soundtrack: "On The Dock Of The Bay," "Simon Says," "The Dangling Conversation"), it's less interesting than as a study in the universal boredom, conflict, and fumblings toward adulthood that mark educational institutions everywhere. High schools are terrible, as Wiseman clearly acknowledges — but what's the alternative?

03. Cronique d'un été (Chronicle Of A Summer)
(France) Edgar Morin & Jean Rouch · 1960

An experiment in cinema verité in which the participants sit around discussing philosophies of life, the impossibility of the modern industrial world, and the futility of ideology — could anything be more resoundingly, yawn-inducingly French?

About halfway through, though, two things happen to electrify the languid, pause-filled conversation. First, the introduction of Marilù, an Italian immigrant whose beautiful, expressive face and willingness to get emotional about her interior world makes the film — even in the shitty VHS-to-VHS transfer which was all I could find — spring to life. Then there's the sudden realization that Marceline, the woman whose clumsy man-on-the-street interviews began the whole thing, is both a racist and a Holocaust survivor.

It still never approaches anything like the emotional pornography of modern reality television, but in its willingness to go meta — the second-to-last scene is a discussion among the participants as to how "real" they thought the previous hour of the film was (and the final scene is a conversation between the filmmakers about how well they thought it all worked) — it holds a fascination for anyone interested in process and the way that narratives can be created out of very little substance, not to mention the way that the same "story" can be read in multiple ways by different people.

And the scenes which weren't just people sitting around in apartments talking over omnipresent cigarettes and wine bottles — the long sequence going through factory worker Angelo's day, for example, or the interlude in vacation spot St. Tropez — had the usual verité appeal of allowing a peek into lives not our own. It was a pleasant wind-down from the more immediately engaging American documentaries; I'm not sure that I'd ever want to see it again (at least not in this transfer), but I'd certainly say it deserves to be more widely known by students of film.

Oh, goddamn, am I a student of film now?

No comments:

Post a Comment