Re: Beyond Story
From: Sam Green
Date: Tue, Oct 1, 2019 at 11:32 AM
Subject: Re: Beyond Story
To: Alexandra Juhasz
When we got together for coffee in the spring, I told you that I loved “Beyond Story” and thought it was an incredibly important intervention in the doc world. A great kick in the ass. It did what many successful essays or manifestos do: summed up lots of feelings and thoughts the reader might have been having but didn’t necessarily have clear words for. So thanks for doing it!
It’s funny, last night I saw Cunningham, a new film by Alla Kovgan, and the film is extremely germane to all this. I loved it, btw. It’s a documentary about Merce Cunningham, but if you were looking for a traditional biopic or lots of drama about Merce’s artistic journey or love life, this was not your movie. Probably some people in the audience were unsatisfied, but the director clearly decided to make a film that was about dance, and so there were long and lavishly filmed sequences (it’s in 3D!!) of dancers performing Cunningham’s works. There was nothing in the film about his childhood or inner struggles.
Cunningham is a radical film in that it eschews drama and plot and narrative in the service of something else. I was very aware of the fact that the Netflix version of this film, or the American Masters version of this film would be quite different. Those movies would’ve milked the hell out of the drama and narrative arc of his life and work.
The thing that puzzles me is those movies are often so boring!!!! Or maybe “predictable” is a more accurate word. With those kinds of movies, often you can just watch the trailer and you’ve pretty much seen the film itself—you know exactly what’s going to happen. One of the things I love most in documentary is to be surprised. There are so many fantastic and fantastically creative ways to make any film.
You make the great point in “Beyond Story” about how this increasing stranglehold of story on doc filmmaking comes at just the time when technological change is blowing the form wide open. We are living thru a time of such enormous flux and disruption.
Today, you can make a fantastic film of any length with super high production values on your damn telephone. You could project the film onto a screen on the side of a barn or some other building with equipment that is far better than any 16mm movie theater projection ever was. You can put the video on YouTube and have an audience that is far greater than most docs ever had. You can make a 5-hour film about OJ that shows on Netflix. You can make a fantastic multi-channel installation that will screen for months at the New Museum. None of this was remotely possible in the year 2000.
So the weird thing here is why has most documentary filmmaking remained so unchanged???!!!! I’m in the Academy and have to watch a million films each year for the Oscars, and jeez—if I have to watch another hagiography of (insert name of famous person here), I’m gonna puke! Yes, there are fantastic films like Hale County and Hottest August and Cameraperson, but these films are the exceptions that in some ways prove the rule. These kinds of films that experiment with form and speak in unique cinematic voices rarely get support and exposure.
But rather than moan about this, I’m much more interested in exploring something that I’ve noticed, which is the huge cultural chasm between the two ends of the doc world. I think this is one of the reasons why our form is still so conservative.
Yes, there is definitely the Flaherty/academic wing of the doc world. I was at MDOCS earlier this year and was super impressed. As much as I like those folks and feel a kinship w/ that world, it seems pretty clear that those ideas and those writings and those critiques are not circulating or having an impact on the other end of the doc world, which is the doc business and the filmmakers working in it.
Erika Balsom has super important things to say about documentary today—I find her one of the most important voices out there—but I would guess that most of my friends who are making feature length documentaries have never heard of her.
One of the really interesting things for me with my own live cinema work is that it has allowed me to get glimpses of other disciplines. I’ve screened my live cinema pieces in the doc world but also in the performing arts world, the fine art world, as well as the rock world.
I’ve been really struck by how in the performing arts and art worlds, people are sharp, and both of those worlds have a culture of ideas and debate and issues that are being worked through. There are a million reasons I’m happy to not be in the art world, but I do envy them that—the fact that there is a high level of scholarship and an understanding of art history and writing about form. We don’t really have that; or we do, but it’s quite marginalized.
I think where “Beyond Story” resonated most with me is when you write “Form matters. Documentary form shapes ways of thinking and seeing, just as it emerges from and shapes ideological assumptions.” Amen! I can’t agree more. Pushing the boundaries of form in documentary has been at the heart of my live cinema work for the past ten years.
(I think you came to the show I did of A Thousand Thoughts, my most recent live cinema piece with the Kronos Quartet, earlier this year at Town Hall. It involves live narration and music, and I cue both still and moving images from my laptop that are projected onto a screen.)
A few years ago I did a talk on live cinema. It felt like a good way for me to do some research on the history of performance and cinema and a kind of survey of who is doing what in live cinema today. As part of the research I spoke w/ Ed Halter, whose sensibility and knowledge about film I’ve always admired. Ed mentioned something that really stuck w/ me: he said that during the 1920s, Fox Studio had a slogan that they would put above the door to their movie palaces, “the film starts when you walk in the front door.” I loved that. The idea being that the context in which a film is screened is huge in shaping the experience. The theater itself, the sound system, the size and age and density of the audience—all of this is part of the film in a way.
I’ve always been surprised at how little this is acknowledged in film and documentary. If you see Aquarela in a huge theater w/ Dolby Atmos and I watch it on my laptop while checking email from time to time, there’s still the assumption that we watched the same film, and I don’t think that’s true at all. The context in which you see a film is such a huge part of the experience of that film and by extension the film itself.
So I’m trying with my work to push at the boundaries of what a documentary film can be. I’m very deliberate about calling what I do “live documentary” even though I could call it performance or lecture performance or expanded cinema.
It’s also important to me to be outside the commercial strictures of the film world, but not to be relegated to the experimental film ghetto. I made A Thousand Thoughts without any corporate involvement. I didn’t even sign any contracts or consult a lawyer. And by the time other people are reading this, we will have grossed a million dollars with the film. All done completely DIY.
I feel like audiences are like junkies in a way. A doc that involves narrative has to now be the greatest story ever told! And social issue docs have to utterly pulverize your heart and leave you sobbing on the floor or make you mad as hell and writing your congressperson. There’s very little room these days for small films.
Which leads me back to last night’s screening of Cunningham. I wrote to Alla Kovgan afterwards to congratulate her, and she replied that she was very deliberate about making a film that was less about the drama of Merce Cunningham’s life and more about his work itself. I wrote to her that I felt a huge admiration for what she had managed to pull off. It’s not easy to swim against the current in the doc world today—it’s especially hard to swim against the current and make a living at it.
So thanks to you, and Alisa, for writing “Beyond Story” and Jason for publishing it and supporting this special issue that follows. Hopefully it will make a difference. In a way, it already has.
With admiration, Sam
Background Video: Cunningham (Alla Kovgan, 2019)