film history

On Albert Maysles

Brilliant documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles died this past Thursday at his home in Harlem. I was lucky enough to interview the groundbreaking direct cinema filmmakera-maysles-black-white when he was in town for the Provincetown International Film Festival a few years ago and I know he has been helpful to many an up and coming filmmaker. In his interview he was charming and friendly, more genuinely interesting and interested than most of the people I have interviewed over the years. Here is a link to the story I wrote for Provincetown Magazine based on that interview:

Albert Maysles will be missed…

Documentary as/is Art

I’ve just returned from a great cinematic adventure in New York City. When it comes to the movies, I don’t think there is any other place in the world (except perhaps Paris) that cares as much about film on such a large scale, or that has as much to offer in terms of cinema.

I was there primarily to attend the Codes and Modes Documentary Film Conference at Hunter College, but I also managed to take in some seminal Nam June Paik video art nearby, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film Goodbye to Language (in 3-D, by the way!), and one program of the Other Israel Film Festival at NYU, as well as spending about an hour at MoMA. Although I am always focused on movies for a Cape Cod audience, I am going to pull together a post here that is more philosophical than directly linked to a local film or something in theaters here at present. Although all of my adventures were distinct, I found on the train ride home that there were in fact many sites of intersection along the way, leading me to think about how films, documentaries in particular, are valued.

Early documentarist John Grierson, (who coined the term “documentary” in reference to Robert Flaherty’s 1926 film Moana), defined documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality.” Somewhere over the past couple of decades, with the explosion in popularity of documentaries, the first part of that equation has been minimized to the point where the definition is almost changed to “the political treatment of actuality.” Over the course of my weekend in New York, I started thinking more and more about why this is, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it has its roots in two thins: 1- the lack of appreciation for art in general, and 2- the historical role of films, first as novelties, then as  mass entertainment and escape, and finally, as spectacle.

It makes sense that in a society that doesn’t value the arts enough to support them the way other countries do or to support arts education, all art must serve some other purpose before it is considered valuable. The masses of people who crowd into MoMA to take their picture in front of Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Dali’s Persistence of Memory, aren’t there to be provoked by the work on the walls; they are there for the celebrity of these particular images. It is the same impulse that gets people excited when they see a celebrity on the street and get their picture taken with them. It has nothing to do with that person or even really with their creative accomplishments (about which the “fan” may not even be particularly knowledgeable). It’s all about commodifying that person, or in this case, the artwork. Take a picture with it and now you will own it in some way, rather than actually experiencing it. The image itself has lost its meaning, no longer provoking thought, only to become a consumer product inducing momentary pleasure.

Since the beginning of cinema, movies have been spectacles, first of scientific innovation and technology, and later of entertainment and escape. Documentary has developed under the shadow of fiction films in this regard, with Hollywood entertainment providing greater spectacle than nonfiction films can or should offer. This combined with the desire to justify appreciation of art by giving it some other purpose that is more concrete gives us a situation now where documentaries are not appreciated for their value as art. We now see the most popular documentaries being those that are perceived do something to directly shift an audience’s views toward a specific conclusion that leads to a specific action. Where is the art in that?

Throughout documentary film history, filmmakers have continually revisited the problems of 1-defining what a documentary is or can be, and 2- how best to represent truth. This work is done in a variety of ways, including selection of subject matter and ethical considerations, but also through a huge array of choices the filmmaker makes with regard to approach and form. These are primarily aesthetic choices that influence how the maker’s ideas are expressed, just as they do in other types of movies. So when audiences, funders, and even film critics (who should certainly know better) consider documentaries only along the lines of their content, they’ve missed at least half of what the value of the films are!

Documentary filmmakers are not journalists, as a general rule. Our professional associations and networks generally come out of film, not journalism. Our business is making compelling films that express what we have personally found to be a truth, not objective reality, not necessarily “fair and balanced reporting,” and yet still truthful. A whole separate post could be written with regard to the changing nature of journalism and the different types of journalism that exist, but it isn’t relevant here. Documentary films need to be understood as movies. The best in the field experiment with form and style and advance the aesthetics of documentary; they select the best approach for their subject matter each and every time they make a film and don’t rely on standard narrative structure or tried and true methods unless those are the best for the job. They expand on the developments over the course of the past 120 years of documentary film and try to continue the ongoing process of building a documentary film language that has impact and reaches audiences in more diffuse ways that cannot be measured by ridiculous outcome studies. How do you determine the effect of a work of art on all who witness it?

When I make a documentary, I don’t know what my audience is going to do with that experience. All I can do is put out there the most honest, truthful portrayal of what I experienced in making the film. I don’t make films to force my ideas upon people; I make them to open them up to ideas, and if they are especially interested in my subject matter, I hope they will see other films on the same topic. The idea is to foster awareness about the world around us, as opposed to forcing people’s views into one preconceived hole. Other documentarians do want to force people’s views  and simplify problems in to right and wrong.  I think, even when we agree with the views expressed in such films, it is important to call those films out for what they are: propaganda.

I think there is value in art, their is value in presenting complex ideas and issues in complex, interesting ways, and critical thinking is what comes from engaging with art in a meaningful way. I don’t think that can be measured, but we all know it when it happens to us, when we have that incredible cinematic experience and it opens our eyes and asks us to think, not simply absorb.

On Life Itself

When I was preparing to go to the Nantucket Film Festival, the first thing on my list of films to see was Life Itself. I wanted to see it because it is a documentary about Roger Ebert, a film critic who was so central to the development of film criticism in America, and also probably the first person to introduce me to the idea that films could be taken seriously enough to argue about them on television. When I realized that the film was directed by Steve James, whose 1994 film Hoop Dreams was also central in my development as a documentary filmmaker, I was filled with anticipation for what I thought would be a film about Ebert’s work. But the film I saw was not really about film criticism and Ebert’s significance to the field; it was a document of the end of Ebert’s life, when the man known for his words could no longer speak.


An image from Steve James’ documentary about Roger Ebert, “Life Itself.”

I’ve gone back and forth in my mind as to whether or not this was a disappointment. Life Itself does tell Ebert’s story, and there was a lot to his professional development that I did not know about, but because James’ focus is on the man behind the thumbs, the documentary is more about Ebert’s spirit. Yes, there are interviews with directors whose work he championed (most notably Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese, both of whom I admire), and other film critics, such as A.O. Scott, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Richard Corliss are interviewed about  his contributions to their field, but a good portion of the film is spent on the footage James got of Ebert in his hospital room and in rehabilitation as he tried to recover from cancer, which had plagued him for 10 years. It is that end-of-life struggle that resonates most.

Ebert is depicted as a character of depth and complexity, which is rare in contemporary documentaries. In fiction films, we are given complete access to the characters created for the story–their emotional lives, as well as their behaviors. But in a documentary, we are often limited by the subject’s power to reveal only what (s)he wishes to make public. In this case, the film is based on Ebert’s previously published memoir of the same name, but in James’ hands–with this footage of Ebert at the end of his life, the choice to include his step-children and grandchildren, who learned a lot from him, as well as early outtakes from the Siskel and Ebert television show that demonstrate the very real animosity between the two critics–we see many layers to Ebert’s personality. He is a loving and beloved husband, stepfather, and grandfather. He is a sometimes arrogant film critic and writer who had no trouble defending his views, but who, unlike the stereotypical critic, was just as passionate in promoting outstanding films as he was in cutting down poorly conceived, bad films. It is not all a show for the cameras, although Ebert seems to have been very pleased to have become a film subject in his last days. There are things missing from this documentary (for example, Siskel’s successor, film critic Richard Roeper is never mentioned, although he co-hosted At The Movies with Ebert for eight years), but then how could there not be; no one’s life story can be told in 116 minutes. This depiction feels very real.

Ebert was criticized, along with Gene Siskel, for having simplified criticism with the thumbs up/thumbs down designations, but for those of us who have actually read Ebert’s criticism and not just watched him on TV, the thumbs are a minor part of his contribution. Ebert, the film tells us, once called the movies “a machine that generates empathy.” Life Itself fits that description as well. It also leaves us thinking about mortality, love, passion, and how to embrace life’s challenges. The feeling I left the Dreamland Theater with after seeing Life Itself was one of loss, but at the same time, I felt reinvigorated about the value of cinema, and I think Ebert would have liked that.

The Late Great Gordon Willis

The late great Gordon Willis (1931-2014)

The late great Gordon Willis (1931-2014)

On July 15th, 2003, I had the pleasure of interviewing master cinematographer Gordon Willis. I was writing a story on the Woods Hole Film Festival, which was presenting a Master Class with Willis that year (which I also attended).

Born in Queens, N.Y., Willis lived in Falmouth and confessed he didn’t really like to get too involved with film societies, etc., but he made an exception for the Festival. Willis left a significant mark on the world of film. He was often called “The Prince of Darkness” for his ability to use darkness in creating a stunning cinematographic look. You can see it in his major works: The Godfather (both I (1972) and II (1974)); Annie Hall (1977); Manhattan (1979); Klute (1971); Zelig (1983); All the President’s Men (1976); and many others. These are films that show the mark of a visionary cinematographer who held his own with strong directors.

Willis passed away on Sunday, May 18th here on the Cape. I was able to dig up my transcript from our  interview and, although it reflects a different cinematic landscape being 11 years old, I’d like to share some of it with you here…..

Rebecca Alvin: How did you get involved with the Woods Hole Film Festival?
Gordon Willis: I don’t know, it’s like everything that I’ve done. Actually, I’m kind of a recluse when I’m not shooting. I’ve never been socially oriented, even in California. I’d go out to dinner. I’d go to wrap parties once in a while. I go out to dinner with friends and stuff, but I never really availed myself of film festivals especially, you know….I teach at colleges, film schools, etc. So to answer your question, it’s not something I try to do. I have friends who like to do it, but I don’t. If somebody gets me on the phone and I feel like doing it, I’ll do it. In this case, you know it’s just down the street, and I live here and feel like I’d like to contribute something to anyone who’s interested.

RA: Do you live here year round?
GW: I do live here year round, in fact winter around here is my favorite time.

RA: How long have you lived there?
GW: I don’t know, time doesn’t leave a big impression on me. It’s like I don’t remember anything. It’s like it was yesterday. I think all in all, 12 going on 13 years now.

RA: You originally went into theater, correct?
GW: My original background, well yes. My family’s in the motion picture business. My father was a makeup artist for Warner Bros. I sort of grew up knocking around in the family. And I wanted to be an actor for a while. I did a lot of summer stock. In fact I did a number of years up in Gloucester… But I found that…stagecraft and then finally photography, were better….Luckily, I forgot about acting (laughs). Then I was in the service and I was lucky enough to get a bypass photo assignment….I came out in the 70s. Then I did my time as assistant cameraman, operating cameraman, all that….

RA: How has your work changed over the course of your career?
GW: That’s an interesting question actually. You’re the only one that’s asked that. I don’t know, I look at things that I first shot on my first job….and you become more sophisticated. You don’t carry a lot of baggage with you. What you learn over a period of time, if you’re smart, is that you subtract, not add. So I think if you look at things that I’ve done, you’ll see that I’m a minimalist; I reduce. I believe in the elegance of simplicity. I think over a period of time that’s what happens. Over 35 or 40 years of dealing with it, you learn to throw away and not add, so I think simple. Not simplistic, but simple.

RA: Do you have a favorite film you worked on?
GW: Well, I have a bouillabaisse of things that I like watching, retrospectively. I think probably Godfather II was the most–I’m proud of that movie based on the fact that it is quite an accomplishment. And I think that a lot of the choices that were made by me and by Francis Coppola were the right ones, and it’s probably, in my opinion, better than the first one…I also loved things that I did with Woody [Allen] and Alan Pakula. You know, I loved Klute, one of the first movie I did with Alan Pakula, and I loved Manhattan, which I did with Woody, and Annie Hall and some others, so I have a place in my heart for a lot of stuff. But if someone put me up against a wall and said, “pick a movie,” I’d probably say Godfather II .

Al Pacino in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather Part Two"

Al Pacino in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part Two”

RA: You worked with a lot of great directors. How does the process differ with different directors?
GW: Well, that’s a little like asking who’s your favorite wife, you know. I’ll simplify it by saying I was a very lucky person, because all the people who gave me the benefit of working with them were, first of all quite intelligent, but also very nice people. And without exception, I had the freedom to formulate the visual structure of every movie that I’ve ever worked on… Mostly I worked with a lot of writers, which was a good experience because if something wasn’t working, we could always just rip the page out…And that was always good. So there was that difference, like with Francis and Woody it was easy to fix things from a writing point of view. Alan Pakula was a different kind of thinker; he probably kind of over-thinks stuff. I’m just the opposite. But I’ll tell you what tied us all together was we all loved movies and we all had the same sensibility of what should happen on the screen. So , probably the most difficult operating relationship I had was with Francis, but it was a good one. In terms of the three times that I was with him, the first time was very bumpy, but the last two were fine. But all the rest you know, as I said, I didn’t deal too much with politics with any of these people. We were very, very easy and close. I mean working with Woody was like working with your hands in your pocket. And I don’t mean that he wasn’t difficult to deal with to get it right, it’s just that it was a very pleasant experience.

RA: Do you have any pet peeves about working with directors?
GW: I block very quickly, meaning that once directors finish rehearsing and see what the scene is going to be, I’m very quick to pick up whether we need one shot to make the scene work or whether we need ten shots to make it work. So I perceive that very quickly and [then there are the] discussions that I have with the director after that, (I get his point of view and I give my point of view), and then, as I say, I block very quickly and I set camera very quickly, so I don’t like too much in-depth dealing with it. Alan was very bad with that. He would overthink it. Woody didn’t overthink much and moved very quickly… So the only thing I had a peeve about was overthinking: the What If syndrome, I called it–”What if we tried this?”…I had no patience for options. Six months after shooting  you look at all your options in the editing room, and you can’t remember what movie you made. I don’t care for that. I like camera cutting, making decisions and shooting, and if you just cut the slates off you’ve got the movie. Most of the time we’d do that.

RA: Is there a difference between working with Hollywood and working with independent directors?
GW: See that was one of the good breaks I had; I never really got bogged down with quote Hollywood types. I mean Francis wasn’t a Hollywood type, Alan Pakula wasn’t a Hollywood type. Woody certainly wasn’t a Hollywood type. Some of the others I worked with weren’t Hollywood. Although they may have been embedded there because of business reasons, their mentality was not structured that way. And it took me a long time to move into Hollywood and…. I always hated it… the studio structure and a lot of the people.

Diane Keaton in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall"

Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”

RA: Do you use video at all, or just film?
GW: I don’t shoot any film at home. I shoot the digital video and I shoot digital films mainly because I cut my own stuff, and it’s all home-related; it’s all my grandchildren. But the bottom line is I have control of it all… Let me be careful how I say this – technically, I’m not in favor of it, but the philosophies of shooting apply, whether you shoot video or you shoot film. How you do it, how you put it together, the thought process should stay the same. But, the mechanics of film, as opposed to video–film is still a more organic process. I think one magical part about film is that it is organic: the distance between the audience and the story. And I like that. Video has sort of this immediacy to it, which I don’t particularly care for when I’m watching a movie. I love it when I’m doing a film thing at home. I love it that way, but I’m not too enamored of it on the screen at this point. I’m not saying it won’t happen, because it is happening. But it doesn’t change, as I said, your thought process–it’s how you cut, how you think–but it is visually not the same.

RA: What about the significance of post-production now? Is the cinematographer’s role now limited?
GW: Well, the whole thing about being a photographer or a cinematographer was that there was this kind of mystery to it because nobody really knew what it was going to look like except you, (I mean if you knew what you were doing)… But, what a lot of people have tried to do,  they’ve tried to remove the barrier. They want this immediacy and they want this control, and the post-production problem is a problem. Actually, it’s  not problem; they can make it problematic because everyone wants to re-paint. I don’t like it. I never liked it even when we were shooting. I was very nasty about everybody sitting there at the end discussing options, and wanting all these options. You know, print it this way, we shot it that way. The other thing is a lot of people are in love with the visual. I mean I know it’s a very important tool. Like any tool, when you need it use it, but I don’t think you should jump into bed with everything that comes along. I mean it doesn’t replace thinking. It never will replace thinking.

RA: Do you have any advice to people starting out in cinematography?
GW: Okay, that’s what I’m going to talk about in the master class. I always ask this question and nobody knows the answer, or they won’t give it to me. I say, “can anybody give me a definition of what a camera is?” So I ask this question and everybody sits there and looks at me. Nobody wants to give me a stupid answer. Well, it’s a tool. It’s a tool. Film is a tool, videotape is a tool, an actor’s a tool, the director’s a tool, and your job is to transpose a script into visual imagery, tell a story. And whether you do that with a video camera or you do that with a film camera, the means is irrelevant. You can have preferences, but it’s irrelevant. The process should be the [thing]. And at film schools I wouldn’t let anybody have the film camera, if I had my way, or any camera, for the about six months, so other things would proceed. It’s not a good idea to shoot a lot of stuff, then go into a room to decide if there’s a movie in this pile of junk that you’ve got. So I think what people should learn is what’s the idea? What am I trying to say and how do I perceive this? And the most important thing is definition, because that’s missing from a lot of things. So people do not know how to do this, whether they have a video camera or they have a film camera. Definition – why I’m doing something. How they do it doesn’t matter to me. That’s craft. I don’t think you have art without craft; it’s part of the equation, but it’s not the most important part.