American Documentary Film

American Documentary Film: Projecting the Nation

Jeffrey Geiger
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1r28f9
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  • Book Info
    American Documentary Film
    Book Description:

    What key concerns are reflected in documentaries produced in and about the United States? How have documentaries engaged with competing visions of US history, culture, politics, and national identity? This book examines how documentary films have contributed to the American public sphere - creating a kind of public space, serving as sites for community-building, public expression, and social innovation. Geiger focuses on how documentaries have been significant in forming ideas of the nation, both as an imagined space and a real place. Moving from the dawn of cinema to the present day, this is the first full-length study to focus on the extensive range and history of American non-fiction filmmaking. Combining comprehensive overviews with in-depth case studies, Geiger maps American documentary's intricate histories, examining the impact of pre- and early cinema, travelogues, the avant-garde, 1930s social documentary, propaganda, direct cinema, postmodernism, and 'new' documentary. Offering detailed close analyses and fresh insights, this book provides students and scholars with a stimulating guide to American documentary, reminding us of its important place in cinema history.Key Features* Historical overview of major documentary forms and practices in the USA* Case studies, including Nanook of the North, The Plow that Broke the Plains, Grey Gardens, and Fahrenheit 9/11* Analysis of critical debates relating to filmic representations of reality

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-2946-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. List of abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    American Documentary Film explores key themes, moments and movements in US documentary over the course of more than a century of cinema. In spite of the ambitious title, this is not a survey or exhaustive history of documentary.¹ Rather, this is an effort to distil important aspects of the documentary idea while tracing the form’s development over time, focusing on the ways documentaries have engaged with US national identity and perceptions of American belonging. Moreover, by tracing lineages of the documentary idea that might not be seen as ‘typical’ or wholly representative of the form, I hope to suggest documentary’s...

  7. CHAPTER 1 Novelties, Spectacles and the Documentary Impulse
    (pp. 17-39)

    So where should a study of US documentary begin – with the first copyrighted film? The five-second Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze was directed in January 1894 by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson in Edison’s West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory, appearing over a year before the Lumière Brothers’ cinématographe films.¹ The Sneeze has been called the first ‘film of fact’ – that is, the first motion picture record of a real event – and so might represent the ‘very genesis of the documentary idea’ (Jacobs 1979: 2).² For others, the Edison films are the earliest ‘filmed recordings of actuality’ (Ellis and McLane 2005:...

  8. CHAPTER 2 Virtual Travels and the Tourist Gaze
    (pp. 40-64)

    The rise of motion pictures was closely tied to changing concepts and modes of travel. After the mid-nineteenth century, tourism saw unprecedented growth, and with it the distant corners of the world seemed to creep closer to established metropolitan centers. Tourism became such a fixture of modern life that, John Urry suggests, a ‘tourist gaze’ emerged as a ‘socially organised and systematised’ mass consumer phenomenon and dominant form of modern perception (1990: 1). For Ellen Strain, the tourist gaze was, and is, ‘mobile, portable, and even culturally promiscuous’: the gaze itself traveled, and was transported into other media that themselves...

  9. CHAPTER 3 Serious Play: Documentary and the Avant-Garde
    (pp. 65-85)

    As the previous chapter showed, cinema embodied the idea and physical experience of the modern world in motion – from the legacies of moving crowds and exhibits at world fairs to the disorienting speed of fast travel. Emerging nonfiction genres such as the travelogue encapsulated film’s ability to capture a god’s eye view of the moving world: the tourist gaze helped to stabilize the blur of modern urban life, delivering views of far-flung sites and peoples as consumable spectacles. The virtual journeying provided by panoramic, firstperson and mobile perspectives bolstered the viewer’s belief in knowing the world through the accretion of...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Activism and Advocacy: The Depression Era
    (pp. 86-120)

    In 1936, an article in the Mid-Week Pictorial took some sideswipes at avantgarde films like Rain (1929) and Lot in Sodom (1932) while praising the varied, low-budget efforts being made for politically active projects:

    Not all the films that are made are the product of Hollywood. [. . .] There are little fadistic art movies – studies in light and shade of a box of matches, or a prolonged camera attack on an afternoon of rain. There are films made obscurely without box-office appeal, by serious craftsmen who wish to experiment with the medium of pictures; wealthy amateurs who do symbolic...

  11. CHAPTER 5 Idea-Weapons: Documentary Propaganda
    (pp. 121-153)

    In 1941, the first Academy Award for best documentary went to the Canadian short Churchill’s Island (1941), which chronicled Britain’s defence against the Nazis. The following year, the documentary winners all reflected the United States’ and its new military allies’ escalating involvement in the propaganda war: John Ford’s rousing color combat film The Battle of Midway, the Australian newsreel Kokoda Front Line!, the Soviet military orientation film Moscow Strikes Back and Frank Capra’s Prelude to War. By 1945, all the documentary winners had been war films, and in 1946, after the war’s end, there were no nominees for documentary feature...

  12. CHAPTER 6 ‘Uncontrolled’ Situations: Direct Cinema
    (pp. 154-185)

    Since the term appeared in the 1960s, ‘direct cinema’ has been a source of confusion for some, frustration for others. Not only is the ‘directness’ of direct cinema questionable, but the term is often used as the Anglo-American equivalent of cinéma vérité (the latter coined by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin in France in 1960 to describe their experiments in interactive documentary). For example, in 1971, Alan Rosenthal observed that the terms direct cinema and cinéma vérité were being ‘used interchangeably [in the US] in accordance with general practice’ (Rosenthal 1971: 2). Outlining precise divisions between the two approaches can...

  13. CHAPTER 7 Relative Truths: Documentary and Postmodernity
    (pp. 186-216)

    As the Vietnam War shuddered to an end, dominant images of a nation underpinned by universal aspirations were undergoing a crisis of containment. Fault lines had become visible through issues such as the war, demands for civil rights and legal protections for marginalized peoples. Voices displaced or ignored by aggressively marketed versions of ‘average’ and ‘typical’ American values were asserting presence and influence. The US was always already irreducibly diverse, multicultural and multi-ethnic, but the idea of America was, as this book has stressed, also subject to complex negotiations among different social strata and competing ideological influences. During the 1960s...

  14. CHAPTER 8 Media Wars: Documentary Dispersion
    (pp. 217-241)

    In a lengthy shot from Ross McElwee’s Six O’Clock News (1996), the camera scans a bridge destroyed by a hurricane, panning the extent of the disaster, the media filming it, and the locals observing both them and it. In the shot, we are reminded that mediated realities are at the same time both packaged entertainments and ‘real’ experiences. As McElwee trails journalists that seek ‘news’ and ‘stories’ in lives devastated by natural disasters and traumatic events such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and murder, the film examines the blurred lines between first-hand experience and manufactured reality, closeness and distance. Ultimately, the...

  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 242-262)
  16. Index
    (pp. 263-276)