Errol Morris and the Expansion of the American Documentary

Errol Morris and the Expansion of the American Documentary

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Errol
Morris’ innovations have been absorbed so thoroughly into the
documentary mainstream that it’s easy to forget how controversial they
once were. Criterion has just released his first three films—1978’s Gates of Heaven, 1981’s Vernon, Florida, and 1988’s The Thin Blue Line—on Blu-Ray and DVD, with a spare set of bonus features, mostly
consisting of present-day interviews with Morris. Although Roger Ebert
championed Gates of Heaven, calling it one of his all-time
favorite films and claiming to have seen it more than 30 times, other
spectators accused Morris of condescending to his subjects, the
operators of pet cemeteries. The Thin Blue Line was damned for
incorporating fictional reenactments into its detailing of the framing
of Randall Dale Adams, an innocent man sentenced to death row in ‘70s
Dallas. Despite its critics, it turned out to be highly influential. The
true crime dramas on the ID channel couldn’t exist without it; on a
more elevated plane, neither could Andrew Jarecki’s HBO mini-series The Jinx, and it’s no surprise that The Act of Killing director
Joshua Oppenheimer pops up to give an interview on Criterion’s disc.
Together, these three films expanded our notion of what documentaries
could do. 
Gates of Heaven looks surprisingly staid and calm now, compared to the projectile vomiting and unhinged rants of Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital and Welfare.
At least half of the film consists of carefully posed interviews. Rather
than pretending to capture reality on the fly, Morris set his subjects
in deliberately arranged settings. They’re usually at the center of the
frame. The light source is sometimes visible. A telling prop or two—a 
particularly ornate lamp, a framed photo of a dog, an abstract painting—can be seen in the background. Without calling attention to
themselves, Morris’ images are attractively lit and framed. 
Gates of Heaven
is divided into two halves. The first 40 minutes chronicle Floyd
McClure’s rough attempts to get a pet cemetery going, while the final
part depicts a working—and, seemingly, flourishing—cemetery called
Bubbling Water. The opening half portrays a world that doesn’t feel like
the ‘70s. The women, in particular, seem to be stuck in a ‘50s Douglas
Sirk wonderland, making no attempt to live up to the fashions of the
time. That changes later on. One cemetery owner speculates that the Pill
made pets more popular by allowing women to enter the workforce instead
of cranking out babies but leaving their need for nurturing and
companionship intact But the real difference in the film’s two sections
is that between storytelling and character study. At first, Morris seems
fascinated by the ins and outs of a failed pet cemetery. In the second
half of Gates of Heaven, he becomes more interested in the people
attracted to such a business, including an amateur rock guitarist who
plays him home-recorded tapes of his music and a former insurance
salesman who got fed up with that racket but still talks like he’s in
it. 
Throughout,
the sentimentality of Morris’ subjects threatens to become
overwhelming. I don’t think the director sneers at them, but he keeps a
polite distance. Yet 37 years after the film was made, their lack of
media savvy seems refreshing. These days, many of the middle-aged and
elderly women who appear before Morris’ camera would probably consult
fashion magazines, before appearing in a documentary. The subjects of Gates of Heaven care more about their late pets than looking cool; Morris isn’t mocking them by revealing this . 
Vernon, Florida
takes Morris to Les Blank country (although without Blank’s
multiculturalism – all but one of its subjects is a white man.) It
originated as a documentary about a town nicknamed “Nub City,” famous in
the insurance industry for the number of self-mutilations leading to
fraudulent claims there. However, Morris’ attempts to make a film about
that practice got him beaten up, and he decided to abandon that idea and
concentrate on the more peaceful folks of Vernon, Florida.
Unfortunately, this film feels even more distant than Gates of Heaven.
The twin hobbies of Vernon residents seem to be hunting and
Christianity – not surprisingly for a small town in the South – but one
senses that Morris appreciates them at a remove. At one point, a man
asks him if he’s ever fired a gun and then instantly senses that he
hasn’t. Stylistically, Vernon, Florida relies  more on montage than Gates of Heaven,
although it also uses long takes of its subjects talking. This time
around, they’re almost always filmed outdoors, in situations that seem
less controlled than those of Gates of Heaven. Still, Morris’ appreciation of small-town eccentricity paved the way for narrative films like Blue Velvet and Raising Arizona. 
In the seven years between Vernon, Florida and The Thin Blue Line, Morris worked as a private detective. That job experience paid off. However, he also took a large stylistic leap with The Thin Blue Line.
As Charles Musser’s liner notes point out, Randall Dale Adams, unjustly
convicted of murder, is color-coded white; the real killer, David
Harris, is bathed in orange light and interviewed in front of orange
bricks, matching the tone of his jail-issued clothes. 
The
film is famous for introducing reenactments to the documentary. It’s
notable how sparingly Morris uses them. For the most part, the only
reenactment is the murder scene, constantly repeated as the story is
retold by another participant or witness. The scene itself is shot in a
fragmented style. Morris’ direction is hyper-real. Throughout, the film
never spoon-feeds the spectator. No interview subject is ever identified
on-screen by name; while it’s easy to figure out who Adams and Harris
are, the minor figures in the case are cited only in the closing
credits. The true crime dramas that it influenced do their best to
imitate narrative fiction, offering relatively seamless dramatizations.
The film still uses interviews to make most of its points. Morris also
returns to a handful of motifs: someone stubbing out a cigarette in a
full ashtray, a close-up of a clock on a wall. 

According to John Pierson’s book Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, no less a director than Spike Lee cited The Thin Blue Line
as the only concrete example of a film that caused social change. Here,
Morris proves himself to be a careful, patient storyteller. He was
never a lawyer, but he thinks like one. He lays out the facts of Adams’
case and allows Harris to figuratively hang himself. He also presents
Adams as a likable character—Adams comes off as a film noir hero, in
fact. If Morris flirts with elements of fiction here, he does so with
great care. The Thin Blue Line spoke truth to power loudly enough
to get a man released from jail. It’s too bad that Morris’ subsequent
encounters with Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld are far meeker
engagements. Taking on the criminal justice system, Morris proved more
than up to the task; faced with the questionable judgments of
politicians, Morris let them drone on without challenging them too
often.

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

Watch: Was Luis Buñuel a Fetishist? A Video Essay

Watch: Was Luis Buñuel a Fetishist? A Video Essay

The question of the hour! Was Luis Buñuel a fetishist? Quite possibly. As you watch the array of feet, fancy shoes, lingerie, stockings, and other typical objects of fetishism drift through this lovely video essay Cole Smithey recently made for Criterion, it would be hard to think he was anything else. And yet what about that, in his work? Are these semi-prurient images from such great, frustrating films as The Phantom of Liberty or Belle de Jour meant to be satisfaction of the viewer’s depraved cravings or are they, in fact, studies of these cravings? Is each fetish meant to be seen in quote marks, as a commentary on humans’ uncontrollable impulses? It will probably be best for you to watch this short piece, to the tune of the Hallelujah chorus, and decide for yourself.

WATCH: A Beautiful Video Essay on Ingmar Bergman’s Use of Mirrors

WATCH: A Beautiful Video Essay on Ingmar Bergman’s Use of Mirrors

Ingmar Bergman was my first love in film, and I suspect he will be my last. I was introduced to him, by way of Wild Strawberries, when I was 12, and although the subject matter of the film–growing old amid regrets–was lost on me, I nevertheless was astounded, even at a young age, by how complex and intellectually entertaining he had made the story. How many human mistakes, and quirks, and moments of discovery there were in this film! The rest of his work would continue to amaze me; the story lines he managed to address–a knight playing chess with death in The Seventh Seal, the misadventures of a traveling performance troupe in The Magician, the tortures of a young couple plagued by exterior and interior demons at odd hours in the middle of nowhere in The Hour of the Wolf–always represented the outer limits of what a filmmaker might accomplish. What better agent for Bergman’s dour narrative than the mirror, here lovingly explored by ::kogonada in this latest video essay, done for the Criterion Collection? When you look in the mirror, after all, there will most likely be no one else watching, and yet it also represents an arena in which you might take down your guard without being entirely alone. The essayist intelligently chooses the poetry of Sylvia Plath, balladeer of the inward-looking life, for a voiceover track for the piece–and beneath the audio, the haunted, sharp tones of a harpsichord composition by Vivaldi keep us marching through Bergman’s films, searching for meaning, certainly, but also trying to determine what it is that the characters see in the mirrors they gaze into. Is it some flaw they are trying to detect? Or are they, like their viewers, trying to determine, as goes the age-old question, what comes next?

Watch: What’s at the Heart of the Sadness of Christmas Movies? A Video Essay

Watch: What’s at the Heart of the Sadness of Christmas Movies? A Video Essay

This touching and wise new video essay made for Criterion by Michael Koresky and Casey Moore highlights an idea which you’ll see plenty on the news but highlighted very little on the streets: that the holidays are not, necessarily, happy times for all. In fact, the pressure  to be happy, to be cheery, to celebrate, to gather with others, to bloviate on "the milk of human kindness" may make some of us want to crawl into bed and stay there for several days, getting up only to open the blinds, look out at a populace buying unnecessary mittens to the (weird) tune of "Santa Baby," and then go back to bed, pondering what stores might be open, what take-out options will be available on this holiday when so many businesses are closed and when human commerce, indeed, seems to close up like a shell for 48 hours or more. Too bleak? Okay, sure. In any event, these two film scholars extraordinaires have gathered a collection of movies that celebrate the dourness of the holiday in melancholy writ large. The three they choose to focus on, out of a list that includes Fanny and Alexander, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Gremlins, Metropolitan, and Eyes Wide Shut, are remarkable documents of yuletide emotional froth: Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine, a tale of coming of age admist financial desperation set in Quebec; Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s, a story of sexual and moral temptation set on a snowy Paris Christmas night; and Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, which concerns that famed institution of the holiday season, the family gathering–with many twists. Throughout the essay, we see one gorgeous, haunting scene after another: snow-filled, empty streets; huge apartment buildings checkered with glowing signs of absence or presence in their half-off, half-on windows; ice-covered countrysides with one or two figures running across them. The accumulation of these images serves to remind us of an intelligent point which Koresky and Moore make in the film, which is that the holiday season is as much about absence as it is about presence, and it’s important to give both parts their due.

Watch: A Beautiful Film Based On Criterion DVD Covers

Watch: A Beautiful Film Based On Criterion DVD Covers

This dizzying short film made by ::kogonada for Criterion’s web site is a moving gallery of cover images from the company’s ever-expanding collection of DVDs and Blu-rays, created to advertise the book Criterion Designs, which presents more than 30 years of art from the company’s products. As one image after another clicks by, covers along with clips from films by Wes Anderson, Akira Kurosawa, Harold Ashby, Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, Francois Truffaut, Fritz Lang, and anyone else you might name, a thought might arise: what’s in a cover? We’re told not to pay attention to it, to remain focused on what’s inside the packaging rather than outside it, but how can we do this? It’s not that we’re superficial beings, when all is said and done; it’s clear that the film inside the DVD box must be a more moving experience than the still image on the cover. And yet the cover represents something. It’s our last reminder, before we watch samurai go sword to sword, before we watch young Harold mock-kill himself before falling in love with batty Maude, before we dance around in circles with Jules and Jim and everyone we know, that what you are watching is a manufactured thing. It took years for someone to make, a tremendous amount of discipline, the coordination of hundreds of skilled laborers, all for the creation of something which flies across our retinae quite easily, something which was designed to be received by us without a thought for the toil that goes into it. What’s interesting about these Criterion covers is how much personality there is in them, and how handcrafted they seem, how much and how meaningfully the seams show, as if they were designed to appeal to the part of us that understands that a filmmaker is an artist, as much prey to quiet, personal moments of inner torment as anyone, just with an ancient medium for sharing them, whose challenges constantly vie for primacy over its rewards. 

Watch: A Video Essay About Jacques Tati, A Glass Door, and The Importance of Appearances

Watch: A Video Essay About Jacques Tati, A Glass Door, and The Importance of Appearances

It would be very easy to watch the event which forms the center of this beautiful video essay from David Cairns for Criterion, on Jacques Tati’s Playtime, and think it was merely a gag, nothing more, nothing less. Monsieur Hulot breaks a glass door at a fancy restaurant because he is trying to enter too politely; everyone pretends it’s still there; madcap and hilarious hijinx ensue. But, in fact, there’s more to it than that. As Cairns sagely points out, the gag has its own architecture, as the door’s parts become markers for a scene within a larger film. Beyond that, though, the gag is a telling one, about human nature and the desire to pretend, beyond hope, that everything is fine. The doorman continues to hold the door handle "open" for restaurant customers, even though there is no door; when the shards of the door replace ice in a champagne bucket, the drinkers think they are at fault when their champagne is warm. The short scene anatomized here points out something immortal about so much of physical comedy, and reminds us of an oft-forgotten fact: whatever it is we think the mind is, or may be, it is ultimately a product of the brain, and the body. What happens in the body, such as smashing into a door, ultimately happens within the mind as well.

VIDEO ESSAY: First Fassbinder

VIDEO ESSAY: First Fassbinder

EARLY FASSBINDER: A ROMANTIC ANARCHIST FROM THE FIRST

The German actor and filmmaker Frank Ripploh interviewed Rainer Werner Fassbinder in March 1982, only a few months before Fassbinder’s death at age 37.

Ripploh’s last question was: “How do you describe yourself?”

“I’m a romantic anarchist,” Fassbinder said.

And so he had been from the beginning. It can be difficult to know what to make of Fassbinder, how to enter his extraordinary body of work, how to assess and appreciate his achievement. Romantic anarchists don’t sum up well.

First, there is the simple problem of scale. Though his career was relatively short, he sometimes directed in one year more movies than other people made in entire lifetimes. Even quantifying the exact number of items is a challenge, because they span so many formats — over 40 feature-length films (both for television and theatrical release), a handful of shorts, some radio plays, numerous stage plays, and a few television mini-series (including the 15-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz, his magnum opus). That Fassbinder is generally known for a small set of major works (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fear Eats the Soul, The Marriage of Maria Braun) is partly due to how well those films were originally received at international film festivals, but also because limiting the idea of “Fassbinder” to a small number of titles allows the casual viewer a few touchstones.

It is impossible, though, to get a sense of what makes Fassbinder’s work uniquely powerful and uniquely necessary without knowing at least some of his lesser-known movies. The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation has done excellent work preserving and restoring many of Fassbinder’s films, and the majority have found their way onto home video in one form or another over the years — most recently, the revelatory restoration of Fassbinder’s 4-hour TV mini-series World on a Wire, a captivating, reality-bending science fiction story that had only rarely been seen anywhere since its original airing in 1973. Even some of Fassbinder’s most obscure films are currently available on DVD in Europe, and while that is not the case in the United States, the Criterion Collection has done a fine job of bringing a few of the major works into print in typically excellent packages, and providing others via their Hulu Plus channel. Their most recent release is a selection of five of Fassbinder’s earliest films as part of their Eclipse series of DVDs.

The selection of works for Early Fassbinder is excellent, giving viewers access to the most satisfying films Fassbinder made before his stylistic breakthrough into melodrama with The Merchant of Four Seasons, shot in August 1971. The pleasure of the early films is the pleasure of watching a breathtakingly talented artist discover his art. While completists must certainly lament the exclusion from the Eclipse set of Fassbinder’s first two shorts (as well as, perhaps, Whitey, the production of which at least partly inspired Beware of a Holy Whore), the core of Fassbinder before his deliberate turn to melodrama is represented here.

Various scholars have attempted to categorize and periodize Fassbinder’s output and make the vast sprawl of it more manageable. Fassbinder himself hinted at one way to do this with his early films, saying that they break into two types: cinema films and bourgeois films. The cinema films were primarily in conversation with other films and the world of filmmaking, while the bourgeois films were critiques of middle class values and lifestyles.

Categories hide as much as they show, however, and we should only use the cinema films/bourgeois films taxonomy as a quick way to get oriented with the works up through Beware of a Holy Whore. Other categorizations also work as well or better, for instance Thomas Elsaesser’s two categories for the first quarter of Fassbinder’s career: gangster films and more general tales of violence, self-aggression, and in-groups. No taxonomy is entirely satisfactory, though, because what’s most apparent in the early work is how much Fassbinder is trying out different genres and styles. These are exploratory works, and sometimes almost hermetic works—occasionally, Fassbinder scoffed at his first ten movies, insisting they were made just to amuse his friends and nothing more. At other times, he felt differently; for instance, in 1981 he made a list of “The Top Ten of My Own Films” and placed Gods of the Plague fourth and Beware of a Holy Whore first.

Love Is Colder than Death, Gods of the Plague, and The American Soldier form a loose trilogy, overlapping in both content and style, but each is also unique in ways that may not be apparent immediately. While none is as fast-paced as a film from Hollywood, Gods of the Plague is notably less narrative than the others and distinctly more laconic. The American Soldier brings Fassbinder’s interest in manipulating (or hollowing out) the icons of genre films to the fore. Love Is Colder than Death, for all its long takes and shallow conversations, offers a journeyman’s go-for-broke energy that Fassbinder would rarely replicate (such blind brio would reach its apex with The Third Generation in 1979).

Katzelmacher challenges audiences with its determinedly static camera, empty conversations, and miserable characters. Fassbinder was fascinated, especially early in his career, with stretching the audience’s experience of cinematic time by removing any elements that would contribute to a sense of suspense or even rising/falling dramatic action: the characters speak with as little affect as possible, and the editing allows shots and scenes to last longer than seems at all justified. (Even later, when he wanted to make movies that would attract a larger audience, Fassbinder couldn’t resist letting scenes go on for just a little bit longer than most other directors and editors would.) Our discomfort and impatience become a valuable response—boredom and frustration are important to the experience of what films like Katzelmacher are attempting to communicate. We feel, viscerally and almost unbearably, the ennui of the lives of Elisabeth, Paul, Erich, Franz, etc., and so gain an emotional connection to their relationships with and behavior toward Jorgos that we would not have were the film more conventionally entertaining. With Katzelmacher, the young Fassbinder took this approach as far as he could, and farther than he ever would again. The experiment is fascinating and sometimes powerful and evocative, but the characters are all either so detestable or dull that it may be difficult for viewers to locate a space for themselves within its suffocating world. Whatever we end up thinking of Katzelmacher, though, it was vital to Fassbinder’s development, for without it, it’s unlikely he could have achieved, for instance, the extraordinary (and painful!) perfection of pacing in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a similarly challenging film, but one where compassion for the characters has more opportunity to grow.

The final film in the Early Fassbinder set, Beware of a Holy Whore, marks a clear end to the first phase of Fassbinder’s career, no matter what taxonomy we choose. From his earliest days in the theatre, he and many of his colleagues had tried to live by communal, even utopian, principles, effectively creating a repertory company that lived and worked together constantly. The arrangement is part of the reason that Fassbinder was able to be so consistently productive, but it led to many tensions and tempests. Beware of a Holy Whore is, among other things, an epitaph for the most communal time of Fassbinder’s life. He was too talented, ambitious, and relentless to live and, especially, work in even a superficially nonhierarchical structure. For all his love of anarchy and romance, he needed to be able to channel order. He needed to be The Director.

Order can arrive in seemingly anarchic forms. The best of Fassbinder’s films are full of juxtapositions and contradictions. For all the sharp shocks and even despair in Beware of a Holy Whore, one thing we mustn’t forget about the film is that it is often deliberately absurd, exaggerated, and sometimes very funny. Many of the participants later noted that they had a great time making it (though Fassbinder’s more sardonic and acid caricatures wounded some of his friends). Fassbinder was often drawn to the exploration of characters as types rather than fully rounded human beings, and that interest is especially apparent here. The effect is, for the first time in his oeuvre, haunting: perceptive, sympathic viewers learn to see the roundedness within the types, the unique humanity within the common words, gestures, behaviors. It’s an effect he would soon master and repeat, an effect that would give his later, emotionally complex films extraordinary resonance.

Beware of a Holy Whore is an epitaph to a certain way of living, but it is an also an exorcism. Fassbinder seemed to recognize that he had come to the end of all of his paths — of living, working, being. He now knew the proclivities of the demons that drove him through his first ten movies. His favorite topics and obsessions would recur throughout his career, from his first shorts in the late 1960s until the final shot of his final film, Querelle, in 1982, but his tactics and templates would change. His discovery in 1971 of the American movies directed by Douglas Sirk offered him a new model, one that fit his sensibilities and showed him ways to bring feeling into form without sacrificing his interest in politics, representation, and identity. No longer was he stuck with the nihilism of noir or the angry disaffection and incipient fascism of the young bourgeoisie. Instead of having a character tell the story of an elderly woman who falls in love with a guestworker, as he did in The American Soldier, now he could bring that story itself to life in Fear Eats the Soul (his most explicitly Sirkean melodrama), meanwhile incorporating many of the insights about German society that he explored in Katzelmacher—and doing so in a way that not only infuriated and discomfited the audience but also engaged them in a more richly complex emotional journey.

We might become so enamored of the complexities and richness of the later films that we misinterpret the early films as shallow. They are not. They are experimental and deliberately artificial, certainly. They hold the viewer at a distance. But at their best their effects are purposeful and controlled. The films are, each of them, enjoyable on their own terms, and meaningful in their own ways. More importantly, they fit into the great tapestry that is the Fassbinder canon. The great joy of exploring beyond the most familiar and famous of Fassbinder’s works is the joy of seeing variations and iterations, the joy of possibilities and potentials. Character names and types appear and re-appear, sometimes in the body of the same actor as before, sometimes not. Situations arise in one way and then another, ideas flow toward a particular conclusion and then away from it, images expand and echo, and all the while our feelings shift, stretch, drift. Fassbinder’s work was often highly, even ostentatiously, artificial, but it was also rooted in a desire to address the world: both the specific world of his (and Germany’s) immediate circumstances and the world more generally, the world of history and literature and philosophy and humanity.

One of Fassbinder’s favorite books was Antonin Artaud’s Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society. It’s partly a prose poem, partly a statement of desires dreams, partly a denunciation of humanity, partly an artistic manifesto, and mostly a celebration of outsiders and unholy fools against the forces and institutions of conformist society. Fassbinder surely read some of himself into it. We could, too. Consider, for instance: “Under the guise of representation he welded an air and enclosed within it a nerve, things which do not exist in nature, which are of a nature and an air more real than the air and nerve of real nature” (trans. by Helen Weaver).

From the right distance, chaos reveals its order. Anarchy needs governing forces to resist. The romantic anarchist is always resisting, always seeking another order and thus imbuing every present order with chaos. Fassbinder was sometimes a lord of chaos, but now, thirty years after his death, we have the distance to perceive the order, to feel our way through artificiality to reality, to learn to see again.

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He teaches English, Women’s Studies, and Communications & Media Studies at Plymouth State University.

Africa and France: The Work of Jean Rouch

Africa and France: The Work of Jean Rouch

The French director Jean Rouch invented so many new cinematic forms that his films gave rise to new words: “ciné-trance,” “ethno-fiction.” Yet his prolific oeuvre has fallen in and out of favor; in the past few decades, it’s been hard to see most of his films in the United States. Criterion’s release (today) of his 1961 documentary Chronicle of a Summer  (co-directed by Edgar Morin) and Icarus Films’ traveling theatrical retrospective of a package of his best films may help change that. I can think of two reasons for Rouch’s descent into obscurity. 

First, many of his films combine elements of documentary and fiction. He was trained as an ethnographer and started off equal parts academic and filmmaker, making short, relatively artless documentaries depicting circumcisions and other rituals of African life. However, he quickly developed an interest in cinematic form and became a sophisticated director. By the mid 1950s, his work gained interest outside the scientific world and started winning prizes at film festivals.  While Robert Flaherty, generally acknowledged as the father of the documentary, incorporated elements of fiction in his work, this became taboo in the ‘60s, just as Rouch was making “ethno-fictions.” At this point, Rouch looks prescient—after Errol Morris’ reenactments in The Thin Blue Line and Werner Herzog’s obviously staged interviews in Grizzly Man, Rouch’s combination of documentary and narrative in his “ethno-fictions” no longer seems so problematic. In the context of films like Clio Barnard's The Arbor and the Taviani brothers' Caesar Must Die, which freely mix elements of documentary and fiction, Rouch actually looks downright prophetic.

nullSecond, Rouch was a white Frenchman who made films mostly about Africans. Worse still, he started out during France’s colonial period. For this, he was criticized by no less a venerable personage than Senegalese writer/director Ousmane Sembene (the first prominent filmmaker to emerge from sub-Saharan Africa), who praised his 1958 film Moi, Un Noir but went on to accuse him of filming Africans like insects. However, as Rouch’s work progressed, he did his best to engage in true collaborations with his African subjects. His narrative films were shot without scripts, with the actors improvising a voice-over in the editing room. He made several films with African filmmakers as co-directors. Rouch couldn’t transcend his perspective as a Frenchman, but he tried to engage with Africa and Africans on their own terms: he never used the continent as a backdrop for the stories of white people, as so many filmmakers have. In fact, his film Petit a Petit reverses this trend, making Paris the setting for an African man’s quest for knowledge and his eventual disenchantment with European values. 

nullThe Mad Masters is one of Rouch’s best-known films; unfortunately, it’s also one of his most widely misunderstood works. On the surface, one can easily see why. It depicts a ritual of the Hauka faith, in which penitents participate in a trance ritual culminating in the sacrifice of a dog (who's then eaten) and are then forgiven for their sins. It’s full of images of “possessed” Africans foaming at the mouth and burning themselves with torches. But there’s something more subversive going on here than a simple documentary about African religion. The Hauka faith does not seem to exist apart from the context of colonial Africa, at least as it’s portrayed by Rouch. The possessed are not claimed by their ancestors or gods; they’re taken over by the spirits of colonial figures like generals and engineers. Participating in the ceremony requires some to don  a parody of European dress. One can see someone misreading it as a document of African “primitiveness,” but it really shows how cleverly the Hauka have created a new faith out of their oppressive surroundings. The film’s final few minutes suggest that it’s paid off for them in improved mental health. 

nullMoi, Un Noir may be remembered for influencing Jean-Luc Godard, who declared that he wanted to name Breathless Moi, Un Blanc as an homage to Rouch. More seriously, its use of jump cuts predates Godard’s use of the device. It makes the best case for Rouch’s “ethno-fictions.” Shot among a group of immigrants in the Ivory Coast,  it was made without sound. This led to a brilliant idea: Rouch’s subjects could take on new personae, adopting the voices of Hollywood stars like Eddie Constantine and Edward G. Robinson. This isn’t, though, just another way of saying “the Yanks have colonized our subconscious,” as a character in Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road would later put it; it actually grants Rouch’s subjects the right to larger-than-life fantasies. Without the voice-over, the film’s depiction  of  lower-class life in the Ivory Coast would probably be grim and hopeless; the narration lends it just the right touch of playfulness and wit. “Constantine” and “Robinson” may be poor, even sometimes justifiably bitter, but they still have a sense of humor. 

Chronicle of a Summer starts with Rouch, Morin and future filmmaker Marceline Loridan chatting. Loridan says that she gives surveys for a living. This is quickly incorporated into Chronicle of a Summer, as she stands on the street asking people “Are you happy?” The responses are fairly banal, but it’s a starting point for a wide-ranging inquiry into the state of France in 1960. Rouch and Morin’s subjects obviously include some of their acquaintances, such as disillusioned radicals. Halfway through, their interviews turn topical. At the time the film was made, Algeria had been fighting France for its independence for six years. The film’s subjects have a heated debate about what France should do about the war. The Holocaust is also evoked – an African student is queried about the numbers tattooed on Holocaust survivor Loridan’s arm and has no idea what they are. The film makes fleeting use of a handheld camera, which had only recently become available. This device would soon become a trademark of French cinema. Here, as with his use of jump cuts, Rouch was a technical innovator. 

nullChronicle of a Summer uses the phrase “cinéma vérité” in its opening sentence, although here it describes the directors' stated goal of “film truth,” not a label for a genre of documentaries. After the concept of “cinéma vérité” was popularized in the ‘60s, its naiveté was critiqued at length.  Chronicle of a Summer is far from innocent. It incorporates scenes that feel fictional, even if they’re not, such as a long walk by Loridan down a nearly deserted street as she delivers a monologue about her past. Rouch and Morin begin and end the film by focusing on themselves – in no other Rouch film I’ve seen is the director such a prominent presence—but they end Chronicle of a Summer by showing the film to its subjects, getting their mixed reactions and then talking about those responses. One can imagine the film turning into an endless hall of mirrors, with a coda depicting the first public screenings. 

As good as it is, Chronicle of a Summer may not be the most representative film in the Rouch canon. It marks one of the few times he turned his ethnographic gaze on a group of largely white French men and women; while that lends a fascinatingly reflexive dimension to it, it also thrusts Chronicle outside the concerns of many of Rouch’s best films. Nevertheless, one hopes its video release is the first of many for Rouch’s work in North America. I’ve only sampled a small portion of his huge filmography, but there are undoubtedly many gems waiting to be discovered.  

Steven Erickson is a writer and filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites across America, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

THE GAME (1997): Fincher Flips MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE on Its Head

THE GAME (1997): Fincher Flips MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE on Its Head

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Long unavailable (domestically) in a proper home edition, David Fincher's unsung puzzle thriller The Game finally gets its due this week thanks to Criterion's shiny new Blu-ray upgrade of their own 1998 laserdisc release. The new Criterion release confirms that Fincher's film—and its hokey premise of a 1-percenter put through his paces in a punishing experiential game—plays as well if not better than it did when I first saw it theatrically fifteen years ago. After all, is there any way to watch Michael Douglas' shallow, well bespoke Nicholas Van Orton—a lonely investment tycoon with a pile of human debris (an ex-wife, a recovering addict for a brother) left behind in his wake—and not think of Mitt Romney? Especially in one scene where his car gets a flat, and he asks his ne'er-do-well brother Conrad (Sean Penn), "Do you know how to change a tire?" Van Orton’s investment banking career, his slicked-back hair, the way he addresses his underlings, his slicked-back hair and expensive taste in suits . . .  even his pinky ring, all reek of a privileged upbringing. Then there’s the long, powerful shadow cast by his late father. Van Orton’s similarities with Romney rob him of a little of the sympathy I'd normally reserve for a movie protagonist.

But The Game's central conceit reminds me of something else. At one point, Fincher was in talks to direct an entry (the third) of the Mission: Impossible franchise. At first blush, that's not too difficult to envision after watching the fastidious Fincher so expertly execute this plot-heavy exercise, dependent on so many contrivances and coincidences. This goes a way back, I admit, but one of the stock scams employed in the 60's Mission: Impossible series (in episodes like "The Train," for instance) was for the team to con one of their marks into participating in some kind of fake adventure of which the IMF team was in total control. This might involve role-playing, movie-like sets, surveillance devices, rerouting of phone lines, etc., all in a manner designed to create a false reality for their target, one in which the IMF team could manipulate the person into doing something uniquely antithetical to his or her true nature.

Similarly, Van Orton is a pawn manipulated by Consumer Recreation Services (CRS), the organization he hires to provide him with an initially amusing but ultimately life-threatening, all-pervading diversion he can't seem to escape. While not too different from the plot puzzles of Mission: Impossible, the one major schism is perspective. While the fun for viewers of the old spy show lies in knowing how the mark is to get his comeuppance at the hands of the IMF team, in The Game, Fincher puts us in the position of the mark himself, in this case Nicholas Van Orton. Fincher takes great pains to hide the strings pulling on Van Orton (this metaphor is perpetuated by the film's marketing team who actually used a CGI-rendered marionette in The Game's teaser) so that even the viewer only gets glimpses behind the scenes when Van Orton does. For example, when Van Orton happens upon the set dressing that adorns the flat belonging to his companion (guide?) Christine (Deborah Kara Unger)—a refrigerator devoid of any food or drink, faucets where the water isn't turned on, a bookcase housing only the spines of a book collection—should we believe that he is finally onto something? Has Van Orton cleverly sussed out a resolution to the all-encompassing game designed by CRS? Or is his discovery merely another meta-layer peeled back to entice Van Orton further into CRS's labyrinth?

The reason Fincher might have passed on directing an entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise is that he more readily identifies with the person being manipulated than with the manipulator. Like Ripley in Alien 3, Detective David Mills in Se7en, and even subsequent protagonists like the narrator of Fight Club and Zodiac's Robert Graysmith, Van Orton struggles to grasp the events around him, ultimately forced to succumb to the currents dragging him along and hope to emerge intact or changed (for the better) on the other side of The Game's looking glass. Think how interesting a picture would be painted of M:I's IMF team if a movie took the point of view of one of their victims. The Game comes closest to offering just such a view. More than when The Game was initially released in 1997, Van Orton is an antihero of our times, a capitalist humiliated into submission by intellectuals outmaneuvering him. And believe me, this target's punishment, just as it may be, is a little too disturbing for your simple, run-of-the-mill action franchise. Mission: Impossible audiences hungry for empty-headed derring-do from Tom Cruise would never accept siding with the enemy or the complicated implications Fincher’s subversion of his premise might provoke.  

Atlanta-based freelance writer Tony Dayoub writes about film and television for his blog, Cinema Viewfinder, and reviews DVDs and Blu-rays for Nomad Editions: Wide Screen, a digital weekly. His criticism has also been featured in Slant’s The House Next Door blog, Opposing Views and Blogcritics.org. Follow him on Twitter.