The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview

ENGAGING WITH REALITY

Documentary

CHARLES MUSSER

The Depression and the arrival of synchronized sound had a profound impact on documentary film practices. The modernist aesthetic that had characterized the important documentary work of the 1920s gave way to a new emphasis on social, economic, and political concerns. This shift is symbolized by the career of Joris Ivens, who made short, aesthetically innovative documentaries in the 1920s and then, after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1932, shifted to politically committed works such as Borinage ( 1933), about the oppressive living conditions of miners in Belgium. While documentaries of the 1930s often challenged the policies and politics of established governments, many film-makers in the west and in Japan developed new ties with governments during the decade, often to make films advocating progressive goals. These ties were further developed during the Second World War, as documentary played a crucial propaganda role on both sides of the conflict. During the 1930s and 1940s documentary increasingly became a form that reached and influenced mass audiences for purposes beyond entertainment or art.

The shift from live audio accompaniment to recorded sound came to documentaries later than to fiction filmmaking, though there were some early and important exceptions. Warner Bros. used the Vitaphone to film vaudeville acts in 1926 -- short subjects that had documentary value but were soon interpolated into larger fictional frameworks (e.g. The Jazz Singer, 1927). Fox Movietone News appeared in 1927, using synchronous recorded sound to film events such as the departure of Charles Lindbergh. As the mainstream industry switched over to synchronous sound, silent cameras flooded the market at little cost and were sometimes acquired by aspiring documentary filmmakers. In many instances, the introduction of recorded sound meant that documentary film-makers reapplied the basic format and techniques of the illustrated lecture-- narration, music, and sound effects laid over images shot with a silent camera. Recorded sound allowed not only for greater standardization but also for greater precision and complexity in linking image and sound. Innovative filmmakers like Alberto Cavalcanti pushed these new possibilities in experimental directions. Moreover, in the 1930s a few film programmes initially presented with live narration and/or music had a synchronized sound-track added, including Luis Buñuel's Las Hurdes (Land without Bread, 1932).


THE COLONIALIST ADVENTURER AND TRAVELLER

The explorer-adventure-travelogue genre remained highly popular throughout the 1930s. A theme running through many of these was the challenging but triumphant deployment of western technologies in underdeveloped or inaccessible areas. With Byrd at the South Pole ( 1930) traced the plane voyage of Byrd across Antarctica, and The Mount Everest Flight ( 1933), an illustrated lecture by Air Commodore P. F. M. Fellows, depicted 'the official story of man's Conquest by Air of one of the last of the world's explored areas'. Osa and Martin Johnson released Congorilla ( 1932), which included a few scenes among pygmies of the Belgian Congo (Zaïre) shot with synchronized sound. Western arrogance, American racial imagery, and the Johnsons' churlish humour were particularly evident in one sequence: Martin gives a cigar to an unwary pygmy, who smokes it until becoming ill. With African adventure traditionally seen as dangerous and primitive, the presence of the diminutive and attractive Osa added a new twist to the safari film. The heterosocial realm of tourism was added to the homosocial world of male adventure, changing the dynamic. Osa provided a needed element of vulnerability and danger even as the 'dark continent' was being successfully colonized and tamed.

La Croisière jaune ('The yellow cruise', 1934) was a French counterpart to the Johnsons' productions. In effect Léon Poirier (continuity and montage) and André Sauvage (director of the Motion Picture Division of the expedition) were making a promotional film for Citroiên car technology; the expedition started off in Beirut and planned to travel to Peking and back. Driving posed few challenges, except that the adventurers decided to take their cars over the Himalayas, which meant disassembling the cars and having native Sherpas carry them through mountain passes. Western technology provided the narrative drive, while native peoples alternately provided exotic spectacle and the labour necessary to execute the rather foolish undertaking. George-Marie Haardt, leader of the expedition, died on the return trip-testimony to the ordeal and self-sacrifice of the adventurers.

-322-

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The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Contents xi
  • Special Features xv
  • List of Colour Illustrations xvii
  • General Introduction xix
  • 1 - Silent Cinema 1895-1930 1
  • Origins and Survival 6
  • Early Cinema 13
  • Transitional Cinema 23
  • The Hollywood Studio System 43
  • The World-Wide Spread of Cinema 53
  • The First World War and the Crisis in Europe 62
  • Tricks and Animation 71
  • Comedy 78
  • Documentary 86
  • Cinema and the Avant-Garde 95
  • Serials 105
  • French Silent Cinema 112
  • Italy- Spectacle and Melodrama 123
  • British Cinema from Hepworth to Hitchcock 130
  • Germany- The Weimar Years 136
  • The Scandinavian Style 151
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russia 159
  • The Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés 162
  • Yiddish Cinema in Europe 174
  • Japan- Before the Great Kanto Earthquake 177
  • Music and the Silent Film 183
  • The Heyday of the Silents 192
  • 2 - Sound Cinema 1930-1960 205
  • The Introduction of Sound 211
  • Hollywood- The Triumph of the Studio System 220
  • Censorship and Self-Regulation 235
  • The Sound of Music 248
  • Technology and Innovation 259
  • Animation 267
  • Cinema and Genre 276
  • The Western 286
  • The Musical 294
  • Crime Movies 304
  • The Fantastic 312
  • Documentary 322
  • Socialism, Fascism, and Democracy 333
  • The Popular Art of French Cinema 344
  • Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism 353
  • Britain at the End of Empire 361
  • Germany- Nazism and after 374
  • East Central Europe before the Second World War 383
  • Soviet Film under Stalin 389
  • Indian Cinema- Origins to Independence 398
  • China before 1949 409
  • The Classical Cinema in Japan 413
  • The Emergence of Australian Film 422
  • Cinema in Latin America 427
  • After the War 436
  • Transformation of the Hollywood System 443
  • Independents and Mavericks 451
  • 3 - The Modern Cinema 1960-1995 461
  • Television and the Film Industry 466
  • The New Hollywood 475
  • New Technologies 483
  • Sex and Sensation 490
  • The Black Presence in American Cinema 497
  • Exploitation and the Mainstream 509
  • Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster 516
  • CinÉma-VÉritÉ and the New Documentary 527
  • Avant-Garde Film- The Second Wave 537
  • Animation in the Post-Industrial Era 551
  • Modern Film Music 558
  • Art Cinema 567
  • New Directions in French Cinema 576
  • Italy- Auteurs and after 586
  • Spain after Franco 596
  • British Cinema- The Search for Identity 604
  • The New German Cinema 614
  • East Germany- The Defa Story 627
  • Changing States in East Central Europe 632
  • Russia after the Thaw 640
  • Cinema in the Soviet Republics 651
  • Turkish Cinema 656
  • The Arab World 661
  • The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa 667
  • Iranian Cinema 672
  • India- Filming the Nation 678
  • Indonesian Cinema 690
  • China after the Revolution 693
  • Popular Cinema in Hong Kong 704
  • Taiwanese New Cinema 711
  • The Modernization of Japanese Film 714
  • New Australian Cinema 722
  • New Zealand Cinema 731
  • Canadian Cinema/Cinéma Canadien 731
  • New Cinemas in Latin America 740
  • New Concepts of Cinema 750
  • The Resurgence of Cinema 759
  • Index 785
  • List of Picture Sources 823
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