The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview

EXTENDING THE BOUNDARIES

CinÉma-VÉritÉ and the New Documentary

CHARLES MUSSER

The introduction of portable, synchronous sound equipment around 1960 provided a decisive leap forward in documentary film-making. This was followed in the 1980s by the increasing availability of inexpensive video equipment, and, more than fiction film-making, documentary practice came to embrace video for purposes of production. Television came to provide the key exhibition outlet, usurping the non-theatrical networks that had developed in the post-war period. Television provided unprecedented levels of funding, but tended (though with a handful of creditable exceptions) to impose strict controls over approach, style, and ideological content.

Since 1960, documentary film has increasingly become an international phenomenon; and in the developed nations film-makers have emerged from more diverse backgrounds in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Documentary practitioners have also become theoretically more self-conscious; the perceived technological shortcomings of earlier equipment have been overcome, inviting greater reflection and speculation about the nature and potential of documentary forms.


THE EMERGENCE OF CINÉMA-VÉRITÉ

Film-makers in France, Canada, and the United States led the way in the adoption of portable, synchronous sound 16 mm. motion picture equipment, complemented by faster film stocks for indoor and night-time shooting. In the hands of innovative practitioners, this new technology resulted in a departure from and transformation of previous documentary practice, and was given the labels 'direct cinema', 'cinéma direct', and 'cinéma-vérité. These terms have taken on different emphases, with direct cinema/cinéma direct suggesting observational methods, and cinéma-vérité a more confrontational approach. In practice, however, it has generally proved more useful to think of the cinéma-vérité film-maker operating as participant observer. An emphasis on the film-maker who intrudes into the pro-filmic space and provokes the subject has been most characteristic of French cinéma-vérité. A more observational method, in contrast, has been most often championed by the Americans, particularly by a group of film-makers who worked at Drew Associates in the early 1960s: Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker, Albert and David Maysles, Hope Ryden, Joyce Chopra, and James Lipscomb.

The breakthrough film at Drew Associates and for American cinéma-vérité was Primary ( 1960), shot during the Wisconsin state presidential primary. The film-makers followed the two principal Democratic candidates, John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, and their wives as they presented themselves and their viewpoints to potential voters. The film juxtaposes two quite different kinds of personalities -- the self-confident, charming, urban sophistication of Kennedy with the folksy, anti-establishment, rural populism of Humphrey. Viewers are given a'behind the scenes' glimpse of the candidates, with the cameraman (Leacock) unobtrusively present. At other points we see the candidates posing or being posed for the media. One implication is that we have access to the 'real' Kennedys while others are seeing a carefully constructed image. However, the film-makers themselves seemed well aware that their subjects were performers who were constantly shaping their own self-presentations for others, whether for long-standing friends or for the newly portable sync-sound camera.

American cinéma-vérité came out of a journalistic impulse and has generally been fiercely anti-psychological. The camera does not seek to penetrate the subject's outer, public shell to reveal an inner or secret self, but to capture a range of self-presentations, from which the film-maker and the spectator can form an opinion of the subject. The Drew film-makers often chose public performers as their subject -- racing car driver Eddie Sachs in On the Pole ( 1960); actress Jane Fonda in Jane ( 1962); and the Kennedys again in Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment ( 1963). They also sought to film moments of crisis, situations which could produce stories with a climax, resolution, and ending. The crises put these people under pressure, revealing something about their judgement and ability to cope with stress, and gave the subjects something more important with which to concern themselves than the camera. By following individuals for lengthy periods of time, the film-makers become part of their subjects' daily existence.

In contrast to prior practice, cinéma-vérité film-makers in America refrained from telling the subjects what to do or

-527-

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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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