There Is No Cat

As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Web Verité

So I've been thinking about documentaries some more, both on radio and on film, and thinking about some of the documentaries I saw when I was in school that you just don't see anywhere else outside of school. One of the most impressive documentaries I ever saw was Primary, about the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. This is generally recognized as the first real cinema verité film. So I was delighted to find an interview with D. A. Pennebaker talking, in part, about the film, and the challenges making it presented. Now, it's been close to twenty years since I've seen the film, but I do remember that it wasn't technically perfect, and reading the interview with Pennebaker, I understand why. This was really the first film made with these new, portable cameras and sync sound. I remember seeing a couple of films made by John Grierson and his associates in the UK in the 1930s that had sync sound, but the sound was recorded in a huge truck about the size of an UPS delivery truck outside of wherever they were filming. The development of equipment that could be carried by a single person made it possible, really for the first time, for the camera to act as a fly-on-the-wall. It really changed the process of making documentaries. Something like Don't Look Back, probably Pennebaker's best known film, or Gimme Shelter just wouldn't have been possible without this.

The interview with Pennebaker is part of a whole series of interviews with luminaries of cinema verité like Ricky Leacock, Albert Maysles, and Robert Drew. For someone interested in documentaries like me, this is a motherlode of information. I love the point that Drew makes in his interview about how the documentaries that he and his associates made work on picture logic rather than word logic. That's one of the things I always loved best about them; there wasn't some omniscient narrator reading a script and oh, by the way, here's some pictures, the way most TV news "documentaries" are done. The verité documentaries are really done as films, using the structure of film. They take advantage of the medium in which they exist to get their message across, and work much better for it. The Word of God type documentary almost always seems like it would work better as a newspaper article or something. There's definitely something to be said for understanding your medium and working to its strengths, rather than bringing the baggage of another medium along with you. It just tends to weigh you down.

I think I've rediscovered another source of inspiration in my web work, much like Ernie Kovacs inspired me by inventing the vocabulary of television we take for granted today and killing "radio with pictures".

I wish these documentaries were easily available on DVD. Some of the more popular films, like Don't Look Back, are, but I went to the Pennebaker Hegedus web site, and you can't even buy all their films on VHS; seminal films like Primary are missing (although they promise to make them all available eventually, and I guess Primary may actually belong to Drew.) I would love a Special Edition of some of these with Pennebaker and Drew and Leacock providing a commentary track to let us in on how they accomplished what they did. And I want to see Crisis, shot in 1963 and directed by Drew, about JFK's fight with George Wallace to desegregate a college in Alabama. It's supposed to be the most intimate film ever made about a president, and it's pretty much unimaginable that filmmakers would be given such wide-ranging access today.

In case you couldn't tell, I love documentary film. The teacher for my last video production class in college hated them, and as he was assigning us to do one, told the class that there had never been an interesting documentary. I was taking a course in documentary film that semester, and I raised my hand and begged to differ. He challenged me to name an interesting documentary, so I did. "Okay, name another." I did. I rattled off about a half dozen interesting documentaries, including one or two of the ones mentioned above, before he conceded the point. "You, however, are not going to make one," he finished in his subcontinental accent. Despite turning our documentary in on time, the only group in the class to do so, he docked us two grades for being late two days, to make sure that we got a D on it instead of the B he graded it as on its merits. That class ruined my 4.0 average in my major, but it was worth it to make that teacher look like the ass that he was.

Posted at 3:01 PM

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Primary is now distributed on DVD by Docurama.

Posted by john at 9:15 PM, February 10, 2004 [Link]

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio


There used to be a cat

[ photo of Mischief, a black and white cat ]

Mischief, 1988 - December 20, 2003

[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

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