Art of the Real: Hybrid Cinema Timeline
“All great fiction films tend toward documentary, just as all great documentaries tend toward fiction . . . He who opts wholeheartedly for one necessarily finds the other at the end of his journey.” Jean-Luc Godard’s words are perhaps the best (and snappiest) expression of the fact that, since the dawn of the medium, cinema has fully and equally relied upon its essential combination of authorial artifice and photographic reality. In other words: it requires a degree of artistic intervention for Frederick Wiseman to achieve the fly-on-the-wall, life-as-it-is-lived sense that is manifest throughout a film like High School, just as Straub-Huillet’s intensely stagey History Lessons also contains some of the most ravishing and immersive images of Rome ever committed to celluloid or video.
To what extent then is it meaningful to maintain traditional distinctions between fiction and documentary, much less the varieties of hybrid fiction? This seems one of the central questions underlying many of the films included in Art of the Real—but it’s also one that has haunted cinema since the late 19th century and the pioneering efforts of Eadweard Muybridge, Thomas Edison, and the Lumière brothers. The notion that there is such a thing as the documentary/fiction hybrid is just as venerable—though the terms may have changed—and has been reinforced over the past 130-odd years by works as superficially disparate as Edison’s The Kiss, Warhol’s Blow Job, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno. With that, I present a by-no-means-exhaustive timeline of highlights that traces the idea of the docufiction from Muybridge’s Horse in Motion to the present. In keeping with the polemical spirit of the series, I sincerely hope that readers will all disagree with what follows.
The Four Troublesome Heads
Eadweard Muybridge, Thomas Edison, Louis & Auguste Lumière, Georges Méliès
The moving image was inextricably bound up in the goal of documentation from the get-go. The desire to capture and reproduce reality is apparent from Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope experiments to Edison’s Serpentine Dances to the Lumière brothers’ actualities (most famously, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory). The very presence of the camera and its operator alters the reality they behold, to say nothing of the particular technical conditions Edison worked with (the subjects of his silent films were brought into his Black Maria studio, where some amount of direction inevitably took place, if only “alright, now kiss him!” or “do that dance again!”). This tendency toward enhancing the real with a dash of artifice reached its early apotheosis with Méliès, who steered what was essentially a documentary medium in its infancy toward full-blown, sleight-of-hand fantasy without doing away with its foundation as photography-in-motion.
Nanook of the North
Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North
Ostensibly a factual account of Inuit life, Nanook of the North wasn’t even conceived as what we would now term “documentary.” Flaherty screened his rushes for the subjects during shooting, and the clothes they wore were in truth nostalgic throwbacks (the Inuit had long since adopted Western styles of dress). Hell, the family at the center of the film’s narrative wasn’t actually a family! Despite these glaringly fictitious elements, Nanook of the North nevertheless remains a pillar of the documentary canon and an early, moving instance of cinema’s direct engagement with the real.
Joris Ivens, Walter Ruttman & Alberto Cavalcanti’s Berlin: Symphony of a City, Dziga Vertov, Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread
The emergence of the “city symphony” coincided with the development of new, expressive approaches to montage that both enhanced the depiction of reality and reflected the hand of artists whose sensibilities determined the subject matter as well as its presentation. We now take for granted that a filmmaker is responsible for the glimpses of reality proferred by any documentary, but it was Vertov’s experiments with rhythmic editing, Ivens, Ruttmann and Cavalcanti’s efforts to make visual music through the measured juxtaposition of disparate images, and Buñuel’s combination of ethnography with surrealism that, for the first time, declared the presence of the author.)
Why We Fight
Frank Capra’s Why We Fight and Italian Neorealism (Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio de Sica)
World War II and the immediate postwar era witnessed a crucial development in the role of the authorial voice in documentary filmmaking: the advent of film propaganda. What distinguishes Why We Fight from earlier docs is how explicitly it sculpts reality to serve its political agenda. Meanwhile, Rossellini and company, by taking to the streets in order to stage here-and-now dramas, produced works of fiction in which the sight of Europe reduced to rubble is just as significant and affecting as the invented scenarios being portrayed.
On the Bowery
Morris Engel’s The Little Fugitive, John Cassavetes’s Shadows, Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery
Presaging the methods of what gets filed in the “indie film” drawer, Engel and Cassavetes, like their Italian predecessors, turned the streets of New York into a stage for their dramas. Here again, their narratives are inflected by the palpable sense of their unfolding in real places during real times as performed by nonprofessional casts.
Jean Rouch, Andy Warhol, Frederick Wiseman, Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Shohei Imamura’s A Man Vanishes, Peter Watkins, Straub-Huillet, William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm
Many of the phenomena that marked the earliest periods of the history of the documentary/fiction hybrid continued to recur in this enormously influential period, amidst a technological revolution yielding more portable tools for filmmaking and political upheaval in and around 1968. Rouch and Imamura used fiction to accentuate themes and concepts central to their otherwise anthropological enterprises. Warhol convinced (without expending much effort) the eccentrics in his downtown orbit to do various things—eating bananas, sleeping, staring straight ahead, performing fellatio—on camera, as themselves, albeit with more than a little bit of direction (and often a script courtesy of playwright Ronald Tavel). Peter Watkins attended to some of the dominant political issues of his time by dramatizing them… as documentaries, cleverly playing with the genre’s conventions at the same time that he used them in the service of polemical parables. Straub-Huillet combined fiction and documentary through a simple act of adding one plus one, adapting literary and theatrical texts with an eye/ear for making Griffith’s incidental “wind in the trees” (as well as the historical locations where they chose to shoot) as crucial to their films’ expressivity as the aesthetic particulars of the texts they worked from. Godard folded a fictitious account of the everyday life of a Parisian working-girl/housewife into an otherwise essayistic film poem about the changing face of Paris while simultaneously interviewing his lead actress (Marina Vlady) on-camera—but is she responding to his inaudible questions as her character, Juliette Jeanson, or as Marina Vlady? Finally, Wiseman invites the comparison between his portraits of institutions and the novels of Honoré de Balzac, in the sheer amount of artistic intervention necessary to structure and distill hundreds of hours of footage.
Ici et Ailleurs
Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, Orson Welles’s F For Fake/It’s All True, Werner Herzog, Godard’s Numéro deux and Ici et Ailleurs, An American Family, Michel Brault’s Les Ordres
An era of ideologically proactive cinema, burgeoning international experimentation, and video-art adventurers in performance also finds the line of demarcation between fiction and documentary blurrier than ever before, whether through Marker’s projection of a narrative essay onto incomparably exquisite travelogue footage in Sans Soleil, Welles’s acts of self-conscious trickery in F for Fake, Godard’s demonstration of the primacy of images in the political and personal spheres in Numéro deux and Ici et ailleurs, or Herzog’s attempts to locate the sublime in situations, spaces and people whose very existence seems unreal—even when, pace Welles, it’s all true!
Through the Olive Trees
Ulrich Seidl, Abbas Kiarostami
Reality might not have been enough for Ulrich Seidl, whose introduction of theatrical artifice to the mortifying real-life situations and activities depicted in his singular docs set one benchmark for the documentary/fiction hybrid, as did the complex interventions and simulations by Abbas Kiarostami. Yet films like Close-Up and the Koker Trilogy are sneakier and subtler in their melding of fact and its double, suggesting that the motives behind his approach have more than a little to do with formal play and questions of ontology.
You All Are Captains
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon, Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room, James Benning, Lisandro Alonso’s La libertad, Hany Abu-Assad’s Ford Transit, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, Oliver Laxe’s You All Are Captains, Miguel Gomes’s Our Beloved Month of August, Denis Côté’s Bestiaire
In the era—and aftermath—of reality TV, digital filmmaking, and “social media,” the length of the journey Godard claims a fiction filmmaker takes before arriving at documentary has never been shorter. All of the above works were shot on location with non-professional actors largely performing banal, daily actions—recounting mythologies in Mysterious Object at Noon, driving a cab from checkpoint to checkpoint in Ford Transit, cooking and eating an armadillo in La Libertad, freebasing smack in In Vanda’s Room, and so on.
The mixture of documentary elements with fiction (or fictional elements with documentary) is now, more than ever, a means by which to treat reality (in both its most local and universal forms) while at the same time posing questions about the ontological basis for cinema as a representational medium. Or, in the case of James Benning, whose discreet manipulations of superficially simplistic acts of recording often require his pointing them out to you in order for them to be noticed at all, cinema becomes an instrument for both reflecting reality as it is and revising it. You’ll have to look somewhere else for the answers to the questions posed by these works, as the documentary/fiction hybrid is and has always been far more interested in complicating our sense of the real rather than shedding light on the subjects they treat.