In Search of a Secret History

By Lee Hill

high-school-frederick-wiseman.jpgHigh School, 1962

With the proliferation of docu-soaps, reality TV, speciality channels, feature length blockbusters like March of The Penguins and Fahrenheit 9/11 or best-selling DVDs like David Attenborough’s Planet Earth or Ken BurnsThe Civil War, documentary, in the broadest sense of the term, seemingly flourishes. Yet there is a part of me that feels this highly elastic medium is only at its most effective in the form known as Direct Cinema.

Direct Cinema emerged in the mid-fifties as both response and solution to the problems of synchronised sound, mobility, veracity and reconstruction that haunted documentary from the days of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). As the phrase suggests, “Direct Cinema” was about capturing the reality of an individual or situation as truthfully as possible and diminish awareness of the filmmaking process required to capture that reality. At the risk of oversimplification, the basic technical conundrum faced by documentarians was that one could either film or record sound using light equipment, but not easily do both. Throughout the 30s and 40s, audiences and critics were blessed with such innovative works as Joris IvensThe Spanish Earth (1937), John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro (1945) and Let There Be Light (1946), George Stevens’ remarkable colour Signal Corps footage of the Liberation of Paris and the Concentration Camps or Luis Bunuel’s Land Without Bread (1933), but a considerable layer of post-production artifice - not to mention the personalities of their creators – was evident in their creation.

nanook-of-the-north-robert-flaherty.jpgNanook of the North, 1922

From the mid to late fifties, a series of near synchronistic technological innovations (both accidental and calculated) liberated the documentarian. The emergence of such lightweight 16mm cameras as the lightweight Aaton and Arriflex and Nagra tape recorders, Magnecord and other forms of synchronised recording made it easier for small crews to tape and film in real time. Like so many “schools” or “new waves”, Direct Cinema eludes definition on closer examination, but lack of narration, hand held camera movement, use of natural light and on location recording are common traits. Greater mobility also led to an increasing desire to depict the lives of the marginalized, politicians, celebrities and the emerging counterculture at a crucial turning point – the cinematic equivalent of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. Almost all the filmmakers believed they could shoot subjects and situations as unobtrusively as possible. The key to this was establishing trust and also to let the final form of the completed film emerge naturally from the filmmaking process. Similarly editing the enormous raw footage produced also required a reciprocal level of fidelity to the subject or situation so that a basic truth is finally conveyed to the viewer. Easier said than done, but whatever the respective faults or merits of individual films, it is this commitment to a “basic truth” that shines through and explains the enduring quality of Direct Cinema.

This new kind of documentary found no shortage of subjects amidst the cultural, political and social change that hit America in the sixties. Dave Saunders new book, Direct Cinema: Observational Documentary and The Politics of The Sixties (published by Wallflower Press), looks at key films by Robert Drew and Richard Leacock, Albert and David Maysles, DA Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman and Michael Wadleigh within the context of the upheavals in America during the decade. Saunders vividly describes how such films as Primary (1960), Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment (1963), Salesman (1968), Don’t Look Back (1965), Monterey Pop (1967), Gimme Shelter (1970), Titicut Follies (1966), Basic Training (1971) and Woodstock (1970) found an aesthetic that caught the immediacy of the sixties with the same radical precision as the New Journalism pioneered by Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer and others is foregrounded. However, as with New Journalism, Saunders recognises the differences as well as similarities between the participants in this movement.

salesman-albert-maysles-david-maysles.jpgSalesman, 1968

Robert Drew and Richard Leacock established the template for much of Direct Cinema with the three documentaries – Yanki No! (1960), Primary and Crisis – they made for Time-Life. If the anti-imperialist message of Yanki No! seems slightly dated, Primary and Crisis endure for their near forensic look at John and Robert Kennedy’s rise to power and their introduction of a cautious, but nonetheless significant brand of social justice to mainstream American politics. Crisis, in particular, has the tension of a thriller as the Kennedy brothers mull over how and when to intervene (backroom persuasion or National Guard) when the intransigence of George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, prevents a black girl from attending a recently desegregated high school. The fight for civil rights and racial equality was, along with the anti-war movement, had an inherent drama that would become a common subject for documentaries throughout this period and to this day.

Albert and David MayslesSalesman follows a group of Bible salesmen, who seem permanently middle aged, as they pitch the holiest of all products to mainly lower income households. The film has the structural elegance of a John Updike novel and also acts a real life counterpoint to Arthur Miller’s classic play on the perils of Dale Carnegie-like optimism.

The Maysles’ most famous film Gimme Shelter began as an account of the Rolling Stone tour of America in 1969, but then morphed into a meditation on the death of counterculture utopianism. The impotence of the band to prevent their final concert at the Altamont race track near San Francisco from unravelling into chaos and the death of an audience member by stabbing is depicted in dark, elegiac tones. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are seen, at various points, watching the footage we are seeing on a moviola and, for the most part, failing to come to grips with what has happened. The editing suite bookend gives Gimme Shelter an “end of an era” quality even though there is plenty of standard footage of a band playing its greatest hit. Yet the additional scenes of the band in transit or in studios or lawyer Melvin Belli negotiating for with promoters, landowners and bureaucrats lend the film subtext and iconic power.

gimme-shelter-albert-maysles-david-maysles.jpgGimme Shelter,  1970

Documentaries on the “new music” – good, bad and forgettable- would become a staple of the arthouse, midnight movie and film society circuit. Rock music was in a phase of seemingly limitless innovation, experimentation and popularity. DA Pennebaker, who worked with Leacock and Drew, had an intuitive understanding of the music’s connection to the greater changes going on in the sixties. Don’t Look Back follows Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour of Britain revealing as much about the songwriter’s cunning offstage as on, while Monterey Pop, a singular document of the first dedicated rock music festival slyly reveals how a series of disparate artists would soon cohere into a multi-million dollar industry. By contrast, Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock filmed two years later suggests that the dream of the music liberating its audience from material concerns of time, space, career paths, food, money, etc. can be achieved…if only for three days. Woodstock may lack critical rigor, but it more than makes up for that with bravura editing including astute use of split-screen as well as capturing performances as varied as 50s revivalists Sha Na Na and Jimi Hendrix’s war ravaged version of The Star Spangled Banner.

In a famous review of Gimme Shelter, Pauline Kael accused the Maysles and other proponents of Direct Cinema of exploitation and superficiality. Yet if one is demanded novelistic density, one need look no further than Frederick Wiseman. A trained lawyer, Wiseman quickly established his reputation for looking at how individuals function (or not) within large public and private institutions and organisations. Titicut Follies was so effective at depicting the grim conditions of inmates at a Massachusetts institute for the criminally insane that it was banned by a court order until 1992 for allegedly violating the patient’s right to privacy – “a right” which seemed to do little to prevent systematic abuse and neglect from staff and guards. High School (1968) and Basic Training derive their power from crosscutting between ongoing “storylines” in a traditional school and at a Marine training facility. The cumulative power of these vignettes, unadorned by any narration or explanatory titles, allows the viewer to simultaneously immerse himself in the minutiae of these institutions while also becoming steadily aware these systems are flawed if not ultimately beyond repair.

Wiseman has probably come closest to achieving the dream of creating films that document their subjects, while also jolting viewers to re-examine their preconceptions. Not all of his films are polemics. His later films on the San Diego Zoo or La Comedie-Franciase show groups of dedicated individuals working in relative harmony to achieve a greater good. Whether the agenda behind a Wiseman film is activist or not, his editing technique is hypnotic – the cinematic equivalent of listening to Philip Glass or Steve Reich. Wiseman wants to provoke reactions with his films, but he does so with the steadfast patience of a barrister preparing a flawless defence.

law-and-order-frederick-wiseman.jpgLaw and Order, 1969

Not unlike Wiseman’s work, Saunders account of Direct Cinema is a full on sensory immersion experience in a specific period and place. However, Direct Cinema was not just an American story, but a global movement. It would take a near exhaustive 800 page plus study to trace all the connections between documentarians all over the world liberated by the 16mm technology that dominated the mid fifties and on. It would also have to be a history flexible enough to track the nomadic travels of Canadians like Michel Brault, who helped to develop the KMT Coutant-Mathot, which was the forerunner of the lightweight Éclair camera, and Allan King, whose London based company almost cornered the market on the UK short documentary in the 60s and whose Warrendale (1966) further erased the boundaries between the dramatic and non-fiction film. Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of A Summer (1960) would also have to be discussed at length for the way in which it allowed its subjects to become collaborators and also for its influence of the French New Wave. Canada’s National Film Board brought many Direct Cinema techniques into the mainstream (as any Canadian of a certain age will tell you it was almost impossible to attend a school where Lonely Boy (1962), Wolf Koenig’s portrait of a teen idol Paul Anka, Donald Brittain’s Ladies and Gentleman Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965), Brault’s Candid Eye films or any number of shorts about mining, fishing, indigenous peoples, cities on plains, etc. was screened to give teachers a regular guilt free break). In Britain, the 16mm revolution was evident in the range of public affairs documentaries on the World In Action and Panorama as well as the number of striking documentaries made on the arts that kickstarted the careers of Mike Hodges, Ken Russell, John Boorman, Tony Palmer and others. A whole chapter would (at the very least) be needed to deal with the ramifications of Michael Apted’s Seven Up and Onwards films. It would also be criminal not to mention An American Family (1973) made by Alan and Susan Raymond that made an ur-reality TV star out of Lance Loud, the suburban teen who proudly proclaims his homosexuality on public television – a scandale d’estime that almost got as much ink as the televised Watergate hearings of the period. American Family inspired Franc Roddam and Paul Watson’s The Family (1974), which followed the lives of a working class family in Reading for 13 episodes.

salesman-albert-maysles-david-maysles-2.jpgSalesman, 1968

And what about such hard to categorise hybrids like Conrad Rook’s hallucinogenic confessional, Chappaqua (1966), much of which was photographed by Robert Frank, Norman Mailer’s Maidstone (1969), a quasi CIA conspiracy thriller/essay which Leacock helped to shoot, Peter WatkinsWar Game or Punishment Park, Jean Luc-Godard’s post-68 collaborations with Jean Pierre Gorin, or Dick Fontaine’s Double Pisces, Scorpio Rising (1970). Fontaine, one of the cameramen on the Maysles’ What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA (1964) made what might be described as one Direct Cinema veteran’s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up.

The look and methods of Direct Cinema also seep into and stain the edges of the New Hollywood. Cinema verite techniques surface in Easy Rider (documentarian Les Blank was one of the cameramen on the New Orleans section of Easy Rider), the police surveillance scenes in The French Connection (1971), Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer/Candidate/Smile (1969- 1975), Jerry Schatzberg’s Panic In Needle Park (1971), Francis Coppola’s The Rain People (1970), parodied in what little has been seen of Orson WellesThe Other Side of The Wind (1970) and Albert BrooksReal Life (1979), and generally found in the fondness for extended takes, zooms and location shooting that typified the look of so much post-sixties dramatic films in the US.

dont-look-back-da-pennebaker.jpgDon’t Look Back, 1967

In a time when it seems the average non-fiction commissioning editor in UK television seems fixated on either the porn industry, Z list celebrities that would task the patience of Andy Warhol or showing how lacking in taste the working class are, watching the work of the Maysles Brothers or Wiseman (or simply marvelling at how many times the Rolling Stones have allowed themselves to be filmed up close and personal by the likes of Frank, Peter Whitehead, Godard, Hal Ashby and, now, Martin Scorsese) is both instructive and sobering. Digital technology has made access and mobility even easier and it is easy to wonder if this is a good thing given the seemingly bottomless appetite for reality TV and docusoaps in the UK and worldwide. Yet the same technology continues to free the spirit and the imagination just as Direct Cinema did. As I write, protests by Buddhist monks against the military junta running Burma are being documented for immediate release by camera phones and digital cameras much to the annoyance of that country’s dictators. For every unimaginative commissioning hack or “happy slapper” armed with a mobile phone, we also live in a time where we can watch Nick Broomfield give us not just one, but two almost unbearable looks at a woman on Death Row, a teacher’s devotion to his pupils borders on the transcendent in Etre et Avoir (2002), the uneasy reconciliation between a father and son in Mark Wexler’s Tell Them Who You Are (2004) or Jonathan Caouette’s search for identity in Tarnation (2003)

Direct Cinema emerged as a movement to counter conventional notions of “objectivity”, to bring viewer and subject closer together and, perhaps most fundamentally, as a way to show that technology should never become a barrier to communication. The look of Direct Cinema may have evolved, but the films that embody the spirit continue to say, “The truth is out there, now watch, think and act.”

Direct Cinema: Observational Documentary and The Politics of The Sixties by Dave Saunders is available now from Wallflower Press.

Lee Hill is a writer. He lives in London.