Monday, July 5, 2010

Filmic Measures-The Documentary Rule

When Gene Siskel said that a movie needed to be better than having lunch with its stars he, in a way, unconsciously, if not changed film criticism, than changed the way films are consumed. Although the statement was, I assume, meant merely as a means to have a quotable critical tagline for which to evaluate movies, the buried implications are worth unearthing. To think about films this way is to uncover their relationship to the world or art, society, etc, for a film, in order to succeed, must always be better than something else. Is there another art that bears such a burden? Theatre is comparable to other theatre, music is judged based on it's worth next to other music and the success of the writer depends on their ability to convey meaningful thoughts through words. But film is at once art, culture, politics, philosophy, psychology anthropology, history, sociology, what have you on top of all the physical tradesmen it employs simple to make it happen. And although all art is, in some way, influenced by these things, does any but film ever truly embody them? Most arts, after all, usually have something that keeps art separated, for lack of better phrasing, from politics. The play has the luxury of unfolding in real time in front of a crowd in which, if one desired, could be reached out and touched, but it is, aesthetically speaking, built upon the suspension of disbelief. The writer is not so much responsible for the events they depict as they are their interpretation of such, which are only as real as the writer's negotiation of them. The writer has poetry on their side. But, because of this disconnection, to come full circle, theater must only be better than other theatre, the novel only better than other novels, etc. But film, despite the "lie" of editing as Godard would have it, is captured with sound, movement, colour. It's a literal embodiment of whatever has been placed before the camera, no matter how artificial it's construction may have been. Film must not only be art, politics, philosophy, etc., it must be better than art, politics, philosophy, etc. That's why we're always judging film based not only on reality, believability, aesthetic invention and so on, but also the depth of it's thoughts, it's moral centre, it's ability to speak something, anything, be it the banal or the humorous. To paraphrase what Ossie Davis once said: art is a form of power; it has the ability to move us and make us move. Is there, looking back on history, a more powerful art form, in this sense, than film? That's why we create these sayings, these filmic measures because, as Siskel pointed to us, all film must be better than something else. So here's one: A film must be better than a documentary made on the same subject. The difference between fiction and documentary is simple: documentary is fact, fiction is being there (note-I am using fact in an abstract way, not in a literal way as if to suggest that documentaries are not subjective). A fiction film should take you to the heart of it's subject, take you along for its journey, let you understand its hero and their cause, morals, beliefs, whatever it is that makes the experience as personal and intimate as possible. A documentary on the other hand should be, as it's name suggests, a document of something; a chronicling of a belief, a movement, a moment in time. Fiction is built from emotions. Documentary is, in one way or another, built from thesis. That's why a fiction film needs to be better. It needs to, in a sense be more real, because it needs to immerse the viewer. Documentaries impart knowledge and feelings. Fiction does this too, but also takes you for the whole ride. Take a real example: Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn is based on the story of Dieter Dengler, the subject of Herzog's documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Although Little Dieter is a special and informative documentary, Rescue Dawn shows us what Little Dieter can only leave in the crevices of our imagination. It makes the story more real by putting us alongside Dengler in that moment. It may not be an exact representation of his story as it actually happened, but when the finished product is as good as Rescue Dawn, who's complaining?  Some films are so boring and so dramatically uninspired that to see a documentary on the same subject would be so much more enlightening, entertaining, informative, whatever. The September Issue must certainly be of more worth than The Devil Wears Prada, no? That's because the documentary tells us something about high class, sophistication, fashion, and so on, where the film simply uses that world in order to fulfill it's own superficial fantasies and fairy tales. You see the difference? Other Filmic Measures: The Chocolate Bar Movie, Where's The Airship Movies


  1. I think this is my favorite post of the week. Way to analyze the process of analysis and criticism.

    Hey, I go something for you, I would've sent this, but I couldn't find any other way to contact you. I'm doing a helen mirren v blythe danner over-60 hotti film fest starting tongiht and going through until 7/25. Here's the link:

    I'm inviting folks that I think would really enjoy doing something on one or a few or all of the movies, or even a write up on the actresses themselves.

    Anyway, if you'd like to participate, send me an email at with any links and I'll include them.

  2. Well thank you Floating, I'll try to get something written for you by then.