Sunday, April 26, 2009

Grizzly Man directed by Werner Herzog

Grizzly Man is the story of Timothy Treadwell (1957-2003) who lived with grizzlies in Alaska for thirteen summers. Timothy filmed his encounters with the bears and used the footage to encourage preservation of these bears. In 2003, Timothy and his girlfriend Aimee’s remains were found in Alaska after being killed and eaten by a bear.

The production companies involved in this film were Real Big Production and the Discovery Channel. Director Werner Herzog uses footage from and of Timothy, photographs and interviews of relatives, friends and authority figures to delve into the life of Treadwell. He portrays Timothy as a “deeply troubled” man whose actions on film reveal a man who is na├»ve, and has an almost innocent view of wildlife while his anger is evident against the Park Reserve Authorities and poachers. Timothy is repeatedly seen telling the bears and foxes that he loves them and is overcome with grief when a baby fox is killed by a wolf, which is contrasted with Treadwell ranting about the Park Reserve’s rules and telling them to f*** off. Treadwell’s personality is complex and double sided as we see in the documentary.

Herzog narrates the film and inserts his own opinions and blatantly states if he disagrees with what has been said or the actions of the character. The film maker briefly appears in the film while interviewing Jewel who is one of Timothy’s ex-girlfriends and a few times he is heard asking interview questions. Hearing the narrator of the story doing interviews made me aware of the film maker’s hand in crafting this film and choosing what to show the viewer. The interviews were done on location and would often feature places Treadwell had been with the person being interviewed. This kept the film in the wild like Timothy was, Treadwell spent his time in natural settings and now the interviews are being conducted in their natural environment. Sound in the film included music by Richard Thompson as well as the nature noises of Timothy Treadwell’s footage and the background noise of the interviews with loud buzzing of insects for the Kodiak Island pilot’s interview.

Treadwell captured gorgeous moments with his work which would be impossible to get on film in other circumstances. Using his footage in the film gave it a depth about Treadwell that would not have been achieved with just the use of photographs and was the main source of footage. Treadwell’s footage is primary source material for the documentary. One scene that sticks with me is of Treadwell standing in the Grizzly Maze talking to the camera about how he has survived with the grizzlies and as he moves a subtitle flashes saying that just behind Treadwell is where he would be killed in a few days. This is startling and then seeing from a plane the route Timothy and Aimee took to their final destination added to the finality of their expedition and work. The filming of the route struck me as a unique way to approach the tragedy since no one knows exactly what happened during the attack, seeing the route they took is as close to the truth of the attack as we can get.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Immortal Cupboard: In Search of Lorine Niedecker directed by Cathy Cook.

In the artistic documentary Immortal Cupboard: In Search of Lorine Niedecker, director Cathy Cook lets, “Poetry tell the story,” of Lorine’s life. Niedecker was an objectivist poet from Blackhawk Island, Wisconsin who has been positively compared to Emily Dickinson. She lived from 1903-1970. Immortal Cupboard flowed like poetry and was visually rich and full of nature imagery of where the poet once lived. The camera shots were mainly close-up and medium shots which placed the viewer in Lorine’s place as she wandered her woods or as the audience followed the character of Lorine or the film maker. It was overwhelming at first for me to experience the scenes in close proximity through the close-ups without the ability to focus on other things in the frame. One image was of following the legs of an actress portraying Lorine as she left her house and went on a walk. The viewer could only see her legs and the area that she walked through and never saw the entire actress’s body. The uniqueness wore off after a short while and I stopped thinking about the closeness of the shots. Footage consisted of present day areas of where she lived, photographs of the poet, a recording of Lorine reading her poems, and of Lorine’s letters and books that were kept by friends, relatives and a historical society. What struck me most about the film was the lack of on screen interviews. The interviews in this film were entirely done off screen and the viewer heard their voices while images and scenes were displayed. This use of interviews added a level of storytelling as if the voices were weaving the facts of Lorine’s life together. I associate documentaries with interviews so Cook’s use of the interview as narration rather than an on camera interview was creative. The score was nature sounds including bird twitters and some percussion. Except for the percussion, the music was diegetic with the nature sounds fitting the screen images. This use of diegetic sounds expanded the realm of the story immersing the viewer in this natural world from whence Lorine drew her inspiration.
I would consider this a poetry documentary in that, besides the subject matter, there was a considerable amount of poetry that the viewer needed to read on screen. At this screening the film maker commented that she believed people who did not like reading subtitles would not enjoy this film. This is probably true. She hits upon a good point that the high amount of reading, compared to other films, may discourage some viewers from seeing it. I felt it was refreshing to read the poems and it seemed natural to read them, since we normally read poems rather than hearing them. The film would have lost the poet’s layout of the words on a page if all of the poems had been read aloud.
Cathy Cook has funded this documentary through grants and is passionate about the topic. This artist is objective in her re-telling of the facts of Niedecker’s life but she is subjective in how she presents Lorine’s work and her interpretation of the poems. Cook geared this film towards poets, artists, and nature lovers and has found Mid-Westerners also enjoy it. As a Mid-Westerner I had never heard of Lorine Niedecker until this film and one scene expresses a similar experience. A boat floated on a lake in darkness and went in and out of the camera’s sight as an interviewee explained that she never knew Lorine even though they had lived in the same area. Through Immortal Cupboard, Cook guides the audience in getting to know a female poet whose work is unfamiliar.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Ken Burns Interview

Watch the beginning to learn about a film maker's take on new technology's effect on documentaries.

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson directed by Ken Burns

This film in my mind is a stereotypical documentary film. It was created for PBS and thus assumes an air of historical exploration about the life of Jack Johnson. The documentary was detached and presented the information rather than pointing the viewer in one direction or another. It was long to watch in one sitting (4 hours) and I do not recommend it. The material was interesting as it was about a black boxer and his striving for his dream through discrimination. It was an inspiring story about Jack’s indifferent attitude towards racism and the white man’s goal to keep him from achieving the Heavyweight Champion of the World title in boxing. Johnson succeeds by winning many matches and never gives up his belief that he is equal to any white man.
The music, interviews and footage told Jack Johnson’s story objectively. Ken Burns’ role was removed from the film and he presented the information without assuming a position on Johnson’s life. There were no re-enactments of the situations but rather the film used archival footage and shots of old newspapers and photographs from the time period. Photographs were zoomed in on by the camera and then the camera would zoom out and to the side to give the viewer a fuller vision of the picture. This type of camera work occurred many times in the film. I enjoyed seeing the old footage of Johnson’s boxing matches. The old black and white footage made Johnson come alive as someone who did exist. The interviews were artificially lit and were done mainly, if not completely, inside office spaces. I did not hear the interviewer ask questions, which made the director appear even less involved. Music was provided by the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, and was a mixture of swing and jazz. It seemed like era music and blended in with the film. Marsalis is a successful black artist, which adds to the idea that Jack Johnson helped pave the way for others to pursue their passions in life. Narration provided a string throughout the entire documentary; it informed the audience of the events and drove the plot. Quotations from Johnson were read by another voice and allowed the audience to learn some of Johnson’s own thoughts. The director used these elements of narration, interviews, and archival footage to create an unbiased documentary about Jack Johnson.
I think Burns’ agenda is to tell the historical truth through presenting the available information and facts. Early in the film, a story is told about how Johnson went to New York and threatened to jump off of the ship. The passengers then gave him money so that he would not. Though this story is fascinating, Burns addresses Johnson’s tendency for exaggerating his childhood. This and other stories must be taken lightly since they may not have happened the way Johnson claimed. Burns does his best to sort through the facts and give the audience plausible truth. Through his objective view, the director documents the story of an amazing man whose life surmounted expectations.

Here's a link for more information on the film.

"I began to feel that the drama of the truth that is in the moment and in the past is richer and more interesting than the drama of Hollywood movies. So I began looking at documentary films." -Ken Burns

Sunday, April 5, 2009

a MURDER which may have been solved inaccurately. Can you say documentary?

The Thin Blue Line (1988), directed by Errol Morris, examines the murder of a Dallas police officer through interviews of suspects, witnesses, officers and lawyers as well as re-enactments of the events. The story of what happened the night of the murder slowly unravels as the viewer discovers there are two sides to the story. Randall Adams and David Harris are the murder suspects who were driving the car that was pulled over. One of them shot an officer, but both tell a different story as to who the killer was.
Morris’s style and techniques did not strike me as new and innovative in the way the film addressed the topic. I believe this is due to the fact that since the film’s release there have been many other films which have emulated his techniques and made them commonplace for my generation. I loved how the re-enactment of past actions added to this film. However, I felt the police scene was replayed too much towards the end and could have been replaced with other footage. Errol Morris’s invention the Interrotron enables the interviewee to look directly at the camera and see the interviewer. This places the viewer in a similar position to the director since s/he is experiencing it from the director’s point of view and sees the interviewee looking at her/him. As a viewer I felt submerged in the content of the film and was not sure of which story I believed. I think I felt this way because the interviewees were looking at me and made me feel as if I was there with them which made it hard to remove myself and feel like a spectator. The submersion feeling was also achieved through the different points of view and bits of information slowly being fed to the viewer making the viewer work to piece the story together.
The viewer slowly puts the story together of what happened the night of the murder through the interviews, but Morris does not force his opinion of the truth upon his audience. In fact the portrayed truth is often turned on its head. One of the beginning scenes is an interview of Randall Adams claiming that the police were very pushy in an interview with him and the next scene is of the police officer saying that it was a casual conversation. From the very beginning there is a clash in memory and/or truth. One or the other is telling the truth, but which one? Randall Adams is wearing white and David Harris wears orange which suggests that David is the one who committed the murder and is now in prison for it, but later you find out Randall was convicted. The difference in opinions is confusing in the beginning and it is as if the viewer is a detective sifting through the different accounts to find the truth. Morris suggests truth can be overlooked by justice through the conviction of a non-guilty man and that it can be hard to determine who is telling the truth. Truth is a sticky word. The truth to one person may not be the truth to another because memory can be faulty and lies can be told to cover it up. The viewer was not at the scene of the crime and so does not know the truth of the situation. All the information the officers have to determine the killer is from interviews and witnesses who saw the scene as they drove by on a dark night. One eyewitness couple claims they saw Randall Adams shoot the officer but a woman who knew the couple believes they lied in order to profit from the position. This seems to be the case since the wife’s daughter had been arrested before the crime and was released after the couple’s testimony. Interviews pile on top of other interviews leaning the viewer in one direction and then back in a new one.
Morris ends the film with a strong scene full of evidence indicating Harris to be the murderer. The shot is of a tape recorder playing and there are subtitles to what is being said. The tape is of David Harris answering questions and his statements lead me to believe that David and not Randall had murdered the officer. Here Errol Morris does choose to end with his own point of view and give the viewer a slight push in the same direction. Morris’s documentary provided an insightful glimpse of how the justice system can err and that the truth is not always clear.
Welcome to Documentary Explorations. I will be watching a documentary each week and commenting about them through this blog. I would love to hear your opinions on the films so feel free to leave them.