Like an unstoppable march of power-mad penguins, documentaries have swarmed across the land — or so you’d think, for all the recent cultural surprise being expressed about the success of fact-based movies cast with real people. These may be doc-crazy times — Michael Moore even gets portrayed as a suicide-bombing marionette in “Team America.” But still, a docu like “Murderball” relies on the same things as a fiction film — namely, action, drama and people (or penguins) you love, or love to hate.
So where Betsy A. McLane and Jack C. Ellis, co-authors of “A New History of Documentary Film,” go wrong, right off the bat, is in saying film itself is divided — like a set of Balkan states — into docs, narrative features and experimental avant-garde.
That they declare the death of the experimental avant-garde in the 1920s will come as something of a jolt to the fans of such filmmakers as Nina Menkes, James Benning and Michael Snow.
But the more pervasive problem for readers is how the authors have to continually adjust their premise to account for the myriad instances of authorship imposed by documentarians on their work. It would be easier to acknowledge that the borders of nonfiction and fiction are fuzzy, and one side has always influenced the other.
Isn’t the history of the documentary the history of film? Weren’t the earliest movie subjects — that Edison worker caught sneezing, or those French workers leaving the factory, under the stationary eye of the Lumieres — part of something purely journalistic as well as cinematic? And hasn’t fiction filmmaking — in its never-ending effort to make even the most fantastic thing seem real — been trying since its birth to … well, crawl back to the documentary womb?
Of course not. As we know now, the Lumieres filmed multiple takes of their quitting-time workers — in other words, they staged stuff. Robert Flaherty, perhaps the most famous of early “documentarians,” ran Nanook of the North through the kind of dramatic re-creations that might have today’s cinema verite faithful storming the projection booth with pitchforks and torches.
There’s never been a fine line between fact and fiction in film. To pretend otherwise is like telling yourself the Earth is only 5,000 years old.
More successful, perhaps because its thesis is less ambitious, is Megan Cunningham’s “The Art of the Documentary,” the very title of which is shot down in the book’s first few pages by the pioneering D.A. Pennebaker. He questions whether any doc can pretend to be art. Or whether any film really can.
He’s being purposely curmudgeonly, perhaps, but the Q&A format employed by Cunningham allows for a comfortably conversational quality, whether it be between Pennebaker and his collaborator-wife Chris Hegedus, or Cunningham and Ken Burns.
You wish she’d have pitched tougher questions at someone like Burns (why he let the Wynton Marsalis mafia co-opt “Jazz,” for instance), but she seems to rise as an interviewer to the level of her subject: Her conversation with Errol Morris, for instance, provides a wide, clear window into that innovative filmmaker’s incisive work (notably “The Fog of War”). She also gives due credit to the often unsung contributions of cinematographers and editors (notably Albert Maysles and Paula Heredia).
The one thing a reader might wish for is that she’d interviewed Werner Herzog, not only the most exciting documentarian working today, but one whose nonfiction films unabashedly aspire to art.
It’s easy to suspect the timing of each of these books is about the recent popularization of the “doc” — a term that, after reading these books, one uses with trepidation. But other things become suspect, too. “The Art of the Documentary” doesn’t pretend to be anything more than illustrative (and it’s a handsome volume). But “A New History of Documentary Film” positions itself as something else — and thus attracts more scrutiny.
The book gives enormous credit, for instance — much of it justified — to the work of less-than-legendary British filmmaker John Grierson, declared the “father of the documentary” by McLane and Ellis — the latter of whom has been Grierson’s biographer. And while it doesn’t seem particularly odd that, in a book with five appendixes, one should be a listing of Oscar-winning docs and another should catalog those included in the National Film Registry, it does seem strange that one is devoted to the awards of the Grierson Trust and another to the Independent Documentary Assn. — of which McLane is director emeritus.
It all seems, as the French might say, a bit de trop. But as this is a book that covers strictly English-language documentaries, we’ll let the appendixes speak for themselves.