Documentary in an Age of Terror1
Lynn A. Higgins
The past few years have seen a renaissance of the documentary. Documentaries are not perhaps more numerous than in the past, but they are indisputably more in the news. In fact, they are news. Recent examples, both American-made and foreign, are being reviewed by local newspapers, holding their own in multiplexes across the country, winning festival awards, and igniting controversies. The most notorious of these is, of course, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, winner ofthe Palme d'or at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, only the second documentary in the Festival's 57-year history to be awarded the coveted top prize.2 Various attempts to block the film's distribution in American theaters helped Fahrenheit 9/11 become the largest-grossing documentary ever—the first to top $100 million—surpassing the previous record holder (Moore's own 2002 Bowling for Columbine) by 600 percent.3 The film unleashed a flood of response, including another documentary, Fahrenhype 911: Unraveling the Truth about Fahrenheit 9/11 and Michael Moore (2004, directed by Alan Peterson), and Moore's own best-selling spin-off book, The Official Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader.
While it tops the list, Moore's film is not an isolated phenomenon. A second documentary splash of the season was Errol Morris's The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003). With its complex narrative format, its conspicuous cinematography, and its original score by Philip Glass, the academy-award winning film blurred the boundaries between documentary and art cinema. Another newsworthy documentary harking back to the Vietnam era is Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (2004), a fortuitously-timed historical biography by George Butler (of Pumping Iron fame) covering the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate's military service in Vietnam and his subsequent work as a peace activist. The Corporation (2003, directed by Jennifer Abbott & Mark Achbar), which investigates the ascendancy of international corporations, won nine audience-choice awards, including one from the Sundance Film Festival, and became an unprecedented box-office hit in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. The boom represented by these and other recent releases has in turn generated a self-reflexive sub-genre of documentaries about journalism: in Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (2004), director Robert Greenwald investigates the coercive measures by which Fox News maintains its right-wing perspective and its corporate control over content; Control Room (2004), directed by Jehane Noujaim, examines international perceptions of the U.S. war with Iraq through the lens of Al Jazeera, the Arab world's most popular news outlet. Both of these received free publicity in the form of criticism from the Pentagon. Interest in the genre is currently so widespread that "Producing Political Documentaries" was the cover story for the October 2004 issue of Videography, a magazine for video production professionals.
Lest we conclude that the phenomenon is limited to partisan politics during an election campaign, we should consider Spellbound, Jeffrey Blitz's 2002 exploration of the lives and motivations of eight teenaged contestants in the 1999 National Spelling Bee. Billed as "a real nail-biter" with "unbearable pressure" and stakes as high as any Olympic match,4 the film has won widespread success and several prizes. A final American example and my favorite, Supersize Me (2004), winner of the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival and the New Director's Award at Edinburgh, documents director Morgan Spurlock's war on obesity. Spurlock spent a full month tracking the effects of an exclusively McDonald's diet on his own health and that of the nation.
While Moore was accepting the Palme d'or in Cannes, foreign documentaries were faring surprisingly well with American audiences. For example, the U.S. release in theaters and on DVD of Nicolas Philibert's 2002 Etre et avoir [To Be and To Have] has been widely and positively reviewed and garners eight stars out of ten on the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB.com) poll with over a thousand viewers voting in the first month, and all this despite its double disadvantage as a subtitled documentary. Philibert's film had collected a slew of awards in France, among them a César for best editing (it was also nominated for Best Film), an award from the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics, and the ultra-prestigious Prix Louis Delluc. It was also an official selection for the Cannes Festival. Etre et avoir seems to have been a surprise success even in France, where documentaries are a somewhat less marginal genre. One critic there credits director Philibert with "bringing a stroke of originality to a cinematic genre usually shunned by the public."5
What is going on here? Why has this neglected genre (or cluster of genres) moved out of the art houses and college campuses and into the mainstream? What accounts for this outpouring of blockbuster documentaries, a term that just a few years ago would have been derided as an oxymoron? Where did this appetite for documentaries come from?
Forces in the cultural and technological landscape have no doubt broadened public receptivity to a formerly minor non-fiction form. How-to, travelogue, instructional, and historical documentaries have always been used in classrooms and circulated by public libraries. Ken Burns's Civil War and Jazz, each originally a made-for-television mini-series, continue to enjoy popularity and wide DVD distribution. The 24-hour news cycle has habituated the public to consumption of news and genres that look like news. The reality TV craze has certainly played a role in shaping public taste too, as has the Internet. The affordability and thus the democratization of new technologies such as videography have also played a crucial role: Today's video cameras and computer editing software can be compared to the hand-held cameras, mobile microphones, and synchronous sound, new in the late 1950s, that made Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave possible. Then as now, young and ambitious creators went into the street with inexpensive portable cameras to have their say and impose fresh perspectives, and in the process to transform established genres and audience expectations. The documentary dimension of Nouvelle Vague cinema has been largely overlooked: having left the studios behind to shoot in various Parisian locations, Agnès Varda, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and others incorporated into their fiction films ambient documentary elements such as recognizable buildings and streets, open air markets, radio broadcasts, and the passage of public figures and ordinary people. Not much later, in 1968, John Kerry shot super-8 footage of the Vietnamese battlegrounds from the window of his helicopter. George Butler incorporated some of Kerry's amateur archival footage into Going Upriver. Today, embedded journalists provide similar images which are, in turn, making their way into documentaries and into public discussion.
It is also important that today's documentarists are working in the context of an independent cinema movement that is both healthy and international. The new independent documentaries—even the so-called non-political ones—have in common a relative freedom from corporate control over content. Unlike standard informational documentaries with their claim to neutrality conveyed by their aptly-named "voice of God" commentary, these new documentaries share a vision that is openly auteurist and sometimes defiantly partisan. The documentaries evoked above—and many others—bear the personal signature of an authorial personality. They construct an argument, they aim to inform, but also to persuade, even to incite. Not surprisingly, they have provoked debate and been accused of being manipulative. For this, we might situate many of these recent films in the category of protest art. When one recalls that the late 1960s and early 1970s also saw a resurgence of documentary,6 the current foment begins to look less like a coincidence and more like a movement. One might even propose that Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Arlo Guthrie in the 1960s (and perhaps also Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in the 1940s) could be compared to documentary filmmakers today, and that in our age of visuality, the camera has replaced the guitar as a medium of political and social dissent.
Documentaries have, of course, existed since the beginning of cinema. Film histories usually locate the origins of the genre in the Lumière brothers' first short films, which showed such everyday scenes as workers emerging from the Lumière family factory, a train arriving in the station, and intimate activities like baby's lunchtime and a game of cards in the garden. Since then, techniques such as collage, charts, animation, and voiceover narration have expanded the possibilities for "documenting" the real. Although the genre is notoriously difficult to define, documentaries can be distinguished from fiction by a number of traits such as lower budgets and production values. In their classic form, they use hand-held cameras and light-weight equipment to record, traditionally in grainy black-and-white, raw fragments of a disruptive and undigested real, structured only afterwards by editing and narration rather than beforehand by scripting. Their mise-en-scène, too, is assumed to be "found," not staged, and features real people playing themselves, instead of professional actors assuming roles. Scholars and theorists have attempted to organize the various configurations of these basics by creating taxonomies within some larger conception of the genre. Erik Barnouw, for example, classes documentary filmmakers into the following categories: explorer, reporter, painter, advocate, bugler, prosecutor, poet, chronicler, promoter, observer, catalyst, and guerilla.7
Despite efforts to define and circumscribe it, however, documentary has never been as distinct as one might wish. A fictional image has the same reality status (or lack of it) as a documentary one, and both are signifiers whose relation to meaning is subject to interpretation. Moreover, because they are located in space, the camera's direction and frame determine what is shown and what can be obscured, and its presence transforms the very reality it wants to record. Viewing the charming scenes documented by the Lumière brothers, it is obvious that some of the people have already become "characters"—the camera itself turns them into actors, even hams—and that some of the sets are staged. Even if they weren't, selection, angles, and editing shape the material and produce meaning. Moreover, traditional film techniques and, even more readily, modern digital technology can generate and edit images with incredible sophistication and potential for manipulation.
On the other hand, cinema's emergence in the footsteps of science—such as the chrono-photographic studies of human and animal locomotion done in the 1880s by Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge—has meant that we have historically more readily turned for truth to images than to words. Spectators at the Lumière premiere of December 28, 1895, witnessed a train rushing toward them into a station, and as legend would have it, ran terrified from the room, convinced of their mortal peril. Despite evidence to the contrary, the conviction persists that a visual document constitutes proof positive, a guarantor of the referential value of representation, almost an instance of living reality itself.
Ferdinand de Saussure started teaching his Course in General Linguistics in 1906,8 at the end of the decade during which cinema began to impose itself as a worldwide medium of communication. Just when the father of structuralism was demonstrating the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign, cinema appeared on the horizon to offer ostensibly more uncoded, indexical access to the real. Viewed from this angle, the very invention of cinema begins to look like a form of nostalgia. I want to suggest that our current appetite for documentaries might reveal a similar nostalgia, a desire to return to a belief in the possibility of some reasonable correspondence between sign and reality. From the Greek nostos signifying a return home, "nostalgia" literally means homesickness. It is the reverse of Sigmund Freud's unheimlich, the strange and discomforting uncanny, such as occurs when images are recognized to be unreal. We continue to burden images—especially documentary ones—with our fading hopes of access to reliable knowledge about the world. Moreover, if one considers the current proliferation of documentaries a symptom of frustration and a form of protest, these films may function not only as an apparently privileged means of access to the real, but also to a reality as we wish it were: knowable, coherent, manageable, reassuringly rational, even (perhaps especially) in the face of unimaginable horrors.
Hollywood has often suggested that images can serve as privileged points of access to a reality that threatens to slip away, and thus paradoxically as not only a reflection, but also a nostalgic corrective to and a refuge from life. The theme receives full-length treatment in Billy Wilder's 1950 Sunset Boulevard, a self-reflecting film about the power of cinema to replace the real. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging diva of the silent screen, spends her evenings watching replays of her younger self. As Norma attempts to draw others into the web of her nostalgic madness, she destroys everything around her. The films of her youth were mute, and significantly, Norma murders language, in the form of the young writer she has kidnapped to script her comeback. Her every gesture directed by her butler and former husband (a wistful Erich von Stroheim), she will return to the spotlight as a celebrity criminal. In her deranged imagination, she has staged a return to the scene where her image corresponded to reality.
Our cultural critics have been warning us for some time about the monstrous ascendancy of the image. In his 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord, chief guru of the Situationist International, offered a neo-marxist analysis of consumer capitalism, redefining class struggle in terms of "spectacle," his term for a mode of social relations mediated by representations. As Debord saw it, capitalism harnesses our imagination for use by the consumer market. Our lived experience and even our desires are transformed into media images and then sold back to us in the form of consumer goods, as in an advertisement criticized in the situationist journal. (See Fig. 1) We thus become the passive spectators or consumers of images rather than the creators of our lives.9
Across the Atlantic, Daniel Boorstin was coming to similar conclusions at about the same time. In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Boorstin investigates the consequences of this wholesale (so to speak) commodification of our lives. He distinguishes between what he calls "spontaneous" events and the kind that are manufactured in order to be reported, and between authentic heroes (individuals known for their achievements) and their contrived replacements, called "celebrities"; figures who are, in Boorstin's now-famous formulation, "known for their well knownness." Because we welcome the pseudo-events and celebrities that correspond to our collective prejudices and desires, Boorstin argues, "[o]ur experience tends more and more to become tautology." With our scripted news conferences and media-generated celebrity culture, reality and representations have traded places, so that the world itself now seems a pale reflection of what was already more real as an image. Our quest for knowledge of the real (in, say, documentaries), arrives at a dead end. "So long as we define information as a knowledge of pseudo-events," Boorstin writes, "'more information' will simply multiply the symptoms without curing the disease."10 Writing in Boorstin's wake, Neal Gabler, in his book Life: The Movie. How Entertainment Conquered Reality (1998) declares that we live in "post-reality."11 And in an even more apocalyptic vein, Jean Baudrillard declares, in his recent book The Perfect Crime, that reality has been murdered, and that the corpse has never been found. Moreover, the culprit is still at large: "The image can no longer imagine the real," he explains, "because it is the real."12
An illustration with the original printing of this article has the following caption:
Alienated desire transformed into commodity spectacle. "I love my camera because I love life. I record the best moments and relive them whenever I wish, in all their freshness." Advertisement from the Internationale Situationaliste, 11 October 1967.
In our post-9/11 historical moment, it seems to me that the stakes have been raised, reality has become ever more inaccessible, and the widespread hunger for images reflecting reliable information is correspondingly acute. Numerous recent developments illustrate or contribute to this crisis, for example:
- We continue to witness the managing of terror through commodification of its images. (See Fig. 2).
- It doesn't help that we are currently experiencing the most secretive government since the advent of television. Historian Bruce Craig, writing in Perspectives, the newsletter of the American Historical Association, worries that "[o]ne of the defining characteristics of government in the post-9/11 era is an increased emphasis on secrecy." Craig outlines trends which he characterizes as "creat[ing] impediments to government documents of an almost unprecedented scale [. . .] federal agencies are classifying documents in record numbers." According to the Department of Justice Office on Information and Privacy, these restrictions respond to (or at least correlate with) record numbers of Freedom of Information Act requests, which reached an all-time high of three million in 2003. In that year, for every dollar the federal government spent declassifying documents, it spent $120 maintaining secrets already classified and classifying new ones. $6.5 billion were spent in 2003 creating some 14 million new classified documents. Perhaps in response to election-year pressures, "an increasing number of members of Congress appear concerned about government secrecy and attacks on civil liberties."13
- A bizarre episode that occurred in the summer of 2004 is perhaps the best illustration since Orson Welles's 1938 radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" of the fragile boundary between fiction and documentary (or, more accurately, the news). On the morning of August 7, 2004, the Associated Press reported that a 22-year-old San Francisco man, Benjamin Vanderford, had been beheaded in Iraq. The report was based on a 55-second video clip that Vanderford, a video game designer, working with two friends, had faked and posted on the Internet. The clip included war photos taken from a Middle Eastern website and featured a soundtrack of a voice reading from the Quran. The story was picked up by the Cairo bureau of the Associated Press and by Reuters news service, and the grainy video was broadcast by two Middle Eastern television stations.14 Several hours later the trio responsible for the clip said they had never expected it to be believed or distributed so widely, and they blamed the media for not verifying the video's authenticity. The three chastened perpetrators explained that they had had no intent to deceive—the blood and the knife are quite obviously made of corn syrup and plastic respectively—but rather, they had sought to show how easy it is to make something fake look real. They succeeded. The post-reality of this pseudo-event is underlined by the fact that more major American newspapers reported the hoax than the "beheading."
- I would hesitate to attribute such an incident to a broader zeitgeist dominated by spin and a corresponding disregard, even contempt, for reality, were it not for an alarming anecdote recounted by Ron Suskind in a recent New York Times Magazine. Suskind had written an article in Esquire that incurred disapproval in high places, and he was called in for a meeting with a senior advisor to President Bush. The aide expressed White House displeasure, and then went on to explain (as Suskind reports the conversaton), that:
guys like me [Suskind] were "in what we [the White House] call the reality-based community," which [the aide] defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." 15
This White House aide's position goes beyond simply exemplifying a poststructuralist awareness of the natural tendency of meaning to proliferate. If Suskind's account has any truth to it at all (and he is a credible and respected journalist), it helps explain why our politicians and other public figures are frequently understood to be "celebrities" rather than "heroes," to use Daniel Boorstin's distinction: their bodies are sculpted and prepared for display, their utterances are scripted, their opinions formulated by committees, and their "leadership" follows the results of marketing research data and popularity statistics.
I see the current wave of documentaries as a form of resistance to this ongoing loss of the real in a historical moment when we desperately need languages and images that will tell us what is going on. Diametrically opposed to Norma Desmond's nostalgic longing to escape from reality into an image, the film examples described below suggest on the contrary an attempt to transmit more reliable reports from the real world. The problem documentary filmmakers face is that authentic representations have become simultaneously both imperative and impossible: a series of images—even moving ones—cannot possibly convey in un-mediated form the raw, undigested, fragmented, unpolished, unspun real. It will therefore help to keep in mind film scholar Bill Nichols's understanding of documentary "not as a special use of the film medium that affords a 'privileged' view of reality, but as a genre" among others.16
Supersize Me (2004)17 follows director Morgan Spurlock as he moves through a full month of an exclusively McDonald's diet and the regular medical monitoring of his declining health. The film uses standard documentary techniques: interviews with expert witnesses, animated charts and graphs, collages, voiceover narration, and direct address. Chronological narration alternates with didactic chapters investigating topics such as school lunch programs, exercise, and addiction.
Despite all the medical and scientific evidence displayed, however, the primary document deployed in Supersize Me is the director's body. Nothing is more real than the body: its vomit, its flab, its impotence, its shortness of breath, its blood, with the quantifiable information it contains. "My body officially hates me," Spurlock declares. He has put himself "in harm's way," as they say, in a war against consumer culture. He thus literally "embodies" both personal and social excess, and his voluntary physical disintegration constitutes a kind of spectacularized martyrdom.
The DVD version of the film includes Spurlock's interview with Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal,18 a book that inspired the film. Schlosser explains that he undertook his research because he liked fast food and simply wanted to know what was in it. What he discovered was that fast food is not, as he puts it, "real food." It is made of thousands of industrial chemicals carefully designed to taste like food. In fact, he believes that fast food restaurants aren't about food at all, they are about "selling nostalgic fuzzy feelings about food." Schlosser evinces a nostalgia of his own: for "real ground beef" and "real strawberry flavor," for "real ice cream," and for "real potatoes," he says, sketching a voluptuous potato-like roundness with his hand.
Schlosser's nostalgia for real food finds its echo in New York Daily News reviewer Denis Hamill's nostalgia for reliable images, which he claims to have found in Fahrenheit 9/11. About Moore's film, Hamill says:
This was not, after all, some exploding-fireball blockbuster. No, the exploding fireballs in this film are real. The dead people in this film are real. The dialogue is real. Real soldiers, real victims, real mothers, real dead kids. The bad guys, as portrayed by filmmaker Michael Moore, are all too real.19
While pursuing his investigation into the ingredients in fast food, Schlosser found information about the real inaccessible not because of the mediations inherent in representation, but because the facts he sought were corporate secrets, and obstacles were placed in his path. What is accessible, however, is the evidence of the body. Film critic Linda Williams speaks of what she calls "body genres," the kinds of films that "give our bodies an actual physical jolt," and for that reason are "on the edge of respectable." Included in her analysis are horror movies, melodrama, and pornography.20 With Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock reconnects representation to the real by making documentary into a body genre.
A different approach can be found in 11'9"01—September 11 (released in 2002), a collective response to the terrorist attacks on New York City. Each of eleven filmmakers from as many countries was invited to contribute a film of exactly eleven minutes, nine seconds and one image duration (11-9-01, the date in European format). In the first of these, Iranian Samira Makhmalbaf shows Afghan refugees in an Iranian settlement.21 All we see is a dry and desolate dirt landscape, where children mix mud with their bare feet to make bricks in simple molds. A teacher arrives and entices them to school with the promise of a book. Once the children are assembled, she asks them if they have heard about the disaster. They haven't, but they proceed to guess what the event might have been, drawing on other experienced or imagined calamities, such as a flood or falling into a well. One child recounts that back in Afghanistan, her aunt was stoned to death. The teacher attempts to explain the attacks on New York City and the global scale of the catastrophe—it could unleash another world war, she says, with atomic bombs that would kill us all. Seeing the expressions of incomprehension on the children's faces, she invites them to imagine what a tower looks like by referring to the chimney of the brick kiln outside.
Quite apart from its tragic losses, September 11 has special status because millions of people witnessed it "live," in real time. In the printed booklet of eleven interviews accompanying the DVD, the filmmakers repeat one after the other that the event itself came to them in the form of images. Makhmalbaf says that watching the attacks on television made her realize the importance images can have. Had the news come via radio, she contends, it would not have been believed. Producer Alain Brigand launched the collective film as a response in images to other images.
When the disaster itself is received as an image, the event has already documented itself. Ground zero becomes a zero degree of representation, so that film is called upon to perform some radically different function, or else declare itself superfluous. Although the collected films are not documentary in any classic sense, they do document something fundamental about September 11. The refugee children in Makhmalbaf's film live in impossibly primitive conditions. Everything separates them from the middle-class first-world spectator. They cannot conceive of the Twin Towers' existence. They have probably never seen television or a movie—they are thrilled at the prospect of being shown a picture book. They would probably run in terror from a film involving a moving train. For these children, the disaster is literally unthinkable. And their disaster is unthinkable for us. In fact, according to many, the gap between the two may very well have contributed to provoking the terrorists.
It's a question of scale, then. The film documents the disconnect between tragically separate perceptions of the world. In so doing, it stands at a threshold where description tips over into metaphor. It's also a question of images and power—who has them, who doesn't. The film reattaches image to imagination. Where the latter is lacking, the former is meaningless. While it cannot re-embody the real—or the dead—the filmed collection offers a humanitarian gesture in that it provides a way of seeing from different angles, thereby creating a supra-national "dialogue among images."
In the opening scene of Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore achieves a comparable moment of poetry. He could have shown documentary footage of airplanes slamming into towers; goodness knows, the terrible footage was available. Instead, he gives us a black screen, with only a muted soundtrack of panicked screams and street sounds, then countershots of horrified faces, and finally photographs of the dead (in fact, photos of photos of the dead).
Art Spiegelman achieves a similar effect with the cover (and the title) of his comic book account of the terrorist attacks, In the Shadow of No Towers (See Fig. 3). The stated goals of his book are largely negative: having witnessed the New York attacks first-hand as he attempted to rescue his daughter from her school, Spiegelman wants to avoid certain clichés of iconographic and verbal representation and to preserve his experience in unmediated form. "[H]aunted by the images [he] didn't witness," he says, he sought to steer clear of "the media images that threatened to engulf what I actually saw." He wants to sidestep the nostalgia trap ("Nothing like the end of the world to help bring folks together") as well as the lure of a return to business as usual: "Nothing like commemorating an event to help you forget it."22 In both Moore's and Spiegelman's black-outs—as in the debates over what type of monument would appropriately commemorate the losses—a blank screen or a frame around a void seeks to preserve rather than overcome the inaccessibility of reality. Their work installs a nagging presence of an absence, like a toothless gum or a phantom limb. These artists imply that to represent, to provide accurate images, would risk constituting an unacceptable commodification. Truth is to be found instead in the representation of an absence on a black page or screen. These visual equivalents of a moment of silence thus function as a figure of mourning.
My remaining examples are drawn from an emerging corpus or sub-genre of documentaries. The "making of" or film production documentary has arisen out of new technologies: DVD distribution has created a demand for "extras," and the moving pictures now included as bonus features replace or supplement the production stills that have traditionally documented the shooting of a film, in turn enhancing public receptivity to documentary modes of narration.
The case of Lost in La Mancha (2002),23 directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, is particularly instructive, because it recounts the "making of" a film that was never actually completed. Former Monty Python member and director of 12 Monkeys (1995), Brazil (1985), and other extravaganzas, Terry Gilliam had long dreamed of adapting Don Quixote to the screen. However, the project was beset from day one by all manner of disasters: floods, galewinds, malfunctioning equipment. Finally, its lead actor, Jean Rochefort, withdrew because of illness, and Gilliam was forced to abandon his film. As a result, all that remains of the project is its "making of." Curiously, however, Lost in La Mancha is, in fact, an adaptation of Cervantes's masterpiece. But as an adaptation in documentary form, it takes into account and even reflects upon the problematic reality status of the image.
Lost in La Mancha stars Terry Gilliam playing himself. Onscreen, he is the beleaguered director frustrated in his desire to bring to the screen the literary hero who has obsessed him for many years. While Lost in La Mancha ostensibly documents a failure to bring Cervantes's hero to the screen, what is interesting is that the film in fact generates two Quixotes—one fictional, one documentary—as Gilliam himself is gradually revealed to be another foolish, mad adventurer whose imagination far outstrips the capacity of the physical world to live up to his ill-fated projects. On the one hand, Lost in La Mancha is a straightforward exposition of pre-production preparations and the early days of shooting. Along the way, accumulating mishaps gradually bring the two Quixotes into curious visual and narrative alignment. A shot of Rochefort-Quixote brandishing his lance is followed by a film crew member in similar stance, grasping a microphone boom. Rochefort astride his horse is juxtaposed with a mirror image of Gilliam "riding" his camera along the rails installed for the filming of tracking shots. Rousing Spanish bullfight music, initially intended to accompany the fictional hero, spills out of its diegetic frame to embellish the exploits of Don Gilliam as well. Finally, a convoy of equipment trucks "gallops" across the flooded landscape to the tune of flamenco guitars.
I like to consider the two Quixotes as enacting a sort of competition or battle between an adaptation and its own making-of, and between Cervantes and Gilliam, the quixotic and mad filmmaker-anti-hero, known for his off-the-charts budget overruns and insanely ambitious vision. Rochefort goes off to Paris to consult his doctors and disappears from view, and Gilliam loses control of his film. This face-off between fiction and its making-of comes to its frenzied climax when investors and insurance adjustors visit the set, and the entire crew undertakes to hide the fact that the project has gone off the rails. They are, in effect, pretending to make a feature film, and we are watching a documentary about that pretense. As the insurance adjustors take their leave, the color of fiction fades momentarily (the time to take a group photo) to grainy black and white, the traditional province of documentary and journalistic sobriety. Close-ups of Gilliam cast him as the hero of his own downfall. The story of Don Quixote gets told using the projected film's storyboard and illustrations from the novel in parallel montage with the documentation of Rochefort's x-rays (once again, the body as document), all accompanied by increasingly lyrical Spanish music.
One of the experts interviewed for the making-of is co-scenarist Tony Grisoli, who offers the following testimony:
In the book, Cervantes does something very strange and very cruel. At every turn, Cervantes mocks Quixote. At every turn, Cervantes goes out of his way to show how foolish the old man is. And the crueler he is, the more we love Quixote. So that when this man becomes sane again, as a reader, we can't stand this, we don't want him to be sane, we want him to remain mad, because we know that when he becomes sane, he will die.
Grisoli's observations apply as aptly to Gilliam in La Mancha as they do to Don Quixote. The result is that Lost in La Mancha is in fact an adaptation of Cervantes's novel, but in documentary form. There is no fiction, no acting, no simulation here. (Gilliam shows himself to be an inept performer, even in the role of himself.) This version of the Quixote is more true, more real, more believable because it is the story of Terry Gilliam becoming (not playing the role of) the quixotic hero.
In narrating a victory of documentary over fiction, Lost in La Mancha may not permit spectators to suspend disbelief and get caught up in an imaginary world, but we do have the opportunity to know how illusion is created. This is a good thing. The film stages creativity's declaration of independence, gleefully demonstrating how disgruntled investors and insurance adjustors—how money and power, in other words, corporate control over art—can be sent packing. The triumphant "making-of" negotiates and ultimately subverts excessive mediation of reality by showing the reality of mediation. The interest of the making-of as a genre at this moment in cinema history is its reversal of the traditional hierarchy of frame and image. While the truth status of the image may be in doubt, the frame (part of what Gérard Genette calls the paratext24 ) inhabits the real world.
In a review of Looking for Richard, Al Pacino's making-of/adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III, New York Times critic Margo Jefferson has this to say: "It's a movie that plays with, and on, some of our favorite American myths. We love the idea that we're always searching for honesty and authenticity."25 Although not an American film, Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye Lenin! plays "with and on" the same premises. As a fiction film about an elaborate making-of (which is also fictional), this 2003 feature adds still more layers of self-consciousness to portraying the tensions between representations and realities. Here again, the stakes are a matter of life and death.
A woman sees her son arrested in a Berlin free speech protest in early 1989. She suffers a heart attack and remains in a coma for eight months, during which time the German Democratic Republic is dismantled, along with the Berlin wall. When this modern Rip Van Winkle awakens, doctors inform her son and daughter that further shock might kill her. Since she had been a fervent socialist ("married to" the Party ever since her husband's defection), her children undertake to protect her from knowledge of what has transpired. Of particular interest to us are the old taped TV newsreels her son finds for her to watch. When reality intrudes around the edges of her television screen in the form of new clothing styles, western food brands, an advertising blimp outside her window and an unavoidable Coca Cola poster, her son and his amateur filmmaker friend invent additional broadcasts, incorporating the anomalies into ever more convoluted explanatory reports of the "news." This, of course, involves reenacting not only formerly-believable, now-fanciful content, but also manufacturing an outmoded style of clothing, speech, and imagery, in short an entire mise-en-scène of nostalgia.
As sequences showing the making of false news reports are followed by scenes in which the family watches these "televised" broadcasts, shots of cameras proliferate, divergent layers of fiction and "reality" are juxtaposed, and coexisting points of view multiply. Once again, frames are crucial, as is the irony produced when we witness behind-the-scenes image-making machinery and then view the same scenes, reframed. The fiction displays not only the production of pseudo-events, but also the son's loving filial motivation. This is of course what makes the film charming, but at the same time, the disjunction between fantasy and reality, between fiction and documentary has serious implications. Like Quixote, the mother will die if she learns that her reality is a fiction. Even the son comes to realize and admit that he has reconstructed socialist society as he wishes it had been. The mother's self-deluded epiphany, when she (thinks she) sees a book-toting Lenin extending his hand in benediction as he floats angelically over the city, is counterbalanced by the son's efforts to democratize the means of producing images. (The Lenin she sees is a statue being dismantled.)
And lest we be taken in by the illusions of Becker's own film, demystification is taken to another level in the bonus disc, with what amounts to a "meta-making-of" exposing the digitally-animated strings and gears deployed to create the images of the Lenin statue and the helicopter transporting it over the city. It is as if the only kind of honest account is one that focuses on its own construction, that declares itself a making-of. The only believable image is the one that shows us how—and why—reality can be falsified. There's an obvious political implication here, too: truth occurs behind the scenes, so that is where the filmmaker takes us.26
I want to conclude by evoking a different variety of the "making-of" subgenre. Journalist Theodore White authored four volumes of The Making of the President, published after the American Presidential elections of 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1972. The first two volumes contain straightforward journalistic accounts of how each presidential campaign unfolded, including sections describing each candidate's public relations apparatus. Although he claims to consider the process of electing a president "primitive" and "irrational," White himself is able to sort it all into analytic categories. In 1968, however, everything goes haywire. In that year, according to White, politics and reality parted company, polls started functioning as much to shape as to reflect public opinion, and lies from on high made information unreliable. He speaks of a breakdown in communications between those in power and the public, leaving nothing but shadows projected for public consumption. For the book's epigraph, he chooses the passage from Plato's Republic where "reality" (now firmly lodged between quotation marks) is defined as tricks perpetrated by magicians with machines. He sums up 1968 as a story lacking beginning, middle, and end, characterized by "new arts of violence and the new arts of opinion manipulation."27 Not coincidentally, the late sixties also saw a boom in documentaries.
In a world of images so out of control that a bipartisan website during the 2004 election campaign was dedicated to debunking "spin" and what it called "simulated reason," the public always risks becoming consumers of a semi-fictional spectacle of power. Spinsanity.com, factCheck.org (sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania), and our current wave of documentaries give us reason for modest optimism, however. Each film declares some other document false. Each acts as corrective of (or at least distraction from) the others. Speech begets more speech. Images beget more images, and meanings multiply and compete. In the process, they contribute to training a public that is becoming increasingly receptive to alternative rhetorical, generic, and narrative modes. That's one of the purposes of art. It's also the nature of discussion in a democracy.
1. My heartfelt thanks to Dr. James Rosenheim, director, and his staff for welcoming me for a week at the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research, Texas A&M University, and to the faculty and students there who listened to an earlier version of this essay and asked helpful questions. I am also grateful to Ted Anthony and Julian Higgins for their insightful readings of a later draft.
2. Fahrenheit 9/11 is only the third documentary even to be placed in competition for the Palme d'or and only the second to win: Le Monde du silence [The Silent World] by Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle was crowned in 1956, and Moore's own Bowling for Columbine was nominated in 2002.
3. Michael Moore, The Official Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), xiii.
4. Jeffrey Blitz, dir. Spellbound (DVD, Thinkfilm and Sonypictures, 2003).
5. Nicolas Philibert biographical entry on the website of the Bibliothèque du Film, www.BiFi.fr.
6. Richard M. Barsam, Non-Fiction Film: A Critical History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 299-322.
7. Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 1993).
8. Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de linguistique générale (Paris: Payot, 1971). The book was first published in 1916 by his former students, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, from their notes.
9. Guy Debord's book is available in English as The Society of Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994). The ad is from the Internationale Situationiste, 11 October 1967.
10. Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1962; rpt 25th anniversary ed., New York: Vintage, 1987), 60, 37.
11. Neal Gabler, Life: The Movie. How Entertainment Conquered Reality (New York: Vintage Books, 1998).
12. Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime, trans. Chris Turner (London and New York: Verso, 1996), 4.
13. Bruce Craig, "Combating Government Security—An Update," Perspectives 42, no. 7 (Oct 2004), 15-16.
14. Julian Guthrie et al., "Web hoax fools news services: S. F. man fakes beheading, proves need for verification," San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, 8 August 2004. Consulted at http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2004/08/08/MNGBN83I3U1.DTL.
15. Ron Suskind, "Without a Doubt," The New York Times Magazine, Sunday, 17 October 2004. Consulted at http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17BUSH.html?pagewanted=1.
16. "The Voice of Documentary," in Movies and Methods vol. 2, Bill Nichols,ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1985), 259.
17. Morgan Spurlock, dir. Supersize Me (DVD, Hart Sharp Video, 2004).
18. Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).
19. Moore, Official Reader, 229.
20. "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess," in Film Genre Reader II, Barry Keith Grant, ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 140-58.
21. Makhmalbaf's film is the first of eleven in 11 '09"01—September 11 (DVD and accompanying printed material from StudioCanal France, 2002).
22. Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers (New York: Pantheon Books, 2004).
23. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, dirs. Lost in La Mancha (DVD, New Video Group, Inc., 2003).
24. Gérard Genette, Seuils (Paris: Seuil, 1987).
25. Margo Jefferson, "Critic's Notebook: Welcoming Shakespeare into the Caliban Family," The New York Times, Tuesday, 12 November 1996, 11.
26. Wolfgang Becker, dir. Good Bye Lenin! (DVD, Columbia Tristar, 2004).
27. Theodore White, The Making of the President 1968 (New York: Atheneum, 1969), 318-19.
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