Monday, June 21, 2010

Monday Film Class: What Remains

To truly be a great filmmaker or even a decent one I believe you really need to know other filmmakers particularly, but not limited to, those that came before you. To amend that perhaps to be an artist you need to study the world that exists beyond you. There are filmmakers that can pick up a book, learn the rules and make a decent film, but those are rarely artists. Now, seeing as this is my mantra, I have been a very bad artist/filmmaker because I am not watching enough films. Yes, Last Year at Marienbad is still in the Netflix sleeve sitting in the same spot. To be fair I did watch another film (it was even French), but I didn't really like it and (gasp) couldn't finish it. I would have forced myself, but my husband wants some new Netflix and we sent it back.

So this Monday I'm not quite sure what to write about, but all week I have been thinking about the documentary What Remains. Now, Courtney and Tashia the students who inspired me to hold this somewhat abbreviated unfocused psuedo-class have already seen this film, but I think they may need to be reminded of its brilliance.

What Remains has been on my mind because of the documentary proposal I am currently writing. More often than not it seems viewers (or what at times seems more relevant, festivals) want documentaries to be social issue based. They love when a documentary inspires change and a viewer says, "I watched this documentary and it made me want to go out and change the world." Often social issue documentaries are not always well crafted pieces of filmmaking because just getting the shot is more important than getting a well composed beautiful shot; and rightly so. Also, more often than not the filmmakers are not filmmakers and have not studied the craft in a meaningful way before diving in. But, why do these films have to be the dominant form in the documentary field? Sometimes it feels that all other films are subcategories and that documentaries somehow have to change the world or they are a lesser form.

For the moment let's look at films involving musicians. Not the ones that are looking back at a legend's lifetime of work, but those that document the artist in their prime, often performing. More often than not these are given the subcategory: concert film. To me this implies I am just watching an artist perform a concert usually at just one locale. I have no problem with these, I think they are great and are particularly great to play at parties because the television becomes more than a box in the corner and visitors who need to rest or a break from the action have a place to chill out and still be entertained. My issue with this category is that often any film about a musician (that is not historical) becomes a concert film simply because they often (as is needed) include scenes of an artist performing.

A film that gets placed into this subcategory at times is D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back. I consider this film (and it was presented to me in this manner in film school) to be a cornerstone of cinema verite filmmaking. When I show it to my students it shouldn't matter whether or not they like Dylan, more often than not they don't even know who he is, but that they need to pay attention to the form. The ones who can get passed the "ancient, boring, music" (and even some that don't) take a lot away from the film. Even the students interested in narrative filmmaking will reference this film in their pitches and proposals. So often now Don't Look Back seems to be relegated to a concert film (though there is not a full concert or even the appearance of one) or a music documentary. By categorizing it in this way it seems to be less of a documentary, less important, because it is about music.

Though it seems that I have digressed somewhat let's look at how this all ties back to Sally Mann and What Remains. Sally Mann first rose to prominence with a series of photographs documenting her children when they were young. The children were often naked and this caused a stir. Child pornography is obviously a big social issue and so this documentary, on the surface could be sold as such, as is Sally Mann's work. Mann's art is much more than simply a controversy; it is beautiful, poignant, and thought provoking. What Remains is a documentary about an artist, Mann is a part of every scene, every moment. She has moved away from the portraits of her children, they have grown up.

The documentary is beautifully photographed and thoughtfully edited. It ends where it starts with Mann alone in her studio photographing herself. We look in to her eyes as she stares into the lens of her own camera. This documentary will not make you want to change the world, but it is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. It often has a profound effect on the students who view it and always for different reasons. The same goes for me, depending on what I am doing this film will inspire me for different reasons. Now I am thinking about it because the documentary I want to make is also about artists (dancers, specifically ballerinas) and it feels as though no one will be interested in it because it is not in regards to some awful travesty. Nowadays that seems to be what documentary has become. Case in point; What Remains. Before Stephen Cantor, the film's director, made What Remains he made a short documentary about Sally Mann focused entirely on the child pornography accusations. The short film, Blood Ties, was nominated for an Oscar, and What Remains was not. I think What Remains is brilliant, but Blood Ties not so much. It is a very basic documentary with classic interview set-ups, b-roll, and expert opinion. Sally Mann is a little guarded in it, whereas she is very open and honest in the latter film. If you look at the Oscars in general it always seems to be the topic that is nominated and not the film. A very interesting subject holds up a not so interesting or well done film. I think this has its place in the documentary form, but why must it dominate the documentary form? Why must all other documentaries play second fiddle to a social interest.

No offense, but just because some knucklehead lived next door to a serial killer and he happened to pick up a DV camera and shoot a bunch of shaky DV footage, throws in some fairly well shot interviews with experts, gives that to a professional editor (most often the case) or edits it on the cheapest most common video editing software (selling point for the software company) a great film is very rarely made. This is an example of not a film but an amazing story to print in a festival program. This would never fly in the narrative filmmaking world. Alright, alright, my bitter filmmaker side is revealing itself. A little venting is what a blog is for though (just maybe not film class; that's why this is a pseudo film class).

I just wish there was something controversial about ballerinas, other than eating disorders; I need a Gelsey Kirkland. I don't want the controversy to be the film, I just know the controversial will make people watch it.  Any ideas?

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