The Thin Blue Line

The Thin Blue Line is a documentary by director Errol Morris. It has been different than what we have seen in our documentary class thus far. This is the 1988 film not to be confused with the 1965 film of the same name. Our filmmaker walks us through the events that led up to and proceeded Nov. 27, 1976 when Officer Robert Wood is shot and killed during a routine vehicle warning.
We meet the man accused and get a brief story of how he came to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We meet the man who actually committed the crime, but up until the end didn’t know for sure if he had done it. We meet various detectives, lawyers, and unreliable witnesses. We also see reenactments, a device which until this film had been considered a no-no of documentary film. The film was snubbed for the Academy Award that year because the rules for documentaries were cinema Vérité. What it did do was free an innocent man, get the real killer to admit to his guilt, and be a template for docudrama and television shows like America’s Most Wanted.
Most of America believed law enforcement was infallible, and beyond reproach. This film was the beginning of opening the eyes of ordinary citizens. The term coined Thin Blue Line by prosecuting attorney Doug Mulder as his closing statement in the case presented in the film, showed the cop unity that became manifest since this documentary. We see flaws in the perfection law enforcement was supposed to be. They were willing to bully a confession out of the man they decided to pin it on, they were willing to bribe “witnesses” through dropping charges and reward money. The veneer crumbled in the span of 103 minutes it took for Morris’ documentary to strip away things that would have been swept under. Since then an entire genre of commercial fiction film has dealt with the subject of crooked cops and their brotherhood.

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La Jette

La Jetee with its black and white photography, and use of light and shadow, screamed FRENCH NEW WAVE, the only thing missing were cigarettes (which seem to be a mainstay of French film) and passion for little Italian cars. The flicker of photographs being plunked down in a frenzied montage, cemented that it was indeed Nouvelle Vague.
My first encounter with French New Wave Cinema began with Godard’s film, Weekend. My professor, after reading my paper told me I was being too literal. After a semester of Truffaut, Chabrol, Resnais and Godard, the comments were “you are over analyzing the films.” What is a film student to do? This was the beginning of my love-hate relationship with the French New Wave.
Film students and critics applaud the genius of those radical and experimental films, and the directors that made them. For many of us, trying to ferret out the message can make one feel like their brain is going to explode, the word Vague needs no translation. That is part of the appeal, you are supposed to figure it out, come to conclusion, to think for yourself. The filmmaker tutors the audience in the abstract, they are thought provoking, and mind bending ideologies. This type of art heavily relies on the philosophies of the Existentialists: Kafka; Nietzsche; Kierkegaard, and the very depressing Dostoyesvsky (Russian literature has a long association with being morose, I’ve been told it is part of the collective consciousness). La Jetee fits the requirements of this type of genre.
The idea that life is death and death is life, and time is only perceived as linear was the main theme of La Jetee. The photo stills being static leads the voyeur to the impression these moments are in the past. The movement from one photo to the next in rapid succession gives the viewer the impression of what is immediate. Each representing Death and life. The man seeing himself as a boy who witnesses a murder, and also being a man who sees his own death, lends to the idea time and space are fluid. To drive this point home, we see the man occupying 3 places at once (past, present and future). Time is flexible and transitory, today can be tomorrow or yesterday. Another theme in this story appears to be the thought of what is real and what isn’t. Is the man dreaming he was a boy, was he dreaming he was living in a post-apocalyptic world, was he dreaming he was being shot to death, or was he dreaming all of it? The film plays with the notion that reality isn’t real, that we are experiencing a mass delusion and existence is just a hallucination.
One of the hallmarks of French New Wave is not having a clear idea of what the truth is. Chris Markers wants us to think about the notion of memory, can what one remembers be an honest representation of the truth? In psychological research, it is said how people remember the same event differently. The mind is a very tricky thing and Markers seems fascinated with the inner workings. Existentialism has a preoccupation with what is real and what isn’t, what is authentic. In our documentary film class we were asked to think about Cinema Vérité, the truth of what is revealed in film. Truth, authenticity, reality, are these ideas set in concrete or are they subjective? In all of the films we have seen, all have an element of truth, with the concept of truth shifting. In La Jetee the truth is the question of what is the truth (or what is real), in Nanook of the North we saw reenactment of the truth, in Night and Fog we saw truth in the history of a particular place and time, and in Grey Gardens we see the daily lives of mother and daughter as if we were the fly on the wall. In La Jetee we are asked to think about what truth is, what time and space are. In others we are not required to guess if something is real, each in their own way is unraveling the truth in any given time and space. Even the wretched Birth of a Nation is a representation of someone’s truth.

Woodstock and Gimme Shelter

The films Woodstock & Gimme Shelter were this week’s fare. If Woodstock was the Apex of the Hippie movement, then Gimme Shelter was the Antithesis. For Woodstock it was 3 days pf Peace, Love, & Understanding (and drugs & music) set in the laid back and beautiful NY countryside. The dream bubble so many youth had been riding, was popped one December night at Altamont Raceway in Livermore, California. Four months after Woodstock came Altamont, and the two couldn’t be more different. Some say that fateful night at Altamont was the loss of innocence for a generation, the final days of 1969 segued into a darker time, it was as if the hopes, dreams and philosophies of that generation died with Meredith Hunter.
Before I get into the differences of the concerts themselves, I want to look at the two films set against each other. Director Michael Wadleigh, of the film Woodstock, had chosen his shots carefully and intentionally. Woodstock showed the cooperative building of the stage and grooming the grounds, it showed the youth as peaceful, fun loving flower children. In between the shots of the concert goers, it showed performances by some of the most notable musical talent of the day. There were seven editors working on putting the Woodstock documentary together, including a young and talented up and coming Martin Scorsese. Woodstock was a commercial success and a great piece of art, it won several Oscars at the Academy Awards in 1971. It was a film that showed only the positive side of things. Woodstock had its down points and tragedies too, but no one was going to dwell on the negative, the film was crafted to show only the best side.
Gimme Shelter had a much different approach, it was raw. The Maysels brothers were known for their point and shoot and let the camera capture what it would. Their filmmaking philosophy was to capture it all and sort it out later, no pre-conceived storyline, just the pure facts. Charlotte Zwerin was a cinema vérité editor who worked with Albert and David Maysels, the three put Gimme Shelter together. They didn’t leave out any ugly detail. The drugged up hippies weren’t the free loving hippies of Woodstock, they weren’t white washed, and they were shown as they were. The cuts didn’t edit out the violent actions of the Hells Angels, nor the complications with the stage being unsafe for the performers. The triad wove a story from interviews and raw footage, they didn’t set the story they found the story. Through the interviews they found many different truths, everyone had their own perspective of what happened that night. The Hells Angels claimed it was the fault of the Rolling Stones, they were only there to sit on the Stage and drink beer. The footage shows much more, they weren’t just sitting passively. With every interview there was a visual to either substantiate the point of view or to discredit it.
Many of the same performers were at both concerts, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; The Grateful Dead; Santana; and Jefferson Airplane. The looks on their faces tell different stories. Woodstock must have been a much more easygoing peaceful situation, the performers look relaxed and as if they were enjoying themselves. The faces at Altamont were ones of fear, frustration, and dismay. As much as Woodstock was more manipulated, and Gimme Shelter was not as manipulated, the looks on the performer’s faces tell us the two concerts were different.
Neither of the concerts were prepared for the number of attendees, Woodstock was just better prepared than the concert at Altamont. Both ran into trouble and had to change their venue at the last moment. Woodstock had a month to prepare, the promoters for the California concert had 4 days. Woodstock had 600 acres of countryside, Altamont had 83 acres of dirty little race track, void of anything beautiful surrounding it. Woodstock’s stage was higher and physical barriers had been built around the stage, sadly at Altamont the stage was low, easily accessible, and the only barrier were Hell’s Angels. Altamont was doomed from the start, who ever thought Hells Angels would be a good peace keeping force wasn’t thinking. You add the $500.00 worth of free beer they were paid in, well the only thing worse than a Hells Angel would be a drunk Hells Angel, take that a step more and add broken pool cues. The peace keepers at Woodstock were members of a commune, the Hog Farmers were led by hippy clown Wavy Gravy who had a cream pies and fizzy water as a consequence for getting out of line. No one assaulted the performers at Woodstock, but a member of Jefferson Airplane was knocked unconscious by a member of the Hells Angels (security) and Mick Jagger was punched in the face on the way to his trailer (lack of security).
Woodstock in the 3 day event with a half million revelers on 600 acres, Altamont was a one day concert of 300,000 people on 83 acres. The New York site held 83 people per acre, the California site had to hold 361 people per acre. The promoters of Altamont didn’t take what happened at Woodstock into consideration. Woodstock wasn’t supposed to be a free event, but when thousands of teen and twenty-something’s converged they tore down fences and barriers to get in. What did the promoters in California think would happen when almost as many people would come because the event was free? Woodstock was a 3 day campout and no one realized it was a capitalistic venture, the 1 day concert at Altamont was visibly driven by commerce. How can that be when Woodstock was selling tickets and Altamont was free? It was all about appearance, Woodstock appeared to be by the people for the people, Altamont’s promoters were visible and the appearance it gave was it was being sponsored by “the man.” 3 people died at Woodstock (a burst appendix, a drug over dose, and a hit and run by a tractor). 4 people died at Altamont (a drowning, 2 hit and runs, and the stabbing death of a gun wielding Meredith Hunter at the Hands of a Hells Angels security detail that felt threatened).
The sixties were all about Peace, Love, and everything that’s good, it was hope for the future, Woodstock was the end of an era. The seventies had the darkness of what happened at Altamont hanging over its head. The world had changed overnight, and everything that the sixties stood for had died.

Night and Fog

Night and Fog, viewed in tandem with Triumph of the Will gives the viewer counter views of the same story.  Night and Fog debuted in 1955; ten years after the Nazi’s were defeated.  Triumph of the Will debuted in 1935 as an ushering in of the Nazi movement.  Triumph of the Will was a propaganda piece, it showed on a huge scale, the might of the German Nazi regime.  Night and Fog was an inquisitive piece that asked the audience to view the facts and introspectively, to ask one’s self, who did this?  Why did this happen?  How can it be prevented from happening again?  Each film had its own beauty and mastery of composition, but each was a uniquely a different piece.  The aesthetic of Triumph of the Will was the long shots showing the legions of followers, close ups of the happy German faces, the athleticism and virility of the military, and the exuberance of the teenaged Hitler Youth.  Night and Fog’s pulchritude was in the edit, the dichotomy of things.  The truth presented without telling the voyeur how to feel.

The opening shot is peaceful and serene.  The camera begins to tilt down and we see the barbed wire.  We cut to an open meadow, green lush grass, birds flying, then the camera pulls back to reveal the remains of a Nazi concentration camp.  Next, the auteur cuts in beautiful footage from Triumph of the Will.  This sets the tone for the rest of the film.  Triumph’s footage shows the blind devotion of German troops and sets it against the quiet death of their victims.  Throughout the color sequences, the panning and tracking shots walk us through the camp as a visitor and voyeurs.  We only become aware of the reality of this place through the inter-cut footage taken by the German tormentors and murderers.  Through the telling of this story, we become witnesses to the horror and reality of humankind at its worst.  In reading about Alain Resnais, he was first and foremost an editor; it is evident in the juxtapositions in the film.

As we view the ugliness, the melodic flutes of the music seem cheerful.  The film is replete with contrasts.  There is Color vs Black and White.  The scenes of the concentration camp after and before the barbarism.  The music of Hanns Eisler evokes the opposite feelings to the visuals we see.  The theme as the past, present and future are all one in the same.  The film is not a trivialized, sentimental pulling of one’s heartstrings, it didn’t give the victims a voice, what it did do, was make the audience think.  It tells us words are insufficient, no description can reveal the actual truth.  The film took the words of poet and survivor Jean Cayrol, and lent them to the monotone voice of Michel Bouquet to guide us through the reality of life inside the camp, but does this without manipulating our view.  We hear the facts and see the visuals.  We learn of mutilations of the infirmed in hospitals, the use of human beings as products for soap, fertilizer, cloth woven from hair, and lampshades made from the skin of the dead.

In the film the voice over tells us “we regard these ruins as if the old monster lay crushed forever beneath the rubble ….we pretend it only happened once , at a given time and place.  We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us and a deaf ear to humanity’s never-ending cry.”  History will always repeat itself if we don’t make different choices.  In my supplementary reading for insight on this film, I stumbled across a quote in an article by Chris Elliot.  The article was entitled Looking Through a Glass Darkly; the quote goes like this…  “It was a period of near-apocalyptic insanity, in which the basest metaphysical prejudice (with all the ancillary rhetoric of racial purity and divine right which came with it) combined with the mechanical and logistical means to achieve extraordinary brutal ends” this summarizes not only the Holocaust in Germany; it summarizes genocide throughout the history of humankind.  At the end of Night and Fog, we are asked, “Who is responsible?”  Who indeed.

Triumph of the Will

“Triumph of the Will” was a 1935 propaganda piece of documentary film, directed by Leni Riefenstahl.  It was shot at the 1934 Nuremburg Rally, over the course of four days.  The Nuremburg Rally was the Nazi Party Convention.  It is interesting the filmmaker was a woman, at this point in time there were very few women in the film industry behind the camera, and this was a predominantly a male business.  Her work on “Triumph of the Will” was considered technically innovative and brought her International acclaim.  Interestingly enough, post war, Leni Riefenstahl was not convicted of any war crimes.  She was however imprisoned for 4 year for being a Nazi sympathizer.  Being associated with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party significantly damaged her career and reputation.  Her subject matter was atrocious, but at the time no one but the inner circle would have known of the plans for genocide of the Jews.  She had an exceptional talent, because of her choice of films to create it cost her what would have been a brilliant career.

The scale of the film was phenomenal, there were 700,000 Nazi supporters, countless Sturmabteilung (Storm Troopers), Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron), and Jugendbund (Nazi Youth).  The large crowds cheered as they watched the parade of prominent officials arriving for the festivities.  A sea of hands jut forward synchronistical in the Nazi salute with the yells “Heil Hitler.”  The faces of the men, women and children were jubilant and hopeful as their heroes drove by.  The reaction of the masses was almost a frenzy.  The film cut from the crowds to scenes of young men, exercising, and jovially playing in a bond of comradery.  The fresh young faces showed eagerness to serve their country.  The patriotism shown by the masses of citizens, soldiers, and youth (which could be seen as Boy Scouts with a warped sense of purpose) was convincing that the Nazi Party was the greatest thing that had ever happened to Germany.  

The film was a masterful piece of Cinema, the cost was $110K to make the film.  The previous film “Der Sieg des Glaubens” was a disaster, “Triumph des Willens” took a great deal of preparation and cooperation by the Nazi party members, and he military to secure its success.  Hitler’s personal architect was brought in to design the set in Nuremberg, he also served as the Event Coordinator.  Pits were dug in front of the platforms so Riefenstahl could get the camera angles needed.  Tracks were laid so the cameras could move and traveling shots of the crowds could be captured.  Party leaders and officials that ranked high were brought into the studio to reenact their speeches.  The technical crew had been assembled using the most talented in their fields, their numbers were also in epic proportions.  The crew consisted of 172 workers.  There were 36 cameramen and assistants operating teams of 16 with 30 cameras, and an additional 9 doing aerial photography.  The cameramen dressed in SA uniforms to blend in with the crowds.  In addition to moving cameras and aerial shots, Riefenstahl used long focus lenses to create a distorted perspective.  Music from the failed “Sieg des Glaubens” was repurposed for “Triumph of the Will”, composer Herbert Windt mixed the older score with the new score he had written for “Triumph of the Will.”

The film moves effortlessly through the crowds, it has the feel of having the view of a continuous vison of events.  The film scenes had been set and rehearsed, as much as 50 takes for some scenes.   The script is plotted out for a period of the four days of the Rally.  Opening shots is of the clouds above the city through the clouds we get a peek at the crowds below.   The shadow of the plane carrying Adolf Hitler creates cross over the marching military below.  This is the foreshadowing of the ongoing theme as Hitler and the Nazi party as the new religion.  Hitler’s plane lands and the crowd goes wild, like groupies at the first sighting of the Beatles.  The crowds line the street as the motorcade passes and it is something akin to the passing of the Pope.  To the German people Hitler is a combination of Rock Star and earthly deity (or emissary of such).  Day two opens with Nuremburg at dawn to the tune of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.”  Richard Wagner was the composer of German opera, who brings to the world the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” which is used later in the film.

The use of Montage gives us a view of officials arriving at the staging area, speeches, a labor rally, some drills of the military men, ending the day with a torchlight parade.  Day three is much more of the same, a Hitler youth rally on a parade ground, and Hitler describing them in militaristic terms.  Basically a boys to men speech.  We see the cavalry and armored vehicles, more of the same showing the might of this great nation.  Day for is the conclusion of the conference and the films climax.  High ranking officials with a long wide view of the expansive troops (over 150,000) men.  The film ends with a parade to the Gothic styled Catholic Church of Nuremberg where Hitler delivers his final speech.  He tells the citizens that if they are loyal to Germany the need to become national socialists, they all salute with the Sieg Heil and the crowd sings a patriotic song as the camera focuses on a large Swastika emblazoned on a banner.  The swastika scene fades into a line of uniformed men in silhouette, marching in columns.

This film was so artistically executed that most people didn’t realize they were being manipulated.   Hitler, the German Messiah rose to heights, leading the German people toward White Supremacy, which he believed to be the truth and their right.  This film seduced and persuaded the German people to admire the Nazis.  Because that was the sole purpose and intent, it alone made this a successful film.  U.S. film director, Frank Capra is quoted as saying “Triumph of the Will ” fired no gun, dropped no bombs. But as psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal.”    Like “Birth of a Nation” this film was visually brilliant, but the effect of the propaganda delivered upon the world an evil.  The division of stylistic good vs ideologically bad makes us ponder, Was this a good film or a bad film?  Did the good outweigh the bad? Can you appreciate something’s beauty when the message is so ugly and repulsive?

Film 1: Nanook of The North

This was the first look into the Inuit world.  It essentially was the first documentary made.  In the early 1900’s Robert J. Flaherty went on an expedition to the Canadian Arctic by the Hudson Bay.  During his time spent with the Inuit people (whom he referred to as Eskimos) he documented the experience with a Bell-Howell Camera and a portable developing and printing machine.  During expeditions between 1910 and 1913 Flaherty compiled enough footage to put together a short film.  The film burned and Flaherty decided to go back with a film crew and recapture what he had lost of raw footage.  1914 through 1916 Nanook was created.  I say created instead of filmed to make the differentiation between the earlier raw film and the product of direction that was the footage used in the final cuts.

The film debtued in 1921 to an overwhelmingly great reception.  This film was ground breaking at the time and it was considered exotic, it brought “primitive” people to the conscious of the “civilized” world.  The film has the feel of the eyes of a Cultural Anthropologist viewing a new culture. This way of looking inside, would become the tradition of “salvage ethnography”. Salvage Ethnography is the recording of a cultures way of life before the modern world encroaches and it disappears forever.

Flaherty’s reconstruction of events didn’t have the authenticity of the raw footage. Despite it I believe it doesn’t deserve much of the criticism it has received.  It did serve the purpose of documenting something no one had seen before.  It brought new words, concepts, and physical items to the rest of the word.  Before this film the word Eskimo didn’t exist in the outside world, nor did Harpoon, Seal Skin Boots, Igloo, Huskies, or Kayak. New concepts like Dog sleds and Mushing which were foreign.

Because of technical inability to capture things as they were, adaptions had to be made to successfully record situations and events.  There was not enough light inside an igloo, so three quarters of an igloo was built to do the interior scenes.  There were so many more controversies attached to this film.  The names of the people were changed, who knows why, Nanook’s wives were not really his wives, he hunted with a gun in reality, but Flaherty posed him and others with spears.  There was, what we now can see, a great deal of racism and ethnocentricity.   Sitting in a theater watching this film over 100 years later it is easy to criticize the work, but in the end it was the invention of what was to become coined as “documentary” that puts it in a significant place in history of the motion picture.