The documentary enjoys a new golden age, but reality is as elusive as ever
"Reality," quipped Vladimir Nabokov, "is a word that means nothing without quotation marks." The meaning of "reality" has recently been stretched within the frames of different lenses. While what is called "reality TV," a strategy for removing actors and writers from studio payrolls, has filled home screens with images that might have been lifted from Lord of the Flies and Harlequin romances, theater-goers have been witness to a Golden Age of non-fiction film. If the quintessential Hollywood film Gone With the Wind is the cinematic equivalent of a novel (because of its textures and rhythms, not just Margaret Mitchell's book), nonfiction films resemble history, biography, exposé, and essay. They have not quite taken over the shelves, but they are lining the aisles. Even while Harry Potter, Spiderman, Lord of the Rings, A Shark's Tale, and other fantasies continue to earn a lion king's share of revenues, many screens in town have been showing features that were made without auditions.
Most of the earliest releases at the beginning of cinema were nonfiction films. The blockbuster of 1895, the year that motion pictures were first shown to paying customers, was the Lumiäre brothers' brief visual record of workers leaving their factory. Audiences thrilled to see the animate world outside reassembled on the wall inside a borrowed city shop. The process seemed like magic, though the images were "real."
During the 1920s and '30s, with Nanook of the North, Moana, and Man of Aran, Robert Flaherty found poetry in the actuality of remote societies. As late as 1950, a day at the movies usually included a newsreel in addition to two features (an "A" movie and a "B" movie), cartoons, trailers, and a travelogue (a chirpy narrator and a picturesque montage of Fiji or Brazil). The profit motive eliminated most of those offerings; why provide more if audiences are willing to pay as much for less? The advent of television killed the newsreel. It was now possible, at home for free, to see snippets of reality that were more timely than anything that was prepared each week for showing in a theater.
A limited market for feature-length nonfiction films did not discourage Frederick Wiseman, Alfred and David Maysles, D. A. Pennebaker, Barbara Kopple, and others from pursuing their craft and vision even while Around the World in 80 Days, Mary Poppins, and Star Wars enriched their producers and filled the theaters. With Hospital, Basic Training, and Welfare, Frederick Wiseman, the master of long takes in the service of cinéma vérité, built a career on holding a mirror up to American institutions. Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, U.S.A. found elemental truth in labor strife within Kentucky mines.
But a new era in nonfiction might be dated to 1988, the year that Errol Morris released The Thin Blue Line, a meditation on the murder of a Dallas policeman. With mesmerizing music by Philip Glass and Rashomon-like recreations of the same ambiguous scene, the film seemed nothing like the bland old documentaries that taught industrial workers to avoid accidents and soldiers to skirt venereal disease. The Thin Blue Line not only reported "reality," it changed it when publicity over the film persuaded authorities to re-open the homicide case and rescue a wrongly convicted man from imminent execution. Morris' most recent work, The Fog of War, was released 40 years too late to avert the catastrophic Vietnam War that former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara now regrets so plangently on screen.
A growing network of film festivals, especially Sundance, has provided exposure and encouragement for nonfiction film, as have the Sundance Channel, Independent Film Channel, HBO, and PBS, especially its weekly summer series P.O.V. But the figure who has done most to energize the new nonfiction is Michael Moore, who, with his 1992 Roger and Me, responded to the Lumiäres. In contrast to the images of 1895, Moore's workers were now leaving the factory in Flint, Michigan, not as a study in motion but because General Motors was outsourcing their jobs and closing their plant. In Bowling for Columbine and, most notably, Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore has addressed contemporary public issues with humor, passion, and craft.
Can a movie change the world? We might know on November 2 whether Moore's images of George W. Bush reading My Pet Goat while New York was burning kept him from a second term. But there is, in any case, one nonfiction film that can unequivocally be credited with creating a political leader: Without Pumping Iron, directed by George Butler and Robert Fiore in 1977, Arnold Schwarzenegger would not be battling "girlie men" from his Sacramento governor's office. Without Butler's latest film, Going Upriver, John Kerry's exploits as a veteran opposed to war and as a warrior in the Mekong Delta might not be appreciated. It and other current films such as Bush's Brain, Uncovered: The War on Iraq, WMD: Weapons of Mass Destruction, The Hunting of the President, Michael Moore Hates America, and DC 9/11: Time of Crisis add to the season's political conversation. Their directors are the 21st century's equivalent of the muckrakers 100 years ago. Then the medium of choice was print, but many today prefer viewing a two-hour film to reading a 10,000-word article in The New Yorker. Of course, not all rakes troll real muck.
And even if the personal is ultimately political, not all nonfiction films are explicitly about electoral choices. The Corporation and Super Size Me examine forms of control even more insidious than the Patriot Act: economic tyranny and culinary toxification, respectively. Control Room and Outfoxed are inside baseball - how the medium itself is controlled. But for a real look inside baseball, I would choose The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, another recent triumph of nonfiction art.
"As soon as histories are properly told," wrote Walt Whitman, "there is no more need of romances." But true stories are never told, because stories are stories and truth is truth - something that lurks just beyond the pages of our books and the frames of our films. •