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October 1992


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 14 Oct 1992 10:21:03 EDT
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It's hard not to be flattered when people remember a seventeen year old
essay.  But over these years I've been bemused by an interesting paradox:
many more people than I would have expected have commented to me personally
about the essay on ethics but few, to my knowledge, have taken up the
critical challenge of extending what was, after all, a preliminary sketch.
Jim Peterson asks about my further thoughts on the topic.  Well, (as an other
old man used to say) you've all been treated in the past days with some of
my further thoughts.
Without being able to put together a coherent twenty pages of manuscript, I've
been interested in trying to understand how one knows the difference between
actuality in a film and constructed fictions.  At the same time, I've been
trying to understand the role of the filmmaker, not simply in the
basic ethical terms sketched earlier, but rather how a filmmaker's goals and
attitudes alter actuality in a documentary.
It was this latter concern that underlie my comments to this forum about
AMERICAN FAMILY, SEVENTEEN, etc.  I think one can recognize in the films
themselves that the filmmakers were more interested in exploiting rather
understanding the lives of the people they were filming.
Throwing NO LIES into the soup (sorry, I couldn't resist) really stirs
things up.  In many ways it is a more honest representation than either
FAMILY or SEVENTEEN.  Yet it too has a questionable aspect.  When Mitch
first showed the film at a meeting of the University Film and Video Assn.
I suggested to him that delaying the credits was dishonest.  He was
manipulating the audience as Vivian Sobchak spelled out so clearly.
Further there are moments that are just too perfect.  It was not only at the
end when Shelby begins to overact.  Much earlier, she and Alex are teasing
each other; suddenly in the middle of this playful exchange she says" "I was
raped last week."  The whole mood changes; the shock is greater coming when it
does.  It is a perfect dramatic moment.  Too perfect I had always thought;
life is just not that neat.  On further viewings, it turns out that Alex
starts to zoom in immediately  b e f o r e  the revelation.  He knew what
was coming.
My point:  Just this:  One expects fiction filmmakers to know what is coming.
Some documentary filmmakers are unwilling to let the world out there dictate
what is coming next in the film.  For reasons that I don't understand they
are unwilling to plunge right into the created world of fiction.  At the same
time they don't seem to belive the old adage "truth is stranger than fiction."
For many people, though, it is not a matter of "stranger than" that appeals
about documentary but "more revealing than."  This is what I've always
understood Grierson to have meant with the phrase "special quality of the
spontaneous gesture."  And it is what has always interested me about
Cal Pryluck, Radio-Television-Film, Temple University, Philadelphia
<[log in to unmask]>  <PRYLUCK@TEMPLEVM>