The New Documentary, Part III: The Death of Cinema Verite

May 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

Ben Stiller and Charles Grodin in "While We're Young"

Ben Stiller and Charles Grodin in “While We’re Young”

Iris Apfel/Courtesy Accessories Magazine

Iris Apfel/Courtesy Accessories Magazine

It’s an ironic coincidence that the release of “Going Clear” and “The Jinx” came shortly after the death of Albert Maysles, a pioneer of Direct Cinema and one of its most famous practitioners. Over his long and prolific career, Maysles did what few documentary filmmakers today care to do, spending years with his subjects, shooting hundreds of hours of film and, in the editing room, distilling all that footage into revealing two-three hour films. Maysles’ technique was observational, and so far removed from Alex Gibney’s and Andrew Jarecki’s films that it seems to come from another world. Like minimalist painting and design, his method is pure, with no re-enactments or graphics to tell its stories. Archival photos and footage appear infrequently in Maysles’ films, and aside from whatever music happens to be playing in the background, there is no score.

Perhaps my assertion that Cinema Verite is dead is premature, but its major American practitioners, though notably hardy and prolific, range in age from 62 (Chris Hegedus) to 90 (D.A. Pennbaker). Frederick Wiseman (85) has an output that would be impressive for a filmmaker of any age: forty-one documentaries, including four in the past five years. His latest film “National Gallery” explores the art and inner workings of one of Great Britain’s–and the world’s–greatest art museums. Wiseman, who was allowed full access to the museum’s staff and behind-the-scenes events, spent three months filming at the National Gallery, amassing 170 hours of footage. Like Maysles, Wiseman avoids projecting his own point of view on his films, and uses no visual tricks or musical score. What emerges is as objective as any film can be. (I haven’t seen “National Gallery” but plan to–as soon as I can carve out the necessary three hours. Needless to say, leisurely pacing is one of the features–and for many, drawbacks–of the genre.)

Differences between the new documentaries and the old were very much on my mind when I saw the new Noah Baumbach movie, “While We’re Young” a few weeks ago. It concerns Josh, a struggling documentary filmmaker (Ben Stiller, playing a slightly less dysfunctional version of the character he played in “Greenberg”) who, with his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) strikes up a friendship with young, free-spirited couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). But there’s also an old-school documentarian in the film: a Maysles-like character named Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), who happens to be Josh’s father-in-law. Though he was once Breitbart’s protege, Josh has been mired for ten years in a documentary so sprawling and incoherent that not even he can explain what it’s about. When Breitbart finally watches the six-hour rough cut, his perfectly reasonable suggestions about shaping the film only enrage the already hostile Josh. Meanwhile, Josh gets a much-needed shot in the arm by helping the ambitious young Jamie to make a small, compelling documentary about a young war veteran. Jamie, raised on the films of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore, has none of Josh’s problems with theme or length–or with manipulating the truth. It all comes to a head when Josh discovers that Jamie has faked the premise of his documentary, having appropriated his wife’s connection to the war veteran as his own. In a further Greenberg-like move, Josh publicly confronts Jamie at a Lincoln Center tribute to Breitbart, making a huge, embarrassing scene. Ironically Breitbart, the pure Direct Cinema practitioner, sides with Jamie, whose film is at least entertaining. It also gets into Sundance.

Last week I saw “Iris,” Albert Maysles’ last documentary, whose release he didn’t live to see. It’s a wonderful coda to a long an illustrious career that–despite its octogenarian director and its nonagenarian subject–feels like the work of a young director. It certainly helps that Iris Apfel, a fashion icon who began her career in the 1940s, has a youthful spirit, not only in her amazing wardrobe but her instant rapport with everyone she meets, regardless of age or background. Still, I doubt the film would have been as lighthearted and fun in another filmmaker’s hands. Albert Maysles, who can be glimpsed, camera in hand, and heard asking questions, shot off and on for four years, but at no point does the effort show. An inveterate charmer, he not only captures Iris’s bon mots (“This was when dinosaurs roamed the earth,” Iris says, showing him her wedding album) but her delightful effect on others, from Lohmann’s shoppers to her husband Carl, who celebrates his 100th birthday in the film. For me, the greatest moment in “Iris” comes at the very end, as Iris talks while moving about her objet-filled apartment. Instead of moving in on her face (as Jarecki would), or cutting to an archival photo (as Gibney would), Maysles’s camera alights on Carl Apfel’s smiling face as he gazes at his wife. Although they’ve been married 67 years, Carl still regards her adoringly, as if he can’t believe his good luck. It’s a small moment that says everything about the Apfels–and a lot about the director, too. A flashier and less observant filmmaker than Albert Maysles would have dismissed it, or missed it altogether.

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2015/04/25/the-new-documentary-part-ii-the-jinx/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2015/04/25/the-new-documentary-part-i-going-clear/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/04/06/noah-baumbachs-greenberg-the-most-realistic-la-movie-yet/

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