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From the Archives: First Person Singular, Autobiography in Film

Three decades have passed since David Schwartz’s exploration of the connection between subjective perspectives and objective truths in documentary filmmaking, yet this essay remains as relevant and informative as ever. Reproduced here, the article was originally published in May 1986 and is also available in The Independents print archives.

The filmmakers of tomorrow will express themselves in the first person, and will relate what has happened to them . . . and it will be enjoyable because it will be true and new . . . the film of tomorrow will be an act of love.
—Francois Truffaut, The Films in My Life

I haven’t written a nonfiction piece in the first person since elementary school, where I learned to use “we” and “one” if I wanted to express an opinion. The voice of authority, of truth, was impersonal. As I grew up, writing for newspapers in school and in the “real” world, I learned to apply the tenets of objective journalism and ignore any impulse to write “I.” These were the rules of the game.

A couple of years ago while struggling with editing a short film about a bizarre suicide pact between two lovers I knew that I’d have to narrate the story myself. I couldn’t approach this incomprehensible event using the style of TV news, with the voice of an instant expert. After all, I was still in the process of trying to understand the act. Also, making my own story part of the film would help create a narrative structure, much the way events of a picaresque novel are often held together by the main character’s narration.The search could become the structure for the story and, in a way, become the story itself. I looked for models of first person nonfiction style and became fascinated with newspaper columnists such as Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, and Bob Greene. Here was one place where journalists were allowed to use the word “I.” There were, however, more examples of the first person style in film.

Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo was one of my inspirations. The story of a pair of twin girls who were thought to have developed their own private language was transformed by Gorin into a personal essay. This 1979 film was about the girls, but also about language and communication, and Gorin’s own sense of exile—a French filmmaker adrift in Southern California. In this and other first person films, I found a fascinating tension between autobiography and journalism. These were not diary films, because they did not make the filmmaker’s life the subject. But they did not try to hide the presence of the filmmaker either. The filmmakers found new ways to deal with a fundamental concern of documentary: how to reconcile reality with perception, how to situate oneself, as observer and participant, in the world.

What follows is hardly a complete survey of works which could be called first person nonfiction. Here, I am limiting the term to films where there is a narration provided by the filmmaker. Otherwise, I might incorporate for example, Shirley Clarke’s Ornette . . . Made in America, an extremely idiosyncratic and personal portrait of the jazz innovator Ornette Coleman. Also, I have limited my topic to film, neglecting the entire field of video, which includes much intimate, personal documentary work.

One reason for talking mainly about films narrated by their makers is that these works overtly cast the filmmaker as a character as well as a creator. Poto and Cabengo begins with a juxtaposition of a variety of languages. The first images are of Katzenjammer Kids cartoons, with a narrator reciting the Kids’ nonsensical blend of German and English. We then hear the unintelligible voices of the two young girls conversing. A title rolls across the screen asking, “What are they saying?” Next is an expository montage of newspaper headlines and the newscaster-style voice of a woman who describes the media’s interest in the San Diego twins, romanticized as another “Wild Child” story. Then we are introduced to the filmmaker. Over still photos of himself (including one, fittingly, seated at a typewriter), Gorin explains his interest in the twins. Speaking with a fairly heavy French accent, he states, “These two girls were foreigners in their own language.” He wanted to film them before they began to speak like everyone else: “I would have to beat the clock, before they became English majors.” The next shot from his car, racing down the freeway towards their home, gets the story rolling.

Gorin explores the environment around the girls, particularly their bizarre family. Christine, the mother, was born in Germany, and Paula, the maternal grandmother who lives in the house, speaks only German. Tom, the father, was born in the South. The entire family converses in a Katzenjammer-like hodgepodge. As a linguist says in the film, the girls “had two different linguistic models, both of them defective.” Unlike traditional narrations, which attempt to provide answers, Gorin fills the soundtrack with questions that encourage involvement in the process of trying to make sense out of the story. At times, he freezes an image during an interview or repeats a shot. When Christine describes her daughters as “two ding-a-lings who are pretty much alive,” Gorin repeats this segment for emphasis. With such devices and the use of titles and black leader, the film frequently interrupts the flow of the investigation.

Gorin also describes his own interest in the case. “There was a ring of Ellis Island to the story,” an important notion to a French filmmaker working and living in San Diego. And he finds it difficult to maintain an impersonal distance. As he goes towards the family’s house for the first time, he wonders aloud, “How would the girls react to my French accent?” He takes the girls to the zoo, a picnic at the beach, and a library, before realizing, “There was no way I could escape it. The story wasn’t with me but back with the family.” But Gorin and his voice remain integral to the story. In a film that suggests that all language is, by virtue of being an external, unnatural system, foreign to the speaker, it is fitting that there is no central authoritative language, no objective narration.

Ross McElwee opens his new film, Sherman’s March, with a traditional narration, only to dispense with it. The movie begins like an educational film with a narrator describing General Sherman’s Civil War campaign, as a dotted line traces the route on a map. But any resemblance to standard documentary ends here. The complete title, Sherman’s March to the Sea: A Documentary Meditation Upon the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation, indicates the movie’s blend of history, life in today’s South, and McElwee’s search for a new girlfriend.

In a prologue, McElwee explains that he originally intended to explore the lingering effects of Sherman’s Civil War victory. Though William Sherman, born in Ohio, reportedly loved the South and its people, he devastated the Confederacy in a series of brilliant and ruthless military campaigns. (Remember, it was Sherman who said, “War is hell.”) After his troops burned Atlanta in November 1864, he led 60,000 men on the famous march, leaving a trail of destruction across several states. But just before McElwee began filming, his girlfriend announced that their relationship was over. Too distracted to stay with his original plans, McElwee decided to deal with his personal life in the film, combining his inquiry about Sherman with his own quest for a new love.

McElwee’s own synopsis of the film describes its various levels well:

It is a non-fiction documentary story in which I shape narratively the documentary footage I’ve gathered during a serendipitous journey through the South. My film is a story in so far as it adheres to the autobiographically narrative line of a return home followed by a mutedly comic quest in which, repeatedly, boy meets girl, boy chases girl, boy loses girl. It is documentary in so far as all the people, places and situations appearing in the film are all unscripted and unplanned.

McElwee operated the camera and recorded sound alone; the women he befriends talk directly to him behind the camera. They include Pat, an aspiring actress desperately seeking Burt Reynolds; Claudia, an interior designer involved with a survivalist group; Winnie, a doctoral student who lives alone on an island, and a number of others. The portraits of these women are remarkably vivid and lively, which keeps the film from feeling self-indulgent. Interspersed with these encounters are McElwee’s monologues about his floundering film project, his nightmares of nuclear destruction, which increase as his love life worsens, and the film’s ostensible subject, General Sherman. “Sherman was plagued by anxiety and insomnia,” claims McElwee, who attempts to conflate his “creeping psycho-sexual despair” with Sherman’s psyche.

Is this a film about Sherman or McElwee? And what is the relation between McElwee’s life and his film? He conjectures, “It seems like I’m filming my life in order to have a life to film. ” An old friend and mentor, Charleen, advises him on camera, “Forget the fucking film and listen to me. This is not art. This is life.” However, Sherman’s March shows that there is no clear-cut dividing line. McElwee strikes a fascinating balance between being an ironic observer of his own pursuits and an active participant. By maintaining a sense of irony about his romantic pursuits, McElwee uses his search for a girlfriend in the same way that he uses Sherman’s March, as a kind of red herring, a structural narrative device to shape his documentary material. What we remember most vividly about Sherman’s March are the people and places that the filmmaker encounters.

A personal view of more recent history is provided by Nancy Yasecko’s 1984 film Growing Up with Rockets. What is the relationship between news events and our individual lives? Is history just something we watch on TV? These questions were raised earlier this year, when the Challenger disaster instantly became part of our national consciousness. Millions of people experienced a strong personal reaction to the explosion. That tragic, but chilling incident revealed some of the technological complexity of the space program. At the same time, space travel often functions as fantasy, enjoying a hold on the public imagination for many years. Early cinema history provides a fine example: Melies’s A Trip to the Moon, made a half-century before the existence of NASA.

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Nancy Yasecko reflects on missile launches, Cape Canaveral, and growing up with rockets.

Growing Up with Rockets is a firsthand look at NASA that goes a long way towards demystifying this massive public project. Yasecko grew up in Cape Canaveral, where her family ran a “Spacerium” tourist attraction; her coming of age parallels the growth of the space program. With home movies, newsreels, and original footage, Yasecko provides a personal history of the space agency. While the film doesn’t cover much new factual ground, it is mildly subversive in evoking the scientists and engineers who created the space program as real, imperfect people. Listen, for example, to how Yasecko describes her return to Cape Canaveral as a grown-up several years ago to witness the first launch of the space shuttle:

Mom said there was some concern around town that if the first test flights were unsuccessful, the negative publicity alone would be enough to set the program back a number of years. Dad and some of his friends were skeptical about the complicated design that was required to launch the shuttle like a rocket and return it like an airplane. Mom was amused that the same bunch of mavericks that had put wings on the old Snark and Matador had gotten so conservative in their old age. I remember those old military launches and how we all grew up with rockets going off almost every day, and the special feeling of a manned launch. After that, I had to see this one, and get that old countdown and liftoff rush.

Yasecko’s portrait of the space program is less than mystical. She charts its ups and downs, capturing the emotions of the familiar events in diary style. She talks about the exuberant early days of constant rocket launches, when her schoolmates would run outside and yell, “Missile! Missile!” whenever a rocket went off, to the feeling of despair as the space program fizzled in the mid-seventies. Yasecko was working for NASA at the time, and she recalls, “I left the engineering tract and signed up to study art. … It seemed like a more practical idea at the time.”

The union of Yasecko’s voice with familiar images of news events creates a surprising effect. We are used to having NASA explained to us by male voices of authority, be they the TV anchors who traditionally served as our guides to the news, or the deep-voiced narrators of the documentaries some of us watched in school. Speaking somewhat ironically and intimately, Yasecko provides an alternative to these nondescript, impersonal voices.

The voice and perspective of a woman filmmaker is again strongly asserted in Joel DeMott’s film Demon Lover Diary. DeMott records the making of a low-budget horror film being photographed by her partner Jeff Kreines. DeMott’s “diary” is filled with bizarre incidents that are far stranger than the movie that is in production. The filmmakers, Don and Jerry, are factory workers fulfilling a lifetime dream. Don mortgaged his furniture and car, and Jerry cut off his finger in an industrial “accident” to collect insurance money towards the film’s expenses. DeMott films all this and records sound by herself. She talks to people in the scene, even arguing with the filmmakers, who are frequently condescending toward her because she is a woman. (At one point, they expect her to wait home all day for a phone call while they are out running errands.) She makes asides meant only for the viewer’s ears, mainly commenting on how the horror film is turning into a complete mess. And she films from an extremely close range.

In the past dozen years, DeMott and Kreines have developed a distinctive style of one-person shooting. They each use a combination camera/tape recorder rig that weighs about 12 pounds. They film with a wide angle lens that enables them to stand within three or four feet of their subjects, and they use extremely sensitive film stock, eliminating the need for lights. In a written description of their shooting technique, DeMott explains the philosophy behind this approach:

The filmmaker doesn’t carry on with “his people” (the crew) in front of “his subjects.” The dichotomy those labels reveal, in the filmmaker himself [sic] is gone, along with the crew. Relieved of the alliance, and a need for communication of an alienating sort —the filmmaker becomes another human being in the room. He participates without awkwardness in the society that surrounds him.

DeMott’s technique in Demon Lover Diary responds to a problem evident in many cinema verite films that do not explicitly acknowledge the presence of the filmmaker. A recent example of this is the commercially successful documentary Streetwise, a chronicle of the lives of street kids in Seattle. Though filmed in a sort of Candid Camera style, albeit with more sensitivity and elegance than Allen Funt ever displayed, *Streetwise* never obviates the nagging suspicion that the subjects are acting for the camera. The film’s main characters wore radio microphones. While this allowed for intimate sound recordings, wearing a radio microphone will entail some self-consciousness. To the filmmakers’ credit, most of the moments captured in *Streetwise* seem authentic. But from time to time the audience must wonder, “What about the film crew?” In contrast, the first person filmmaking style of DeMott and Kreines foregrounds their presence, leaving no uncertainty about their relationship to the project.

The question of distance becomes central in many first person nonfiction films. To ask what is the place of the filmmaker in a film is to hint at a broader question: what is the place of a person in the world? Lisa Hsia makes this explicit in her half-hour film Made in China, where she explores her hyphenated Chinese American heritage. Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Hsia filmed a visit with relatives in China. Her goal there was to become an insider, not a tourist or a mere observer. In fact, this desire is the source of much of the film’s humor. Using an informal, anecdotal narration, and mix of home movies, animation, and original footage, Hsia recounts her experiences, including a variety of embarrassing moments that demonstrate the difficulty of making a connection with one’s cultural roots.

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Chisu Ryu in a scene from Wim Wenders’s film diary “Tokyo-Go.”

Wim Wenders, on the other hand, plays an outsider in many of his films. The New York City of his Reverse Angle doesn’t seem very different from the Tokyo of his Tokyo-Ga. In both films, the city is presented as a depersonalized place, cluttered with meaningless images. However, whether in Germany, the United States, or Japan, Wenders has been inspired by the films of Yasujiro Ozu, whose austere, ordered compositions depict a tranquil center of family and personal relationships in the midst of a modernizing world. Wenders also has adapted from Ozu his episodic, laconic storytelling style, where minor, quotidian incidents make up the films’ slender plots. Wenders manages to find the common ground of Ozu’s films and his favorite genre, the road movie. This type of narrative structure approaches the diaristic, and Tokyo-Ga is Wenders’s filmed account of his trip to modern-day Tokyo to find what remains of the austere, orderly world portrayed in Ozu’s films.

Tokyo-Ga can be seen as two films in one: his vision of Tokyo and a tribute to Ozu, employing interviews, film clips from Tokyo Story, and Wenders’s narration about Ozu’s movies. What connects these two elements, and what shapes the entire film, is Wenders’s personal experience. As he wanders through a crowded, hectic Tokyo, complete with noisy pachinko parlors, ubiquitous TV sets (even in the backseats of taxicabs), a rooftop golf range, and a park where Japanese teens dance to American rock and roll, Wenders laments, “I was searching for the mythical city of Tokyo. Perhaps that was what no longer existed, [Ozu’s] view that one could find order in a world of disorder. Perhaps such a view is no longer possible.” Yet Wenders does not despair totally. He adds, “In spite of everything, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Tokyo.”

In many of the practices that Wenders observes, there is an obsession with pure form that becomes almost meditative. In the pachinko parlors, the hours in front of the machine “induce a hypnosis, a strange form of happiness. The person merges with the machine, and forgets whatever it is that one wants to forget.” Early in the film, at a train station, Wenders spots a young boy who is being dragged along by his mother; the stubborn child keeps sitting on the floor, refusing to budge. Wenders compares the mischievous child to the kids in Ozu’s films from the 1930s, and he is heartened to see a sign of continuity between Ozu’s world and modern Tokyo. “No other city has ever felt so familiar to me,” he comments. But after all, he views Tokyo through his own memories, thoughts, and desires, searching for a city that really exists only in his imagination.

In the past, the realm of the personal has belonged primarily to avant-garde filmmakers, and as a subtext, to fiction filmmakers. These first person documentaries, though, assert subjectivity, which has long been a dirty word in documentaries, and attempt to reconcile the social with the deeply personal. I think of my favorite photographs of people looking straight at the camera, breaking down the boundary between photographer and subject, implying a connection. In a similar way, the films I have designated first person documentaries explore the encounter between filmmaker and subject. They make the person behind the camera a subject of the film. From McElwee’s confessional monologues in Sherman’s March to Gorin’s analytic narration in Poto and Cabengo, these films suggest the variety of cinematic forms that can situate a person in the work and in the world.

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