The Documentary Temptation:
Fiction Filmmakers and
Non-Fiction Forms




Some directors flirt with it at the beginning of their careers, and then quickly move on, never to return – like Jean-Luc Godard, after his earliest extant attempt at filmmaking, Opération Béton (1954), or Jacques Rozier after Blue Jeans (1958) and Paparazzi (1964). Some dwell there secretly, making a spin-off of their better-known productions, like François Truffaut putting together in the editing room a little poem about planes launching and landing made from shots left over from The Soft Skin (1964). Some use it as research, or as an audiovisual archive-testament, some manner of addendum to a particular fictional project: such as Benoît Jacquot making his portrait Louis-René des Forêts (1988) in tandem with his adaptation of that author’s Les mendiants (1988).


Some make a leap at a sudden, dramatic point in their lives, jumping from one train to another, once and for all: Jean-Pierre Gorin, Terry Zwigoff or Alexander Kluge. Some never go there at all, absolutely certain of their storytelling course: Pedro Almodóvar, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Terrence Malick. Some begin there, take a long detour though the land of fiction, and end up back there – like Michelangelo Antonioni, in his circuitous path from Gente del Po (1947) to his enigmatic, short portraits of various landscapes (Noto, Mandorli, Vulcano, Stromboli, Carnevale [1993]). Some end up there, using humble technologies, in a final gesture of do-it-yourself modesty and simplicity – like Hollywood legend King Vidor, examining the affinities between himself and painter Andrew Wyeth in Metaphor (1980). Some make just a brief visit or two unpredictably, during their long careers, largely for personal reasons – such as Ingmar Bergman with Karin’s Face (1984) and the various versions of The Fårö Document (1969, 1979).


I am speaking of what I will call the Documentary Temptation – as experienced by filmmakers who are, more usually, associated with fiction cinema. By this heuristic label, I am not meaning to refer every kind of film that can receive the label of documentary. For the vast genre of non-fictional cinema can be basically split in two. At one extreme pole, there is the essay-film, often made from the treatment of various archival documents and found materials, as practiced (variously) by Edgardo Cozarinsky (One Man’s War, 1982), Chris Marker (Sunless, 1983), and Godard in his Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) period. At the other extreme pole, we find the pure or raw documentary form, where unstaged realities are encountered and recorded. It is mainly the latter end of that spectrum to which this essay – which aims to offer a preliminary survey of the topic – will refer.


A great deal happens in the degrees and overlaps between the two extremes of documentary form that I have just posited. Much contemporary television documentary, particularly in the digital era, tends more towards archival sifting (even if the archive in question is only the photos, clips and interviews pertaining to some movie or music star) than direct reportage; and even the most elaborately constructed film-essay may contain passages directly captured from reality, like the interviews embedded within Marker’s Level Five (1997).


However, the Documentary Temptation, as I am coining this term, relates essentially to the encounter with reality – whether finally rendered in minimalist, observational, cinéma-vérité, or quite conventional reportage formats. For filmmakers mainly associated with the creation of fiction – and hence of entire, complex, illusory worlds – this type of documentary is such a sweet temptation because it comes, at least on some initial, primary level, without artifice, without pretence, without contrivance, without the vast industrial and aesthetic machinery (the building of sets, large crews, maintenance over diverse spaces, times and conditions of a coherent and cohesive fictional world) that comes with the terrain of fiction. Post Nouvelle Vague director Luc Moullet – who has devoted documentaries to, among other curious subjects, Des Moines (Le ventre d’Amérique, 1996), murder and insanity in regional France (Land of Madness, 2009), and food (Genèse d’un repas, 1978) – puts the difference, as he sees it, in characteristically amusing terms: while making a fiction, you lose more weight than when making a documentary, because it is harder work!


In the imagination of most filmmakers around the world whose careers began after World War II, we could say that this Documentary Temptation corresponds to a certain dream of what cinematic neorealism was meant to be, but never actually was: real people (non-professional actors), no sets (just the homes, settings and environments of daily life), quotidian rituals, unforced spectacle. The Italian neo-realists of the 1940s and ‘50s such as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini created a simulacrum of this ideal but, as is glaringly obvious to our 21st century eyes, much of this was essentially fiction, albeit borrowing the clothing of reality (Rossellini filming in the European ruins for Paisà [1946] and Germany Year Zero [1948]) and the burgeoning rhetoric of an artistic realism across all the arts (the life of an ordinary, lonely, old guy and his dog in De Sica’s Umberto D [1952]). (1)


The Documentary Temptation is all about the “return to zero” once associated (however mistakenly or dreamily) with neorealism. Armed only with a camera and a sound recorder or, at best, a small crew, the filmmaker drops his or her signature style, the familiar mise en scène, and humbly goes toward something they love or are fascinated by in the real world, perhaps some piece of their own autobiographical formation: a person, a town, a community, a heroic or influential figure, an art form, a philosophical or religious tendency.


Some filmmakers go constantly back and forth between documentary and fiction – Werner Herzog, Paul Cox, Agnès Varda, Wim Wenders, Spike Lee – often enriching their fictional projects with inputs from their non-fictional excursions. Herzog has gone so far as to produce, when the opportunity arose, the fictional version (Rescue Dawn, 2006) of a prior documentary portrait, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) – although he did not manage to improve on it in this subsequent elaboration. Cox, an Australian director associated with Herzog (and also Guy Maddin) in the 1980s, often used his short documentaries (We Are All Alone My Dear [1975], The Island [1975]) as matrices, generators or research centres for his feature-length fictions. Varda has found herself more famous, by the 2000s, for her non-fiction than for her fiction, because of the international public success inaugurated by The Gleaners and I (2000) – although many of her works, whatever their genre or form, sit on a thin line between documentary and fiction, like her fairly corny celebration of a century of cinema, Les cent et une nuits de Simon Cinéma (1995).


Spike Lee has frequently made documentaries (such as Four Little Girls, 1997), relatively little-known outside of the USA in terms of his public auteur image, mixing television techniques (in the manner of Ken Burns) with an African-American choral aesthetic, woven from a plurality of voices and real-life stories, and richly treated at the post-production level of montage and musical orchestration. His moving account of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe in the “requiem in four acts” When the Levees Broke (2006) has (as with Varda) transformed Lee into an acclaimed documentarian.


In Wenders’ case, it is primarily his high-profile attachment to popular music, and his association with key musicians (Ry Cooder, Bono, etc.) that has led to the creation of works such as The Buena Vista Social Club (1999) and The Soul of a Man (2003, part of the series The Blues) – but, equally, it is also fed by his life-long infatuation with the audiovisual diary form, expressing itself in films ranging from his haunted collaboration with Nicholas Ray, Lightning Over Water (1980), to Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989) about the fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, and Tokyo Ga (1985) on his “affair with a city”. Even further back than these artists who emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s, we have the rich example of Orson Welles, often moving between documentary and fiction, whose unfinished Don Quixote project was ultimately to be about his difficult and ever-changing relationship, over four decades, with Spain itself.


For other directors, documentary works occur within special parentheses, in the framework of particular small-scale (or low-budget, or televisual) projects set-up between large-scale fictions. This is the trajectory, for example, of Martin Scorsese, especially since the mid 1990s – moonlighting, as it were, in his off-times between epic feature narratives to deliver his pedagogical essays on cinema history (A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies [1995] co-directed with Michael Henry Wilson, My Voyage to Italy [1999]), his dynamic recordings of musical concert events (The Rolling Stones in Shine a Light [2008] harking back to his earlier The Last Waltz [1978] with The Band), or his tributes to American monuments (as producer, writer and mentor on film critic Kent Jones’ Lady by the Sea: The Statue of Liberty, 2004). It is also an element of John Boorman’s career, lured to television to make an autobiographical whimsy (I Dreamt I Woke Up, 1991) or an ode to a friend, Lee Marvin: A Personal Portrait (1998), among other occasional assignments. For that is what such films by Scorsese, Boorman or Julien Temple, are: occasional in the English language sense, tailored to fit a specific occasion or commission.




To truly understand the Documentary Temptation as I am proposing it, we need to take a backward glance at Scorsese’s earlier, fascinating portraits in the style of home movies: American Boy (1978), about his wired-up, story-telling pal Steven Prince; and Italianamerican (1974) about his family, especially his parents (who are also familiar – especially his mother, Catherine Scorsese – from their cameo appearances in his fictions). Here the lineaments of the Great Temptation become perfectly apparent: rough or no-nonsense camerawork, filming in 16 millimetre, direct sound recording, a texture of daily incidents (guys hanging out, drinking and sharing tales, or a mother making meals) and random, unplanned exclamations, laughs, bodily movements. Scorsese reinvents his usual fictive style of “energy realism” (as Raymond Durgnat described it in relation to Raging Bull [1980]), (2) bringing it closer to the John Cassavetes manner, and traces the roots of his own socio-cultural upbringing.


Abbas Kiarostami – whose work has frequently crossed documentary and fiction, in highly conceptual and sometimes secretive ways – provides another pure example of the Temptation in his ABC Africa (2001). It is a case of straight-down-the-line observational filmmaking, without his frequent reflexive games and explorations of the medium, letting himself (and his basic filmmaking tools) do some looking and listening, wandering and watching, noticing and noting, in a strange land – itself a kind of Ground Zero of civilisation, close to an experience of the apocalypse in Kiarostami’s mind.


Here we find a characteristic trope of the fiction filmmaker when he or she is making documentary: the drifting through a place or space or landscape, encountering people (children at play, the elderly telling their stories, the sick in suffering, their professional helpers … ), following the vagaries of a random journey – a form Varda, too, often uses, even when she is documenting the Parisian street on which she lives, the Rue Daguerre in Daguerréotypes (1976). Yet Kiarostami too, like Scorsese, inadvertently finds himself encountering a mirror image of a scene from his own fiction: hence the spectacle of the lightning storm in the dark of night in ABC Africa, so reminiscent of the solemn, penultimate scene of Taste of Cherry (1997).


Generally, documentaries by fiction filmmakers are, as the phrase goes, labours of love. Sydney Pollock pays homage to a beloved architect in Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005); Clint Eastwood sums up his love for a particular mode of jazz music in Piano Blues (2003); Budd Boetticher returns to his primal worship of bullfighting in bullfighters in Arruza (1972) and of horses in the Super-8-shot My Kingdom For … (1985); Abel Ferrara temporarily abandoned his career in fiction film and seized the opportunities to pay homage to the cities of New York (Chelsea on the Rocks, 2008, and Mulberry St., 2010) and Naples (Napoli, Napoli, Napoli, 2009); Alain Resnais compiles the tribute Gershwin (1992, with a commentary scripted by celebrated film critic-historian Claude Beylie); Bertrand Tavernier (who appears in Gershwin) makes Mississippi Blues (1983) in collaboration with Hollywood legend Robert Parrish, “the two directors meandering through rural Mississippi in search of the spirit of local music and society” (according to IMDb’s description).


All these are (with the exception, occasionally, of Ferrara’s films) essentially gentle, easy-going, sometimes melancholic works: very different to what happens when some of these same directors tackle historical-political topics (such as Resnais with Night and Fog [1955] or Tavernier with Histories of Broken Lives [2001]). But the Documentary Temptation can also grow a political dimension.





When primarily fiction-based filmmakers make documentaries, their work tends to be of a particular character, a particular nature – of the type that I have described as the Documentary Temptation. We do not really find these filmmakers wanting to become Frederick Wiseman or Harun Farocki, making films that are somehow like theirs: Olympian in their vision, cool, detached, sizing up an entire social institution, sector or strata; films with a deliberate, dispassionate, analytic style, working with building blocks of observational construction as Farocki quite literally does in his film about bricks, By Comparison (2009).


However, we can trace a number of fiction filmmakers whose involvement with theoretical ideas and conceptual forms takes them into different and new documentary modes – modes that go, beyond or complicate, the pure observationalism/homage of the labour-of-love mode.


Of all the fiction filmmakers who have made forays into the documentary realm, Jean Eustache has most closely approached the kind of detached perspective we associate with Wiseman or Farocki. He filmed, in collaboration with Jean-Michel Barjol, the ritual slaughter of a pig in Le cochon (1970), and recorded the life-testimony of his grandmother in Numéro zéro (1971), the latter reworked and shortened for television as Odette Robert (1980). He laid down procedures for these films that anticipate the moves of contemporary minimalist World Cinema (as it gets called): static camera, long takes, minimal interference from the director in the unfolding action.


Eustache went still further. In his twin-set of documentaries made in the town of his birth – as if to cheekily sow filmographical confusion, he named them both La Rosière de Pessac (The Virgin of Pessac, 1968 and 1979) – he played an intriguing game with documentary temporality.


Eleven years apart, Eustache filmed two performances of a traditional ritual – the crowning of a chosen, local virgin girl – which he already knew from his childhood, and which had been occurring long before then. The ritual remains more or less the same each year; Eustache, appropriately, more-or-less attempts to reproduce the codified mise en scène of his 1968 filming of it again in 1979. But, against these unchanging or only slightly changing elements, the films record the already enormous differences and alterations in village life, the significance of customs, and the encroachments of the outside world.


Here, in a method that anticipates Farocki, and with an anthropological or ethnographic perspective similar to Wiseman, Eustache seeks less to encounter a messy, immediate reality than to measure social and historical difference within what French theory calls a dispositif, a way of filming according to certain pre-established rules and concepts.


An intriguing mid-way case between the spontaneity of cinéma-vérité and the logic of the dispositif occurs in the work of Jean-Louis Comolli [1941-2022], a celebrated critic and theorist who began in the early 1960s at Cahiers du cinéma, and later became known as a documentarian whose films chiefly address political situations in and around Marseille (Marseille de père en fils in two parts [1989], Rêves de France à Marseille [2003]). Comolli’s first features in the 1970s were fictional, such as the fascinating if overextended La Cecilia (1975) about an Italian-Brazilian commune of 1887. One of his chief concerns, both aesthetically and theoretically, was the key cinematic resource of mise en scène – the staging of scenes for the camera.


Comolli had reached the position that, rather than thinking of mise en scène as the writing or painting, in images and sounds, of what is in the auteur’s freely creative mind, we need to conceive of a coded, social dimension to whatever happens before a camera, at the very moment when bodies arrange themselves into shapes and patterns of interaction. (3) This was in itself a revolutionary idea, arising from the ferments of the late ‘60s, and it remains a challenge to the purely Romantic artistic ideal of auteur cinematic creation. Comolli was extending the intuition of Pier Paolo Pasolini in his stirring “Manifesto for a New Theatre” from 1968.


The semiological archetype of theatre is the spectacle that unfolds every day before our eyes and ears, in the street, at home, in public places, etc.. In this sense, social reality is a representation that is not unaware of being a performance, with its resultant codes (good manners, appropriate behaviour, comportment, etc.). In a word, social reality is not unaware of being a ritual. (4)


Compare this with the pronouncement of Comolli in the late 1970s, when he was still involved primarily with fiction cinema.


It is naive to locate mise en scène solely on the side of the camera: it is just as much, and even before the camera intervenes, everywhere where the social regulations order the place, the behaviour and almost the “form” of subjects in the various configurations in which they are caught (and which do not demand the same type of performance: here authority, here submission; standing out or standing aside; etc.). In other words, script, actors, mise en scène or not, all that is filmable in the changing, historical, determined relationships of men and things to the visible, are dispositifs of representation. (5)


What we see emerging here is a new concept of social mise en scène – something Comolli never ceased pursuing in his critical writing and film work alike. With one key difference: the switch from fiction to documentary. In the 1990s, deep into his new career, Comolli asked: “Is there a documentary mise en scène?” – surely a paradoxical question, since the pro-filmic events in documentary are (usually) unplanned and unstaged, while mise en scène is a matter of choreography and artifice.


Comolli embraced this paradox, coming to formulate the idea that there is not only the kind of social mise en scène evoked above (the familiar patterns of and rituals of social life visible in their reflex enactment), but also what he called an auto mise en scène, a performance or staging of the self by individuals – particularly strong when there is a camera around.


Each person I film also comes to their encounter with the film with their own habitus, this tight fabric, this framework of learnt gestures, acquired reflexes, assimilated postures […] The filmed subject, the subject in the film’s view, prepares him or herself for the film, consciously and unconsciously, is penetrated by it, adjusts themselves to the cinematic operation, and thus puts in place his/her own mise en scène, the performance of the body in the space and time defined by the look of the other (the “scene”). (6)


For Comolli, documentary filmmaking – particularly of a radical or leftist political persuasion – thus involves two stages or levels. Observational filmmaking – for much of what Comolli films is out of his strict control, such as speeches delivered at political rallies – is a matter of bringing out or somehow underlining this reflex, coded, theatrical or ritualistic aspect of spontaneous social events, much as Eustache did in his twin-documentaries. In this sense, Comolli takes the option of respecting – sometimes with a sly sense of irony, or submerged critique – the auto mise en scène of those individuals who allow themselves to appear before his camera and be included in his films.


This strategy has become, in fact, a crucial resource of contemporary documentary practice, and even become a part of conventional television reportage as well as advertising (especially in a humorous mode): filming people as they want to be seen, as thy inhabit (as it were) their own imaginary, their ideal self-image. The Australian filmmaker David Caesar, who began with several popular, very stylised documentaries (in the Errol Morris tradition) before departing for the Land of Fiction (such as Prime Mover, 2009), made this approach his signature: his frontally-framed portraits of ordinary, suburban people standing next to their beloved TV sets, letterboxes, cars or pets (in films such as Body Works [1988] and Car Crash [1995]) have been highly influential on subsequent documentarians in several countries.


But Comolli goes one step further. For him, the film’s own mise en scène – which, in documentary, relates most particularly to camerawork (since so many other variables, such as setting and lighting, are beyond his control) – must enter into a dialectical relationship (sympathetic or critical, or both) with the auto mise en scène of those filmed, a process which he calls a “two-step dance”.


Often, the filmmaker’s gesture aims, consciously or not, at blocking, mixing up, erasing or annulling the subject’s own mise en scène … The wisest mise en scène cedes the step to the other, favours his or her development, gives them the time and the frame to nuance themselves, deploy themselves. Filming thus becomes a conjugation, a relation, a rapport. (7)




We have heard and read much, over the past 25 years, about the “line between documentary and fiction”, the hybrid works by many (such as Kiarostami’s Close-Up, 1990) that cleverly move between fictional and non-fictional material, nesting one inside the other – sometimes in ways that are hard to immediately detect. With the aid of recent developments in digital technology, Antonioni made what is in fact among the strangest and most beguiling of these doco-fiction hybrids: The Gaze of Michelangelo (2004), which shows the director walking around and admiring a famous sculpture of Moses by the Master … nothing too odd, it seems, until we remember that Antonioni had been long paralysed by a debilitating stroke (which also robbed him of the power of speech), and was unable to walk except in this unreal, animated state!


Here, however, I am interested in pinning down a more particular and restricted change: the return of a fictional element into documentary projects by normally narrative filmmakers. The Documentary Temptation thereby performs a torsion, does a twist, and by this route takes on a paradoxical character. Of crucial importance here is the recourse to psychodrama – which, in its theatrical origins, involves an overrunning of the theatrical illusion by a real element unleashed by performance: real passions, real acts (whether erotic or violent), real outcomes.


Psychodrama was central to the work of Cassavetes, at least as a theme (Opening Night [1977] is a veritable fictive essay on the topic), and also of Norman Mailer: especially in Maidstone (1970) where the improvised Happening between actors (including Rip Torn) momentarily spills into dangerous, physically threatening territory. Robert Kramer, in his movement from political newsreels in the ‘60s to highly charged political fictions such as Ice (1970) and Milestones (1975) and on to the many sophisticated essay-films he shot around the world (such as Starting Point, 1994), was unafraid to wander onto psychodramatic soil. The little-known Australian underground classic Yackety Yack (Dave Jones, 1974) offers an ingenious parody of this very ‘70s obsession; while another Australian rarity, Dalmas (Bert Deling, 1973), re-integrates itself as an on-set workshop/discussion lab once its opening generic crime-cop fiction has disintegrated.


Psychodrama in documentary takes two principal forms. Either the reportage contains an element of re-enactment; or the situation unfolding before the camera develops – sometimes precisely as a result of the film crew being there – in a distinctively dynamic, volatile direction.


When things get really out of hand in the pro-filmic event (i.e., whatever is going on in front of the camera), the documentary develops a rushing, headlong speed, and the filmmaker has to manage a merely precarious control over incidents that have their own complex, in-motion logic, as in the prodigious work of anthropologist Jean Rouch (who made very few strictly fictional pieces in his long career), or in the most paroxysmic examples of cinéma-vérité. Curiously, in the cases of Scorsese’s American Boy or Vitali Kanevski’s We, Children of the 20th Century (1994) – the latter a portrait of Russian street kids, several of whom had already been teen actors in Kanevski’s fictions – it is when the real chaos begins that documentary begins to mimic the mise en scène of disorder fully staged in, respectively, Mean Streets (1973) or Freeze, Die, Revive! (1989).


The fullest expression of this mirroring of an auteur’s fictions in their documentaries occurs, in the American context, in the work of James Toback. In Tyson (2008), we once more see a person – this time, a famous sports celebrity, Mike Tyson – who has already appeared in Toback’s fictions, particularly the partly improvised Black and White (2000), where he explodes violently (to Robert Downey, Jr.) in the midst of a scene that mimics incidents in his biography. This is in itself constitutes a figure, a familiar constellation of characters and events, in the Tobackian universe: his early book Jim (1972), written fully in the Participant Observer mode of the New Journalism of the 1960s and ‘70s, is about the black footballer Jim Brown, who then, as an actor, became a menacing Phallic Superego in the nightmarish world of the director’s debut feature, Fingers (1978).


Moreover, Toback has frequently announced, over the span of his career, the view of existence-as-psychodrama that he has frequently tried to dramatise and capture on film: we are all actors, but unstable, borderline-schizophrenic actors, living out wild scenes in the fantasy-scenario which is our life. (8) Finally, at the end of this line, we reach Tyson: much of it is intimate interview material filmed in digital close-up (interspersed with obligatory archival material, as in Emir Kusturica’s somewhat similar and contemporaneous film-portrait of Diego Maradona) but, instead of being simple, reassuring talking-head footage typical of a television format, Toback offers these candid interview images as the record of a psychic madness – a self that is never complete and instead changes at each instant, poised between confession and denial, desire and guilt, recall and erasure. Split (and multi) screen has rarely been so abrasively eloquent!


Another key theme and structure in Toback’s cinema is the encounter – whether of two individuals, or many in a group. For his most colourful and radical excursion into documentary, Toback decided to stage a party-like Happening in The Big Bang (1989): get a remarkable group of disparate people together (actors, criminals, doctors, philosophers, gamblers … ), and have discuss the fairly surreal question: “Did God create the universe in a cosmic orgasm?” The film is proudly wayward, incoherent, purely associative: everybody (once again) ceaselessly performs themselves, and what they discuss (sex, money, power, violence) perfectly mirrors Toback’s imaginary world as expressed in his movie fictions – as well as offering a glimpse into his own social background and connections.


The Big Bang is a genial psychodrama, but it evokes well the kind of sauvage reality which is at the heart of the Documentary Temptation – but this time morphing into a fanciful fiction that anticipates the weirdest moments of Reality Television in the 21st Century, such as on US programs like The Hills (2006-2010). Toback returned to this realm in Seduced and Abandoned (2013), his Cannes-set document of himself and Alec Baldwin trying to raise money for an unlikely film project titled Last Tango in Tikrit – roping in Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, Brett Ratner, and a crowd of actors along the way. (9)


What of re-enactment? It is, in a sense, something already visibly in play on Mike Tyson’s face in Toback’s documentary. Over the past decade or so, filmmakers and cultural commentators have become veritably obsessed with the workings of trauma and its legacy within the scarred, distorted, psychic memories of victims – whether that trauma is on a personal scale (sexual abuse) or a collective one (wars, natural disasters, the Holocaust). A documentary such as Capturing the Friedmans (2003) is merely the most visible manifestation of this international trend, while Rithy Panh’s S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine (2003) rates among its most profound achievements.


The Australian filmmaker Peter Tammer, a major figure in the independent cinema movement of the 1970s, has made a psychodramatic, Toback-style exploration of the ambiguities of acting and performance in situations of high anxiety (Fear of the Dark, 1985), but his masterpiece is Journey to the End of Night (1982), in which an ex-army man re-enacts – in a ghostly, play-acting fashion, as if in a trance – his extreme experiences of violence directed against Japanese soldiers. Thanks to a simple shooting technique, a disquieting truth emerges that goes well beyond what would have been possible in either a smooth dramatic recreation (of the kind contemporary TV documentary loves) or a more typically lucid, reflective, close-up talking-head approach.




Strictly avant-garde or experimental cinema deserves its own study in terms of its own often novel uses of documentary and fiction. The same goes for video art: for instance, the case of talented ex-Cahiers critic Jean-André Fieschi [1942-2009] creating, with the lightweight paluche camera, the largely subjective fiction New Mysteries of New York (1976-81, now thought to be lost), before transiting – like his colleague, André S. Labarthe – to a long series of lyrical documentaries for TV or DVD about artists and filmmakers (such as his portrait of Éric Rohmer at work in La fabrique du Conte d’été [2005]). (10) But here I will mention here only two special cases from the canon of American experimental cinema: James Benning and Stan Brakhage.


Benning, in the first phase of his artistic career, was preoccupied with the overlap between a hard-edge, pictorial formalism (as pioneered within painting and still photography), and narrative systems or forms – as were a number of his contemporaries in the USA avant-garde, including Yvonne Rainer and Hollis Frampton. Into serial image-structures – strings of pictures of houses or streets, for example, often following the parameter of colour schemes in their ordering – Benning would cleverly introduce elements of plot intrigue through marginal actions, and especially through soundtrack overlays. A typical example is One Way Boogie Woogie (1977), filmed in mundane locations (factories, shops, streets) around Wisconsin.


27 Years Later (2005) is the answer to, or “ruinous remake” (in Stephen Heath’s ‘70s phrase) of, Benning’s earlier film (today he likes to screen the two together, to facilitate audience comparison). Aware that the world he had filmed was on the verge of disappearing altogether under the force of creeping industrialisation and globalisation, he set out to place his camera in almost exactly the same spots as he had in One Way Boogie Woogie. Faced with the material difficulty of re-recording what in many cases is no longer there, in a landscape frequently transformed beyond his recognition, the entire project undergoes a massive material and conceptual displacement: same film (in some material sense), but completely different concerns. The pictorialism, the games with narrative, are largely gone; suddenly 27 Years Later is – in its active memory-relation to the first film – a disturbing, minimalist, political documentary on social change over the passage of time. It is a provocative mixture we will often find in Benning’s œuvre as a whole.


What register as outright gags or purely formalist experiments in One Way Boogie Woogie – twin sisters performing choreographed gestures, a woman leaving a factory (in an evocation of early cinema newsreels), three-colour separation giving a ghostly effect to passing cars, the shapes of belching factory chimneys – become (especially when the same people perform roughly the same gestures) markers of a bleak social critique in 27 Years Later. This sequelising displacement is helped by Benning’s ingenious recourse to the same technique Marguerite Duras had used in her “re-take” of India Song (1975) in Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (1976): he retains exactly the same soundtrack as I the original, now completely surreal and disturbing in its relation to the new images.


The case of Brakhage is even more intriguing. Long regarded as the master of abstraction, whether beginning from animation or cinematography (his Text of Light [1974] spins a feature from views of light and smoke in an ashtray), Brakhage turned in his famous 1971 “Pittsburgh Trilogy” to a city, and three of its institutions, normally at once omnipresent and beyond notice, hyper-visible and invisible: the police (Eyes), dead bodies in the morgue (The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes), and a hospital (Deus Ex). This would seem to be a perfect example of the Documentary Temptation, with a vengeance! And there is no doubt that a strong dose of concrete, material reality – as well as a possibly inadvertent echo of Hollywood movie and TV genres of the ‘70s – alters and expands Brakhage’s usual repertoire, and that a trace of explicit social critique here enters his œuvre.


But what really registers in the Pittsburgh Trilogy is the tension, the incessant back-and-forth between physicality and abstraction, reconquered anew by Brakhage: we are constantly on the point of forming a world (or a fiction of it) and losing it in the play of pure forms.




My final case is the curious career of Jean-Pierre Gorin. It is, in truth, difficult to cleanly say that he began in either documentary or fiction. Working with Jean-Luc Godard as the other half of the Dziga Vertov Group in the late 1960s, his first films are truly essays, hybrid constructions of original footage (shot in many countries), found footage, graphics and heavy, voice-over soundtracks of theoretical explication: Wind from the East (1969), Struggles in Italy (1969), Vladimir and Rosa (1971), and so on. Yet Gorin made clear, in all his statements of the time, that the movement into fiction was imminent and necessary: Tout va bien (1972) marked the heroic but commercially doomed attempt to make a political narrative – almost a comedy – for mass audience consumption, starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand.


From that point, after the Group’s dissolution, Gorin made his way to USA, where he has lived (and, until his retirement, taught) ever since. In that new context, he reworked his essayistic orientation, but now, on each occasion, from a documentary basis: reportage of twins with their own unique language in Poto and Cabengo (1980), immersion in a group of model-train enthusiasts in Routine Pleasures (1986), hanging out with a Samoan street gang in My Crasy Life (1991). Although Gorin has often announced an imminent move back into fiction projects (he came close to filming Philip K. Dick’s Ubik in the mid ‘70s, and co-scripted Ilkka Järvi-laturi’s History is Made at Night [1999]), his politically-inflected aesthetic has, in the event, materialised itself fully in his unique doco-essay hybrids. (11)


In Gorin’s films, fiction – particularly through the memory and citation of narrative movies, forms, genres and styles – is everywhere. In fact, using a famous triad borrowed from modern psychoanalysis, we could say that everything in Gorin’s films of the ‘80s and ‘90s happens simultaneously on three levels: the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic.


Real: an undeniable, palpable trace of real people, traces and events, unrepeatable, irreducible, unique. Imaginary: the ideas, fictions, associations, contexts, histories, mythologies and clichés that inevitably accrue to or can be generated out of these realities. Symbolic: people, events and institutions become symbolic when they are, in some way, typical or generalisable (“allegorical” as Fredric Jameson would say); when a social analysis or argument can be triggered or generated from their filmic representation. 


How can we hold all those levels together simultaneously in our minds? When it comes to documentary film, we are too used (as viewers or critics) to separating them out, concentrating on what is either Real or Symbolic – and mainly censoring the Imaginary, which is what Gorin, like Comolli, always insists upon. But filmmakers are always ahead of critics in their grasp of what is innovative and progressive in any kind of cinema. And those filmmakers who come from fiction into documentary, whether they are merely taking a holiday there, grasping the opportunity to pursue a personal obsession, or elaborating a conceptual experiment, have a good chance of mixing up all the levels – Real, Imaginary and Symbolic – and coming up with some cinematic creature we have never seen the likes of before.




1. See, for a detailed demonstration of this argument, Sam Rohdie, The Reality of the Text: Roma città aperta (PhD thesis, Media Centre, La Trobe University, 1979). This remarkable work has never been published, in whole or part, in any form. back


2. Raymond Durgnat, “Out of the Looking Glass, or a Phantasmagoric Mirror for England”, Monthly Film Bulletin (February 1984), p. 40. back


3. These reflections on dispositif and social mise en scène draw upon material developed at length in my book Mise en scène and Film Style (Palgrave, 2014). back


4. Pier Paolo Pasolini (trans. Thomas Simpson), “Manifesto for a New Theater”, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. 29 No. 1 (2007), pp. 135-136. back


5. Jean-Louis Comolli, “The Frenzy of the Visible”, in S. Heath & T. de Lauretis (eds), The Cinematic Apparatus (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980), p. 139. back


6. Comolli, Voir et pouvoir (Paris: Verdier, 2004), p. 153 (my translation). back


7. Ibid., p. 154. back


8. See James Toback, Notes on Acting”, Film Comment (January-February 1978), pp. 35-36. back


9. With this roll-call of Toback-Ratner-Baldwin-Bertolucci-Polanski ( … and Jessica Chastain!), Seduced and Abandoned makes for eye-opening and/or queasy viewing in the post-Me Too period of activism. Toback himself has, since his intriguing dissociated-identity fiction The Private Life of a Modern Woman (aka An Imperfect Murder, 2017), seemingly disappeared from public view. back


10. For a retrospective reflection on his paluche practice, see Fieschi, “Notes sur Les Nouveaux mystères de New York”, La Pensée, no. 369 (January-March 2012). back


11.  See my “Sixteen Ways to Pronounce Potato, or: The Adventure of Materials (Fragment from 1987)”, Photogénie, no. 1 (November 2013). back



© Adrian Martin July 2010 / July 2014

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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