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When we think about “documentary” as a whole, everybody has a different idea of what that might be. As is evident, there are many types of documentary just as there are many types of non-documentary films. But, the differences between the two aren’t as profound once we get a closer look and better understanding of it all. In this paper, I will attempt to take a deeper look into one corner of the documentary world by comparing and contrasting two films: American Movie (1999), directed by Chris Smith and Burden of Dreams (1982), directed by Les Blank.
By examining these films through several different aspects, we can get a clearer picture of what makes them the way they are and place them against each other in a way that both elevates and breaks down our understanding of them. To accomplish this, I will look at these films through production and how the end product is affected, how the films themselves are constructed and how that affects the meaning and message of the films, and the films compare to non-documentary films.
Comparing American Movie and Burden of Dreams seemed like they may have been too similar to get something worthwhile out of the examination. American Movie follows Mark Borchardt as he attempts to finish production on a previous film he had largely given up on (Coven) in order to finance his dream project (Northwestern). Burden of Dreams follows the wild and seemingly cursed production of the Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo. The first comparison I came across while looking at both of these films is the obvious one: Subject matter.
While both films offer a behind the scenes look into problems during the completion of two separate film productions, the problems within each production arise from completely different sources. On one hand is American Movie, which is set back time and time again because of money, time, and the gambling and alcohol problems of it’s main subject Mark Borchardt.
On the other, Burden of Dreams, which is plagued with problem after problem from the two main characters of Fitzcarraldo getting being forced to drop out, unhappy natives threatening the film production with death that caused them to leave and not be able to come back for over a year, the shifting of production dates causing unforeseen weather problems… I could go on, but the picture is clear. When comparing the problems of each film production, it’s hard not to see the broad similarities – especially the tenacity and perseverance of each director – but harder not to see the differences as well. Looking beyond the subject matter of both of these documentaries brings us another point to examine: structure. Similarly, each film follows the behind the scenes trials and tribulations of production and employs the use of the talking head style interview where each director speaks directly to the camera answering questions and giving further insight of the films. Burden of Dreams is cut almost like a diary of sorts of the arduous process of filming Fitzcarraldo.
It takes us through the specific problems that haunt the production throughout and giving us a decent glimpse of the inner turmoil it causes Herzog. Burden of Dreams also sporadically uses narration to help the audience delve deeper into the details that would take too much time or would not be able to be shown on screen. American Movie is structured a little differently. Since Coven is more of an amateur production, especially compared with Fitzcarraldo, there is less behind the scenes of the actual film being made. American Movie almost plays like a ‘year in the life’ of Borchardt and follows him more personally. Herzog’s production problems come from more of an external place and are more out of his control and it becomes almost a battle of him against nature so those problems are more front and center. Mark Borchardt’s problems, however, come from an internal place stemming from personal issues. Since Borchardt’s battle is with himself rather than with an outwardly force, it is portrayed as being equally out of his control, and director Chris Smith’s decision to structure the film to be more personable and intimate reinforces that uncontrollability. Structure is something that is very important in film, especially documentaries. All films tell a story, but I don’t think we as individuals often enough think about how structure, story, and substance go together. In her article Objective Truth vs. Subjective Reality, Natalia Almada states, “Images must be seen and interpreted, which means that they must be made with intention. They form another language, with its own grammar composed of light, color, composition, and, in the case of cinema, movement. For a maker of images, understanding this is a source of great responsibility and freedom.” (par. 3)
When using this statement to further examine American Movie and Burden of Dreams we can derive that through the structure that is employed, the way the film captured is interpreted, and the way story that it tells is shown do indeed form another language that is unique to film, and furthermore, documentary. Obviously, if there is a certain story being observed, there isn’t a whole lot that can be changed about it. However, in talking about her own film, El Velador, Almada argues that “…often described as an observational documentary. I believe this is a misnomer, for it presumes that the observation is somehow objective and passive. It denies the agency of the observer (the filmmaker), who is constantly making choices about how to represent that which is before the lens in order to convey a certain meaning.” (par. 4) So, if there is a story being observed, the story as a whole will almost always remain the same, but what is decided to be shown and how it is shown to the audience can change the meaning of the story by emphasizing certain elements. This circles back to how the directors of American Movie and Burden of Dreams decided to present the substance they were observing and emphasize on different emotions and meaning through structure and present each respective story in varying ways.
They took similar broad strokes with the material they were working with, but the details take them both in different directions. In conclusion, I think John Grierson puts it best in his essay First Principles of Documentary: “We believe that the cinema’s capacity for getting around, for observing and selecting from life itself, can be exploited in a new and vital form. The studio films largely ignore this possibility of opening up the screen on the real world. They photograph acted stories against artificial backgrounds. Documentary would photograph the living scene and the living story.” (par. 7) By taking a closer look at American Movie and Burden of Dreams through these different lenses
I believe this principal of John Grierson’s encapsulates the general idea of this paper. Exploiting them and presenting the life of the making of these films in different and important directions beyond the capabilities and capacities of non-documentary films certainly shows “the living scene and the living story” within them.
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