Monday, January 14, 2013

Actually, this is a letter from South Orange, New Jersey.  January 14, 2013.  First day of classes this semester at Seton Hall University where I am teaching Documentary Film again.  It's a genre study course; a look at the history of this kind of filmmaking, from the silent black and whites of Robert Flaherty and Leni Riefenstahl to Thor Heyerdahl's "Kon Tiki," CBS Reports news docs, cinema vérité, and the mixed media films we see today.

We began today with a conversation about relevance.  Why do we watch these films? Why do we care? What can we learn?  What does, for example, Michael Moore's 2002 Academy Award winning "Bowling for Columbine" tell us about ourselves, our society, the events of 1999 and the events of December 21, 2012?

Granted, Moore wanders in the course of this two-hour film; some of his vérité seems to me vain and gratuitous.  He is charming.  Seeing his approach to journalism (soft opening leading to ambush) is useful for students of filmmaking as well as for viewers to appreciate the art.  And were I his editor 13 years later I would cut some of that and delete some redundancies.

On the other hand I wouldn't touch the clean, cold reality of the security camera footage inside Columbine High School.  Four squares of screen with the 9-11 audio actuality for extended time, drawing viewers in to the heartless horror of the event.

I wouldn't alter his breezy interview with James Nichols, the brother of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols.  Our home grown terrorists.  Moore never says a word of condemnation; the conversation does it all.

And his montage homage to Robin Williams' use of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" ... spectacular.  My hands went involuntarily to prayer position: Please, Omnipotence, forgive our awful arrogance, our interference with other nations' birth and growth; forgive the death and carnage we Americans have caused in Kosovo, El Salvador, Iran, Japan ... My heart was racing at the end of that section.  I wonder: were my students so viscerally affected?

We discussed one of his recurring themes: we live in a society blanketed in fear, courted with fear, married to fear.  What are the benefits of a fear-based society?

Control, they said.
Increased consumption.  (Shop, President Bush told us.)

(An alliteration!  I commended them.  I could write a book with your analyses!)


Ever hear of 1984 or Brave New World?

Maybe I won't write a book.

But I will write a blog.

They are wise, these young men and women.

And I want to share their wisdom weekly.