Two very different and highly distinctive new films demonstrate how widely documentaries can range. Obviously, that’s true of content. What subjects haven’t documentaries been devoted to? With this pair, that range also relates to form.
Currently streaming on Disney+, Peter Jackson’s three-part “The Beatles: Get Back” is about the making of the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” both the film and the musical recording. Jackson has winnowed more than 60 hours of film footage and more than 150 hours of audio into 7½ hours of documentary. It’s a traditional approach: archival material, no voice-over, certainly no reenactments. Another acclaimed music documentary featuring footage from that same year, 1969, is a further example. Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” came out in July.
Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee,” which screened at this year’s GlobeDocs festival, opens Dec. 3. Not traditional at all, it’s a mostly animated account of a refugee’s flight from Afghanistan to Denmark. Animation isn’t unknown as a documentary technique. Director Keith Maitland used it to powerful effect in “Tower” (2016) about a 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas Austin. But it’s certainly rare — and an example of how well supplied a documentarian’s tool kit can be.
A different music documentary from this year illustrates another technique not usually associated with nonfiction film but in this case highly useful. Todd Haynes’s “The Velvet Underground” is in most respects quite formally conventional: archival footage, talking-head interviews. The Velvets aren’t conventional as subjects, of course. Where the film is formally unconventional is in Haynes’s frequent use of split screens. This serves two purposes. It allows him to cram that much more information into each shot. It also ratchets up the energy level, which is appropriate in a movie about a band and scene that relied so much on amphetamines.
During the concluding rooftop concert in “The Beatles: Get Back,” Jackson uses split screen, too.
Another way to provide more information to viewers also affects texture, rhythm, and pacing. That would be duration. The great master here would be Frederick Wiseman. His most recent film, “City Hall” (2020) clocks in at four hours and 32 minutes. Such length frees a filmmaker to give a fuller, less constrained view of a subject. That’s certainly the case in such other Wiseman epics at “At Berkeley” (2013) and “National Gallery” (2014). Note that Wiseman doesn’t require such length. What remains his most famous film, “Titicut Follies” (1967), is 84 minutes; and the one that preceded “City Hall,” “Monrovia, Indiana” (2018), is a “mere” two hours and 23 minutes.
Set design is a standard feature of narrative film. It’s not associated with nonfiction film. Yet one of the most distinctive aspects of Errol Morris’s “American Dharma” (2018), about former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, is how the filmmaker had a set built modeled on Bannon’s favorite film, “Twelve O’Clock High,” in which to interview him. It’s a startling device that’s startlingly effective.
Photographs are by no means unusual in documentaries. Even with all the archival film footage, Jackson employs them often in his Beatles documentary. Nor is it unusual to see them employed expressively. But it used to be. Ken Burns changed that. His landmark documentary “The Civil War” (1990) showed just how effective zooming in on photographs and panning over them could be. The technique is so associated with him that it’s now commonly referred to as the “Ken Burns effect” and Apple uses that term in its video-production software.
What is probably the most celebrated use of still photography in film takes place in a narrative short. Except for just an instant, Chris Marker’s “La Jetée” (1962) consists solely of still photographs. Marker (1921-2012) was best-known for his highly idiosyncratic documentaries. His remarkable final film, the short “Stopover in Dubai” (2011), is about a Mossad assassination of a Hamas operative. It consists solely of surveillance-camera footage, a format all the more affecting for being so overwhelmingly familiar and seemingly alien to artistic considerations.
Surveillance footage is one emblem of our age. Computer simulations are another. Rodney Ascher makes extensive use of them in his thought-provoking investigation of human consciousness, “A Glitch in the Matrix.” Alex Gibney puts computer simulation to a quite specific and inspired use in his film about cyberwarfare and the Stuxnet worm, “Zero Days” (2016).
The most effective tool available to a filmmaker, documentary or otherwise, isn’t technological. It’s the close-up, which is also to say a compelling human presence. Shirley Clarke’s “Portrait of Jason” (1967) is very much a case in point. The subject of Clarke’s film, Jason Holliday, is a sometime cabaret performer and all-the-time hustler. This is the documentary as one-man show, its 105-minute length consisting of Holliday talking and emoting and generally seducing the camera. The first axiom of filmmaking is seeing is believing. The first axiom of successful filmmaking is seeing is feeling. Both apply here.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.