Archival footage has its own language and purposes, and a documentary concerned with history — of any sort — has to deploy it with intent. Three movies that played at the Sundance Film Festival (and that hopefully will be available to the greater public later in the year) illustrate ways in which images from the past affect how we watch in the present.
“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon” is a fairly typical (and very enjoyable) parade of talking heads reminiscing about the good/bad old days, but whenever director Doug Tirola pulls up footage of the NatLamp’s groundbreaking early-1970s stage shows and radio broadcasts, it’s like uncovering the family tree of modern comedy, with glimpses of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, and others in their pre-fame scruffiness. This is archival footage as archeological dig, forging fresh connections and comprehension in the viewer’s brain.
By contrast, Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” uses archival images in the interests of illumination and persuasion. The film explores the roots of Scientology through filmed interviews with the late L. Ron Hubbard and, most tellingly, avails itself of in-house church promotional videos and gala celebrations, forcing a comparison between their breathlessly upbeat tone and the dark claims of those who’ve left the church. The infamous Tom Cruise video in which the star discusses Scientology has been disseminated on the Web but it acquires new force here as an example of simon-pure true-believer double talk.
A third use of archival footage is to remind us of the power of presence. The festival’s opening night documentary, Liz Garbus’s “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” celebrates the late jazz-blues artist Nina Simone by pulling performances and interview segments from the dustbin of 1960s TV. Nothing makes the case for Simone as an irreducibly dark figure in a cheerfully white media landscape as does seeing her introduced in 1963 by a young Hugh Hefner on “Playboy Penthouse” and stunning the swingers into silence with her rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy.” And nothing conveys Simone’s cosmic regality as does the film’s opening shot, in which she stares down a European concert audience for what seems like an eternity. Garbus raids the archives to make the past feel present tense.