AGORA
: Dragged from her chariot by a mob of fanatical vigilante Christian monks, the revered astronomer was stripped naked, skinned to her bones with sharp oyster shells, stoned and burned alive as possibly the first executed witch in history. A kind of purge that was apparently big business back then.


CRITICAL WOMEN HEADLINES

4/26/09

Documentary Film In An Era Of A Battered American Psyche


"The Rise of the Documentary Film in an Era of a Battered American Psyche: Theater of War, Body of War, Fog of War and Michael Moore”

To look at the escalating popularity of the documentary film is to enter an interesting, complicated, and--if one dares to dig deeply enough--collectively psychoanalytic exploration of the role of desire and dreams in a time of mass confusion.

An Essay in Three Parts

By Penelope Andrew

Part I.

Introduction to the Documentary Phenomenon


To look at the escalating popularity of the documentary film is to enter an interesting, complicated, and--if one dares to dig deeply enough--collectively psychoanalytic exploration of the role of desire and dreams in a time of mass confusion. More documentaries are being produced (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tightened its criteria for qualifying nominations as submissions soared), many more are being seen (they now comprise a burgeoning market in which even mega-producers like Harvey Weinstein have positioned themselves), and their quality has risen impressively (as evidenced by glowing reviews and in winning multiple, international nominations and awards in and outside their category).

Seasoned mainstream as well as independent narrative filmmakers are weaving the controversial, colorful threads that make up the increasingly hot-topic tapestries of the genre: Jonathan Demme’s treatise on former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, The Man from Plains (2007) and Spike Lee’s opus When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)—an HBO-produced TV documentary series that won a Peabody, three Emmy Awards, and several foreign film festival awards was also lauded for its artistry in the 2008 Whitney Biennial—are but two examples.

Filmmakers totally devoted to the genre--Sophie Fiennes (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, 2006); Michael Moore (Roger & Me, 1989 through “Untitled Michael Moore Project,” 2009); Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, 1978, The Thin Blue Line, 1988); and the very prolific, cross-over (with the Oscars to prove it) director, Rob Epstein (Word Is Out, 1977, The Times of Harvey Milk, 1984, Threads from the Quilt, 1989, The Celluloid Closet, 1995, Paragraph 175, 2000)—practice their craft with creative abandon and will likely continue to flourish.


The Pervert's Guide To Cinema

U.S. television has also played a role in the rise of the documentary with PBS and HBO among the major hothouses in which filmmakers have tackled subjects from the very dirty, political tricks of Lee Atwater to the war crimes of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Actor/directors have done some interesting work in the genre, i.e., Diane Keaton (Heaven, 1987) and Rosanna Arquette (Searching for Debra Winger, 2002 and All We Are Saying, 2005).

Then there are the brilliant and poignant single films done by virtually unknown filmmakers. Born into Brothels (2005) by first-time directors, Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, stands out among them as a work of dedicated passion. A search for humanity in the most unlikely of places--Calcutta’s red light district—this small, intimate film tied with giant Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 for The International Documentary Association Award and won The Independent Spirit 2005 Truer Than Fiction Award. The National Board of Review made room for both films in tapping Brothels as Best Documentary, while Moore’s film took its Freedom of Expression Award. Born into Brothels’ Academy Award and Fahrenheit 9/11’s Palme d’Or stand side by side as two necessary bookends in a year when so many nightmares cried out for attention and creative expression.

And then there is the work of Heddy Honigmann whose devotion in finding the soul of her subjects and touching the psyches of her audience is in a class by itself. Her 1999 film Crazy covered the subject of genocide through the eyes of the Dutch peacekeeping forces who witnessed atrocities in the Congo, Bosnia/Herzegovina, and other breeding grounds for waking nightmares. Ultimately, it was music that soothed and saved these men and women whose psyches barely survived their service as blue helmet (i.e., unarmed) veterans for the United Nations.

Crazy is rarely seen and not yet available on DVD. To view a segment of this amazing documentary on American cable television’s independent film channels is to yearn for more. The tragedy and the majesty of her images, and the haunting riffs of the veterans’ musical choices—Puccini’s Turandot, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Crazy,” et al—are very, very hard to forget.

The late Francine Parker’s 1972, anti-war documentary FTA was dusted off, restored, and screened theatrically at the IFC Center in New York City in early February and is now available on DVD. The film followed Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, and six of their “trouble-making” writer, actor, musician friends as their anti-USO alternative to Bob Hope—a thinking troops’ troupe--entertained baby-faced U.S. soldiers stationed in cities across the Pacific Rim. In a particularly moving scene, Sutherland recites a passage from Dalton Trumbo’s powerful anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, about a guy named “Joe1” who is a WWI veteran trapped inside a body maimed and disfigured beyond human recognition. The IFC screenings were introduced by Fonda herself, in a powerful reminder of the censorship, fear, and smear tactics that derided her as “Hanoi Jane” and tainted a group of anti-war activists who cared deeply about the troops, as “un-American” during another troubled time in U.S. history.

The film restores Trumbo to a place alongside Theater of War’s Bertolt Brecht as one of literature’s most powerful, anti-war voices and one of documentary films’ currently celebrated and rediscovered anti-heroes.


Meryl Streep in Theater Of War


How to Frame Such a Landscape?

With such a rich landscape of documentary filmmaking, narrowing a field of documentary dreams was extremely difficult. A specific time period, 2003 through the present, and a particular theme, war2, were chosen.

Although these films coincide with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, their stories begin with 9/11 and reach back to the Vietnam War and even further. The obscene and now well known fact that 9/11 was the geo-political opportunity after which the Bush Administration had thirsted, while for the rest of us it was a national nightmare, which they exploited relentlessly is still a bitter pill to shallow. This informed the choices of the films considered: Fog of War (directed by Errol Morris), Theater of War (directed by John Walter), Body of War (directed by Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro), and Fahrenheit 9/11 (directed by Michael Moore), and Waltz With Bashir (directed by Israeli Ari Folman, veteran of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon), which exposes horrors staggeringly similar to the trauma3 of Vietnam veterans.

The Dumbing Down of America

It can be argued that with the Bush Doctrine in full swing, the popularity of documentary films became activated by the public’s disillusionment and mistrust of the mainstream media and by the disintegration of responsible investigative journalism, especially around coverage of the U.S. invasion, prolonged occupation, and escalation of the war in Iraq.

Not only did mainstream media fail to perform with distinction, they were seduced into collusion with Bush’s propaganda machine, whose tactics extended to censorship especially in hiding the dead and broken bodies (and damaged psyches) of war. New media tried to compensate but could not satisfy the ever growing appetite for responsible war reportage. The media—like the American people—were stunned into submission by fear and confusion.

Susan Sontag’s attempt in a New Yorker essay to provide a deeper meaning to and broader context for 9/11 was met by outrage, derision, and death threats.

'The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public….And this is not Pearl Harbor. We have a robotic President who assures us that American still stands tall. A wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by the Administration apparently feel free to say nothing more than they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done…about what constitutes a smart program of military defense….The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.' 4


On Truth5 in Media and Hurling All Those “Isms” and “Ists”


“I want the truth!”

Tom Cruise as Lt. Daniel Kaffee


“You can’t handle the truth!”

Jack Nicholson as Col. Nathan R. Jessep

-- A Few Good Men



Could we have handled the Truth? The Neocons counted on the notion that we couldn’t and made sure that we didn’t, while the remaining political establishment (left, right, and center) and mainstream media bought into a growing infantilization and dumbing down that Sontag diagnosed and prophetically warned against.

Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, Atwater, McCarthy (in his time), and a long line of U.S. political figures have played fear and confusion to great advantage. Cover ups, lies, scaring people into submission (especially artists and filmmakers in Hollywood; HUAC is a prime example), driving some to early deaths (the soldiers in combat, the suicides that followed ruined careers in the McCarthy era), and enlisting others in the enormous profit-making businesses of war (Blackwater, Halliburton, et al) run rampant through the political arteries of the U.S. One can trace American mudslinging and smear-labeling--terrorist, Communist, socialist, feminist, and perhaps the most damning of all “ists,” artist--back a long way. Recently, another “ism” emerged--mainstream journalism—and became a dirty but helpful phrase used by the Left.

Mainstream journalism co-created the “War on Terrorism.” There is a line to be drawn from NBC’s Today Show co-host Katie Couric—“I just want to say, I think Navy SEALS Rock!” through the constant bombardment of platitudes and what Sontag called the “reality-concealing rhetoric” of around-the-clock Fox News, to the perverse, overwhelming congressional majority vote that granted former President Bush the widest authority to wage and escalate war. It is in this climate that our psyches were battered heavily and constantly.6

NOTES

1. Joe Bonham is not the average Joe that Sarah Palin nauseated the American public with, but an extraordinary Joe. Trumbo’s narrator and protagonist is one of the most powerful anti-war heroes ever written. One could hear a pin drop in the audience as Donald Sutherland clutched his beaten up copy of Johnny Got His Gun and recited the part of this maimed soldier. His riveting soliloquy drew cheers from the audience at the recent screening at the IFC Center and shouts of “Go Donald!”

2. Why would anyone choose the subject of war? It is perhaps to complete psychologically my own “tour of duty” as a social work intern and honor the Vietnam Veterans with whom I worked. This article is inspired by them and dedicated to all my patients who have survived trauma.

3. Trauma—an event outside or beyond everyday events or daily reality; the breakdown that occurs when the psyche is exposed to stimuli that are too powerful to be processed in the usual way.

4. Sontag, Susan, Updike, John, et al. “The Talk of the Town,” section devoted to 9/11, The New Yorker (September 24, 2001).

5. Truth—property of being in accord with facts or realities; sincerity in action, character, and utterance; fidelity, honesty, actuality, etc. Truth—when capitalized: often means transcendent, fundamental or spiritual reality; sometimes synonymous with God.

6. The extent to which the American psyche and system have been traumatized and twisted to fit so well with the Neoconservative agenda is outlined in: Naomi Kleins’s, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Toronto: Knopf, 2007).

7. Elected, of course, foreshadows and refers to the ultimate election of Barack Hussein Obama.

8. Beauty—quality or group of qualities of a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or exalts the mind or spirit; brilliant, extreme or egregious example of something; particularly graceful, ornamental or excellent quality.

9. Bazin, Andre, “Every Film Is A Social Documentary,” translated by Paul Fileri. Originally published as “Tout film est un documentaire social,” Les Lettres Francaises, No. 166, Vol. 5 July 5, 1947.

10. Should I have to justify placing Ida Lupino and Dorothy Arzner in the company of Capra, Ford, Wilder et al, I will (with pleasure). By Arzner’s very nature as a gay woman and one of the few artists who chose not to marry for convenience in the Hollywood of the 30s and 40s, she is a quintessential anti-heroine. Her films took on taboo subjects for their time, such as marital infidelity and questioned traditional institutions such as work and marriage. Lupino dared to tackle the subjects of rape and bigamy. They focused on serious subjects on domestic and institutional fronts, just as Capra took on greed and political corruption; Ford looked at the shame of the Great Depression and poverty; Chaplin focused on fascism; and Wilder exposed phoniness and shallowness everywhere.

11. An original invention of Morris’s, aptly named by his wife.

12. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—a psychological consequence and casualty of war and other catastrophic events, those that occur outside the “normal” range of human events.

13. Transgenerational trauma—psychic damage passed from one generation to another; the most often used example are the children and grandchildren of Nazi concentration camp victims and survivors.

14. Bazin, Andre, p. 1.

Penelope Andrew, a NYC-based writer who contributes to The Huffington Post and Critical Women on Film, is a member of the Women Film Critics Circle. Her article: “Trauma & Recovery: A Review of I’ve Loved You So Long,” will appear in the next issue of the Newsletter of the American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work. A certified psychoanalytic psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker, she maintains a private psychotherapy practice in NYC. Her second-year internship as a social work graduate student involved working with Vietnam Veterans.


Part II: Way Beyond Journalism or It Takes a Documentary

Part III: A Body Is Finally Produced: Body Of War

This article also appears in The Huffington Post

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