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

4/28/09

Way Beyond Journalism or It Takes a Documentary: Critical Women Special Series


DOCUMENTARY FILM IN AN ERA OF A BATTERED AMERICAN PSYCHE

An Essay In Three Parts

By Penelope Andrew

Part II.

Way Beyond Journalism or It Takes a Documentary


Perhaps nothing less than art--the most popular and democratic art—was required to bring perspective and a deeper narrative to the fog of Vietnam, 9/11, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, wiretapping, the open endorsement of torture by a sitting U.S. Vice President, and not one, but two (three with Pakistan) wars in which thousands have been killed and maimed.

Art serves a purpose in society. In war-time, masterful lenses can trace the dark, the dirty, and the ugly and point the way back to the light, the clean, and create (or help elect7) the beautiful.8 According to legendary critic Andre Bazin, film fills in the holes of our deepest desires and dreams.

The oneiric character of cinema, linked to the illusory nature of its image as much as to its lightly hypnotic mode of operation, is no less crucial than its realism…In a certain sense, cinema cannot lie, and every film can be considered as a social documentary. To the extent that it has come to satisfy the dream desires of the masses, it becomes its own dream. The sole objective criterion is success. Every producer who has made a film that pleases knows how to fill the type of imaginary void within which his film took shape. In commercial terms, good producers detect within the public any “dream holes” still unfilled and hasten to fill them in.9

What Documentaries Share with Fictional Narratives: Calling All Heroes and Anti-heroes

Apart from disillusionment with mainstream media, documentaries also reflect disenchantment in our political leaders, who are stand-ins for primordial father figures.

Apart from their achievements as conscious, masterfully crafted social documents in the face of a shallow press in a time of great crisis, the documentaries covered here do one more thing--they place a frame around greatly needed and deeply desired heroes and produce interesting anti-heroes, which are often the filmmakers themselves. Corny and crazy as it may sound—Lee, Morris, Moore, Spiro/Donahue, Walter, Honigmann, and Briski/Kauffman are the Capras, Fords, Wilders, Chaplins, Hitchcocks, Lupinos, and Arzners of today.10

When the lights go out and the audience is “awake in the dark,” every film is a “social documentary” and every effective documentary becomes “its own dream.”

The Head of War Is in The Fog of War

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) evolved from a one-hour interview with former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara for the PBS series First Person. McNamara who served under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson needed to talk about the enigma of the Vietnam War—for which many consider him to be the primary architect. He is propelled back in time to his earliest memory. Director Errol Morris asked questions along the way—through the filter of his original invention the “interrotron11”--and looked and listened with the sensitivity of an artist and the nose of a detective.

As directors, Hitchcock and Morris share several things in common especially in the techniques used to create the magic of Vertigo and Fog of War.

Director Alfred Hitchcock felt the best type of story for the medium of film was the psychological thriller; he portrayed bright, well meaning people (often Jimmy Stewart and in Vertigo also a detective) who get caught up in extraordinary, tragic circumstances; and he punctuated and heightened tension, passion, tragedy, and other powerful feelings through music created by master composer Bernard Hermann. Morris does much the same thing in Fog of War. He shows us the mystery in the horrifying thriller of Vietnam (doomed to be repeated in Iraq); highlights the irony and tragedy of a man seduced out of “private life” by an unconscious desire to master and repeat a previous trauma in WWII and a conscious desire to please a new President in an impossible current conflict known as Vietnam, which also has the potential of recreating what he believed to be the stunning victory of WWI; and he augments the emotional tone and rhythm of Fog of War with an ominous, musical score by Phillip Glass. Both films are artful in their depictions of human vulnerability and its tragic consequences.

McNamara’s “fog of war” thus begins at age two in the recollection of the joy and jubilation in the streets marking the close of WWI. He is 82 when he conjures up this memory and feels it has everything to do with winning the war. His WWI is a far cry from the war described by Trumbo in Johnny Got His Gun. Never does he consider whether all the excitement might just have been about ending a war. Not being able to end war would be a haunting, on-going crisis for him and for all “the best and the brightest” in the Kennedy/Johnson cabinets.

His journey to make sense of (and recover from) the quagmire of Vietnam also touches upon circumstances of WWII with the violent, genocidal zeal of super hawk General Curtis LeMay (later a prominent figure in Vietnam). He blames LeMay and takes responsibility himself in the firebombing of multiple Japanese cities that was a grotesque overreaction costing the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The horrific truth of WWII results in Lesson #5: “Proportionality should be a guideline in war.”

McNamara’s most compelling lesson is “Empathize with your enemy,” illustrated by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. He and President Kennedy chose not to listen to the unanimous Joint Chiefs of Staff spoiling to turn the Cold War hot with a full-scale attack and invasion. Instead, he and the new President trusted the opinion of a U.S. diplomat to the Soviet Union who lived with and knew Premier Nikita Khrushchev well. Llewellyn E. Thompson, Jr. had the capacity to put himself in the shoes of Khrushchev feeling he would back down if he could “save face.” Their engagement in the wisdom of diplomacy and empathy averted a nuclear catastrophe.

The ins and outs of how complicated Vietnam became with the assassination of President Kennedy, the toxic influence of Curtis LeMay, the fog of President Johnson, and other tragic circumstances of such an explosive era manages to find a coherent narrative in this film. It also frames two, almost forgotten heroes. The fervent Quaker and anti-war pacifist, Norman Morrison--who set himself on fire outside McNamara’s window at the Pentagon--is temporarily brought back to life. His protest against an unwinnable, genocidal war echoed similar suicides by Buddhist monks. Llewellyn E. Thompson’s empathy--the primary tool and technique of psychotherapy—saved the world from nuclear disaster. Yet psychotherapy and psychoanalysis—perhaps up until the advent of Waltz With Bashir—continue to be targets of jokes by the media and the cinematic arts.

It could be argued that McNamara is not only still under the spell of the fog of war, but is also a victim of PTSD.12 His participation in the film may very well have been—consciously or unconsciously--part of his recovery and his service to The World Bank his compensation for enormous guilt.

The fog of war is still upon the U.S. government in struggling to figure out how to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan and dissolve Guantanamo Bay. How clear it seems now that all roads lead back to “Empathize with Your Enemy” and diplomacy as the only real solutions. It’s shocking to think back to the early Presidential campaign of Barack Obama where he was criticized by Republicans and Democrats on his promise to embrace diplomacy, which would extend to the borders of Iran (the current version of the Soviet Union, the enemy in the Cold War and former ally in the Great War).

Morris is masterful at engaging the audience to identify with McNamara’s struggle(just as Hitchcock did with Stewart’s Scottie). Ironically, this has been the only aspect of Fog of War to be severely criticized, but the film’s “flaw” is really its greatest strength. McNamara is just like the rest of us and only human. The audience finds its own humanity in having empathy for him.

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 I: Introduction to the Documentary Phenomenon

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

This article also appears in The Huffington Post

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