My First Ever University Essay

I graduated in 2009 and haven’t really taken another look at my essays from that time until now. I’ve decided to give them a bit of a tidy up so you can all have a look at what my brain was trying to express at the time. Most of the essays are a combination of reading, note-taking, desperation, caffeine and trying to meet word counts so they aren’t perfect.

This essay was for my Thinking Film class which I took in my first term in my first year at the tender age of 18. And believe it or not, I got a 1st for this paper. I believe that’s what the kids call ‘Nailing it’. Anywho, the essay is about whether or not documentary films should be considered art and if they can, can they be thought of as art in the same way entertainment films are? Look, I didn’t write the questions. Bear in mind when (if) you read this, it’s academic writing so it’s not like I could say exactly what I wanted to, I was working for a grade people!

Thinking Film Essay

Many film theorists I have studied have been able to see past the immediate state of film and look well into the future possibilities of the medium. When I began reading the work of Boleslaw Matuszewski, I was surprised to learn that he believed that film should be used strictly as a method of recording historical events and that the all-seeing camera lens couldn’t lie. He seemed to be saying that film could not be an art and so all documentary films were not to be considered in the same way as entertainment films. Truthfully, I had not given it much thought and so I set out to conclude whether documentaries should be considered as art. Matuszuwski and Hugo Munsterberg each had different ideas about the correct uses of film. Munsterberg thought it was better that it was best kept in the realm of pure entertainment, predominantly narrative fiction films. The questions I have presented interest me particularly from Munsterberg’s point of view because his ideas pertain to all art forms and not just film.
To illustrate the points of these two theorists, I will be looking closely at Chlebni den [Bread Day] (Sergei Dvortsevoy, Russia, 1998).

The definition of a documentary is a film that presents social, political or historical in an unbiased way without adding fictional material. Bread Day is one such film, following one day of the villagers in a small Russian village as they struggle to get bread. This is a simple film without any special effects, clever camera work or narration; it is a documentary at its most basic. But it is not a film that I would say is necessarily trying to inform the audience of any particular story nor was I especially entertained. However none of it was a happy accident; each angle of the camera was planned and the length of each shot in the final film was determined by one person. These simple facts mean that there is an agenda behind this seemingly honest film and that is the director’s. We aren’t seeing history as it was, we are seeing it through someone’s idea of how we should view history. Being adamant that film is honest and precise in what it shows, Matuszewski wrote, “It may safely be stated that animated photography is characterized by authenticity, accuracy and precision which are not present anywhere else. It is an eyewitness par excellence, reliable and infallible” (Matuszewski, La Photographie animee, p 27, 1898). Being a student in the 21st Century I am not so naïve to think that film cannot be manipulated but in his time Matuszewski was firm in his belief that while we could use film primarily for education we should preserve film because it will hold a historical integrity that other forms of record cannot.

Munsterberg however recognises films potential for fantasy and that in an entertainment capacity, film becomes art. “Yet this power of the moving pictures to supplement the schoolroom and the newspaper and the library is, after all, much less important than its chief task-to bring entertainment and enjoyment and happiness to the masses.” (Munsterberg, The Cosmopolitan, no.1, December 15, p 172, 1915) With this in mind I looked again to Bread Day. While I was not entertained in the traditional sense I could see that to be entertained was a state of mind evoked by the film, and by the film I mean the director’s choices. I say a state of mind because it is our sense of memory and our perception of the outside world that shapes and sometimes controls our reaction to whatever choices the director may make. The same is said also of our reactions to plays in theatres. Our perception of seeing real people performing live right in front of us affects our reaction.

“If we raise the unavoidable question—how does the photoplay compare with the drama?—we seem to have sufficient material on hand to form an aesthetic judgment. The verdict, it appears, can hardly be doubtful. Must we not say art is imitation of nature? The drama can show us on the stage a true imitation of real life. The scenes proceed just as they would happen anywhere in the outer world. Men of flesh and blood with really plastic bodies stand before us. They move like any moving body in our surroundings. Moreover those happenings on the stage, just like the events in life, are independent of our subjective attention and memory and imagination. They go their objective course. Thus the theatre comes so near to its purpose of imitating the world of men that the comparison with the photoplay suggests almost a disastrous failure of the art of the film. The colour of the world has disappeared, the persons are dumb, no sound reaches our ear. The depth of the scene appears unreal, the motion has lost its natural character. Worst of all, the objective course of events is falsified; our own attention and memory and imagination have shifted and remodeled the events until they look as nature could never show them. What we really see can hardly be called any longer an imitation of the world…” (Hugo Munsterberg, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, 1916)

For a documentary to be the least bit palatable it must be presented in a way that satisfies the audience on certain levels. Therefore the director must make certain choices in order for the film to have a watchable quality. Now when comparing Bread Day to a film that was made solely to entertain an audience, the only difference between the films at a basic level is whether the content is true or not. Bread Day, being based on fact as in real, un-staged events could be considered entertaining but does this compromise its integrity as a historical artefact? And if it does, does this mean that a documentary is a piece of art on the same level that a fiction film is?

I personally think that while we can happily separate historical and entertainment films they may also be crossed over, just because a film shows something that happened years ago does not mean it has to be boring. Films made to show scientific experiments often crossed this boundary as they were fascinating to those who perhaps did not have a general knowledge of science. A chemical reaction was very entertaining to the audiences who viewed these recordings yet these films may well be considered documentaries but they provided happiness to people. Bread Day is a simple story of no great consequence to the rest of the world but if it was more entertaining would it suddenly become more important? Still, I don’t believe this compromises a film’s integrity in history. It is only when we confuse history for entertainment and vice versa. A hundred years from now I wonder what would happen if someone were to watch Braveheart (Mel Gibson, USA, 1995) and mistake it for an accurate historical record or Frankenstein (Kenneth Brannagh, UK, 1994) as a scientific account. Based on this point I realise that I do not believe that if documentary films are art, they are not at the same level as a fiction film.

Robert De Niro as Frankenstein


Honesty is a documentary’s biggest asset and yet it is also its biggest constraint were we to consider it as art. For example, a film made now about the current war in Iraq, covering every angle possible with as much accuracy as possible would be considered as a first-rate documentary. In 50 years time there’s a great possibility that certain facts will become uncovered and a new truth will be revealed. Is this documentary now useless or has it become art-a glimpse into the past and a different world form the one 50 years from now? Has it become a work of fiction? In 50 years time it will not be accurate anymore and will have lost its honesty. A film like this could well be considered useless but I believe that it would simply transform into another kind of documentary. This whole scenario was inspired by something that Matuszewski had written about the causality of history. I found the beginning of this next quote a tad hypocritical as he half heartedly admits that what the camera sees may not be the whole truth but explains that this is unavoidable.

“History does not consist exclusively of foreseen celebrations, organized in advance and ready for photographing. There is always a beginning of events, some initial movements, unexpected facts which are capable of escaping the attention of the lens…just as they escape the attention of informants. Indubitably, the effects of historical events are always easier to grasp than their causes. However, one group of things can be explained by another: the effects clearly presented by cinematography will shed bright light on the causes hidden in their shadow. And the very capturing-if not of everything-of that at least what can be captured, constitutes a big success for all kinds of scientific or historical information.”
(Matuszewski, La Photographie animee, p 26, 1898)

I considered what Matuszewski had said and it made me wonder about whether it is right or not to call real life events art. I thought particularly to the film Microcosmos: Le people de l’herbe [Microcosmos] (Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perrennou, France, 1996). Aesthetically this film is exceptionally beautiful but it is a documentary. Because it is merely pleasing to the eye, does that make it art? If this is true of all art, where would this leave Bread Day, this desolate setting of life struggling on? Microcosmos is a documentary but it uses time lapsed and slow motion footage. Does this mean it is an untrustworthy documentary and should instead be considered as art? I believe as far as understanding modern techniques it is safe to assume that audiences can accept as part of reality within the context of the film that slow motion shot did not happen that way; that it has been edited that way for our enjoyment.

In relation to calling real events art or not I found something that Munsterberg had written on the matter.
“It is never the purpose of an art simply to imitate nature. The painting would not be better if the painted flowers gave us fragrance. It is the very essence of art to give us something which appeals to us with the claims of reality and yet which is entirely different from real nature and real life and is set off from them by its artistic means. For this reason we put the statue on a pedestal and the painting into a frame and the dramatic play on a stage. We do not want them to be taken as parts of the real world…” (Munsterberg, The Cosmopolitan, no.1, December 15, p 173, 1915)

I returned to look at Bread Day to see if at last I considered documentaries as art or not. I finally think that art is something that is created to evoke a reaction out of its audience whether that reaction is fear or adoration or intrigue. I think a documentary like Bread Day, by which I mean a documentary with only its barest features, causes these reactions in a way totally different from a fiction film. Bread Day is spontaneous, unplanned and unaltered and in this way it’s totally alive in ways an action film for example could never be. With this in mind I realised that the saying that life imitates art and art imitates life is wrong. They’re not imitating each other; they’re somehow entwined. So if documentaries are recording history, science and life in general then it is my opinion and my final conclusion that documentaries should be considered as art.

Bibliography

The Cosmopolitan, no.1, December 15, 1915

La Photographie animee, 25th March, 1898, Le Figaro

Hugo Munsterberg, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study in1916, January 1970

Websites

http://www.kinema.uwaterloo.ca/100yr951.htm date accessed: 3rd Jan 07

http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/15383 date accessed: 3rd Jan 07

Filmography

Chlebni den [Bread Day], Sergei Dvortsevoy, Russia, 1998

Braveheart, Mel Gibson, USA, 1995

Frankenstein, Kenneth Brannagh, UK, 1994

Microcosmos: Le people de l’herbe [Microcosmos], Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perrennou, France, 1996

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