Theory Review Notes









Sausure                        Pierce

sign                              sign

signifier                       (representatment)

signified                       (object)





"The Material Heterogeneity of Recorded Sound" by Altman




Documentary History/Theory-- Bill Nichols

Examples: Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922), High School (Frederick Wiseman, 1968),


An important project of film theorists has been to understand narrative films as more than mere fictions ("real" in their effects). The challenges in considering non-fiction films have been somewhat distinct. Those who write about documentary have tended to consider the limits of cinema's ability to represent truth or reality. Documentary theorists investigate how the truth claims of a film are related to formal and rhetorical approaches. It is important to note from the outset that the truth claims of all documentary styles can be challenged. Pure objectivity is at best a conceptual model, but nothing that can be performed by filmmakers or experienced viewers.

Modes of Documentary


In Introduction to Documentary , Bill Nichols defines the following six modes of documentary



These roughly correspond to developmental phases in the genre, when new generations of documentary makers have challenged the forms and conventions that have gone before, and re-invented what documentary means for them.


Key Ideas

Several ideas about what a documentary is recur in its various definitions. Here is brief summary of some key ones. Keep in mind that not all of these ideas are applicable to all documentaries.



Most definitions delineate documentary as a nonfiction work. Instead of filmmakers conceiving the filmÕs subject in their imaginations, they find the basis of their works in real life and real events.



Narrative is an organizational tool for a variety of cultural texts, and it is found predominantly in fiction films. While a documentary may incorporate narrative elements, it generally uses other methods (such as rhetorical argument) for its primary organizational system.



A documentary strives to be more than escapist entertainment, though this is not to say that documentaries cannot and do not entertain. Instead of providing an outlet from the everyday world, documentary seeks to address our world and to educate us about it.



Documentary subjects come from life, not from the imagination. The subjects chosen tend to possess some kind of cultural relevance, be it historical, social, or scientific.


On-location Shooting

Most documentary filmmakers shoot events where they actually occur.


Real People

A documentary film depicts real people, not actors portraying other people.







The French used the term to refer to any non-fiction including travelogues and instructional videos. The earliest "moving pictures" were by definition documentary. They were single shots, moments captured on film, whether of a train entering a station, a boat docking, or a factory of people getting off work. Early film (pre-1900) was dominated by the novelty of showing an event. These short films were called actuality films. Very little storytelling took place before the turn of the century, due mostly to technological limitations: cameras could hold only very small amounts of film; many of the first films are a minute or less in length.



With Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North in 1922, documentary film embraced romanticism; Flaherty went on to film a number of heavily staged romantic films, usually showing how his subjects would have lived 100 years earlier and not how they lived right then (for instance, in Nanook of the North Flaherty does not allow his subjects to shoot a walrus with a nearby shotgun, but has them use a harpoon instead, putting themselves in considerable danger).


Some of Flaherty's staging, such as building a roofless igloo for interior shots, was done to accommodate the filming technology of the time.


Newsreel tradition

The newsreel tradition is an important tradition in documentary film; newsreels were also sometimes staged but were usually reenactments of events that had already happened, not attempts to steer events as they were in the process of happening. For instance, much of the battle footage from the early 20th century was staged -- the cameramen would usually arrive on site after a major battle and reenact scenes to film them. Dziga Vertov was involved with the Russian Kino-Pravda newsreel series ("Kino-Pravda" means literally, "film-truth," a term that was later translated literally into the French cinŽma vŽritŽ). Frank Capra's Why We Fight series was a newsreel series in the United States, commissioned by the government to convince the U.S. public that it was time to go to war.


Realist tradition

The continental, or realist, tradition focused on man within man-made environments, and included the so-called "city symphony" films such as Berlin, Symphony of a City, Rien que les Heures, and Man with the Movie Camera. These films tended to feature people as products of their environment, and leaned towards the impersonal or avant-garde.


Propagandist tradition

The propagandist tradition consisted of films made with the explicit purpose of persuading an audience of a point. One of the most notorious propaganda films is Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph of the Will. Why We Fight was explicitly contracted as a propaganda newsreel series in response to this, covering different aspects of World War II, and had the daunting task of persuading the US public to go to war. The series has been selected for preservation in the United States' National Film Registry. In Britain, Humphrey Jennings succeeded in blending propaganda with a poetic approach to documentary.


J. Grierson and D. Vertov

In the 1930s, documentarian and film critic John Grierson argued in his essay First Principles of Documentary that Robert Flaherty's film Moana had "documentary value," and put forward a number of principles of documentary. These principles were that cinema's potential for observing life could be exploited in a new art form; that the "original" actor and "original" scene are better guides than their fiction counterparts to interpreting the modern world; and that materials "thus taken from the raw" can be more real than the acted article. In this regard, Grierson's views align with Dziga Vertov's contempt for dramatic fiction as "bourgeois excess," though with considerably more subtlety. Grierson's definition of documentary as "creative treatment of actuality" has gained some acceptance, though it presents philosophical questions about documentaries containing stagings and reenactments.


In his essays, Vertov argued for presenting "life as it is" (that is, life filmed surreptitiously) and "life caught unawares" (life provoked or surprised by the camera). Cinema verite borrows from both Italian neorealism's penchant for shooting non-actors on location, and the French New Wave's use of largely unscripted action and improvised dialogue; the filmmakers took advantage of advances in technology allowing smaller, handheld cameras and synchronized sound to film events on location as they unfold.


CinŽma vŽritŽ

The films Harlan County, USA (directed by Barbara Kopple), Dont Look Back (D. A. Pennebaker), Lonely Boy (Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor) and Chronicle of a Summer (Jean Rouch) are all considered cinŽma vŽritŽ. Although sometimes used interchangeably, there are important differences between cinŽma vŽritŽ (Jean Rouch) and the North American "Direct Cinema", pioneered among others by French Canadian Michel Brault, Pierre Perrault, Richard Leacock, Frederick Wiseman and Albert and David Maysles. The directors of the movement take different viewpoints on their degree of involvement, Kopple and Pennebaker, for instance, choosing non-involvement, and Rouch, Koenig, and Kroitor favoring direct involvement or even provocation when they deem it necessary. The fundamentals of the style include following a person during a crisis with a moving camera (not a tripod) to capture more personal reactions. There are no sit-down interviews, and the shooting ratio (the amount of film shot to the finished product) is very high, often reaching 80:1. From there, editors find and sculpt the work into a film. The editors of the movement, Charlotte Zwerin, Muffie Myers, Susan Froemke, and Ellen Hovde are often overlooked, but their input to the film so vital that they were often given co-director credits. Famous cinŽma vŽritŽ/direct cinema films include Showman, Salesman, The Children Were Watching, Primary, Behind a Presidential Crisis, and Grey Gardens.


The '60s and '70s

In the 1960s and 1970s documentary film was often conceived as a political weapon against neocolonialism and capitalism in general, especially in Latin America, but also in the then turbulent Quebec society. La Hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, from 1968), directed by Octavio Getino and Fernando E. Solanas, influenced a whole generation of filmmakers.


Compilation films

The creation of compilation films is not a recent development in the field of documentary. It was pioneered in 1927 by Esfir Schub with The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. More recent examples include Point of Order (1964),directed by Emile de Antonio about the McCarthy hearings and The Atomic Cafe which is made entirely out of found footage which various agencies of the U.S. government made about the safety of nuclear radiation (e.g., telling troops at one point that it's safe to be irradiated as long as they keep their eyes and mouths shut). Meanwhile The Last Cigarette combines the testimony of various tobacco company executives before the U.S. Congress with archival propaganda extolling the virtues of smoking.


Non-fiction film can also be used to produce the more subjective reflective attitude characteristic of essays. Important essay film makers include Chris Marker, Guy Debord, Raoul Peck and Harun Farocki.


Dogma 95, Lars von Trier says, it would be as a search for genuineness/sincerity (Danish: Ô¾gthedÕ)[3]. The technical restrictions presented in The Vow of Chastity are the means to achieve a kind of authenticity.


Dogme 95: The Vow of Chastity (abridged):


I swear to the following set of rules drawn up and confirmed by Dogme 95:


   1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in.

   2. The sound must never be produced apart from the image or vice-versa.

   3. The camera must be handheld. Any movement or mobility attainable in the hand is permitted.

   4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable.

   5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.

   6. The film must not contain superficial action.

   7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden.

   8. Genre movies are not acceptable.

   9. The film format must be Academy 35mm.

  10. The director must not be credited.


Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste. I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a 'work', as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.





The Thin Blue Line is a 1988 documentary film concerning the murder of a Texas police officer who had stopped a car for a routine traffic citation.





Spectatorship Theory/ Feminist Film and Psychoanalitic Theory

o      drew on psychoanalytical theory

o      interpellation: we are hailed by ideologies as their authors and become the subject that we are addressed as.

o      Subject is a relational term

o      Subjects act

o      Subjects are ruled

o      considers mediation of psychic and political subjectivity

o      identity as a process

o      Identification with the apparatus of cinema

o      Freud

o      Lacan

¤       the mirror phase

¤       woman as other

¤       identity as split: the position of the surveyer and the surveyed

¤       the gaze is omnipresent

¤       the gaze: more than the act of looking, it is the viewing relationship characteristic of a particular set of social circumstances.

o      Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"

¤       Mulvey is making an argument for alternative film practice. she notes an opening that has resulted from access to technology and is paring this with the activism of the period and in particular feminist activism.

¤       She engages the discourse of psychoanalysis toward a political ends. Note the paradox of Phalocentrism being based on the perpetuation of

á      memory of maternal plentitude and memory of lack

á      castration fantasy


¤       The spectator in the darkened room (p307)

¤       She distinguishes three different looks associated with cinema (p314)

á      that of the camera as it records the profilmic event

á      that of the audience as it watches the final product

á      thet of the characters within the narrative as they look at one another (the conventions of narrative film are structured so as to deny the first two and subordinate them to this third one)

¤       She is arguing against essentially sadistic/fetishistic pleasurable form of classical cinema.

¤       the gaze: pleasure in looking

¤       voyeurism/sadistic looking and fetishistic looking (scopophelia)

¤       being seen

¤       active role of men / passive role of women (bearer of meaning rather than maker of meaning)

¤       ÒThe male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: preoccupation with the reenactment of the original trauma( investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment, or saving of the devalued object (avenue typified by the concerns of film noir); or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence overvaluation, the cult of the female star).Ó (p.311)



o      Tania Modeleski (critiquing Mulvey)

¤       women as occupying active role in Hitchcock examples: mobility, freedom and power

¤       male in cinema as fixated at infantile level of sexual development

¤       Òmuch narrative cinema negates the sexual difference that nevertheless sustains itÉÓ (p 84)

¤       Òwhile men sleep and dream their dreams of omnipotence over a safely reduced world, women are not always what they appear to be, locked into the male ÒviewsÓ of them, imprisoned in their masterÕs dollhouse.Ó (p. 85)

o      cinematic examples:

¤       Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo (1958) with James Stuart and Kim Novak and Rear Window (1954)

¤       Howard Hawks, Gentlemen Prefer Blonds(1953) with Marylin Monroe and Jane Russell

¤       Joseph Mankiewicz, A Letter to Three Wives(1949) and William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

o      Mary Ann Doane. The mellowdrama and the womenÕs film as counter examples.




"Political Mimesis"  by Jain Gaynes



Week 9 Notes: Hybrid Forms: Compositing and Digital Effects

Examples: Trip to the Moon (George Melies, 1902), Terminator II (James Cameron, 1991), Forest Gump ( Robert Zemeckis, 1995), Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1997), The Titanic, Fight Club (David Fincher, 2000), Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1999), TX Transform,

CD-ROM Examples: Beyond (Zoe Beloff'), Mongrel's National Heritage: Reporting the Experience (Graham Harwood et al, London)

Animation and pre-cinematic toys-- see Zoe Beloff's website

Online examples :

Some terms:


"What is digital Cinema?" by Lev Manovich

Manovich argues that narrative is not essential to all cinema. Therefore, to look for the effects of the digital in terms of viewer interaction within the story is limiting.

Moving beyond lens-based cinematography, digital  cinema facilitates new possibilities for the creation of imagery that does not pass through a camera.

Pre-cinematic toys and persistence of vision: prior to the consolidation of motion picture recording and projection technology in the late 19th century, there were a variety of toys and entertainment machines that demonstrated some of the principles which would allow for the recording and representation of motion. Many of these devices were mechanisms that demonstrated the principle of "persistence of vision." A theory suggesting that the eye retains an image of what is before it for a brief moment. As a result a sequence of still images can simulate motion.


Manovich notes several qualities of these precinematic forms that become repressed in cinema:

Animation vs Indexical Cinema: within the moving image arts of the 20th century there developed an opposition between cinema proper and animation (the realm to which the pre-cinematic was relegated).

Manovich argues that the return of 19th century moving image forms accompanies the introduction of digital technologies.

Principles of digital filmmaking:

Based on these principals Manovich suggests that "Digital cinema is a particular case of animation which uses live action footage as one of its many elements."

Manovich suggest that cinematography can now be understood as a subset of special effects rather than the reverse.

In the digital age, cinema is transformed into something closer to a form of painting. Ironically the introduction of digital processing fosters the reintroduction of hand painting of frames--moving away from the mechanistic aspects of camera-recorded images.

In spite of the radically new possibilities afforded by digital manipulation and control of images, mainstream film and media has tended to obliterate all traces of the computer--using digital processing to arrive at images that appear photographic, and to incorporate them within the realist conventions of narrative.

There are, however, forms that indicate the use of digital image production outside of the narrative form.