FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 20, May 1999

 


 

David Cullen

Visual Reality

 


 

 

 

Derek Paget

_No Other Way To Tell It: Dramadoc/Docudrama on Television_

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998

0-7190-4532-0

237pp.

 

In 1915 the visual triumphed over the literary. That year D. W. Griffith's _Birth of a Nation_ appeared. Following a private screening of the film, President Woodrow Wilson remarked that the movie was, 'history written in lightning'. The president assumed that the future presentation of historical reality would be visual. Based on a novel that dramatizes the historical period in United States history known as Reconstruction, Griffith presented the film adaptation as a visual reenactment of a historical place and time. In one year more persons saw the film than the cumulative audience who read novel, _The Clansman_, that inspired the movie. [1] As a result, since 1915 the visual image has had far greater impact on people than any mass-produced text. And since the 1950s, television has made the visual image available to everyone as easily as the mass-produced paperback books brought written text to society in the late nineteenth century. And, like those penny presses of the last century, the television screen attracts its viewers with promises of dramatic stories involving real persons confronting real issues. But the representation of reality is vastly different than the presentation of reality.

 

This latter point is the subject of Derek Paget's new work, _No Other Way To Tell It_. A reader in Drama at the University College Worcester, Paget has spent the last decade concentrating his research efforts on this subject. These efforts have resulted in over a half a dozen articles, his 1990 book, _True Stories?: Documentary Drama on Radio, Stage and Screen_, and being guest editor for the 1994 _Critical Survey_ issue on 'Television Dramas -- TV and Theory'. Paget's new work reveals the conclusions of this decade-long reflection.

 

_No Other Way To Tell It_ provides the reader with an introduction to the development of the fusion of the factual approach of documentary and the fiction of drama: dramadoc/docudrama. In addition to a discussion of the evolution of this fusion, Paget includes a discussion of the production process of television films and a consideration of the influence of the media lawyer to the making of such films. He also examines the codes and conventions of contemporary dramadoc/docudrama, through a series of case studies of eight controversial films, including the British produced _Hostages_ and America's series of films about accused murderer Amy Fisher, the 'Long Island Lolita'.

 

Most of the book, however, is an exploration of the history and development of dramadoc/docudrama. Paget argues that the reader must accept the fusion of the two disparate forms, drama and documentary, as 'a form in its own right rather than some kind of mongrel, hybrid or even bastard form' (3). He traces the history of this fusion by examining their development in Britain and America. The first phase occurred between the end of World War II and 1960. During this period veterans of BBC Radio moved from the behind the microphone to behind the camera. In quick succession, viewers watched _It's Your Money They're After_ (1948), _The Course of Justice_ (1950-1951), and _Return To Living_ (1954). All three productions dramatized a realistic person or event, as had BBC Radio for years. During this period in the United States the emphasis was on the dramatization of a perceived reality. Producers of such acclaimed shows as Philco Television Playhouse and Goodyear Television Playhouse used fiction as the catalyst for a discussion of reality. The exception, notes Paget, was Armstrong Theater. The producers of this program remained in New York while their counterparts headed to California. New York, at the time, was the economic and cultural capital of the world and of the United Nations. This produced a substantial amount of material for the producers of Armstrong Theater. The drama of the world was outside their doors; and they responded to it. In 1957 the theater showcased 'Freedom Fighters of Hungary', only a few months following the death of those freedom fighters. However, Armstrong Theater dissolved due to financial problems, leaving the production of television drama and documentary to Hollywood.

 

The second phase of the fusion between drama and documentary occurred between 1960 and the 1980s. It was during this period that, in the United States, the 'Made For TV' movie developed. More often than not this genre relied upon the dramatization of reality, past or present. The most famous case being the multi-part series _Roots_. In Britain, Granada TV through its series World In Action contributed to the fusion of the two by mixing dramatic reconstructions with documentary footage from the inception of the program. Gradually the fusion of the two became one, concluding with, according to Paget, Granada's first drama-documentary _The Pueblo Affair_ in 1970. The 1970s closed with the controversy surrounding the production of _The Death of a Princess_. By the mid 1980s, the Tramadrama had come into its own, increasing the speculation about the end result of media-driven reality. Thus, the decade of the 1990s opened with both scholars and the general public concerned about the ethics of dramatizing reality.

 

This concern reached a climax with the production of _Hostages_ in the early 1990s. The film represented the final phase in Paget's suggested development of the fusion of the two disparate forms. The movie was a co-production of Britain's Granada TV and America's HBO cable network. Technology and world events removed the borders that had separated the two countries and the two production studios. Paget spends considerable time discussing the controversy that surrounded the production of _Hostages_ and in the process establishes his point about understanding the dramadoc/docudrama form in its own right, as a new approach to an old problem: the representation of reality. Thus, the new visual form re-states an old problem, regardless of the form used to convey reality, the argument will be about the content within the form, not the form of the content.

 

Although Paget concludes that dramadoc is a 'very British genre' and docudrama is a 'very American one', he adds that both are social realist in purpose, concluding that, with journalist input, the dramadoc form provides 'more claim to documentary power' (195). But he believes that the power of American money and technological innovation may determine that the United States will dominate any co-production effort, thus making Hollywood's way the 'only way to tell it' for producers in England and elsewhere.

 

Scholarly concern with this new form receives a separate chapter from Paget. He opens it by reminding the reader about 'the common end-of-century view that many things that were once clear are now blurred means that easy assumptions can no longer be made about the ways in which media represent reality' (116). The author then provides a synthesis of the debate over the representation of reality and the reality of that representation, including a chart comparing and contrasting the characteristics of documentary with those of drama. He concludes the chapter by suggesting that 'the dramdoc/docudrama is an inherently indexical form: it points more insistently towards its origins in the real world than other kind of drama' (136). Readers, however, might conclude that this definition would encompass all drama.

 

Finally, Paget concludes his work by arguing that 'television spectatorship involves a subject position that is more dominantly feminine' (202). He bases this assumption on the notion that 'looking activity' is self-reflexive and 'reality testing' and not about control or dominance (202). Paget does not adequately explain this assumption nor the terms involved in the discussion. Since we are only beginning to understand how moving images affect brain activity differently than stacked lines of text on a printed page, any suggestions about spectatorship are premature. In addition to this problem, his final chapter concludes with a brief speculation about the future of television viewership, suggesting that interactive TV might re-condition the 'subject position' of the viewer. He also fails to note the interactive role of the web and the influence of the computer in this discussion. These final pages seem out of context given the previous 200 pages of text, and would have better served the author if published as a separate article or monograph.

 

_No Other Way To Tell It_ does serve as a excellent introductory text for undergraduates interested in the development of dramadoc/docudrama. For those interested in placing the subject of Paget's book in a larger context, see Mitchell Stephens's _The Rise of the Image, The Fall of the Word_. [2]

 

Collin County Community College

Plano, Texas, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Mark C. Carnes, _Past Imperfect: History According To the Movies_ (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995), pp. 136-37.

 

2. Mitchell Stephens, _The Rise of the Image, The Fall of the Word_ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

David Cullen, 'Visual Reality',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 20, May 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n20cullen>.

 

  

 

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