Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


Jay Raskin

 

The Friction Over the Fiction of Nonfiction Movies


 

Carl R. Plantinga

_Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film_

Cambridge University Press, 1997

 

In the current debate or struggle between postmodernist and cognitive (or 'post-theory') movie theory, Carl Plantinga's new book _Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film_ fits into the latter's Aristotelian modernist/rationalist camp. What is interesting, however, is the way Plantinga uses the postmodernist theory of the non-objectivity of nonfiction film to discredit the postmodernist theory of a potentially progressive reflexive documentary cinema. Plantinga theorizes that if there is no objectivity, this idea cancels all the way through, and even reflexive documentaries are suspect constructions ungrounded in reality. Because of the interesting and skillful style of argument, both sides should enjoy it -- as well as cinema buffs, filmmakers, film students, and the passing civilian tourist.

 

The book is neatly divided into two parts. In the first, Plantinga discusses what nonfiction films claim to represent. In the second part he develops categories for nonfiction films based on their rhetorical style. The last chapter both sums up his conclusions from these parts and expands them into the field of culture, with an interesting case study of an old American documentary television series called _The Twentieth Century_.

 

As far as representation in nonfiction films goes, Plantinga brings forth Nicholas Wolterstorff's theory of 'projected worlds'. Among the things that artists do is project worlds or portray 'states of affairs'. In nonfiction films, the artist-producers are asserting that these states of affairs either are occurring or did occur in the real world. Through a series of 'cues' the audience is made aware of this assertion or claim about the material presented. The way that nonfiction movies cue audiences is similar to the process described by David Bordwell in his important work _Narration in the Fiction Film_. So for example, a handheld camera, high levels of background noise, and a certain non-professionalism on the part of the actors might cue the audience that the scene is to be taken as naturally occurring and not staged for the camera. External information, for example, press reports and posters, also help to cue the audience to take the claim seriously that a certain set of events happens or happened.

 

Of cause there are fuzzy or complex cases such as _JFK_ where it is hard to know precisely how to take the cues. The moment where an enlargement of the Zapruder film which shows Kennedy's head moving backward after being shot seems to be a piece of non-fiction mixed into a film which we are cued largely to take as fiction, but a fiction close to historical reality. Plantinga admits that 'in this postmodern age, such intermixtures have become increasingly common', but maintains that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction 'is not merely in your head, but in films and in the cultural and historical context in which they are produced and viewed' (20).

 

Surprisingly, here on the issue of representation, Plantinga generally supports postmodernist claims of the constructiveness of nonfiction films. He notes:

 

the history of staging in nonfiction shows that the set of features, or family resemblances, we associate with nonfiction film constantly receded and expanded, as practices gain and lose acceptance. In light of this, it is most fruitful to think of nonfiction not in terms of unchanging or universal intrinsic properties, but as a socially constructed category that is fluid and malleable; it changes with history. (37)

 

Here, as one often finds, there is much that postmodernist and cognitivist theory actually agree upon. Because Plantinga feels, 'nonfiction films are not imitations or re-presentations, but constructed representations', he is able to put them into the category of rhetoric, which leads him into the second part of his book.

 

Doing something similar to what David Bordwell did for fiction films, Plantinga argues for a division of nonfiction films into the 'authoritative', 'reflexive', and 'poetic'. The authoritative uses a 'formal voice'. It assumes a position of superior knowledge and teaches or explains something about the world. The reflexive film uses an 'open voice'. It is satisfied to show or explore something in the world, and does not directly tell the audience precisely what to think about its subject matter. The poetic film is interested in producing certain classically artistic effects. A variant of the poetic film, the 'avant garde' film, aims at producing these emotions from the style of the film itself, which is, in fact, the subject matter of the film.

 

Again there is no particular technique or set of techniques that definitely distinguishes one type of film from another. For example, an authoritative film like John Ford's _Battle of Midway_ uses a multiplicity of narrational voices, a technique usually adopted by reflexive films, e.g., Jean-Luc Godard's _Ici Et Alleur_. So again, just as when distinguishing between fiction and nonfiction, there are only family resemblances making up the cues that allow us to index a film as fiction or nonfiction -- we can only index the difference between authoritative, reflexive, and poetic nonfiction films using family resemblances of cues. One could call this type of classification system a kind of 'fuzzy essentialism', which seems to be a moderate compromise between an Aristotelian objective absolute essentialism and a subjective relativist anti-essentialism. Plantinga argues that the rhetorical style of a nonfiction film cannot be related to any kind of progressiveness or honesty. He writes that 'reflexive strategies do not guarantee honesty, integrity, or genuine self-revelation on the part of the filmmaker(s)' (218). Put simply, a reflexive film can be as phoney or dishonest as any other.

 

Curiously, in his last chapter, Plantinga analyses the old Walter Cronkite narrated television series _The Twentieth Century_. The analysis shows that the program was pure ideology (in the narrowest Marxist sense) expressing only the views of the American Ruling Class and justifying American policies as if they were eternal commands from God. This analysis seems to run counter to his general thesis that no social or political implications flow from the rhetorical style of a film. This case seems to be evidence that a certain style of telling people what to think about cinematic material follows from a certain world-view.

 

Sadly, instead of exploring this possible contradiction to his general thesis -- and in the weakest part of the book -- Plantinga defends the television series. He feels that it is somehow better than some unnamed alternative, which I took to be some kind of Stalinist subjectivism. In the end his argument boils down to this: both communist and capitalist propaganda are subjective and one sided, but at least capitalist propaganda desires to be objective and honest. But from Plantinga's own description, the real purpose of the _The Twentieth Century_ was to promote the picture of the United States and its military apparatus as strong, dynamic, and in control of the world, while at the same time the series producers pretended to be objective and disinterested. Plantinga admits that his own analysis of the series, 'adds more evidence to that claim that as concepts, absolute objectivity, fairness, impartiality cannot be instantiated, and that as practices, they may mask subtle biases . . .' (212) -- but Plantinga still calls for the retention of the concepts in a 'relative' way.

 

In opposition to this, I would say that 'relative' objectivity, fairness, and impartiality is exactly what has been historically instantiated by the ruling bourgeoisie, and that as practices, they have served to mask 'extreme' real biases. Plantinga's call for the relative use of these concepts is support for the status quo, while a demand for the absolute instantiations of these principles would be the radical demand. The capitalist media today defines objectivity and impartiality as presenting the liberal and conservative views of the capitalist class. This 'relative' objectivity and impartiality works to marginalize and repress the views of other classes and groups in society. The demand for 'real' objectivity and impartiality is a demand that these other classes and groups take power through the media. At least I hope it is.

 

Plantinga ends by pointing out the many contradictions in nonfiction films:

 

a medium of truths and deceits, recording and manipulation, biases and balance, art and mechanical technique, rhetoric and straightforward information. Nonfiction films are complex representations with an infinite diversity of possible uses. Theirs is a rhetorical and pragmatic complexity that theory alone cannot comprehend; we require the aid of criticism and history. (222)

 

This is true enough, but certainly these are broad generalizations of the 'best of times, worst of times' type. The question is exactly when and where the rhetorical strategies he outlines have been used and for what purposes. It seems to me that the authoritative style historically tends to be used by large, wealthy corporations and governments, and the reflexive style by poor independent filmmakers. As the former tends to be politically conservative and the latter radical, there is a link, albeit a contingent and historical one rather than a necessary one, between cinematic style and politics. If we look at how MTV (now owed by Viacom) uses a complex variety of cinematic techniques to promote its pro-capitalist/anarchistic ideology, one can agree with Plantinga that it is a great mistake to directly equate any style with any progressive politics. Likewise the rapid cutting of Eisenstein, used to promote his message of world socialist revolution in the 1920s, was expropriated by advertising agencies for use in television commercials in the 1950s. So we are left with the conclusion that apparatus and technique may be associated with use by a particular class at a particular time, but there is nothing that intrinsically (ahistorically) associates any apparatus and technique with a particular class.

 

Plantinga's book is thought-provoking and fun reading. If it doesn't always put quotation marks around important concepts like 'truth', 'impartiality', and 'objectivity', it does examine closely the techniques used for constructing them. Thus the honest presentation of the material somewhat contradicts the general conclusions, and both camps in the modernist/postmodernist debate can take comfort in this work.

 

University of Southern Florida, USA

 

*********

 

Jay Raskin

The Friction Over the Fiction of Nonfiction Movies

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 1 no. 7, September 1997

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol1-1997/n7raskin

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1997

 

  

 

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