May 2, 2006

Does "United 93" have a "documentary feel"?

Plenty of critics say so, but Christopher Althouse -- who's got a blog! -- disagrees:
Anyone who claims this movie has a documentary style has obviously not seen a documentary in a very long time. Over time, people have started to use that term when they really mean "shaky camera." If this were documentary footage somehow shot on flight 93, it would look completely different. In all likelihood, it would have been shot with one camera, maybe two. For it to be in real time, which this movie tries to be, it would either have to be all one shot or seem like an alternation between a very small number of cameras. In United 93 the movie, there is rapid cutting, cutting back-and-forth between all parts of the plane. The viewer, in fact, has no sense of where in the plane he or she "is." The uprising itself is cut quickly and with conflicting camera angles that give a sense of chaos over any objective view of what is going on. You are shown flashes of bodies moving, given in too fragmented a way for the viewer to piece together a picture of the whole. This is the opposite of what a documentary looks like. United 93 is shot like an action movie, not a documentary. It has a near-constant score, as well. In a documentary, this kind of Hollywood thriller music might seem pretty unusual. Yes, there are some shaky images and grainy film stock, but these are both typical of Hollywood action movies today.

Does the fact that United 93 was shot and edited like an action movie make it exploitation? Not necessarily, because those stylistic elements are only associated with the action genre because they happen to be used by action filmmakers. There's nothing about quick cutting that makes it intrinsically about entertainment; in this case, it was done in an effort to capture the psychology of those on board. The effect on the viewer, despite the defensibility of the filmmaker's intentions, is that one feels as though one is watching an action movie.

What we are left with is a film by a director whose experience is in the action genre, with the conventions of that genre used, probably by default, as his way of conveying chaos. The movie tries to please everyone who might be offended with a sugar-coated view of human nature. In the process, it adds little, other than an action movie aesthetic, to the scenario as we have all imagined it since the day it happened.
Read the whole thing. (There's a lot more about "United 93," including an explanation of "sugar-coated view of human nature") And bookmark the blog.

22 comments:

Dave said...

Interesting take.

Subscribed to his feed. Does genetic relation imply a blog as interesting as yours?

Ann Althouse said...

You'll find out.

Truly said...

Prof. A, you may be a clear-headed, moderate blogger...

...but you'll always be a mother first.

reader_iam said...

Very serious stuff going on here now, so I will say just this one thing:

He lists Ute Lemper in the favorite music section of his profile. That gives him tremendous cred from the get-go.

JohnF said...

This is a little over the top, I think. My take on the use of "documentary" by people talking about the movie is that the movie has a feel of realism and accuracy--this is what happened, not something that uses the events as a starting point for some different story.

Now, whether the movie does show what actually happened I don't know. But the feeling that it does is plainly what is leading to these "documentary" comments.

This strikes me as more a semantic quibble than a substantive critique.

Wade_Garrett said...

1) Didn't Christopher used to go by Christopher Althouse Cohen?

2) I absolutely agree with Christopher's post; the former film student inside of me winces a little bit when I read something like that. I also agree with John that is it more of a semantic quibble than a substantive critique. To be certain, the professional movie critics who use the expression "documentary feel" should know better, but the typical moviegoer knows what they mean -- the actors don't look look like regular people (in many cases, they're not even actors), nor do they "act" in the Laurence Olivier sense of the word. The lighting is naturalistic, and distracting non-diegetic sounds are kept to a minimum, if they are used at all. There aren't a lot of 'cinematic' camera angles, etc.

Though it is stylistically imprecise, I wouldn't really have a problem with the expression 'documentary feel' becoming shorthand for the set of characteristics I've listed above.

reader_iam said...

Did my previous comment seem flippant or shallow?

It shouldn't.

XWL said...

1) Didn't Christopher used to go by Christopher Althouse Cohen?

From my uninformed point of view, I suggest it might be a form of branding.

His first few days of blogging more resemble the mix of insider knowledge and general observation regarding culture found here, in other words rather Althousian, whereas were he more inclined to the introspective, personal but cryptic, and occaisonally fictional, he might have chosen to brand himself in a more Cohenian manner.

Like I said, just uninformed ramblings.

Now he just needs to work on the sidebar links.

(plus polls, everyone loves polls)

(and music, or pictures)

(and podcasts)

Bissage said...

reader_iam asked: "Did my previous comment seem flippant or shallow?"

It didn't.

amba said...

It also struck me that he was calling himself "Christopher Althouse." An interesting move for which there might be many motives, but will keep my speculations to myself since it's none of my business.

Ann Althouse said...

Reader, Amba: Chris can explain for himself, but I'm guessing it mostly has to do with simplifying, with a preference for the more unusual name.

Christopher Althouse said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Christopher Althouse said...

I'm using that as a pen name because I thought christopheralthousecohen.blogspot.com was too long, and I've always thought that, if I go into writing or film, it would be better to use my more interesting middle name instead of my very common last name. I think I used that on screenplays I wrote even before this blog started.

amba said...

It's true that Cohens are a dime a dozen (those promiscuous priests!) and apt to be confused with each other.

amba said...

It almost makes you want to go alt.house . . .

Good writing, by the way!

Sanjay said...

Of course one has to check out the blog! But I submit (I haven't seen Flight 93 mind you) that it is CAC who hasn't seen a documentary in a long time.

They have changed radically from the documentaries of my youth -- there's the occasional lone-guy-with-a-camera type that CAC talks about but most of 'em now have radical CGI and goofy "re-creations" -- the documentary and the action movie have mixed. So if you do a documentary about, say, the Medici, it will be complete with re-eneactors and CGI and Sergio-Leone style footage of Lorenzo di Medici facing down an assassin, etc. Hell, if you do a documentary on _dinosaurs_ it's full of action-movie shots of CGI dinosaurs.

The form has become remarkably diverse: "documentary-style" can mean a lot.

Ann Althouse said...

Sanjay: If documentaries are done in a way that gives an action movie feel, does that change what the expression "documentary feel" means? I don't think the "reenactment" scenes you're talking about are what fiction filmmakers are trying for when they want to convey a documentary feeling -- and I don't think documentaries with actors doing reenactments are given much credit among serious documentarians. But the fact that "United 93" has gotten a lot of critics to say it's "documentary" style is significant, and I think what Chris is trying to do is to call people back to better standards. You're more saying the standards are already shot to hell. These are not necessarily inconsistent observations of how things are -- though they do represent a difference of opinion about how things should be.

Robert R. said...

I think we're really arguing semantics here.

Documentary style probably isn't the right term. "Cinéma vérité" is probably the more accurate term. Here's the wikipedia entry on the term http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cin%C3%A9ma_v%C3%A9rit%C3%A9

I think it's perfectly fair to say that the filmmakers were striving towards a feeling of naturalism, realism, and authenticity. Hence, the use of non-name actors and non-actors, hand held cameras, creation of a realistic set, naturalistic lighting, etc. I really think this is a matter of critics not qualifying their statements. Then again, no one engages in hyperbole in blogs, do they?

reader_iam said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
reader_iam said...

don't like the conflation of the terms movie and documentary. And I dislike docudramas almost categorically, but at least the term "docudrama" is more precise.

Obviously I can't say "I'm with Chris" on "United 93" since I haven't yet seen the movie, but as far as the theory goes, I'm there. (I am planning to see the movie, by the way.) Why is it necessary to talk about the film as a documentary, when it isn't? Plain old movies can deal as powerfully with "truth" as documentaries, in their own way, if done well.

When I think about "expanding" the documentary form, I think of something like "Thin Blue Line," from back in the '80s, not the sort of thing to which critics are referring in relationship to "Flight 93."

I think Robert R. has hit upon something in his comment. Unfortunately, assuming that the film is indeed an example of cinema verite (which, again, I can't say until I see it), I'm not too sure how many people in the general public know what that means. Perhaps the use of the term "documentary style" is a shortcut way to deal with that.

Sanjay said...

Professor Althouse:

I'm not sure the standards are "shot to hell." In fact in nature/scientific documentaries (which I find myself watching ridiculous amounts of due to my wife's preferences and a two year old) they usually add significatly (yo, all: watch "Walking with Dinosaurs.") In historical documentaries: I dunno. I was raised at a time when a documentary on Michelangelo meant lots of discussions with academics in rooms talking about the guy, and I still like that better. Now it's likely to be intercut with "footage" of "Michelangelo" doing this or that: it kind of turns me off but I'm not sure it's artistically worse and probably the next generation will dig it. And even, say, "March of the Penguins," without all the CGI and actors, tries more for the kind of fiction-movie feel, not necessarily badly.

I think CAC is talking very specifically about a type of documentary that's usually filmed by a small group with the co-operation of the subject (say, "Hoop Dreams" or "Grizzly Man" or "Touch the Sound.") Fine works. But it is overly restrictive to say that "documentary feel" is like that, and for a historical docentary (such as a Flight 93 documentary would be), it's _not_ going to be like that anymore (and never would have been: it would have been the experts-in-offices thing before, not his one-or-two-lone cameras).

Christopher Althouse said...

sanjay: The examples you are using--CGI reenactments--are even less applicable to United 93 than the other, more common use of the term "documentary feel." I don't think there's any CGI in the movie, and it's actually done on a very small budget. That's clearly not what people are talking about in this case.