Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bill Nichols has classified documentary films under the following categories, reflexive, interactive, expositional and observational. What do you understand by each of these terms? Discuss critically a documentary exemplifying one of these categories.

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From the first documented recording of Venus passing across the sun in 1874 by a French astronomer to ‘Welcome to Australia’ (000), the four modes of representation have come a long way through sets of conventions that runs historically and diachronically. In documentary film styles or the four modes of representation, Bill Nichols (11, p. ) distinguishes them as expository, observational, interactive and reflexive. He states that ‘these categories are partly the work of the analyst or critic and partly the product of documentary itself’ (Nichols 11, p. ). But yet, traces of them dominating documentary film will appear in different constellations.


Expository Mode


The fundamental aim of expository documentary is to deliver a message by laying out a particular story followed by the unfolding of it. It acknowledges and addresses the spectator to tell him a story about the world. This kind of mode has been the basic way of relating information since the 10s. The early classic expository mode of documentary is a strong narration voice � a ‘Voice-of-God’ and other non-synchronous sound as the main carrier of meaning. The moving images are concrete and full of excess meaning, it is a useful mode when one has to get complex abstract and visual material across. In expository documentary verbal narration comes to the rescue to carry out an argument and to keep excess in check. The role of the images is one of providing support for this argument, and the editing is not necessarily continuous within a historical and located event, but rather decided by the rhetoric of the argument.


Expository mode is highly authoritative and the presence of that is represented by the commentary and sometimes the unseen voice of the filmmaker. A good example will be Nanook by Robert Flaherty. Nanook was made due to Flaherty’s admiration towards the Eskimo. Flaherty wanted to show people the majesty and character of them. In order to show that, Flaherty stage many scenes in Nanook, like building an igloo. The viewers are led into expecting an ordinary world to unfold before them through logical linkage establish between sequences and events. They presume the expository text will form the shape around the solution to the problem. There is little interaction happening between the interviewer and the subject. Expository documentary often builds up dramatic involvement through interview, written text and archival footage to represent the filmmaker’s point of view.


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Observational Mode


Observational documentary was formed due to the advances in technology, like the availability of more mobile synchronous recording equipment. Others often know it as direct cinema or cinema verite though both of them have distinct modes. The observational mode has strong orchestration of elements and the argument is central. It focuses more on the nonintervention of the filmmaker to get the stylish reaction speaking up for a more realistic picture. The ideal model of observational film will rely on minimum editing to preserve real time, chronology and continuity and evoke a distinct sense of a historical place and time. Direct address, narration and interviews disappear in favor of third-person observation. It is often characterized by the prevalence of indirect address, the use of long takes and synchronous sound, tending toward temporal continuity rather than montage, evoking a feeling of the “present tense”.


Interactive Mode


It is not surprising that perhaps subsequent modes of documentary want to bridge the hierarchical gap between Self and Other, camera and object, interact with others and more actively use the possibilities of image and montage to create a more poetic mode of documentary. The filmmakers open interaction with the world and showing off his play with the film-medium can be traced back to cin�ma v�rit� and the 10s kino-pravda of Dziga Vertov (The Man with the Movie Camera). Swerving camerawork, addressing the social actors on the screen (rather than the spectator outside it), and interviews that take more form of a discourse than of definite historical document of the classic expository (Nichols 11, p. 56) are a few characteristics.


In the late 150s, when portable synchronous sound recording equipment are more accessible, one does not have to be the recording eye thus fully utilise the human senses seeing, listening and talking as it observes and response to incidents. The voice of the filmmaker can be heard not as a voice-over commentary but on the spot, face-to-face conversations. The way interactive documentary is edited tries to give the film a logical continuity between individual viewpoints but at the same time the exchange of statements of subject to relationship and between filmmaker and social actors. Different or unusual framing of shots is a characteristic of interactive mode. The camera tends to stray away from the ‘talking head’ and focus on other aspect of the scene or person. Opposing statements about the same issue encourages the viewers to regurgitate contradicting opinions in a short time and sometimes the result is confusion, surprise or even laughter.


Reflexive Mode


Reflexivity is a process that directs attention away from the observer to the process of inquiry, to the methodology used by filmmakers (Loizos). Being reflexive implies that the producer intentionally reveals to audiences the underlying epistemological assumptions that inform his/her production practices. This draws attention to the constructed nature of images. Reflexivity is a method of enhancing the value of evidence presented by filmmakers and the finding of alternatives for strategies used in mainstream cinema.


Reflexive mode calls attention to its own facetiousness as textual construct. The texts for reflexive mode are self-conscious about the form, style, structure, convention and expectations. This mode focuses more on the encounter between the filmmaker and the viewer rather than the filmmaker and the subject. Reflexive mode arose from a desire to make the conventions of representation themselves more apparent and to challenge the impression of reality which the other three modes normally conveyed. It is the least ignorant and most ambiguous mode regarding the responsibilities of communication and expression as compared to the rest of the three modes. It is the most self-aware mode; it urges many of the same devices as other documentaries but sets them on edge so that the viewer’s attention is drawn to the device as well as the effect.


Critical Discussion of High School


For the second part of the essay, I have chosen to discuss an observational documentary, High School (168) by Frederick Wiseman. High School is a good example of the observational mode. It is a film about a large, above average urban high school and the daily activities of administrators, teachers, parents, and students and the policies and attitudes, which shape the institution. It is filmed in the Vietnam era, where there is a large generation gap. It shows how controlling the system tried to be in a time when American values and priorities were being questioned. An over-zealous security guard chases students down the hallway, demanding hall passes and a student being punished for not attending gym class, and told that he should be a man and follow orders. While an immature gynaecologist lectures the male students on the importance of safe sex, he brags about being paid to touch womens genitals. An outspoken student, at one point, says that the school has the morals of a garbage can.


The film does not use voice-over narration, had almost no music and no interviews that television news coverage employs. Though High School might seem to be presenting a slice of life, but if we analyse the films form and style, we find that it still achieve particular effects on the spectator, and is far from being a neutral transmission of reality, High School shows how film form and style shape the event we see on film. Although Wiseman has no control over what happens in front of the camera, he retains control over the films structure. He chooses what subject matter or events to be photograph. He also makes decisions on when to start filming, what to keep in frame and what sounds to record. Wiseman arranges these materials, presenting it in a specific way that affects our experience. Wiseman also realized that our knowledge and experience would help him fill in gaps. One segment begins with the disciplinary dean saying, What do you mean, you cant take gym? we remembers our own high-school memories to create a typical context around.


Even though Wiseman is filming un-staged situations, he sticks to principles of classical narrative style. He picks a camera position that will juxtapose various elements in the frame and also arranges shots through editing, by putting images and sounds into specific relations. As we watch the film, we realise the action depends on narrative principles. Many of the segments constitute small scenes fraught with conflict. The dean of discipline insists that a boy take an unjustified detention, an administrator argues with complaining parents, and so on. Nonetheless, the overall form of the film is not narrative. The film lacks continuing characters, causality and temporality. For example, the sketchy opening narrative expectations shows views of streets, highways, and eventually the school, all filmed from a moving vehicle to suggest the day begins with someone going to school. The next sequence is shot during homeroom period, leading viewers into thinking that the school day is starting. Later in the film we see another homeroom period later, as well as several school assemblies, a simulated space flight, and other activities that would be impossible to take place on a single day. From this we can gather that the first two scenes, the sequences are not linked.


Each sequence begins with an abrupt cut to a situation already in progress. Often the first shots are close-ups, so that the situation is revealed gradually. The authorities are associated with hands. While talking to parents, one administrator makes a fist that is emphasizes with a close-up framing. In the next sequence, the disciplinary deans hand is shot in a similar framing. More obvious are the transitions between scenes depend on associations. Some are simple repetitions, as when one teacher asks, Are there any questions? and we cut to another teacher asking, Any questions? Other transitions are more figurative. For example, a teacher concludes Casey at the Bat is consistently inter-cut with shots of students looking to the left, there is no long shot showing both teacher and pupils.


Wisemans selectivity is especially evident in one segment, in which an English teacher uses a popular song to teach poetry. He shows her reading the text aloud and then playing the song on tape, but he omits the class discussion that came in between. The film is not a full cross-section of high-school life. It omits many important aspects. We never see the home life of students and faculty, and we never witness any conversations between students. Wiseman has concentrated on one aspect of High School life how the power of the authorities demands obedience from pupils and parents. If conflict breaks out, a teacher is shown taking a hard line in order to exercise discipline. No one in charge loses an argument. The narrative interest of each scene depends on our recognizing it as repeating the same pattern of the victory of authority. We come to expect that the disciplinary dean will argue down an unruly boy or force students to wear formal dress to the prom. There are no bad people in Wisemans films, only the flawed.


One will be sure to notice that Wiseman is presenting a series of problems and societys stumbling attempts at solutions. The film lack beginnings or endings and are open ended. With somewhat of a symmetrical structure, Wiseman implies that people live in a pattern of repetition. The film ends ominously, as the school principal, in an assembly, reads aloud a letter written by an alumnus from Vietnam. Just prior to going to battle, he writes, thanking the school for a fine education.





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