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The new American documentary film

12.01.2011

The documentary film that set the pace for the new decade was Primary (1960), which covered the 1960 U.S. presidential race, made by four men who would become the key players of the new, handheld, sync-sound documentary tradition: Albert Maysles, Robert Drew, D. A. Pennebaker, and Richard Leacock. Working as Drew Associates, the four created a new style of documentary production that simply observed their subjects with an almost constantly running camera, following them everywhere. The key principle was not to interfere, to keep shooting even when things got dull (you never knew what might happen next), and to stay with your subject all the time for total emotional and physical intimacy. In addition, there was no narration, and the resulting films had a rough, raw look, which made them seem like newsreels more than anything else. This new method of cinéma vérité, known as “direct cinema” in Britain, became the dominant documentary style of the 1960s, films that were unvarnished reports of events rather than interpretations of them.


After Primary’s success the four split up, with brothers David and Albert Maysles pairing off, and Pennebaker and Leacock working as a duo particularly interested in pop music and culture. D. A. Pennebaker’s 16 mm documentary Monterey Pop (1968) was blown up to 35 mm and released to theaters to rapturous reviews, capturing Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, the Who, and other pop artists at their peak. Two years later, Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970) accomplished much the same thing on a larger scale, using a battery of more than twenty 16 mm cameras to capture the epic 1969 pop music festival at Woodstock in all its incandescent glory. But the peace, love, and harmony of Woodstock proved short-lived; later in 1969, the Rolling Stones played the Altamont Speedway in California to a violent, stoned audience of dazed hippies and Hell’s Angels. The concert ended in a stabbing death, captured on film by the Maysles brothers in their brutal documentary Gimme Shelter (1970).


Other key documentaries of the period came from the prolific Frederick Wiseman, whose Titicut Follies (1967), about life in a Massachusetts mental hospital, followed by High School (1968), Hospital (1970), and Welfare (1975), all depicted the American social system in crisis. Wiseman became famous for his style of relentless yet unobtrusive camera work and his absolute refusal to add any voiceover narration or music during editing to guide the viewer, resulting in raw and uncensored documents that capture the stripped-down essence of his numerous subjects. D. A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967) chronicled Bob Dylan’s first British tour as a folk troubadour, using a lightweight sync-sound 16 mm camera that gave him the ability to shoot almost anywhere.


Albert and David Maysles’s Salesman (co-director, Charlotte Zwerin, 1969) is one of the bleakest films of the new documentary movement, following four Bible salesmen around the country as they peddle their wares to the poor and indigent who can’t even afford to put food on the table. Documentarist and cinematographer Haskell Wexler directed the fiction feature Medium Cool (1969), about a TV news cameraman’s crisis of the soul as he struggles to decide whether or not he should intervene when filming scenes of riots and political demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.


 



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