January 31, 2011
Every year on the last Sunday in Janauary I wake up at an ungodly hour to eat bagels and drink coffee with colleagues before hunkering down and watching films to which we will award the Eddie, trophy of the American Cinema Editors. Like SAG, the DGA and other motion picture craft organizations, A.C.E. (the editing honorary society) has an annual black tie awards dinner. Weeks before that event and after the full membership has voted for best edited features, blue ribbon panels determine the best television movie, best feature-length documentary and other such honors. Panelists watch nominees together, then cast secret ballots. Yesterday, as I do annually, I donned my ribbon for the documentary group.
Because I rarely edit “docs,” being on that panel gives me a chance to sit back and appreciate a skill set somewhat different from the one used by editors of dramatic fiction films. It also enables me, usually, to see some excellent motion pictures that have had, at best, limited runs in a very small number of theatres.
Docucumentary cutters don’t work with scripted material. Consequently, they structure or even “write” their movies during post production to a far greater extend than their counterparts in the fiction feature world. But that very fact -- that non-fiction editors select and shape 90 minute films from hundreds of hours of unscripted material -- speaks volumes about the nature of their work. While it may be true that documentaries are a “window onto the world,” a window -- because of its frame, its thickness, its tint and any number of other factors -- mediates the reality seen through it.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote eloquently about such mediation in a television review published in1964 and reprinted in Lewis Jacobs’ anthology, The Documentary Tradition. “...(T)he line between the documentary and the feature film is tenuous indeed,” he stated. “Both are artifices; both are contrivances. Both are created by editing and selection. Both, wittingly or not, embody a viewpoint. The fact that one eschews and the other employs professional actors becomes in the end an economic detail. And the relation of any film to reality depends, not on the amateur standing of its elements, but on the artistic vision of those who must put the elements together.”
This year’s nominees for the Best Documentary Eddie each displayed varying degrees of artifice and contrivance. All three entailed massive amounts of selection. And all three are radically different from one another.
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a delightful film by Banksy, edited by Thom Fulford and Chris King. It highlights Banksy’s own street art, along with the work of Mr. Brainwash (Thierry Guetta) and Shepherd Fairey, among others. Like Orson Welles’ “F for Fake,” the movie intentionally makes viewers question whether or not what they’re watching is “real.” Did Thierry Guetta really shoot thousands of hours of film without cataloguing (or even labeling) the cassettes? Did he really sell photo-shopped photocopied Warhol knockoffs for hefty five figure sums? If so, somewhere Andy is smiling... or talking to lawyers. (And some great cinema verite artist is capturing all of it.)
Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job,” edited by Chad Beck and Adam Bolt, selects material in the way a gifted attorney might when bulding a case for the prosecution. The result is a searing indictment of bankers (and their enablers) whose machinations created the worldwide financial meltdown from which we continue to reel. Some of Ferguson’s interviews are reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman’s work: subjects smugly talk to camera about matters “too complex” for mere non-millionaires to comprehend. Lobbyists, Columbia and Harvard faculty and administraters, and Goldman-Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein all bury themselves with their own comments, so out of touch are they with normal standards of ethical behavior.
Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman,” on the other hand, is unabashed propaganda, attacking teachers unions and presenting charter schools as an educational panacea. When Guggenheim isn’t busy selling Nikes or Minute Maid orange juice via “product placement,” he tries to sell the idea that the American Federation of Teachers wants job security for its members so that bad educators can continue to pick up unearned paychecks. In his world, a great teacher in a right wing, fundamentallist school district would never be fired for teaching evolution, climate science or a balanced view of history. No. Guarantees of tenure are only for slothful enemies of learning.
What a world! I guess it’s the same one in which a 2009 Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO)/ Stanford University study of charter schools doesn’t exist. In that work, researchers discovered that 46% of charter schools showed no academic gains over traditional public schools, while 37% were actually outperformed by the public schools. There’s not a word about CREDO’s findings in “Waiting for Superman.”
As the propaganda piece dragged on, I began to think of it as “Waiting for Bizarro Superman.” I’m glad that, while recognizing the merit of “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and “Inside Job,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rightly ignored Davis Guggenheim’s union-bashing screed.
Bizarro to the contrary notwithstanding, the American Cinema Editors get together was a great success. A.C.E.’s Executive Director Jenni McCormick is, among other things, a perfect event planner. And I enjoyed every second of chit chat with colleagues, including Steve Rivkin, Maysie Hoy and Anita Brandt Burgoyne.
On a sad note, however, I learned when I got home that film composer John Barry had died at the age of 77. Mr. Barry will be missed. His James Bond theme is as integral to the character as the “shaken, not stirred” martini. His scores for “Born Free,” “The Lion in Winter,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Out of Africa,” “Dances With Wolves” and “Body Heat” (to name a few) forever changed the landscape of motion picture soundtracks and will continue to inspire and entertain. Deepest condolences to John Barry’s family and friends.