Beauty or Truth: Point of View in ‘Roger & Me’ and ‘The Man With the Camera’
Documentary filmmaking is a matter of perspective. Few examples exist of strictly objective and scrupulously balanced documentary considerations of a given subject or issue. This would, after all, amount to little more than straightforward journalism, and a simple recounting of facts. But Michael Moore’s tactics, the film’s exaggerated line of questioning and the mock serio-comic tone that Moore adopts in his narrative clearly identify Roger & Me as anything but journalistic. In a 1990 New York Times review, Richard Bernstein noted that “Mr. Moorewas no more operating within the standard framework of journalism than was Jonathan Swift when he wrote his ‘Modest Proposal,’ in which he suggested that a cure for the Irish famine would come if people started eating their babies” (Bernstein, 1990). This art of using exaggeration to portray point of view was revolutionized by Dziga Vertov’s manipulation of objects in The Man With a Camera. These two films use different stylistic approaches to show that perspective filmmaking is a uniquely open-ended form, governed only by the question of “whether (film) should represent beauty or truth, the ideal or the real” (Barsam, 1973, 13).
Moore does not simply interrogate his subjects; he artfully allows them enough rope to hang themselves (Orvell, 1994-95). True, the way in which he accomplishes this stretches the meaning of documentary film, but it causes the viewer to, at least subconsciously, reconsider what constitutes the parameters of true documentary storytelling. “We should worry about whether Moore has violated the ethics of documentarybut we must also observe the degree to which Moore successfully interrogates the whole premise of traditional documentary
form” (Orvell, 1994-95). Vertov broke new ground, having created a form that “relied exclusively on film language to get its point across,” a “film about film” (Andersen, 2012). The Man With a Camera “documents” the lives of average Soviet citizens, and the ways in which the cameraman interacts with people in society. This film could have been shot in any society because it establishes an international filmic language that is totally devoid of subtitles or other means of conveying message, other than perspective (Andersen, 2012).
This is the most important aspect of Roger & Me, and it serves as a vehicle which Moore uses to turn traditional methods of documentary inquiry upside-down. One watches in amusement as Moore barges through doors and shouts through a bullhorn in his quest to chase down the villainous Roger Smith, CEO of General Motors. Over it all, Moore provides a running, almost tongue-in-cheek commentary based on facts, including unemployment figures, homelessness and other tragic social by-products of General Motors’ willful neglect of its former employees and their families. As Moore manipulates statistics to show his point of view, Vertov manipulates images to carry his perspective in a kind of unspoken narrative. “Vertov equates the camera with an eye, and where the eye is directed is ultimately created by Vertov” (Andersen, 2012). Images of an oversized bottle, the voyeuristic sequence that reveals a sleeping woman and evocative “slice of life” shots, such as a homeless man sleeping on a bench, are carefully constructed in order to create a level of understanding that transcends the standard narrative form of filmmaking.
Narrative form takes precedence over details in Roger & Me. “Moore has sacrificed historical accuracy in order to achieve the unity of satiric fiction” (Orvell, 1994-95). While this
film may not truly rise (or sink) to the level of satiric fiction, it is a vehicle for its
writer/director to a degree that has seldom been seen in the genre. Critic Pauline Kael took the film to task for its moral presumption, but Kael and others missed the point that perspective, not data, was the “star of the show,” and that the film was never intended to be a kind of extended news magazine story. Moore, and Vertov before him, forces the viewer to take film on its own terms. The Man With a Camera entices the viewer to embrace this new language of film, and its director’s perspective, since there is nothing but perspective being communicated, no words to interpret or sound to produce emotion.
Moore explained his rationale in an attempt to counter the criticism he received from Kael and others. In so doing, he announced that Roger & Me was something new in the documentary milieu. Moore, himself a journalist, explained that “All art, listen, every piece of journalism manipulates sequence and things” (Bernstein, 1994). As such, Roger & Me, Moore contended, was not a pure documentary at all but “a moviea documentary told with a narrative style” (1994). For Vertov, manipulating “sequence and things” was the rationale behind The Man With a Camera. Nothing is off base, or out of bounds. The camera itself is portrayed, as is the process of filmmaking, from the ubiquitous cameraman to the editor performing his craft. Vertov is showing us where perspective comes from, how it is “manufactured,” and that film and imagery can be “constituted like an object” (Andersen, 2012). In many ways, The Man With a Camera could be considered a “primer” for function and purpose in film, and as such should be seen as a means to establish within the viewer a filmic gauge, or barometer, for assessing other works.
Some of the most influential observers of, and participants in, the documentary form have insisted that one of its great advantages lies in its ability to act unilaterally, free from the
restrictions that determine whether a feature film can even be made. Basil Wright, writing in the 1950s, commented that “the documentary thesis (offers), apart from anything else, a chance of freedom from the irons of the commercial cinema. Because documentary (is) concerned with a new use of filmit provided immense opportunities for experiment with the film medium” (Sapino and Hoenisch, 2011). Documentary film is constantly concerned with new uses of film because it is constantly concerned with telling new stories and showing new perspectives. Michael Moore and Dziga Vertov both showed that any constraints on form and vision in documentary, or perspective, filmmaking are illusory, that there is always room for experimentation. Put simply, “there are many different kinds of documentary” (Bernstein, 1994) because there are infinite stories to tell, in an infinite number of ways. Moor, the journalist, and Vertov, the avant garde experimentalist, showed how broad this genre can be.
Growth, in this context, means controversy, both in terms of content and style. In 2000, documentary filmmaker Paul Watson said that documentaries should seek to be subversive (Sapino and Hoenisch, 2011). What Watson, Michael Moore and other documentary filmmakers seek to communicate is that controversy and subversiveness are intrinsic to this form, which is to be expected in an art form that seeks to elicit action in response to chronic social problems (2011); as such, documentary filmmaking may be considered an inheritor of the spirit and context of the muckrakers, the early-20th-century “yellow journalism” movement that transcended the perceived differences between straight journalism and literary
perspective. Like Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, Michael Moore ignores convention in creating “constant movement toward innovation,” producing “an ongoing dialogue that draws on common characteristics that take on new and distinct form, like an ever-changing chameleon” (Nichols, 2010). Moore has clearly understood and embraced the innately experimental and groundbreaking impulse that continues to drive documentary filmmaking.
As Moore recounts memories from his childhood in Flint, the camera shows an industrial wasteland peopled by victims of shocking corporate greed. These people – Moore’s people – do more than create a strong sense of pathos. They provide Moore with the opportunity to show that the American traditions of social activism and public debate have been undermined in an era typified by the rapacious and unconscionable drive for profit. Moore’s intent in allowing us to see this tragedy through his eyes, and according to his point of view, is to play out “the subversive function of keeping political and social discussion alive” (Sapino and Hoenisch, 2010). Vertov also shows that point-of-view filmmaking can be subversive in what the camera lens reveals. The Man With a Camera reveals poverty and misery in the early years of the Soviet Union, portraying people sleeping outdoors and a bleak urban landscape, rather than the worker’s paradise that the regime envisioned. Vertov is concerned with more than perception and the ordering of images. For him, the camera is a means of showing the simple, unmitigated truth.
Could this have been accomplished by adhering to some more traditional notion of documentary filmmaking? True, Moore and Vertov have not, in a strict sense, made documentaries, but films with documentary narratives. Roger & Me is not quite in line with
“spoof news” programs that mock journalism and the subjects it purports to cover, but it taps into the spirit of outrage that produced this and other “gonzo” forms of satirical social commentary. Had Roger & Me eschewed the “humor content” of understatement and exaggeration, it would have been a betrayal of the film’s intent. Moore meant to outrage, meant to make his point with black humor; it may not have been the only way to make viewers truly relate to the unemployed and displaced of Flint, but it was the most effective way to show that when it comes to criticism, “all’s fair” in an environment where people have no voice. This describes Vertov’s perspective as well. Just as there is no limit to human vision and perception, Vertov’s camera is a conduit to everything. The viewer sees a series of unconnected images and random samplings of everyday life, which is the same way that the human eye encounters images, with no apparent rhyme or reason. As with Roger & Me, Vertov is showing that “all’s fair” when it comes to perception, and that the camera sees everything unconstrained by the kind of linear limits that accompany narrative filmmaking.
This is not subversion but documentary filmmaking fulfilling its true role. As a genre, it “has proved subversive for its ability to reinvent itself when the cultural changes that took place in the contemporary era challenged its very existence, and for its capacity to push its own limits to such an extent as to converge toward fiction” (Sapino and Hoenisch, 2010). Thus, the line between truth and subversion in perspective filmmaking is thin. This is what point-of-view filmmaking has accomplished in Roger & Me: a statement that straddles the fence between fiction and detail in making an important social point. That documentary is a unique form is no accident – it has to be exceptional or it loses its value because it does not have the luxury to
simply entertain, as is the case with feature filmmaking. It is true that “the power of documentary and its uniqueness (exists) exactly in its fusion of social purpose with artistic form” (Ellis and McLane, 2005).
Steven Mintz alluded to this peculiar fusion in coining the term “docutainment,” which he used to describe Michael Moore’s style in Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, and other such offerings. For Mintz, Moore has employed point of view to create an overtly opinionated and politically charged filmic niche, one specifically aimed at eliciting strong, visceral emotional reaction (Mintz, 2005). Vertov also creates a charged atmosphere, but he allows the camera’s point of view alone to create pathos, just as it facilitates an internal monologue, the unspoken voice that translates vision to perception and understanding. As such, emotion can play, arguably, a more important role in the process than intellect. Whereas films such as Undercover in Tibet, or even The Sorrow and the Pity, may encourage intellectual rumination, Roger & Me and The Man With a Camera use perspective to draw out a reaction.
One of the most memorable scenes from Roger & Me is the annual “Great Gatsby” party, given at the home of one of General Motors’ founding families, at which unemployed individuals are hired to pose as living statues. In his narrative voiceover, Moore notes sardonically that the party’s sponsors hired locals in order “to show that they weren’t totally insensitive to the plight of others” (Moore, 1989). In another scene, well-to-do individuals remind unemployed locals that their fate is in their hands and that all they need to do is show initiative and determination to improve their situation. The absurdity of these scenes is unmistakable, and produces laughter and sympathy at the same time. This is doubtless what Mintz meant when he used the term “docutainment” to describe the effect Roger & Me has on
the viewer. Perhaps the real question of whether Moore has succeeded, and one that only the viewer can answer, is whether the individual is “entertained” enough to act upon the information
For Vertov, it is not about encouraging social action but creating a new form of literacy that simulates human vision and perception. The “third-party” objectivity that the camera lends is akin to the ways in which people see and interpret images and external stimuli. In The Man With a Camera, none of this could work without the legitimacy that the camera instills. Legitimacy is the ground upon which people like Pauline Kael criticized Roger & Me. Kael mistook legitimacy for moral superiority, with Moore in the role of grand interlocutor. We learn early on that Moore, who narrates, is from Flint and that, in a sense, this is his story as well. But this is not what gives the story gravity. Nor does Moore’s line of questioning which, given the subject matter, is unsurprising. It is the sense of a shared human decency which each person owes the other, that is being violated in Flint, and it is this basic ethical expectation that Moore wields against the villainous GM representatives. This sense of legitimacy underpins the film’s point of view but one is given to wonder whether Moore has gone too far with an affected legitimacy in the interest of entertainment.
Without this air of legitimacy, Roger & Me could not have worked, at least not in the sense that Moore intended. There would have been no basis for moral outrage against which to bounce the movie’s droll humor. Moore’s offbeat style of documentary filmmaking “makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy” (Sapino and Hoenisch, 2010). Legitimacy has its own special meaning among documentary filmmakers. There is,
among documentary filmmakers, a code known as “Fair Use.” This ethic serves as a kind of protection that permits them to use copyrighted material without offering compensation or asking permission (Center for Social Media, 2012). It keeps copyright from being used as censorship. But this is not the only use to which the concept of “fair use” may be put.
Theoretically, “fair use” may be interpreted to mean that any ground may be violated in the interest of point of view. Vertov violates the sanctity of the Communist state by putting its weak points on display, and “trespasses” on the idea that privacy cannot be intruded upon by the movie camera. In Vertov’s case, fair use can mean that the filmmaker may superimpose any construct that he wishes on the notion of legitimacy in order to communicate, or to promote, his own point of view. This is what Moore achieved in Roger & Me; to use legitimacy in such a way that a film making a profoundly moral point can also be entertaining.
How influential it proves to be remains to be seen. However, it cannot be denied that the complexity of modern life and the “gray areas” that engender what some have called “culture wars” have laid fertile ground for new permutations of the documentary/perspective genre. Few issues can be considered in simple, “black-and-white” terms. Consequently, a documentary account must be flexible and willing to break new ground in terms of content and presentation, to do justice to the legitimacy of vision, as Vertov did, and to controversial social issues, as Moore has done. This is the essence of what Vertov called “film-truth,” a doctrine in which film “observes and records life as it is, and only then draws conclusions from these observations” (Andersen, 2012).
Andersen, Kara L. (2012). “The Man With a Movie Camera – Review.” Scope. Accessed 10
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Bernstein, Richard. “Roger and Me: Documentary? Satire? Or Both?” The New York Times. 1
“Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use.” (2012). Center for Social Media. American University.
Ellis, Jack C. and McLane, Betsy A. (2005). A New History of Documentary Film. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005, pp. 54.
Mintz, Steven. (2012). “Michael Moore and the Re-Birth of the Documentary.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, 35(2). Accessed 7 November 2012 at http://muse.jhu.edu/long?uri=/journals/film_and_history/v035/35.2mintz.html.
Nichols, Bill. (2010). Introduction to Documentary Film. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, pp. 6.
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Sapino, Roberta and Hoenisch, Michael. (2011). “What is a Documentary Film: Discussion of the Genre.” Seminar. Berlin: Freie Universitat Berlin, pp. 3, 18.