Instinct, I’ve found, is one of the trickiest tools there is.
If I’m on set, running something live, making decisions on the fly: no problem. it’s not exactly a cakewalk, but if the choices are: make decisions or die? Not much of a choice at all.
Editing is a whole other animal. There’s comparatively more time, so I feel like there’s less pressure to instantly make the “right” decisions. Surely without the immediacy of being on a shoot, you can make more enlightened, creative decisions. Right?
But my own experience has been that time is often the enemy. Given too much of it, one CAN tend to err on the side of caution, instead of listening to instinct. It’s not a rule, and it gets clearer with experience, but it’s there.
So I’m watching Chronique d’un été the other night, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s 1960 documentary following the lives of several Parisians. There are fascinating slice of life moments playing cat and mouse with the headier interview style, and in spite of the overwhelming intellectualism of French cinema being there the whole time, there’s a deep well of soulfulness to discover. I last saw it about 15 years ago. This experience was totally different.
What hits me on this viewing is the razor sharp timing. The moments when the film shifts from hardcore verbal analysis to visual poetry occur at precisely the moment where I felt the need to back off from the literality of words, and meditate a little on what’s been said. And that visual reprieve gives me exactly what I need to feel Rouch and Morin’s deeper message.
I’m working on a film right now, and trying to strike a balance between the Cartesian and the poetic. What does the audience need to know, and what do they need to “know”? It’s the centuries old “show don’t tell” thing, and there’s a very, very big difference between telling a documentary audience a story, and showing it to them.
Chronique d’un été strikes a fantastic balance between explanation, and “gut” explanation. There’s enough that’s familiar in the characters that I can empathize with them, and that means those pauses from information conjure a hell of a lot of self-reflection. Obviously I try and look for that in my own cuts, but with a fresh lesson in its importance I’m paying more attention.
But isn’t that shying away from instinct and towards the brain?
Shit. You’re right…
Another aspect of re-watching Chronique d’un été hit me: the urge to pause and google. I managed to fight it, but man-o-man. No easy thing.
It might only be because I saw 4 (count ‘em: 4!!) films on the big screen at Copenhagen DOX, which is more than I’ve seen in… a long time. But there were a lot of moments where I wanted to hit pause so I could look up stuff that was either directly or indirectly conjured by what I was seeing. No I didn’t pick up my phone and look something up in the middle of a screening. But if I were catholic I’d be guilty anyway, right?
How do we watch what we watch now? I don’t even have a TV in the house, nor do I expect or wish for one anytime soon. A phone, pad, laptop offer far more flexibility in accessing content. So I ask myself: Do I have a harder time “immersing” because the context has changed, because I’m not in the bosom of the silver screen? Or does that fail to happen because times are what they are? Or because I’m not 25 anymore?
We try and craft submersible worlds for the people who watch our content. But let’s face it, every generation has been that much more conscious of the artifice of those worlds. We haven’t helped matters by being all meta about the stuff we put out, except in buying those next few moments of credibility: we’re in on the joke. When it comes to doc, the craft has adopted a lot of the visual language and cues of fiction, boosting the drama in one way, drawing attention to itself in another.
I’m not always successful at resisting the urge to look something up when in the middle of a film (usually, but not inevitably). Though I will say that watching the Overnighters at CPH:DOX, there was a riveting dramatic cue at the beginning that paid off big time at the end, in spite of the film being the least visibly arresting doc I’ve seen in a while. The characters were strong enough (thinking a kind of modern day Harlan County USA) and that promise was compelling enough that I never flinched. So there’s that as well: that American style arc that plays at shock tactics that I can’t deny is effective.
Still, that kind of engagement, for me at least, is a little rarer these days. It’s one of the reasons I put a lot of faith in interactive content. It’s working out some kinks, ok, a lot of kinks, but there’s a lot of promise in the potential to engage with content. Will that googly question be integrated into the package? Does that make a shit storyteller, or a crafty one? Time will tell.
In the short term at least I take a lot of solace when I’m personally immersed in the content I’m cutting. That means there’s at least a healthy nugget of story in there, right? There has to be, or else my instincts go the way of the dodo, and therein lies madness.