Monday, April 28, 2008

Documentary Motivation, Objectivity and Ethics

I'm going to put out a quick post for anyone who has already seen the film and is ready for some discussion. I'm not going to talk about the plot, cultural context or technical aspects here, so I'm hoping this won't inadvertently pre-empt anything girish is working on. Chris and/or girish, I’m assuming that the selector of the film will be in charge of leading the main discussion and providing the plot rundown? In the meantime, if anyone not watching the film or having seen it years ago needs a fairly spoiler-free intro, I have a review from last October.

Anyway, I’m going to throw out some questions from that review and a couple other related thoughts. Sorry if this is a rehash of documentary objectivity debates you’re already sick of.

"The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On" raises some interesting questions about the genre itself. Can the filmmaker ever really be just an observer and recorder? Certainly his mere presence has an effect: it is used by Okuzaki to manipulate his interviewees into making his visits seem more official, but it also discourages them from revealing their secrets. Does Hara’s choice of subject (which he was dedicated enough to that he followed him over several years) imply that he agrees with, supports or identifies with Okuzaki? Does the filmmaker have an obligation to help his subject by providing money, information or comfort? Is he obligated to interfere when he witnesses crimes or unethical behavior, as when Okuzaki is beating up other people?

Should all documentaries have a message? What would a neutral film be like? Does the passion and commitment it takes to create a documentary necessarily compromise its objectivity?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

May's Film of the Month

Greetings. I’m Girish Shambu, and I’m a cinephile who runs an eponymous film-blog. I work as an associate prof at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. (I don't teach cinema; I’m an engineer.)

Chris asked if I’d make the debut selection for our film club, and I’ve chosen Kazuo Hara’s documentary, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987).

I've given myself a deadline: I'll put up a post here on Monday, May 19. By giving you a specific date, I thought it might help you plan your viewing accordingly. And having a deadline helps me too.

I’ve seen none of Hara’s films although I’ve been hearing and reading about them for years. Four of his documentaries were released to region-1 DVD about a year ago. Of his films, The Emperor’s Naked Army has the strongest reputation. It was the subject of a book, by Jeffrey and Kenneth Ruoff, which was reviewed by Akira Lippit in the spring 2000 issue of Film Quarterly.

If you prefer to see the film “cold” without reading anything about it, please do so. Otherwise, here are a couple of reviews for you to look at:

-- Doug Cummings at Film Journey. [scroll down a bit]

-- Lindsay Nelson at Midnight Eye.

See you back here in a little over a month!

Friday, April 11, 2008


For now at least, I'm going to play the role of blog administrator and benevolent dictator.

1. This is a group blog and membership is not restrictive, at least unless we reach Blogger's 100 participant limit. Beyond administrative and housekeeping duties, the blog will belong to all members. Anyone interested in participating should email me at pccagle -at - gmail -dot - com.

2. Membership will require a blogger account/ID. Those interested in participating are urged to join, even if crossposting elsewhere, but nonmembers can also send in links to on-topic posts elsewhere.

3. For each month, the administrator will select a member to choose that month's film. The film must be legitimately and commercially available on DVD in North America. (Region 1/no-region formatting required, subscription DVD service availability highly desirable). The type of film is pretty much up in the air, though one should be able to argue that it indeed falls in the category of a "film" (e.g. a documentary broadcast on TV may make more sense than a TV network situatioin comedy). I'd suggest a duration limit of 3.5 hours - hopefully most will be shorter! The administrator reserves the right to veto a selection, though I will certainly hesitate to do so.

4. The film selection will be announced at the start of the month. Members can post on the film at any time during the month, according to their inspiration and convenience.

5. All posts, other than from the administrator, will need to pertain directly to the film of the month. Anything else will be deleted.

6. There's no hard and fast rule for post length, but do be considerate of your readers. Often, shorter really is better. Those consistently or egregiously taxing reader stamina may be asked to edit their post(s) down.

7. Posters can create or add their own subject labels. If using labels, try to think in broad categories rather than a multitude of tags.

8. Posters, if they so choose, are encouraged to use illustrative stills/captures from the film of the month. Do compress any image files into a reasonable proportion and file size (say 75K max) in order to preserve disk space.

9. Dialogue to other posts - and other sites - is encouraged. Collegiality is the base expectation.

A New Venture

There's been a lot of handwringing and excitement both at the explosion of online, often amateur, film criticism. It's just one facet of a film culture that's find new forms and outlets through the internet. Moreover, online discussion has been expanding yet challenging the auteur and art-cinema-oriented assumptions of professional, journalistic criticism.

The success of this film culture poses, however, a couple of problems. The proliferation of voices makes it hard to follow the many critics. Film cultures themselves get fractured along taste or national lines. And, as usual, the academy has been largely missing from the conversation.

My idea for an online movie club started when Girish Shambu asked how an appreciation for older films can square with the premium that film criticism puts on the present:

Being part of the film-blogosphere often exerts a certain pressure on us to see recent films promptly. One wants to be part of—or at least comprehend—the conversation that these films spark. We feel left out of the loop—not allowed to play—if we haven’t seen the films that are being buzzed about (or reviled). Sometimes guilt follows, and occasionally, out of sheer bloody-mindedness, the act of putting off seeing a film just because it seems so required.

I don't have any quick answer for the guilt of not watching enough, but Girish's post and the wonderful range of comments to it had me thinking: why not have a way to facilitate our online conversations about film across old and new? And why not learn from what each other is watching? A film club could break our (or at least my) usual filmwatching ruts and open up our own slice of film culture to a broader dialogue: between academic and cinephile, political and aesthetic, popular and avant-gardist, etc. In the process we can watch some films we would otherwise not, and enjoy ourselves.

So consider this an open invitation. I opted for a group blog format, despite the blogathon format that's tackled some worthy subjects already. Send me an email (pccagle -at- gmail) and let me know if you want to be included. Each month, I'll select a member to choose the film. Members can then post on the film throughout the month, at their convenience.

Further details and guidelines to come.