Today (June 6th) being the anniversary of D-Day, I had a very dear friend, whose grandfather was present at and medalled for June 6th on the beaches of Normandy, proclaim to the world we ought to be more reflective about the forgotten details of WWII, and she suggested that the best point of entry was Ken Burn's documentary The War. Burns, being generally perceived as the conservative king of expository documentary, covers his material very carefully, but his use of voice-of-God voiceover always masks the subjectivity of his filmmaking voice. I suggested a few other WWII films I knew of that ventured into other modes, but wasn't aware of much that wrestled specifically with D-Day.
Fast forward 12 hours, and a link lands in my inbox that points me toward A Fuller Life, a documentary about Samuel Fuller, made by his daughter Samantha Fuller. From the articles, clips, and trailers I was able to dig up, it seemed to me like a perfectly postmodern approach to a very personal account of how WWII (and Normandy in particular) came to define the identity of a single human being, and how he wrestled with his war experience as a terrible muse. Samantha Fuller uses multiple modes here - performative readings of her father's autobiography by other filmmakers (a reflexive move), mixed with archival WWII footage shot by Samuel Fuller, with several shots that remind me of the techniques described by Barnouw(1) as being used in the film The Titan about Michaelangelo. Human-less shots of intimate spaces made meaningful by their connection to the context of the film and its subject.
A Fuller Life teaser from Samantha Fuller on Vimeo.
While it may not ultimately prove to be a perfect model of the Essayistic Mode; when comparing Samantha Fuller's approach to Ken Burn's, it was easy to sense that she had explored an unconventional mix of modes in telling this personal story. It's an approach that fits several of Fox's (2) descriptions of essayistic mode. "(The essayistic) mode is an active one, in which a proposed idea or question
is tested by a range of means and intersecting lines of argument." And Tim Roth's face and voice as he reads Samuel Fuller's words about Normandy ("I saw a man's mouth. Just a mouth for Christ's sake, floating in the water.") is far more nuanced and open to multiple interpretations than the authoritative voiceovers typical of Burns.
Fox proposes that the"art of great written or documentary essay hinges upon
integrating personal experience, history, and social critique with taut,
kinetic progression toward a synthesizing claim," yet he also allows that "quite often an essay does not arrive at a finite conclusion,
yet the ideas discovered during the process may reshape and reinform the
initial query in unforeseen ways." Certainly this was true of Ross McElwee's 6 O'clock News. McElwee weaved his way between personal experience, social critique, and historical events in a manner that felt cohesive, but never conclusive. He remained firmly reflexive about his role as the person asking the question, but never became more than momentarily autobiographical, the film wasn't about his personal quandary. It was about the larger idea of his quandary, as a tension universally experienced by parents, but coped with in a spectrum of ways, none of which he went so far as to endorse with his film. As opposed to an expository voice, prone to saying "This is what happened and why," McElwee's films seems to say, "Let's look together at what is happening, perhaps you can make sense of this... I certainly can't." It is a much more transparent, reflexive combination of moments.
Ultimately 6 O'clock News nails Fox's criteria for what Essayistic mode does "at its best." It fits a complement that Fox paid to Varda's The Gleaners and I, "Initial curiosity about a painting (or in this case about television news) weaves outward in an
ever-widening investigation to form a surprising humanistic tapestry, the
documentary whole far greater than the sum of its parts."
(1) Barnouw, Erik. "4. Clouded Lens; Chronicler." Documentary: A History of the Non-fiction Film. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. 202-05. Print.
(2) Fox, Broderick. "Movements and Modes." Documentary Media: History, Theory, Practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2010. 40-44. Print.