Are you gonna believe me or your lyin’ eyes?
Richard Pryor via the Marx Brothers
In 1926, John Grierson coined the word “documentary” to describe the “documentary value” of Moana, the second film by Robert Flaherty, who is considered the inventor of the form, at least in the English language. As it happened, Moana, the starry-eyed story of a Polynesian boy’s daily life, was no more a document than Flaherty’s first film, Nanook of the North, for which the filmmaker blithely staged scenes and ignored such inconvenient truths as the guns that had long replaced spears for seal hunting, the better to tell his dramatic tale of a heroic Inuk family man’s struggle against the elements.
No wonder Grierson would later declare documentary “the creative treatment of actuality.” As a filmmaker and producer for Great Britain’s Empire Marketing Board, his creative manipulations served up message films in the service of educating the populace and social change.
None of which I knew, in the first thrill of my meet-cute encounter with filmmaking. It was May, 1993. In the now-demolished Brooklyn studio where Louise Bourgeois had written “At Your Own Risk” on the factory windows, cinematographer Mead Hunt spent a good hour selecting camera angles and setting up lights; a mic was attached below the lace collar of Louise’s blouse, while she fidgeted, made desultory conversation, and issued peremptory demands to Jerry Gorovoy, whose role was already more manager or “éminence grise,” as she teasingly titled him, than the assistant he called himself.
Then the lights went on, Marion Cajori, co-director and producer called out “Roll camera”—still necessary to sync with the sound, since in those early days of video we were shooting in film—and Louise, her face shadowed in window glare, became Louise Bourgeois, vulnerable, riveting font of aphorisms and intuitions. She was the Buñuel character I had always known she would be when I’d first told her I wanted to make a film about her.
Like all art critics, I’d struggled with the incompatibilities between words and visual inventions, including the art of Louise Bourgeois. At that time I was also writing and delivering what amounted to illustrated essays on art for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (now the PBS NewsHour), which introduced me to the possibilities of moving images as a transmitter of art ideas, and titillated the performer in Louise. Once Louise said yes, I was faced with my total ignorance of filmmaking, until Nadine Covert, at the Metropolitan Museum’s Program for Art on Film, introduced me to Cajori, who had just released Joan Mitchell, Portrait of an Abstract Painter, and had been filming Louise’s work without access to the artist herself.
And so in late May, 1993, I spent two nights with Marion and Mead inside the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, where Louise Bourgeois was representing the U.S. with a retrospective spanning her most recent decade. The shoot involved painstaking and exhilarating work on everyone’s part but my own, laboriously placing lights that would illuminate one angle, then another lengthy setup for a detail, followed in early morning with an establishing wide shot of a Bourgeois “Cell” or sculpture. The camera’s zooms and pans could linger and caress where the naked eye would be too blinkered or too distracted by the surrounding reality to go. In the dark and flash of that eerie night, it seemed clear that the moving image offered answers that art writing alone never would.
In Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine—the film I shaped with Ken Kobland as editor and Kipjaz Savoie as line producer, after Marion died in 2006 before editing could begin—Ken made poetry out of those shots, cutting, montaging, and dissolving one into another. They are seldom seen in the silence with which I experienced them that Venetian night. If Louise’s voice, culled from years of recorded interviews, is not speaking over the incessantly active images, there’s a century’s sampling of music, from Mahler to Laurie Anderson.
It turns out that art, however arresting or beautifully shot, tends to be excruciating to look at on film without some kind of soundtrack. Occasionally, that soundtrack can consist of ambient sound, as Christo describes to Jarrett Earnest in this issue. Ambient sound does not manipulate how the art is perceived in person; the emotion of the music and the content of the spoken word can enhance, coerce or alter. Phyllis Tuchman here discusses the famous soundtrack for Hans Namuth’s Jackson Pollock ’51, which was recorded months after the film was shot and doesn’t necessarily match.
On even the most basic level, translating the visual medium of visual art into the visual medium of film only sometimes meets the criteria of verisimilitude. The filmmaker’s pastiche of shots, edits, and soundtrack has the ability to deepen an understanding of the art or distort it. Susan Delson and Nadine Covert, in their interview here, explore the ways in which the Metropolitan Museum’s Program for Art on Film encouraged filmmakers and animators to play with the possibilities of this discrepancy.
Words spoken on camera hardly constitute a document, either. The more than 100 hours of raw footage we shot with Louise Bourgeois might qualify, despite the performances she prepared for our filming sessions, and her sly elisions and habitual allergy to showing her face during the more relaxed conversations which Marion recorded on a Hi8. Through Marion I had learned to plumb a scene for its core, and Ken took that several steps further. Together, he and I edited Louise’s often meandering talk for maximum charm, focus, and power with a ruthlessness unacceptable in written scholarship. The filmmaker Brigitte Cornand, on the other hand, simply let Louise talk in the series of intimate videos she made in the final decades of the artist’s life, and these certainly qualify as archival documents.
Ken's exhortation, “This is a film, not a book,” became my mantra through the editing process. I came to see documentary as an experience, rather than a treatise or equivalent, just as Grierson and Flaherty had at its start. Filmmaking’s natural habitat is storytelling. The Maysles brothers riffed on this truism by sorting through genres for their films on Christo and Jeanne-Claude: a romantic comedy for “The Pont Neuf Wrapped” a cowboy film for “Running Fence.”
Angela Dalle Vacche here gives us the historical context for The Mystery of Picasso. Film has the capacity to convey that context: through storytelling, a film can encapsulate history, biography, character, and emotion as entryways into art that might otherwise seem less accessible to a wider audience.
Which is precisely why my new film is named Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here. The film (once again created with Ken Kobland and Kipjaz Savoie) makes its debut for a two-week run at Film Forum on November 13. Experienced face-to-face, the Kabakovs’s magical walk-through installations evoke memories and connections that unhinge a viewer sufficiently to lead to new insights on both a personal and an artistic level.
For a fuller understanding, though, some knowledge of the Soviet history that formed the Kabakovs—and contributes the building blocks to their artistic vocabulary—is essential. Ilya Kabakov himself is a teller of tales and creator of characters. He has spun several works out of a letter that his mother wrote to him detailing the daily horrors of Soviet deprivation. Despite his own intense feelings, Kabakov tends to neutralize the searing emotionality of that letter in his installations. In “Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album),” placid landscapes from a Soviet Union that never was play against the dire text of the letters. In the film I underlined that bifurcated reality, and counted on the letter to carry the weight of biographical and historical exposition.
Ilya Kabakov, in developing the installations, and Emilia Kabakov, in her herculean task of enabling and realizing them, employ space, objects, lighting— sometimes sound—to create the atmosphere that moves viewers through labyrinthine rooms upon rooms. That is the way the artists would prefer it—not sped up, cropped, cut, dissolved in the language of film, but step by step, beginning to end, without added sound or selected detail.
In the end, a film is not only not a book or, as Nancy Princenthal writes, a biography; a film is nothing but itself. Nearly 100 years after the first English language documentary, the conventions have become so transparent—for writers like David Ebony, Gregory Zinman, and Joyce Beckenstein in these pages—that watching a film about art and looking at art no longer demand a leap of faith. There are moments when they can seem interchangeable.
A film, whether feature film or art documentary, is a collage, assembled from hundreds of disparate choices on the part of cinematographer, director, and editor, that are embedded in one medium but attempt the exposition of another. It is both lie and truth in the way that Picasso once discussed Cubism: “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of the lies.”
For better or worse, a film about art shares an artmaking process with the artist who is its subject. At its best, through its lies, a film inhabits a truth or two.
AMEI WALLACH has written or contributed to more than a dozen books. Her articles have appeared in such publications as the New York Times, The Nation, and Art in America. She is in production for “1964: Rauschenberg Wins!” her third feature-length art documentary. She is founding program director of The Art Writing Workshop, a partnership between the International Art Critics Association (AICA/USA) and the Arts Writers Grant Program.