A tour de force of cinema verite, D.A. Pennebaker’s rockumentary presents an unfiltered take of Bob Dylan before he became a music legend.
…because he montages the hell out of archive film to tell stories with an original point of view. Fusing form with content, Brett Morgen composes his documentaries largely from existing footage of his subjects and the time period. Rather than interpreting in hindsight, Morgen’s unique method of “intensive immersion” portrays events in the moment and from the perspective of those involved. In this way, his work suggests a larger, more intricate view of the truth through tone and subjectivity rather than a simple narrative account of history.
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Although Morgen’s films deal with past events and figures, the visual narration occurs in the present tense. His unique approach to documentary storytelling, which he describes as intensive immersion, forces the audience to experience the history and its emotional effects in a real-time context. In taking this subjective point of view, or rather, trying to see the point of view of the subjects, Morgen actually evades the bias and arguments that a more objective stance seeks to avoid but more often adopts. For example, it’s one thing to look at Kurt Cobain’s life and argue that some combination of fame, mental illness, drug addiction or Courtney Love caused his suicide, but it’s a much more difficult task to try to understand a complicated artist from within his own mind. Much in the same way that impressionistic painters claimed to present a more accurate portrait of perception, Morgen’s films offer a more rounded world view and human representation of their subjects. In fact, Morgen has stated that he is interested in more than just the facts. Before each film, he tries to characterize his subject with five adjectives that set the tone and mood of each film. In this way, his films can be viewed as an emotional history instead of a simplified sequencing of events.
Morgen’s method of intensive immersion requires heavy use of archival materials. While this may run contrary to romantic images of the rugged documentarian holding up a camera as history unfolds in the middle of some exotic locale, compiling entire films from existing footage is an art form of its own. For one thing, it means that Morgen has to exhaustively research his subjects just as a starting point. It also gives Morgen less visual control over the material: instead of framing and lighting shot compositions, he works more as a collagist by selecting the right images and scenes to achieve his desired tone. However, Morgen does not limit himself to simply using home movies and news footage; he considers the complete range of visual and audio materials, or even print sources such as the journal entries and drawings he used in "Cobain: Montage of Heck." While there are definitely sacrifices in taking Morgen’s approach to documentary film, there is no better way to recreate history as it occurred.
The old adage that post-production is the third time a film gets made becomes a hard truth for documentaries. In fact, most documentary filmmakers have no idea what their subject or story is until they sit down with the footage in the cutting room. Given Morgen’s use of archival footage, editing is really the only time that he makes each film. This means that his cutting techniques and assemblages are some of his most valuable tools as a filmmaker. Morgen carefully considers the elements of sound design and color grading in helping to establish the right mood and tone. Morgen’s work in the cutting room is especially notable for the montages he and his co-editors piece together – in fact, Morgen seems to be so aware of this fact that he put “montage” in the title of his film on Kurt Cobain. However, his sports-themed documentary “June 17th, 1994” probably best demonstrates his masterful implementation of the montage technique. Using no narration other than the news footage, he weaves the news coverage of events primarily focusing on the O.J. Simpson freeway chase into a rhythmic meditation. By juxtaposing the clips in this way, the film doesn’t ask the viewer to consider the actions of the individuals involved (there’s plenty of other forums for that) so much as how history is told as it happens.
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