Know your past so you can tell your future can be applied to all forms of culture, and there was a recent, scintillating reminder of this truism for documentary filmmakers.
It appeared a couple of weeks ago on the Nieman Storyboard, a publication of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Written by Elon Green, it is an annotation of the groundbreaking, 1965 Esquire article, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” by Gay Talese.
Why it took the world this long to annotate this incredible work is a wonder to me, but give credit to Green for being the one to do it. He queries Talese about how he wrote the piece, why he did certain things, and basically provides a DVD-extra-like complement. I encourage you to read the original article first and the annotation second.
Why should documentary folk care? It should be no mystery that Talese and his fellow 1960s writers involved in New Journalism laid the ground rules for today’s more innovative, formally-sophisticated documentaries. Talese, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, et al., used literary, conventionally novelistic, devices to tell non-fiction stories in much the same way some as the most popular docs (The Cove, Searching for Sugar Man, The Imposter, Stories We Tell) that are being made today.
Throughout the annotation, Talese indicates that the facts and reporting process itself are both secondary to the writer’s creative vision. That’s something a lot of filmmakers aspire to today. But it’s a path that is filled with ethical and aesthetic pitfalls that need considering.
You really should just read the piece, but here is my brief annotation of the annotation, with lessons for doc filmmakers in mind:
Talese says he used more than a hundred sources.
Lesson: You have to work hard to get the story.
Talese talks of how his characterizations are sometimes “just me,” drawing on his life as an Italian-American, fan of music and human being.
Lesson: Trust your intuition. Look inside yourself and use your personal connection to the subject.
Talese revels in depicting the people around Sinatra. “It’s the roving eye, the camera, as if I were a director,” he tells Green. “It’s the movie director’s sensibility of having people play their part.” When Green asks if he had a director in mind. Talese snaps, “No, I’m the director.”
Lesson: You’re the director. Think like it. Act like it. Film like it.
In the original story, quotes appear that have been lifted from other publications without attribution. “So I sometimes incorporate what has gone obscure in other people’s work. It’s in another context that the quote becomes a gem,” Talese says. “I didn’t attribute it because you couldn’t. If I did, the mood would be lost.”
Lesson: You can take other people’s work and make it better by treating it as your own. This, according to the ethics of our day, is not a good lesson. It could get you fired, sued or you could lose your funding. (See next.)
Apparently, Talese doesn’t use a tape recorder. “The reason I don’t use a tape recorder is I don’t want the tape recorder to contradict what I think is potentially a better quote,” he says.
Lesson: Did he really say that? Yes. The lesson here is you know what they meant better than your subjects do when they said what they said. So tweak it and edit it as you like. This, again, is not good advice. Unless you’re Errol Morris. I’m joking! Sort of. (Honestly, I get what Talese is saying. I’ve been there many times before, but creating “the most ideal representation of what they think,” as he calls it, is not something I’ve been willing to do. I guess that’s what makes him Gay Talese.)