Thesis: Cinema Verite and Direct

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Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema: An Analysis of the Last Waltz

The 1960s and 1970s were a period of remarkable cultural proliferation for the United States. The development and emergence of an increasingly influential counterculture would soon find its way to the mainstream of music, art and cinema, to name a few media. The collision of this wave with the political discourse increasingly leaning toward harsh philosophical critique of American vagaries such as military engagement, racism and the obstruction of civil liberties would produce an inflection point for the artistic community. An interest in aggressive realism and political agenda would coincide, establishing American variations on such cinematic movements as Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema. Where the former is distinguished as taken a direct perspective and provoking the subject to render this stylized vision, the latter would promote an interest in evoking an accurate representation of reality. Both represented politicized reaction to objectionable cultural points for the progressive vanguard, but each would be reflected differently. The differences and the often blurred lines between these school of thought are considered here with regard to one of the most effective music documentaries made during this era. Recorded at a concert in 1976 and theatrically released in 1978, the Last Waltz would bring the Band's farewell concert to documentary form. Director Martin Scorsese, who has long affiliated himself with the rock era, would here create a form of documentary that closely straddles the line between Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema.

In order to examine this claim, the discussion will address other key works from the time such as D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back (1966) and Gimme Shelter (1970) by the Maysles Brothers. An opening sentiment demanding of our consideration would be that concerning the time and place during which both the music subjected and the filmmaker subjecting would come of age. During this time, it can be said that "the popular film and music both reflect and define political and cultural movements in advanced industrial societies by comparing and contrasting the plots and narrative techniques of films" (Plaskete, 55) Certainly, this is a claim which can be made regarding Pennebaker's documentary, which may be referred to somewhat clearly as Cinema Verite. The film "portrays a 23-year-old [Bob] Dylan on his 1965 English tour. Ultimately, we will see how this film brilliantly captures the paradox of Dylan's star popularity in light of his refusal to portray the star his audience wanted and expected. This was not only a personal struggle but a cultural contradiction. In addition to featuring a counterculture celebrity, Pennebaker's film itself falls into the genre of counterculture films." (Bouqueral, 151)

Indeed, Pennebaker's gritty relationship with the subject would show the very young superstar under an immense degree of pressure, with conservative and progressive idealists both finding reasons to hold the outspoken by often cagey and cryptic Dylan in contempt. And yet, Pennebaker outwardly pursues a vision of Dylan which is not flattering. We find him acerbic and unlikeable under the spotlight. The patchwork approach of rough-cut concert footage -- complete with audible booing -- fractious encounters between Dylan and others (such as his legendary humiliation of Scottish folk singer, Donovan) and ultimately, a Dylan addled by drugs, exhaustion and defensiveness, promotes a very specific interest for the filmmaker. Absent are any real defenses for Dylan's behavior.

Similar agenda is marked in the Maysles' film which captures the Rolling Stones disastrous Altamont performance, where a member of the audience was stabbed by Hells Angel. The agenda seems to place responsibility with a generation of wishy washy and irresponsible rockers. The confusion between drug use and the utopian dream are shown to have reached a devastating pitch at this deadly show, and the filmmakers channeled the responsibility of the generation through Mick Jagger. This is not an entirely fair representation, but it is damning. The footage, including the stabbing incident, is real and shocking. Nonetheless, the agenda is also apparent. These examples of Cinema Verite help to frame the discussion on the approach taken in the Last Waltz.

The Last Waltz provides the audience with a take on the Band's farewell concert event that is at once straightforward and evocative of a certain narrative frame. Scorsese directs the film as he might one of his scripted works, levying the heavy stamp of the well-recognized auteur bur remaining more often than not at a healthy distance from the behaviors of his subjects. Little plying appears to alter the nature of the subject, which instead appears to work largely in consort with the filmmaker to create something which presents itself as a captured theatrical performance with the spontaneous trappings of live rock and roll. A demonstration of the intent of Direct Cinema, the camera interferes as little as possible with the subject during the filming of concert scenes. Here, musicians are cast in individual lights which tend to glorify subjects, using genuinely occurring moments of musical invention and solo spotlight to approach each subject as an actor in an ensemble cast.

The Scorsese film is uniquely difficult to classify, however. As an article from 1984 indicates -- perhaps before acceptance of the Last Waltz as important and classic had reached critical mass -- it had to that juncture been conventional for the work to be dismissed as a more minor work in the Scorsese canon. Never was this the position taken due to a presumption of the work's shortcoming, with few characterizing it as anything less than a brilliant piece of concert film. (Aiex, 1) However, as a piece of rock concert film, it had often been taken as rather straightforward and perhaps not even categorized as a documentary. This is a perspective which thirty years hence is likely fully extinct even as core debate on classification of the Last Waltz continues.

In our discussion on the subtle differences between Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema, the Scorsese work may be said to be decidedly more identifiable with the latter school of thought and not the former. Particularly, it might be said that there is a deeply cooperative element between subject and filmmaker which is not otherwise present in the two other documentaries used as primary text here. Where a clear sense antagonism persists between the subject and the filmmaker in both the case of Dylan -- whom Pennebaker selectively displays as a snotty and often cruel figure -- and Jagger -- whom the Maysles project as positively spacey and oblivious -- Scorsese and the Band stake a flattering middle ground which allows the primary subject and the impressive array of periphery figures to be featured in compelling and emotive detail. This is the cooperative angle of the work which helps to define it as falling into the category of Direct Cinema. There is little question that the narrative projected in the Last Waltz, though naturally imbued with the auteur's personal sense of emotional connection to his subject, is also deeply sympathetic to a broad spectrum of perspectives. The fawning admiration paid by such luminary visitors as Neil Young and the elegant stage design, lighting and audience orientation all are faithful to the dreamy enormity of the evening. If Scorsese and the Band were in shared agreement that this would be a metaphorical enactment of the Band's career and contributions, the simultaneous grace and enormity of the event render a statement about the Band itself.

The fact comes through clearly in interviews with members of the Band. This is a device which directly inserts the filmmaker into the process and product of his documentary, with Scorsese becoming an active figure in the work. The notoriously identifiable director's presence in the work causes us to question its true faithfulness to this idea of Direct Cinema. We are indeed inclined to speculate as to how much interference had or had not occurred in the making of this film. To this extent, "Scorsese himself said that he conceived 'The Last Waltz as an opera. Individual musical numbers are interspersed with interviews of the members of the Band, so that the music serves a dual function, as music and as narrative." (Aiex, 2) the extent to which Scorsese pursued that vision is apparent in the interwoven texts of concert and interview-based historical accounts, which are strategically tied to one another. Demonstrative anecdotes concerning the entrance of a member into the original lineup would be stitched to performances where the individual's strengths could be highlighted. Recollection of important historical collaborations such as those with Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan are tied movingly to onstage reunions.

As the history of this documentary generally holds, Scorsese's intense interest in this project and the Band's revered status would invite an unprecedented excess in terms of grandness of scale. Beyond the remarkable list of musicians which in addition to those already noted, also included Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, et al., additionally brought on board some of cinema's most notable cameramen, lighting technicians and set designers to manifest this operatic vision. Likewise, its… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Cinema Verite and Direct."  Essaytown.com.  September 14, 2008.  Accessed July 22, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/cinema-verite-direct/84859.