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The controversial American poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925), a founding member of the Imagist group that included D. H. Lawrence and H. D., excelled as the impresario for the “new poetry” that became news across the U. S. in the years after World War I. Maligned by T. S. Eliot as the “demon saleswoman” of poetry, and ridiculed by Ezra Pound, Lowell has been treated by previous biographers as an obese, sex-starved, inferior poet who smoked cigars and made a spectacle of herself, canvassing the country on lecture tours that drew crowds in the hundreds for her electrifying performances. In fact, Lowell wrote some of the finest love lyrics of the 20th century and led a full and loving life with her constant companion, the retired actress Ada Russell. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1926. This provocative new biography, the first in forty years, restores Amy Lowell to her full humanity in an era that, at last, is beginning to appreciate the contributions of gays and lesbians to American’s cultural heritage. Drawing on newly discovered letters and papers, Rollyson’s biography finally gives this vibrant poet her due.
American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath
Finding The Right Agent For American Isis
—ASJA Monthly April 2011
I've considered writing a biography of Sylvia Plath for about six years. I wrote two pieces about her for The New York Sun in 2004 and 2007, and about three years ago showed them to an agent. She shook her head. Couldn't sell a Plath biography in such a crowded field no matter how fresh my approach. I took that agent's no to be representative of what her colleagues would tell me.
Even with plenty of projects and commissioned pieces to do, I could not put aside my Plath obsession. But to go ahead without an agent seemed folly, for I had been hearing from many seasoned writers that they could not even get editors to answer their email inquiries. Agents, as we all know, have become the gatekeepers.
Then I attended a writer's conference last May and was delighted to learn about a session called "Speed Dating with Agents." I would get an opportunity to sit with an agent for 10 minutes and deliver my pitch. I had no proposal to show, just the two articles. Because I've published more than 30 books—many of them for trade houses—I did not tout myself but just launched into my Plath patter. It was a high-energy performance. The agent had to believe in me as much as I wanted to believe in the agent if I was going to drop everything and do a Plath biography.
Agent #1, a male, said, "My guess is that publishers will want a woman to write such a book." I was stunned, since he knew I had already published several biographies of women. Although he unenthusiastically offered to read my proposal when it was ready, I had already crossed him off the list. Frankly, I wanted an over-the-top reaction: "Oh, yes, you're the one to do it!"
Agent #2, another male, listened rather stonily as I explained my angle, and then he asked, "Have you had a breakout book?" He wanted to know about my numbers. I've had respectable sales for some of my biographies, but certainly no best sellers. He was noncommittal and asked me to think about whether I really wanted to put in the time and energy required to sell the book to a trade house. I felt like I was a book salesman watching a bookstore buyer go to his computer to see how my last biography sold: "Rollyson's last one sold five copies, I'll take three copies this time."
Agent #3, a female, showed real curiosity as I came close to perfecting my argument that previous biographers had not served Plath well and that no one else in the world could possibly write a better Plath biography. But doubts arose when I said I had yet to write the proposal. She certainly wanted to see it, but we were already in the cooling off period.
Agent #4, another female and my last best hope on earth, seemed to glow throughout my pitch, which now what seemed pitch-perfect. When could she see the proposal? she asked. I told her I would get on it as soon as I returned home. She expressed no doubt she could sell the book. Some writers might have been wary of her optimism. How could an agent in today's grim market be so confident? But she was exactly what I needed—a voice that said, in effect, "What are you waiting for?"
Six weeks later I delivered the proposal. My new agent loved it and requested minor revisions. But I would also have to write a sample chapter, she insisted. I groaned, realizing now virtually the whole summer had been taken up with what might be a fruitless venture. But at this point I couldn't help myself. I was too heavily invested, and I had a backer.
In mid-September, the proposal went out and received, as expected, several rejections in the first round. Most editors praised my approach but said it was a crowded field. While we were waiting for what I feared would be the remaining rebuffs, my agent—still as bullish as ever—prepared for a second round of submissions. It did not prove necessary after an enthusiastic editor at St. Martin's Press contacted me, requested a few more bullet points, secured the requisite support from her colleagues, and bought the proposal for a decent advance.
It still seems like a fairy tale to me. And I don't know if my experience is of any value to others, except to emphasize that there is no formula for success. Pick a subject that no one has heard of, and you will be told, "We can't buy the book because no one has heard of her." Or, "We can't buy the book because everyone has heard of him and the market for X biographies is saturated." Or, "We can't buy the book because you don't have a track record." Or, "We can't buy the book because you have too much of a track record."
Even in a dire market that drives writers to put up with less than ideal representation, finding the right agent may require rejecting the wrong one.
Dana Andrews (1909–1992) worked with distinguished directors such as John Ford, Lewis Milestone, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, William Wyler, William A. Wellman, Mervyn Le Roy, Jean Renoir, and Elia Kazan. He played romantic leads alongside the great beauties of the modern screen, including Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Greer Garson, Merle Oberon, Linda Darnell, Susan Hayward, Maureen O’Hara, and most important of all, Gene Tierney, with whom he shared five films. Retrospectives of his work often elicit high praise for an underrated actor, a master of the minimalist style. His image personified the male mask of the 1940s in clas- sic films such as Laura, Fallen Angel, and Where the Sidewalk Ends, in which he played the mas- culine ideal of steely impassivity. No comprehensive discussion of film noir can neglect his performances. He was an actor’s actor.
Here at last is the complete story of a great actor, his difficult struggle to overcome alcoholism while enjoying the accolades of his contemporaries, a successful term as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and the love of family and friends that never deserted him. Based on diaries, letters, home movies, and other documents, this biography explores the mystery of a poor boy from Texas who made his Hollywood dream come true even as he sought a life apart from the limelight and the backbiting of contemporaries jockeying for prizes and prestige. Called “one of nature’s noblemen” by fellow actor Norman Lloyd, Dana Andrews emerges from Hollywood Enigma as an admirable American success story, fighting his inner demons and ultimately winning.
What's in a Title?
Like other university presses, the University of Press of Mississippi sends books and book proposals to readers who comment on the strengths and weaknesses of submitted manuscripts. Some readers supply general comments, while others provide quite detailed suggestions and corrections. My reader made several helpful remarks, including a proposed title change. My working title was Dana Andrews: Hollywood's Enigmatic Hero.
Like most writers, I felt very attached to my title. I wanted readers to know who the book was about right away, as well as to signal a mystery was at hand. Dana Andrews was a star and played the hero in his films many times. But certain critics noted that his heroes seemed conflicted. They were holding back something, as if they did not quite trust themselves in the heroic roles assigned to them. They exuded vulnerability. In his signature roles, such as the detective in the film noir classic, Laura (1944), he expresses reticence and a tightly-controlled temper that flashes momentarily when he punches Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) in the stomach.
If you read about Dana Andrews (his name comes up quite often on websites devoted to Hollywood film), you'll see references to his understated style, which is usually mentioned as a positive. But you will also read some accounts that claim he was a wooden actor and played all his roles the same way. Only someone unfamiliar with the range of his work can discount his versatility. Watch him play the handsome cad in Daisy Kenyon (1947), the cheerful, zesty reporter in State Fair (1945), the dedicated district attorney in Boomerang (1947), and a Russian peasant in The North Star (1943)--just to name four very different films and performances out of more than sixty--and you will see what I mean. He was a consummate actor, a craftsman's craftsman, although, of course, he did go through some dreadful periods later in his career when the alcoholism that he eventually overcame got the better of him.
Initially, I wanted "hero" in the title because Dana Andrews perfected a certain kind of nobility better than any other actor of his generation. Norman Lloyd, who appeared in two films with Dana, called him "one of nature's noblemen" in a letter addressed to me, and in another referred to Dana as "a prince among men." You can see what Lloyd meant in two war pictures, The Purple Heart (1944) and Wing and a Prayer (1944). But even in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), in which Dana plays a cop corrupted by his penchant for violence, the basic decency of the man and the character he is portraying emerge.
When you watch Dana Andrews in his best, most complex performances, you wonder what he is thinking. The cerebral quality of his greatest work is striking. He is holding back something, and that quality is the enigma. Some part of him-- at least in some performances--seems not to want to emote. He became a star after Laura, but he never became quite the star that Bogart or Cooper or Gable were. They were Hollywood. Dana Andrews was only in Hollywood.
He was born Carver Dana Andrews in a small Mississippi town that thought it would be cute to call itself Don't. (Get it? Don't, Miss.) His father, an Elmer Gantry-type Baptist preacher, moved his large family (eventually consisting of seven boys and a girl) from one Texas town to another, mobilizing his congregations in anti-drinking campaigns and fulminating against the sinful influence of the movies. One result of this upbringing is that Dana became an alcoholic and a movie star.
Put that way, it sounds as though Dana repudiated his father's example. Well, not exactly. While it is true that by the age of ten he was sneaking away from home to go to the movies, his father's driving ambition and powerful hold on audiences were also on display in the prodigal son. Although Dana rejected his father's religion--indeed all religion--that Protestant call to examine one's conscience and to abide by a strict moral code never deserted the man who became a movie star.
Even after he hitchhiked to California in 1930 and started making the rounds of the studios, Dana had mixed feelings about his chosen profession. For nearly a decade he studied singing and thought of opera as a career, and it was a choice his family would have preferred. But lured back to the stage by community theater--first in Van Nuys and then Pasadena--he gradually realized it was to be acting or nothing at all.
Yet his diary reveals that he never quite acclimated to theater folk--or to Hollywood for that matter. Discovered in 1938 by one of Sam Goldwyn's scouts, Dana slowly made his way up the ranks of supporting roles to stardom with Laura in 1944. The decade of his greatness, with roles in The Ox-bow Incident (1943) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), to name just two of his superb performances, still did not making acting entirely suitable to his temperament. He studiously avoided affairs with leading ladies--most notably Joan Crawford--and cultivated a homebody image. Devoted to his wife and four children, he went to Hollywood parties only when "the job" seemed to call for it. His closest friends tended to be character actors and directors.
Dana Andrews wanted to be a great actor, and to get the best roles he also needed to be a star. Sure, he enjoyed the limelight, but he did not grouse when the plum roles began to elude him in the early 1950s, and he had to settle for lesser parts. That Hollywood--for all it gave him--was not his final aim became clear when he quit drinking for good in 1970 and returned to the stage in dinner theater. He often co-starred with his wife, Mary Todd, a consummate comedienne who decided marriage to Dana Andrews and a family were more important than her career. Unlike a lot of husbands in his business, though, Dana never forgot what his wife sacrificed for him, and it gave him profound pleasure to reunite with her on the stage, where he first met her in a production at the Pasadena Playhouse.
How this wonderful human being made his way through the phoniness and glitz of Hollywood is quite a story. He was hard to grasp. Few of his fellow professionals ever got to know him. Read Gene Tierney's autobiography, and you will see what I mean. She starred with Dana in five pictures, and yet she has very little to say about the man who always showed up for work on time, always knew his lines, and was never less than a gentleman.
To Sam Goldwyn, Darryl Zanuck, and other producers Dana was an enigma. To many of his fellow actors, he was a hero. In the end, though, I thought my reader's title better than my own. He suggested: Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews. I like it, especially since I cannot count on readers knowing who Dana Andrews was. As the new title indicates, knowing about him has a lot to say about Hollywood in its golden age and decline. Here was a star who refused to be anything other than himself and paid rather a heavy price for his refusal, but still managed to remain his own man. What price, Hollywood, indeed.
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For those of you on twitter, I wanted to say that every morning I tweet passages from my biographies of Amy Lowell Sylvia Plath. There is quite a value in this for me, if not for anyone else! I am learning something about how I structured the book. What! you exclaim. Doesn't the guy know how he structured the book? Well, as Dr. Freud said long ago, there is such a thing as the unconscious. So welcome to twitter as a tool of self-analysis.--CR
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Faulkner, to begin with, was entranced with Keats–as anyone can see in the great fourth section of “The Bear” when Cass Edmunds explains to the kinsman, Ike McCaslin, why Ike did not shoot Old Ben, the Moby Dick, you might say, of the hunters’ quest. Cass quotes “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “She cannot fade, though thou hath not thy bliss . . . Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.” The she for Ike is not a woman but the wilderness itself, which is his first love. But that love, Cass implies, will, in time, recede just as the wilderness recedes in the advance of civilization. Ike’s wilderness experience has been out of time–as he acknowledges when he relinquishes his watch as part of his search for Old Ben. Ike, who fails to adapt to the changing times, becomes irrelevant because he tries to live the poem Cass quotes. Ike, in other words, is beguiled by a dream of perfection, which exists, in truth, only in Keats’s poem. Ike is caught between the ideality of art and the reality of life. Art is permanence and unity; life is change and multiplicity. So much of what Faulkner learned about art and life stems from his reading of the Romantics, as I will explore in my biography of Faulkner, which I have just learned will be published by University of Virginia Press.
As I show in Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography (2013), she was steeped in the Romantics and began her career writing poetry derived from Keats and other Romantics. Her first published book of poetry, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass is, of course, an allusion to Shelley. If Lowell had to break herself from too close of a fealty to Keats’s verse, he nevertheless presides over “The Green Bowl,” included in her first book, which shows her emerging as a modern poet, adapting the formal grandeur of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to a far more relaxed musing on art’s extension of nature’s impact on human consciousness: “A quiet place, still with the sound of birds,/Where, though unseen, is heard the endless song/And murmur of the never resting sea.”
Lowell wrote poems about Keats, she collected Keats, and she ended her life producing a prodigious two-volume biography of the poet. What should still amaze readers is her astounding ambition, which she announces at the outset: “I have attempted to write a biography, a psychological novel, and a book of poetical criticism, all at once, and not let any of these three aspects of my subject override the others.” It is as if Dorothy Richardson, whose novels Lowell loved, and Rebecca West, whose criticism Lowell found bracing, had combined to do justice not only to Keats but to Fanny Brawne, whose presence in the poet’s emotional life had been seriously misunderstood before the advent of Lowell’s work.
Among Keats’s contemporary biographers, only Walter Jackson Bate and Stanley Plumly have acknowledged her pivotal role in Keats biography. She embodied a twentieth century sensibility and married it to a neoclassical style reminiscent of Samuel Johnson writing about Richard Savage–as can be seen in this passage of balanced antitheses:
Insufficiently equipped, uncertain of his way, not even thoroughly aware of his own goal, unwisely guided by his friends, ignorantly and cruelly criticized by his enemies, buffeted by the hurricanes of his own changing ideas, Keats died at the age of twenty-five still unformed in many ways, profoundly discouraged and dissatisfied, but leaving behind him a body of work in his poetry which does not die because of qualities in it even more important to mankind that those which appear on the surface, and in his letters a possibly no less valuable legacy to the student of psychology and a volume of perennial charm to the ordinary reader.
In her day, in 1925, Lowell commanded a wide readership that should be the envy of any poet/biographer writing now. Like Faulkner, she found in Keats, the man and the poet, a powerful harbinger of a modern sensibility but also a spirit beyond not only his time but any time.
There is in Keats, and of course no less in Wordsworth, and in quite a different way in Byron, a kind of therapeutic imagination and art that we simply cannot live without. So Michael Foot put it to me in many conversations we had over a very intense three years while I worked on the biography of his wife, Jill Craigie, and then on my memoir of him, just published as A Private Life of Michael Foot. “We read Byron’s letters there [in Venice] together. Then we were going up in the world, having the bloody government pay for our holidays. . . . Venice revived him [Byron]. It restored him,” Michael insisted to me. And of course Michael was thinking of himself–of not only his opportunities to get away from Cabinet worries during the administrations of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan but also of how through Byron he re-created his love for Jill Craigie on trips that were nothing less than romantic revivals.
During the terrible accident that nearly cost him his life and left him lame, Michael read Byron, telling me “When I went through Don Juan the first time [in hospital], every time I got to a part I wanted to read it to Jill as soon as I got back here [his Hampstead home].” Brought up a strict Methodist, Michael reveled in Byron’s mocking tone about sex and said Jill thought sex was often treated too seriously and should be the subject of satire. She was not, in fact, a great reader of the Romantics, but as Michael would say, she sure knew how to join in the spirit of the thing.
Michael credited the Byron Society with helping him to recover from his disastrous electoral defeat in 1983. “Byron helped me,” Michael said. “He never gave in. The only way to read Don Juan is right through and that’s what I did. I spent the whole of Christmas doing so–leader of the Labour Party I as supposed to be [he laughed] . . . it [Don Juan] put me in a good temper.”
Michael was as possessive of his Byron as the most devoted scholar can be. At a Byron Society meeting he grumbled about Benita Eisler’s Byron biography. “Terrible book.” He grunted through her talk.” Eisler later told a friend of mine that Michael stood up and said, “Worse book ever written.” He was as passionate about his literary likes and dislikes as he was about his politics. On a trip to Bermuda, he considered one of its main points of interest that Byron’s great friend, Thomas Moore, had visited the island. Jill could get quite put out with Michael’s Romantic obsessions. When a friend was visiting, Jill said, “Michael do be quiet. I don’t want to hear you about Byron. I’ve heard it so many times. I want to know what Lizzie has been doing.”
Michael never could believe that anyone could have enough of Byron and wrote a whole book about him. I watched Michael and his nephew Paul, who had written a book about Shelley, go at it. Did Paul think Shelley a greater poet than Byron, I asked Michael. “No,” Michael assured me. “He doesn’t think so at all. He’s converted the other way around in my opinion.” When I laughed, Michael said, “Better ask him.” But then Michael assured me that Paul now realized that Byron had a sharper wit and a better sense of humor than Shelley. Paul would just laugh in such a way as to imply doubt about his conversion.
Given enough time, Michael believed he would win the world to his side. Is there anything more Romantic than that?
“The Birds That Stay”
Emily Dickinson was born, lived, and died in the same house. Although she did visit Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia, she rarely traveled, spending most of her life in Amherst, Massachusetts, a college town that in the first half of the nineteenth century consisted of some 3,000 people. She was named after her mother, who was then a full participant in the life of Amherst, winning cooking contests and doing her part to aid the poor and perform other charitable services. The younger Emily had a narrow but stimulating circle of friends--many of them important writers and prominent citizens. She liked to stay at home. Home was her natural habitat, and she had no urge to migrate to other places. Neither did her older brother, Austin, or her younger sister, Lavinia, with whom Emily always lived. As Emily put it in one of her poems, “We are the birds that stay.”
Emily Dickinson’s retirement from the world had . . . a tradition behind it . . . it has always been a possible way of life for New England spinsters and widows . . . .--George Frisbie Whicher, Emily Dickinson biographer.
Significantly, the home Emily was born in was called the Homestead. It was one of the grandest houses in town, an imposing brick structure that looks--and still looks--almost like a government building--the kind you might see in Philadelphia if you visited the Liberty Bell and the Independence Hall area. The house and the atmosphere of the town could easily make Emily feel that she lived in an important place. Ideas and religious beliefs were taken seriously in Amherst. Emily’s father, Edward Dickinson, was as imposing looking as his house. His approach to life was equally formidable. In his proposal to his wife he wrote: “My life must be a life of business, of labor and application to the study of my profession.” Educated at Amherst College and Yale University, he became one of Amherst’s most prominent lawyers as well as a member of the United States Congress.
The village of Amherst was famous for having more ministers per capita that any other town in the United States.--Jay Leyda, a scholar of Dickinson’s work.
Emily respected her father, but relations between father and daughter were rather strained. Edward Dickinson may not have known what to do with his bright, imaginative daughter. There was little place in 19th-century America for independent-thinking women. Women were expected to marry and to raise a family. Those who did not became spinsters, single females usually supported by their families. A few women had careers, but they were definitely not to be found among the citizens of Amherst. Of her father Emily observed: “He buys me many Books--but begs me not to read them--because he fears they joggle the mind.” It is a revealing sentence. Edward realized that his daughter deserved an education, yet he held the notion, a common one for that time, that too much study might rattle a woman’s brain, which was thought to be smaller than a man’s. No one knows for sure what Emily thought of her father’s rather confused attitude towards her, but her comments suggest she kept some distance from him--as she did from most males who treated her as an inferior. She was not rebellious. But she did not fear exercising her mind or finding a way to her own beliefs. With words she could take the measure of anyone, and the precise use of words became a kind of daily discipline for her. Emily’s father’s imagination could not stretch as far as her own. In a letter she observed: “Father says in fugitive moments when he forgets the barrister and lapses into the man, says that his life has been passed in a wilderness, or an island. . . .” In other words, when Edward Dickinson was not being a man of the world and accomplishing things, he lapsed (briefly) into a rather grim view of existence that isolated him from other people. Emily may have shared some of her father’s sense of isolation, but she had wit and an empathy for others that made her life anything but sad or lonely. She knew all about human society, and if she participated in it sparingly, she did so by choice. Emily’s father sent her to Amherst Academy, which was founded by her own grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, and Noah Webster, the author of one of the first American dictionaries. At Amherst Academy, Emily studied four subjects, which she called “Mental Philosophy, Geology, Latin, and Botany.” She also went to Mount Holyoke Female Academy in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she stayed for one year. For her time, she was well educated--particularly for a woman--and she did much studying beyond the basic subjects she took at school. Emily thought of herself as pretty. At fourteen, she told a girlfriend, “I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17rh year.” The one existing photograph of her was in fact taken when she was 17 years old, but it conveys an impression of plainness. Both Emily and her brother objected that it did not do her justice. The photograph shows her to have an oval face, rather full lips, and dark, inquiring eyes. She once gave this flirtatious description of herself to a male correspondent: “I am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur--and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.” Clearly, Emily felt closest to birds. Their quick movements and darting flight find their counterparts in her delicate but bold writing. As a bird that stays, she customarily reserved her high spirits for her poetry and for her friends. As one critic of her work says, she thought of poetry as the house she lived in. She felt safe, comfortable, and courageous when she was writing. Poetry is what rooted her in Amherst, and Amherst in turn grounded her poetry.
From the Introduction:
Thurgood Marshall was a pathfinder. He was one of the original forces behind the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP), one of the organizations that helped to advance the rights of African Americans in the 20th century. His pursuit of civil rights reached a high point when, as a lawyer, he helped the NAACP win Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that ended racial segregation in education in American public schools. Afterward, Thurgood became only the second African American to be appointed as a judge in the United States Court of Appeals. This appointment led to him becoming the first black United States solicitor general and, finally, the first black justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Unlike some other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Thurgood worked within the American justice system. While the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. employed civil disobedience and Malcolm X swore to achieve equality for African Americans "by any means necessary," Thurgood referred to himself as "the original gradualist." Believing that the best way to gain equal rights for minority groups was to change the law, which he knew changed slowly, he dedicated his life to making American society recognize the fundamental truth that "all men are created equal.” Later in his career, he also worked specifically for women’s rights.
The patient but steadfast pursuit of a goal that is hard won is known as perseverance. It is a quality that Thurgood had in abundance. The grandson of a freed slave and the son of a waiter and a schoolteacher, he managed to obtain an excellent education despite the racial segregation that marred the American school system when he was growing up. Early in his career as a champion of civil rights, he found it hard to make a living, and he endured not only legal setbacks but also threats on his life. Eventually, after making a name for himself as "Mr. Civil Rights," Thurgood achieved high office, but even as a Supreme Court justice he continued to fight for the rights of those whom society continued to regard as inferior: blacks, women, poor people, and those accused of crimes whose guilt had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
As the Supreme Court, and the country as a whole, grew more conservative during the 1980s, Thurgood continued to feel a duty to supply one of the only remaining liberal voices on the Court. Until the day it became physically impossible for him to do so, he used his role as one of the country’s premier lawmakers to speak out in support of those who were powerless.
From the introduction:
Documentary film is a form of reporting about the world. Like a newspaper, a documentary provides information about events, people, places, and virtually any subject of interest to the public. In words and pictures, documentaries show us what has happened, or is still happening, in our world. Whether we watch a documentary about a war or a biography of a famous figure, we presume that we are absorbing a presentation of fact. Of course, documentaries are no such thing: to assemble a film—or a newspaper for that matter—is an act of interpretation. What should the headline be? Which photographs appear on the front page? Whose story will be featured? These are all editorial decisions. Like newspapers, films are edited. Stories get left out or shortened. In a film, scenes are shot from certain angles. Interviews with subjects are reshaped to fit the framework of film. There is an opening sequence of a documentary about Lillian Hellman in which the phrases from several interviews are merged into shots of several speakers who seem to be contributing to one succinct statement about the film’s subject. The film has thus created a dialogue between the speakers that in fact never occurred. Is such a film dishonest? No, because documentaries are inevitably interpretations; the documentarian, like a newspaper editor, is picking and choosing the items that suit the film’s style and point of view. Hellman, a controversial figure, demands the solicitation of many perspectives, and yet, the filmmaker implies, those perspectives can be melded into a unified statement. The very earliest films lacked this kind of coherent vision. They simply put a stationary camera in front of what was to be recorded. In part, the stationary camera simply reflected the state of technology. As cameras became lighter in weight or were mounted on rails or wheels, so that they could move with the action, filmmakers became more selective—or rather, camera movement by definition meant that interpretation, as well as reportage, became possible. As soon as the camera could move, filmmakers had their choice of close-ups and medium and long shots. Better lenses meant the human face could be brought closer to the audience’s eye than faces that appeared outside of film. Film stimulated an involvement with the human figure that was unprecedented. A face—just the face—could occupy an entire screen; a close-up could fasten on a hand making an expressive gesture. And what could be shown of figures could also be shown of objects—of anything that was susceptible to the camera’s scrutiny. The expanded technological resources of film had an aesthetic and moral result: film became, in a sense, its own reality. Rather than just reporting on the world; it created a world. Film was still a document but of a very peculiar kind. Montage, the juxtapositions of different images on pieces or frames of film, can in itself create meaning. Thus a man with tears in his eyes might appear either sad or happy depending on the images that preceded and succeeded the shot of him crying. One can, after all, cry with joy or sorrow. Reverse the succeeding and preceding images and the interpretation of the man’s emotions changes. Cameras and the editing of what cameras record can also speed up or slow down the action of a scene. For example, in Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s camera lovingly tracks in slow motion the athlete’s ascent over the bar in the pole-vaulting event. We have an intimate and prolonged attachment to the athlete unavailable to the spectators in the Olympic stadium. This kind of shot excites the viewer, who is enjoying a privileged point of view. Riefenstahl’s style is seductive. She wants her audience to revel in the beauty and suppleness of the human form. Although she is recording an event, she is also creating a kind of poem. This development of film as a way of not only knowing the world but of creating and enjoying it is reminiscent of William Wordsworth’s famous statement that we half-perceive and half-create our universe. We do not merely see the world; we project our sense of how it impinges on us. Projection, of course, is the perfect word for film. It projects a world and in the process changes it. This is what filmmaker Robert Flaherty discovered when he decided to film the Inuit people in Canada’s Hudson Bay region. He began by simply doing a travelogue, recording the manners and customs of a culture that he hoped would not only appeal to the curiosity of filmgoers but also cause them to reflect on the temper of modern life. The Inuits lived in the raw, so to speak, without labor saving devices and the array of inventions that included, of course, the movie camera. But Flaherty found he could not simply record Inuit life. For one thing, their way of life had changed by the time Flaherty showed up. They had abandoned many traditional customs and no longer hunted, for example, with bow and arrow. Inuits had guns. What to do? Flaherty actually helped the Inuits to recover their old ways of doing things. So we see Nanook in Nanook of the North hunting without the aid of firearms. Flaherty also includes a scene in which Nanook teaches his child how to use a bow and arrow. The scene is charming but in a sense false. The child will not grow up to hunt in this way. The traditional life the film purports to record was in fact fast disappearing. Is Flaherty, then, a fraud? Well, the people he films are real. The actions they perform were once a part of Inuit life. How else to show what that life had been without re-enacting scenes that evoked a past way of life? It could be argued that Flaherty was engaging in an act of restoration or restitution, showing not only his audience but also the Inuits themselves a way of life that would otherwise be left unrecorded. Documentary film, after all, stems from an urge to commemorate, to honor the lives of others. But the filmgoer should never forget that film is a medium, a means of conveyance, and even of transformation, not the thing itself. This is Dziga Vertov’s point in Man with the Movie Camera. We see scenes of the Soviet Union in 1929, but the film repeatedly reminds us that they are all “shot,” captured in the camera eye, edited in a studio, and scored with a sound track that seems to build and build in tempo and yet never quite comes to a resolution. The film itself is unresolved—as if the filmmaker is resisting the very seductiveness of the medium, making us realize, again and again, that we are watching a movie. Woody Allen aims at a similar self-conscious examination of the documentary in Zelig. Critic Susan Sontag, together with Nobel prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow, child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim, critic Irving Howe, and Professor John Morton Blum, were chosen, Allen said, to endow his film with the "patina of intellectual weight and seriousness." This group of notables provide commentary on the bizarre career of Leonard Zelig, who could change color, body shape, even ethnic and national identity, blending into whatever company he sought. In mock-documentary mode, with voice-over narration, expert testimony, and faked photographs, Allen superbly constructed an amalgam of Citizen Kane and Reds--with Zelig also acting a kind of Jay Gatsby figure.