Cinéma vérité

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Cinéma vérité

Why it’s daunting: The maverick filmmakers behind cinéma vérité eschewed the talking heads, narration, and behind-the-scenes manipulation that have characterized documentaries since Robert J. Flaherty’s famously stage-managed Nanook Of The North in favor of a raw, unvarnished you-are-there approach that placed audiences smack dab in the center of the action. Aided by technological advancements like handheld cameras and light, flexible, mobile microphones and tape recorders, filmmakers introduced a radically unadorned new style that aspired to the immediacy and timeliness of journalism, and echoed the youthful energy, street-level realism, and fast-and-loose aesthetic of the French New Wave: vérité titan D.A. Pennebaker even went on to collaborate with Jean Luc-Godard on One P.M. Cinéma vérité respected audiences enough to assume they didn’t need exposition, narration, or elaborate scene-setting, which can make some of the movement’s films jarring for documentary neophytes. Thankfully, the filmmakers gravitated toward subjects so riveting that their appeal didn’t need any explication, whether it was David Bowie as he killed off Ziggy Stardust (Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars), John F. Kennedy (Robert Drew’s Primary and Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment), American aristocrats gone to seed (the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens), or The Rolling Stones at Altamont (Gimme Shelter).

Possible gateway: D.A. Pennebaker’s iconic rock ’n’ roll masterpiece Dont Look Back 

Why: It’s hard to beat the output of Albert and David Maysles, particularly Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter, and Salesman, but Dont Look Back is a much purer example of the form. The Maysles tended to be much more of a manipulative presence in their films; in Salesman, they even funded the door-to-door Bible sales trip they document. Of course, if the history of film has taught us anything, it’s that concepts like “purity” are inherently bogus. Dont Look Back’s most famous, widely spoofed sequence, a proto music video in which subject Bob Dylan tosses around cue cards with lyrics, while “Subterranean Homesick Blues” plays and Allen Ginsberg ambles about in the background, certainly didn’t happen spontaneously.

But Pennebaker otherwise is content to act as an unassuming fly on the wall as Dylan torments and toys with journalists who are stuck with the impossible task of getting straight answers from a professional enigma. Dylan hangs out with his hipster pals and takes in the media circus surrounding his British tour with a sort of beatific indifference. He emerges as a fascinating cipher and a bit of a spoiled brat, and Pennebaker takes in the strange, jet-lagged world of a touring musician and his gypsy caravan of fellow travelers with empathy and bemusement. With Dont Look Back, Pennebaker accomplished the cinéma vérité dream of capturing history—in this case, pop-culture history—as it happened.

Next steps: The Maysles’ harrowing Gimme Shelter is a natural next step from Dont Look Back. Both films indelibly chronicle titans of 20th-century music during a crucial moment in their creative and emotional evolution, but Shelter is as evisceratingly dark as Back is playful.

Where not to start: Frederick Wiseman is one of the masters of the form, but his unblinking explorations of social institutions (like Titicut Follies and High School) are too grim, uncompromising, and defiantly non-commercial to make for good entry points to cinéma vérité. Consider them master classes for folks who’ve made it through the more outsider-friendly canons of Pennebaker, Drew, and the Maysles.

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