"Art" or "Truth"

Duke Ellington used to say that there were only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. When I taught film to undergrads, I counseled them that there were certain basic elements of film aesthetics that crossed all boundaries -- they applied to animation, abstract non-narrative, documentary, shorts and features -- that all filmmakers ultimately worked with the same two tools, space and time.

All well and good, but there are some questions that those dicta don't answer. What got me thinking about this dilemma as it applies to the non-fiction film is an excellent article by Michael Massing in the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review. I'm up to my neck in deadlines and Ira prep, so I don't have the time right now to comment on it, but I commend the article to your attention. It raises important questions.

What I will say is this: I'm not fundamentally in disagreement with Massing. I do think that there are times when the competing imperatives -- journalistic vs. aesthetic -- put a filmmaker in a difficult position and I would add, hesitantly, that at a time when the U.S. government has become a platform for pathological liars, a filmmaker's first commitment as a citizen and a human being probably should be to truth before art. I haven't seen Meeting Resistance, but I share Massing's enthusiasm for Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight. Moreover, I would argue that it is precisely this film that shows that a lot of the time, the conflict between aesthetics and journalism is a false one, that clarity is an aesthetic virtue as well as sign of good reporting. Ferguson is not a filmmaker by training, but No End in Sight is among the best films to date on the Iraq War.

I know all the arguments about the nature of reportorial objectivity -- I agree with many of them -- but I think that the appearance of objectivity is the least we can ask, and to the extent that objectivity is possible, Ferguson brings it to the table admirably.

At any rate, read the Massing article; it is highly suggestive and should spawn a lot of interesting debate.