American Documentary 101

In Screening Reality, Jon Wilkman rethinks a film genre—and its history.

Screening Reality by Jon Wilkman, Bloomsbury, 512 pages, $35.
Screening Reality by Jon Wilkman, Bloomsbury, 512 pages, $35.

Cinema is truth at twenty-four frames per second.” Jean-Luc Godard’s famous, albeit miscontextualized, remark is cited twice in Jon Wilkman’s Screening Reality: How Documentary Filmmakers Reimagined America. If Wilkman doesn’t actually quote Godard’s words in their entirety (“…and every cut is a lie”), it’s because he doesn’t have to: Screening Reality is dedicated to the proposition that documentary filmmaking is a necessarily slippery business, its claims to truth invariably compromised.

Fair enough. The pleasures of Wilkman’s book surface in its ability to encompass many things. We get disquisitions on the shorts commissioned by the U.S. Office of War Information in the 1940s (among them lesser-known works by Frank Capra, William Wyler, and John Ford), as well as on the Zapruder film, Edward R. Murrow’s coverage of the McCarthy hearings, and Mark Burnett and the rise of reality television.

Nor does Wilkman skimp on female or indigenous filmmakers or other documentarians of color. The works of Marlon T. Riggs, Robert Nakamura, Maya Deren, and many others are considered. If one were to distill Screening Reality’s strengths to a single point, it would be the book’s meticulousness. But this multifaceted approach comes at a cost. While Screening Reality is as fine an overview as any documentary enthusiast could want, there’s a certain flattening as we move from rock and roll chronicles such as D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back and Albert and David Maysles’ Gimme Shelter to the PBS portrait An American Family to the rise of 60 Minutes to the surprise commercial success of the basketball documentary Hoop Dreams.

The reason is that Wilkman never quite advances an argument beyond the idea that, yes, “reality” is hard to capture. He is best when he slows down, allowing his critical intelligence to keep pace with his gargantuan knowledge and understanding of his subject. His thoughtful readings of Frederick Wiseman’s films make me wish he’d been as attentive to Jonas Mekas, or to any number of other subjects who might deserve equally profound and passionate examination.

Still, this is a small and perhaps inevitable caveat for a work as sprawling and knowledgeable as this. Its greatest gift is to send one toward the viewing (and reviewing) of, say, Les Blank’s filmography. Screening Reality may fall short of a truly comprehensive accounting (I missed the films of Adam Curtis and of Ondi Timoner, and Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself), but it is engaging and deeply informative, an essential piece of cinematic, and social, history.


• By Jon Wilkman
• Bloomsbury, 512 pages, $35

Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, and of the forthcoming memoirs Always Crashing in The Same Car and The Golden Hour.
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