Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Broyles’s Law and the Ken Burns effect

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For most of my life as a moviegoer, I’ve followed a rule that has served me pretty well. Whenever the director of a documentary narrates the story in the first person, or, worse, appears on camera, I start to get suspicious. I’m not talking about movies like Roger and Me or even the loathsome Catfish, in which the filmmakers, for better or worse, are inherently part of the action, but about films in which the director inserts himself into the frame for no particular reason. Occasionally, I can forgive this, as I did with the brilliant The Cove, but usually, I feel a moment of doubt whenever the director’s voiceover begins. (In its worst form, it opens the movie with a redundant narration: “I first came across the story that you’re about to hear in the summer of 1990…”) But while I still think that this is a danger sign, I’ve recently concluded that I was wrong about why. I had always assumed that it was a sign of ego—that these directors were imposing themselves on a story that was really about other people, because they thought that it was all about them. In reality, it seems more likely that it’s a solution to a technical problem. What happens, I think, is that the director sits down to review his footage and discovers that it can’t be cut together as a coherent narrative. Perhaps there are are crucial scenes or beats missing, but the events that the movie depicts are long over, or there’s no budget to go back and shoot more. An interview might bridge the gaps, but maybe this isn’t logistically feasible. In the end, the director is left with just one person who is available to say all the right things on the soundtrack to provide the necessary transitions and clarifications. It’s himself. In a perfect world, if he had gotten the material that he needed, he wouldn’t have to be in his own movie at all, but he doesn’t have a choice. It isn’t a failure of character, but of technique, and the result ends up being much the same.

I got to thinking about this after reading a recent New Yorker profile by Ian Parker of the documentarian Ken Burns, whose upcoming series on the Vietnam War is poised to become a major cultural event. The article takes an irreverent tone toward Burns, whose cultural status encourages him to speechification in private: “His default conversational setting is Commencement Address, involving quotation from nineteenth-century heroes and from his own previous commentary, and moments of almost rhapsodic self-appreciation. He is readier than most people to regard his creative decisions as courageous.” But Parker also shares a fascinating anecdote about which I wish I knew more:

In the mid-eighties, Burns was working on a deft, entertaining documentary about Huey Long, the populist Louisiana politician. He asked two historians, William Leuchtenburg and Alan Brinkley, about a photograph he hoped to use, as a part of the account of Long’s assassination; it showed him protected by a phalanx of state troopers. Brinkley told him that the image might mislead; Long usually had plainclothes bodyguards. Burns felt thwarted. Then Leuchtenburg spoke. He’d just watched a football game in which Frank Broyles, the former University of Arkansas coach, was a commentator. When the game paused to allow a hurt player to be examined, Broyles explained that coaches tend to gauge the seriousness of an injury by asking a player his name or the time of day; if he can’t answer correctly, it’s serious. As Burns recalled it, Broyles went on, “But, of course, if the player is important to the game, we tell him what his name is, we tell him what time it is, and we send him back in.”

Hence Broyles’s Law: “If it’s super-important, if it’s working, you tell him what his name is, and you send him back into the game.” Burns decided to leave the photo in the movie. Parker continues:

Was this, perhaps, a terrible law? Burns laughed. “It’s a terrible law!” But, he went on, it didn’t let him off the hook, ethically. “This would be Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’—‘I can do anything I want. I’ll pay the town drunk to crawl across the ice in the Russian village.’” He was referring to scenes in Herzog’s Bells from the Deep, which Herzog has been happy to describe, and defend, as stage-managed. “If he chooses to do that, that’s okay. And then there are other people who’d rather do reenactments than have a photograph that’s vague.” Instead, Burns said, “We do enough research that we can pretty much convince ourselves—in the best sense of the word—that we’ve done the honorable job.”

The reasoning in this paragraph is a little muddled, but Burns seems to be saying that he isn’t relying on “the ecstatic truth” of Herzog, who blurs the line between fiction and reality, or the reenactments favored by Errol Morris, who sometimes seems to be making a feature film interspersed with footage of talking heads. Instead, Burns is assembling a narrative solely out of primary sources, and if an image furthers the viewer’s intellectual understanding or emotional engagement, it can be included, even if it isn’t strictly accurate. These are the compromises that you make when you’re determined to use nothing but the visuals that you have available, and you trust in your understanding of the material to tell whether or not you’ve made the “honorable” choice.

On some level, this is basically what every author of nonfiction has to consider when assembling sources, which involves countless judgment calls about emphasis, order, and selection, as I’ve discussed here before. But I’m more interested in the point that this emerges from a technical issue inherent to the form of the documentary itself, in which the viewer always has to be looking at something. When the perfect image isn’t available, you have a few different options. You can ignore the problem; you can cut to an interview subject who tells the viewers about what they’re not seeing; or you can shoot a reenactment. (Recent documentaries seem to lean heavily on animation, presumably because it’s cheaper and easier to control in the studio.) Or, like Burns, you can make do with what you have, because that’s how you’ve defined the task for yourself. Burns wants to use nothing but interviews, narration, and archival materials, and the technical tricks that we’ve come to associate with his style—like the camera pan across photos that Apple actually calls the Ken Burns effect—arise directly out of those constraints. The result is often brilliant, in large part because Burns has no choice but to think hard about how to use the materials that he has. Broyles’s Law may be “terrible,” but it’s better than most of the alternatives. Burns has the luxury of big budgets, a huge staff, and a lot of time, which allows him to be fastidious about his solutions to such problems. But a desperate documentary filmmaker, faced with no money and a hole in the story to fill, may have no other recourse than to grab a microphone, sit down in the editing bay, and start to speak: “I first came across the story that you’re about to hear in the summer of 1990…”

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2017 at 9:12 am

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