Sources in Documentary: Historical Re-creation or Artistic Embellishment?
Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line and Jonothan Caouette’s Tarnation are two films that rely on documentary evidence to re-tell a story that has already happened, or has been told. The evidence used in these films can be categorized in many ways, from the basic identification of home movies and old photographs in Tarnation to interviews and pictures of actual documents in Thin Blue Line. I am interested in exploring the tools of a documentary filmmaker: how the actual sources, the recreated sources, and the created sources are used to recreate a moment in terms of place, time, and mood. In order to do so, I will look at the different techniques and sources used by both filmmakers in the context of their films as a whole, and specifically how their different representations of past events were filtered and shaped through the their lenses, real and metaphorical.
As a historian, I understand the documentary as a secondary source in an academic sense: the filmmaker, like this historian, gathers a number of primary sources (interviews, visual images, written documents, audio clips, materials) and then assembles them in a multilayered collage. The documentary filmmaker has more evidence than the historian, and is not constrained by strict academic demands and guidelines. The nature of historical writing, while it is open to interpretation and different personal biases and ideological lenses, is still far more limited than that of the documentary filmmaking.
When considering the different styles of Morris and Caouette, it may seem that Morris took a more straightforward approach to filmmaking that was more limited to the sources and their ‘factual’ content. However, the recreations featured in Thin Blue Line required much more artistic license than anything that Caouette presented as a source. The recreations entailed Morris interviewing a subject, and then recreating that spoken, one dimensional interview on a created set with actors, being filmed and directed by the filmmakers. The attempt to recreate a multidimensional reality on film was highly dependent on the subjective decisions and interpretations of the filmmakers and actors. However, Morris was not totally unaware of that and part of the stylistic choice to use the recreations was based on the fact that there were definitely ‘false’ recreations, based on lies or half-truths from unreliable or purposefully distorted witness accounts.
Caouette, on the other hand, did not fabricate or create sources which were then presented as fact like Morris did. Tarnation was a collage of manipulated images, often spliced or stretched to a disconcerting effect to communicate a mood of dysfunction and sustained disaster. Caouette’s mother’s schizophrenia served as the aesthetic backdrop of the film in terms of visuals, sound, and presentation of materials, which created a very disconcerting air of suspense. Her mental illness, which was introduced in the beginning of the film, was shown through photos and videos that documented her mental decline. The loss of her beauty, which was focused on during the opening of the film, was presented as a visual confirmation of the the ravages of mental illness, which was perhaps created by unnecessary electroshock therapy.
The aesthetics of electroshock therapy also figure heavily into the source presenation of the film. The shocks and buzzes are a constant reminder of what Caouette seems to think caused the mess that became his life, and they pop up intermittently throughout the film. Additionally, Caouette’s own mental illness, which he deemed ‘depersonalization disorder,’ is communicated throughout the film by the narrative structure. Caouette provides a narration to the events shown on screen, so a montage of heavily edited photos depicting an event or a change in his life would be accompanied by his narration. This structural element of the film was one of the most significant, because it perhaps mirrored the way Caouette experienced his life. The divide between the events that did absolutely happen (stays in foster homes, trips to grandparents, Renee’s stays in institutions) and the distorted montage of what Caouette experienced was communicated in a brutal yet somehow beautiful fashion. What was especially interesting about that was the fact that often the facts presented on the screen in a juvenile, colored print were often not completely relevant to the images presented at the same time.
While Caouette manipulated his sources in a striking manner, rendering the viewer unable to ignore the different colors and distortions, Morris presented some of his sources in a very straightforward way. I’ve already discussed the recreations and the challenges that lie with that method, but I am also interested how Morris used actual documents in his film. Many of the most effective moments in that documentary occurred when there was a simple closeup of a court document: a warrant, a newspaper report, or a legal filing. These shots of real documents reassure the viewer that what they are seeing actually happened, as opposed to the recreations. The still shots of the documents serve as a factual counter to the exercises in re-creation, though often we see that the content of the documents is false or is reporting false information.
Morris and Caouette conducted strikingly different projects. Both were investigative in nature, and both utilized sources and documents to show something, but Caouette’s work was so painfully personal that it is difficult to consider them even in the same genre. Shields may argue that all work is autobiographical in nature, especially when the creator is hidden from the camera itself, but Tarnation felt like an actual intrusion into Caouette’s subconscious, and it was uncomfortable to experience that level of intimacy created by the flickering montage of personal artifacts. Morris perhaps communicated his presence in a different way, by asking the questions that were answered on film or by talking to the people he felt would prove Adam’s innocence, but his persona did not translate to the film as visibly as Caoettes. Both filmmakers created different montages or collages of people, places, things and sounds, and in that way created two striking examples of documentary film uniquely dependent on the sources used.