"Verite is a lie," I pronounced yesterday over twitter. It wasn't the first time I had said it, and it likely won't be the last; chances are, when I promote this piece through twitter and Facebook and all the other happy smiling social networking thingamajigs, I'll do it again.
But I said it yesterday, and yesterday, the filmmaker Jarrod Whaley responded through Facebook: "So is every other style." And this is true: any method you use to tell a story or relate an experience, even and especially cinematically, shapes that story or experience. Things are emphasized or de-emphasized, elided or changed. Whether the film is a documentary, a re-enactment, or a wholesale fiction, the simple act of telling that story, of making it into art, changes its substance, makes it "not true", makes it a lie.
And that's not something that causes me any real consternation; shaping a story is not the unfortunate side effect of art but rather the purpose of it. More than that, it's how the human brain works; when we reflect upon an experience, we impose order on it, creating a narrative of cause-and-effect, omitting unnecessary details, drawing connections, finding meaning. To be clear: I'm not saying that art should be manipulative or that an artist should lead the audience by the nose, forcing them to cry here, laugh there, draw this conclusion. The best art contains a multitude of meanings; the very best art contains meanings that we don't have words for, meanings that can't be explained but only experienced. The shaping of a story-- structuring it, ordering it, creating moments of culminative power-- is an integral part of even the messiest of art.
All styles, as Mr. Whaley said, are equally guilty of lying; thus, all styles are equally valid approaches, with some perhaps being better suited to shaping this story or that one. So why do I single out cinema verite, why am I picking on it?
It's partially for the simple, silly, and vindictive reason that we've been told-- by, I might add, some of our dearest friends-- that verite is the only valid method for digital video. That the low-lighting shaky-cam rack-focus whip-pan this-is-happening-right-now aesthetic is what video was made for. And being that our films use lights and tripods, that our style is a trifle bit (but only a trifle!) more formal, utilizing creature puppets, non-diagetic music, and stylized performances, I bristle a bit at being told that we're working against the "inherently naturalistic" medium of video because we don't use this "naturalistic" style.
And there are two fallacies in that last sentence, the first being that video itself is naturalistic. When I related this particular line of feedback to another good friend of ours, who has shot exclusively on 16mm, he said that video is a language that computers speak; what's inherently naturalistic about that? And I'm inclined to agree with him. Video is not any more naturalistic than film. In fact, some of the beautiful peculiarities of video, such as its lower contrast ratio, makes it less naturalistic, less like the human eye.
Video is only considered "naturalistic" because lightweight and affordable cameras are associated with the verite style, with birthday parties and home movies, with in-the-theater bootlegs, with gonzo porn, with capturing some freaky occurrence outside your window and putting it up on YouTube. Which brings us to fallacy number two: the idea that cinema verite is "naturalistic", that shaking a camera about makes it more "real". Let me demonstrate my point with a series of questions:
One, do you possess Superman's telescopic vision-- i.e., the ability to magnify an object several feet across a room?
Two, does your vision go blurry at indiscriminate times, only to snap back to crystal clarity?
Three, is your head constantly wobbling back and forth and jutting to and fro?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should probably seek medical attention. (Well, maybe not the first one. The first one is cool.) But I think you get my point: these touchstones of cinema verite (frequent zooming, rack focusing, and shaky-cam, respectively) in no way reflect the normal operations of the human eye. For that matter, neither do the touchstones of the classic Hollywood style: images typically don't dissolve into one another, we don't glide along sideways in lateral tracking shots, and humans don't, at this point in time, have the ability to pull back and up from something like a crane shot.
They're all artificial ways to add emphasis, beauty, and meaning to a cinematic experience. No one disputes that; no one argues that a crane shot is naturalistic. But verite is just as artificial, just as virtuosic. And, to be clear, there's nothing wrong with that. It's not a style I prefer to shoot in, and it's not my favourite style as a viewer, but like any style the question isn't what it is but what you do with it. And there's been some great films made in that style, no question about it.
My problem isn't that the verite style is a lie-- because, once again, just as Mr. Whaley said, so is every other style-- but that the verite style has pretensions of Truth. I've actually heard directors say that going handheld makes it more "real" or "raw" or "gritty" or "honest". And it's horseshit, plain and simple.
My other problem with verite, as I've stated above, is the monopoly it seems to have formed around the video medium, wherein directors, such as ourselves, working in a different idiom are criticized not for how well or how poorly we work within that idiom, but for not conforming to the dominant style, a style that is not only visually codified but also seemingly codified in other ways as well: our dialogue is too sharp and should be dulled with a plethora of verbal placeholders; our characters are too well defined and should blend together like a bunch of passive-aggressive post-collegiate articulate inarticulates; our performers are too bold, taking too many chances, and should stick to naturalistic, improvised mumbles; our sequences unfold with too much verve and should eschew directorial comment, energy, or artifice.
I don't think I'm being self-defensive here, or trying to invalidate any criticism of the films. Lord knows they have their problems; we've made mistakes and are still in the process of learning from them. And I'm not saying, like some filmmakers on the internet, that every style is equally right for a given story, or that there's no such thing as a wrong choice. Boy oh boy, are there wrong choices! And maybe we made the wrong choice in making our films the way we did, and maybe we didn't.
But the choices aren't wrong because our style is the "wrong" style for video. Video is a medium. Video is a means; it allows us to make films, instead of wasting years of our lives trying to work our way up through a studio system, instead of compromising what we want to do, instead of making films just like everybody else's films. And so, when verite and (let us speak its name plainly instead of dancing around it) mumblecore become dangerously close to being enshrined as the dominant styles of no-budget independent filmmaking, when people start to expect us to make films just like everybody else's films, it gets my dander up. If video is freedom, than the conformity of verite is inherently anti-video.
Verite is a perfectly valid form of artifice, but it is neither any more truthful than other forms, nor is it any more valid. I'm only hard on it because some others deem it to be both.