I will admit it, although I have no real good explanation for what I am admitting to. I can tell you that as a kid, I often woke up early on Saturday mornings. This led to a fair amount of free time spent in waiting for the Saturday morning cartoon shows to come on. As I was never a big reader, what this led to was my watching a whole lot of “the Modern Farmer”, which for some reason was the show that came on between the network sign on and either Crusader Rabbit or Beanie and Cecil, I can’t remember which. These were the days when the national anthem played beneath the picture of an American flag waving in the breeze sometime around midnight, followed by gray, spotted static on the screen with a scratchy hissing coming out of the speaker somewhere on the black and white teevee. There were no paid ads or preachers or B-movies to fill that dark and lonely space all night- just the scratchy drone of audio static and the flicker of gray video snow.
I have no idea why the Modern Farmer caught my interest- I was growing up forty miles north of New York City in the hilly and forested whiteness of 1950’s suburbia, not the cornfields of Iowa. I don’t recall having a childhood tractor fascination. I kind of got what they were talking about in how contour plowing slowed down soil erosion, but our steep backyard was all grass that I eventually learned to mow with our Toro push mower, and with all that turf in place there was no soil sliding downhill, just summer home waterpark fun on the Whamo Slip ‘n’ Slide, and no soil erosion in sight. It was the idyllic late fifties and early sixties, when petrochemical fertilizers and herbicides were all a part of better living through chemistry, and you couldn’t be a good and modern farmer without them.
Most everything was black and white then on the idiot box. My mom’s parents had a color teevee that we got to watch when we went there for visits. There was also a bowl with hard candies and Hershey’s kisses and sometimes assorted nuts. My dad’s parents barely had a radio, although my grandfather had been a bank vice president in New York City. We had pot roast and boiled potatoes and gravy most every time we went there- you can guess where we preferred to visit.
Like a lot of stuff back then, the Modern Farmer was a bit of a relic. A lot of the off prime time shows were what some might call leftover content and seemed to come from the forties or the fifties. The tractors and their attachments on the Modern Farmer seemed old even back then- I did not question at the time that in reality, the Modern Farmer had been unmodern for some time now. When I was at the Seattle film Institute, somewhere around a half century later, I was reminded of that Modern Farm thing when we watched the films of Pare Lorentz- one of the early pioneers of U.S. documentary film making. In his film ‘The Plow That Broke the Plains’ from 1936, I was transported back to my days with the modern farmers, as there were a lot of even older tractors and horse drawn implements and talk of the dust bowl. I guess the message and life lesson the Modern Farmer teevee show was aimed at trying drill down on was to keep the whole dust and depression things from happening again.
I pulled out my disc of three Pare Lorentz films the other day for a refresher viewing, and what I was struck by was not the pedantic pacing and repetitive dialogue, but rather the words that came on the screen at the start that went like this: “By 1880, we had cleared the Indian, and with him the buffalo, from the Great Plains, and established the last frontier…this is a picturization of what we did with it.” I’m not sure why that had blown by me in the past. I know that I have become hyper-aware of the issues of colonization and the rampant disregard of its deadly effects on the First Peoples, but I was a bit shocked that this had not even caused a waver on my incredulity scale just ten or so years ago. It was also interesting to note that this film had come out of something called the United States Resettlement Administration.
My first schooling in documentaries and their relative credibility came in college and a class called Radio, Television and Motion Pictures. I remember first watching Robert Flaherty’s ‘Nanook of the North’ there. Flaherty was known as another one of the pioneers of the documentary, and so I was a bit surprised at learning that the entire film about Nanook and his family was cast, had been scripted. I believe that the events portrayed in the film- hunting, fishing, kayaking, mushing and igloo building were everyday events that the “characters” did not have to research, as they obviously lived them when the cameras were not around. I suppose it makes sense that these everyday occurrences would be more easily staged and controlled than captured on the fly, especially given the fragility of the equipment and the harshness of the environment it was being filmed in. But it should be noted that Flaherty’s other films were likewise contrived and staged events that passed as recordings of daily life. I am thinking of films like ‘Man of Aran’, which portrayed the harshness of farming on the west coast of Ireland in the 1930’s. By digging into that film, one finds a fair amount of contemporary criticism of Flaherty’s methods of documentary filmmaking. The production cost of the film quadrupled from its original estimate so he could get the right shot. Even with that, one anthropologist at the time found more than 100 factual errors in its 76 minutes of run time, and critics said that the film was “more valuable as a documentary of Flaherty’s vision than of life itself.”
I don’t recall that we dug that deeply in Nanook in that class, other than to talk about Flaherty’s pioneering of the documentary form, regardless of its use of control and idealized vision. I do remember talking about the elusive nature of cinema verité, regarding a pioneering television series that was happening at the time called “An American Family”, which ran for twelve one hour episodes on PBS in 1973. It is known as the first “reality” teevee show, as a documentary film crew was on hand capturing the activities of the entire Loud family over 300 hours of recorded footage in 1971, and then assembled into the segmented series. There was much made about how “real” a picture this series painted of the family and its members. The very presence of the camera and crew amidst all the family interactions raised the crucial issue of just how much the very presence of a camera alters one’s daily actions when the lens is pointed in their direction. It was questioned as to whether the eldest of the children, Lance Loud, had been given a platform to act out, and actually come out as gay on national television, an apparent first which gave Lance status as an LGBTQ icon and spokesperson. Whether or not the cameras and crew influenced how the family reacted on screen, it was the editing that the family complained about, saying that they felt that the footage and its selection and arrangement had served to cast the family and its actions in a less than positive light.
It should be said that in the end, it is the edit that creates the reality in any film, long or short, narrative or documentary. Perhaps one of the best examples is a film that just came out that has been making a big splash (no pun intended) in the online world, which is about the only place films of any kind are appearing these days. If you have not seen it yet, I would suggest seeing the documentary “My Octopus Teacher”. And if you haven’t seen it and intend to, I would stop reading about now and come back after you have seen it. I believe it is one of the most beautiful new films out there, telling the unusual tale of a snorkeler and his relationship with an octopus. It is one of those films that seems like a straightforward narrative, and maybe it is. But if you step back and look at it with a skeptic’s eye, it doesn’t take much to pull the stitching out of the narrative garment line. First of all, we are talking about the anthropomorphizing of an octopus here- driving the animal’s story with mostly pure narrative invention and emotional editing, not to mention the plucked-heartstring, musical soundtrack.
There were a couple of things from the beginning that I did not quite get. It was mentioned in passing that the water temperature the narrator was navigating was eight or nine degrees Celsius. If you use the formula for figuring the temp for 10 degrees C (9/5T+32), that translates to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which is really cold to be swimming in, let alone casually diving in without a wetsuit. The narrator is using freediving fins, which look elegant and graceful, but on the whole they are not generally used for snorkeling. As it turns out, the director is an avid freediver, which involves holding ones breath for periods longer than one normally would whilst descending to deeper and deeper depths on an anchored line, and then returning to the surface before you run out of your breath. Casually poking about for long periods in really cold water is really hard to do even with a wetsuit. I can understand the premise of gaining the octopus’s trust by being down there without neoprene or a self-contained breathing apparatus and it is laudable, but one also has to recognize that there was also at least one other someone down there with a camera filming it all. It’s okay that the human protagonist is down there mostly naked and without other air, but I think it’s a real stretch to believe the filming crew were there as well while toting a camera and without a wetsuit or scuba gear. You can certainly believe whatever you want about the logistics of how this was made and where the edits came to tell the story. You can also be realistic- up to you. As with the Louds, with lots of footage you can tell whatever story you choose. With the other star of the show being a loveable but non-vocal cephalopod, half the story becomes whatever words come to mind. Youtube is full of these contrivances, but most aren’t done anywhere near as well.
The same can be said about these times- hopefully end times for a president and his family and its band of sycophantic politicians and news people. I’m not talking about death- they just need to both go and be held accountable for what they have done as well as what they have allowed to happen. When they are gone, we need to have a long and serious conversation about first amendment rights, what is acceptable as the truth and what is not acceptable in terms of lies, and what we allow to pass and live on as normalized behavior. This entire debacle should not just pass with a sigh of relief, but as a dire warning of where this experiment has gone wrong and how it can possibly been brought to right, with the box of Pandora having been broken wide open with no duct tape or bailing twine or super glue in sight. Or do we just abandoned the shattered ruins of the box and seek to construct something new, or by an amended template of more formidable stuff? As things continue to fly apart on all fronts, all we can say is that we need to really do something about this- see you on the other side.