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Monthly Archives: June 2003
Treasure Planet (Ron Clements & John Musker), 2010
The failure of Disney’s Treasure Planet to attract a theatrical audience has been much discussed: it brought into focus a lot of criticism of the studio that had been quietly bubbling away for some time. The studio suddenly seems a long way from the halcyon days of its early nineties revival, when films like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King built on the success of 1989’s The Little Mermaid. Back then people were talking of a new golden age in animation, and while that talk hasn’t gone away, they aren’t talking about Disney anymore. They’re talking about computer animation or even television work. Atlantis: The Lost Empire, The Emperor’s New Groove, and Treasure Planet don’t look like a golden age. (Copper at best).
The Matrix (Larry and Andy Wachowski), 1999
The Matrix was the third in a cycle of movies to arrive in the late nineties with a strikingly similar theme. Like its predecessors from the previous year, Dark City and The Truman Show, it tells the story of a seemingly ordinary man who suddenly finds that his whole life is faked: he is trapped in an artificially created environment designed to keep him in submission. Like the heroes of those earlier movies, Keanu Reeves’ Neo starts to realise that he is somehow special, and tries to escape the confines of his prison. Yet while I liked both Dark City and The Truman Show (particularly the latter), I think The Matrix found the most perfect framework in which to play out such a story. The artificial city of Dark City was essentially a fantasy construct, kept running by creatures with mysterious magical powers; while The Truman Show was a more reality-based media satire that showed its fake world constructed painstakingly out of bricks and mortar. The inspiration of The Matrix is to graft this plot into a cyberpunk premise in which the world is a computer simulation, created to keep humans enslaved so that machines can live off the energy produced by their bodies.
“It’s plausibility, its authority, is the special quality of the documentary – its attraction to those who use it, regardless of motive – the source of its power to enlighten or deceive.” – Eric Barnouw1
The distinction between fictional and non-fictional filmmaking is seldom neat. While the terms invite the suggestion that fiction and non-fiction can be readily separated (“fiction” is that which is invented, and “non-fiction” is everything else), most writing on documentary cinema recognises that the waters are muddier than the terms imply. The link to “truth” or “reality” that might seem documentary’s defining feature is often a tenuous one, since every stage of the production of a film apparently distorts the subject. This includes not only the artistic devices imposed upon a film to give it some sense of structure or coherency (editing, framing, narration etc), but also the choices of subject and the mere act of filming. These elements of construction separate the documentary text from the original referent, and are for the most part shared with fiction films. Since both fiction and non-fiction films often employ these techniques to similar ends (to create narratives, for example) this has led to suggestions that documentaries must themselves be considered fictional constructions. Even if the two forms aren’t merged in such a fashion, certainly such an approach to documentaries casts deep doubt over any claim a documentary might express towards stating a truth. This is particularly true where the statement of fact being expressed is itself a controversial or strongly contested one. But is it perverse to argue that claims to truth or reality in documentary are illusory if these are the essence of the form? In this essay I look at two films, Erroll Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988), and Oliver Stone’s JFK (1990), against the context of this debate. Both these texts are hybrids of fictional and non-fictional techniques, although most would agree that Morris’ film is ultimately a documentary while Stone’s film is a fiction. They each take real events as their subject, and make a claim to revealing a truth about an event. In each case, that statement of truth contests an official, government endorsed verdict. Since the quest for the true story is a central motivating concern of each film, they make ideal case studies when examining the idea that documentaries must be considered a form of fictional filmmaking. This essay will explore the differences and similarities between the two films (and the two forms), the ways in which fictional and non-fictional traits cross from one form to another, and the implications this has for the representation of real events by the cinema.