DAVID WOLPER AND THE ART OF THE DOCUMENTARY
BY THEODORE H. WHITE
Those of us who work with the living documentary know that it probably must remain forever an imperfect art form. For how can one ever subdue the stubborn truth of reality, and make it flow with the fluid grace that film invites?
Yet the goal of the perfect documentary — ever-tantalizing, ever-unrealizable—remains. On the long road to this goal of perfection, the names of certain pioneers in the art will remain as permanent guide-posts. And on this road there is an entire plaza, which might be called Plaza David Wolper, ornamented with his name and the artists who work with him.
It is useful to go back and see where Wolper fits in on this long road. No one knows exactly when the documentary art first tantalized the imagination of the film makers. It was probably as early as 1898 when Thomas Edison sent the first hand-crank movie operators out to China to bring back images of pig-tailed Chinese from Hong Kong. Certainly, Burton Holmes in the 1900's caught some of the temptation that comes of marriage between truth and beauty; and, later in the twenties, many a primitive documentarian tried to sneak two or three minutes of artistic reach into the old newsreels whose only soundtrack was the snap of popcorn and the pop of bubble gum.
When, however, in the late twenties and early thirties, the documentary was finally recognized in its own right — as an independent art form in the work of men like Pare Lorentz, John Grierson, Robert Flaherty — it was recognized as a form of esoterica. It was a hand-maiden's art — a trailer for the movies on Saturday afternoon, or an enticement for the avant-garde at campus playhouses.
What made the American documentary the robust and vigorous popular art it is today was its explosive incubation in the late forties and early fifties by the television industry. Television needed documentaries — not for the sake of art, but because the law so required: the law obligated the nets to repay the free governmental gift of their multi-million dollar franchises by devoting part of their air time to uplifting and informing the American public. This had been an obligation easily met in the days of radio, when radio newscasters and commentators wrote a proud new chapter of their own in the history of journalism. But news, married to the new picture form of television, was something else again.
Thus, television documentaries developed as the bastard offspring of the radio newscasters and the Saturday newsreels of the movies. The great radio correspondents of the late forties, early fifties, knew how to explore the truth. But where to get the visual partnership of truth except from the makers of newsreels with their bathing beauties, snow- and water-skiers, airplane arrivals and departures, politicians’ pompous ribbon-cuttings?
For network television, the problem was brilliantly solved in the early fifties by the marvelous imaginations and inventions of the Ed Murrow-Fred Friendly partnership. "See It Now" and its derivatives, cramped the imitation of a decade of television that followed.
Make no mistake about it. At their best. these network documentaries are a superb form of American art. Yet the essence of their artistry is their immediacy, the dazzling light they throw on today's events, as did Murrow-Friendly in their half-hour on Joe McCarthy, or CBS, ABC and NBC more recently in their shows on the Civil Rights Struggle. Such shows are like star shells that rise above the dark wasteland of American television programming, illuminate the cratered surface of reality - then fade and are gone.
The Documentary, as conceived, however, by David Wolper and executed by Wolper artists is something else again. Its goal is permanence. To reach that goal, it must ignore the "now.” Its thrust cannot be, like a news documentary's, horizontal, reaching for tonights audience; it must be vertical reaching for tonight's audiences and ten years away at the same time. To do this, it must go back to the storyteller's art, and somehow grapple, cut, struggle with film that tells at once a truth — and a story. For the essence of the Wolper art is narrative —narrative style, pace, sense, structure. And at its best — ifs matchless.
No one can understand the ecstasy and frenzy of documentary filmmaking who has not sat at a table, or in a studio, or in a cutting-room with David Wolper and his artists. For through all the storm, argument, clash of minds, everyone involved in a Wolper documentary is unified by a common purpose: the search for the jugular, the unbaring of the story line of development that makes this or that reality, whether it be a Presidential campaign or a history of Hollywood, a narrative in itself. Only after the inner mystery of development has been clarified can other elements of a Wolper documentary fall into place —the film search: live camera work; script: cutting; music. And then, hopefully, there comes the magic of great filmmaking when the finished product adds up two and two and yields ten, where film and sound and truth all marry to print a story on the viewer's mind and fuse it there with emotion.
The object in those Wolper documentaries I have participated in or watched being made has never been to compete with the "now" of the great news documentaries. It is more to ask and then answer the "how," or the "why," And Wolper's ineffable goal has always been to find in the answer the same sheer excitement in reality as feature-makers in films of fiction. As in all art forms, and all effort, this goal is missed as often as gained. Yet among the hundreds of Wolper films are a good round dozen which must rank with the permanent classics of American documentary filmmaking. They are a major effort of American art to capture the nature of our times and pass it on to posterity. There is, however, one caveat that you, the viewer, should bear in mind before watching Wolper films. If you don't watch out, you may be so carried away by the excitement of some of them as to sit back and watch in pure enjoyment And this. I think, may have been Wolper's sneaky purpose all along — to make this art form enjoyable.