Nobody's Business (1996), is an inspired, inventive and touching exploration of our world, family connections and humanity's history, told through a portrait of the filmmaker's father. This is most definitely the finest example of creative and effective use of archival material that I've ever had the joy of experiencing. There are many elements to this Alan Berliner's film in addition to the archival footage. I saw a clip of Nobody's Business in Thom Power's NYU Documentary Development class and the few minutes I saw were enough that I knew I couldn't miss last night's screening at IFC. The Stranger Than Fiction screening included Mr. Berliner's short, City Edition (1980), followed by the feature.
Mr. Berliner spoke intimately and passionately both before and after Tuesday night's screenings. For City Edition, he admitted that in 1980 when he made this short, creating personal documentaries was furthest from his mind. Put together entirely from archival footage, Mr. Berliner pointed out one particular archival shot of a family at a dinner table. Mr. Berliner noted he sort of consciously and unconsciously allowed that clip in the film and it was the only one of its kind in City Edition. He believes that single shot was the precursor to the kind of personal films he would grow to focus his work on. The same shot is used in Nobody's Business (above: a family photographer from this film).
In the previous blog I mention my recent experience working with and researching archival material. I've been reading Sheila Curran Bernard's book, Documentary Storytelling for Video and Filmmakers while on this recent project, which required both archival footage and family historical memorabilia. She covers archival usage in a couple of chapters, among other valuable documentary subjects. The last section of the book contains interviews with a variety of well known documentary filmmakers. Editor Sam Pollard is one of them and he said something I thought was noteworthy and applicable to Mr. Berliner's Nobody's Business.
Ms. Bernard asks about the manipulation of archival material when editing. Mr. Pollard replies, "... there are a lot of different kinds of nonfiction projects you can do. If you are dong the standard historical documentary and you are setting up that type of storytelling vocabulary, and that's the expectation you want your audience to have of you, then yes, you follow these journalistic rules and you use your footage with complete integrity. If you're doing another type of documentary, then you create it in a way where you are setting those rules up for your audience, and your audience understands that you're going to be playing a little different game." He goes on to say he's excited by filmmakers that find new and different ways of using archival footage and some are using archival to make very personal documentaries or even video art. He references Jay Rosenblatt's work as something emotional and visceral and not some representation of historical accuracy.
For me, and I'm sure I'm not the only one, Mr. Berliner (left: pictured during STF's Q&A with Thom Powers) does a fine and immediate job of setting the clock the moment Nobody's Business begins. You understand his humor and you understand this is a personal documentary and the archival images aren't meant to reflect historical accuracy from the get go. He's inviting you along for the ride and it's not misleading. His audience experiences the banter between he and his father right away over opening text, followed by a photographic image of his father as a young man in front of a microphone. We then see archival footage of reporters, I'm guessing from the 40's or 50's gathered together, busily scribbling in their small spiral journalist notebooks as Mr. Berliner continues to ask his resistant father questions about his life. It's brilliant.
I found Mr. Berliner's post discussion fascinating. I have an interest in archival and home movie footage as well as collage in various forms. I am a great fan of Joseph Cornell (who as many know also took his crack at editing) and other collage sort of artistry. Mr. Berliner fancies himself a collage artist and it shows. He admits collecting everything from film to newspapers and he's had a number of prestigious installations over the years. Although I don't fancy myself an artist necessarily, I do have a strong interest in using archival material such as film, vintage advertising, design, travel postcards and more, and arranging them in interesting ways. Of course, editing is a way of creating collage, so I guess that's not surprising the medium is of interest to more than a few filmmakers. Alan Berliner has a unique gift for weaving his archival, home movies, interviews (with a little present day footage) in a visually beautiful and emotional thoughtful and deep arrangement. Not everyone can see the possibilities in the shots he used in his films like Nobody's Business. It takes a certain artistry and intuitive sense that I imagine a person doesn't just learn. It's not just putting together clips in an attractive, funny or dramatic way. In Nobody's Business there is an acute intelligence to it. Not only that, but sound plays a very important part in there and provides a lovely rhythm. All of those elements hold a valuable position. A lesson in filmmaking, personal documentary or not.
For those out there with an interest in this kind of personal filmmaking and haven't seen any Alan Berliner docs, I highly suggest it. I just put The Sweetest Sound in my Netflix queue and his films are available on DVD through his website.