Documentary Film Classics – By William Rothman (1997)

 

Documentary Film Classics – By William Rothman (1997)

  • Documentary Film Classics
  • By William Rothman
  • University of Miami
  • © Cambridge University Press 1997

Movies, too, may be said to bring “real life” to the screen. For example, in Griffith’s True Heart Susie, a film contemporaneous with Nanook of the North, the character Susie and the world she inhabits may be imaginary, but it is the real-life Lillian Gish who is the subject of the camera. And so-called “documentaries,” too, may be said to bring the life of the imagination to the screen, as we shall be reminded throughout this book.

Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – True Heart Susie

Griffith’s camera is capable of making no revelations about the fictional Susie that are not also revelations about the real woman who incarnates her, revelations that emerge through, that express and thus reveal, the relationship between the camera and Lillian Gish. True Heart Susie’s prevailing fiction is that it is Susie, not Lillian Gish, who is real. Or we might say that its fiction is that Lillian Gish is only acting, rather than revealing herself, when she incarnates Susie in the face of the camera, that the character Susie is only a mask she can put on or take off at will or upon direction.

What is fictional about True Heart Susie in other words, resides in its fiction that it is only fiction. What is fictional about Nanook of the North, by contrast, resides in its fiction that it is not fiction at all. Strip away what is fictional about the two films, therefore, and there is no real difference between them. Both equally exemplify Stanley Gavell’s maxim that in the medium of film the only thing that really matters is that the subject be allowed to reveal itself.

True Heart Susie

The opening titles of True Heart Susie likewise assert, at least rhetorically, the reality of the characters around whom Griffith’s story revolves. But in introducing Susie, the film’s protagonist, Griffith’s title also names the star who plays her (Lillian Gish), at once positing their identity (in the face of the camera, Susie simply is Lillian Gish; Lillian Gish is Susie incarnate) and acknowledging their separateness (Susie has no existence apart from True Heart Susie but Lillian Gish exists apart from her incarnation in this or any film, and, as a movie star, is capable of being incarnated as any number of different characters).

By contrast, when Griffith presents us with our first view of Susie in True Heart Susie – it is also our first view of Lillian Gish, of course – we are not authorized to take it as “documenting” a real encounter between camera and subject. As we have said, the film’s prevailing fiction is that it is Susie, not Lillian Gish, who is real, hence that there was no real encounter between camera and subject, for the camera that filmed Lillian Gish has no reality within Susie’s world.

True Heart Susie

To act as if she were Susie, Lillian Gish must act as if no camera were really in her presence. But how is it possible for Lillian Gish to have a real relationship with Griffith’s camera, a relationship through which Susie is capable of being revealed, if in the face of the camera she must act as if no real camera were present?

For Susie to act as if no real camera were present, there is no reality she must deny. For Lillian Gish to act as if no real camera were present, on the other hand, she must deny the reality of the camera that is in her presence, the camera that is really filming her. To deny the reality of this camera’s presence, Lillian Gish must relate to it, acknowledge its presence, in a particular way. And if the camera is to sustain the fiction that it is Susie who is real, it must relate to Lillian Gish in a particular way, too; it must be used in a way that at once acknowledges her presence and denies her reality.

Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie

What makes it possible for Griffith to use the camera in a way that acknowledges Lillian Gish’s presence even as it denies her reality is the fundamental condition of human existence that real human beings are also characters, imaginary creatures of fantasy and myth, and are also actors capable of becoming who they are imagined to be. What makes it possible, in turn, for Lillian Gish to acknowledge the presence of the camera even as she denies its reality is the equally fundamental condition of the medium of film that the reality of the camera’s presence is also the reality of its absence, the absence of its reality.

Lillian Gish trying to kiss Robert Harron (True Heart Susie)

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