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August 15, 2008


Shaun Huston

Thanks for the link and constructive criticism.

I agree that Hershman Leeson's artistry and creativity, and not so much Steve Kurtz's story, is what, ultimately, makes Strange Culture the film that it is. However, I think that it's significant that she chose to put her artistry in the service of that story and not something else. It is a deeply political film, and form and politics are clearly intertwined in this case. Where one begins and the other ends is, for me at least, fairly impossible to tease out. Just as I can imagine a far less well made, only-capable-of-preaching-to-the-choir version of Steve Kurtz's story, I can also imagine the film's artistic devices being far less elegantly, and appropriately, used, and that's primarily due to the way in which the hybrid style of Hershman Leeson's film "works" with her subject.

For me, the crux of the matter is in how you weigh what's important in the first place. If the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and people dealing with disease or "disabilty" are both "important", they are important in radically different ways.

One of the films cited a lot in your original discussions of this issue is King of Kong, which is easy to dismiss as trivial because of its subject, but from the perspective of its protagonists, and their friends and family, the game and the record are personally important. Billy and Steve both have a lot riding on those outcomes as far as their identities are concerned and I think the film would be less compelling if that weren't the case. But, of course, the story doesn't tell it self, and what makes the film work so well is Seth Gordon's ability to find and tell the story in a compelling way. It's sad that the surface triviality of the subject would lead critics, awards committees, etc. to discount the movie as being "worthy" of attention or recognition.

What makes this discussion difficult is that good filmmakers will be able to convey to an audience why their subject matters, even if it seems from the outside to be insignificant. So, while it's easy enough to point to films that, in some sense, are able to hide behind the "importance" of their subject, it's more challenging for me to separate art from the importance of subject in the case of a well-made film. I think that form and content are almost invariably related to each other. Which brings us back to your original point, which is that too many people with the means to honor and draw attention to documentary films seem to react to the surface importance of a work without looking beneath that surface to see how, yes, even arcade games can be "important".

(BTW, I'll just take this opportunity to mention that I'm working on a documentary about comic book culture in Portland, Oregon. My project is fundamentally about people and place, and I've taken a lot of inspiration from About of Son in thinking through what the film should look like and what it should *do* for the audience).

Stephen Hyde

I saw Shaun's piece in Pop Matters and now again here. This is an important discourse on craft and the language of cinema. Cinema is a useful language for illuminating seemingly insignificant things in surprising ways.

My filmmaking approach is a response to this observation - that if we look closely at the remarkable ways that mundane things are tied together in this world - we can gain access to fascinating points of view that are truly new. For me the art of documentary is the art of making unseen things visible.

I think the rules of journalism are like a ball and chain on makers of documentary cinema and they should be cast off.

How to creatively do that will be good material for conversations to come.

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