Documentary Collages: Sacred (2016) + Bodysong (2003)

June 12, 2017 | By

In Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Godfrey Reggio may have perfected the documentary collage in which curated footage is assembled in tandem with an original score to push a particular theme or statement, often mesmerizing audiences with striking visuals that capture aspects of the human condition around the world, but it might not be outlandish to suggest this contemporary sub-genre is rooted in the travelogue film, especially the Cinerama films of the 1950s which sought to bring exotic worlds and cultures to western audiences through specially commissioned filming expeditions and original scores.

The format’s debut This is Cinerama (1952) may not have shown aspects of the human condition, but its mandate was to capture images and cultures by sticking a fat three-strip camera to a plane and flying over a volcano, or witnessing traditional ceremonies of marriage or passage into manhood. Exotica eventually had to adopt a bit of content, and perhaps that combination of showmanship and wow factor is what impressed filmmakers like Reggio to trek to far off places or common urban locales and capture our world in 70mm film and multi-track surround sound. Certainly by the 1980s, big screen + big sound were in vogue, luring homebodies away from cable and Pay TV and video; Reggio simply went for a more artful approach, and built his narrative around thematically organized images and powerful music – weapons used by the studios to tease and entertain the masses with generic fodder.

If Reggio showed us how to tell a story using image + music with zero narration or recurring captions, then subsequent filmmakers have adopted his approach for their own unique themes and idiosyncratic aesthetics.

Thomas Lennon’s Sacred (2016) features footage shot by 40 teams of cinematographers & directors, and offers a poetic meditation on degrees of faith using image + original score + fleeting thoughts of filmed subjects, but no narration. For Bodysong (2003), Simon Pummell raided film archives + also commissioned an original score to trace the conception, evolution, and exhaustion of the human body.

One needn’t have faith in any religion to be affected by Sacred because Lennon tells the stories of myriad subjects on an emotional level; the impact of Pummell’s film comes from his use of existing documentary, news, and industrial footage from various film and video archives, and giving audiences an intended ‘rollercoaster’ ride of graphic images, but it too operates on an emotional level. Pummell creates elliptical montages that repeat iconic images, whereas Lennon opts for fleeting glimpses, with some dwelling for less than a minute on an individual or massive street parade. You could theorize Lennon’s approach is similar to Terence Malick’s editing style, assembling formal and informal moments, and where no single scene offers a concrete statement; it’s an aggregate, which isn’t always stark and easy to discern.

Because Pummell’s images stem largely from reality, they carry pre-existing emotional weight and meaning, making his chore very different from curating original footage. Being archival, and more often shot in the 1.33:1 standard ratio, the images aren’t especially pretty, but the grit & grain in Bodysong offer a tactile truth which relates to Pummell’s actual intent: present a curated archive from archival sources, so future generations can experience the rawness of material which we take for granted today, being bombarded by sonic and visual elements in public and intimate environments.

Sacred is currently playing at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema – this Tuesday’s the last day, and it’s worth catching Lennon’s film on the big screen – whereas Bodysong is available on DVD in a decent special edition. Pummell’s film is screaming for a HD remaster and Blu-ray release, and Jonny Greenwood’s debut as film composer would sound even better in a 5.1 remix. Heck, Bodysong deserves a limited theatrical re-release.

Coming shortly: a review of I Dream of Wires (2014), the exceptional documentary on modular synthesizers by Toronto’s Robert Fantinatto and Jason Amm (aka Solvent).

And after I’ve replaced a dead Blu-ray burner with a new one this week, a review of another 3D title, Twilight Time’s anxiously awaited Inferno (1953), a great little noir produced by Fox and restored by the 3-D Film Archive.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

Tags: , , , , , , ,


Comments are closed.