DOCUMENTARY IN AMERICAN TELEVISION: FORM, FUNCTION,
METHOD, by A. William Bluem. New York: Hastings House, 1964.
311 pp. $8.95.
Authors normally resent in a review, and rightfully, the suggestion that another book rather than the one under consideration should have been written. Yet a book as good as this one inevitably becomes stimulus to the response of asking deeper questions. Just so, the very completeness with which Bluem has chronicled the prestige documentaries of network radio and television, as well as the splendid way he has analyzed their historical roots in photography, cinema, and theatre, makes one wonder all the more whether in the last analysis even such aesthetic acuity is meaningful outside a fuller sociological context. Bluem's internal history of the documentary as a form is so fascinating that it demands a complementary external history.
That as yet unwritten external history would dig as deeply into sociological matters like personnel origins and continuity, costs and sponsor problems, ratings and audience response. What is distressingly missing from Bluem's too aesthetic approach to the documentary is a certain grubbiness of context in which the documentary form has managed to endure (if not exactly prevail), a grubbiness all too evident from, say, a weekly reading of the trades; and what is likewise missing is a sense of that anti-intellectual cacophony, American popular culture, from which the audience for the documentary must somehow be distracted.
To put it another way, however much one finally assents to most of Bluem's aesthetic judgments, the book finally reads like an Awards Ceremony; everybody is dressed up in the academic equivalent of tuxes; nobody is headachey over his movieola, fighting a deadline (even, perhaps, an intranetwork competitor); there is no yawning audience, palpably switching over to an entertainment program. These realities, of course, have aesthetic dimensions: frenetic cutting and Wowie grabbers are the aesthetic residue of a documentarian's image of his hopped up audience; the absence of some topics is a function of an operative's lively awareness of how many, many more people are ready, able, and willing to step into his producer's shoes should he prove too intractable.
This is not, it should not be necessary to add, calling for a tract. It's just that the sociology of knowledge makes it imperative to at least speculate about how the climates of both the broadcasting industry and the culture at large condition the corpus of art under analysis. For, let us not be innocent about it, the documentary represents the high seriousness of an industry perfectly content so far to acquiesce in the general public's preference for frivolity. A documentary like Harvest of Shame was an eloquent effort to make Americans know and care about a hidden and scandalous cost of their comfortable affluence. That the violent reaction of those whose exploiting finally felt the light of public scrutiny "taught" the industry to be more impartial (p. 107) is in itself a scandal. One might as well talk about doing positive-thinking treatments on slums, pollution, leprosy. The whole discussion about being perfectly objective in an industry that spends most of its conscious persuading moments being ex parte about marginally differentiated products and marginally valuable fun is ludicrous when you think about it.
And while Bluem makes excellent sense in his analysis of the Murrow-McCarthy episode, one still wants to know what small "m" mccarthyism did (is still doing?) to the documentary business: Was anyone blacklisted, were topics taboo, do GM or the Pentagon try to manage the genre? Is business censorship necessary if employment in the field is so precarious that one looks out for number one by anticipating difficulties?
Why were Nightmare In Red and The Twisted Cross, for example, so much tougher than "Project XX" films on America? Does nonpartisanship like bipartisanship in foreign policy begin at the water's edge? I also screened Douglas Leiterman's One More River at the CBC and found it moving but not irresponsible.
It surprised me that NET and Westinghouse decided not to show it in their "Intertel" series and amused me that they "arrived independently at their decisions" (p. 238). NET affiliates were in a great tizzy the summer of 1966 over the Ginsberg-Ferlinghetti film in the "USA: Poetry" series because the poets had the "effrontery" to use words like scrotum on the air. Does that mean that film makers ought to cut out what those two poets say if it might offend a PTA officer in Boise: or should NET affiliate general managers have more backbone-maybe even read poetry occasionally?
In short, the tone of Bluem's book is that we ought to be grateful for the greatness our documentary makers have managed to give us. I say, foolishness. CBC and BBC documentary makers (radio and television) say more things, more experimentally, to more people on less money than our pantheon of heroes. Bluem apologizes in the last sentence of his last footnote for not reviewing the British developments for lack of time. No one expects him to do the whole job, but when the CBC is represented by a Leiterman pan, and when the unquestionably broader range of freedom both there and in Britain isn't even mentioned, the perspective of his view of American documentary
begins to blur.
It may be true, as Burton Benjamin claims in his foreword, that TV rescued the "ailing patient in extremis" of movie newsreel and documentary, but to make a basket case barely ambulatory is scarcely cause for great joy. The task of documentary on American TV is to keep the general public as informed as it is entertained. Clearly, the marketing bias of television relegates the documentary to showcase, compensatory culture. One could even argue that the entertainment genres distort popular American understanding at a far faster rate than the handful of documentaries possibly could correct, even if everybody attended to them. In the last analysis, popular fictions may indeed be shaping the American understanding; these de facto (if subliminal) antidocumentaries are perhaps a more overriding reality than the work of our elite corps of Murrow, Gitlin, Secondari, Drew, however admirable their canon has been by absolute standards.
What, this is to say, do the facts of the documentary's marginality in American broadcasting and in popular attention have to say to us that is much more important than explications of the ioo best films from Ameri- can TV? And, in all candor, isn't the absence of local documentary not really a matter of time (as CBC and BBC analyses justly are) but more a question of nonexistence, save for a few sports like the network O and O's and Westinghouse.
Sure, Tio can hustle together a long list, but do they really represent what local TV and radio could and should be capable of, given the profit margins of broadcasting? It also seems ultimately misleading to analyze TV's nonfiction function without exploring the implications of space spectaculars, escalating war coverage, and the gatekeeper role of Big Government and Big Business on the documentary. I know any one of these is a book in itself, but Bluem has found much space for diachronic aesthetic factors in the development of the documentary; the logic of his analysis seems to me to demand at least a speculative framework of the synchronic factors influencing the documentary as a form.
But it is only because Bluem's book is so exhilarating a plateau that we can even begin to see these as yet unscaled peaks. What he has done he has done well indeed, providing every student of television who agrees with Fred Friendly that what Americans don't know can kill them with a firm base for further study-for trying, ultimately, to find out if TV is capable of making most Americans know enough and care enough about the mounting agenda Edward R. Murrow believed TV entertainment was isolating them from. Bluem's book has five parts and three useful appendices.
Part One traces "the documentary heritage" in the history of photography, film, radio, and theatre, establishing clearly and eloquently that TV drama was no tabula rasa to begin with, but had rather a rich complex of traditions, some helpful, some inhibiting. It is helpful to see the prehistory of the television genre in Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, the Farm Security Administration photographers, Look and Life photojournalism; in March of Time and other theatre films; in "the forgotten art" (a fine, normative phrase) of Roy Larsen, Norman Corwin, and Robert Lewis Shayon; and in the theatre's search for greater relevance in such experiments as "the Living Newspaper" and Brecht's epic theatre. Bluem's work herein establishes a standard for histories of television: aesthetic antecedents are there, and it is a principal duty of the historian to show what they are.
Part Two analyzes the television news documentary in two sections: "the ongoing crisis" devoted to the "See It Now," "CBS Reports," and NBC's "White Paper" series, with extended analyses of crucial episodes like the Murrow-McCarthy confrontation, Harvest of Shame, and the Newburgh, New York, welfare controversy; and "the crisis
within" which considers the ambiguities of Robert Drew's cinema verite films as well as the closely related Bell & Howell "Closeup!" series on ABC.
Part Three considers the "theme documentary," with sections on compilation documentaries like Henry Salomon's NBC series, "Project XX," and Donald Hyatt's "stills in motion" form at NBC, CBS compilation traditions like "The Twentieth Century," and ABC's series on Churchill, "The Valiant Years." David Wolper's contribution is considered under the rubric "the entertainment compilation."
One wishes there were more analysis of the network rationale of no outside producers of nonfiction, for this is the kind of thinking Bluem excels at. His final section on compilation films deals with biographies, where I find him too rough on Wolper-on the whole, "Biography" and "The Story of . . ." (especially the latter) were notable contributions to television documentary, and it is regrettable in my judgment that as Wolper became successful, he gravitated to flashier biographical genres like NBC's "The World of .. ."
Part Four explores network variations like NBC's "Wide, Wide World" and the art-oriented documentaries of Lou Hazam and George Vicas, the "notebook documentary" (a shrewd term) of newsmen like Huntley, Brinkley, McGee, and the "instant history" of Chet Hagan's specials on fast-breaking news like the loss of the submarine Thresher. It also provides a limited overview of the local documentary, justly singling out for praise WBNS-TV-Columbus for its remarkable fecundity as a source of documentaries. (This is where dollars and sense analysis, management philosophy, audience response could be particularly heuristic, for in my opinion a television documentary tradition which does not include a vibrant local dimension is only half-safe.)
I would also have explored the remarkable precedent of Westinghouse-Baltimore (WBZ-TV) hiring (however briefly) Dr. Jack Hunter as "house historian," free to do six documentaries a year. If every major market station could be teased or wheedled into such Group W type statesmanship, what a long and happy story Bluem's successors would have to record. "Intertel" and the ABC "Focus on America" experiment are also discussed. I think the omission of WCBS-TV's "Eye on New York" series as well as the remarkable low-budget documentaries coming out of Pamela Iliott's Religious Programs department at CBS News are lacunae Bluem might fill in the next edition of what is clearly to become a standard work.
Part Five is a brief exposition of Bluem's theory of TV documentary, a treatment which also seems to me too elliptical to be convincing. With the prodigious labor he has put into this book, he has earned the right to philosophize at greater length, and we have incurred the obligation to listen.
This review appeared in
Documentary in American Television: Form, Function, Method
by A. William Bluem
Review by: Patrick D. Hazard
AV Communication Review, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring, 1967), pp. 117-120
Published by: Springer
Knowing and Caring: The Context of the Broadcast Documentary in America