The Documentary Field of the Film Industry

Date: Jan 14, 2019


By its very nature, the documentary field of the film industry is filled with variants of expressive thoughts, perspectives and ideals, all of which enrich the debate on various existent social aspects. A majority is provocative to general society, tending to dwell on very thorny issues and aspects of human development, and as such, often resulting in heated debates and reactions. It is mainly elicited with reference to environmental impacts, socio-cultural contexts, politico-economic sustenance, and human artistic impressions amongst other arenas. Due to the aspect of this film genre, delving more into the aforementioned, it receives both acclaim and criticism in equal measure, with this being determined by an individual’s inclination, knowledge, and standing.

 “Why Beauty Matters”

As such, Roger Scruton best achieves all of that abovementioned through his highly provocative BBC documentary, titled “Why Beauty Matters” (2009), where the main focus is placed on contemporary Art, as well as the critical aspect of its gradual loss of ‘beauty’. It is in the contexts of human arts meaning, not only with reference to human association, but also with the general realm of expression and meaning. Accordingly, he maintains that beauty, espouses a value, which is equated to both goodness and truth, while at the same time decrying the sorry state of current social contexts, which have inadvertently, turned away on this important social facet of beauty. Through persuasion, he alludes to the fact that beauty is universal in nature, bemoaning the lack of spirituality, with reference to human artistic beauty and creativity (Scruton, 2009).

He entails his thoughts of art, requiring the crucial aspect of creativity, by way of expressing that any such work, which while entailing all aspects of contemporary social contexts is indeed artistic, it is in the overall instance, ultimately imperfect. He bases this on his ideal that though such work does offer a slice of the current contexts, imperfections included, it does fall short of the fundamental basic human needs. To this end, he poses the question if such human effort and product entails art or artistic value. He is critical to the extent of dismissing contemporary art, majorly focused on existentialism, rather than claiming that it has with time evolved into ‘a cult/ system of ugliness.’

To display his understanding of good and beautiful artistic work, he singles out the Stabat Mater by Pergolesi, which he extols as being able to directly bring out real virtues through simplicity. Consequently, it is reasonable to say that he indeed cherishes traditional, figurative, and sublime artwork/sculpture, which is as such not extended into the neo-classical era form of art. Accordingly, he deplores the existent sorry state of current postmodern art and artistic value, which is the accompanying aspect of relativism. In general, this provides an overall renunciation of existent contemporary art with post-modernism, as well as the absolute relativist nature of artwork being no exemption. To be noted is the fact that many pundits, however, generally agree with the fact that modern art and artwork has indeed turned its back from the focus on beauty/aesthetics.

Of critical importance, and in essence, a major basis of his scathing attack on post-modern existentialist artwork and art form is the fact that modern art is soulless. It is exemplified by the existing form-follows-function type of architecture, as well as the modernized and gadget-infused structural form of contemporary buildings and architecture. While commending the artistic composition of contemporary music and theatre, he bemoans the slow nature of current visual-arts, which he portends as being slow in returning to the basics of espousing the ideal of beauty within different works. Fundamental questions do arise, as to the possibility of creating classicism, as well as a new tradition in music and theatre, in addition to the overall art world, by way of avoiding trappings, brought about by pastiche, kitsch and clich?s (Scruton, 2009).

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Through the compare and contrast technique, Scruton is able to display a general reflection of the existent contemporary art world. He provides the key areas of difference, as well as general similarities, though with a general preference of classic and pre-classic culture and artwork/form. Through rhetoric analysis, he is able to bring out the prevalent aspect of beauty, as espoused in the contemporary vis-?-vis art, which was showcased in the early classical and pre-classical eras. Complimentary to the above, is his aspect of distinguishing beauty, as being the fittingness and ordinary harmony, or expressive and revealing, with presence of individual gestures.

"Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic"

The 1922 documentary, "Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic" by Robert J. Flaherty, portrays the day-to-day life struggles of the Nanook family, in their homeland, the Canadian Arctic. As a feature-length documentary, it is based mostly on the tradition of salvage ethnography, with real-life experience being the basis of the film. Consequently, it is similar to the aforementioned, by way of the fact that it is real-life based and experienced, though not on the same time-scale/frame manner. It is based on a gradual experience of human art and the way of life, with the latter aforementioned, is of shorter (1-year) period. Through utility of ‘actualities’, with reference to short films, and pictures taken of real individuals in tangible arenas, the two are able to showcase pictorial evidence of an existent way of life, art, and cultural affiliation (Flaherty, 1922).

A contrasting feature would be that the former is not necessarily life experiential, as the latter, which majorly focuses on life stories. Fundamentally, the former film provides the gradual loss of the value of beauty in current contexts through dialogue and debate, while the latter utilizes visual effects, with the lack of sound, to capture the inner imaginations of humanity, as they undergo daily life challenges. Charles Musser (1991), in his text Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company, explores the revolutionary aspect of cinema, from its earliest times possible, with this being the short, silent film clips, to current hours-long voiced ones. He displays the radical nature of change, by way of exemplifying Edwin S. Porter’s vibrant achievement, through his critically acclaimed work, titled "The Great Train Robbery".

He explores the evolution from rolls of still pictures joined together, to the current graphically enhanced film industry. With the film continuity being developed, the aspect of sound production was to fundamentally alter the future of the films industry, as it enabled the portrayal and dissemination of intended ideals and perspectives. With time, the commercial aspect of the films industry was to be initiated, with the advent of America’s Nickelodeon. It provided the first major step towards the enhanced focus of films development, with reference to commercial utility, as a way of endearing the existent public to various aspects of human advancement/development. The commercialization of cinema, brought about by the aspect of mass entertainment, eventually led to the loss of the true sense of artistic beauty of entertainment, as best exemplified in theatres and dance (Musser, 1991).

"Why Beauty Matters"

It is one comparison existent between this text and the "Why Beauty Matters" documentary, as both exemplify the gradual loss in artistic taste/inclination, sacrificed at the altar of existentialism, as demonstrated in modern lifestyles. Through increased individual consumerism, as well as gradual loss of touch with general natural surroundings, the evolving aspect of Human aesthetics and artistic work has and continues losing its general beauty, value, and touch with human ideals and perspectives. Robert J. Flaherty comes back with his 1934 fictional (ethno-fictional) documentary, Man of Aran, portraying the lives of inhabitants of the Aran Islands, off Ireland’s western coast.

A similarity is his concentration of ethnic focused documentation of day-to-day lives of different populations, in secluded regions of the world. A reason may be his greater focus on the uninterrupted lives of various societies, uninfluenced fundamentally by existent current social contexts. Here in this documentary, he chronicles the daily routine of these people, displaying their struggle for survival in pre-modern environment. A comparison between his two documentaries is the fact that the cast portrayed as a family unit, was in essence picked for their photogenic qualities, with some of the situational contexts being stage-managed. A similarity between these two and Roger Scruton’s BBC documentary "Why Beauty Matters" (2009) is that they all portray a type of aesthetic beauty, linking humanity with the surrounding environment (Flaherty, 1934).

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Augmenting the above is Betsy A. McLane’s 2012 text, A New History of Documentary Film, which provides both a definitive and thorough history/survey of the documentary films genre. With concentration being mainly on American, British and Canadian output (films), it is linked to all the aforementioned documentaries, as they feature aspects connected to these states. Adding on to this is the fact that it delves specifically on documentary films genre, portraying an evolutionary trend from earlier silent motion pictures, to the contemporary film arena. Additionally, it is a similarity that this text both appreciates and acknowledges the aforementioned director Robert Flaherty, with reference to his great input, as pertaining to revolutionary trend of the film industry.

From socio-economic, religious and political influences, the film industry has undergone fundamental changes, essentially portraying not only existent social aspects, but also aspired ideals, views and perspectives, with regard to human development and the environment. Through portrayal of real life aspects, a sense of beauty is captured, which the paper’s initial focus on Roger Scruton’s Why Beauty Matters (2009), best capturing this lost aspect of humanity (McLane, 2012).


In conclusion this response paper, it should be mentioned that the documentary industry owes great tribute to the legendary John Grierson, who pioneered the genre as a whole, with the aforementioned Robert Flaherty, majorly being influential in the creation of not only ethno-fictional documentaries, but also a larger range of documentary films genre.

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