The US movie industry developed into its current form in the 1910′s and 1920′s for a number of reasons – technical, financial, cultural and social. In the USA, it resulted in bodies to control the distribution of ‘sanctioned’ films; a new profession, the film distributor middle-man; the star system (Dominick, p 204-5), and a system of better quality cinemas. As a result, extravagant movie-length features became the norm (Dominick, p 204-5; Demers, p 156), and increased costs led to the consolidation of the industry into iconic Hollywood companies, combining production and distribution.
‘Talkies’, in the late 1920′s, led by Warner Brothers, proved very popular and eventually led to an exponential growth (Dominick 207; Demers p 157). By this time, the motion picture industry was attracting significant negative attention from moral arbiters, with its penchant for ‘sex, crime and violence’ (Demers 156-7).
Meanwhile, radio in the 1920′s was working out how to operate on a commercial basis through on-air advertising (Dominick, p 152). Linking radio stations into networks further reduced production costs. The economic power of the networks were able to attract and pay for star announcers. The success of commercial radio led to Federal regulation and licensing in the US in 1927, ad hybrid partly state supported broadcasting corporations in many Commonwealth nations (Kovarik 217-8):
Thus, by the end of the 1920′s, the framework for modern radio broadcasting was in place. It would be a commercial supported mass media dominated by networks and regulated by an agency of the federal government. ((Dominick, p 153)
Sound and doco
What did technical innovation do to specific genres? Let us take documentary as an example. The first Lumiere ‘documentarie’s (or actualities) were developed as a result of technical advances in cameras and projection (the cinematograph) (Demers p 153). According to Bill Nichols:
In the silent film era, documentary as a mode of representation that offered perspectives on the historical world – sustained by an institutional framework and community of practitioners, and armed with specific conventions corresponding to distinct audience expectations – did not yet exist. (Nichols)
A change of technology eventually led to a significant reconceptualisation of the documentary concept:
…the advent of sound in documentary posed an array of alternatives. These ranged from poetic narratives to evocative portraits and from studio-produced commentary to the actual speech of people in their everyday life. The choices made among these alternatives are part of a larger story of the nature and function of documentary film in the period from the late 1920s to the late 1930s when a dominant mode of expository documentary took hold and became the equivalent of the classic Hollywood mode of production.
Kovarick (p. 151) comments that sound documentaries was particularly good at propaganda. The earliest American talkie documentaries were Pare Lorentz’s U.S. government sponsored films The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937). The use of sound changed the dominant tone of documentary from ‘longings, enchantment, and idylls’ to ‘exhortation, warnings, and proposals’, largely carried by the audio track (Nichols).
Ideas about editing and collage were also revised in the light of sound:
Through the first half of the 1930s, the use of sound took many forms, often furthering the principles of collage through contrapuntal and non-synchronous forms (in The Song of Ceylon (1934), Night Mail (1936), Vertov’s Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Don Basin (1931), Rotha’s Pett and Pott (1934) and Flaherty’s Industrial Britain, produced by John Grierson (1933)). Grierson’s efforts to define and make popular the documentary as an alternative to Hollywood in fact led him to encourage considerable experimentation with sound in the early 1930s. As Lovell and Hillier note, under Grierson the documentary movement became “a laboratory for experiments in the non-naturalistic use of sound.”
Eventually, however, a dominant mode arose within the British documentary movement that took hold in America as well. It concentrated sound into speech and yoked speech to a rhetorical assertion. The speech became known as the voice of God and the assertions became labeled didacticism, or propaganda. It was into this increasingly dominant tradition, which included later British works like Housing Problems (1935) and The Smoke Menace (1937) as well as sound newsreels like The March of Time (1935), that Pare Lorentz stepped when he made his two most famous films. The ethnographic impulse became argumentative rather than observational, as it was to remain in anthropology or in the later work in cinéma verité and cinéma direct. Collage became flattened upon the Procrustean bed of expository logic, in which images serve primarily as illustration for the rhetorical claims of a spoken commentary with its problem-solving bent rather than allowing the potential of images as assembled fragments to attain full force. Collage, sound, and documentary became tamed, placed at the service of sponsors. The sponsors could vary radically in their politics and ambitions (from Stalinism to the New Deal), but their impact everywhere was both to give to documentary a dominant form at the same time as they robbed it of more complex diversity and potential subversiveness. By the late 1930s the coming of sound was complete (if not entirely embraced) and documentary was both richer (in potential) and poorer (in its prevailing practice) for it. (Nichols)
Web 2.0 and doco
If the impact of sound was to embed exposition and propagandistic argument as the dominant mode of documentary for the following 30 or 40 years, what might the impact of the network, with its hyperlinks, granular searchability, interactivity and user-generated content? The Web 1.0 era gave us many interesting documentary experiments, mianly exploring the user of hyperlinks to form non-linear paths and richly designed environments combining rich media with static html pages. In retrospect however, such documentaries did not really reinvent the documentary concept, which has always been a genre typified less by linear narrative than the mounting of arguments whose needs were forced, and indeed, ‘contained’ by linear heritage media, rather than presupposing it.
What seems more important to the documentary form since it was conceived by the industrial era of mass communication is the delivery of some sort of coherent position – conceived argumentatively, politically, or aethetically. Even documentaries in the poetic mode (or essay films) must, perhaps, attain an aesthetic, or perhaps psychological coherence to be successful. Web 2.0, typified by user-generated content and social media, threatens the possibility of such coherence.
The response of documentary makers to the challenge of Web 2.0 has to date been piecemeal. Few, if any, seem to found a way to gracefully incorporate user generated content into arguments, let alone aesthetics. Doing so will surely lead to a revolution in the documentary form. However, incorporating found content into documentary might also change the economics of making documentaries, allowing for the possibility of niche documentaries with small budgets, disseminated freely with, perhaps, sponsorship to underwrite them.
Demers, D (2007). History and future of mass media: an integrated perspective. New Jersey: Hampton Press.
Dominick, J R The dynamics of mass communication: media in transition. 11th edition.
Kovarik, B (2011). Revolutions in communication: Media History from Gutenberg to the digital age. New York: Continuum.
Nichols, Bill Documentary and the coming of sound. Filmsound.org: http://www.filmsound.org/film-sound-history/documentary.htm (accessed 7 December 2012)
[Poster for The Jazz Singer (1927)]