Unlike many of the midcentury’s cinematic “movements,” cinema vérité has faded from view not because it is dated but because it is now utterly ubiquitous. In fact, the label is, more than ever, “meaningless,” as Frederick Wiseman says in Peter Wintonick’s talking-codgers doc Cinema Vérité: Defining the Moment. No longer the running-with-the-devil antithesis to the documentary tradition but the tradition itself, today vérité is a way of life; anyone can, and often will, make their own high-res/digital-video doc. Wintonick eventually ends up at the brink of the vérité to come (several of the vets are experimenting with palm-corders and Web distribution), but in sketching out the glory days of old men, he misses vast opportunities to examine the nature of vérité, and therefore our experience of the world, in relation to 24-hour life-cams and global simultaneity.
Date the wave’s origins however you want; being a Canadian supported by the National Film Board, Wintonick locates the roots of the sensibility in the unheralded likes of Michel Brault and Wolf Koenig loosening up the rigidities of Canadian TV news. As they articulate what defined “vérité” in the making, nearly all of the big guns—including Drew, Leacock, Wiseman, Pennebaker, Rouch, Greaves, and Reisz—climax their frontier-forging tales with the stunned realization of how damn easy making a documentary is now. But only Albert Maysles is particularly eloquent, defining his approach as a search for “uncontrolled cinema” in which a genuine respect for the subject is all, and maintaining that “if you’re worried about objectivity and subjectivity, you’re afraid to film.” Visits with Barbara Kopple, Jennifer Fox, and Gillian Caldwell (who trains international activists to shoot footage of human rights abuses for the Witness Web site) are a welcome acknowledgment of the last quarter-century, but Wintonick (who codirected the similarly gimmicky Manufacturing Consent) spends far too much time involving himself in the action as he jumps from one flatbed to the next. As slight and useful as a Cliffs Notes, the film helplessly skimps on the style as a viewing experience; excerpted clips just don’t have that real-time vérité juice.
Jason Rosette’s BookWars is a pungent example of what Wintonick’s old-timers are talking about: an artless but seductive piece of DIY sociology, made by a West 4th Street bookseller about other West 4th Street booksellers, with whatever format camera he could find. Hardly profound or penetrating (it’s no Salesman, on which Maysles in Wintonick’s film muses, “There’s the selling, and the Bible: In a way, what else is there to indicate what America is all about?”), Rosette’s film suffers from cheap-hipster narration and transitional muddiness. But the street vendors, operating on the disorderly edge of commerce (truly, what is less valuable to capitalist culture than a used paperback?), are entertainingly eccentric travelers, with an ersatz knowledge of Camus and Heidegger and an animus for Giuliani’s Quality of Life cleanup. It’s vérité, but after all, isn’t everything?