Every week or so, filmmaker and writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction.
Last week, Peter Wintonick died of liver cancer at the age of 60, and there have been many eulogies given on behalf of his generosity and importance to the documentary community. But the man who once stated rightly that “the first documentary was a fiction, and since then it’s been a really difficult journey to figure what a documentary is” was a thinker on form, craft and the nature of the medium. To honor his contributions, today I nominate Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, the film he co-directed with Mark Achbar, into our new canon.
“Cinematic nonfiction” is a term that I’ve come to use to describe reality-based films that behave as movies first, with all the bigness, kinky tensions, formal audacity and interest in character or drama that “cinematic” implies, as opposed to the constant stream of fact and issue-obsessed documentaries that more closely resemble television infotainment. More often than not, a film that’s celebrated here is done so for its vivid interest in narrative, its inspirational exploration of formal limits or its exceptional use of the fundamental building block of nonfiction: the observed moment. But Manufacturing Consent is a playful, frisky, wildly imaginative film about ideas and their uses, proving that “cinematic” is a perpetually elastic notion.
Using archival material, clips, speeches, radio interviews, graphic illustrations and absurdist, entertaining, self-reflexive image constructions, the film is an elliptical, discursive biography of revolutionary linguist and provocative intellectual Noam Chomsky. It defines this one-man force of nature through his words and thoughts, ignoring the standard bio channel narrative to build character by way of a series of word/image provocations. Chomsky’s wildly curious intellect is celebrated and matched by the style of the film, which synthesizes form and content in endlessly fascinating ways.
The movie illustrates Chomsky’s radical political thoughts on the nature of democracy and the function of the individual within a deeply coercive system by giving time to the man to cleverly articulate his “anarcho-syndicalism” beliefs, while inventively visualizing the popular Chomsky phrase “propaganda is to democracy what violence is to a dictatorship.” The film is clearly a piece of agitprop itself, but it resists easy hagiography through a series of amusing, self-aware scenes that foreground the film’s construction. One memorable moment has Chomsky relating the opiate-like effect of sports on the masses, while his speech is projected on a football scoreboard in an enormous, empty stadium with Wintonick appearing as an unenthused coach on the sidelines. The film is detailed, fun and completely absorbing, simultaneously breaking what Peter Watkins called the “monoform” of standard filmmaking while also playing to bigger audiences and functioning as a truly useful introduction to Chomsky.
In one scene Wintonick appears with his daughter, which immediately makes clear the personal nature of the film. This is a movie by a warrior about a warrior, and it should not be seen as an artifact of a political moment, but as a testament to the power of cinematic ideas. The search for constructions of truth, the desire for communication and the pleasure of creativity represented in Manufacturing Consent will live on forever.
Watch it now on Amazon Instant Video Prime.
Past Nominees For the New Canon of Nonfiction Cinema: