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Learning to Love Those ... uh, Documentaries

By David Sterritt / March 22, 1989


MOST audiences think of documentary film as a sort of poor relation to mainstream commercial movies - respectable, maybe, but not really important and usually not much fun. Accordingly, nonfiction films have always found it hard to attract attention outside the specialized domain of museums, classrooms, and other ``educational'' venues. Video documentaries face the same problem when they don't fit the ritualized patterns of network news and ``magazine'' shows. On television, they're often relegated to out-of-the-way time slots on PBS and local channels hungry for programming. Off television, they have even fewer havens than their celluloid cousins.

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Yet video documentary has an honorable history, stretching back 25 years and encompassing a wide range of visual and informational styles. That history is featured in an ambitious new program called ``American Documentary Video: Subject to Change,'' which had its premi`ere at the Museum of Modern Art here and has now embarked on a wide-ranging international tour sponsored by the American Federation of Arts.

What makes museum-quality video different from things we see on our late-night TV screens at home? I asked video teacher and curator Deirdre Boyle, who assembled the ``Subject to Change'' program. ``A lot of these tapes were made for television,'' she replied. ``But some of them ... never got on television because the work was too controversial, or because it set out to fundamentally undermine the notions of television.''

A prime example of this ``undermining'' activity is a videotape called ``Media Burn,'' made in 1975 by Ant Farm, a San Francisco arts group.

``They really set out to criticize the way in which the media collude with the government, industry, and the space program, for example, in creating media events,'' says Ms. Boyle. ``So they set up their own media event. They staged a happening [in which] a Cadillac drove through a burning pyramid of television sets - to celebrate Americans kicking the TV habit.'' The result, says Boyle, was an antimedia media event - a ``rather amusing idea'' that became subversive by criticizing the whole idea of capturing public attention with outrageous stunts. ``This was never broadcast,'' she adds with a smile.

``Media Burn'' is one of 26 videos, made between 1965 and 1988, that make up the 10 ``Subject To Change'' programs. Together, they cover a wide range of styles. There's the cin'ema-v'erit'e realism of ``The Clarks,'' a portrait of a welfare family in New Orleans, and ``Frank, a Vietnam Veteran,'' an extended ``talking head'' monologue.

There's the poetic and impressionistic approach of ``Meta Mayan II,'' an ethnological study, and ``Smothering Dreams,'' an antiwar statement. There's also the polemics of ``Healthcare: Your Money or Your Life,'' and the historical concern of ``A Common Man's Courage,'' and the political passion of ``Doctors, Liars, and Women: AIDS Activists Say No to Cosmo,'' and the eccentricity of ``Herb Schiller Reads the New York Times - 712 Pages of Waste: The Sunday Times.''

Boyle says these very different videos were made by very different artists. ``There's a wide spectrum of people involved,'' she reports, ``from activists who are concerned with burning issues - who use video as a tool to get their ideas across - to artists who are concerned with the nature of the medium.... You have people who are working as free-lance journalists for television, and others who do work that would only be seen in a museum.''

The styles of video documentary have been influenced not only by different artistic personalities, Boyle continues, but also by the passing of time.