PCUL 3P96 Issues in Popular Culture: The Case of the Rockumentary

Dont Look Back  (1967), dir. Pennebaker

Dont Look Back (1967), dir. Pennebaker


Issues in Popular Culture:  The Case of the Rockumentary

Spring 2019

Dr. Anthony Kinik

Course Description:  This course focuses on a single genre that has been a mainstay of documentary filmmaking for nearly 60 years now:  the “Rockumentary.”  The genre’s nickname is in many ways a misnomer, one based on the fact that “rock” rhymes better with “doc,” than, say, jazz, folk, soul, hip-hop, or any one of a number of other musical genres that have been the subject of the popular music documentary since its inception around 1960.  To paraphrase John Grierson, the great filmmaker, producer, and theorist who was the greatest champion of the documentary in the twenty-year period between the late 1920s and the late 1940s (i.e., well before the advent of the rockumentary): Rockumentary is a clumsy description, but let it stand.  

So “rockumentary” is the term that we’ll be using to refer to these films, but, in truth, we’ll be studying films that concern themselves with a wide variety of musical genres, from jazz, to folk, to soul, to rock, to punk, post-punk, heavy metal, hip-hop, and beyond.  And the rockumentary has not only addressed and represented a great variety of musical styles—at its best, it has also been a highly creative and dynamic documentary genre.  The rockumentary was closely associated with the ascendance of the observational approach in the 1950s and 1960s, and especially with the Direct Cinema movement in the United States, but it’s a genre which has also had strong associations with experimental filmmaking from time to time, and has frequently been on the cutting edge of documentary representation.  In other words, this is a film course that is primarily concerned with documentary form—if you’re not interested in documentaries and how they’ve developed since 1960, this is NOT the course for you.

FILM 3P96 is a course that is organized primarily chronologically.  It begins with the advent of the rockumentary genre in the period between 1958 and 1964, and it ends with two films made in the last decade.  For the most part it follows the development of musical styles between 1958 and present, and focuses on films that were made contemporaneously with these developments, but on occasion we’ll look at films that cast a retrospective glance at earlier moments in the history of popular music.  The bottom line, though, is that this is a film course that is also very much about music—if you’re not interested in popular music and how it has developed over time, this is NOT the course for you.

In addition to being a course about film and popular music, FILM 3P96 is also a cultural history, one that takes into account issues of socio-economics and politics, culture and counter-culture, race and subculture, celebrity and stardom, art and the creative impulse, gender and identity.  The rockumentary has become ubiquitous since its early days, and we can now find rockumentaries and rockumentary-like projects on cable television, on streaming services like Netflix, on YouTube, and on web projects like Tiny Desk and Black Cab Sessions.  Here in this class, however, we’re primarily concerned with films that have innovated and/or have made significant and lasting contributions to the rockumentary genre.

Screening Schedule:

1. Intro & Early History

2.  Classical 1:  Dont Look Back

screening:   Dont Look Back (1967), dir. Pennebaker

3.  Classical 2:  Monterey Pop & Woodstock

screening:  Woodstock (1970), dir. Wadleigh

4.  Classical 3:  The End of an Era

screening:  The Last Waltz (1978), dir. Scorsese

D.O.A.:  A Right of Passage  (1981), dir. Kowalski

D.O.A.: A Right of Passage (1981), dir. Kowalski

5.  Punk

screening:  D.O.A.:  A Right of Passage (1981), dir. Kowalski

and/or The Filth and the Fury (2000), dir. Temple

6.  Post-Punk/New Wave

screening:  Stop Making Sense (1984), dir. Demme

7.  Metal

screening:  The Decline of the Western Civilization, Pt. 2:  The Metal Years (1988), dir. Spheeris

8.  Pop

screening:   Madonna:  Truth or Dare (1991), dir. Keshishian

9.  The “World Music” Phenomenon

screening:  Buena Vista Social Club (1999), dir. Wenders

20,000 Days on Earth  (2014), dir. Forsyth & Pollard

20,000 Days on Earth (2014), dir. Forsyth & Pollard

10.  New Directions

screening:  20,000 Days on Earth (2014), dir. Forsyth & Pollard

suggested home viewing:  Homecoming (2019), dir. Beyoncé AND/OR Rolling Thunder Review:  A Bob Dylan Story (2019), dir. Scorsese

Expo 67 & Expanded Cinema, Anthology Film Archives, May 11, 2019

KINIK films at the fair 1.jpg

In May, Anthology Film Archives followed up their massive city symphonies series with another impressive program: “Films for the Fair: The World’s Fair and the Cinema.” Beginning on May 8 with a screening of Lance Bird and Tom Johnson’s The World of Tomorrow (1984), a fascinating study of the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair made up entirely of amateur and archival footage, “Films for the Fair” ran for two weeks and covered most of the 20th century.

KINIK films at the fair 2.jpg

I was part of a research group (cinemaexpo67.ca) devoted to cinematic and quasi-cinematic experiments at Expo 67 for a number of years. This research led to a book titled Reimagining Cinema: Film at Expo 67 (2014), published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, a number of high-profile exhibitions, some film restorations, and several other events.

Because of this experience, on May 11, I was invited down to New York to introduce three programs of films along with Guillaume Lafleur of the Cinémathèque québécoise. With a few notable exceptions, these three programs were largely devoted to films about Expo 67 and films that had appeared at Expo 67, with a particular emphasis on “expanded cinema.”

Film Notes 1

As television emerged as an entertainment staple in middle-class households, cinema started looking a little long in the tooth. But at World’s Fairs in Seattle, New York, and Montreal, inventive filmmakers and technicians were exhibiting site-specific work that demanded a larger arena than the average living room could afford. Luminaries Charles and Ray Eames, already known the world over for their exemplary work in industrial design and the applied arts, debuted their revolutionary short film THINK at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, while documentary duo Francis Thompson and Alexander Hammid reunited for the six-screen opus WE ARE YOUNG! at the 1967 Montreal Expo. Building on a rich aesthetic that began, arguably, with the tricolor finale of Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic NAPOLEON, these multi-screen works from the heyday of midcentury modernism pushed filmmaking to the limit of two-dimensional exhibition and inspired subsequent artists for decades to come.

Program 1

Charles & Ray Eames HOUSE OF SCIENCE (1964, 14 min, 6-screen 35mm-to-digital)
Charles & Ray Eames THINK (1964, 15 min, 15-screen 35mm-to-digital. Preserved by the Library of Congress.)
Francis Thompson & Alexander Hammid TO BE ALIVE! (1964, 18 min, 35mm-to-digital. Film courtesy of SC Johnson.)
Francis Thompson & Alexander Hammid WE ARE YOUNG! (1967, 20 min, six-screen 35mm-to-DCP. Courtesy of Library & Archives Canada.)
Vincent Vaitiekunas MOTION / LE MOUVEMENT (1967, 14 min, 70mm-to-digital. Courtesy of the Cinémathèque Québecois.)
Total running time: ca. 85 min.

Program 2

Roman Kroitor, Colin Low & Hugh O’Connor IN THE LABYRINTH (1967, 21 min, 5-screen 35mm-to-digital)
Christopher Chapman A PLACE TO STAND (1967, 17 min, 70mm-to-35mm. Courtesy of the Linwood Dunn Collection at the Academy Film Archive.)
George Dunning CANADA IS MY PIANO (1967, 4.5 min, 3-screen 35mm-to-digital. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.)
Michel Brault SETTLEMENT AND CONFLICT / CONFLIT (1967, 5 min, 2-screen 35mm-to-digital. Courtesy of the Cinémathèque Québecois.)
Georges Dufaux & Claude Godbout MULTIPLE MAN (1969, 15 min, 70mm-to-digital)
Total running time: ca. 70 min.

Film Notes 2

Expo 67 was the most moving-image-saturated Exposition of them all. While the films and installations that attracted the most attention were those that experimented, often boldly, with the possibilities of multiple-screen cinema (and are therefore included in the two multi-screen programs elsewhere in this series), Expo 67’s moving-image works ran the gamut of styles and approaches. This program features some of the single-screen highlights, including William Brind’s city-symphony-like IMPRESSIONS OF EXPO 67, two films exploring the pavilions devoted to Canada’s indigenous culture (as well as the experiences of the Inuit artists and craftspeople who participated in the Fair), John & Faith Hubley’s experimental animation URBANISSIMO, and a section of Jud Yalkut’s film METAMEDIA that was shot at the Expo.

Program 3

William Brind IMPRESSIONS OF EXPO 67 (1967, 8 min, 35mm-to-digital)
Eva Kolcze & Phil Hoffman BY THE TIME WE GOT TO EXPO (2015, 9 min, digital)
Marc Beaudet THE CANADIAN PAVILION, EXPO 67 (1967, 19 min, 35mm-to-digital)
David Millar AKI’NAME (ON THE WALL) (1968, 22 min, 35mm-to-digital)
Michel Régnier INDIAN MEMENTO (1967, 18 min, 35mm-to-digital)
Hubs Hagen EXPOSITION (1967, 10 min, 16mm. Collection print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.)
John & Faith Hubley URBANISSIMO (1967, 6 min, 16mm)
Jud Yalkut EXPO ‘67 (1967, 2 min, 16mm-to-digital, silent)
Total running time: ca. 100 min.


City Symphonies, Anthology Film Archives, January 2019

fig. a: city symphonies @ Anthology Film Archives

fig. a: city symphonies @ Anthology Film Archives

Jed Rapfogel, the chief film programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York, contacted me in the fall, after the release of The City Symphony Phenomenon, to consult on a new program he was putting together on city symphonies. I was thrilled that Anthology was considering such a series. One of the goals of the book had been to create a resource that would be of great use to scholars, archivists, and programmers, and here, already, there was evidence that this goal was being realized. Jed ended up putting together an impressively comprehensive program of films, one that tracked down dozens of films from the city symphony’s “classical era” (1920-1940), and combined them in provocative ways with a number of post-World War II that continued with this earlier tradition of filmmaking, or expanded upon it.

I was invited by Jed to come down to New York to introduce some films on the opening weekend of the new program. I ended up introducing 4 programs of films on Friday, January 11 and Saturday, January 12:

  1. "A Day in the Life of..." (Jan 11, 7pm)

Anson Dyer A DAY IN LIVERPOOL (1929, 23 min, 35mm, silent. Archival print courtesy of the British Film Institute.)

Wilfried Basse MARKT IN BERLIN (1929, 18 min, 35mm, silent. Archival print courtesy of the Deutsche Kinemathek.)

Otakar Vávra WE LIVE IN PRAGUE / ŽIJEME V PRAZE (1934, 13 min, 35mm-to-DCP, silent. Courtesy of the National Film Archive, Prague.)

Gordon Sparling RHAPSODY IN TWO LANGUAGES (1934, 11 min, 35mm. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.)

Total running time: ca. 70 min.

2. Alberto Cavalcanti's Rien que les heures (1926) + Joris Ivens's Rain (1929) (Jan 11, 9pm)

3. André Sauvage's Études sur Paris (1928) (Jan 12, 5:45 pm)

4. "By Night" (Jan 12, 8pm)

Svatopluk Innemann PRAGUE BY NIGHT / PRAHA V ZÁŘI SVĚTEL (1928, 22 min, 35mm-to-DCP, silent. Courtesy of the National Film Archive, Prague.)
Eugène Deslaw LES NUIT ÉLECTRIQUES (1930, 13 min, 35mm. Restored print courtesy of CNC – Direction du patrimoine.)
Ian Hugo JAZZ OF LIGHTS (1954, 16 min, 16mm)
William Klein BROADWAY BY LIGHT (1958, 12 min, 35mm. Print courtesy of the Walker Art Center.)
Rudolph Burckhardt SQUARE TIMES (1967, 6.5 min, 16mm)
Total running time: ca. 75 min.

The screenings are taking place in the Maya Deren Theater, and the turnout was excellent for all four of the opening programs. For the most part, the films looked incredible, too—the highlight being a newly restored 35mm print of André Sauvage’s Études sur Paris (1928).

fig. b: études sur  Études sur Paris

fig. b: études sur Études sur Paris

The response to the films was enthusiastic, and I had a bunch of great conversations about the phenomenon with some of the people who turned out.

And I also got a chance to lead the audience in a prayer at one point.

fig. c: “Let us pray.”

fig. c: “Let us pray.”

For more on Anthology Film Archive’s amazing City Symphonies program check out this link.

Bon cinéma!