It’s been a very long time since I wrote a critical content analysis of a film, so I decided to write one about “Page One.” A note: This is unedited and very, very long, and is not meant to be a “like it or not” review, but instead, to use a theoretical lens to discuss this particular documentary.
Watching the film was a fun and interesting challenge for me: on one hand, I read film like a text, as I sometimes like to wear a film critic’s hat; on the other, I personally know some of the ‘stars’ of the film and seeing David Carr and Brian Stelter on screen was great, but also a bit surreal.
I would imagine that any New York media person (whether journalist or PR person who has worked with any of the film’s narrators) had similar thoughts while watching this film. But to applaud the film based on knowing the social actors doesn’t do the film justice, so this ‘review’ looks at “Page One” through an expository mode of representation lens, which is meant to highlight a) how to read documentary film, b) how this film uses a the expository mode of representation to push its agenda and from that, c) can documentary film be objective?
Modes of Representation
Documentary film has a reputation for being serious, personal and individual. It also has several unique and identifiable modes of representation: expository, observational, interactive and reflexive. Expository “addresses the viewer directly, with titles or voices that advance an argument about the historical world” (from Nichols’s, Representing Reality, pg 34). Observational is “what can be considered ‘cinema verite,’ stressing the nonintervention of the filmmaker and causing the audience to view the subjects as social actors, a representation of the subject on screen” (pg 38). The interactive mode, conversely, stresses the “images of testimony or verbal exchange and images of demonstration (images that demonstrate the validity, or possibly, the doubtfulness, of what witnesses state)”(pg 44). And finally, the reflexive mode focuses on the representation of the “historical world and becomes the topic of cinematic mediation” (pg 57).
“Page One” has moments where each mode is represented, but I’d like to focus on the expository mode, as the subject of the film is, at the root, how are we, as citizens, informed?
Just like in expository writing, where the intention is to inform or explain the author’s subject to the reader, the expository documentary mode of representation relays information and makes its case through the text, its subjects and the aesthetics of the film. “Page One” follows this through its use of a self-referential (or as the kids say these days, “meta”) perspective: a documentary about an influential news organization and the journalists who cover the media industry in an era where media empires are falling, fast.
In Theorizing The Moving Image, Noel Carroll explains how film aesthetics – lighting, distance, camera angle, lens, editing, etc. – can alter the perspective of ‘knowledge.’ In the expository mode, knowledge is often epistemic knowledge, where knowledge is commanding and in agreement with the constructs and ideas that are considered true in a specific time and place. Furthermore, what knowledge we take from the film adds to our already filled “stockpile of knowledge” and as Nichols points out that this is “the great value of the expository mode since a topical issue can be addressed within a frame of reference that need not be questioned or established but simply taken for granted” (Nichols, 35).
“Page One” establishes early on a general topic: the media industry is dying. It then drills down to: well, if the media industry is dying, as evidenced by many prominent publications shutting its doors, what would happen if, as many have speculated, the New York Times goes under?
The opening shot presents an interesting duality, as it shows the production of a day’s newspaper in one of the company’s manufacturing plant: 1. The New York Times is a large machine – there are many pieces to put together, besides reporting, to complete one issue, and 2. This machine is rusting – the factory floor hums from symphonic computers and mechanical arms, with few humans around; and as the nondiegetic sound of a beating heart thumps away over the opening montage of the news that the news industry is dying, the viewer picks up on the impending doom.
Moving forward, any argument portrayed in the film (for example, the world would be worse off if the New York Times were to disappear) is structured through this epistemic concept, and statements, both implied and explicit, work well together through the narrators and the stories they have written.
And this is the problem with the film: to appreciate “Page One” as exposition, you have to already know about the media industry, generally, and print journalism, specifically. Additionally, the film does not tell the viewer about the rich history of the paper, so while there are brief shots of previous generations of “Timesmen,” the audience is forced to rely on its own knowledge.
However, let’s assume you aware of the film’s epistemic knowledge. Fitting into the expository mode nicely, the film is presented more like a news cast than a narrative, jumping from news story to news story, informing viewers of the issues the documentarian wants to raise. Nichols notes, there is an “overriding ethical/political/ideological question to documentary filmmaking,” and that is, “How can people and issues be represented appropriately” (pg. 34)? The expository mode raises subsequent ethical issues: how can the film be objective when the subjects are themselves not, or the filmmaker is not, or the producers are not? As Nichols asks, “What does speaking for or on behalf of someone or something entail in terms of a dual responsibility to the subject of the film and to the audience whose agreement is sought?”
In one respect, “Page One” answers these questions through David Carr. Reviewing the film for The New York Times, Michael Kinsley points out, “As he freely admits, David Carr loves The New York Times.” Several scenes highlight this, as the camera follows Mr. Carr to a specious debate with ‘new’ media folk (my favorite part of the film, incidentally, is here, when Mr. Carr humorously, and intellectually, rips apart the aggregation model of Michael Wolffe’s “Newser”).
In a more substantive manner, the film relies on the viewer’s preconceived values of The New York Times to present the equation, if the New York Times means Journalism, then it clearly can’t fail. Even Roger Ebert, in his review, notes that:
The paper remains, as it has long been, the most essential source of news in this nation.
For many of the film’s viewers, this is a deeply entrenched belief, though the qualifier of “most essential” is an argument that can’t be debated on terms of merit, as how do you quantify ‘most essential?” But this is the essence of the film, isn’t it? Is the New York Times that essential to journalism that it can’t possibly fail? This is one of the underlying questions of the film and it’s interesting to read reviews that make the point without really making the point.
The issue with “Page One,” unfortunately, is that it strays in too many directions away from this question and puts undue strain on the viewer. A viewer of expository mode documentaries typically holds expectations that there is a rational, cause and effect, link between the film’s sequences and the events portrayed. This doesn’t happen with “Page One.” The audience is presented with disjointed presentation, as Kinsley describes it:
[t]he movie takes up (in rough order) WikiLeaks; the Pentagon Papers; more WikiLeaks; the survival issue; Gay Talese and his famous book on The Times, “The Kingdom and the Power”; Comcast’s purchase of NBC Universal; the impact of Twitter; the danger of not sending reporters on trips with the president; how ABC has had to lay off 400 people.
Then it’s back to the survival issue again (brief interview with author ofa notorious Atlantic article predicting that The Times might be out of business within four months; a former Timesman now at Harvard expressing outrage that anyone would say such a thing; no one noting that the article was published more than two years ago and therefore has already been proved wrong). Soon it’s time for Judith Miller, the former reporter for The Times, who rejects criticism of her faulty reporting about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (and is cut off as she is about to explain why). Then on to Jayson Blair, the plagiarist and fabricator. Then the pain of layoffs. Then a bit about aggregation (Web sites that gather content from other Web sites without paying for it). Then more about survival. Then more about Iraq. Then more about WikiLeaks. Then the challenge of trying to make Web site readers pay. Then Steve Jobs and the iPad. Then the travails of the Tribune Company. Then Iraq again. Then Watergate.
“Page One” informs, but is scattered in its approach. Additionally, with the amazing access Mr. Rossi had, there were missed opportunities to learn more about the business side of the Times and how it plans for these rapid tectonic shifts. Ebert, again:
For this documentary, director Andrew Rossi had unlimited access to limited areas within the paper. There is extensive coverage of the staff of the Times’ media desk, which covers other media, but the film lacks the skill of that staff in covering the Times. Nor does it eavesdrop on any strategic conversations among Times managers about the bottom line and the hopes for online revenue.
In trying to determine notions of identity and power, film theorists began analyzing the moving image through Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic lens. A basic tenet is that the viewer is the subject of the film’s gaze, which is put together by the film itself, where what ‘s shown on screen becomes the object of the subject’s desire. It takes the ‘primordial mirror’ concept and applies to film, where the screen acts as the mirror.
Film Critic, Laura Mulvey wrote about the eroticization of film, “Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire” (Screen 16:3, Autumn, 1975).
Documentary can be looked at in a similar way, but instead of producing “an illusion cut to the measure of desire,” documentary produces an argument cut to pushing an agenda, an ideology. “The gaze” in documentary isn’t inherently sexual, but instead ethical. Where in fiction, the director creates ‘the gaze’ establishing a vision, the documentarian creates a gaze made to say something very specific, with the total significance of realism heightening the feeling and importance of the message. And since documentaries are by definition, historical, the audience expects the filmmaker to be part of the world he/she is documenting, as opposed to creating an imaginary one. As viewers, we have to constantly ask, “how has the filmmaker acquitted him or herself to those segments of the historical world that have become the scene of the film?” (Nichols, pg 79).
Mr. Rossi sets up his gaze through the interviews of the social actors. We never see Mr. Rossi, never hear his questions, but the camera serves as the conduit between filmmaker and subject. Shots of the social narrators at desks, in cars, at homes, all establish a textual logic to focus not on how the filmmaker uses these narrators to make a point, but on the effectiveness of the film’s argument itself.
When we watch a fictional film, camera angles are vital to the storytelling, but most audiences don’t recognize the power of the shot. From a theoretical perspective, angle-down shots of an actor talking to another denotes power (recall the scene in “Citizen Kane” when little Kane says “Merry Christmas” to Thatcher while looking up –the camera is from his perspective – and then next shot is flash-forward where Wells’ older Kane looks down on Thatcher and says “Happy New Year,” indicating both time passage and power passage). Or think how Hitchcock uses many point-of-view shots in his films to denote a plane of voyeuristic fascination . The camera’s gaze helps create how we read film. Documentary films are no different, but instead of portraying delineations of power within the theoretical framework of analysis, the camera’s gaze, as Nichols puts it, “may signal the ethical, political and ideological perspective of the filmmaker” (80).
Shots of the other social actors, Media Desk Editor Bruce Headlam, reporter Tim Arango, former Executive Editor Bill Keller, are shot within a context of the frame, highlighting the film’s central argument, giving testimony within a frame they cannot control. Their task, albeit it to a lesser extent than as Mr. Rossi portrays Mr. Carr’s, is to contribute evidence to someone’s (Mr. Rossi’s) argument.
How a documentarian chooses to frame the subject, through the camera gaze, implies how he or she regards their subject. The resulting documentary is a record of that implication.
One of the stronger aspects of the film is this set: the viewer’s attention is not directed to the filmmaker (as he is the one prompting the reporters, via off-camera questions/comments/etc), but instead on how Mr. Rossi uses these witnesses validate the argument.
Nichols sums it up:
This array of gazes and the ethical codes that support them bring the ethical, political, and ideological into suggestive alignment. They draw our attention to an ethics of responsibility, as each gaze signals an alternative response…;to a politics of representation and authority, as each gaze stands for what the filmmaker sees, how he or she responds, and the relay of these responses to the viewer; and to the ideology of objectivity and epistemology, as each gaze reinforces the value of the visual as evidence and source of knowledge. (Each gaze depends on detachment and the physics of camera optics to convey subjective tonalities. In this sense, each gaze supports an epistemology based on scientific principles of mechanical reproduction even if they may also support other, more intuitive, empathetic, or Gnostic forms of knowledge (pg. 88).
The dilemma for documentary is to create a balance between form (which traditionally lies in the more fictional areas of film) and content (the real material). Thus, questions regarding all forms of production must be brought into question when reading a documentary film. So if a documentarian sets a particular gaze, to what extent, then, can mise-en-scene be staged? (Mise-en-scene basically means “visual theme,” or how a filmmaker gets his/her vision across on the screen through actors, sets, costumes, etc.)
Fictional mise-en-scene requires the standing of objects in the frame to be set up according to certain visual criteria. By definition, a documentary is an exact chunk of a certain time, space and location (with no clear beginning, middle or end) the mise-en-scene cannot be modified at all for any purpose. This raises the issue that as documentary is limited purely to our existence, or maybe more astutely, a pre-existence, it takes on very different meanings of form – compared to fictional narrative. If true, how can the mechanics of narrative be applied to documentary? When watching film, we watch far more fictional films that ‘factual’ documentary films, we are perhaps looking out for a good narrative. Do our renderings of spectatorship differ when watching documentary – and to how much a difference than conventional fictional dominant cinema?
Take for example, scenes where reporters Mr. Stelter and Mr. Carr are conducting interviews with Julian Assange and an unnamed source at the Tribune Company, respectively. When Mr. Stelter is on the phone with Mr. Assange, the Wikileaks creator, we see an over the shoulder shot, as he dials Mr. Assange. Here is where, as a working public relations professional, I sat up a bit. It is highly unlikely for someone like Mr. Assange to receive calls from the media without going through an intermediary, like a PR person. If that is the case, it’s not represented on screen, as we see Mr. Stelter get a hold of Mr. Assange almost immediately. Does having a camera upon the subject (Mr. Stelter) influence how the audience views this reality? Of course! Does it diminish the desired effect? Not to most of the film-viewing audience, I would imagine, but this was something that kept with me after the film concluded.
Conversely, in scenes where Mr. Carr is interviewing a source on the phone, the camera frames him in the center. So while he’s “doing journalism” he’s also the center of a world created by Mr. Rossi. The audience, then, is forced to view Mr. Carr as the star of the film – indeed, almost every single review I read about the film mentioned this in one way or the other. The problem, of course, is that this takes away from what should have been the star of the film: The New York Times.
“If the meaning of objectivity extends beyond impartiality to an emphasis on the isolated fact, the recounting of discrete events, a commonsensical mode of explanation, and the avoidance of any totalizing social theory (be it theological or secular, reactionary or radical), then considerable room for alternatives remains. (Nichols pg. 189).” In other words, objectivity can be, and often is, subjective. How a reporter reports, how they present not just the facts, but the interpretation of those facts, can, and often does, have significant effects. We see this in the film’s description of two important events: the initial Wikileaks dump-off, and the investigative reporting of the Tribune Company.
We watch as the New York Times editorial staff debates about the influence of Wikileaks, after Wikileaks releases a video of American soldiers opening fire on Iraqis. The debate centers on the two different versions of the video – one that was edited, placing the soldier who were firing from the Apache helicopter in a negative light; the other, raw footage of the same incident showing an insurgent walking into a group of people with a gun, right before the firing began.
The film explains that the days where a Daniel Ellsberg would go to a major newspaper to deliver secret documents were over. Now, people who want to spread sensitive information can just do it themselves. The scenes with the New York Times editorial board debating the importance of this mark a heightened sense of realism: we are no longer needed to present information; but we’re still needed to interpret that information.
In the case of the toppling of the Tribune, Mr. Carr’s reporting, after he receives damaging reports from an insider, is another example of the representation of fact. Wherein the Wikileaks segments the viewer watches how Wikileaks becomes a central part of the media-as-important narrative, the Tribune scenes present more of an observational mode of representation, as the viewer sees Mr. Carr dig for information from his sources.
Documentary realism bears witness to the dogmatic notion of observers observing. The realist tools of location, sound, being ‘on the scene,’ and other aspects of the gaze produce evidence that validates the subject matter. Seeing the editorial board debate what’s news worthy; seeing the intrepid reporter work from his desk; seeing the beautiful New York Times building against the backdrop of sometimes snow, sometimes rainy, sometimes beautiful New York City (emphasizing real place in real time) all generate a sense of trust based on the naturalness of the scene. Its reality is our reality.
Documentary film can persuade as much as it can inform. The film is self-referential, and with the access Mr. Rossi had, I wished the direction of the narrative were more cohesive and more varied. Of course following the media desk is natural from Mr. Rossi’s perspective, where he wants to examine not just the media industry, but how the New York Times covers this important and influential institution. While documentary attends to social and cultural issues of which we are, on some level, aware, through techniques of filmmaking, as well as modes of representation, notions of realism, the viewer prepares to not comprehend a story but to grasp an argument. Viewing “Page One,” that argument is clear. The supporting evidence, however, can be strengthened with more knowledge of the role of journalism today.