Commentary by Dr. Joseph Westfall
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Relatively little has been said in the philosophical literature about documentary films as a distinct cinematic genre. Of course, cinematic realists like André Bazin or Stanley Cavell treat all cinema as a kind of documentary medium. They argue that film is by its very nature simply the art of recording and re-presenting (projecting) images of persons and things that actually existed in the real world at some point in the past. Film, on this model, differs from photography only by way of motion. Although they disagree about the nature of film, other philosophers of film often treat the documentary as a subtype of the newsreel. Thus, between the realists and the anti-realists, philosophy has left us with the sense that documentaries are not, and could never really be, art.
Most of the anti-realists argue that the montage is the central and essential feature of film as art. And this, I think, is where we can begin to see the real contribution of Ed Hugetz’ films, especially the most recent of them, Alligator-Horses (2014). Early in the film, we hear the novelist and literary theorist, David Shields, talking about documentary filmmaking. Shields notes that a documentary, “if it’s any good, to me, has got to be about the documentary filmmaker. It’s about the art of the filmmaker making meaning of what’s in front of him.” This insight into documentary filmmaking appears throughout Alligator-Horses in fundamental ways, both implicit and explicit. The film is not simply an attempt to explore and (re)present some particular historical phenomenon (in this case, the political rise of Davy Crockett in the American culture-in-transition of the 1830s), but also to explore and (re)present the filmmakers’ methods of exploration and representation.
To my mind, then, one of the most significant and invaluable contributions of Alligator-Horses is the inclusion of the filmmakers’ process as a part of the film. Throughout, we see Hugetz himself, in the editing room, opening his art and himself to the audience. “For me,” Hugetz notes in one scene, “the filmmaking process is most exciting at this moment of a cut . . . to me the excitement of cutting is the opportunity: what associations pop into my mind?” The film thus forces its audience to ask questions about meaning with regard to the filmmaking process itself—something totally lacking in most other documentary films. The choices made in the editing room to structure the film in precisely this way—and to include moments wherein the filmmakers raise the question of filmmaking, and of making this very film that we are watching—are, as presented in Alligator-Horses, overtly artistic choices with aesthetic ramifications for the meaning of this particular film, and the nature and value of film in general. To watch this film is to be asked to grapple with some of the most basic questions facing the student and lover of the cinema. And understood in this light, Alligator-Horses is not only a cinematic contribution: it is a philosophical one.