There have been a number of documentaries in recent years that have mostly been comprised of reassembled footage as an exploration of a topic. These are assemblage films in many respects, though I think the official term is “archival” or “all-archival.” The filmmakers avoid talking head interviews and instead inhabit a space of existing footage, arranging that footage in order to construct a non-fiction narrative or a kind of essay.
These films — like Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 or Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn — are fascinating, but they sometimes feel a little incomplete or insular. The assemblage form can limit or drastically alter the nature of implied conversation in a documentary, which is one of the reasons I like documentaries. I like seeing voices and ideas clash or dovetail, or even history at odds with itself, eventually coming into a recognition with itself.
Penny Lane’s Our Nixon may be an assemblage documentary, but it gets around some of those limitations of conversation by picking the right pieces of existing footage to create a wider sense of conversation. It’s all anchored to the most unexpected footage: the Super 8 home movies shot by members of the Nixon administration.
Director: Penny Lane
Release Date: August 30, 2013 (limited)
Most home movies are boring and fascinating simultaneously. If you were to look at some of the video footage that your parents shot when you were young, you’d likely find shaky Christmas pageants, interminable birthdays, or these banal moments with the rest of the family (e.g., a summer day by the pool, a dinner, a trip to the museum). Often times these moments aren’t noteworthy, and yet they offer up these honest observations about daily life that come tinged with nostalgia. I think about the opening credits to early seasons of The Wonder Years, and that home movie footage is a perfect encapsulation of that time and that attitude.
That sense of nostalgia is captured in the Super 8 footage of Our Nixon. Lane even opens her film like it’s the opening credits to an old TV show. There are funny bits of Super 8 footage that pop up that are so cliched yet so real, like the inevitable moment where two people film each other filming each other, or those random shots of squirrels and flowerbeds. Those are the shots that you watch again (if you even re-watch what was shot) and you wonder why you shot it.
Rather than rely solely on the Super 8 footage, Lane also goes to news reports, the audio recordings from the Oval Office, and other archival material. This is a parallax view-style assemblage documentary, which means a conversation is set up between the highs and lows of the Nixon administration as wells as the historical and personal.
The Super 8 footage came from White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman, and deputy assistant Dwight Chapin. During the Watergate investigation, the FBI seized 500 reels of footage. We get to see Halderman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin in the brightest days of the Nixon White House as well as in the years after Watergate.
Their change in demeanor is more striking than the effects of age. Whereas the home movie footage showed an enthused group of young go-getters, the later interview footage shows troubled men looking back painfully at a moment and a person that had meant the world to them. This is the power of juxtaposition: the joyous banality of the moment where you can chat idly about All in the Family with your boss, and the unfortunate gravity of history where your boss (and you) will forever be yoked with scandal.
The conversation of Our Nixon emerges from these collisions of large/historical scope and small/intimate focus. As a counterpoint, perhaps, to the lenses of Halderman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin, there’s the intense scrutiny of the news and the critical voices of anti-war protesters. What fascinated me most from watching Our Nixon is the way that this combination of perspectives gave a strong feel for that moment in history that never quite gets communicated in recreations of the era or in restagings of these events. I guess both scope and the focus are necessary to understand the real complexities not just of Nixon but the tumult of the late 60s and early 70s.
As for the many candid moments caught on Super 8, the ones that stuck out for me were the ones that were personal and actually a little banal. We see images of Nixon watching the Apollo landing and shedding tears, and we also see his daughter’s wedding, and there he is doing business aboard the old Air Force One, and then he’s out gladhanding on the campaign trail amid the God-fearing and flag-loving (and all of them know that McGovern is toast). Some of the archival footage Lane used in the film also has the feel of a home movie in that unexpected moments get caught like insects in amber. There’s a White House music performance that goes from totally square to totally punk rock in the course of two or three sentences.
I anticipate more and more archival docs to be made in the future, and I hope the ones to come take an approach like Our Nixon. I come back to that idea of scope and focus, and it seems like to be able to engage in a meaningful conversation about an event using existing footage, a combination of scope and focus is necessary to bring new and vital ideas into view, even about the past. And yet Nixon himself, even seen from different angles, will always be an enigma.