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film

Errol Morris

Cast and crew preparing a reenactment during the filming of Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure. Photo: Nubar Alexanian, 2007.

A KEY ASSUMPTION in cinema verité’s once-dominant aesthetic program is that Truth and Beauty exist in inverse proportions. Accordingly, any overt display of artfulness or blatant shaping of rhetorical devices inevitably weakens a documentary’s capacity for veracious inscriptions of reality. For better or worse, injunctions against such techniques as mood music, reenactments, and suspenseful editing were swept away during the commercial resurgence of American documentaries in the late 1980s. Today it is rare for a successful nonfiction release to eschew the ramping up of viewer engagement through “escapist” conventions borrowed from Hollywood’s venerable playbook. Yet despite occasional accusations of factual distortion or emotional gamesmanship—dustups for which Michael Moore serves as poster boy—the edifice of documentary Truth, such as it is, has emerged relatively

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