To the Editor:

We write in response to Alan Rosenthal’s review of our anthology, Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Film and Video, which appeared in the Winter 1999-2000 issue of Film Quarterly (53:2). We are grateful to Film Quarterly for considering the book worthy enough to be the subject of the issue’s lead review, but we also feel that your journal’s readership would be better served by reviews that are somewhat more sober in their judgement and focused in their comments.

We are pleased that our humble volume could elicit such a passionate response from Mr. Rosenthal. But his vituperation seems to be about something else, and his review, apparently, gave him a convenient platform for ranting against une certaine tenclance of contemporary criticism. As Mr. Rosenthal sees it, film criticism today is dull and academic, largely because of a postmodern conspiracy to do away with the referent in the real world, to deny the existence of absolute truth, and to reduce documentary films to texts playing with signifiers. He seems especially perturbed by the hardly radical notion that critics can find meanings in films not intended by the filmmakers themselves (although this doesn’t stop him from doing the same when he smugly explains “what the editors are really saying,” as he puts it–our reasons for structuring the book as we did).

Rather than to claim that documentaries have no truth at all, we intended Documenting the Documentary to demonstrate the richness of documentaries as texts, to show that they are in fact filled with meaning–including but not restricted to the actual historical contexts of their production. It amazes us that anyone would regard this book as an example of an invidious postmodernism seeking to drain documentary of significance.

Nevertheless, at the same time Mr. Rosenthal goes on to find too much meaning in a number of the essays, but apparently only because he disagrees with their reading. But just as one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, in documentary film one man’s truth (to paraphrase Richard Leacock) is another’s fabrication. This is hardly a postmodern concept, and we suggest that it is Mr. Rosenthal, not the writers in Documenting the Documentary whom he unfairly criticizes, who lacks that “sense of inquiry, an interest in the world” that he rightly sees as fundamental to the true appreciation of documentary film.

Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski Brock University, St. Catherine’s, Ontario, Canada

To the Editor:

In his ill-tempered review of Documenting the Documentary, edited by my colleagues Barry Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski, Alan Rosenthal singles out my essay on Listen to Britain as an example of poor “scholarship.” Since he accuses me of committing “unpardonable” errors, I feel that I should draw your readers’ attention to two significant errors that call Rosenthal’s own research skills into question.

To begin with, I was not “brought up in an America tom apart by dissent over Vietnam.” Even if I had been, I’m not sure that it would disqualify me from discussing a British film, but in fact I was born in England and lived there for more than twenty years before I moved to Canada.

Rosenthal (obviously) doesn’t know me, and thus this error may be pardonable (although his unthinking assumption is hardly an example of the “good scholarship” he espouses). The second error is even more damaging. He questions my reading of the use of Elgar’s music in the film’s final sequence. There is, of course, no Elgar in Listen to Britain, and Rosenthal’s discussion shows that he has confused “Land of Hope and Glory” with “Rule Britannia!” (music by Thomas Arne). I would like to point out that the muddle here is Rosenthal’s, not mine, and it suggests that he is hardly qualified to take me to task for an insensitivity to British culture.

As for his assessment of my interpretation of the film, he is, of course, entitled to his own opinion. I would suggest, however, that he has misread my argument about the “People’s War” by assuming that when I wrote “myth” I meant “lie” and by attributing to me the ideas of critics with whom I disagree in the essay. Perhaps I did not express myself clearly enough, but I do seem to have got through to another reviewer (British, I think!) who praised my “invaluable recovery work on Humphrey Jennings’ much maligned Listen to Britain.”

Jim Leach Brock University St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada

COPYRIGHT 2000 University of California Press

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