Penny Lane: Speaking and Screening

Annie McKay

On September 13, Assistant Professor of Art and Art History Penny Lane premiered her film “Our Nixon” (2013) to an enthusiastic Colgate audience in Golden Auditorium as part of the Friday Night 35mm Film Series. Two days prior to the screening she gave a talk about her work as a filmmaker, including some insight into “Our Nixon,” a film that has generated a tremendous amount of buzz since its release. Lane emphasized her interest in being a storyteller rather than a documentarian, brought up issues of appropriation and copyright and gave her audience a very different perspective on what it can mean to be a nonfiction filmmaker.

At her Wednesday lecture, Lane played three of her films: “How to Make an Autobiography” (2010), “The Voyagers” (2010) and an excerpt from “Our Nixon.” Following the excerpt from “Our Nixon,” Lane went through and explained each piece of editing and manipulation she made throughout a roughly five minute segment, including the piecing together of a sentence and shots that only looked like they could be at Nixon’s inauguration rather than actual shots. She went on to talk about how she hates the word “documentary” because it limits creative freedom.

“I’d like to kill the word ‘documentary,'” Lane said, referring to her films as “nonfiction” instead, explaining that the word would “open up a more creative and broad definition of what that word means.”

Lane said that she doesn’t do any of her own filming, but rather appropriates other people’s films and images and enhances them to fit her own purposes. She said that she hates the current copyright laws and sees no problem with appropriation, adding that she would be absolutely flattered if anyone ever used anything that she had filmed. Her perspective on these controversial issues was very different yet refreshing to hear, as someone being so honest about such views is not always widely accepted.

The screening of “Our Nixon” was particularly fascinating because it was completely different from a typical documentary. The film takes a look at the Nixon administration during the time of his presidency through home movies taken by three members of his administration. Lane also incorporates audio recordings of phone calls and clips of popular interviews to enhance her story. These techniques bring entertaining and funny moments to the film, making it more enjoyable for audiences. It also humanizes these characters in unprecedented ways. Lane does not justify their actions, but simply gives the viewer a new angle on these characters that spent so much time in the spotlight.

“Our Nixon” was bought by CNN, which proves to be controversial because of Lane’s admitted manipulations. CNN is looked at as a reliable journalistic network, yet this film openly manipulates the truth. For those who hear Lane talk about the movie, all of these concerns are resolved and justified, but many cannot hear her intentions and perspective. While the film manipulates certain scenes and audio, it doesn’t distort the overall truth. For the most part, Lane allows the footage to shape her story, which she only enhances. In order to create the film, Lane went through hundreds of hours of archival footage, so it is likely that she had a good idea of the truth and her manipulations were more to enhance the truth than to alter it. This film is extremely valuable, not only in gaining a new perspective on the Nixon administration, but also to gain a new perspective of the art of documentary (or “nonfiction”) filmmaking. Lane encourages us to broaden our horizons and think outside of the box, a lesson that was incredibly inspiring.

Contact Annie McKay at [email protected].