Posts Tagged ‘archive’
Drawing attention to Karen Pinkus from USC’s Comparative Literature Department and her latest book, Mercurial Alchemy: A Theory of Ambivalence. Quoting Gilles Deleuze from an interview I saw on Youtube, in which he was (apparently) addressing filmmakers: “filmmakers invent films. Philosophers invent concepts.” Extrapolating theorists/critics from philosophers, then weaving alchemy and ambivalence together seems (at least the suggestion of it) to open up delightful new fields of theoretical imagination…interdisciplinary is the word.
“How can we account, in a rigorous way, for alchemy’s ubiquity? We think of alchemy as the transformation of a base material (usually lead) into gold, but “alchemy” is a word in wide circulation in everyday life, often called upon to fulfill a metaphoric duty as the magical transformation of materials. Almost every culture and time has had some form of alchemy. This book looks at alchemy, not at any one particular instance along the historical timeline, not as a practice or theory, not as a mode of redemption, but as a theoretical problem, linked to real gold and real production in the world. What emerges as the least common denominator or “intensive property” of alchemy is ambivalence, the impossible and paradoxical coexistence of two incompatible elements.
Alchemical Mercury moves from antiquity, through the golden age of alchemy in the Dutch seventeenth century, to conceptual art, to alternative fuels, stopping to think with writers such as Dante, Goethe, Hoffmann, the Grimm Brothers, George Eliot, and Marx. Eclectic and wide-ranging, this is the first study to consider alchemy in relation to literary and visual theory in a comprehensive way.”
Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat
Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice
“I spent much of my childhood trying to distinguish identification from desire…” Koestenbaum confesses, speaking of his adoration for opera divas. Woven in with this reference to his budding consciousness of queerness is a realization of the affect particular to the (singing, musical) voice. Following Barthes, we can consider the affect of the musical body as a potency latent in music in general, so far as it is born from a composer’s/performer’s body and enters the body of another in the act of listening. Music is then, in a concrete sense, voice – the whisper of one subjectivity into the ear of another, but also subjectivity detached from the body of a subject, sent out into the world as a thing to be handed over, contemplated, enjoyed. The voice is also object of desire. This dual proximity and distance of the voice is the measure of its power (an affection rather than an expression), its presence a troubling one because it signifies an otherness that invites itself into my body, passing through a hole in this skin that is supposed to separate myself from what I am not, in the process of my listening, in my act of attention, becoming me. And the idea of queerness Koestenbaum extends to us is by no means simply tangential to this affectionate haunting, the desire for a self / oneself that is not me but could be me, that maybe is me. Identifying myself with another and as another: a space within myself carved out by longing, by a dream of proximity. The queerness of the voice goes deep.
Koestenbaum’s wonderful book brought to mind my own relationships with my diva(s) and their voices. If diva is an attitude more than an attribute, a mask of fearlessness always trying to become a truth, a fierce truth, then the gender of the diva matters little. I remember discovering Iggy Pop as an exemplar of this type of stridently embodied, inimitable subjectivity. My means of contact with the diva were purely digital: first clips of performances, songs and interviews on Youtube and then his albums, illegally BitTorrented, only later purchased as CDs. To this day I have not seen him perform. My fanhood is also, like Koestenbaum’s, nostalgia for an era I never knew: the heyday of the Stooges in the early 70s. Raking the Internet for remains of Iggy, most often period broadcasts or amateur film poorly transcribed into digital form, the resolution atrocious, colors washed out or too contrasted.
Flickering in and out of this (visual) noise is Iggy’s body and Iggy’s voice, his small, electric shape in contortions at the sound of himself, gesticulating towards some impossible gesture. The footage suddenly cuts, I have been deprived of the finish of his movement, an end, that, I am sure – had I actually seen it – would have revealed the totality of his meaning, the “Iggyness” (as if he could be re-produced for me, as me) that squares a square, closing a circle. And his body existing through his voice: a nasty crooning that leaps into a screech, an exuberance that distorts syllables and seesaws the idea of pitch. A voice whose music always threatens to fall apart into noise, an exploration of enunciation whose achievement is the release of that mystery of affect that lies beyond language (the body?).
The queerness of Iggy Pop. 1977 – after the disbanding of the Stooges, Iggy is living with David Bowie in Berlin, who is producing his first solo album. Promoting his album in France, Iggy appears on a French talk show in a dandified outfit: leather pants molding skeletal legs, a tucked-in blue button-down dress shirt, fake large black glasses framing round blue eyes, black hair plastered on his head like a mime, lips painted to grotesque, decadent proportion. I watch Iggy chat vivaciously in German, French and English with the talk show host, who tries to negotiate his non-sequiturs and appear to be “in the know”. And then: the diva moment, the flashing of Iggyness. The talk show host inquires as to why Iggy always performs with his shirt off. Iggy: “May I show you?”. And then he starts to unbutton his shirt cuffs, worldlessly handing over his wrist to the host for his assistance. The host, flustered, begins unbuttoning:“it’s important to be naked?”. Iggy, peeling off his shirt: “Here, I’ll show you what’s important”. Finally shirtless, he stretches out both arms to the audience, asking “C’est joli, non?” (It’s pretty, isn’t?”). I was seized over not so much by the spectacle of a body, but by that mad leap into nakedness, the disrobing of his soul that he masked with a nonchalant invitation of the audience’s judgment – an act that, in the end, seemed to clothe him in something invincible.
The Most A-Maze-ing Hypertext is not Electronic: House of Leaves, Dictionary of the Khazars, Derrida’s Glas
First Passage: The Religion of Flowers. In Phenomenology of the Spirit…. “And then the nightmares begin”. Exploration Z…”Even the hallways you’ve walked a hundred times will feel longer, much longer, and the shadows, any shadow at all, will seem deeper, much deeper”. They could read other people’s dreams, live and make themselves at home in them, and through the dreams hunt the game that was their prey – a human, an object or an animal.
In Lost Book Found the narrator walks his camera through the grittier streets of New York in an effort to remember the contents of a book he once almost purchased from a man who made a living “fishing” for objects dropped by passerby in sidewalk grates. This book contains lists of references, names of the things that populate the city, variously grouped under enigmatic headings. In trying to reconstruct the fantastical indexical system at work in this lost book, the narrator embarks on his own project to “fish for” the overlooked contents of New York – spatio-temporal items, the unique, accidental configurations of material being – and classify them according to his own cryptic logic of poetic association. At times another narrator interrupts the first to rattle off lists of concepts or things over a succession of captured scenes, indexing each image, each phenomenological encounter with a particular sign / clue: for example, a slow motion shot of an old woman riffling through a heap of discounted underwear will have a voice-over label of “museum”. At other times the narrator will “recall” a category from the lost book such as “raining coins” and show us successive shots of senior citizens stopping in the street to stare up meditatively at the sky.
The film as whole turns into an examination of the narrator’s own desire to scrutinize, stretching out the distance between subject and object (the interval of desire) by showing us scenes whose contents are arranged in layers or stacks, such as plastic toys displayed on shelves / shop windows or the electric interior of a subway train car seen through the windows of the train’s black shape melting in the night of a tunnel. In all cases vision encounters obstructions and so does the viewer in her attempt to grasp the meaning at work in each audiovisual association – the gaze butterflies over the surface of actuality, searching and never finding, but occasionally picking up on certain signifying symptoms that disappear with a second glance, like all the shots of street surfaces (walls, telephone booths) inscribed with decaying messages that can only be half-read, not so much partially decoded as more achingly mystified. In this sense, Cohen’s camera functions as a veil as much as a lense, an intermediary zone between passage and liminal space: to reprise De Certeau’s turn of phrase on the poetics of trajectories, a “fence that is an ensemble of interstices through which one’s glances pass.” The space of the frame mimics the three dimensional properties of real space, reproducing the pleasure we find in the vicissitudes of travel.
Lost Book Found directly evokes the experience of navigation that lies at the heart of any preoccupation to design for interactivity. The film functions as a compendium of the kind of micro-trajectories that the attentive or “detective” (to reference Cohen’s hand-held, belt-level cinematography) observer traces in traveling through the spatial texture of a place. In the narrator’s imagination, this place, the city, constitutes a monumental, un-chartered database organized according to a omniscient tagging system (the lost book) that indexes each existent referent to a particular sign. The baroque dream that a thorough search of worldly evidence will result in total epistemological fulfillment is originally a documentary impulse. It compels him to plunge into the hermeneutic game of searching and gazing, of relentlessly raking the database for objects of knowledge, steering a path through possible indexical channels according to minute intimations from this fluid environment. With visibility remaining a problem – the book, the map of the database that would allow him to look ahead, to know her way in advance is lost – viewing becomes a much more haptic exercise. The navigator feels her way around the contours of things, tracing signifying topologies with small gestures, instigating a hesitant succession of tiny contacts with the world. Here the clarity of scopic knowledge is abandoned in favor of a sort of blind proximity with the surface of life, an intimacy with the image that hugs the frustrating barrier that separates the (re) presentation of actuality from actuality itself.
At this level of documentary minutiae, the camera worries about (another excerpt from the narrator’s voice-over) puzzling out the supremely mundane fact of one building’s contiguousness with one gutter, framing actuality in its most obvious (and therefore semiotically opaque) manifestations. The navigator of an interactive documentary sets out on her epistemological journey not so much in order to find the primer that can decode the book – the totality of meaning embedded in the body of the database – but to put herself through the twists and turns of the search for signification, to loose assiduously oneself in the hermetic quality of the code.
Rosenblatt’s Human Remains situates itself outside the concept of chronology, resurrecting archival material not so much to connect us with our past as to put our historical perspective into play. The chronologically impossible first person voice-over subverts the indexical link between the footage and its source without completely destroying it. As a result, the iconic dictators’ presence, detached from any contextual indices by poetic montage, survives in a kind of spectral temporality that is neither the imaginary time of fiction nor the consensual time of history. The documentary’s time is dislocated, strewn over the many origins of its elements: the anonymous footage, sound effects spliced from their visual cause and tacked on the dictators’ steps, voices translating a script into another language and then other voices translating back, as if to trick us into believing these men are speaking in their native language beyond the grave (and to whom?). The implausibility of the film’s epistemological claims is what brings us to the realization that the film is making no such claims – and yet remains a documentary, a work that references the real in order to tell us something about it. Perhaps it is useful to retain the idea of this documentary as a scrapbook or collage, each element referring us to an unverifiable source, the point of a scrapbook being to create a new totality from the juxtaposition of heterogeneous material. In this sense, Human Remains constitutes itself as a meta-archive, applying an associative method to the “exiled” remains of these figures i.e. to their historical representations (from film or critical literature).
This manner of documenting differs substantially from the type of truth-seeking mode of argumentation Nichols refers to or the rhetorically creative presentation of evidence adopted by Grierson. Human Remains’ relationship to the notion of evidence is obscure – Rosenblatt showers us with well-researched anecdotal “evidence” (recycled in the voice-over), but evidence of what? The revelation that these dictators were self-contradictory, peevish, plagued by physical troubles, possessed of bizarre habits, seems secondary. Perhaps more than anything, what emerges from this litany is the mundane, fleshy presence of these men, which, coupled with the ghostly reflections of their faces (Rosenblatt cuts out close-ups from the archival material) manufactures a powerful kind of cognitive dissonance that speaks to the subconscious fear any audience member would be likely to harbor about these figures: that they could come back from the dead.
In this sense, the film provides a form of psychological evidence or testimony by showing us the ways in which the dictators still haunt us: haunt our records, our semiotic matrices, our collective memory. The image of Mao bathing in the Yangtze, the dark blur of his head emerging from the glistening yellowish tint of the archival river is particularly indicative of the film’s project: even when the limitations of the medium keep him at a distance, making him literally unrecognizable, he still produces an absolute effect – an outline, a threat shadowing us.
Herzog on the documentary and the concept of “ecstatic truth”
Herzog’s voice-over is an interview in disguise. His comments on Treadwell’s footage engage Treadwell in philosophical conversation more than they explain or expose. His privileged role as filmmaker is a position he takes in order to better participate as a subject of his own documentary – the scene in which he listens on camera to the audio recording of Treadwell’s death and advises Treadwell’s colleague/ex-girlfriend to throw the tape away is a telling example of the intimacy he cultivates with his subjects / subject-matter. The dialectical relationship the Herzog persona establishes with Herzog’s filmmaking (the interviews that frame Treadwell’s personality, the editing to which he submits Treadwell’s footage) make for both a curiously solipsistic and rhetorically persuasive documentary – actuality indexed to a personal vision.
This auteur set-up functions so well because Grizzly Man is a mise en abime: Treadwell as documentarian not only of bears but more importantly of himself mirrors Herzog’s endeavor to document a part of himself by documenting Treadwell. When Treadwell exits the frame of his camera / Herzog’s camera, Herzog lingers on the palpable absence that follows Treadwell’s departure, elliptically commenting on the unintentional poetics of Treadwell’s filmmaking; Herzog then “copies” this strategy in his interview of Treadwell’s coroner, lingering on the silence that accompanies the coroner’s clenched fists after he has finished the story of his own interpretation of Treadwell’s audio recording of his own death. In moments like these the interviewees appear to actively collaborate in Herzog’s attempt to decipher the Treadwell enigma (another example is the early interview of the pilot, whose contemptuous take on Treadwell sets the hermeneutic ball rolling). Treadwell’s footage of himself, with its multiple takes and performative element, constitutes the linchpin of the puzzle, the final piece to be understood/uncovered once one has dismantled the outer shells of interpretation, the whole stack of Russian dolls.
Rouch’s and Morin’s Chronicles of a Summer seems to propose two very different epistemological directions for the documentary:
* the film as a a project of visual ethnography. The camera is used as a collector of information, basically as a superior technique for rendering the world (as opposed to note-taking): an instrument of inscription used on a collective “other” (ethno – graphy). However, Rouch and Morin, rather than inscribing phenomena, chose to “write down” words. The real does not unfold before a spectator; here the main vehicle of signification is speech, conversation, argument and, thanks to the apparatus, its faithfully captured tonalities: doubt, sincerity, irony, despair, confusion, joviality…The information we get is what “they” chose to tell us, “they” for once referring not to the filmmakers but to the subjects. At this point the ethno-graphic mission
* a therapeutic or cathartic project; the camera becomes “a psychoanalytic stimulant” for its subjects. The filmmaker’s goal is not so much to represent the real (the point where epistemology usually flounders) as to precipitate its transformation by communicating a layer of subterrannean subjective truth that is typically hidden from the public. . Marylou and Marceline no longer just “are”, a surface imprinted on a surface (film) , they “act” or take action – they “act the truer part of themselves”, they bring out their invisible depths to be understood, analytically and emotionally processed, as well as gazed at. They confide in the filmmaker / in an apparatus because they need a witness to their “truer selves”, selves that, kept below, exist only for the subject; the camera draws them out of solipsism and anchors them in the real, in a public consensus of reality that perdures, in a process of passing into the historical record. Here, in their home society, Rouch and Morin perform a therapy session that can, perhaps, by proxy, by a movement of identification with the subjects, begin to work its alchemy collectively, on the French audience at large. “I hoped that they would like the people I liked” _ the project appears to fail at this crucial point; the subjects remain trapped in their interiority, their voices are witnesses only to themselves, not to another.
What is, then, the vérité that cinéma-vérité is interested in? Vertov offered the idea that film could parse out a “higher truth” from the fragments of the visible world. Rouch and Morin seem to believe that, via the inscription device that is the camera, an obfuscated truth, the truth of subjectivity (and by extension intersubjectivity, human relations) can be brought to light – and never more so than when this “truth” is reflexive, bounced off the film’s subjects for further elucidation, verification, which Rouch and Morin conduct in the final “accounting” (compte rendu) session at the end of the film. In both cases, the validity of the ideal that film, as indexically grounded in “truth”, is a medium suited to the epistemological project is assumed. The line simply starts to blur between truth and performance (performance becomes a form of truth), between truth and poetic vision (in Vertov’s case). What kind of epistemology are we still talking about?
Rouch on his investment in the camera as epistemological apparatus:
On certain dialectical games going on in Jean Vigo’s elliptical A Propos de Nice:
* the well-dressed tourists, members of a leisured class, gently snoring in the sun, even when a street band interrupts: the city where one comes to be entertained, the destination of leisure becomes a hothouse for boredom. Sandbox flaneurs already exhausted. A crisis of pleasure resolved in a way by the carnival, when upper-class stiffness is put aside. The carnival goers let go of class consciousness: tourists and locals (who service the tourists) seem to forget where each stands in terms of the other _Nice is temporarily liberated and justified.
* carnival participants throwing flowers back and forth at each other: a joyful sending boomeranging in a parabolic gesture of surprise, accidental violence, and laughter as passerby and members of the parade are struck by flowers. The camera captures a rare moment of essential actuality/spontaneity: that look of surprise – that air of nakedness and vulnerability on a face, looking towards another beyond the frame. Like the sleeping cafe-goers, photographed in a moment of unconscious innocence, we are touched by a moment that is only permitted to us by the sans-gene of the filmmakers. Tom Gunning mentions the discourse of reproach that surrounds the advent of the concealed camera and the fear of “stolen” representations, of images capturing their subjects in a state of unreadiness. Here the pleasure is derived from this privileged access into the intimacy of the everyday, an everyday that passes us by; the camera succeeds in closing the gap between us and the present (here, our past). We feel fortunate that there remains an imprint, a record, an index of spontaneity: like the trace of time in the process of its vanishing. We really feel something has been salvaged, wherefore its pinprick tenderness. Who, after all, were these people? Vigo and Kauffman lay out this enigma for us.
* one impossibly tall smokestack dialogues with a jocular old woman. One of the more cryptically intellectual bits of montage. The carnival is winding down, the woman’s laughter remains as a legacy of the fun had. In the parallel universe of the industrial Nice (and the juxtaposition of all these disparate indexical traces of the city does seem to create a patchwork of cities – Nice is a multifaceted black box) an abstract composition of verticality and wavering movement (the smoke and the stack) perpetuates a cycle of joyless labor. And yet the resultant impression is not one of senseless, fruitless antagonism but of aesthetic complementarity: the smokestack would not look so inhumanly fixed and still (incontrovertible) nor the woman so lively – smile creasing folds of skin touchingly marked by the passage of time – were they not conjoined. The montage here functions as a distillating algorithm – not so much metaphor as concatenation, from which a diffuse sense of reality emerges, not so far from the “truth” revealed by Vertov’s kino-eye. Rather than utopian, the camera here is merely curious, the “merely” functionning as an ambitious goal of subversive / subtle / undercover intrusion. Nice has just been ruffled by the camera – and laid bare with a concupiscient look.
Bunuel, in his autobiography, writes that he finds the thought of destroying a museum more appealing than the idea of building a cultural center. The exercise of building entails casting things in stone all over again, issuing precepts, binding cultural forms according to a discipline of structural soundness and reliability. A cultural center is a didactic institution – it hands down knowledge, it propagates and reproduces. By extension, an exercise in destruction (in the form of an exuberant attempt, a gesture ) feels like a motion of freedom – from various architectures of thought, from institutionally invested representations. The ideology of cultural destruction is the hope of the decimation of ideological frameworks.
Land Without Bread‘s ambiguously sarcastic voice-over upends not only the idea of the possibility of sober and objective representation (in the tradition of Rosen’s historical Chronicler and the modernist project for a scientific treatment of actuality) but destabilizes, decades before the practice of digital manipulation, the photograph’s indexical relationship to the real. In las Hurdes what we see is not what we see: a donkey falling to its death from a cliff (as we are told) is a setup _ the “real” meaning of the image (what actually happened) is completely obscured, irrelevant. In effect the idea of “real” meaning, of a grounded indexical relationship between the image and the way we read it is dismantled. This methodical decimation of sense is pursued in the sequencing of “events” that we are told occur before the camera: a child is “sick”, a shivering man is “sick”, a child lies down, “dies”.
And yet the intellectual suspicion of the image that the snarky narrator communicates is not enough snuff our quasi automatic emotional allegiance to the image. We are hammered with tales of woe and poverty while village scenes unfold and in spite of rational uncertainty we are already half-way towards believing the story: we have to rein in or check spontaneous movements of shock, sympathy, horror within us. We remove our faith from the idea of the interpretational authority of the filmmaker only to assume a form of authority from ourselves: the power to be critical but also, in the end, to feel affect, to feel involved. The metaphor that unfolds in the final moments of the film, when the scene of a poor family lying down to sleep is repeatedly cut with the image of an old woman crying out the announcement of a death through the streets of the village delivers a punch that no longer owes anything to the indexical relationship between the image and actuality. The specter of death that weighs over the inhabitants is a concretely felt reality or hypereality that emerges from the visual text. Have we then left the realm of documentary to enter a fiction? I am reminded of Rosen’s reiteration of Baudrillard’s claim the cinematic can not (or can no longer) reproduce reality, it can only produce more / other reality. And yet, seeing Las Hurdes or any documentary representation that rings a bell of recognition, of understanding (one dare not say truth) I retain the suspicion that metaphor, if not indexicality can still constitute grounds for a certain form of worldly evidence…
still in the room. player squeezes a knob when he hears a prompted word (s) a voice speechifies on possibilities
determines which set of footage from the database will be edited into another set of footage (not completely haphazard) or running simultaneously on different screens??
editing algorithm, blackout, obeys a subterranean rhythm, cuts words in midstence, faces in mid-expression
cutting between this, this, and this ? CLOUD OR SHAPE, SPECTER OF SENSE – sampling of the cultural whirl – not quite arbitrary drops (it’s all water)
Peter Greenaway – Prospero’s Books ; David Bowie ; Jem Cohen: sea change, becoming, wishing, wish fulfillment, riffling through, collecting books, collecting memories, collecting personalities. databases all.
rough and ready: a recent iteration
The ennervating, mobilizing effect of shot after shot of masses on the march – sometimes we are given an idea of the scale involved through overhead shots, sometimes we are plunged into the tide of participants with a hand-held camera, pushed up against the urgency and turmoil of political action made manifest. The filmmakers hammer us with the evidence not only of the presence but of the force of the labor movement during the Depression – the unemployed form a kinetic force, a projectile aimed at the social-structural status quo, something more ineluctable than a mere group of individuals. Consequently – faces seen only in passing, as the camera sweeps over the crowd, faces merging with others to create an anonymous and therefore more powerful entity. The newsreel offers an image of themselves to those members of the political movement that is larger than life, that documents the viscerally-felt impact of collective will on the actual/the real. I get the sense of history being forged as the newsreel unfolds, created as a result of the collision of human matter.
This discourse of anger and action stands against the Griersonian call to sympathy _ the actants, the agents of the movement would not be served by self-pity. The call to sympathy as a documentary trope marks the boundary between subjects and audience, wherein the subject is an Other to be reached out to. The gathering sense of the Workers’ Film and Photo League newsreals is a “we”. The document is proprietary – carried by the viewers like a tool or a weapon or an identity card. It is not “a work”, there is no artist or pedagogue asserting his voice or vision behind the documentary artifact.
Who is “Housing Problems”(Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, John Taylor, 1934) addressed to? From the point of view of the film’s sponsor (the British gas industry), the film allows it to claim a certain politically progressive cachet, an aura of compassionate responsibility. From the point of view of the filmmakers’, this same middle-class audience targeted by the gas industry is being exposed to a previously obfuscated aspect of British society, the lives of the working underclass. Does the film serve these subjects in any way or are the subjects mostly used to serve the ideological framework and intent of the filmmakers’ _ namely, an educated, middle-class idea of reform sold to the educated middle-class?
The virtues of “Housing Problems” are perhaps more in what it initiates than it what achieves: the beginning of the voice of the documentary subject, here included alongside the authoritative voice of the filmmakers (and the city planning projects of the gas industry). The workers’ voices are confined – confined to the rehearsal of a narrative whereby their problems are magically solved by an outside agency endowed with the resources of knowledge and power the workers are denied, reduced to speaking in favor of their own surveillance and containment (watchmen appointed from the tenants patrol the new projects to discourage disorder, the question of the possible role of the working class in bringing attention to the slums is not raised).
The personal anecdotes provoke our sympathy, conjure a window into the lives of the workers. The lack of an argument or an analysis limits our ability to respond to the filmic text in the politically mobilized way which would prove most useful to its subjects. From a cynical perspective, the voices of “Housing Problems” are appropriated voices, put on display like the faces of the speakers in a travelogue tradition traceable to the sensationalist photographic “slum tours” of the 19th century (Tom Gunning, Visible Evidence). The workers “incriminate” themselves, shocking our sensibility with visions of vermin and squalor – our nebulous sympathy arises from a simple, visceral identification with the suffering subjects. No reflection on the historical causes or power structure surrounding the problem hold in check other subterranean, less benign feelings the representation might concomittantly arouse: pity, contempt, perhaps disgust, complacency. When the film is over the viewer has no rationale but the sentimental to support a platform for action: like the subject, he or she is also turned into a passive recipient.
The question of the subject’s collaboration with the filmmakers and the ethics of representation belong to a later historical period. “Housing Problems” opens up a previously unaddressed or unproblematized field of issues surrounding documentary practice.
I find it useful to compare “Housing Problems” with “Darwin’s Nightmare” (Hubert Sauper, 2004) , a documentary that skillfully unravels the mesh of local problems surrounding the global trade of the Nile perch from Lake Victoria. “Darwin’s Nightmare” does not escape the victimization of its subjects, whose plight is framed as the result of the ubiquitous and invisible forces of a global market. However, humanized in flashes of meaningful activity, they still possess a sort of sandbox agency_or at least they project the promise of agency. The film seems to argue that, as a result, only the record of their voices (sometimes a direct look at the camera or a deliberate gesture suffice) subsist as evidence of a will to freedom and empowerment. The expressive qualities emergent in the cinematography and especially the editing choices are such that the image appears to break its ontological attachment to surface truth in order to present analytical evidence.
I find Renov’s list of the four tendencies of documentary (Theorizing Documentary, 1993) to be a useful starting point for examining Watt and Wright’s 1936 documentary “Night Mail”. At first glance, “Night Mail” appears to be an elegiac drama about the success of the British postal service and the teamwork spirit of post office employees. Through lyrical imagery of the trains carrying the mail overnight and their dawn arrival in different Scottish cities as well as suspensful reconstruction of the workers doing their utmost to process the mail on schedule, it offers us a rewarding vision of the British nation. It is difficult not to feel a tug at the heart-strings when confronted with the skilled and jocular labor force, united in a common goal to maintain meaningful connections between British citizens, an impressive, state-of-the art railroad network, the flow of goods regulated and organized to the best standards of modernist efficiency, the homely beauty of the Scottish landscapes and the comforting twinkle of lights as the mail train passes through the night, confident in the value and usefulness of its mission.
Of Renov’s four aspects of documentary, “Night Mail” seems more interested in persuading and promoting an idea of the government – via the case study of the Post Office – as reliable (it can deliver mail on time), powerful (it can deliver mail anywhere), and benevolent (mail is a benign and useful service). The expressive qualities of the documentary, particularly the sense of familiarity and warmth the subjects and cinematography convey are instrumental to this promotional purpose. Although one could accept “Night Mail” as an example of a documentary whose didactic, inspirational, even propagandistic mission eclipses other documentary values such as the desire to reveal, to inform, or to abet analysis and leave it at that, I find the tension between the film’s pretensions to show us “actuality” and its promotional purpose problematic.
According to Nichols in Introduction to Documentary, “documentary re-presents the historical world by making an indexical record of it; it represents the historical world by shaping this record from a distinct perspective or point of view. The evidence of the re-presentation supports the argument or perspective of the representation“. In “Night Mail”, I find that the re-presentation of actuality does not serve the function of evidence for the representation offered us. Actuality is utilized in order to constitute a story, rather than a story constituted in order to represent actuality.
On a final, whimsical note – “Night Mail” metonymic representation of society as a valiant machine (or at least as an efficient, happy system) brought to mind worker bees and hives. This excerpt from the children’s show Sesame street about bee-keeping treats (reconstructed) actuality for didactic purposes, using creative expression to do so. Is “Night Mail” cut from the same cloth?
This film opens up a world, another level of “reality” that is more than the sum of its parts. Emerging out of a vision of other time – time mechanized, measured, dislocated, arrested, superimposed – is the vision of a other way of life, a life energized by the fullness of the juxtaposed moment, a society aligned with Vertov’s and the communist project’s ideal of a union of the activity of communal / industrial daily life and the vital élan, the joyful exercise of each individual’s humanity. The world invented / discovered by Vertov’s camera erases the division between labor and “one’s own time”, between citizens and the city, between the producers and the technological means of production, between products and their consumers. Every element that is captured by the apparatus meshes with a multiplicity of analogous moments or rather analogous vectors, snippets of temporal trajectories in which the world and all its inhabitants seem to freely throw themselves into each others’ paths.
Brecht-like, Vertov pulls down the wall between the screen and the audience, allowing the subjects-spectators possession of their photographed selves, assigning the camera (and the filmmaker) to be as much a participant in the buzz as its privileged observer. This move is incredibly satisfying and startling at the same time: I do not feel I am presented with an object, a result, a work out of or beyond actuality for me to consume but that the windows of actuality have been blasted open all around me and that I find myself almost on the same ontological plane as the (human, technological) population of the film. Rather than bringing the world to me, it brings me into the world – as a spectator I feel simultaneously transformed into an actor, an agent, part and parcel of the aliveness of the kino-eye. It’s the first time I’ve seen “Man with a Movie Camera” . I cannot remember having ever been so engaged (as opposed to engulfed, enchanted, immersed) by a work of art.
How is “Man with a Movie Camera” a documentary? Grierson’s “the creative treatment of actuality” seems too indeterminate a definition to characterize Vertov’s utopian project. Actuality here is certainly treated, openly, visibly mediated by a community of agents : by the apparatus (which eerily and comically becomes an animate character of its own)_ by the camera operator, the camera’s appendage or transport device whose main task seems to be to enable the camera’s heroic phenomenological agency_by the editor, who, in a sequence showing shots of frames on a film strip followed by shots of the same frames projected at their proper speed, finalizes the machine’s God-like powers to set time in motion. This candid mediation takes the sting out of “creative treatment of actuality”: we are informed as to the “how” and encouraged to jump into the project ourselves.
The filmmaker does cease to be a conjuror and becomes an epistemologist – rather than doling out a spectacle (even a spectacle structured by an argumentative, informative or ideological purpose, on the non-fiction side like Grierson or on the fiction side like Eisenstein) the kino-glaz (a gaze that is simultaneously the filmmaker’s, the spectator’s and the camera’s) inscribes a map of actuality, in fact writing by the exercise of looking / scoping /projecting.
Argumentation becomes problematic at such a level of investigation into the actual, not least because we are placed in a realm beyond language or discourse into something that is purely cinematic – if we are mobilized politically it is on a poetic level, where social issues cannot be divorced from their embededness in an entirety of human meaning.
Another epistemologist – phenomenological camera in Chris Marker’s “Sans Soleil”. “Sans Soleil” also takes actuality as its material, but is it a documentary? When does not the poetic treatment of actuality but the poetic purposes of the filmmaker diverge from a “documentarian” purpose. “Sans Soleil” is about actuality, although a highly subjective one. Does it count? Or must a documentary necessarily address some form of consensus reality – must it necessarily inform in addition to express?
Doane argues that early film showcases “time becoming visible as the movement of bodies through space”
Mary Anne Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive
Mark Shiel, Cinema and the City in History and Theory in Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context, edited by Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice.
Mary Anne Doane and Mark Shiel make arguments for opposing conceptions of cinema as escape valve for modernity’s alienation from “lived time” and as a postmodern transformation of simulacra into “lived space”.
According to Doane, “the technique of metropolitan life” implies the development of a consciousness regularly leached of meaningful experience by the systematic “shock” of paradoxically both the excessive presence of the present in the form of a barrage of urban stimuli and the alienation of subjectivity from its own present by the logic of capitalist labor. Doane’s essentially psychological (Freudian?) argument is that this constant condition of collective trauma is the origin of a schism in our conception of time – between a time characterized by “the most punctual integration of all activities and natural relations into a stable and impersonal schedule” (the time created by railroad logistics, punch-cards and wrist-watches) and the time that takes shape in the experience of cinema, which offers “the technological promise…of immortality, the denial of the radical finitude of the human body, access to other temporalities” and, contra the traumatized time of daily modern life, can be archived, re-captured, indexed, “rematerialized”. Cinema in this case become a collective prosthetic imitation of memory, a mechanized algorithm for the production of the lived time that has been lost in the business of a modernist logic that “spends” time instead of holding onto it.
This new or other cinematic time is constructed around a double absence: the phenomenological gap resulting from the fact that cinema is a juxtaposition of still frames, and therefore fails to reproduce (according to Bergson) true time/movement, and the diegetic gap constituted by editing, which dislocates the linear flow of time. This phantom, uncanny time, resurrected/ “relived”, “haunted” by its own fabricated past, becomes a site for experiments in fresh meaning-making, for the presentation and representation of the kind of life that “results from immanence and embodiment”. Out of perversity or driven by a utopian desire for the impossible, Doane argues that photography/cinema, or at least their proponents, seek to transform the contingent, the arbitrary (the non-contextualized moment, “that which is beyond or resistant to meaning”) into that which is most authentically (because instantaneously) meaningful. From a classicist point of view, this reconfiguration of time into a present of memory (and nostalgic memory of the present) is equivalent to attempting to achieve a sort of alchemy – in spatial terms, to conflate surface and depth.
This argument that cinema exists in a time of its own is curiously echoed (or produced in a postmodernist reverse/mirror effect) in Mark Shiel’s argument for the understanding of cinema as its own “spatial system”, a space that is present/constitutes a present rather than merely a “textual system”, a system of representation. Using the city as a metaphor for cinema as well as the site of (Hollywood) cinema’s very concrete expansionist/imperialist practices, Shiel points out that film has long ceased to be a factor amongst many in the progression of globalization, but constitutes its basic engine – that in a sense globalization is about the colonization of ‘real’ urban space by the space of cinema, by the imaginary of the cinematic presence / present.
In A Thousand Plateaus Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari theorize a new way of conceptualizing narrative. What has been obfuscated by a psychoanalytic and aesthetic ideal of coherent and authoritative systems of representation is the fact that “the book is a multiplicity”, a thing with no fixed beginning or end that exists within the non-structural patterns of a “rhizome”. A rhizomatic book, instead of following a reproductive structure of branching points, is written/played by the reader according to her own spontaneous initiative to ‘map’ one signifying element onto another.
To what extent and how effectively does entrusting to the reader the task of ‘mapping’ the narrative, and thereby abandoning the framework of traditional authorship, increase our capacity and desire to, in Deleuze’s words, “experiment with different ways by which one can get a grip on reality”? If linear narrative has restricted the practice of meaning making to the task of producing representations, then we must turn towards an interactive strategy to reverse this top-down process by which images/words signify.
Deleuze’s and Guattari’s theorization of the book-rhizome is a call for action on the part of practitioners – as they themselves admit, “we have not been able to do it”. The layers of hypertext that are the Internet have introduced us to the rhizome model of connectivity. I propose to articulate a possible response to this challenge in the context of storytelling media and examine the properties of the recombinant narrative space defined by A Thousand Plateaus as they apply to the database of an interactive documentary.