Preface: In 1987, like many cinephiles when they reach their mid to late 20s, my experience of films and my immersion in theory led to a torsion: the radical newness of some films of the time (let nobody fool you that the ‘80s was a dud decade for cinema!), and the intense excitement they prompted in me, fed both a dissatisfaction with critical/analytical tools that remained dominant during the period, and an urgent desire for a new way of talking, thinking and writing about cinema. The following piece was one of my sketches from that moment – most, like this one, unpublished – towards this goal. Again, like many such gestures that arise from a deep well of personal upheaval, the work remained unfinished, and perhaps unfinishable: it was borne on desire – almost painfully so, in my case – and desire is (thankfully) hard to concretise into a monumental system. Nonetheless, when I re-read this fragment today (morsels of which I paraphrased in my Afterword to Milcho Manchevski’s Truth and Fiction: Notes on (Exceptional) Faith in Art for punctum books in 2012), I see in it not only a historical snapshot of the currents in film culture that gave rise to it, but paths of thought and theoretical experiment that might still be taken, by someone, somewhere – and intuitions that nurtured, in ways and forms that were unpredictable to me then, much of what I have pursued since in the labyrinth of film criticism. – AM, 22 September 2013
… a world of mysterious palpitations amidst the emergence of the quotidian. In a word, materialism.
– John HughesJohn Hughes, “Autodialogue”, Film Comment (May-June 1978); available on-line, with a retrospective introduction by Jonathan Rosenbaum, in Rouge, no. 4 (2004), http://www.rouge.com.au/4/hughes.html.
In the film: but the film is not a receptacle or a filter. What circulates, transforms itself, generates itself between these words, their resistance and the resistance of the material – concrete materials: cameras and microphones and – less malleable – faces, bodies, ways of speaking. And more: light, wind, shadows … What would speak then would be a struggle, materially inscribed on this white surface at the end of a black tunnel; a conflict of forms, meaning and material. The film would be a documentary of this struggle.
1: The Documentary Question
After a carnival of calls for a new agenda for film criticism during the 1980s – with the 1970s agenda à la Screen subject to ferocious critique – it would be generous indeed to claim that this new agenda (and the rich, young fruit of its work) actually appeared. Film criticism hardly functions anymore; it sizes itself up all the time, but scarcely experiments, produces, creates. It is still a time of malaise, as the gap between ivory tower academia and hack journalism gets bigger than ever, with nothing much happening in-between.
Film study needs to probe its limit cases – those films, directors, moments, genres and practices which return insistently to needle it, dropping an un-ignorable boodle just beyond the gates of the currently sayable and thinkable within critical writing. A reconnaissance mission for those zones of the cinema, and our experience of cinema, which are livelier, messier and more open than our present intellectual tools can allow for and accommodate. A search for a cinema of edges – hard edges, lines out, explosive paradoxes. The cinema that draws us on towards it – dumbfounding us, yet daring us, all the while, to try to speak of it.
There is as yet no collectively drawn map of what or where these torrid zones of critical encounter are – only mostly individual speculations, hunches, little moves here and there that dance around the spaces where we think they might be. We suspect, in advance, that it is a matter of unearthing something – a life, an energy, a play of forces, a research – across many different kinds and practices of cinema (and therefore not something localisable in a particular genre or an avant-garde); something, as it were, repressed for a long time, or at least (to use the words of Godard’s Prénom: Carmen, 1983) badly seen, badly said … and hence enormous.
It seems to me that the area of documentary cinema is a principal troublesome, trembling zone of things badly seen and said. The area has been foreclosed, locked-off due to one of the most triumphant (and valuable) moves of the 1970s: the ideological critique of documentary as that which passes itself off as true, factual, objective, transparent, informative; and (in Michael Renov’s words) “treated by many as a kind of semi-permeable membrane that connects the spectator to the world.”Michael Renov, “Rethinking Documentary: Toward a Taxonomy of Mediation”, Wide Angle, Vol 18, No 3/4 (1986), p. 72. This critique hits its mark best when it aims at television news and current affairs programs, or certain highly conventionalised and so-called professional modes of documentary making – the tearing apart of which is now almost commonplace, although perhaps no less necessary for that. But a particular anti-documentary politique has become an extremely inflexible (and reflex) critical stance. Documentary cinema: a classic bad object for some time now.
Documentary/fiction: a full reclaiming and remapping of the complexities of that couplet is an urgent and vital task. What we might call the pre-enlightenment (i.e., pre-1970s!) position on documentary conventionally defines it as absolutely not fiction. In this version of the couplet, documentary is of the real, the spontaneous, the unmediated; whilst fiction is contrived, staged, loaded. This rearguard notion today meets its avant-garde antagonist: the anti-documentary proposition that, in all likelihood, all documentaries are just fiction in disguise – for, like everything else cultural, a documentary is comprised of pre-given signs, representations and discourses. Insofar as documentary and fiction modes are ever put into play in relation to each other within a single work, they are usually (under the sign of Kluge, Godard, Makavejev, Straub-Huillet, and the contemporary essay/montage film) caricatured into separate blocks and then juxtaposed. But fiction is clearly the winner in this game.
It seems to me that there is a whole series of questions (of philosophy and of cultural strategy) that can arise from the clash of the concepts of documentary and fiction – a clash that would leave neither one simple, intact or innocent. We have to face up, not to the TV news, but to a vast body of extraordinary work by filmmakers such as Les Blank, Joel De Mott and Jeff Kreines, Frederick Wiseman, Jean Rouch; and particular films such as F For Fake (Orson Welles, 1974), Notre Nazi (Robert Kramer, 1984), Journey To The End of Night (Peter Tammer, 1982), Sunless (Chris Marker, 1982) and Poto and Cabengo (Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1979) – the last of which I shall discuss in detail in Part 3 of this essay. All these films are, within their own terms, exploring and exploding fiction/documentary oppositions; but, although I stress them for that reason (the reason of their lucidity and edginess), I want to indicate, also, that many documentary traditions – Grierson, cinéma-vérité, Soviet montage, etc – can, on impact, constitute an unexpected wallop to our critical preconceptions, once we have fought through the highly clichéd formulations and overdetermined applications bequeathed by their previous critical history.
We can start out, not from ‘all documentaries are fiction’, but from the provisional gamble on a reversal like Fieschi’s, cited above: his notion that the ideal film, the image of a dream-film that animates our making moves towards it, “would be a documentary”. To work out why this initially sounds crazy, or at least problematic, we need to figure out just what the documentary sore point is in film criticism; this in itself would be an instructive research, potentially liberating of contemporary film writing.
A great deal of thinking around cinema, at least since the late 1950s, has been devoted to a critique of realism – a critique fuelled by much healthy suspicion of a massive and codified filmic con job. Realism – as an ideology, an attitude, a stance promulgated by certain filmic practices such as the authoritative voice-over or so-called invisible editing with its matching of shots – came to stand as an enemy to be unmasked.See, for a representative sample, Bill Nichols, Ideology and the Image: Social Representation in the Cinema and Other Media (Indiana University Press, 1981). It was (and still is, on all programs of the Sixty Minutes ilk) an ideology of transparency, the oft-mentioned “window on the world” that the screen via the camera lens offers as a simple and all-encompassing view. It was also an ideology of objectivity and factuality: events occur in reality that speak of themselves, and when they are transferred to film they still speak in the same way.
The critique of realism zeroed in on all those instances where this edifice (of the natural and the truthful) cracks: where things are being clearly faked, or (at a more sophisticated moment of critique) nudged into the realms of fiction and spectacle, overlaid with imaginary associations. This critique stressed the need for spectators not to fall into the pro-filmic event (the event that occurred in reality before the camera and the tape recorder), but to be alert to the total filmic construction, treatment and inflection of that event.
The anti-documentary polemic of the 1960s and ‘70s went hand in glove with the enlightenment-style working-through of slogans like “a film is a constructed reality” and “film is not the reflection of reality, but the reality of a reflection” – the idea that a documentary film (or any film) utterly transformed its seeming raw material and appropriated it for another register, another context of audio-visual discourse. It then became possible to see that every item on (for example) a typical current affairs program was first and foremost a story – a highly elaborated story with completely classical tropes like a climax, a hero, a resolution, an authoritative, narrational point of view – and indeed, pretty much always the same story, with the same, basic ideology.
To undermine the innocent truth–claims of documentary (and indeed, a great many documentary filmmakers), it is necessary only to stage certain encounters and ask certain questions: to observe how in Harlan County USA (1976), for instance, images and sounds recorded completely discontinuously (i.e., with many stops and starts of the camera; some shot with direct sound and others ‘wild’; etc) are arranged so as to provide the (dramatic) illusion of continuous time and space events (complete with cutaways, sound overlaps, and so on). Or to ask what certain images of historic reality, repeated and circulated in our culture ad nauseam – the bombing of Hiroshima, the Kennedy assassination, Hitler at the Nuremberg rally – can possibly mean beyond the thick mass of historical mythologies, fictions and associations with which they are now encrusted: hyperreal (or completely surreal) rather than simply or self-evidently real anymore. (Normal language gives this process away when it refers to such stock-shots as, at some point, iconic.)
Further undermining comes with the thought: what is real, anyway, except what strikesus as real, something which follows the rules of a rhetoric of reality? By this, I mean something that fits the preconceived notion of what reality (in its supposed clear difference from fiction) apparently looks and sounds like – suggesting that reality in film is only that which appears as real.
Once, I quizzed a class of people as to what reality is in a film – such that we can think we know when we have just seen or heard it. We collectively figured out that the signs of the real are either in the mode of the violently explosive or the spontaneous – so spontaneous it escapes the camera, as in an off-screen death at a crowded political rally; or in the mode of the resolutely boring and uneventful (everyday life, in all its banality, is what is truly real). Yet these are precisely signs and, of course, they can be (have been) faked by sufficiently skilled fiction-operators (as in the now commonplace use of a handheld camera to inject a mocked-up immediacy into any vaguely dramatic scene).
What can strike us as real in a film (whether documentary or fiction) relates also, intensely, to the limits and taboos on what can be generally seen and not seen at any given moment in a social history of representations. For many of the students to whom I showed Wenders’ Kings of the Road (1976), the image of Rüdiger Vogler (actually) shitting in a sandbank long stuck as an indelibly and overwhelmingly real filmic event or viewing experience. The Real, in a Lacanian sense, is often that which flashes, emerging suddenly and fleetingly like an hallucination within an otherwise normal film – the clinch, the shock, the shudder of the real (as many horror movies remind us) – and many conditions, conventions and contexts work to produce that flash effect. So, reality is, here, something which inheres in an event captured on film.
One can go too far with this line of argument, even given that its clear, polemical value. What I believe film criticism and theory inadvertently created for itself in the ‘70s was a major blockage, a massive blood clot that has not yet yielded its hemorrhage. That clot occurs precisely upon the site of the real – the almost hysterical refusal to countenance that there is indeed something real in the pro-filmic event, something that not only can survive its transfer to film but often also sing out directly, taking an arrow like course straight out of the screen and into the spectator. There is a layer, a level of the real in the cinema – the screen is, among other things, indeed a window – and it would seem foolish to deny this.
When ordinary people (I mean you and me) go to the cinema, this is, after all, one of the things they are keying into: that real body there, that wall, that voice, that chair, that situation to which they immediately relate, which they feel, breathe, remember, compare with experiences back out there in the real world. This does not mean that people are sucked in, seduced by an illusion; they do not think they are seeing a reality that has fallen, like a gift of God, from the heavens – some unconstructed ‘life itself’. They know they are seeing a performance of sorts that is pieced together from all kinds of materials – some real, some fictional, some natural, some synthetic – and that performances work both out of reality, and as metaphors for reality in its many dimensions.
Filmic performances are arguments, symbolic statements, what-if and look-here propositions addressed to a viewer – or, more correctly, a whole audience of viewers. The ‘slice of life’ is always that – very carefully and clearly sliced; it presents itself as neither the whole picture nor the whole truth, and it is important to remind oneself occasionally that this is common, intuitive knowledge. This is indeed a major factor in why people become attached to movie-going in the first place. You go to a film neither to simply see the real nor to simply get out of the real (the bogus notion of escapism), but to inhabit a reflection zone, a conscious and unconscious work-over zone somewhere between the in and the out. And in that zone lies an entire, unwritten theory of film.
It is not hard, with hindsight, to see how and why film criticism/theory foxed itself in during the 1970s and beyond. In opposing the presumed illusions and ideologies of naturalism, realism and romantic expressivity, it inevitably fell in love with signifying structures, and with formalism. It saw signs, codes, dominant conventions; it kept snapping the dangerously elastic depths of a filmic event back to the too-easily forgotten doings at the screen surface, all the framings and constructions which were at work there. It saw the glance of an actor that cued the reverse shot in a point-of-view structure; it sensed the powerful narrative bindings of shot and scene repetition; it heard the carefully contrived off-screen sounds that firmly located the trajectory of an intrigue in this and no other fictional direction. What it rarely saw was the unique physiognomy of this face and body in this room in this light; what it rarely sensed was the potential looseness and openness of any filmic performance; what it never heard was the babble (Jean-Pierre Gorin calls it the music) of the real. The formalist legacy in film study – alas, endlessly teachable – is Noël Burch, Bordwell & Thompson, Stephen Heath, Raymond Bellour, Peter Wollen & Laura Mulvey (among other people and practices). Other, different, more productive critical legacies are less trumpeted, less teachable, and less able to be pulped into text-book systematics – they come from (among other people and practices) Manny Farber, Raymond Durgnat, William Routt, Jean-André Fieschi, Stanley Cavell, David Thomson, Ronnie Scheib, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Edgar Morin, Jean Louis Schefer.
A recent typical instance revealing what dominant film criticism does and does not see these days is James MacBean’s treatment of Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion (1982). Early in the film, there is a sequence detailing a recreated tableau vivant of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. A voice on the soundtrack says: “Don’t scrutinise the structure of the shots, do like Rembrandt, look closely at the human beings for a long time, at the lips and into the eyes”. This means what it says: to look long and hard at this real, fleshy, human trace. MacBean, bothered and puzzled by the scene, comments that:
… it is a strange enjoinder, coming from Godard. Concentrating on the actors and actresses, allowing ourselves to be caught up in the discursive narrative logic of their gaze, of their facial expressions, ignoring the way the shots are constructed – what is all this but allowing ourselves to fall under the sway of the representation at the expense of the presentation? Isn’t this precisely what Godard has always inveighed against?James Roy MacBean, “Filming the Inside of His Own Head: Godard’s Cerebral Passion”, Film Quarterly, Vol 38 No 1 (Autumn 1984), pp. 16-24. 2013 Postscript: Stephen Muecke has described the endurance of this kind of discourse well: “Indeed, it seems we may not live in a two-sided universe after all. But how did we get to this pretty pass, this mountainous divide called ‘representation’? We look down one side to the real world, and on the other everything is totally made-up”. Muecke, “Domain to Network”, Cultural Studies Review, Vol 18 No 3 (2012), p. 384.
Betting on that false always of Godard, that desired and presumed consistency of the Master’s research, MacBean makes all the standard distinctions here: representation is the deadly, seductive pro-filmic illusion in relation to which the spectator is “caught up” and “fall(s) under the sway”, an illusion running like a perfect machine of “the discursive narrative logic of (the) gaze”; while “presentation” is not to be found in actors’ faces but in “the way the shots are constructed”. This is an absurd reduction of the richness, the complex materiality of this scene or, indeed, almost any film scene; it leaves MacBean wishing that “perhaps, then, this enjoinder (i.e., to look closely) is meant ironically”!
I think it is possible to break the stand-off of documentary vs. fiction (similar in form to representation vs. presentation) via the notions of performance and event in cinema. A performance is something neither un-real nor non-fictional – it is real (it is happening here and now, and/or there and then) and it is also a story, a scene, a situation. What a film performs is an event of a dense and knotted sort – an event on many, simultaneous levels. There are events in the film and the event of the film – and these levels are always modifying each other, playing off each other and creating multiple interrelations. Crucially, this space happens in the space created between screen and spectator. To watch a film – to be an active recipient of its performance, its rhetoric – is to always be in a state of fluctuation, inhabiting spaces in-between and across all these different levels: to sometimes be deep within the real that is recorded, traced and etched there – those environments, feelings, lines of force – and then to be at the surface of the film’s own eventfulness, picking up and sending back its cues, signs, winks, games. A movement between abstract and concrete, and a continual making-abstract and becoming-concrete of each material element of the performance (so that the actor is a body, then a character, then an idea, then a compositional prop, sometimes all at once … ).
The notion that the real is full of events – singular, unique, complex symbolic events which are multiplied in their eventfulness on a screen – gives new form and logic to what we usually think of as formless (the real ‘just happening’, violently or banally). Which is to say that the real is full of fiction, full of intrigue, full of what-if and look-here propositions. The appeal to form and logic here is not to a form or a simple logic. I am thinking more on the model of an open system or complex logic, connections and lines which are continually made and unmade from second to second, creating a dizzy, malleable form (it is the flash of this kind of instantaneous logic which dazzles us in, for example, Les Blank’s films).
This conceptual move from a formless real into the realm of the event is an important step in relation to documentary, because it means that fiction can no longer be its evil opposite number. It also indicates that a documentary playing on, with and through the events it has recorded is not necessarily falsification or distortion, but more a kind of dialogue between available materials – grasping, enhancing and colliding their various, potential significances.
If documentary can learn that it shares properties and potentialities with fiction, then an important move can also be made in the opposite direction, from documentary back to fictional cinema per se. Fiction is too often treated as something totally abstracted, plotted, structured, diagrammatic in a skeletal sense; it loses, in the way that it is talked about by criticism, all the immediacy and reality of its descriptiveness and observation. Fiction films are too often robbed of their eventfulness precisely at the levels where they are most richly, profoundly and openly eventful: their picturing of environments, behaviours, idioms, spontaneous little bits of business, all kinds of big or little realities. If anything that ‘just happens’ in a documentary is always and already theatre, then even the most completely contrived incident within a fictional frame is also always a once-only event, open to at least some of the unpredictable valences and velocities we associate with the real. The weight and texture of so many movies – their density, their feel – derives after all from the rich materiality of their observational eventfulness and not solely from their elaborated codes and structures. It is as if no film, finally, can avoid (as Jean-Louis Comolli puts it) a “detour through the direct”, through reality (le direct is the French term for documentary shooting).See Jean-Louis Comolli, “The Detour Through the Direct”, in Christopher Williams (ed.) Realism and the Cinema (London: BFI, 1980); first published in Cahiers du cinéma , nos. 209 & 211 (February & April 1969).
Film study has not yet squared up to why, in recent times, so many cinephiles have been moved to raptures of passionate curiosity – admiration tipping over into movie-love – by films like Chan Is Missing (1982) and Meantime (1983), the work of John Cassavetes and John Sayles, Toute une nuit (1982) and Variety (1983). My hunch is that these fictional works force a recognition of their particular and specific encounters with the real; as Andrew Preston notes, “a primary objective of all of them seems to me to be experimenting in an effort to make contact with reality”.Andrew Preston, probably in a mid-1980s issue of the Sydney Filmmakers Co-Operative tabloid magazine Filmnews; citation lost in the mists of time, due to the tendency of rusty staples to loosen themselves from ancient paper manuscripts. Their depth, in each case, arises not from the purity of their forms or the neatness of their expressed themes, but the radical and mobile impurity, the richness of their everyday observations (where the everyday is as passionate, magical and mysterious as it is dull, banal and oppressive). Far from being random (improvised, as the usually derogatory cliché runs), flat or empty (realist or naturalist, when these labels signify a termination of the capacity to think further), their logic is dazzling and performative. This is, at any rate, the proposition that we need to test and demonstrate in our discussion of particular films.
2: Re-Approaching Documentary
Discussions of documentary conventionally get blocked on the thorny question of truth. Put documentary filmmakers together in a room or on another panel and it is all you hear about: was it true? What is truth? Often it comes down to an assertion of conviction, either related to the moment of filming (I was there, I saw it, I shot it, I was in danger too) or the moment of viewing (there is no doubting it when you see it: it is up there and it is real, I believe it is true) – or both. Yet the discussion is almost always a mess, full of trap doors and misunderstandings.
It is important to distinguish between different operative senses of the term truth. There is a rampant confusion between truth as factual reportage (did it really happen as the camera filmed it? Did it happen that way because the camera was filming it? Did the camera film all of it? Where did the sound come from?); truth as objective attitude (the film is impersonal, impartial, non-interventionist, merely observing – or so it claims, so it wants to believe); and truth as essence (the mood or feel of an event, the summation of its experience, an insight into its essential meaning). And we are not far from a terrible Truth with a capital T, some full on universal, human, metaphysical essence purportedly captured in things, events, people and history. (My least favourite doco in this vein is One Word of Truth  – offering ‘visual illustration’ of a speech by Solzhenitsyn, as if Truth was a serum you could administer, simply by telling or showing it).
Even with these distinctions, I believe that, when the day is done, the question of truth in documentary film is most likely a non-question. Not only do none of the above catalogued brands of truth actually exist (factual reportage is always compromised in some way by selection or circumstance; objectivity is a bogus ideology; essences are pure wishful thinking); I do not think it even matters whether they exist or not. The space of the real and the true is being kept too sacred, too pure, too separate in such discussions; it is underwritten at all times by fiction (what is the belief in a real essence, if not the leaning on a handy and appropriate fiction or account of the significance of an event?), but this fact is defensively and hysterically denied. What, in fact, we see and hear in documentaries is not truth but what I would rather call truth-effects – just as we see not the real but a rhetoric of the real. And effects are always bits of theatre, bits of business, chanced upon or contrived. The interviewee breaks down crying and the camera creeps in for a close up … what is this, in the event of its filming and its placement in a program, if not a very powerful truth-effect, a ‘moment of truth’ longed for by the film-maker and lapped up by the viewer?
What I instead propose is a play of three levels across which any documentary film (of any kind or stature) unfolds. They are not pure but provisional theoretical categories. Theory, too, is (or should be) an open system, a strategic operation on eclectic options; theory-talk is its own kind of performative event, not straight-talk but double-talk. Here are the three levels:
The Real. The documentary film carries that undeniable trace of the real we have already mentioned – the unrepeatable, irreducible uniqueness, the here-and-nowness, of people, events, times, places. It is as important to acknowledge that documentaries are powerfully real – full of surprises, excesses and revelations no fiction film is likely to deliver – as it is to keep working over the proposition that they are not only real, that their value does not only lie in their potential to capture reality.
The Imaginary. The imaginary realm is that of the extra ideas, fictions, associations, contexts, histories, mythologies and clichés that accrue to or can be generated out of a real person/object/event in its actuality and its representation. Social life, so-called real life, is of course absolutely saturated with mythology, in the political-cultural sense in which Roland Barthes defined it: to film Australia’s Ayers Rock (for instance) is to inevitably gesture to its vast mythology. The Imaginary is a realm which includes the viewer – his/her share in collective fantasies, memories, histories. This is the realm least often acknowledged and dealt with by documentary filmmakers – with the result that they end up passively reproducing and falling into the lure of imaginary representations.
The Symbolic. People/events/institutions are symbolic when they are in some sense typical or generalisable; when a social analysis or argument can be triggered or generated from their filmic representation. The symbolic realm is that of social roles, for example – gender roles, professional roles, family roles and so on. Documentaries that are highly conscious of the symbolic properties inherent in their material (such as Frederick Wiseman’s œuvre) tend to organise themselves thematically, seizing on certain key moments as metaphors for the general argument and the social problem involved.
Using these categories, it becomes interesting to sift out and account for the work of various documentary filmmakers, trying to pinpoint what both attracts us and dissatisfies us in their films. The cinéma-vérité tradition, as encapsulated in a film like the Maysles’ Grey Gardens (1975), tends to put all its eggs in the basket of the real – it loves nutty, freaky, glamorous individuals in absolutely unrepeatable situations (like opening night or the electric chair), and hence wriggles free from the social potentialities of the imaginary and symbolic registers. Wiseman’s films such as Basic Training (1971), on another hand, are richly and brilliantly structured as symbolic arguments – always detailing the power hierarchies in institutions like a department store, a monastery of a police academy – but what they deny is any kind of mad individual or collective resistances to the system; and all the relations portrayed are strictly sociological, in no way complicated by less visible layers of cultural mythology. An oddball (avant-garde) documentary like Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971) is nothing but a nightmarish immersion into the cultural imaginary – virtually staging in the viewer a hallucination and a crisis in and beyond the socially circumscribed ways he/she is used to seeing representations of death and the body.
Each of the films I have just mentioned is remarkable in its own way, focusing in on and intensifying its chosen documentary realm; yet it should be clear that, in terms of my dream/argument, I want to value works that can move and play productively on all the levels. Let us return, then, to the notion of the event and what can be spun out of it.
Fieschi rightly puts Jean Rouch at the start of a line of very particular and rich documentary work – Rouch as someone who played on all the levels and confounded all the categorical distinctions between documentary and fiction, representation and presentation.Jean-André Fieschi, “Jean Rouch”, in Roud, Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, pp. 901-909. Being myself a critic who had typically spent most of his time loving and studying fiction film and fobbing off the documentary genre as a big bore, I remember the deep and formative shock to the system upon encountering my first Rouch film, Moi, un noir (1959). It is a film like no other, and still way ahead of its time. Rouch follows around a group of Algerian lads on their weekend walking about the streets, going to parties, etc. He shot it silent and later persuaded the boys to dub the sound on, in the manner of a wild commentary – an improvisation, but one that (as Gorin, again, puts it) has been cagily manoeuvred. Rouch encouraged them to fictionalise, to the extent not only that they call each other movie names (Sugar Ray Robinson, Eddie Constantine), but that they also project imaginary, wishful dialogue into scenes that visually contradict it (eg., a scene of the boys glancing furtively at a girl in the distance with the boastful voice-over, “Come to my place, baby!”). The film ends up being an unbearably poignant commentary on the gap between wishes and grim social reality, in that heightened illusory moment of ‘free time’ sandwiched between working days known as the weekend.
Fieschi’s formulation: Rouch’s films are “adventure films in which the adventure lies in the material and its discovery”, and that this occurs by “creating, through the act of filming, an entirely new conception of the filmic event”. In other words, the event is no longer that which happens solely before the camera (in the pro-filmic), nor is the film-event (the way raw material gets treated) simply another, separate event which is elaborated later in the editing and sound work. Rouch sets up a sort of performance-space in which real events bend themselves around and express themselves for the filmmaker and his/her recording apparatuses. We are a long way here from the bogus ideology of impartiality or non-interventionism held dear by many documentary practitioners. The adventure of materials occurs at all stages, guided in equal measure by the wild card of chance and the intuitive logic of a complex idea.
We are also a long way from that theoretically purist strain of militant and avant-garde cinema (eg. Michael Oblowitz and David Goldberg’s ‘anti-documentary’ The Is-Land , some segments of Straub & Huillet’s work, Godard-Gorin’s Wind From the East ) which, in its critique of documentary, tries to drain images of all their referential and descriptive power, their life – cinema in which ‘images are just images’, fragments in a purely audiovisual history, akin to postage stamps, or scribble on a tombstone. Surmounting that dead end, it is interesting to see recent work that is re-investigating the 1960s tradition of documentary psychodrama – i.e., an involvement in events that are themselves highly theatrical, risky, and stuffed full of fiction and imaginary mythology – but working with events that have complex political (and not merely individualistic) reverberations. Kramer’s extraordinary Notre Nazi is the outstanding example of this research; Tammer’s Journey To the End of Night is an even less well-known milestone in this area. The films of Kreines and De Mott, Demon Lover Diary (1980) and especially Seventeen (1983), are also worth examining from an optic more comprehensive and supple than simply labelling them cinéma-vérité.
3: Poto and Cabengo
There is an unfortunate myth enveloping Jean-Pierre Gorin, who was Godard’s collaborator in the Dziga Vertov Group period of 1968-72. The myth has it that Gorin must have been the dour, dogmatic Marxist of the two, leading poor old Godard away from poetry and into the farthest and driest reaches of political extremism. Yet, if it was not already clear from Gorin’s interviews just after that time, it is abundantly obvious from Poto and Cabengo that Gorin is a vibrant and exploratory filmmaker/film-thinker – linked, in his current American context, with true inspirationalists like Manny Farber, Raymond Durgnat (who both reverently cite Gorin) and Les Blank & Maureen Gosling (photographer and sound recordist respectively on Poto and Cabengo).Many years after writing these words, Gorin’s major essay-films finally became available on DVD: Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin (Criterion, Eclipse Series 31, 2011), also featuring Routine Pleasures (1986) and My Crasy Life (1992).
It is indeed a sad index of film criticism’s non-encounter with the open and radical edge of documentary cinema that whilst Godard’s Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980) – a film first screened around the same time as Poto and Cabengo, sharing with it (in its entirely fictionalised context) many aspects of concern and research – received the usual (if ambivalent, and somewhat puzzled) glut of critical commentaries, Poto and Cabengohas gone virtually unmentioned. All that was noted in Australia at the time of its initial Film Festival screenings were those gestures in the film that could clearly and familiarly be construed as anti-documentary in the old Godard/Gorin manner – the extensive use of black leader for segments of the film, and the refusal of typical documentary illusions of image-sound continuity. As for the rest …
I am not alone in believing Poto and Cabengo to be a key work of contemporary cinema. Gorin has been able to live and practice what Godard has dreamt of and ruminated on in his video Scenario du film Passion (1982): “The screen is a wall. A wall is for jumping over. Playing leapfrog with yourself”. Jumping over that wall of the screen surface – while still paying due attention to the constructions that go there – Gorin immerses himself in its eventful depths. There is intense life in this movie: the intensity and creativity of childhood itself, at war with everything that is pressing in on it.
Poto and Cabengo documents Gorin’s involvement with the widely publicised case of Grace and Virginia Kennedy in San Diego – twins of six or seven who, it appeared, had invented their own private language (hence their pet names for each other of Poto and Cabengo). As Gorin films and relates to Grace and Virginia, scientists, linguists and psychologists are proceeding apace in cracking the mystery of their language and the reasons for its existence. Gorin realises at the outset that their language will soon be disappearing. His ‘investigation of the case’, parallel to that of the scientists, takes in getting to know the girls’ parents, Tom and Christie; their grandmother Paula; and their various histories. This is a poor family living mainly on welfare, Tom’s sporadic real estate commissions, and money from Gorin’s project itself. At the end of the film, ‘six months later’, the family has moved, the children have been separated at home and into different schools, and the fact that they are becoming more normal every day means that Tom’s and Christine’s Hollywood dream of Grace and Virginia becoming ‘Shirley Temples’ is becoming less and less of a possibility. “I got the sense that at the end of this story,” comments Gorin, “everybody would be left high and dry”.
Gorin is heir to Rouch’s legacy. His film speaks with the same poignancy of all those forces that strangle life at the perpetually final moment of its bright, beautiful flowering; he details and etches the resistances, surprises, excesses, wishes and dreams of resolutely ordinary/absolutely extraordinary people. Although it is possible to see the film as a romanticisation of the symbolically foreign and alien nature of Grace and Virginia and their language (“they were foreigners in their own language, and that was their fascination”), it is crucial to grasp that it moves from this initial vantage point of theoretically-inspired distant fascination to an understanding which embraces both the intransigent nuttiness of not-obviously-different folks (Tom, Chris, Paula) and the typicality of even Grace and Virginia (all emblem of all kids who flower and are then crushed).
Gorin is heir to Rouch, too, at the level of the film as event. The film is premised on Gorin’s intervention and subjectivity; his presence as filmmaker not only sets the ball rolling, but is also a factor in deciding just where and how it rolls in the future lives and plans of these people. The event happens and changes in part because he is there – both on a day-to-day level (when Gorin shows up to take Grace and Virginia out on a picnic for the film, he is given Granny as well, so that Tom and Chris can finally have a day to themselves), and also on a more long-term level. One of the saddest and truest threads of the film is the little psychodrama of hopes and misunderstandings Gorin promotes in Tom and Chris simply by being there as a filmmaker; to them, this can only mean the first sign of ‘Hollywood’, and the chance of a starlet career for their children. Near the end, Gorin acknowledges that “Chris was clinging to a dream that my filming had reinforced” as she talks of “movie people” and the “ninety day option” which is about to run out without having been taken up.
Poto and Cabengo’s theme is this hope of a release, of relief – set inside the hopelessness of its real eventuality. For the children, too, Gorin provides a temporary release, a line-of-flight out of the twin prisons of the institution and the home (where they have been cooped up under the uncertain premise that they might be retarded). In a section entitled “Show Me the World, Mister”, Gorin takes Grace and Virginia to zoo, library, beach, and his home. So much energy released from their beings in these scenes is truly overwhelming to watch; an energy that is mixed up with fright and fear of the outside world, and inevitably triggered memories of the clinical surveillance and control which awaits them now as it has always awaited them. In the music library scene, Gorin conjectures that the sight of the tape spools must signify the experience of therapy to them, and then off they go, in a last, uncontrollable burst of energy. “I was too slow for them”, Gorin ruefully comments; the camera can barely keep track of their exhilarated twin trajectories around the room (This is one of those moments of cinema I would take with me to a desert island).
As well as putting himself into an event/performance with Grace/Virginia, Gorin also stages little performances between members of the family: getting Chris to interview Paula in German; filming Tom as he rehearses his bizzare and pathetic real estate pitch (“This house has got four bathrooms and four bedrooms for your seven kids”) with Chris as an enthusiastic guinea pig (“Price is no problem … I want a swimming pool, a gourmet kitchen and a sunken tub in the master bathroom”).
Poto and Cabengo is a completely worked-over film; it is a model of how a documentary can seize and multiply the eventfulness and significance of its material. (Gorin himself uses the Farber-like phrase “working the material” to indicate the equal importance of post-production alongside planning and shooting.) Beyond the shock value of anti-conventionality in the persistent use of devices like the black screen, there is the enormous value of articulation and expressivity that goes much further than the standard anti-documentary reflex. The film works on a set of procedures – freeze frame, tape loop, fade out, black screen, fragments of music, photographic stills – which need to be grasped in the manner of research and as an “adventure of materials”. There is nothing mechanically or simply disruptive about these devices, Brechtian-effect fashion; they are always and specifically poetic and expressive. The freeze frame in the middle of a shot or movement – allowing a gap for a remark by Gorin, or another piece of direct sound from elsewhere – is about that double edge of vivid intensity, the intensive multiplicity (as Deleuze and Guattari would call it) of a moment in its singular arrangement of sounds, bodies, colours, spaces, behaviours. And this co-exists with the reflective possibility that emerges from the contemplation of a chance configuration, a sudden microcosm, a diagram of relations. Remember what the film teaches us: there are sixteen ways to pronounce the word ‘potato’ …
Gorin arranges the event of the film’s movement and unfolding so that it is a sequence of powerful crystallisations in this double-edged manner; it is always seizing and heightening the symbolic nature of its material. Take the sequence titled “A Dinner”, at the moment when Tom says the dinner table prayer of grace. Since one of Gorin’s concerns is with when and how Grace and Virginia can wriggle out from under various processes of societal and familial normalisation, he freezes the complicit, disobedient look of the children to each other while the prayer continues on the soundtrack, and unfreezes the image only at the prayer’s conclusion. At other times Gorin freezes the image to run a particular remark past again, with an added element: when Chris, during her interview scene, describes Grace and Virginia as “two ding-a-lings who are pretty much alive”, Gorin freezes her, brings up sound from elsewhere of the children laughing, plays her line through again, and only then returns to the image-sound continuity of the talking head situation. The freeze is, of course, a refusal of the standard documentary cutaway technique (one which has hidden many evils), but Gorin makes of it a lot more than simple refusal. The meaning of his film is inside such moments.
© Adrian Martin August 1987 / September 2013