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Between Documentary, Fiction and Appropriation Art: A Case Report on the “Language-game” Public Hearing (2012)

Public Hearing (James N. Kienitz Wilkins, 2012)

“The effort really to see and really to represent is no idle business

in face of the constant force that makes for muddlement.

The great thing is indeed that the muddled state too

is one of the very sharpest of the realities,

that it also has color and form and character…”

 

Henry James, Preface to What Maisie Knew

Introduction

According to philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, the postmodern condition is characterized by the incredulity towards metanarratives (Christianity, Enlightenment, Hegelian Idealism, Capitalism, Marxism…), “les grands récits” [the grand tales] called to explain Man’s presence in the world and legitimize social institutions around Him. The idea that emerges from Lyotard’s report on knowledge in Western societies after World War II is that philosophical metadiscourse – “le discourse de légitimation” by excellence – lost grip on its objects and possibly on reality as a whole, since reality seems to elude the ability of totalizing paradigms to describe it, let alone explain it. As a consequence, every statement about something could be considered nothing but a “language-game”, a particular combination of narrative, denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, performative, evaluative, deontic, technic, interrogative “moves” whose validity is just a temporary, “local” convention between addresser and addressee.Jean-François Lyotard, La condition postmoderne. Rapport sur le savoir, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1988, p. 7 and pp. 22-24. The “crisis” in Human Sciences is investigated further in George E. Marcus, Michael M.J. Fisher, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986, pp. 7-16. This epistemology based on radical disbelief and anti-universalism brought about a skeptical frame of mind working against the effort to give an ontological definition of and to distinguish among objects of knowledge: is it really possible to state once and for all what a thing is in itself and why it is there? Can names, categories and genres account for real objects, or is there “a fundamental antagonism between names and reality” that prevents us from reaching the true essence of things? And is there such a thing as a “true essence”, after all, or is that yet another fabrication?Trinh T. Minh-ha, “The Totalizing Quest of Meaning”, in Michael Renov (edited by), Theorizing Documentary, Routledge, New York, 1993, p. 90.

The debate on the notion of documentary as it developed in the last thirty years both in theoretical discourse and filmmaking practices has not been exempt from postmodernist critique. The concept of representation has been especially besieged: is no representation possible without a cost of some sort, “a taxation”, as William J. Thomas Mitchell puts it?William J. Thomas Mitchell, “1. Representation”, in Frank Lentricchia, Thomas McLaughlin (edited by), Critical Terms for Literary Study, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1995, p. 21. That is to say, is every human attempt to represent reality fundamentally partial and distorted, thus “fictional” or at least “fictive”, in that it implies a series of subjective choices made by the maker? If so, does it make sense to ask where the boundary between fiction and non-fiction/documentary lies? Is there a boundary at all?

Doubting is legitimate but, if taken to its extreme consequences, it leads us in a cul-de-sac where no discourse is possible. Hence, as Arild Fetveit suggests, it might be more useful to regard the above claims as overstatements meant to stimulate a revision of ideas too easily taken for granted. For example, if postmodernist deconstruction and contemporary filmmaking practices strive for a radical blurring of the boundary between fact and fiction, why waste time and energy providing strict definitions and clear distinctions between “documentary film as a whole” and “fiction film as a whole”? On the contrary, why not embrace the degree of vagueness of the expression being defined in order to understand this vagueness and the uncertainty of this boundary more fully?Arild Fetveit, Multiaccentual cinema between documentary and fiction, Act Humaniora 165, Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo, 2002, p. 25 and pp. 44-45.

This open-minded attitude towards concepts with “blurred edges” was pioneered by logician Ludwig Wittgenstein who – while reflecting on a possible definition of “games” – wrote:

What is common to them all? – Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ ” – but look and see whether there is anything common to all – For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole lot of them at that. […] I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family […] overlap and criss-cross in the same way.Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §66 and §67, quoted in Carl Plantinga, Rhetoric and representation in nonfiction film, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, p. 14.

Among the wide variety of films that confront spectators with Wittgenstein’s “intersections”, I chose one specific movie to observe closely, Public hearing (2012) by American filmmaker James N. Kienitz Wilkins. The “family resemblances” it shares with documentary film practices, fictional storytelling practices and appropriation art practices will be pointed out, respectively, in Chapter One, Chapter Two and Chapter Three. It is the irreducible complexity and richness of a cultural phenomenon my essay aims at bringing to the fore: leaving the ambition of all-encompassing, essentialist definitions behind, a particular cinematic artifact will be described in detail as it moves across blurred boundaries. Which features are borrowed from each different side, and for which purpose? Which contradictions are triggered? Which “rules of the game” are abided by, re-invented, broken? These are the very same guiding questions through which the moves and counter-moves of Lyotard’s “language-games” can be understoodJ.-F. Lyotard, op. cit., p. 22 (in which Wittgenstein’s investigations on language and games are explicitly quoted) and pp. 33-35.: trading universalist ontology off against meticulous phenomenology seems to me a winning strategy both to account for hybrid practices thatchallenge every theoretical claim for purity, and to use postmodernist skepticism as a productive way of thinking instead of as a nihilistic cry of non possumus.

Chapter One

As the title suggests, my essay is a case study. As already implied while describing the postmodernist-inspired method I intend to follow, this is mainly due to Lyotard’s idea of discarding “les grand récits” in favour of “un petit récit”. And Public hearing is quite literally “a small narration” – a film about a local, humble event. The CPH:DOX Festival catalogue sums up the movie pretty well:

An American provincial town’s public consultation about the expansion of the Wal-Mart supermarket, recreated in minute detail as a […] feature film shot in black-and-white 16mm. [T]he transcript from the real life public hearing is serving as the actors’ manuscript – complete with a five minute break in the middle! – while power-point presentations from the meeting are serving as backdrop.Unknown, “Public hearing”, in CPH:DOX 2012 Catalogue, p. 47.

In addition to stressing the film’s focus on geographical periphery and small-scale chronicle, the text introduces the crucial theme my essay deals with: the oscillation between documentary and fiction. In the attempt to point out the “family resemblances” Public hearing shares with documentary film practices, the present Chapter stems from the speculations to be found in Bill Nichols’ book Representing Reality. In fact, in spite of providing (yet) an(other) essentialist, two-criteria definition of documentary genre, the American scholar seems uneasy with his own strictness from the very beginning, warning that

documentary fails to identify any structure or purpose of its own entirely absent from fiction or narrative. The terms become a little like our everyday, but unrigorous, distinction between fruits and vegetables. […] Of greater importance than the ontological finality of a definition – how well it captures the “thingness” of the documentary – is the purpose to which a definition is put and the facility with which it locates and addresses important questions.Bill Nichols, Representing Reality. Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1991, pp. 6 and 12.

Methodological caveat aside, according to Nichols, spectators are expected to apply a distinct form of “literalism” to documentary, a realism less dependent on fictional characters and their destiny than on social actors: the spectators prepare themselves not to comprehend a story but to grasp an argument in relation to sounds and images that retain a distinct bond to the world we all shareIbidem, p. 5..

The first claim made by Nichols is that documentary is argumentative rather than narrative. Although it may borrow features from fiction films (a suspense-generating crescendo built around a conflict, for instance), a documentary argues about the historical world and informs the audience about real-life situations perceived as problematic or controversial. Since documentary films essentially operate in terms of problem-solving,

a paradigmatic structure […] would involve the establishment of an issue […], the presentation of the background to the problem, followed by an examination of its current extent or complexity[.] This would lead to a concluding section where a solution or path toward a solution is introduced.Ibidem, p. 18.

By taking a debate as its subject matter, Public hearing naturally meets Nichols’ first criterion: the movie consists of people discussing the expansion of Wal-Mart for almost two hours, detailing pros and cons supported by pieces of evidence, and using rhetorical devices in order to persuade fellow citizens. Moreover, the quadripartition of discourse Nichols draws from Quintilian is quite inevitably reproduced by director Kienitz Wilkins, who stages a bureaucratic procedure developing through exordium(opening of the meeting), narratio (focus on the order of the day), argumentatio (debate on the issues at stake), conclusio (closing of the meeting). In the end, after having heard contrasting views from the attendees, spectators are left to wonder who is right: will the new Wal-Mart supercenter increase unemployment by putting local shops out of business, or will it provide plenty of job opportunities and bright career perspectives for all? Is Wal-Mart the flagship of “technologically sublime”, progress-oriented American way of life, or does it represent the irruption of the Machine within the remains of Pastoral America’s Garden?Cfr. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden. Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, Oxford University Press, New York, 1964, pp. 11-33. What price Wal-Mart’s bargains? Can a privately owned corporation serve society’s greater good?

My previous use of the verb “to stage” was meant to underline that Kienitz Wilkins recreated the original event with actors on a set. Does reenactment break the second principle of documentary practice, i.e. that a documentary must be based on actual recordings bearing “a strong resemblance to what you or I would have seen and heard had we been at the scene of the [real-life] event”?Thomas and Vivian Sobchack, An Introduction to Film (Second edition), Foresman & Co., Glenview, 1987, p. 347. In a sense, it does: if indices are intended as signs forced to correspond point by point to nature by virtue of physical connection, there surely there is no “indexical bond” between the images we see during the 2012 movie and the real public hearing that took place in Allegany County in 2005. However, according to semiologist Charles Sanders Peirce, likeness is not a key-characteristic of the index: indices are first and foremost indications “which show something about things, on account of their being physically connected with them. Such is a guidepost, which points down the road to be taken, […] or a vocative exclamation […] which acts upon the nerves of the person addressed and forces his attention.”Charles Sanders Peirce, “What is a sign?” [1894?], in The Peirce Edition Project (edited by), The Essential Peirce. Selected Philosophical Writing, vol. 2, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1998, p. 5. Thus, the “existential link” (the closeness, the proximity, the cause-effect relation) between the stand-in sign and its referent from reality may lie somewhere else than in the pictures. As the director puts it,

I would never make the claim that the movie is the original event. […] All kinds of changes have occurred before, during and after the shooting. […] In the original transcript there were a lot of weird sentence structures, and you realize that they were never spoken – they were just typed that way… And then the transcript I amended is given to actors: some of them attempt to memorize the lines, some of them just read the lines as they are. In this sense, the movie is really a textual performance based on a close reading… Because of all these phenomena of change there can be no claim to purity. […] I did my best to make a film close to the transcript. […] I don’t know what the real event was like because I wasn’t there. To me the real event is the transcript… I mean, the furthest back I could go is the transcript I found in this town hall online archive. The connection between the original transcript and the transcribed movie, which I did recently, is pretty close, it is quite close. I was actually able to use the original transcript to transcribe the movie: instead of re-typing everything, I was able to do slight corrections on the text of the transcript.Michael Guarneri, “Public speaking about Public hearing (2012). Interview with James N. Kienitz Wilkins”, in LaFuriaUmana online issue n. 16. From now on referenced as “LFU/16” in the main text.

Now, can the transcription of the words spoken at the actual meeting be considered an indexical representation of reality? The action of the fingers on a keyboard is of course very different from the action of light on photosensitive film or from the action of sound waves on a magnetic tape, for the transcript is not an “imprint” genesis-wise and it might not be one-hundred-per-cent accurate (its correspondence basically relying on fallible “human filters”). Still, the act of transcribing the speeches was clearly meant to capture what was going on in order to point out that “ça a été” [this has been]. Here I am referring to Roland Barthes’ ontology of the photographic image because – as Allegany County’s official approval and usage of the transcript demonstrates – the aim of the transcribers was to produce if not an index at least an indicium, a proof whose authenticity derives from the perception of a “direct link” connecting the real event to its written record. And in addition to the guarantee provided by the institutional framing/filing of the document as evidence, isn’t the psychological “reality effect” possible precisely because the pressure on a particular key in response to a particular sound functions as some kind of cause-effect relation between the referent and the sign called to represent it? Pragmatic reasons seem to affirm that even if the transcript might not be considered an index in any literal sense (according to Barthes, there is a fundamental incompatibility between indices as “signs without code” and words as “highly-coded symbols”Roland Barthes, “Le message photographique” and “Rhétorique de l’image”, in L’obvie et l’obtus. Essais critiques III, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1982, pp. 9-42.), it can be indexed as such and obtain the status of actual recording. This is the logic Kienitz Wilkins implicitly embraces when he states that to him the real event is the transcript as a document in an archive.

Further inquiry into the film’s pre-production process reveals the centrality of the uncanny “transfer of reality” from the actual event to its institutionally-approved written account, i.e. the progressive con-fusion between the notions of document and index. Public hearing was born out of a scanned transcription:

while I was surfing the Net, I discovered these totally accessible town hall online archives containing tons of .pdf files. I am particularly interested in the .pdf format because it can take something that existed as paper and, once it is converted into .pdf, it is basically fixed: it can be redistributed all over the world and printed out again in roughly the same form it went in on[.] I don’t know, maybe it is something fetishistic… I was fascinated by the fact that I was able to re-print out the public hearing transcript on my printer at home and the stack was more or less exactly the stack that had gone into the town hall computer. But then, when I bound the papers like a screenplay, the transcription suddendly became a screenplay… (LFU/16)

Chapter 3 will go into detail about the affinities that exist between Kienitz Wilkins’ modus operandi and appropriation art practices. As far as the question of the referent is concerned, suffice it to stress that the film is based on an indexical representation (the photographic scan) of a non-indexical representation that nevertheless functions as index (the transcription). From this somewhat paradoxical perspective, it is interesting to note that, in his attempt to convert a transcribed event into film, the director borrowed from literary criticism a “close-reading” method, i.e. a focused text analysis that treats words and punctuation marks as clues in order to reconstruct the meaning of a document: what substantiates the filmic reenactment is basically the same “indexical drive” that moved the transcribers, for the director’s aim is to “stick” to what the source-material saysFor a definition of the index as “sticky stuff” see B. Nichols, op. cit., pp. 149-164.. The term “reenactment” has been used a few times now to account for Public hearing’s problematic indexicality and possible affiliation to the documentary tradition. For the sake of pointing out the contradictions that characterize cinematic artifacts located in the grey area between documentary and fiction, the next Chapter will consider reenactment as a fictional storytelling device. In fact, starting from actual recordings might not automatically lead to the production of documentaries…

Chapter Two

“Reenactment” is another concept with blurred edges: the word both alludes to the fidelity to reality and signals the distance between a past event and its recreation ex post. If photographic technology embalms time and resurrects within the present “dead past as it were,”Cfr. André Bazin, “Ontologie de l’image photographique”, in A. Bazin, Qu’est ce-que le cinéma?, Les Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1975, pp. 9-17. cinematic reenactments produce a short-circuit, revealing that a look-alike ghost is not the actual thing, but its simulacrum, its incorporeal simulation. Nichols is right in pointing out the peculiar “fantasmatic quality” displayed by the filmic recreation of prior events: there is a gap that cannot be filled between past and present, for “the reenactment forfeits its indexical bond to the original event [and] demonstrates the impossibility of stepping into a temporal river for the first time twice.” Still, reenactments are generally “allowed” in documentary practice, the condition for inclusion being their good faith, i.e. that they must distinguish themselves from the footage of the original event.B. Nichols, “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic”, in Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, n. 1, Chicago University Press, Chicago, Fall 2008, pp. 72-75. On the other hand, as stated in the previous Chapter, when we watch a documentary we expect that “what occurred in front of the camera has undergone little or no modification in order to be recorded on film”B. Nichols, Representing Reality. Issues and Concepts in Documentary, cit., p. 27.: of course the “close-reading” method applied to a fairly accurate, officially-approved written recording guarantees us that what we hear on the sound track is (more or less) what was actually said – but what about the images we see? Since the past event only survives as a transcription of the words spoken at the assembly, no matter how close to the textual source, the movie will always constitute an interpretation of the facts. To what extent, then, can the notions of “strong resemblance” and “little modification” be stretched?

In Chapter One I quoted Kienitz Wilkins mentioning a screenplay for Public hearing – a tool you wouldn’t expect to be used in documentary film practices. Let’s follow the creative process more closely:

the dramatising work on the original transcript was a very important process. I did bind the original transcript as it was a ready-made screenplay, but after I did what I call a “close reading”, I wrote actions for the sake of shooting in a shooting script that was basically the transcript with notes like “X does this, Y does that”. I mean, it is not that I had the trascript and I just shot stuff: I tried to build an action-based narrative on the transcripted words, which are the only thing left from that public hearing.[…] To me, the most interesting thing to reenact, recreate or “regenerate” starting from the transcript is that very weird dynamic culminating at the end, when the Pakistani lawyer – arguably the only person aware of the rules of public hearings and one of the few that early on provided solid arguments to discuss – is silenced by an old lady basically saying: “Who are you, anyway?”. I mean, how do you reply to that?  There’s no way to reply to that, and then the hearing is closed. That to me is the climax of the movie… (LFU/16)

Clearly, the original transcript says less than it implies. Since the only piece of “stage direction” Wilkins found in the document was “(Whereupon a recess was taken)” to signal a break, everything else we see in the film had to be inferred from the text. This is exactly where the speculative, “fictional” or “fictive” aspect of dramatic reconstruction came into play, under the double constraint of a visual medium and a lack of visual information in the source-material. As the director duly notes, even the break – arguably the scene that sticks the most to the transcript for the words “(Whereupon a recess was taken)” are reproduced literatim on the blank screen – turned out being highly speculative: “in the transcript […], they say ‘We’ll take a break for about five minutes’. The break could have been 25 minutes long… I made a five minute break given the evidence available and trying to imagine the amount of time attendees needed to go to the bathroom” (LFU/16). Hence, the filmmaker built a self-enclosed diegetic universe characterized by spatiotemporal continuity and coherence, plus psychological and historical realism – pretty much what, say, Sydney Lumet did with 12 Angry Men (1957). Consider, for instance, the fundamental question Kienitz Wilkins asked himself as director and editor of the film: Public hearing is about having to participate in an event, having to deal with time passing, i.e. “about what happens when something becomes boring and where is your mind at that certain point. [W]hat the people at the hearing would be doing at this point?” (LFU/16). The answer provided by the movie is guys peeling an orange, yawning, playing with a can of Coca Cola or with ice cubes in a jug of water. None of that happened in real life as far as the record is concerned, but it is plausible that it could have happened: such visual inserts, then, easily function as authentication devices anchoring a partly-fictionalized account to the world we all share. However, judging from the sources of inspiration the director of Public hearing lists in LFU/16, details aren’t just “realistic stuff” in the background of the narrative. In fact, while working on his film, Kienitz Wilkins had some precise literary models in mind – novels by Witold Gombrowicz and Nicholson Baker in which a zoom into an everyday micro-cosmos allows décor to gain the foreground and tell the most fantastic stories.

According to Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, when we are bored we get distracted and extremely focused at the same time: our eyes and mind wander, registering all sorts of minutiae and connecting them into a narrative-web. To quote the book’s protagonist, it’s as if reality was “swarming with clues,” whose hidden secrets we try to expose for self-entertainment purposes.Witold Gombrowicz, “Cosmos”, in W. Gombrowicz, Cosmos and Pornografia. Two Novels, Grove Press, New York, 1985, p. 52. As a consequence, two young men roaming the Polish countryside build a mystery plot around a crack in the ceiling and a hanging piece of wood. Similarly, in Baker’s The Mezzanine an advertiser on his way to work develops a conspiracy theory about hand dryers taking over paper towels in the bathrooms of fast food restaurants. With its maniacal attention to details, Public hearing imports into the film medium the same narrative strategy, each frame being filled with minimal actions and trivialities as if to challenge the viewers to discover “what you are capable of imagining when you’re bored.”Ibidem, p. 142. This “excess” of reality is particularly interesting in the context of reenactment as seen from the point of view of fiction, for the mimetic effort to reproduce an actual event triggers in the spectator the wildest drifts of imagination, confirming that “rien n’est plus fantastique, en définitive, que la précision” [in the end, nothing is more fantastic than precision].Alain Robbe-Grillet, “Du Réalisme à la Réalité”, in A. Robbe-Grillet, Pour un Nouveau Roman, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1963, p. 142. Indeed, together with Gombrowicz and Baker, novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet exerted a great deal of influence on the filmmaking process. For example, Kienitz Wilkins’ fixation on measurements, statistics and other numerical data can be traced back to the French writer’s technique of suggesting plot-points through lengthy descriptions of the everyday, banal world – “superficial clues”Cfr. A. Robbe-Grillet, “Une voie pour le roman futur”, in A. Robbe-Grillet, Pour un Nouveau Roman,cit., pp. 21-23: “Et toujours il faut en revenir aux indices enregistrés: la position exacte d’un meuble, la forme et la fréquence d’une empreinte […]. On a l’impression […] qu’il n’y a rien d’autre de vrai. Ils peuvent bien cacher un mystère, ou le trahir, ces éléments qui […] n’ont qu’une qualité sérieuse, évidente, c’est d’être là. […] L’adjectif optique, descriptif, celui qui se contente de mesurer, de situer, de limiter, de définir, montre probablement le chemin difficile d’un nouvel art romanesque”. that suddenly become important pieces of evidence in the eyes of the beholder:

Take a book like Le Voyeur (1955)[.] It takes you about fifty pages to understand what the hell is going on among all those descriptions of birds, houses, wristwatches and landscapes, but when you do… in my opinion, it “clicks” and then you realize you spent the first fifty pages learning a language and getting comfortable with that language. It took a lot of patience, but then I was honored to understand the narrative that had been happening the whole time[.] I am not sure when the “click” is [in Public hearing], but before the digital fly-over footage [(a film-in-the-film)], it is eighteen minutes of steep learning, where a presentation is being presented and the rules of the play are outlined by very bored men who did that a thousand times, and it is all statistics and measurements… and that is a Robbe-Grillet thing as well, obviously. And that’s the point: the first twenty minutes are when most people bail – I guess in any movie… I was really interested in working with a transcript for this very reason: the challenge of having to deliver all the information, knowing that once this is done, if it “hits”, things sort of happen. I don’t know if it “clicks”, but for me the fly-over sequence is the end of the first act… (LFU/16)

The above quote demonstrates that the aim of the director is not just to inform about the real world, but to construct a new world tout court in order to tell a story: as Robbe-Grillet wrote in order to explain his task as novelist, “Je ne transcris, je construis” [I do not transcribe, I fabricate].A. Robbe-Grillet, “Du Réalisme à la Réalité”, cit., p. 139.

At the same time, in Public hearing there is a force working against the spectator’s narrative absorption into a veri similis microcosmos recreated with “un souci de précision qui confine parfois au délire” [an almost delirious concern for precision].A. Robbe-Grillet, “Temps et description dans le récit d’aujourd’hui”, in A. Robbe-Grillet, Pour un Nouveau Roman, cit., p. 127. If reenactment might be considered a “doomed act” from the very beginning in its attempt to re-produce an event ex post,B. Nichols, “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic”, cit., pp. 73-74. Kienitz Wilkins exploits this ontological flaw to put forward an anti-illusionistic aesthetic:

I think a cinematic reenactment must always be aware of itself. People who are actively trying to do reenactments through the film medium are people willing to court failure. I guess people like me are aware that the attempt at reenacting is a doomed act from the start: it can never be the original event, so automatically there’s a distance, an alienation at work. I am interested in that alienation. (LFU/16)

The director’s point of reference is, of course, Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater. Brecht’s politically-engaged dramaturgy encourages the depiction of real-life incidents, but warns against the traps of Aristotelian naturalism:

Aristotelian drama pulls the audience into its representation through identification or “empathy” […] with a central character. Plot is the center of the drama and the other elements, such as music, staging, and lighting, recede into the background. The narrative is tightly organised to create a sense of fixed causal order of events, prompting the idea that what happens to the characters is “inevitable” and […] that is not open to change.Angela Curran, “Bertolt Brecht”, in Paisley Livingston, C. Plantinga (edited by), The Routledge companion to philosophy and film, Oxon Routledge, Abingdon, 2009, p. 324.

As a reaction, epic theater aims at distancing people from the show, at forcing them out of the state of passivity and narcosis realistic conventions entail. In fact, in Marxist terms, only a wide-awake subject can develop an opinion about what happens on stage and, most importantly, about the events taking place in the real world’s capitalistic societies. Thus, Verfremdungseffekten [alientation devices] enter the proscenium as a kind of “optical chorus” constantly addressing spectators in order to frustrate every claim of transparency and authenticity.Bertolt Brecht, “From the ABCs of the epic theatre”, in Marc Silberman (translated and edited by), Brecht on Film and Radio, Methuen, London, 2000, p. 7. In the previous section of the Chapter, we have seen how Public hearing tries to hypnotize its audience and provide an almost hallucinatory immersive experience. Now it is time to point out the representational strategies adopted by Kienitz Wilkins to produce a self-aware, critical viewer.

First of all, the film exclusively consists of extreme close-ups and details. Together with the use of 16 mm black-and-white film-stock, this choice was meant to give Public hearing an unmistakable cinematic look and feeling, because under normal circumstances no public hearing would have been filmed that way in the 21st Century. Every shot was in fact conceived to display its being produced through an expensive apparatus, whereas filing purposes only require a tripod and a cheap digital camera capturing a master shot of the event. And talking about “metascruple,”Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine. A Novel, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York, 1988, p. 93. the will to faithfully reproduce reality as recorded by an official document paradoxically turns Public hearing into an almost abstract, structuralist film. As I pointed out before, the film opens with an intradiegetic “master of ceremony” describing how the bureaucratic procedure will develop – a set of rules the film itself strictly abides by. Indeed, the movie follows the exact same logic of the transcript, according to which someone is actually present in the room only when he/she delivers a speech or is referred to by name. As a consequence, at the beginning we only see the moderator (i.e. the first man that speaks and opens the public hearing); then, we are shown a second man as he is introduced by the moderator and talks to an audience we cannot see because its members haven’t “publicly spoken” yet. After more and more characters are introduced as speaking attendees in the transcript, the director is allowed to imply the existence of a space around the close-ups of the orators via reaction shots and details. Eventually, a coherent diegetic space is built, but this is done through a lengthy process that calls attention to itself given its rejection of a self-effacing découpage alternating long shots of the room with movement-matched medium shots, close-ups and details. The deliberate application of such stylized aesthetic and formalist construction to a real-life incident had repercussions at the level of casting and the actors’ work as well. Although he wanted to stick as close as possible to an actual recording, the director admits:

I was playing with type-casting a lot and there certainly is some kind of buffoonery I wanted to be in the moderator as well as in other characters. […] I think everyone looks a little like a buffoon if shot like my characters were shot, in such extreme close-ups and details. I mean, close-ups tend to make people look like a caricature of themselves. (LFU/16)

And it is also worth mentioning that, as a reenactment of a quite crowded democratic assembly, Public hearing has no protagonist, i.e. no hero, no “particular individual” whose fate we empathetically share. The digital fly-over sequence is another clear “alienation device” (we see the characters within the film watching a short film), but it is the already mentioned five minute break that most blatantly breaks the “fourth wall” between the imaginary world and the real one: as the flow of the diegesis is interrupted for five full minutes by a white screen casting a blinding light on the audience during the projection, people are abruptly reminded of their voyeuristic condition depending on willing suspension of disbelief in a darkened room.

By means of the above Verfremdungseffekten (plus, possibly, boredom as the ultimate form of distantiation), Public hearing declares itself a fictional filmic representation, so that doubt is cast on the effectiveness of public hearings as procedures of political representation.For the double entendre of the word “representation” see W.J.T. Mitchell, op. cit., p. 64-65, and B. Nichols, Representing Reality. Issues and Concepts in Documentary, cit., p. 111. As was raised while discussing the movie’s argumentative stance in Chapter One, Kienitz Wilkins radically questions the compatibility between democracy and capitalism: is the expansion of the economic colossus Wal-Mart a “done deal” from the start? Who are the decision-makers? Are public hearings nothing but play-acting, “an exercise in democracy,” as one of the attendees states? Given the Brechtian point of departure, the film results in an inversion of how tragic theater worked in Ancient Greece: instead of providing an exciting show to display and ritually strengthen the ethical values of a community, Public hearing stages a routine proceeding that reveals “the Kafkaesque dimension […] of democracy’s oldest and most important pillar: citizen participation.”Unknown, op. cit., p. 47.

Chapter 3

According to Marshall McLuhan, media are extensions of Man greatly improving our physical and sensory grasp on the world. At the same time, the Canadian scholar warns that the use of media entails an equal but opposite physiological reaction: the autoamputation of our faculties. That is to say, the more we rely on “external” technological prostheses, the more our actual organs and body-parts cramp, become stiff and numb to maintain equilibrium.Marshall McLuhan, “Introduction”, “The Medium is the Message” and “The Gadget Lover. Narcissus as Narcosis”, in M. McLuhan, Understanding Media. The extensions of man, Routledge, New York, 2005, pp. 3-23 and pp. 45-52. Mixing media theory, psychoanalysis and politics, Kienitz Wilkins seeks to call attention to what Jacques Derrida has described as “archive fever”, i.e. the “death drive” that paradoxically turns data storage technologies into instruments of oblivionCfr. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1996, pp. 83-96.: “That public hearing like many other is something that is done and then archived as a .pdf, dismissed, put away: that’s the failure of democracy in the [United] States” (LFU/16). If the possibility of objectifying memory outside our physical selves prompts us to forget instead of remember, can the embalming of movement be used to fight this mal d’archive? In spite of cinema’s being based on an external mnemonic prosthesis (photography as “a mirror with a memory”Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph”, article in The Atlantic Monthly, June, 1859, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1859/06/the-stereoscope-and-the-stereograph/303361/.), the director of Public hearing suggests that it can. In fact, through the filmic Verfremdungseffekten listed above, he aims to turn the mundane into something relevant:

A reason why I came up with the idea of making Public hearing is that I did go to Art School, and a lot of my professors and a lot of artists I would go to see were dealing with this sort of “Zeitgeist of Reenactment”. On the other hand, I knew reenactment was a “trendy” thing to do and I was kind of skeptical… Especially, I was skeptical of the objects reenactment had always been applied to. Take a look at the works by Sharon Hayes, for example. She […] tends to reenact culturally meaningful texts: things with the Symbionese Liberation Army… or huge events like the JFK assassination reenacted by Ant Farm Collective. So I liked the idea of using the very same tools of reenactment on something that is public, but I decided to work on something super-irrelevantly public. […] I was very interested in the tension between cinematizing – which is a very expensive action (casting, shooting in black and white, music, the whole machine) – and an event that would have never, ever, ever been filmed that way. And the reason why under normal circumstances it would have never been filmed the way I did is because the event is increasingly… irrelevant, you know? (LFU/16)

The affinities with appropriation art practices are striking. Some of the terms previously adopted by Kienitz Wilkins had already put us on the right path: for instance, he talked about “a ready-made screenplay”, and his accidental discovery of the .pdf transcription of the public hearing bears many similarities to early Twentieth Century’s objet trouvé mythology. According to a lecture Marcel Duchamp gave in the Sixties, ready-mades are objects chosen by the artist for their “anesthesia”, i.e. for their visual indifference, “the absolute absence of either good or bad taste.”Marcel Duchamp, “Apropos of ‘ready-mades’ ”, talk delivered at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on October 19th, 1961: see Jonathan P. Eburne, “The Cheerless Art of Industry”, in Jeremy Braddock, Stephen Hock (edited by), Directed by Allen Smithee, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2001, p. 235. While scavenging the dustbins of Western civilization like Walter Benjamin’s Lumpensammler [ragpicker], the artist meets the everyday routine and turns the banal into Art by giving it a title and putting it in a different context, the exhibition functioning as some sort of ostranenie [making strange of the familiar] device. The same goes for Public hearing: a boring (“anesthetic” to the point of sleep-inducing) real-life meeting is converted into a 16 mm black-and-white feature film meant to be shown in a theater, on the big screen. Thus, redeemed from visual indifference, a bureaucratic proceeding lost in a database acquires a new relevance momentarily defeating the “archive fever”. There is indeed some kind of “authority” in cinema’s technical apparatus and cultural presentation: just as the art gallery context makes every piece it hosts into “a work of Art”, buying a ticket and taking a seat in a movie theater automatically implies that what is shown is important and worth seeing. However, as I was asking in Chapter One and Chapter Two, is the show reality? Due to the medium’s photographic base, Siegfried Kracauer is certainly right in pointing out that “basic properties” force films to record and reveal physical reality.Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film. The redemption of physical reality, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1997, p. 37. Even an anti-realist advocate such as Brecht demanded the camera to document Gestus, the actual “behavior and attitudes of a person in a socially typical situation.”A. Curran, op. cit., p. 324. See also B. Nichols, Blurred boundaries. Questions of meaning in contemporary culture, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1994, p. 39: “A felt tension between representation and represented […] involves the recognition of visual evidence as symptomatic evidence […] of historical struggle. The production of such tension was the goal of Bertolt Brecht”. Duchamp himself talked about ready-mades as “snapshots” allowing the observer to face a piece of the real world torn out of its ordinary milieu.Jean Clair, Sur Marcel Duchamp et la fin de l’Art, Gallimard, Paris, 2000, p. 36. Generally speaking, in their attempt to reduce the gap between life and art, avant-gardes have often exploited photographic media since “film – the moving image more than photography – has been the first time in History you could really capture a piece of the world, the ephemeral, and just take it” (LFU/16). On the other hand, it has already been demonstrated that, as a reenactment, Public hearing is far from being a re-presentation of “reality as it is”. In the context of appropriation art practices, this is not surprising at all: as Jean Clair argues, the production of ready-mades implied a great deal of manipulation, and their status as “simple rendez-vous between artist and object” might just be the result of André Breton’s simplistic reading.Ibidem, pp. 25-27 and pp. 35-36. Contrary to common belief, a ready-made is not “already made” at all, it must always be “assisted” by the artist’s interventions – just like the actual written record of a public hearing had to be adapted for the screen in order to become Public hearing.

Kienitz Wilkins’ intervention as auteur raises the act of artistic appropriation to the second power. Not only did he get hold of a piece of reality, but he represented it in the style of Frederick Wiseman, one of the leading figures in what Nichols calls “observational documentary”. The medium chosen is the first telltale sign: Public hearing was shot with a light 16 mm camera and synchronous sound, like the vast majority of Wiseman’s films. Naming a movie providing an intense look at a specific reality after a democratic institution is another clear nod to Wiseman’s modus operandi. In Kienitz Wilkins’ own words,

Wiseman proposes the broader picture through titles like Hospital(1970), Basic Training, Law and Order (1969), so you think the movie will be about the phenomenon as a whole, but then the movie zips down and it becomes super-specific. [T]his is something I really admire about his work: it can be about an institution as a whole, but it also literally isn’t. (LFU/16)

Moreover, in spite of being a reenactment shot on a set with actors, Public hearingaims at being “direct” in its representation of the actual event through stylistic devices that “enhance the impression of lived or real time:” in fact, as in Wiseman’s body of work, it is up to synchronous sound and long takes including “dead” or “empty” moments to give the impression that the space we see has “been carved from the historical world rather than fabricated as a fictional mise-en-scène.”B. Nichols, Representing Reality. Issues and Concepts in Documentary, cit., pp. 38-39. If it may seem hasty to compare a partly-fictionalized account to Wiseman’s documentaries, one should consider what the American filmmaker had to say in the Seventies about his own work:

I think “reality fictions” is a better description of what I am doing than documentary. For Primate [1974] I filmed events that existed in so-called real life, but structured them in a way that has no relationship to the order or time in which they actually occurred – and created a form that is totally fictional. So from a structural point of view, my films are more related to fictional technique than to documentary technique.Thomas R. Atkins, “’Reality fictions’. Wiseman on ‘Primate’”, in T.R. Atkins (edited by), Frederick Wiseman, Monarch, New York, 1976, p. 82.

Although Kienitz Wilkins didn’t take the appropriation act to the extremes of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998) or Jill Godmilow’s What Farocki Taught (1998), the intent to make Public hearing look like a film by Wiseman is evident and demonstrates that “observational films [are] the documentary mode most akin to fiction.”B. Nichols, Representing Reality. Issues and Concepts in Documentary, cit., pp. 122-123. We could even say that with Public hearing Kienitz Wilkins accepted Wiseman’s challenge to produce a fiction film with the same look as a documentary…Cfr. John Graham, “’There are no simple solutions’. Wiseman on film making and viewing”, in T.R. Atkins (edited by), op. cit., p. 38.

By taking issues of filmic representation as its subject matter and appropriating observational documentary devices within a dramatic reconstruction of reality, Public hearing slowly but inevitably slips into the realm of “reflexive documentary”. Indeed, Kienitz Wilkins’ forged unobtrusiveness and staged overheard jabbering put forward a formal critique that – as we have seen at the end of Chaper Two – goes hand in hand with a political one: to quote Nichols,

speaking directly about the reality of speech, and its limitations, is the strongest way in which the assumptions we hold about our access to a reality that comes to us largely through media representations can be challenged. And to challenge these representations is to challenge historical representation and its ally, documentary film itself.B. Nichols, Representing Reality. Issues and Concepts in Documentary, cit., pp. 107-108.

Conclusion

As I explained in the Introduction, the method I chose to apply throughout the essay cannot possibly lead to a final statement that frames Public hearing into neat categories. Hence, it didn’t come as a surprise that the above attempt to see the movie through the lens of appropriation art practices brought us back to the film’s likely but ultimately unresolved affiliation to the documentary tradition: in postmodernist terms, this circularity speaks a great deal about the impossibility of coming up with an ontological definition capturing once and for all the essence of an object of knowledge. However, I hope I have managed to avoid the sterility usually associated with the “merry-go-round effect”, for my aim was – on the contrary – to highlight the irreducible complexity and richness Kienitz Wilkins’ “language-game” has to offer.

Finally, if a movement from the particular to the universal may be allowed, it is only to let “the law of the law of genres” emerge more clearly. As Derrida wrote, this law

is precisely a principle of contamination, a law of impurity […]. In the code of set theories […], I would speak of a sort of participation without belonging – a taking part in without being part of, without having membership in a set. With the inevitable dividing of the trait that marks membership, the boundary of the set comes to form, by invagination, an internal pocket larger than the whole; and the outcome of this division and of this abounding remains as singular as it is limitless.J. Derrida, “The Law of Genre”, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 1 (On Narrative), The University of Chicago Press, Fall 1980, pp. 59.

It seems to me, then, that the best conclusion to my argument would be the title-card that in Guy Debord’s film In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978) substitutes the canonic “THE END”: “à reprendre depuis le début,” i.e. “restart from the beginning.”

Thanks to JNKW and Arild Fetveit.

 

Referenced works 

Thomas R. Atkins, “’Reality fictions’. Wiseman on ‘Primate’”, in Thomas R. Atkins (edited by), Frederick Wiseman, Monarch, New York, 1976, pp. 75-87

Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine. A Novel, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York, 1988

Roland Barthes, “Le message photographique” in Roland Barthes, L’obvie et l’obtus. Essais critiques III, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1982, p. 9-24

Roland Barthes, “Rhétorique de l’image” in Roland Barthes, L’obvie et l’obtus. Essais critiques III, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1982, p. 25-42

André Bazin, “Ontologie de l’image photographique”, in André Bazin, Qu’est ce-que le cinéma?, Les Editions du Cerf, Paris, 1975, pp. 9-17

Bertolt Brecht, “From the ABCs of the epic theatre”, in Marc Silberman (translated and edited by), Brecht on Film and Radio, Methuen, London, 2000, pp. 6-8

Jean Clair, Sur Marcel Duchamp et la fin de l’Art, Gallimard, Paris, 2000

Angela Curran, “Bertolt Brecht”, in Paisley Livingston, Carl Plantinga (edited by), The Routledge companion to philosophy and film, Oxon Routledge, Abingdon, 2009, pp. 323-333.

Jacques Derrida, “The Law of Genre”, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 1 (On Narrative), The University of Chicago Press, Fall 1980, pp. 55-81.

Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1996

Jonathan P. Eburne, “The Cheerless Art of Industry”, in Jeremy Braddock, Stephen Hock (edited by), Directed by Allen Smithee, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2001, p. 229-247

Arild Fetveit, Multiaccentual cinema between documentary and fiction, Act Humaniora 165, Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo, 2002

Witold Gombrowicz, Cosmos and Pornografia. Two Novels, Grove Press, New York, 1985

John Graham, “’There are no simple solutions’. Wiseman on film making and viewing”, in Thomas R. Atkins (edited by), Frederick Wiseman, Monarch, New York, 1976, pp. 33-46

Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph”, article in The Atlantic Monthly, June, 1859, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1859/06/the-stereoscope-and-the-stereograph/303361/

Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film. The redemption of physical reality, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1997

Jean-François Lyotard, La condition postmoderne. Rapport sur le savoir, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1988

George E. Marcus, Michael M.J. Fisher, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986

Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden. Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, Oxford University Press, New York, 1964

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The extensions of man, Routledge, New York, 2005

William J. Thomas Mitchell, 1. Representation, in Frank Lentricchia, Thomas McLaughlin (edited by), Critical Terms for Literary Study, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1995, pp. 11-22

Trinh T. Minh-ha, “The Totalizing Quest of Meaning”, in Michael Renov (edited by), Theorizing Documentary, Routledge, New York, 1993, pp. 90-107

Bill Nichols, Representing Reality. Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1991

Bill Nichols, Blurred boundaries. Questions of meaning in contemporary culture, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1994

Bill Nichols, “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic”, in Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, n. 1, Chicago University Press, Chicago, Fall 2008, pp. 72-89

Charles Sanders Peirce, “What is a sign?” [1894?], in The Peirce Edition Project (edited by), The Essential Peirce. Selected Philosophical Writing, vol. 2, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1998, pp. 4-10

Carl Plantinga, Rhetoric and representation in nonfiction film, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997

Alain Robbe-Grillet, Pour un Nouveau Roman, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1963

Thomas and Vivian Sobchack, An Introduction to Film(Second edition), Foresman & Co., Glenview, 1987

Unknown, “Public hearing”, in CPH:DOX 2012 Catalogue, p. 47.