… it dwells on the pain, pride, doubt and knowledge that cannot be separated from the body in which they reside.
… The material, situated position of the body of the social actor is recruited, sublimated, repressed, or discarded by narrative and mythopoetic agencies. History — embodied, corporeal history — is at odds with narrative and myth.
In a paper presented at a conference on “Film and Representations of Culture,” Leslie Devereaux makes this point emphatically in reference to scientific knowledge, even in its ethnographic variant:
The conventions of scientific writing work against the portrayal of experience in favor of elicited systems of thought, and observed regularities of public behavior, usually reported as behavior, that is, with the emphasis on action rather than interaction, and on prescription rather than on contingency, which amounts to grave distortion of human actuality. In this rhetorical form it becomes hard not to render people homogeneous and rule following, no matter the disavowals we utter about this. Our scientized standards of evidence privilege speech over feeling and bodily sensation, which are assimilated to the personal. The personal, the putatively private, is an indistinct category of suspicious character.
… To what extent can the particular serve as illustration for the general? Not only what general principle but whose general principle does the particular illustrate? To what extent are generalizations misunderstandings of the nature of the particular, the concrete, the everyday and what does this mean for historically located individuals? The body is a particularly acute reminder of specificity and the body of the filmmaker even more so. Where do filmmakers stand and how do they represent their stance? To what extent should they question their right to represent the perceptions and concerns of others? Do they represent their own knowledge as situated or omniscient? What are the consequences of these choices?
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… A politics of location inevitably poses questions about the body. We may think of the body as the most local and most specific aspect of ourselves. It can also be a quite troublesome element when we wish to generalize beyond ourselves and transcend our corporeal bounds. We can regard the body in documentary from three perspectives, each representing a different dimension of our conception of self: (1) the body of the social actor who is agent and subject of historical actions and events, situations and experiences; (2) as the body of a narrative character who is the focus of actions and enigmas, helpers and donors all propelling the narrative toward closure; and (3) as a mythic, ahistorical persona, type, icon, or fetish which serves as the object of desire and identification.
Tensions exist among these choices. For example, between the historically conditional body of a social actor and the ahistorical icon or fetish of a mythic persona, the vicissitudes of time clash with the claims of immortality. The tension is all the stronger when it exists in relation to one and the same body such as we find with an Adolf Hitler, Joan of Arc, Michael Jackson, or Marilyn Monroe. Monroe was simultaneously an historical person, subject to the same vicissitudes as any other person; a narrative character in stories not of her own making (the tragic figure of innocence destroyed by commerce, the victim of male fantasy) and a mythic persona or fetish (comedienne extraordinary, American sex goddess).
Brenda Longfellow’s Our Marilyn (1988) speaks in the first-person voice of another exile from the institutional domain of representation: the voice of a woman who, over the course of the film, reflects on her own identity and its social construction. The confessional voice-over commentary remains unattached to a visible body of its own. Perhaps it stands for the filmmaker; maybe it is representative of many Canadian women. In either case, it is a voice reflecting on questions of body image more than the fact of physical presence per se. The quest for a body image to give psychic incarnation to the speaker’s (still absent) presence motivates the commentary. Our Marilyn is about the narrator’s search for a specific female identity to the extent that it is based on a body other than her own. This other body is imaginary but also divided — divided in this case by national identity and alternative subjectivities.
Is “our” Marilyn, Marilyn Bell, a long-distance Canadian swimmer who was the first woman to swim across Lake Ontario, to be the mirror of “myself”: or is “their” Marilyn, Marilyn Monroe, to represent the me that must come into being in the space between such alternatives? The historical body takes form along the armatures of historical, mythic, and narrative options made available to it. Our Marilyn asks how to represent, in cinematic form, the female body — not as idealized nude or object of desire: not as temptress or provider but as a body in action. The desired Marilyn represents a state of physical being and action, not a frozen icon or image, not a character in someone else’s narrative, but a vehicle for the presentation of self.
Our Marilyn asks how we may represent women’s subjective experience of corporeal being. How can the female body be the subject of a film, centered in the frame, and still not be the object of male erotic pleasure? To what extent can physical endurance and psychic exhaustion such as that experienced by Marilyn Bell during her almost day-long swim be represented without the concomitant fetishization/eroticization of physical effort found in conventional fictions — think of the films of Ethel Merman, Delores Del Rio in general, or, more recent works like Personal Best (1982) and Flashdance (1983)?
… An extended portion of the film is given over to what is usually neglected in the coverage of marathon-like events: the middle, that infinite moment of sustained but repetitive effort and the hallucinatory state of mind it induces that constitutes the basic substance of physical endurance. We see and hear what Marilyn Bell might have seen as she churns on through the cold lake waters toward a destination that remains far beyond sight. It approximates, ironically, an out-of-body experience in which physical motion establishes one rhythm while the mind explores spaces and sensations of its own devising. This remarkably prolonged representation supports neither narrative suspense nor mythic idealization.
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… Marilyn Bell’s achievement occupies a largely forgotten space in the cultural history for which Marilyn Monroe is an apotheosis.
… In a similar experimental-documentary vein, Marlon Riggs explores the suppressed space of black gay male experience in Tongues Untied (1989). … Our first sight of Riggs is as a nude figure, moving slowly through the frame in a dim, abstract space as though searching for something not yet present. There can be no mistake that the body itself, its physicality and color, are utterly central to the testimonial tone and poetic charge of the tape.
Riggs takes a different route from the cooler, more questioning poetry of Trinh Minh-ha or the more ironic juxtapositions of Raoul Ruiz. Tongues Untied is aflame with passion. … Riggs jumps from one scene and one demonstration to another — from a choreographed dance by a group of black men across a playground basketball court to a searing monologue on racism delivered straight to the camera — evoking feelings and rhythms, textures and tonalities that belong to the visceral, political experience of everyday life.
Like all of the other film and videomakers discussed here, Riggs favors an experiential, evocative voice that calls into question the conventions of historical representation. The recurrence of the word “evocation” needs some clarification at this point. Evocation differs from representation at least in degree if not kind. These experiments with specificity and a politics of location described here parallel the call for a “post-modern ethnography” by Stephen Tyler. His description, “(evocation) defamiliarizes commonsense reality in a bracketed context of performance, evokes a fantasy whole abducted from fragments, and then returns participants to the world of common sense — transformed, renewed and sacralized,” approximates what Tongues Untied achieves.
… Riggs has shaped a work of extraordinary intensity that rejects any claim to disembodied knowledge. Instead, it dwells on the pain, pride, doubt and knowledge that cannot be separated from the body in which they reside.