Unreal Nature

February 23, 2011

The Viewer’s Blood

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:29 am

… Documentary reality is a construction; and some of the viewer’s blood goes into it.

… The space opened up by the mismatch between record and signification is precisely the space in which the viewer’s choice operates.

This is the second of two posts today from For Documentary: Twelve Essays by Dai Vaughan* (1999). This is from his essay “What Do We Mean by ‘What’?”:

The television series Hollywood included in its episode on comedy a substantial extract from a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler. It was the one in which Stan and Ollie, as door-to-door salesmen, get into an argument with a householder which results, after a steady escalation of polite violence, in the near-demolition of the property. Unfortunately, as the programme informed us, an error had been made: and the house at which the filming took place was not the one whose owner had given permission. This simple statement was all that was needed for the film clip to be transmuted from comedy-fiction into documentary: a documentary about a film unit visiting unintended vandalism upon some unwitting person’s home.

[ … ]

… The boom in ethnographic filmmaking in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with its “scientific” concern for accuracy in the presentation of data, provoked a good deal of thought about the nature of documentary reality and its relation to the prior event. The pleasure of Camera at War — a British TV series in which news cameramen reminisce about their work — lies in seeing newsreel stories, often very familiar newsreel stories, transformed into cinéma vérité by a simple switch of context.

This bears a similarity to our opening Laurel and Hardy example which is, when one thinks about it, a little disturbing. The newsreels are in no sense fictions; and if a comparable shift of perspective can occur within the terms of a documentary reading, then we may reasonably conclude that no documentary reading can claim ultimate, absolute privilege. All true documentarists have known this from the start. Documentary reality is a construction; and some of the viewer’s blood goes into it.

[ … ]

… What do we mean by “what”? This question, which was brought into prominence by debates about observational and vérité filming, is the practical outcropping of that mismatch between “signification” and “recording” which we noted earlier.

… The moment you demand that a film should represent an event exactly as it occurred, you are confronted not just with the practical difficulty but with the theoretical absurdity of such a requirement.

This absurdity, however, is not documentary’s weakness but its strength. The space opened up by the mismatch between record and signification is precisely the space in which the viewer’s choice operates. Every hunter reads the spoor in his own way. The danger in documentary lies in anything which restricts the film within a set of institutionalised norms and erodes that power which the image takes from the viewer’s sense of contingency.

[*As I can’t find an online bio of Mr. Vaughan, here is what’s on the back of his book: “Dai Vaughan, who resides in London, has been an editor of documentary films for more than thirty-five years. His previous books include novels and a biography.”]




  1. Unreal Nature is funny and scary. Love your blog, and I have been a Serres fan for years. Just finished a master’s thesis in education: Art, Nature and the Virtual Environment. First chapter is bumff, I like the second one as I get to ramble with Serres. http://hdl.handle.net/10393/19679 if you’re interested. My thesis blog is totally amateur but has some good links- particularly research in Art, Nature and the Environment at falmouth [RANE research group] Resilience Alliance etc.

    Comment by barbaracuerden — February 23, 2011 @ 11:42 am

  2. Thanks Barbara. I only had time to look briefly at your links but it seems you might be interested in Tim Ingold’s writings. Have you read him? My posts from his books are can be found here, but I’m thinking in particular of his book,The Perception of the Environment: Essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill (dig back through the linked posts to get to the ones from that book; or, here is one sample).

    Comment by unrealnature — February 23, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

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