Unreal Nature

November 22, 2013

Always Already External

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… what is captured by the camera is always already external to the person filming, and what the first person filmmaker feels about what they’re filming at the moment they feel it is irrelevant. It’s not imaginary, like fiction.

This is from the essay ‘The Role of History in the Individual: Working Notes for a Film’ by Michael Chanan, found in the collection The Cinema of Me: The Self and Subjectivity in First Person Documentary edited by Alisa Lebow (2012):

… The crucial factor is not the word but the presence of a perceptual logic which is the visual equivalent of the voice. The camera is impersonal, it doesn’t say ‘I’ but ‘here is,’ but neither does the essay as a form of writing need the grammatical first person to be able to speak in in individual voice, style, point of view or attitude.

Jean-Pierre Gorin said somewhere that at the core of the film-essay is an interest so intense that it precludes filming it in a straight line; the essay is rumination in Nietzsche’s sense of the word, the meandering of an intelligence (see Gorin cited in Everett in 2009). If the essay film is typified by resistance to generic demands, so Michael Renov (2004) has pointed out, this is because it belongs primarily to the idiom of documentary. As noted earlier, an interloper into the genre system, documentary is a highly permissive form. The essay film is documentary at its freest, favoring symbolic and associative thinking over narrative. But it does this, according to Renov, in a double register: a combination of subjectivity and worldliness. It has a commitment to the representation of the historical real, and enlists its powers of expressivity in the service of historical representation. To put it another way, it speaks through the filmmaker’s subjectivity even as it reproduces the concreteness of the historical document.

… The filmmaker who takes their own family as the subject is inevitably drawn in to the picture themselves, although they can adopt this position without the film necessarily becoming autobiographical, or only minimally so. But inevitably, if I make a film about my family, even if I am trying to focus on the others, it will say something about myself, and the result will be a first person film, however subdued. Annie Griffin played on this inevitability in her brilliant short Out of Reach (1994), where she interviews the members of her family from behind the camera about herself, thus turning out both a portrait of an American family and a self-portrait in which the portraitist is never seen but only heard.

… What do I learn from this? That what is captured by the camera is always already external to the person filming, and what the first person filmmaker feels about what they’re filming at the moment they feel it is irrelevant. It’s not imaginary, like fiction.

The fiction film is full of formulae for generating feelings in the viewer, coded in advance according to the dominant genre in question; indeed these associations are difficult to avoid, although every now and again a director comes along who changes the rules. To the extent that documentary remains true, however, to Ivens’ idea of a ‘creative no-man’s land,’ when the filmmaker sits down to edit, they must confront their material without any preconceptions, but listening and watching, attentive to what it brings. You isolate and concatenate the most telling and pregnant moments, construct a storyline or an argument (but not a plot: then it would become fiction), and what these scenes feel like is liable to change as the editing proceeds. But unless you fall back on formulae dictated by convention and laziness, this is not so much about instructing your viewer what to feel, more about mobilizing their attentiveness, intelligence and curiosity about the world.

-Julie

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