Unreal Nature

February 19, 2015

Two Horses

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… there are two horses: one signified within the language of photography; the other an indispensable item of the materials from which this sign has been made.

This is from Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart McAllister, Film Editor by Dai Vaughan (1983):

… The apparently trivial question is often asked: why is it that the people who work in documentary are predominantly left-wing, and the people who work in features predominantly right-wing? The answer usually given — apart from the cynical but true one that right-wing people will go where the best money is to be made — is that those on the left are more interested in making films about our society and its problems. But this is no more than a begging of the question unless it can be shown independently that documentary is more appropriate to such purposes than fiction — something which, though commonly taken for granted, is not self-evident.

The key, since film is a succession of photographic images, may be sought in the nature of the photograph and in the way this differs from other means of representation. If we wish, say, to represent a horse in the medium of sculpture, we shall require a block of stone, a mallet and an armory of points, claws and chisels; if we wish to represent one in painting, we shall require brushes, paints and canvas; if we wish to represent one in writing, we require only pen and paper: but if we wish to represent a horse photographically, we require film, a camera and a horse. Thus the horse in a photograph has a dual existence. Indeed, we might more accurately say that there are two horses: one signified within the language of photography; the other an indispensable item of the materials from which this sign has been made.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Fiction settles for the signified horse, any relationship with the horse required for the making of the sign being deemed fortuitous. The documentary impulse — which transforms itself, as a commandment to the viewer, into what might be better termed ‘the documentary imperative’ — is, at its most rudimentary and irreducible, a desire and a requirement that the representation should keep faith with the materials: that the two horses should become, in some sense or other, one. And this ‘some sense or other’ is not a casual vagueness on my part: for it is differences in conception of what this ‘sense’ should be, at this or that stage of film’s technical development, which lie at the root of much disputation between the schools of documentary.

Some critics,treating film only in its aspect as a signifying system, would argue that the material horse, being inaccessible to us except through its representation, is irrelevant. And perhaps, in the ultimate, they are right. Certainly the contradiction entailed in our being visually directed to the priority of something we have not seen — being reminded, as it were, of what we have not experienced — is essential to the elusive yet specific quality of documentary. (Films which remind us of what we have experienced are not documentaries but home movies.) But the fact remains that you cannot make a documentary about a unicorn. The upshot of the pure critical position is to negate the documentary project altogether. If we wish to keep documentary, we must treat the ‘ultimate’ argument as a piece of pure mathematics which, whilst we acknowledge its elegance, has meaning only within the circuit of its own economy.

My previous post from Vaughan’s book is here.

-Julie

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