Monday, August 19, 2013

The Historical Turn and Documentary Studies

I also want to follow up on a through thread of discussion at the conference: the historical turn. It was hardly the main theme but rather a comment Jane Gaines made in her keynote about the need to revisit and ultimately resist the historical turn in film studies. There's a broader debate and discussion to have about this but let me focus on the specific case of documentary studies, which I would argue is still awaiting or maybe is just entering its historical turn. 

By this I do not mean that there's not a great wealth of historical research being done or that prior histories (Barnouw, Barsam, Ellis, etc) are not valuable. To the contrary. In my eye, the historical turn, which I might associate with Wisconsin school historiography does a few worthwhile things that documentary studies would be well-served to take up. 

Revisionism. We don't want revisionism for revisionism's sake but we should where possible interrogate standard histories to see if they hold up to the empirical evidence. This does not mean positivism: any such interrogation involves a creative reimagining that can be informed by theory.

Non-canonical approaches. We don't need to resist any attention to canonical films and film makers, but we should not assume them as the only or primary object of study. We should think about sampling and representativeness. We can draw connections between the extraordinary and the typical, or between documentary and its others (newsreel, industrial film). This is especially vital as new films become more widely available because of video and new media accessibility. 

Application of methodologies from histories of fiction film. Documentaries may require their own methods at times but I'd like to see more reception study, industrial-institutional analysis, and historical poetics analysis 

Inductive approach to archival research. This is already being done, but it is worth emphasizing. 

Prestige of historiography. This is harder to argue since it's not a theoretical point, but one thing the historical turn did was elevate film history from the margins to either center of the discipline. I don't argue for this self-servingly but because film history requires a good bit of (often invisible) academic labor and because dismissals based on anti-empiricism were never justified in my eye. Visible Evidence grew out of the injection of film theory into doc studies and I would like to see a complementary inclusion of film history. 

A lot of the above has been done and is being done. But to cohere into a historical turn I would argue for a self-conscious connection between these activities, one that's theoretically and methodologically confident. It's why I appreciated the Visible Evidence workshop on nontheatrical film, during which Joshua Malitsky took up the mantle of the historical turn to argue that we need to bring disparate parts of our field together, since they do have a lot to say to one another. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Is Documentary Studies Self-Hating?

I've spent the last few days at Visible Evidence XX, the 20th anniversary for what was, by happenstance, the first academic conference I ever attended. I think I've written before how I like mid-sized conferences and VE in particular. It's a great community and manages to strike the right balance between substance and social-ness. It's international, at least considering its US origins, and manage to be a home for theoretically inclined media makers as well as scholars. This conference lived up to my expectations and was four days of smart, energizing papers. 

As I reflect on the conference, though, I want to focus on the aporia and the areas that could be explored further. Perhaps the oddest thing to me was the repeated tendency to repeat the post-structuralist critique of documentary truth to the point of dismissing documentary as it's usually practiced and consumed. On top of which is a political-institutional critique of ways that docs have furthered the goals of corporations or he bureaucratic state. Now, I'm highly sympathetic to both critiques and in many contexts they are useful. But there were two upshots of it that bothered me a little. 

First is the incessant apology for documentary film. It's like going to a conference on Hollywood cinema where every speaker asserted something like, "Of course we all know that Hollywood cinema is an instrument of domestic hegemony and global domination, though an invisible storytelling style that makes ideology seem natural." As a field we're able to understand the critique and also know there's much more going on in Hollywood films, aesthetically and politically. 

Second is the unstated political modernist reading which picks non-conventional documentaries that partly theorize themselves. Look through the program and you'll see several papers on Act of Killing, Leviathan, and Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu. Non traditional documentaries are doing interesting things and the field certainly needs to be attune to changes in the nonfiction media scape. Getting lost, however, are more typical works that are the mainstay of broadcast, theatrical, and festival documentary. The implication I was getting was that these were bad objects, but to my eye a lot of politically and artistically vital work is being done even in less flashy texts. 

I guess what I'm looking for is something perched between the documentary field itself and the post-structuralist critique. Or, in the meantime, for documentary scholars to stop apologizing so much for documentary. 

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Hermeneutics of Found Footage

I will be heading off to the Visible Evidence conference next week, and in advance of one of the screenings, I watched Cinema Komunisto (Mila Turajlic, 2010), a Serbian documentary about the Yugoslav film industry. Personally I found it helped orient me to the history of a national film industry I was only passingly familiar with, and I can imagine using the film in a film history survey to deal with national cinema, coproduction, and transnational genre. On top of which, the film presents a theoretical understanding of cinema as national imagined community - I'm not sure the analysis fully holds up, but it's provocative and savvy nonetheless.


But the film also raised for me a theoretical issue. Much of the documentary balances relatively straightforward present-day with interviews with archival footage and footage from the period films. Thematically this makes sense, since the film's stated thesis is that people's relation to the nation state was mediated by the Yugoslav films. And it's a familiar trope of what we might call postmodern documentary - the use of old movie in Thin Blue Line for instance.

Here's a good example of the latter. A shot of the Pula amphitheater in smoke (battle? fireworks?) cuts to a war movie clip of a character walking in gas mask.



These kind of juxtapositions make me wonder what kind of spectatorial experience they provoke. I am presuming enough viewing comprehension not to mistake the second shot in these pairs as either spatio-temporally connected or in the same register of image reality as the first. That is, the shots from older movie read as nonrealist and stagey. Some possibilities spring to mind:

Critique. One of the common textual analysis readings is to see fiction or doc-fiction as critiquing documentary veracity.

Blank Irony. The Frederic Jameson view of postmodern culture, in which the ironic montage is not actually experienced as having any substantial commentary on the original. At its extreme the hokey war films come to stand in for the actuality footage we don't have. We as spectators intellectually know we're not watching partisan battles but experientially it shapes our understanding of them.

Self-Reflexivity. The documentary is a movie about movies, so the montage could be read simply as suggesting that movies are important - a bit like the second-order montage I discuss here.

Historical Chauvinism. A common effect of found footage is invoke a sense of cultural superiority to the past by emphasizing hokey, humorous, or otherwise dated fictional tropes. Thematically, Cinema Komunisto does not emphasize this (it's actually nostalgic), but the fact the films are rarely cited as coherent works abstracts the footage from the context - as in the shot of the Stalin photograph:


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My gut sense tells me that Critique is not the dominant dynamic. There have simply been too many films with this kind of semi-ironic montage to have the frisson it once might have had. But it seems to me there's not one effect but a nestled hermeneutics of effects that are both social-historical (I don't have the personal knowledge someone from ex-Yugoslavia would) and formalized (I'm presuming with some justification that one can talk about the text with some facticity, and discount misreadings that for instance would mistake fiction footage for documentary).