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Intersections of documentary and avant-garde filmmaking

One of the more interesting recent developments in film studies is the recognition that what has seemed to be separate histories — documentary filmmaking and avant-garde filmmaking — are, once again, converging. I say “once again” because the interplay between documentary and avant-garde film has long been more significant than seems generally understood.

An intersection of an avant-garde artistic practice and a documentary impulse helped to instigate the dawn of cinema itself. When Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey were discovering and exploring the possibilities of photographic motion study, they were the photographic avant-garde of that moment. And their subject was the documentation of the motion of animals, birds, and human beings, presumably so that we could know, more fully, the truth about this motion. And at the moment when W. K. L. Dickson perfected the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope and the Lumière Brothers perfected the Cinématographe and the projected motion picture, they in turn became the photographic avant-garde; and their primary fascination, too, was the documentation of motion, specifically human activity, first, in the world around them and soon, in the case of the Lumières, across the globe.

Flaherty’s Nanook (1922) was both a breakthrough documentary and an avant-garde experiment in collaborative filmmaking; and the City Symphonies that emerged in the 1920s (Berlin: Symphony of a Big City, 1926, e.g., and The Man with a Movie Camera, 1929) were documentary interpretations of reality and avant-garde experiments.

During the 1940s, the most important development for independent cinema in the United States was the emergence of a full-fledged film society movement. The leading contributor was Cinema 16, founded by Amos and Marcia Vogel in New York City in 1947. At its height, Cinema 16 had 7,000 members, and filled a 1,500-seat auditorium twice a night for monthly screenings. Cinema 16’s programming was an inventive mixture of documentary and avant-garde film.

The development of light-weight cameras and tape recorders, more flexible microphones, and faster film stocks during the late 1950s created additional options that in one sense, drove documentary filmmaking and avant-garde filmmaking apart, but in another sense, created a different kind of intersection between them. Sync-sound shooting expanded the options available to filmmakers committed to documentary, instigating forms of cinematic entertainment that functioned as critiques of Hollywood filmmaking and early television. Drew Associates, D. A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman, and the Maysles Brothers fashioned engaging melodrama out of real life in Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), Don’t Look Back (1967), Hospital (1968), and Salesman (1968).

Cinema, by m4tik. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.
Cinema, by m4tik. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

During the same decade, avant-garde filmmakers were producing very different forms of documentary, often by abjuring sound altogether. Stan Brakhage was committed to the idea of cinema as a visual art, and created remarkable—silent—confrontations of visual taboo such as Window Water Baby Moving (1959) and The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1972)—now recognized as canonical documentaries. These films could hardly have been more different from the cinema verite films, but we can now see that Brakhage shared the mission of the cinema verite documentarians: the cinematic confrontation of convention-bound commercial media.

In 1955, Francis Flaherty, Robert Flaherty’s widow, established a symposium to honor her husband’s filmmaking oeuvre and to promote his commitment to filmmaking “without preconceptions.” In recent decades “the Flaherty,” as the symposium has come to be called, has attracted dozens of filmmakers, programmers, teachers, students, and other cine-aficionados for week-long immersions in programs of screenings and discussions. Modern Flaherty seminars have often been driven by an implicit debate about what the correct balance between documentary and avant-garde film should be at the seminar.

Since the 1940s, avant-garde filmmakers have found ways of exploring the personal, first by psycho-dramatizing their inner disturbances (Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks are landmark instances), and later by filming the particulars of their personal lives. Brakhage documented dimensions of his personal life in many films, as did Carolee Schneemann, in Fuses (1967), and Jonas Mekas, in Walden (1969) and Lost Lost Lost (1976). And during the 1980s, avant-garde filmmakers Su Friedrich (in The Ties that Bind, 1984; and Sink or Swim, 1990) and Alan Berliner (in Intimate Stranger, 1991; and Nobody’s Business, 1996), used experimental techniques learned from other avant-garde filmmakers to directly engage their family histories.

What has come to be called “personal documentary” (basically, the use of sync-sound to explore personal issues) was instigated in the early 1970s by Ed Pincus’s Diaries (filmed from 1971-1976; completed in 1981), Miriam Weinstein’s Living with Peter (1973), Amalie Rothschild’s Nana, Mom and Me (1974), Alfred Guzzetti’s Family Portrait Sittings (1975). By the 1980s, several of Pincus’s students at MIT were contributing to this approach, among them Ross McElwee, whose films, including Sherman’s March (1986), Time Indefinite (1994), and Photographic Memory (2011) are an on-going personal saga.

Globalization and the standardization of so many dimensions of modern life, along with threats to the environment, have created a desire on the part of many filmmakers to pay a deeper attention to the particulars of Place. Since the early 1970s, contemplations of Place have been produced by avant-garde filmmakers Larry Gottheim (Fog Line, 1970; Horizons, 1973), Nathaniel Dorsky (Hours for Jerome, 1982), James Benning (13 Lakes, 2004), Peter Hutton (Landscape (for Manon), 1987; At Sea, 2007), Sharon Lockhart (Double Tide, 2009) and many others. A fascination with Place, or more precisely, people-in-place, also characterizes the documentaries coming out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), including Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass (2009), Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (2013), and Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana (2014). Indeed, the films of Hutton, Benning, and Lockhart, in particular, have been shown regularly at the SEL.

The interviewees in Avant-Doc reveal a wide range of ways in which their own work and the work of colleagues function creatively within the liminal zone between documentary and avant-garde and the ways in which the intersections between these histories have played into their work.

Headline image credit: Camera. Public domain via Pixabay.

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Representations of purgatory and limbo in popular culture

In the Catholic tradition, purgatory is an afterlife destination reserved for souls who are ultimately bound for heaven. It is still a doctrine of the Catholic Church, despite confusion about its status. In 2007, the residing Pope Benedict XVI asked Church theologians to reconsider another Catholic afterlife destination: limbo. Limbo was traditionally thought to be on the “lip of hell” or the edge of heaven (hence the name limbo, which derives from the Latin limbus, for edge). Limbo was believed to be the final destination for the souls of unbaptized babies. The unsettling implications of belief in limbo, in part, was what motivated Pope Benedict and contemporary theologians to conclude that Catholics should hope for God’s mercy for deceased unbaptized babies—that no, they probably didn’t end up in limbo. The popular press interpreted this move as the abolition of limbo, which never was, ironically, a Catholic doctrine, although certainly lots of influential Catholics believed in it and wrote about it, like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. With limbo off the table, public discussion focused on the status of purgatory.

Popular headlines reflected confusion: would purgatory be next? Unlike limbo, purgatory is a doctrine of the Church, yet its representations have undergone significant modifications. Historically, the diversity of conceptions of purgatory boggles the mind. An entrance to purgatory was once thought to reside in Ireland on a rocky island; it was also considered to be a punitive “neighborhood” to hell; in the 1860s a cleric in France wrote that purgatory was in the middle of the earth; and more commonly after the nineteenth century, it is conceived of as a purifying “state” or condition of a soul, and not as a place at all. The common thread running through each of these descriptions is that they all derive from Catholic culture, although each was advocated in different eras and within unique contexts.

Molloch and Henry in Purgatory. (c) Sleepy Hollow, Fox.
Molloch and Henry in Purgatory. (c) Sleepy Hollow, Fox.

Today, one is more likely to find representations of purgatory and limbo in virtual reality and popular culture than in the local Catholic Church. In particular, the creators of video games and online role playing environments incorporate stereotypical images that reinforce particularly punitive versions of these post-death destinations that are usually associated with the late medieval era. The somber, award-winning video game LIMBO features a narrative story line similar to the “edge of hell” version of limbo rather than its representation as the edge of heaven. Released in July 2010 by the Danish game developer Play Dead, the game follows a young boy in search of his sister. LIMBO’s environments are entirely black, white, and shades of gray, featuring fear factors like giant shadowy spiders, eerie, lonesome forests, and cold industrial landscapes. The game’s creators state that they intentionally kept the storyline minimal, with no inherent meaning so that gamers can speculate on their own as to what is the ultimate meaning.

Purgatory is the main theme of an anticipated 3D role-playing game called Graywalkers: Purgatory. The game environment is a post-apocalyptic world where the afterlife merges with human lives. Demons and angels war with each other over the fate of humanity. Thirty-six heroes called Graywalkers emerge to assist the angels. Creator Russell Tomas of Dreamlords Digital stated that Purgatory is a game of action and consequence, where player’s actions will directly impact the results of the game. Characters like Father Rueben wear traditional Catholic vestments with the additional innovation of weapons and religiously themed tattoos.

Purgatory also figures in the popular television show Sleepy Hollow, which premiered in 2013 on the Fox network. Protagonist Katrina Crane is relegated to purgatory, which is imagined as an eerie waiting area for souls who are destined for either heaven or hell. This is obviously an alternation from the doctrinal version of purgatory—imagined as a place where souls are destined for heaven—and it has spawned online conversations focused on whether or not the version of purgatory represented in the show is actually correct. It is not, of course, but in this respect it conforms to other, much older versions of purgatory that were ultimately considered to be erroneous, such as those that placed it in the middle of the earth, or on a rocky island in Ireland.

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The Catholic Supernatural

From eighteenth century Gothic novels to contemporary popular culture, the tropes and sacred culture of Catholicism endure as themes in entertainment. OUP author Diana Walsh Pasulka sat down with The Conjuring (2013) screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes to discuss their cinematic focus on “the Catholic Supernatural” and the enduring appeal of Catholic culture to moviegoers.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: Your recent movie The Conjuring was financially very successful and is the third highest grossing horror film about the supernatural, behind only The Exorcist (1973) and The Sixth Sense (1999). Each of these films engage Catholic themes, and more specifically, the supernatural. The Conjuring, of course, is based on the lives of Catholics Ed and Lorraine Warren. What is it about Catholic culture that you think resonates with audiences?

Carey Hayes: Catholic culture is global. It also has a long history that almost everyone in the West identifies with on some level. Medieval cathedrals, priests in black robes and white collars and nuns in habits, in many ways these visuals are like short hand or code, and audiences understand them. For example, take the movie, The Exorcist. When it is apparent in the movie that the little girl is possessed by evil, they call in the priest. The priest, with his identifiable clothing, his crucifix and holy water, is the representation, visually, of the antidote to evil. Of course it doesn’t hurt that authors and filmmakers have used these themes over and over again, and this adds to the recognizable effects. The more we see elements of Catholic culture used in visual culture this way, the more we understand what they mean.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: That’s interesting. The meaning of these tropes, then, can take on a second life, of sorts, in popular culture. Non-Catholic audiences might equate what they see about Catholicism in the movies, with Catholic-lived practice.

Chad Hayes: That could be the case, of course, but in our experience we’ve had only positive reinforcement from Catholics. When we promoted The Conjuring in San Francisco a Catholic priest approached me and said “Thank you for getting it right.” That one comment was one of the best compliments I’ve received about the movie. We were also interviewed for U.S. Catholic, and they were very positive.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring. New Line Cinema. © 2013 Warner Bros Entertainment.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring. New Line Cinema. © 2013 Warner Bros Entertainment.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: A few years ago, Carey, you coined the term “The Religious Supernatural” to differentiate what you were doing from other screenwriters who wrote movies about the supernatural. Why designate it “religious?”

Carey Hayes: I coined the term to identify a certain framework, and, I suppose, to suggest a history. Today there is a lot of focus in popular culture on the supernatural or the paranormal. It is almost all secular. In the past, the supernatural and paranormal occurred within a worldview that allowed for the supernatural but within a religious framework. People had tools like prayers to deal with the supernatural, which, you have to admit, is scary. We wanted, in our movies, to return to that. We thought that, in many ways, religion deals with the big questions, and the supernatural is usually a scary thing that interrupts daily life and causes people to think about the big questions. So, we wanted to pair the two, religion and the supernatural, and remind audiences that this is, ultimately, what scary movies are about: ultimate questions about life.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: Are you ever frightened by what you write about?

Chad Hayes: We’re not afraid when we write and produce movies about the supernatural. But our research frightens us!

Carey Hayes: Right! It is frightening because some of this is supposed to be true, or based on events that are true.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: I wondered about that. Part of the appeal of your movies, and other movies like it such as The Exorcist, is that they play on the ambiguity of fiction and non-fiction, or the realism of your subject. The Blair Witch Project (1999) is a great example of the play on realism. The movie was presented as recovered footage of an actual university student project. I was in Berkeley, California for the pre-release of that movie, and I couldn’t get tickets for three days because the lines outside of the theaters were so long. When I finally got to see the movie members of the audience were wondering, is this real? Of course, we knew that it wasn’t, but we were also intrigued that it was presented as real. That definitely contributed to its popularity. The marketing campaign for that movie was unique at the time, too, in that they emphasized the question of the potential realism of the movie.

Chad Hayes: We purposely look for stories that are based on true events. We do that for this very reason: because people can relate. They can Google the story and see that maybe its folklore, or its real, but it is out there and is an experience for other people. So that contributes, no doubt, to the scare factor.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: Do you think this also has something to do with the appeal of the Catholic aesthetic, like the use of real Catholic sacred objects — the sacramentals, the crucifix, and the robes of the priests?

Chad Hayes: Absolutely. Ed and Lorraine Warren are practicing Catholics. Ed has passed away, but Lorrain still attends a Catholic Mass almost every day. That part of The Conjuring is based on her real Catholic practice. We were in contact with Lorraine throughout the writing of the movie and we included the objects that she and Ed actually used, like the sacramentals, the blessed objects, and holy water. My Catholic friends tell me that most Catholics don’t use these objects in their daily lives, but then they aren’t exorcizing demons, are they?

Diana Walsh Pasulka: I suppose not!

The post The Catholic Supernatural appeared first on OUPblog.


 

Timbuktu and a future no one wants to see

What is jihad? What do fundamentalists want? How will moderate Islamists react? These are questions that should be discussed. We may not have easy answers, but if we don’t start a dialogue, we may miss an opportunity to curtail horror.

The film Timbuktu from African director Abderrahmane Sassako about his native country serves as a needed point of departure for discussion — in government, in schools, in boardrooms, and in families.

Jihadism and terrorism are the 21st century’s “-isms,” following the horrors of fascism and communism. In hindsight, we wonder if we could have prevented the horrors of the 20th century. The devastating results have taught us that people do not want war; they want to live and work in peace. Should we not learn from history’s mistakes and prevent future genocides?

In the name of jihad, innocent victims are beheaded, kidnapped, raped, tortured, terrorized, left without families, and without homes. Extremist Muslims wage war against Christians and Jews, and against other Muslims (Sunnis vs. Shiites). Havoc is occurring in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, West Bank, Mali, Sudan, etc. It may soon take hold of our cities where jihadists threaten to set up terrorist cells.

Powerful and courageous, Timbuktu mesmerizes us with its blend of colors and music amidst a gentle background of sand dunes. Yet, juxtaposed to the serene beauty of Mali’s nature is the ferocious narrative of men turned into animals, forcing their machine guns on the quiet people of Timbuktu. We bear witness to the atrocious acts of barbarism.

Based on a true story when jihadists took over northern Mali in 2012, Sassako gives us a mosaic of characters who represent multi-cultural Africa. The camera takes us directly into their tragedies using a cause and effect structure:

  • We see a fisherwoman who refuses to wear a veil and gloves, for how would she be able to see or pick up the fish she must sell? Her rebellion, despite her mother’s pleas and the jihadist threats, is frightening.
  • Timbuktu
    Timbuktu, un film de Abderrahmane Sassako
  • Several friends play the guitar and sing together in the quiet of their home. The result? They are arrested and stoned to death.
  • A boy has a soccer ball, and accidentally the ball rolls down steps and through sand dunes to fall in front of several jihadists. The punishment? 40 lashes.
  • A caring man defends his young shepherd when their cow is killed. The outcome? A fight and the destruction of a family.
  • The leader of the community, the imam, tells several jihadists to leave the mosque with their guns and boots. People are praying. He warns them that Allah does not want destruction or terror. We fear the imam’s end.

These characters are not abstract; they are real victims. We follow their story, care for them, empathize with their pride, and suffer with their courage.

The contrast between good and evil, beauty and terror, are presented in alternating scenes and play havoc with our emotions. Sometimes we want to close our eyes as the evil becomes unbearable; we fear what horror will follow.

Sassako is a master storyteller and painter of landscape. His color palette holds our eyes as our hearts cringe at the story. Beautiful moments linger amidst savage reality. We see ballet in the scene when a dozen young men play soccer without a soccer ball. How graceful is their athletic movements and how deep their pleasure. We are mesmerized, and at the same time, we are panicked to think what the next scene will bring. The film’s power comes from its majestic beauty – a beauty that we fear cannot exist with the evil we are watching.

Sassako parallels the opening scene with the final scene. The film begins showing an elegant deer running through the soft dunes. It ends with the same scene, but the animal is replaced by the twelve-year-old heroine who runs desperately through the same dunes as she tries to escape her tragic reality. Sassako’s circle is a vicious cycle with no end to crimes against humanity.

Timbuktu is a difficult film to watch because it depicts a possible future that no one wants to see: genocide. All the more reason to see this film now.

Images courtesy of Les Films du WORSO

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Race, sex, and colonialism

As an Africanist historian committed to reaching broader publics, I was thrilled when the research team for the BBC’s genealogy program Who Do You Think You Are? contacted me late last February about an episode they were working on that involved the subject of some of my research, mixed race relationships in colonial Ghana. I was even more pleased when I realized that their questions about shifting practices and perceptions of intimate relationships between African women and European men in the Gold Coast, as Ghana was then known, were ones I had just explored in a newly published American Historical Review article, which I readily shared with them. This led to a month-long series of lengthy email exchanges, phone conversations, Skype chats, and eventually to an invitation to come to Ghana to shoot the Who Do You Think You Are? episode.

WDYTYA_0

After landing in Ghana in early April, I quickly set off for the coastal town of Sekondi where I met the production team, and the episode’s subject, Reggie Yates, a remarkable young British DJ, actor, and television presenter. Reggie had come to Ghana to find out more about his West African roots, but he discovered along the way that his great grandfather was a British mining accountant who worked in the Gold Coast for close to a decade. His great grandmother, Dorothy Lloyd, was a mixed-race Fante woman whose father — Reggie’s great-great grandfather — was rumored to be a British district commissioner at the turn of the century in the Gold Coast.

The episode explores the nature of the relationship between Dorothy and George, who were married by customary law around 1915 in the mining town of Broomassi, where George worked as the paymaster at the local mine. George and Dorothy set up house in Broomassi and raised their infant son, Harry, there for two years before George left the Gold Coast in 1917 for good. Although their marriage was relatively short lived, it appears that Dorothy’s family and the wider community that she lived in regarded it as a respectable union and no social stigma was attached to her or Harry after George’s departure from the coast.

WDYTYA_1-3000px

George and Dorothy lived openly as man and wife in Broomassi during a time period in which publicly recognized intermarriages were almost unheard of. As a privately employed European, George was not bound by the colonial government’s directives against cohabitation between British officers and local women, but he certainly would have been aware of the informal codes of conduct that regulated colonial life. While it was an open secret that white men “kept” local women, these relationships were not to be publicly legitimated.

Precisely because George and Dorothy’s union challenged the racial prescripts of colonial life, it did not resemble the increasingly strident characterizations of interracial relationships as immoral and insalubrious that frequently appeared in the African-owned Gold Coast press during these years. Although not a perfect union, as George was already married to an English woman who lived in London with their children, the trajectory of their relationship suggests that George and Dorothy had a meaningful relationship while they were together, that they provided their son Harry with a loving home, and that they were recognized as a respectable married couple. The latter helps to account for why Dorothy was able to “marry well” after George left. Her marriage to Frank Vardon, a prominent Gold Coaster, would have been unlikely had she been regarded as nothing more than a discarded “whiteman’s toy,” as one Gold Coast writer mockingly called local women who casually liaised with European men. In her own right, Dorothy became an important figure in the Sekondi community where she ultimately settled and raised her son Harry, alongside the children she had with Frank Vardon.

WDYTYA_2-3000px

The “white peril” commentaries that I explored in my American Historical Review article proved to be a rhetorically powerful strategy for challenging the moral legitimacy of British colonial rule because they pointed to the gap between the civilizing mission’s moral rhetoric and the sexual immorality of white men in the colony. But rhetoric often sacrifices nuance for argumentative force and Gold Coasters’ “white peril” commentaries were no exception. Left out of view were men like George Yates, who challenged the conventions of their times, albeit imperfectly, and women like Dorothy Lloyd who were not cast out of “respectable” society, but rather took their place in it.

This sense of conflict and connection and of categorical uncertainty surrounding these relationships is what I hope to have contributed to the research process, storyline development, and filming of the Reggie Yates episode of Who Do You Think You Are? The central question the show raises is how do we think about and define relationships that were so heavily circumscribed by racialized power without denying the “possibility of love?” By “endeavor[ing] to trace its imperfections, its perversions,” was Martinican philosopher and anticolonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon’s answer. His insight surely reverberates throughout the episode.

All images courtesy of Carina Ray.

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