Archives For research

John Berger: Ways of Seeing

Michael Foucault: Discipline and Punish

Derrida: The Animal That Therefore I Am

Griselda Pollock: Differencing the Cannon and Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity, and Histories of Art

Herman Melville: Billy Budd, Sailor

My main question/problem (regarding memory, the intersection of filmmaker and subject and the subject wantingto express memory) seems to addressing realism. Though I believe realism is probably the wrong word. Perhaps I am investigating the creation of a depiction of memory through acknowledging the presence of memory theory in the filmmaking process. At this stage this is still very vague, but I hope through reading and discussion with Adrian Danks I will be able to find a hook, or an anchor which will focus these more instinctual ideas.

Another question I need to discuss with Adrian is whether or not to include textual analysis in my exegesis. This could get me into hot water as I will need to spend time explaining why I chose specific films, and this could in fact limit the directions that arise as I produce. However, I am looking for these definite anchor points for discussion and so need to explore the possibility.

Movies to consider:

Bright Leaves (Ross McElwee; 2003)

This film is highly personal and subjective to the filmmaker. The story is of his own journey and autobiographical rather than biographical. Nevertheless, filmmaking techniques may be viable for me to take notice.

Bastardy (Amiel Courtin-Wilson; 2009)

This film is a straight forward biography of Jack Charles, an interesting and prolific Aboriginal Australian, resident of Melbourne. The story follows Jack for a number of years and so portrays quite an in depth and significant portion of Jack’s life. I thought this film would be a little more directly relevant to my own project in terms of style and technique.

Notes from…

Healy, Chris; Histories and Collecting: Museums, Objects and Memories in “Memory and History in Twentieth Century Australia” (ed. Darian-Smith, K and Hamilton, P) Oxford University Press, Mebourne 1994 (pp 33 – 52)

“I am really concerned with…giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection….the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?” (Walter Benjamin in Healy, p33)

Imagine trading the term book for documentary, film or cinema. The disorder, habit and appearance of order could have a relationship with our need or quest for narrative. Like in Hitchcock’s ‘cuts’ or pure cinema. To give precise meaning to an otherwise chaotic situation with any number of outcomes.

What really interests me about Healy’s analysis of the museum in Silverton is its close similarity to the predicament of the documentary filmmaker as he approaches his subject: “The Museum held a huge collection – pastoral, industrial and domestic artifacts; photographs, private papers, sporting and recreational memorabilia; portraits, medals and much, much more.” (p33)

In this case of the Silverton Museum, artifacts “were not ordered by chronological sequence or theme. Many were not labeled and, more often than not, the objects did not follow a theme or ‘teach’ the visitor anything in particular. The museum employed none of the characteristic means by which visitors have been trained to understand and interpret objects on display: the devices of category, of narrative sequence, of juxtaposing the typical and the singular, or of generating an aura of aesthetic wonder. It seemed as if the objects were meant to invoke associations, to trigger memories, to generate questions, confusion or fragmentary recognition.” (p34)

“The Silverton Museum was an anachronism. Those who could have remembered or interpreted the memory palace were dead; it was a place of silence and sadness.” (p34) In a sense a documentary does not document the ‘memory palace’, the documentary is the memory palace. Like the Silverton museum is set up for the understanding of someone from the 19th or 18th century, a documentary is for the understanding of the 21st C. The objects in the museum gather their context and meaning from the situation of the museum, how the museum has ordered them. Likewise, a person’s lament or story gains its context for memory and storage, from the construction of the film. Even, at the most basic level, from the frame of the screen.

Fetishising the subject, making it relatable: “…the stuffed carcass of the racehorse Phar Lap only works as a memory site because it is more than a dead horse in a glass cabinet. It works because it elicits social imagination and desires, and because it has been remade, both literally and figuratively, as an object on display. The museum is the key public institution in which these processes of memory work have taken place in Australia.” (p36)

“The ‘museum’ of the nineteenth century functioned as a general archive in which time never stopped building, in which things of all epochs, all styles, all forms could be accumulated and preserved against the ravages of time, in perpetuity. The Museum acted and in many ways still acts (and not least, conceptually) as a microcosm of the world, as a universal sacred space where Man can rediscover and reconstitute his fragmented self.” (Eilean Hooper-Greenhill in Healy, p3) Once again make as metaphor for documentary. As if documentary, or even the home video, is a way of preserving and a way of reconstituting the fragmented self.

Striving for difference and originality/breaking norms: “these odd collections and their strange ways of communicating relationships between object and history provide very different models of historical understanding, ways of thinking about the past and ways people remember their lives in relation to material objects. We all live as historians by inscribing and depositing the artifacts of our own historical cultures. That remembering, that making of histories, need not be that which we aim to capture, to preserve, to make present or to supersede; it can be part of the performances of remembering, of enacting histories. Digital systems of information storage and production might shift the focus of collecting and remembering in contemporary culture away from preservation and towards renewal, towards what Nietzsche called the possibility of history for life.” (p49)

Themes for memory: Desire, disappointments, fulfillment and compromise

Notes taken from Pedagogy of Pardon

“Aristotle defined narrative as ‘the imitation of an action’. Therefore the ethical challenge of story is to look for ‘points of support’ in the living experience of acting and suffering. The experience of human suffering demands the assistance of narrative and expresses the need for it. Ricoeur then re-iterates the ‘pre-narrative quality of human experience’ as the justification for speaking of the two-fold qualities of life as: (a) a story and (b) an activity (praxis) in search of a narrative so that our lives can be recounted, understood, and ultimately provide us with a sense of meaning, hope and purpose. He proposes that the idea of a plot or story provides us with a means of understanding by which we can discover and not simply impose from the outside, ‘the narrative identity’ which constitutes us.” (p34)

The point is, in essence this is what all doco’s seek to do one way or another. The narrative journey of a documentary, particularly the biographical documentary, needs to have conflict, even if the subjects’ memories are generally positive. This conflict has to be sourced from the living experience of acting and suffering. For instance, in Lowell’s case, he may have made an adventurous life for himself in the Carribean, but what was the experience of leaving home? If this was a good experience, or one without regrets, what are the implications in terms of his sense of roots and home.

The relationship/tension between filmmaker and subject can also be seen as a point of conflict, but one that in my case will be more implicit rather than explicit. The nature of this conflict is the responsibility of the filmmaker to give filmic life to the subjects memories.

Understanding Memory, relating it to the language of Cinema: perhaps somehow there is a way of exploring this representation of anothers’ memory as a theory. After some reading I will try to frame this into a question.

Paul Ricœur was a French philosopher who was best known for best known for combining phenomenological description with hermeneutic interpretation. What’s interesting for in this is that in philosophy, particularly this strand of philosophy, Ricoeur is looking to study human reality, which in effect is what documentary cinema does. So documentary cinema is inherently philosophical and should probably be explored and created in those terms.

Notes from Documentary and Collaboration: Placing the Camera in the Community by Elizabeth Coffman

“Contrary to fears that the age of cinema is ending, this new age of digital media offers more, not fewer, opportunities for individuals or groups interested in producing documentary work.” (p62)

This is something I’ve personally felt to be an aesthetic revolution as well as a mobile and participatory one. Digital media means more than mobility and lesser picture quality (or at least, different picture quality). It actually changes the ways in which stories get told. For that matter it actually effects what stories get told. Digital technology has lifted the art of documentary from the feature film and television industries and scrapped the rule book on methods for documentary story telling. Bill Nichols modes can still be applied to documentary works, but these borders and definitions are rapidly becoming blurrier and harder to distinguish. Nichols modes of the reflexive, performative and poetic seem to have been the modes that could encompass those films that sat outside of the mainstream in the pre-90’s period before the mass popularisation of documentary through filmmakers such as Michael Moore. The real binary that becomes apparent when comparing the old world with the new are the notions of subjectivity and objectivity. It seems to me that the trend in the past was for documentary to present itself as an entirely objective viewpoint. A literal window on the world in which the camera is merely the medium. Filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Chris Marker and many more spent their careers challenging and exploring this industry norm, and have subsequently found themselves hailed as the guru’s of contemporary cinema as subjectivity has found its way to the forefront of integrity and honesty. For instance, compare the controversies of Michael Moore’s representations of characters and events in Roger and Me (1989) and Fahrenheit 9 11 (2004) to the completely subjective and almost fictional depiction of images from the first Iraq war in Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992).

“documentary is just another form of fiction. It is arbitrary…made up. It doesn’t follow the natural order. Its major sequences are shorter than they are in real time. They acquire meaning they wouldn’t have in isolation. What’s magical about a good film is magical about a good play or a good novel. If you try to define it, you’re a fool….” (Frederick Wiseman in Coffman)

The article discusses the dynamics of the relationships between filmmaker and subject. It suggests that collaboration entails a giving up a certain amount of authority over the story to the subject. This is absolutely true for the filmmaking process to work, but it does not mean, as the article suggests, that authorship is threatened. The true author of a documentary is the person who oversees the editing process as that is where meaning and all meanings intricacies are formed for the final result. Unless there is a collaborative process with the subject going on in the editing room, the filmmakers voice (assuming he is overseeing the editing) will still be the predominant voice. My personal feeling on this matter is to bite the bullet and opt for total involvement of the filmmaker within the narrative. This way, the subject, the filmmaker and the audience are all on the same page. The filmmaker is not feigning a false sense of objectivity.

Notes From…

Rossington, M; Introduction: Enlightenment and Romantic Memory in “Memory” (ed. M. Rossington, A. Whitehead) John Hopkins University Press; Baltimore 2007

“And in this Sense it is, that our Ideas are said to be in our memories, when indeed, they are actually no where, but only there is an ability in the mind when it will, to revive them again, and as it were paint them anew on it self.” (Locke, 75, 76)

“Distinctive in the treatment of memory in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) by David Hume is the repeated pairing of the term with ‘imagination’. On the one hand, Hume seeks to distinguish between the properties of these two faculties, on the other to draw attention to what, to him, is their perilous proximity.” (p70)

“…Hume posits that ideas of the memory are more vivid representations of copied impressions than those of the imagination, in the second, ‘Of the impressions of the senses and memory’, which begins with the skeptical claim that the ultimate cause of impressions is impossible to know, Hume probes further the contrast between these two faculties, concluding that ‘the difference betwixt (memory) and the imagination lies in (memory’s) superior force and vivacity.’” (p71)

“Hume sounds markedly contemporary in his refusal to accept a common-sense notion that human selves are stable and coherent. In a celebrated passage, he declares: ‘I may venture to affirm the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement’” (Hume in Rossington, pp72)

“Hume’s treatise thus points to a willingness to admit an essential discontinuity in human experience which the imagination in collaboration with memory seeks to overcome.” (p72)

All these thoughts on memory correlate to documentary and what documentary means to story telling and the human experience. Quite often people seem to take documentary as a kind of truth, whether viewing or making. If, on a fundamental level, our relationship with the way in which we communicate our experience of the world to others (memory being one particular vehicle for this) is flawed by this perpetual flux and movement described by Hume, why should our approach to documentation not be based on instincts for story, dramatic license and imagination. Films and filmmakers that come to mind are Ken Russell and Herzog. Ken Russell’s BBC documentaries from the 1960’s are almost entirely re-enactments and visual collages of imagery that he felt best describe the emotions and deeper feelings of the artist he was ‘documenting’. Herzog has been known to say that Fitzcarraldo, a feature film, is a documentary as he re-enacts the legendary attempt of Fitzcarraldo to drag a steamboat over a mountain in the Amazon. So one of the themes I want to explore in my project is using dramatic and creative license to allow the filmmaking process to become part of the overall feel of the story. In a sense, it seems to further marry film form and film imagination with the subject, and not to pretend that there is some kind of objective goal.

Great quotes from…

Nietzsche, F; On the uses and disadvantages of history for life in “Memory” (ed. M. Rossington, A. Whitehead) John Hopkins University Press; Baltimore 2007

“Man, on the other hand, braces himself against the great and ever greater pressure of what is past: it pushes him down or bends him sideways, it encumbers his steps as a dark, invisible burden which he can sometimes appear to disown and which in traffic with his fellow men he is only to glad to disown, so as to excite their envy.” (p103)

“Then it (child) will learn to understand the phrase ‘it was’: that password which gives conflict, suffering and satiety access to man so as to remind him what his existence fundamentally is – an imperfect tense that can never become a perfect one.” (p103)

“In the case of the smallest or of the greatest happiness, however, it is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget or, expressed in more scholarly fashion, the capacity to feel unhistorically during its duration.” (p103)

“Imagine the extremest possible example of a man who did not possess the power of forgetting at all and who was thus condemned to see everywhere a state of becoming: such a man would no longer believe in his own being, would no longer believe in himself, would see everything flowing asunder in moving points and would lose himself in this stream of becoming.” (p103)

“there is a degree of sleeplessness, of rumination, of the historical sense, which is harmful and ultimately fatal to the living thing, whether this living thing be a man or a people or a culture.” (p104)