Archives For theory

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…

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.

Notes from…

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

“For Nietzsche a dialectical tension between memory and forgetting, or past and future, is essential for what he terms ‘life’: ‘the unhistorical and the historical are necessary in equal measure for the health of an individual, of a people, and of a culture’ (p93, p104)

Nietzsche suggests that the experience of joy comes from a lapse of memory. When we forget and lose the baggage of our memory for that moment, we experience joy and this is how joy is defined. In film there needs to be conflict and documentary biographies this is an area where the filmmaker can seek out the conflict. The act of memory itself, according to Nietzsche’s idea is a conflict with joy and being. The filmmaker perhaps only needs to be aware of balancing the present with the memories of the subject in order to find the necessary tension.

Notes from…

Hamilton, Paula; The Knife Edge: Debates About Memory and History in “Memory and History in Twentieth Century Australia” (ed. Darian-Smith, K and Hamilton, P) Oxford University Press, Mebourne 1994 (pp 9 – 31)

“In recent years, the frequently voiced concerns about ‘inaccuracy’ of memory have given way to a more sophisticated understanding that what gets remembered and how is of critical importance in the process of remembering. Now oral historians are coming to understand that the collaborative act interviewing can often be the point of intersection between memory and history, a contested terrain, frequently the knife edge of tension between the two.” (p15)

“The interview can become then a site of struggle or negotiation between the story the interviewer wants to hear and that which the participant wants to tell.” (p15)

Something about the occurrence of a group memory that will inevitably be unequal, undemocratic. In this way, a filmic approach to an individual’s perspective is more honest. In terms of the interview being a site of struggle, I would have to say that the film Forbidden Lies (Anna Broinowski: 2007) is probably the best, most well formed struggle between film and subject I’ve ever seen. This film is highly sophisticated and leagues away from anything to do with what I’m trying to achieve with biography documentary, but it fits into these ideas coming out of theory around memory. Reflexive documentary seems to continuously creep up as the most integral form, as far as the Nichols definitions go.

“Nancy Wood, in a review of some recent works on memory, has argued that in the post-war world, popular culture, rather than scholarly debate, has become the principal site for the politics of memory. Wood speaks most about the power of film in this regard, particularly in relation to film’s mass audience and capacity to influence public contestation of narratives about the past.” (p25)

“A teacher recently confided to me with a laconic tone that he always thought the First World War happened in black and white. This seemed an apt description of the end product envisaged by those who fear the colonization of memory by mass media – that even our memory would take on the conventions of filmic representation of the past.” (p26)

“Edgar Reitz, the filmmaker, says, ‘the camera transforms everything we film into a thing of the past…the camera is our memory…we reassemble the fragments of memory in new ways.’.” (p26)

“Cultural forms, he says (Ulric Neisser), ‘create conditions of possibility’ for audiences by informing the present with the past and the future.” (p27)

Ulric Neisser was an American psychologist, who’s most important conclusions in his theories with regards to themes I am exploring were that memories are the most direct influence on the ways in which we perceive and take in information, and hence the ways in which we behave. This seems to acknowledge that there are limitless ways in which memories are constructed and that they are based in narrative forms.

Minding the Gap: Reflections on Media Practice and Theory Convenors: Paddy Coulter & Cathy Baldwin
from Postgraduate & Early Career Researchers Training Day Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford Saturday 12th May 20078

This essay is about practice research and so relates directly to what some of us have to do this year. Project outcome and exegesis. Practice research seems necessary when the knowledge being explored is inevitably tied up in the act of doing. For instance, in my case, I might ask, “what happens when I use only found footage, with no supplement of my own creation?” The only way to demonstrate the knowledge and learning here is to put it into practice, even if backed up and supported by contextualizing articles and essays.

can the practice be self-reflexive and include a route map of the research process within itself…Alternatively, is there a danger of the documentation replacing the practice? (p2)

I personally don’t think that documentation replacing the practice is a danger in the sense that the education institution is concerned with the process and the knowledge articulated through process, rather than the ‘real world’ outcome of the practice. I mean this in the sense that a researcher or student may not have funding or time to complete a feature length documentary film that reflects their cinema ideas, though they may create media of some other type that reflects the theory and criticism and may have less commercially viable, ‘real world’ outcome. Documenting this process is essential to communicating knowledge and the trajectory of learning and so must be tied into the practice. In this way, the practice has to be self-reflexive. The researcher has to be concerned with the reception and communication of the practice based research to his/her audience.

Personally I see Communications (the field of study) as a practice. Unless you’re fully engaged in the on-line environment and coming to terms with the ‘messiness’ and the ebb and flow of networks and all the various channels, you’re not really studying communication. Communications needs an almost anthropological approach. It inevitably engages in group work and peer review as theoretical study is not enough to understand the contemporary changing digital environment. This essay was written in 2007 and states: “Historically there has also been a lack of systematic peer review of academic media practice.” (p3) “Historically” may be referring to a time before the internet was fully integrated into society, but for Media today systematic peer review is essential as Media in the workplace/’real-world’ is made and communicated fast and in full view of your peer community.

A good point is made about ‘workflow’ and the necessity of practice to fully comprehend the specifics of how and why digital filmmaking and digital workflow may be changing in the film industry.

Notes from What Is An Author in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice; selected essays and interviews ; Cornell University Press Ithaca, New York, 1977

Essentially Foucault is studying the concept of the Author in terms of, “the manner in which a text apparently points to this figure who is outside and precedes it.” (p115) It is interesting to apply all these ideas and theories to the idea of the documentary filmmaker as author. In this way, this reading applies to Labsome, Transient Spaces and Comm Rev.

Questions raised by Foucault:

How was the author individualised in our culture?

What status have we given the author? (authenticity, attribution)

What systems of valorisation has he been included in?

When was the moment that stories of the hero gave way to an authors biography?

What conditions fostered the formulation of the fundamental critical category of ‘the man and his work’?

One approach to this Foucault reading is to constantly ask yourself, in what contexts is Foucault refering to the practice of language and writing (and that particular relationship)?

“the writing of our day has freed itself from the necessity of “expression”; it only refers to itself, yet it is not restricted to the confines interiority. On the contrary, we recognise it in its exterior deployment.” (p116)

Foucault sees writing as an organic and evolving practice which, “unfolds like a game that inevitably moves beyond its own rules and finally leaves them behind.” (p116) In this way, writing is not a fixed or rigid technical device into which a subject is inserted. Instead it serves to create an opening where the “writing subject” endlessly disappears. (what is meant by writing subject exactly?)

Foucault sees the ancient text as a vehicle to immortality for the hero. In pre-modern times, narrative redeemed the acceptance of death. Kafka is a good example of the reversal of this narrative ideology. Contemporary writing murders its author. There are two sides established to the argument around the recognition and presence of the author (what these are is hard to decipher!)

The first context is that of criticism which addresses the work in terms of its ‘architectonic’ and structural form, and specifically leaves out the ties between author and work, and in particular the author and his thoughts through the work. The question of the boundaries of the work is prominent here. The second context is the notion of ecriture, a French word referring to the act of writing as an entity in itself, in its primordial and metaphysical form (signs represent the present, in its absence). The notion of ecriture somehow links the idea of the author to a more theological and religiously inflected notion. The work as “a kind of enigmatic supplement of the author beyond his own death.” (p120)

In summary Foucault poses the difference between questions that are and are not concerned with the author. This is to illustrate that through the absence of the author new modes of discourse will be heard.

No longer the tiresome repetitions:

“Who is the real author?”
“Have we proof of his authenticity and originality?”
“What has he revealed of his most profound self in his language?”

New questions will be heard:

“What are the modes of existence of this discourse?”
“Where does it come from; how is it circulated; who controls it?”
“What placements are determined for possible subjects?”
“Who can fulfill these diverse functions of the subject?”

Behind all these questions we would hear little more than the murmur of indifference:

“What matter who’s speaking?” (p138)