Flaherting, part 2

Like many of the films at the Flaherty this year, the narratives of Odds of Recovery and 48 squared perfectly with the chosen thematic of “open wounds”-one literally, the other metaphorically. But perhaps the most challenging form of wound or laceration that surfaced in the films and debates was conceptual. I’ll say that conceptual wound was representation and its formal ethics.

Fearless and preternaturally good-humored programmer Josetxo Cerdán aimed right at it, organizing a line-up of films and filmmakers that suggested (at least in broad terms) an already well-developed gap in experimental documentary. This gap could be depicted as generational and even gendered, with queer women filmmakers Lourdes Portillo and Su Friedrich on one end and “young turk” men filmmakers under 40 like Ben Rivers and Ben Russell on the other, but that wouldn’t be accurate.

After all, there were plenty of Flaherty participants critiquing, praising and/or questioning these filmmakers who didn’t necessarily “match” them in gender orientation, age, nationality or anything else. (Sometimes Ben Rivers’ and Ben Russell’s films were assumed to be totally of a kind, which seemed very wrong. They are collaborators and friends, but their processes, styles and finished products struck me as quite distinct.)

However those on either side of this division might be described, the division itself was this: if a film attempts to refuse to represent its subject in one manner or another, is it being unethical to its subject–i.e., taking agency away from him, her or them? And if (some would say when) a film fails at refusing to represent, is this failure a merit or a demerit?

I found myself vigorously supporting these attempts at the refusal of representation, even when the refusal was complicated by the class, race, gender or cultural difference of those being “non-represented.” I thought and still think the films doing this were some of the freshest and most vital in the seminar. For me, they continue the project of working with filmic means against the conventional conditions of cinema, a project that I am obviously deeply invested in researching and teaching.

A couple of discoveries that did this, and that I got excited about:

Ben Russell Trypps #7 (Badlands), 10 min, 16mm, color, sound, 2010

There were a couple of other films from the Trypps series shown, and I missed them, dammit (my inability to take time off and commit 100% to the Flaherty when it is held just two floors away from my office). This one was excellent, a dizzying, vicarious acid drop made up of beauty, landscape, the tolling of bells, a mirror, and a prominent crack in it all.

Four stills from Sack Barrow,Ben Rivers, 21 minutes, 16mm, color, sound, 2011

Was this film my favorite of the entire festival? Yes, although one shouldn’t play favorites. It has certainly stayed with me the longest. While driving, or brushing my teeth, I can’t stop thinking back on these glimpses of the fantastical and abject. There were so many lovely and strange sequences of grotto-like mineral deposit and steam baths and industrial paint color (in the inter-leaders, too, or whatever you call them). It was like a fairyland of the Western, post-industrial economy. The middle-aged, almost-redundant workers moved slowly through it all, at home amongst the beautiful grossness like deep sea creatures. You must realize/smoke gets in your eyes…

Excerpts from many of Rivers’ works are viewable on his gallery’s Vimeo page–I look forward to going through them all soon.

Ah, Liberty, Ben Rivers, 2008, 20 minutes, 16mm, sound, black and white

Gorgeously framed messiness and play in the countryside, shot in Cinemascope. There is a case to be made that an unproblematized romanticism of the working class is present here and in Sack Barrow, but I’ve thought a lot about it, and I’m not interested in making that case. I think it’s a preliminary reaction that is actually discounted with enough careful looking and reflection.

Many thought Buñuel’s Las Hurdes (1933) was documentary when it was actually something that displaced documentary because they weren’t doing the work of taking the strangeness to the next level as spectators. I think Rivers’ films operate similarly, and I argued so in the discussion after an ingeniously-programmed double feature of his The Creation As We Saw It (work in progress, 16 minutes, HQ file) and Robert and Frances Flaherty’s Moana (1926, 96 minutes, 16mm) newly scored with traditional Samoan music in the late 1970s by Monica Flaherty. A GREAT session!

Moana, Robert and Frances Flaherty, 1926, 96 minutes, 16mm, sound by Monica Flaherty, 1981

I’m still reflecting on my stances on these and other “refusal of representation” films, wondering if, on a very basic and selfish level, I am shooting myself in the foot as a woman and a feminist. Since we at the Flaherty were all human (some preternaturally good-humored and others not), personae inevitably influenced this debate about filmic representation and the liberties that can or can’t be taken with it. I missed some screenings and tone-setting debates early on, and was therefore unsure what all had influenced some filmmakers’ and participants’ attitudes and behaviors.

In any case, it seemed clear we all have a lot more cinematic, subjectival and theoretical wound-exploring to do. What does it mean to support projects that may risk returning to an objectification of women, people of color, or non-Western cultures en route to doing damage to representation? I don’t have a response for myself yet. I’m thankful for the films and people who are prompting that thinking.


Flaherting, part 1

I had the good fortune to attend much if not all of the Flaherty Seminar here at Colgate last week! I’m still working through what I found to be a quite intense experience in emails and conversations. Here is yet another version of my thoughts on the films seen and debates had.

The theme of the seminar this year was “Open Wounds.” It’s one of those wonderful, vaguely specific phrases for which film programmers (myself included) are perpetually searching in an effort to give film viewers an architecture to use without locking them in and throwing away the key.

Literal and metaphorical open wounds were certainly addressed in the content of many of the films programmed. Susana de Sousa Dias’ 48 (2009, 93 minutes) was exemplary in this respect.

The film is a series of mug shots (fifteen?) of political prisoners taken during the Salazar regime. These indexes are the basis for a memory testimonial given by each person photographed on the film’s soundtrack. We never see the (now elderly) former political prisoner; we only hear his or her voice, which is both inside of and reflexively removed from the still black and white photograph.

Dias’ documentary worked its film-temporal magic on me: I was really irritated with its inexorable slowness for the first fifteen minutes, but then my thoughts and my breathing seemed to meet the sound and images in front of me. I became totally engrossed in the incomplete stories told, and wakefully fascinated with these portraits of endurance and recalcitrance. The former prisoners spoke of their physical suffering and their mental trauma from neither the standpoint of victims or victors, but from the standpoint of resistants. Whether they were caught while actively sabotaging the regime or unluckily found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, they all had the political inscribed on their bodies and minds, perhaps in a way similar to the inscription of mileage and speed on a marathon runner.

Dias’ expanding project of films (all dedicated to this history and originating in these police photographs) seemed in many respects to be a mediated, one-woman Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Portugal and its dictatorial history.


If the narrative of Dias’ films addressed the open wounds of national history, Su Friedrich’s wonderful Odds of Recovery (2002, 65 minutes) meditated on the pleasures and terrors of our bodies, the way they evolve sometimes in- and sometimes out-of-synch with the evolution of our interpersonal relationships and our spirit.

As always, Friedrich’s masterful editing allowed the film to be unsentimental, witty, joyful, frustrating and moving at the same time. I appreciated the way each shot explicitly avoided conventional beauty. The biggest delight for me was the way in which Friedrich’s meandering, handheld tracking shots of vines and plants in her garden enlivened the embroidery she made of her surgeries (as work in progress as well as finished artwork). And vice versa. With these passages, the film became a kind of carte du tendre in moving images, moving back and forth between natural and interior worlds.

“A detachment that may give rise to passion and compassion for the Other”

I recently read this excellent article by Matthew Croombs, and found the following passage particularly thought-provoking:

Consider, for example, the conclusion of Stephen Heath’s “Narrative Space” on Oshima’s Death by Hanging (1968), in which Heath focuses on the series of eye-line matches between the film’s protagonist “R”—excited in his own right—and a cat in the corner of the frame sitting before a brick wall (Heath, 1976: 109-112).  Heath brilliantly draws our attention to the conclusion of this exchange, in which we are suddenly thrust into the “impossible space” occupied by the wall and forced to look at the cat in the face—if an animal can be said to have a face (Derrida, 2008).  I think it is clear from this example that Heath, for all of his claims about the discursive nature of the image, was highly attentive to what was before the camera, and even to the so-called indexical qualities of the image.

This example also calls on the reader to engage some of the same questions that preoccupy contemporary film philosophy about our metaphysical isolation from the natural world, or, to use Stanley Cavell’s terms, about “our skeptical terror about the independent existence of other minds”—a terror that is, in a certain sense, about our failure to be god, to be “No One in Particular with a View from Nowhere” (Cavell, in Wolfe, 2003: 45).  Yet if the film provokes a spectatorial encounter with “skeptical terror,” this terror is not reducible to the fact that it gives us an indexical image of the cat’s past existence in time.  It is through textual operations, and textual assistance, that the spectator is provoked to consider her place and the place of an Other who may know her in ways she cannot know herself.  To feel one’s knowledge come to an end is to experience a kind of detachment, but a detachment that may give rise to passion and compassion for the Other who cannot be known.  It is towards such questions of detachment and the usefulness of 1970s film theory to the theory of the present that this article concludes.

This is a clever and compelling case made for the idea that an approach to film informed by semiotics does not preclude a complementary phenomenological or affect-based reading.

Will St Leger does The Smiths

Speaking of Morrissey, these videos (made with appropriated 1950s “social guidance” films) are so fantastic and smart!

Smiths songs about how one could never belong as contrapuntal sound for these normative, didactic “redemption tales,” cut so as to stay unresolved…The ending of the one I’ve posted above reminded me a bit of L’Âge d’or (1930).

Le Gamin au vélo (2011)

I saw the Dardennes’ Kid With a Bike (2011) this weekend, and really loved it. It felt like a rigorous, elegant session of ballet exercises (not like I’ve ever taken ballet), taxing and rewarding at the same time, mentally and emotionally. I really enjoyed all the Truffaudian inflections, as if the Dardennes were addressing him directly, saying, “Les quatres cents coups (1959) was infatuated with the loss that can permeate a young life; we’re making films about troubled youth without that infatuation. The result is structural, a film about interpersonal systems: loss that leads to redemption, then loss once again, and the knowledge that this cycle continues.”