by Ronald Heydon
Writing the first words, always something of a mystery. Might as well begin at the beginning. Michael Sprinkler in The End of Autobiography traces the history of the word ‘autobiography’ to the end of the eighteenth century. The Oxford dictionary credits Southey with the first usage in 1809, and the French Larousse attributes the French form to a derivation from the English. Prior to the eighteenth century, works that are today labeled autobiographies were known as confessions, memoirs, journeaux in times.
Autobiography, the inquiry of the self into its own origin and history, is always circumscribed by the limiting conditions of writing, of the production of a text… Autobiography must return perpetually to the elusive centre of selfhood buried in the unconscious, only to discover that it was already there when it began… The origin and end of autobiography converge in the very act of writing… for no autobiography can take place except within the boundaries of a writing where concepts of subject, self and author collapse into the act of producing a text. (Sprinkler, p. 342)
My first conscious encounter with landscape came in Saskatchewan, when I was nine or ten. On a bright, mid-summer day, I crossed the highway that encircled the city and entered the wheat fields. I walked for hours, gradually removing my clothes because of the heat. I remember the wheat scraping slightly the child’s flesh. I remember seeing no one and nothing but wheat and golden sun for miles. People have been known to panic in such conditions. In such solitude (and in each direction the same view) one either feels incredibly importance or insignificance. The feeling I had was communion.
In The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes D.W. Meinig writes that landscape is a technical term used by artists and earth scientists, architects and planners, geographers and historians. It is an ambiguous term, elusive. Landscape is, first of all, the impressions of our senses as well as the logic of our sciences. It is related to, but not identical with, environment. Landscape is defined by our vision, and interpreted by our minds.
In one of the books I recently read (was it New and Naked Land by Ronald Rees?) describing the frontier landscape of western Canada, the author referred to early survey expeditions undertaken to determine if the prairies were habitable. The Plains Indians had roamed there for centuries and one of the surveyors (1857) wrote in his journal: “Apart from various trails, the Indians left the prairie unmarked.”
The land, after first having been ignored (by earlier expeditions), explored and then appropriated, was later treated as a commodity. It was surveyed, sectioned off and given away in parceled bits to incoming Europeans.
“Apart from various trails, the Indians left the prairie unmarked.”
Does the landscape remember? Can we talk of land and memory?
Heard trumpeter Lester Bowie’s jazz interpretation of It’s Howdy Doody Time. Great title for an autobiography! Went to a party at Steve’s (from sound class) last weekend. Most of the MA students were there. I started asking others about ‘referential productivity’ (from one of Nichols articles) but no one had a clue. Rick has given me a video copy of the Philip Hoffman films to view for class presentation on the 10th of November. Now I must find a friend with a VCR.
The closer I look at ‘autobiography,’ the more infinite it appears. There are four hundred years of it! Rick has set up the agenda so that I’m to defend the notion of autobiography in film. Does it need defense? Do the others understand? Does documentary only promote a cause? Expose malfunction? Couldn’t all this be applied to self? What about autobiographical documentary as therapy?
In an interview, Hoffman says his experience taught him the value of the filmmaking process as much as the finished work. He gathers ‘pieces of evidence’—films, videotapes, audio recordings, written diaries—which are reworked to create a meaningful understanding of past events. It’s only while editing that patterns emerge. But this process of reflection and revision is extended to the viewer, who is asked to witness both events and their re-construction. This ‘experimental’ work allows an ambiguity which permits the spectator to bring in remembrances from their own lives.
I view On the Pond (1978) his first film. Family album photos are juxtaposed with images of a young boy playing a solitary hockey game, on the pond. Still photos of hockey teams appear in succession as the boy becomes a teenager. Like my older brother, it appears the filmmaker lived his youth as part of a team. In the teen’s bedroom, a slow pan takes us from a projector and record player, the instruments of reproduction, to a book-shelf, a row of hockey trophies, and finally to the boy in bed, looking over a hockey scrapbook.
It’s the trophies that trigger my own personal flashbacks. Already the associations begin. I am from a family immersed in sports, a family of professionals. My older sister is a gym instructor and has played on Canadian volleyball teams for years. My older brother played every sport, won many trophies and now coaches football. My younger brother settles into karate and badminton (he was with Ontario’s Champions last year). Even my mother has trophies from her younger, basketball years. ‘Star’ they used to call her. I look over at the wall next to my desk at the picture of my father, taken just before his marriage. He played basketball for the Canadian team at the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin. (I look for him walking with the teams whenever I see images from the Riefenstahl film, but have never yet found him.) They came in second after the Americans. In the photo, he is seated at a desk, wearing his Olympic leather jacket, pen in hand, about to sign some register or other. There are many trophies in my parents home, but none of them bear my name. I never won any. Obliged, like all the children, to play every sport (I could swim and skate before I could read) my own ‘boy’s landscape was outside the team.
Autobiography is a cultural act, where language acts as a focusing glass. Eakins quotes Spengemann who insists that the autobiographer brings together the personal experiences of the writer with the shared values of a culture. He discerns a core belief in ‘individual identity’ which he conceives of as “an integrated, continuing personality which transcends the limitations and irregularities of time and space and unites all of one’s contradictory experiences into an identifiable whole.” (Eakins, p. 73) Do all cultures compress essential values and convictions in human models? Is ‘self-conception’ a problem in most cultures? Autobiography comes into its own at the end of the eighteenth century “in conjunction with the rise of individuality as the dominant ideal of personality.” This in itself is a complex issue—that we all possess unique selves, continuous identities which develop over the course of a lifetime. Eakins calls belief in individuality an anti-model sort of model:
In the opening lines of his Confessions, Rousseau captures the paradox at the heart of the notion of embracing individuality as a model, for he claims for his identity an absolute value of singularity.” I am like no one in the whole world,” he writes, while enjoining others to confess the uniqueness of their own selfhood with an equal candor.” I have displayed myself as I was.” His uniqueness, in other words, is exemplary, a model for others to follow. We must recognize accordingly that the very generality of such a model engenders problems of self-definition that every autobiographer and critic must face anew: what do we think our experience is really like, and how do we conceptualize the experiencing self? (Eakins, p. 74)
“Oh, you write? You keep a journal?” a school chum asks. “Yes, and hand-written too. Not in the computer,” I am quick to add. I’m old-fashioned. I like the texture of the page, the written word. Sure it’s ‘time consuming,’ but so is watching television. Handwriting is like a snapshot, it conveys mood through style. My writing is sometimes harried, sometimes slow and methodical; sometimes in black ink from my father’s fountain pen, sometimes in spur-of-the-moment ball point.
“Oh, you write? Are you so important?” I have been asked in the past, for I have kept a journal since leaving Saskatchewan. But journal writing is so much more than this. It has little to do with fame, importance, ‘posterity.’ The journal is a work place. Asked by CBC’s Brave New Waves to join a panel on journal writing, my initial response was yes, of course. Asked to read from my journal I quickly changed my mind. “But why not?” asks the organizer. “It’s my own personal working out of private dilemmas,” I answer, “not always for another’s eyes, let alone ears!” Then I wrote a piece in the journal, a ‘working out’ of the dilemma of a public text. I decide I could present this piece on the CBC (though probably they’ll want something more revealing.) Katz, in the Art Gallery of Ontario catalogue on autobiographical film, says that a journal brings one face to face with the meaning of one’s personal existence—there, before one’s eyes, and collected in one’s own handwriting. A journal helps to put one’s life in focus. Can I present this? I consult my agenda and see that I have an art history presentation the very next day—my most ambitious project and the one for which I’m least prepared. I decide I can’t do both so I cancel the radio show. Missed opportunity? Story of my life.
“Oh, you write?” Remembering that time in New York, summer of 92, just after Raymond Carver passed away. There was an obituary in the New York Times which I quickly copied out before my taxi arrived to take me to the Port Authority terminal. The friend who had showed it to me, not realizing I had already copied it by hand, said he would photocopy it and mail it to me. “It’s OK, I already have it,” I told him. “You wrote it out?” he nearly gasped, as if I’d wasted so much energy. Of course his vehement reaction might seem relevant if the obituary had been a full page of text, but it was just the following:
I don’t know why people write stories.
Raymond Carver said he wrote them
because he was drunk a lot, and his kids
were driving him crazy, and a short story
was all he had concentration for.
Sometimes, he said, he wrote them in a parked car.
Should a camera record death? There is no narrator in Hoffman’s Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984) but there is a narrative in the form of intertitles that resemble Japanese haiku poetry. This story takes place in Mexico where Hoffman chances across a dead Mexican youth surrounded by children. It begins:
Looking through the lens at passing events
I recall what once was and consider what might be
We never see the dead youth, but read via intertitles that the filmmaker has put his camera down. While the intertitles tell the story of this encounter, the ‘walking’ camera enters a village landscape, follows a textured wall overlaid with religious icons and paintings, and then a street procession (are we back in Ontario or still in Mexico?). A lone saxophone wails as if recounting the sad, difficult emotions. The hand-held camera pulls the spectator into the scene.
The little girl with big eyes waits by her dead brother
I am suddenly in a different scene. I am eighteen years of age and hitching around Europe. I am somewhere between Modena and Florence, seated in a medium-sized truck with a young Italian of about my age, who also prefers the back roads to the autoroute. He speaks no English while I manage just a smattering of Italian and French. With much hand gesturing and laughter he tells me that not only does he have a girlfriend, but that she is pregnant (la luna, la colline, capische?). Just ahead of us on the narrow road, an older man on a bicycle. We try to drive around him but the man turns left (doesn’t he hear the truck?) and we drive right over top of him. We sit there, immobile and white. There is not a sound. I get out of the truck and see children running from a neighboring farm. The man is dead. The young Italian can’t face him, he stands and weeps. I hold him and watch the children’s silent faces that look at us as if we were murderers. “It was an accident,” I want to say, but don’t even know the words. I thought I would never forget the look on those young faces, but I did forget until Hoffman’s film brought them back. I understand his ethical dilemma at filming death. What amazes me is his ability to make a thing of beauty from his coming to terms with it.
“Maybe I’m just more observational than the average person,” I say to myself, trying to find some context for the constant cruising, the way I engage others on the street. I don’t just look at people as I ride by on the bike but rather provoke a response. Maybe I’m spending too much time alone.
I did get to see a Dutch documentary film entitled The Ditvoorst Diaries. Back in the early 70s, Ditvoorst, the filmmaker, had been compared with Godard. Not long after his last film Witte Waan (White Madness) he returned to the town of his birth and drowned himself, exactly like a character in his first film Paranoia. It was a strange film to see on a Sunday afternoon, and we were only six people in the whole cinema. Much of the text for the film was taken directly from his diaries.
An incredible snowstorm the first of November. The following day the tree branches are laden with snow in the bright early-morning sun. Orange and black balloons remain tied to a tree in the neighbor’s yard. A little snowman now stands by the sidewalk, next to a discarded jack o’lantern.
Our human landscape is our unwitting autobiography, reflecting our tastes, our values, our aspirations, and even our fears in tangible, visible form… The cultural record we have ‘written in the landscape’ is liable to be more truthful that most autobiographies because we are less self-conscious about how we describe ourselves… There are no secrets in the landscape. (Peirce F. Lewis, The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes)
The idea ‘to defend’ Hoffman’s methodology leads to other questions: what is documentary film anyway? Can it be experimental? Can something become so personal it’s no longer documentary? Who decides these things? Most docs unwrap issues: poverty, racism, child abuse, hunger. These are worthy topics, so why in my communications MA, have I steered away from TV news and opted for documentary film, sound, art and identity? Art demands becoming more of who you really are. Not just the exposure of an issue, some ‘master narrative,’ but allowing local concerns, personal issues, to surface. And if some of that’s labeled ‘experimental’ well, I’ll deal with labels later. What was it Cocteau said while adapting George Auric’s music to one of his early films? Something about scrambling the pages and using the notion of chance, which might reveal another way of interpreting the material. In that tension, some new aspect might arise. What is learning if not a sense of discovery?
It was in Claudia Gorbman’s book, discussing film music and image, that she called the relationship between music-image and music-narrative “mutual implication.” Could any music accompany a film? Of course!
Whatever music is applied to a film segment will do something—will have an effect—just as any two words will produce a meaning different from each used separately. Kracauer’s reactions to a drunken movie-house pianist from his youth, whose inattention to the screen resulted in pleasingly unorthodox audiovisual combinations, recall the Surrealist’s delight in the fortuitous encounters between two unlikely entities. Jean Cocteau actually scored some of his films on the principle of what he called ‘accidental synchronization.’ He took George Auric’s music, carefully written for particular scenes in the film, and applied them to different scenes entirely. Whether the relation between sound and picture is deliberate or not (surrealist word-games vs. traditional poetic activity, the drunken pianist versus a score by John Williams), their collaboration will generate meaning. Image, sound effects, dialogue and music-track are virtually inseparable during the viewing experience; they form a combinatoire of expression. (Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies)
Why can’t learning be like the viewing experience? It was Jim Lane who equated the ideology of ‘the personal as political’ with autobiographical documentaries. He said they moved between life and representation, and were as much about the genre itself, as the people who made them.
Even Eakin equated the writing of autobiography (the “art of self-invention”) with culture, in the sense that no writing, no matter how private, exists in isolation. It is made up of shared words. It exists “in engagement with the pressures that life and culture entails.”
Hoffman’s early interests related to photography and place. His pictures are the establishing shots of his life. The landscape sequences in passing through/torn formations were places he traveled in his youth. The remembering of that time, he says, is essential to his work. “Only now I must deal with those moments of discovery using the camera.” The Road Ended at the Beach (1983) was the result of several years of hitching back and forth across the country, not only experimenting with image making, but also struggling with the conventions of documentary. One reviewer wrote that he uses failure (in that film) to make his strongest points about the convergence and intermingling of anticipation and event. He was apparently spurred on by Kerouac’s life “on the road.”
I remember the jazz essay I wrote—the one based on Pierre Bourdieu’s The Aristocracy of Culture, in which he expounded on taste (“manifested preferences”) and the way, according to “educational capital,” cultural products were consumed. I was trying to relate all this to the jazz fan—The Construction of a Jazz Fan in the Post-Bop Era of the 1950s or: Jazz is a Language/Culture is a Game. Ambitious kid! Trying to adapt Bourdieu to the Beats. More interested in the music and those tapes of Kerouac’s poetry.
“…tortured by sidewalks — starved for sex and companionship — open to anything – ready to introduce a new world with a shrug.” (Kerouac, The Beat Generation)
“Miles Davis, leaning against the piano, fingering his trumpet with a cigarette hand—working—making raw iron sound like wood – speaking in long sentences like Marcel Proust.” (Kerouac, The History of Bop)
I go to Vanier Library in search of the Katz book on film and autobiography. I notice that it has been checked out until the end of November. At the front desk, I ask the fellow if he can let me see who has the book, as it may be someone in my class. “We can’t do that!” he says. “It’s against our rules.” “Well, just look the other way”, I said, “It’s happened before.” He types in the number of the book, and then my ID, then nonchalantly shows me the screen. “Seeing is believing,” he smiles. “The book is checked out… to you!” All the books I have are entitled autobiography anyway. And I have so many. But this is the height of absurdity, running after books I already have. Must slow down.
I prefer to write at sunrise. It’s quiet and I can greet my ideas, reflections, impressions (the state of mind to write this) like an old friend. I think that if I wrote at night I would sound desperate. In the morning I reconstruct and face another day.
“Art is not a mirror but a hammer,” John Grierson wrote in the early 1930s, though it is his definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality,” that is most often quoted. Bill Nichols in Voice in Documentarydiscusses the evolution of documentary, how it organizes the materials presented to us, and how the interaction of filmic codes produce meanings. Nichols suggests that contemporary filmmakers have lost their voice (i.e. replaced it with mere observation and unquestioned empiricism), and sets out to fashion his historical overview in order to advise filmmakers how to make documentaries that will more closely correspond to a contemporary understanding of ‘our’ position (whose?) within the world so that effective political/formal strategies for describing and challenging that position can emerge. His concern is how to understand images of the world as speech about the world, and how to place that speech within formal, experiential and historical contexts.
Now let’s face facts—the number of filmmakers who actually work this way can probably be counted on one hand. And though he gives an excellent summary of the four types of documentary film (only four?)—expository, observational, interactive and self-reflexive—I can’t seem to place Philip Hoffman anywhere, save the self-reflexive, and then only up to a point. Nichols defines the self-reflexive as a strategy (right away a problem), where the representation of the historical world becomes itself the topic of cinematic mediation.
It’s odd, that Nichols skims over the expository, voice-of-God mode, as his article exemplifies this approach. All his arguments lead to the self-reflexive mode as the only one worth pursuing. So why is television news and most documentaries still caught in the expository mode? I think the best line in the whole article comes right at the beginning: “The comfortably accepted realism of one generation seems like artifice to the next.”
Today I only feel like quoting.
“The aim is to depict the place as some sort of historical palimpsest and/or the corollary of this, an exposition of a state of mind.” (Patrick Keiller, The Poetic Experience of Townscape and Landscape, p. 43)
It seems, then, that making moving pictures of spaces and places involves the same sort of consideration as any other picture making – perspective, framing, proportion, left and right, and so on – even when the camera is moving, and especially when it is not. The virtues of this approach can be seen in those of Vermeer’s paintings where there always seems to be more shown of the corner of the room than there actually is. In other words, the picture of the corner of the room is so good that we can infer the rest of the room from it. (P. Keiller, ibid, p. 47)
The deeper I delve the more complex it becomes. What was it Diane Arbus said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.”
Fellini passed away last week. Big state funeral on the news. I notice, on a record jacket I have of selected music from his films, some quotes from Fellini on Fellini. “I am my own still-life.” “I am a film.” “Everything and nothing in my work is autobiography.”
Last week I gave my class presentation on autobiography and documentary film. As if I wasn’t nervous enough, Phil Hoffman was also present. He was very relaxed though, and afterwards, we had a good talk. But trying to cogently present the complicated theories surrounding autobiography was another matter. I started skipping paragraphs, darting across the page, scanning for the essential, unsuturing. I felt I was watching the paper crumble before my eyes.
After passing through/torn formations most of the class left on break and I stayed to speak with Hoffman. I told him the story (which suddenly jarred in my memory during his film) of my own grandfather. Originally from a tiny hamlet of a place in England called Hook Norton, he emigrated to Canada with his family and never returned there. I never knew his wife, my grandmother. She was a French woman, and died shortly after giving birth to their sixth child. My grandfather raised his six children alone. When I was hitching around Europe as an eighteen year old I decided to visit Hook Norton, which is just north of London, though the only Heydons there were on the gravestones. I took a few black and white photos, staying for a few days, and spoke with the oldest woman of the village who remembered my ancestors. I even copied out the record of christenings at the church going back over two hundred years. The next year, back in Canada, I visited my grandfather, who still lived in Windsor with two of his unmarried daughters. I showed him the photos—silly, Instamatic pictures—and told him of my adventures there. My grandfather was a big man, and watched me with steady eyes as I spoke. I spent three or four days there and then left on a Sunday evening for Toronto. The next morning I received the telephone call from my aunt: “Come back. Your grandfather passed away last night in his sleep.”
There were a few students who also listened to the story and one of them (Carolyn?) suggested that it was my fault that he died! “You probably triggered something in memories long buried.” Philip found it interesting but only said, “Looks like you’ve got enough there to make a film yourself.”
Hoffman made ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) ostensibly to document Greenaway’s making of A Zed and Two Noughts. The film however (as Nichols suggests as the purpose of self-reflexive documentary) is concerned with the conditions of how it was made. He connects Canadian film history with references to Grierson (“that old battleaxe”) to a personal, diaristic travel experience. Landscapes vary from a small square in a Dutch city to a static shot of one of Greenaway’s outdoor locations to lion cages in the Rotterdam zoo. Like his Mexican film, a death occurs, only this time it is an elephant that is dying. The question of filming this death is the same however. The screen is left blank as the narrator describes the event. How to categorize a film that pokes fun at conventions while seriously searching for new forms; and asks us to create these forms with him.The spectator is part of his ethical dilemma. His dilemma is also ours.
Some years ago, while preparing a demo tape of a radio broadcast (which turned out well, as I was hired immediately at CKUT), I included several quotes from an autobiographer who has influenced me greatly. PeterHandke’s The Weight of the World is a text made of reflections, observations, self-inventions.
Washing a shirt in the washbasin when all is still and the heart is heavy.
Someone has written me a letter in which he apologizes for not having phoned me instead.
A television talk-show host laughs aloud at something, quite spontaneously—but all the same he forces himself to laugh into the microphone.
A little while ago (evening) for the first time in ever so long—while standing at the kitchen sink eating grapes and spitting the seeds into my hand—I managed to think of a future.
Independent film and video artists, Renov tells us, are asking themselves questions about the representation of their own subjectivity, in which history and subjectivity become mutually defining categories. Renov calls this “embroiling of subject in history” the new autobiography.
“It is a warm grey afternoon in August. You are in the country, in a deserted quarry of light-grey devonian limestone in southern Ontario. A powdery luminescence oscillates between rock and sky…”
I can see through Chris Dewdney’s words, through the text, the poem, through the words on the page. I am a spectator. I am also a reader. I am the viewer in the dark, before a black screen, listening to these words, theintroduction to passing through/torn formations. And I am glad Hoffman left the screen black. Some things are better left unshown, where the landscape of imagination and memory can more easily reside.
Hoffman describes the peopled landscape as “an inevitable collision between the old and new worlds, like two great landscapes colliding, erupting… Some people in my family just got caught at the epicentre…”
There are many family voices in passing through/torn formations, as well as a relentless movement of overlapping images. Sometimes we see the same image/scene from different angles. This restatement of imagery (never exactly the same) Hoffman compares to oral history (which changes through the retelling), or to the literary method of Gertrude Stein.
It was Stein who said, back in 1934, that to understand modern painting, one had to fly over the plains of the Mid-West.
With the many changes in the dominant systems of communication that affect our culture as a whole, will film and video replace writing as our chief means of recording, informing and entertaining? Is there a cinematic equivalent for autobiography and, after four hundred years, is it close to extinction? Should I be angry with Philip Hoffman? Is writing to be formally displaced? “The unity of subjectivity and subject matter,” Elizabeth Brusswrites in Eye for I (Making and Unmaking Autobiography in Film, “seems to be shattered by film; the autobiographical self decomposes, schisms, into almost mutually exclusive elements of the person filmed (entirely visible, recorded and projected) and the person filming (entirely hidden; behind the camera eye).” What is there in language to explain its peculiar fitness for autobiographical expression? Can the autobiographical ‘I’ survive the move from text to film?
Again I’m faced with Descartes, as Bruss begins her search: “The more radical his doubts (in the Meditations) the more certain the being of the doubter—he never considered whether the ‘doubter’ might not be the product rather than the producer of the doubt. (p. 298)”
She offers three parameters to autobiography: 1) truth value (autobiography is consistent with other evidence; it is sincere); 2) act value (autobiography is a personal performance); 3) identity value (the logically distinct roles of author, narrator and protagonist are conjoined).
Like the sentence I have been composing, language allows the same individual who plays the role of speaker to serve as his own referent as well—the speaking subject and the subject of the sentence are conflated—which is crucial to autobiography. In film, Bruss notes, the autobiographical self begins to seem less like an individual being and more like an abstract ‘position’ that appears when a number of key conventions converge. Film, in other words, offers a new variable—the choice between ‘staging the truth,’ or recording it directly. Can we call a film sincere, she asks. Can a film shot (apart from vocal accompaniment) express doubt?
But all film is manipulation, I want to cry out at her. And hasn’t Hoffman overcome this very thing?
I look at Kitchener-Berlin (1989), Hoffman’s latest film. I am immersed in family history—landscape, memory, time—and I go for a long bike ride afterwards to ponder. I think of my grandfather, who came to Canada from the Ukraine many years ago. He came to our house one day and dumped my grandmother at our front door. “Here,” he said to my mother in Ukrainian (he never did learn English), “Take your mother. She’s sick. She can’t work anymore.” Or at least, that’s the version my mother tells, not in anger, but in the hopes I’ll understand. “It’s their way.” Three weeks later, my grandmother was dead. I know it had something to do with cancer, but what I remembered most (as a young child), is that she died in my bed. I had to sleep in my sister’s room. Why do I think of this grandfather who couldn’t even talk to me, who could only say “hello” (in English) and pat my head?
I go out for a drink. Filled with books, papers and ideas. I stop at a singles bar in the Plateau where there are many people, voices, music, smoke, shouting and laughter. But tonight, there’s no one here I know. Standing alone, watching other casually cruise and flirt, I remember my teen years on the prairies.
Tonight, in the sky
Even the stars
Seem to whisper
To one another.
(Issa, Oraga Haru/The Year of my Life)
Last day. One final glance to that Bruss article. In studying, we don’t just read the things we want to hear.
It is doubtful, she remarks, that the effects of shooting, editing and lighting are capable of expressing what we conventionally call ‘personality’ to the degree that language can. Mieke Bal has recently proposed a separate category (to represent point-of-view) of ‘focalizer’, as distinct from ‘narrator,’ to make the different qualities of these vantage points clearer.
There is a total absence of ‘identity-value’ in film. While speaking, ‘I’ merges easily with another. But the film spectator is always out of frame, creating an impassable barrier between the person seeing and the person seen. Viewing films could relate to our sense of privacy, anonymity—viewing, yet feeling unseen. She quotes Cavell: “We do not so much look at the world as look out at it, from behind the self.”
As Hoffman himself noted, “when photography was invented, painting changed; but photography never replaced landscape painting. If avant-garde film is dying in its struggle to survive, let’s celebrate its death and make it into something else.” Film could offer a new way of experiencing ourselves. Bruss concludes:
Film simply shares-or better, articulates—the dilemmas of an entire culture now irrevocably committed to complex technologies and intricate social interdependencies. To make the means of film human without falling back on outworn humanisms, to achieve more fluid modes of collaboration and diversity rather then the standardized expression, to establish practices in which ‘I’ may no longer exist in the same way but nonetheless cannot escape my own participation—these concerns are not unique to film but among the most fundamental problems that confront ‘the age of mechanical reproduction’ as a whole.