Cultural theory and Documentary film

Speaking up for the silent movie
July 24, 2009, 14:14
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Without knowing if this is a commissioned material, you can still look at it so long it is presented on the tube. It is a presentation of the early days of Hollywood production and the silent movie. I think the old actors defense for the silent movie is a wonderful attitude, “we spoke a language understood in the whole world”, “had the highest niveau of pantomime” etcetera…

A important reminder is, because we are mostly going around with a inadequate opinion on how this films were shown to audiencies. They didn´t see bleached out films with strange flitter and other damages to the pictures and jerky movements. They could see the total greyscale of the original copy of the nitrate film, and what is more they could, sometimes, hear a live orchestra doing the soundtrack, it is something very much more vivid and enthralling with a the sound of live instruments rather than a often bleak electronic representation.

The first part makes this clear showing a maybe restored filmclip and telling about the grand theatres in New York.


Amazing music
July 22, 2009, 22:35
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Much efforts for every film is made for their music/sound scores. In the days of silent film the accompanying music could be anything from nothing at all to a full scale orchestra depending on how fancy movietheatre you were visiting. Today were are all used to the intricate music/sound building of modern hifi techniques often in five channels if not more.

But to return to the silent era there was lot of standard solutions in the business. When restoring old silent movies they are tuned up with a totally new music score. Now I found out that there is a orchestra specialized on making music to silent film. They made a fascinating score to the “Man with a moviecamera” film by Voritov, which I will return to soon. In the meantime I would like to direct traffic to the website of “The Alloy Orchestra”, they seem to be on tour most part of year to screenings and filmfestivals of silent movies. Which doesn´t surprise me,  since they really do have a sense for making music for silent film. When I first saw Voritovs movie I thought it was some sort of of a larger orchestra that had made the music, but it turned out to be only three gifted members in the group using modern musical devices for making the musicscore sound nearly as a full set symphony orchestra.

The camera as a spectacle
July 22, 2009, 13:23
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Well, now I find myself immersed in Youtube in a new way, looking for old documentaries and films mentioned in my courseliterature. This little piece of documentary I had to share, it is a good case of the return gaze and you note that the cameracrew in themselves becomes as much attraction as anything else on Petticoat Lane. Which naturally rises interesting questions of the possibility to document anything as itself or “objectively” and in what purpose people stage themselves if they notice a camera. The awareness of cthe camera changes the subject clearly, much documentary photo lives on the unawareness of camera and on other hand, there is remarkable photos done in cooperation with the photographer. Are the “inbetweenies” only reconstructions of the moment when a subject discovers the camera, the moment from not being aware to the moment of cooperation. Is there something to be learned from different discoveries of the camera?

Anyway, enjoy this piece, and go on to the channel itself where very much more interesting material is hiding…

Thoughts in the rain
July 15, 2009, 19:07
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This immersion in cultural theory and documentary film is very much made easier by the the lousy summer weather so far. We have done four sessions and there are five more to go with screenings. One could wonder what sort of urge it is, that makes you do some choices. I have to confess that it just was unstoppable curiosity that made me apply to this course, and at first I thought, I do it just for fun and to see if it actually worked doing the application through the internet. I didn´t know if I really thought I´d attend the course. But as it was, I received  the admittance with the reading list, and there they began to tug me in, the screenings was of films I´d never heard of, the titles of the books and readings wetted my mouth. So slowly I stuck to the idea that this was a probable summertime excursion. Had we had more of documentary film in our education at my Media-Communication program at the university of Gävle, I could have evaded the matter all together.  And of course there is questions, that I sometimes ponder, that had a vague promise of answers in the course material, or else I wouldn´t be involved.  I think I have mentioned my own feeble attempts to make documentary notes with a videocamera.  A later question is of more actuality, namely my partys ambition to provide our websites with Youtube clips. At this time I don´t really feel comfortable with our clips and what we are supposed to accomplish with our clips, and feel it could be good with a deeper understanding of documentary film to achieve some working idea of how to use these Youtube-clips.  I feel little uncomfortable with the present status of our clips, but I also think that it is important to have them. But maybe there should a more specific media strategy behind.

We are supposed to deliver a 15 page research paper in the course, I still have a notion to make a reading of our literature, but try to apply more of my favourite theory to it. Some sort of classic history-materialistic view of the market conditions, production environment and a general review of the films as commodities could be interesting, also there could be som fruititive work in applying thoughts of rootnetworking by Gilles Delueze and Felix Guattari (, and their writing of the nomadic expansion of territory and the further enclosement of it by the state and its rulatory war apparatus. For I think it is obvious that this early history of the documentary bears evidence of the freewheeling development of a field, with individuals making their own sparking ideas to film and setting new standards for the whole field. And as time goes their films and writings connect to each other like roots spreading underneath the ground and accidentally meeting each other and making new connections.

The early soviet documentary, I think could be seen as an example of nomadic fim making with great liberty before the structures of state draws the lines and sets the rules to follow. The revolutionary situation led  to a rather short period when artists and writers could make
expeditions into unknown realms of culture before Stalins stonecold hand demanded order and line-up to socialrealism.

Another idea to follow in a paper could also be a close reading with Pirzig ideas of things always thriving to establish higher orders of quality,

Alas, that would mean that I would have reread mr Pirsigs book, and I don´t think  I have sufficient time doing that.

Though the screenings so far are  fine examples of how things evolve, try out different modes, of which some survive and other doesn´t, and how the films evolves in my eyes to higher orders of quality in settings, in the way they are edited and how sound is brought to bear.

Said all this, maybe the reader could understand that I am up this time been enjoying myself… and the findings in this course are valuable so far.

Note 17 july, did some editing, maybe I should find how to insert a english dictionary in my OpenOffice..?

Bodies and archives
July 8, 2009, 15:15
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Catherine Russell
”Experimental Ethnography”
Duke University Press Durham and London
”The work of film in the age of video”

In the early days of cinema a lot of ”actuality film” was produced, it could be of parades, shows, any public happening. A narrative story wasn´t needed for the very first years of public cinema.
The actuality movies was the first films within a new technigue of moving pictures. The novelty in itself meant that almost anything could be held for entertainment in the new media.

This essay have a theoretical obsession of the body, I wonder if it could be otherwise, people consists of bodies. And people tend to be interested of what people do. Maybe should we instead be interested in the field of attraction that evolved a great market for commodities of the ”Otherness”.  What is the drive for the great interest in the ”Otherness”? The ”otherness” means people that isn´t like us.
Could we instead understand the film as being processed to suite the ruling nature of the societies storytelling tradition in which the ethnographic film is produced.

People back then  weren´t used to travel around for any longer distances, in the nineteenth century people usually lived in radius of some kilometres to their original dwellings. So actuality movies from the near and far must have evoked a curiosity.

In the abiding ideological environment the established science explained the movies taken and pictures as examples of the white mans supremacy. If you didn ´t know how to react to the other, the supported context told you to consider the indogenous people as happy fellas  that did not have the advanced polish of our own culture.
And such ideas easily set, likewise as they do today, there seem´s to be a general xenophobia in every culture where those who doesn´t behave or look like ”us” is met with suspicion. A suspicion with eases up as people get acquinted with each other.

But for the spectator in the nineteenth century it surely wasn ´t easy to find the sameness with other people as only differences was pointed out in general and repeatedly.
A long way to the song by Canned Heat, in which the lyrics tell about a man travelling all around the world to concede in the refrain ”it´s the same people all over”.

In the hands of exploiting artists old films has been reworked to access more meaning out of the filmmaterial, and to make internal research of material. Also it functions as a commentary of the modern to the material in itself.
The article writes in depth of David Rimmers ”Sheashore” and  ”From the pole to the Equator” by Yervant Giankian and Angela Ricci Lucchi who have worked with the original films by Luca Comerio who shot his films during Mussolinis regime.

Joel Katz ”From archive to archiveology”

Discusses the use of archive films that often appears in televison as a commentary to news.
There is a growing industry that collects films for commercial use and who sells the content to a price that´s is around 2000 dollars per minute. It exists arcival films in publicly owned archives, it exists much footage in private or commercially owned archives thats not archived in any consequent form.

Cumbersome cameras

Our first film in the course was “Nanook in the North”. The viewing made the debate in late ninetenth century more clear for me. Because I thought of the antropological value of the film afterwards, already as I sat viewing I felt that very little was explained about life and ways of the eskimo/innuit people. Clearly very interesting footage but not accompanied by a really  instructive text.

Then reading Alison Griffiths book, “Wondrous difference…” gave insight to the discussion among anthropologists about the value of films to anthropology. It is clear why they did consider carefully written studies more important than film to document original peoples life. It´s easier to describe structures, values and forms and causes to certain behavior in text than to display by cinemafootage. You could have thought that field antropologists would consider film as a important way to document things. But then again reading about the cumbersome technical standard you had to use, makes it easy to understand why most avoided it all together.  The cameras of the time was big objects and they had to be mounted on likewise sturdy tripods adding to a luggage that already was a logistical problem in itself without cinematographic equipment. And the handling of the negativefilm wasn´t easy either. Then you would have all these things to actually work on place.  One example given was of a camera that stopped erratically on any given moment. If the camera worked there is the issue of getting your studied subjects to actually do something before the camera. It could easily be like one example, when the camera was set up in a blazing hot desert on a tripod with a fixed head, the dancing group suddenly just danced out of picture without returning for the few minutes that a filmroll lasts…

It´s hard enough to get good footage when can speak with your actors, but to accomplish that with indogenous people driven by motive´s that doesn´t translate trough the small portions of language you deal with, to make yourself understood and most often are told to by some translating helper.

It´s naturally understandable that the interest in cinematic adventures  didn´t have many followers, though those films that was made hade sometimes huge popularity in the public or by the scientific viewers. And as mentioned before it also cooks down to the question of the scientific usefulness of the film. Antropologists of the time was  interested in studying genealogy and structures, aspects that cinema could do very little for to enlighten. More  use was taken by still photographing, even if the technique was cumbersome with glassplates and so on, it was very much more affordable and easier to use than the moving film. For photos the same debate exists about it´s scientific usefulness, it was seen as a compliment to collection of real artifacts and drawings done by the researchers.

Though it existed a thorough use of photos and cinema by some researchers specially in the field of antropologists interested in measuring and documenting people to  find racial differences.

Upon Eskimoes and documentary film
July 4, 2009, 11:44
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As I am supposed to produce some 15 page report as an exam of the course “Cultural theory and the documentary film”, I thought I´d better get practising my english at once. And the way to do it is of course to blog. Just lay another grain of sand in the huge desert of abandoned blogs in the cyberuniverse. But in order to take the massive amount of reading we are supposed to do, I need this to clear things upp for myself. And is anyone else enjoyed by this, so much better.

I left university with a bachelors degree in 1999 and have on occasions thought of  maybe taking a masters exam. But as it is, I have had work and living on loan for studies is a very lean way of life not near the convenience I enjoy now, so it´s never got off to anything. But then I stumbled upon this course, made an application and got in. Hadn´t really decided to join in but as it was  the lectures was placed on afternoons in a convenient time for me to get to them. So, I went for it.

Our main books is Grant and Sloniowski´s “Documenting the Documentary” and Alison Griffiths ” Wondrous Difference”, and a thick reader to it. The first lecture was this thursday, and to my big surprise it was Alison Griffths herself who held it. I had expected some assistant lecturer making a extra buck on a summer course, so this was a real positive surprise. So now I am more inclined to actually fulfill the course. From the very beginning I thought I would jump it, if my vacation plans change, as I read this course on my vacation.

I  can testify that I much need a vacation after one year of duties and work, and then again you could think of the poor americans that often doesn´t get more than a week or ten days of summer vacation. A rotten deal in my humble opinion.

However this first lecture gave some of the framework for discussing documentary film. First we did away with some of the myths surrounding documentary film even today.  One is that calling something for a documentary automatically impedes something that is more objective than anything else. The objective statement adheres from the thought of the photographic picture as being a conveyer of something that is understood as a “real life” picture, the camera doesn´t lie idea. But, alas, as soon as  you have chosen a lens and a camera position a standpoint has been taken…

Also can people think of documentary film as a “unmediated window on the world”, but here again someone has chosen what to show and when and the angle.

There exists an idea of the documentary film as being less manipulated, less constructed than fiction. But even as the production isn´t exactly the same as the fictionproduction process, the production operates within the same technical space. You have to edit your material, you postproduction sound, mostly a soundtrack is added and so on.

And lastly somehow there exists the idea that the filmmaker exercises less control over his subjects in documentary film, everybody thinks that actors receive very exact instructions for every scene. But even in documentary there is staging going on, filmmakers choose backgrounds, tries to find the most effiicent bearer of the message in question, you have to deal with the subjects which sometimes tend to deliver what he or she thinks the filmakers wants to have from he or her instead of their original own opinion. The example of children was brought up as culprits in these matters, when they for an example,  doesn´t answer to question as they really think, but as how they think a satisfying answer to a grown-up should be…

I think the myths are encouraged in television very much to differ the documentary from the fictional entertainment they mostly show, if it isn´t of course a pure documentary channel. This is done in various ways to display that the film is from “the reality itself”.

Then on the contrary we got on to some facts that seems to really apply to documentary film.

Firslty documentary shares a indexical bond with reality: indexical power leads to belief in objectivity. That is, that if the documantary isn´t a fake, there is some obvious things that are for real, these people where at the stated place at that time, the buildings looked like this in that place in that angel and in that light. Things were said, done and could be studied upon.

Secondly, documnetary is highly mediated & constructed relying on a set of conventions (rules about how to represent the world).
Which means that in order to produce an interesting film the makers tend to use common strategies to make the film understandable. In class we suggested, problems solutions formula, conflicts, talking heads, music and sound effects, characterbuilding as conventions by which filmmakers operate to make films readable for spectators.,

Which leads on to the third conclusion of documentary film, it operates with the similar strategies and structures as fictional filmmaking.

The fourth statement about documentary that it is always an act of intervention as the camera is an intruder to the situation that is portrayed, the physical appearance of camera and crew is a obtrusion to the reality you want to document.  Today although there is more possibilites of using the hidden camera, but that wasn´t discusssed at this point.

And lastly documentary means a heftier investment often emotionally by the viewer. Often the question after the documentaries ending lingers on, as to what happended to those portrayed after the films ending… A question that normally doesn´t arise after a fictional movie.

A note I did in my mind was the difficulty to find good protagonists for a documentary. In class there was the example of Michael Moores “Sicko” documentary, he called out for examples of the american sickinsurance system and got thousands of stories to  choose from to make his film. By the way, which is a very good example of a documentary that drives a point, by choosen examples and drastical comparison´s. And very obviously not objective but driving a statement.

I have myself indulged in doing some recordings of relatives life stories, and one was a hilarious storyteller and the other was so ultimately boring although some parts had a good history in it. So who portrays the boor´s?

The screening this time was a classic apparently in the documentary field, of course hadn´t I heard of that special film before this day. Robert Flaherty´s “Nanook of the North” , about a eskimo family in the 1920´s. It was a description about their life but mostly pictures of the man hunting in difficult circumstances. I think the film was shot very straight on with a tripod camera standing still, sometimes very near, sometimes  a bit away. It was hard to see any cinematographic special values in the camerawork, other than it´s easy to see that the filmning itself surely meant some hardships for the cameracrew. The film had a soundtrack of a violinorchestra which was used to strengthen the emotionalities in the hunt, in play and so on. But for the modern viewer the soundtrack mostly sounded awful and made me  distanced from the film and encouraged me to see it as a historical artefact of some sort. The historicity was also brought upon by the bad quality of the filmpicture.

The critical voices of the film as racial I don ´t recognise of the footage in itself, but the text was typical of the times, were the eskimoes were refered to as as “happy, friendly” in context simple beings.

What made this picturea success attracting many viewers? I think that it was the contrast to our lives in the western world. The grim hunt for something to eat, which often was eaten raw, the massively unfriendly surroundings these people live in, must made a impression, and it made an impression to me anyway even today. Alison made a comparison with a later documentary that Flaherty also did about original inhabitants at a southern island which didn´t succced likewise. But I think this fully understandable upon the difference in lifecircumstances, a sunny place is a lot nearer to us than the cold miles of ice in the north.

© Seppo Laine 090704