Issue 18 : Spring 2010







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Looking Glass

by Gerry Fialka

19 Feb 2010

[Reviewed: 'Millennium Film Journal' #51]

How do you make art that is not art? Duchamp did it with readymade meta-cognitive creations. He helped spawn motionless dance, invisible art, silent music (John Cage's 4'33"), the unreadable book (James Joyce's Finnegans Wake) and George Manupelli's unwatchable Film For Hooded Projector. And why make art that's not art? That's a good question. I wouldn't want to ruin it with an answer. But learning how to cope with the hidden effects of what we invent may help. Duchamp sparked awareness of the sense-ratio-shift caused by inventions. He morphed the visual experience into the conceptual experience. Marshall McLuhan probed that "why" with his "media fast" proposition. It grew out of Ezra Pound's "artists are the antennae of the race, broadcasting the hidden environments of inventions so we can cope with them."

How do you make a doc that's not a doc? How do you make an experimental film that is not one? How and why do moving image experimenters and documentarians combine their genres? Howard Guttenplan's Millennium Film Journal (Spring/Summer 2009, #51) deeply penetrates these questions and creative cross-fertilizations. Guest editors, Lucas Hilderbrand and Lynne Sachs have gathered innovators to fill 100 pages of insights. Jill Godmilow's advice to abandon "truth claims, intimacy and satisfying forms" recalls genre-bending pioneer Luis Bunuel's "I have always been on the side of those who seek the truth, but I part ways with them when they think they have found it." Reading MFJ raises new questions. Richard Fung queries, "What kind of truths can be communicated better in documentary than in fiction - and vice versa?" This echoes Faulkner's "Sometimes the best fiction is more true than journalism." The essays provoke us to examine the motives and consequences of these media practitioners.

Here are my favorites:

1) Ernie Larsen and Sherry Millner "unmask" the genre with essential observations on Bunuel's Las Hurdes, which "will always stick in the craw of the powers that be." How do you make an experimental doc that's not an experimental doc? Luis did. His "thank God I'm an atheist" embraces contradiction. Larsen and Millner's astute word choice "radical in-betweeness" mirrors McLuhan's axiom "the gap is where the action is."

2) Deborah Stratman astonishes with keen intelligence. She out-quotes me with Straub, Godard, Bunuel and Trinh Min-Ha. But it's the Kafka axiom that ice-picks our foreheads with "what are we reading for?" She asks the reader to send her recommendations of new ways to see and think about the world. Stratman is not afraid to use all caps in a "LAWLESS PROPOSITION."

3) Mark Street's grassroots essay is a needed relief from the wild sea of polemic discourse. His simple story of a parents' party for school kids communicates warmly the concerns of intention in the creative process. The Balinese have no word for art, they do everything as well as they can. Street lays it on the line with "it's hard to communicate...I often find myself tongue-tied." (Artists often aspire to make that which words can't describe.) The honesty blossoms from unknowing into epiphany, much like Hilderbrand's brilliant introduction entitled "Contradiction, Uncertainty, Change." "The aesthetic of ambiguity" recharges Robert Dobbs' "Ambiguity is a sign of human maturity."

4) Hilderbrand and Sachs provide a chance to ponder the many connections between reality and experiments in documentaries. I recently interviewed Jay Rosenblatt, who said Chris Marker was an important influence because of "how he imagined Marker made Sans Soleil." Rosenblatt could read and study all about Marker's background, process and intentions till the cows come home. But in the long run, it's how the perception resonates that's vital.

What does it become when pressed to an extreme? That's the fourth question of McLuhan's Tetrad - the reversal. Kierkegaard wrote "Life can only be understood backwards, but we must live it forward," which reverberates with Lynne Sachs' remembrance "When I was six years old, I would lie on the living room couch, hang my head over the edge, let my hair swing against the floor and watch the evening news upside-down."

5) Liza Johnson articulates the potential in her "small gesture of making the film (South of Ten)" with the statement "nothing is inevitable." Johnson's use of the word "inevitable" reminded me that MFJ's inspired exploration of moving image art is, indeed, in the printed word medium, instead of being a film. This flips Hollis Frampton, who once said that one should lecture on film in the dark.

The word "inevitable" was also used by Marshall McLuhan, who probed form and content issues. He wrote "It's inevitable that the world-pool of electronic information movement will toss us about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens to us and what we can do about it, we can get through." Millennium Film Journal #51 provides that inevitable looking glass.

What does the experimental documentary flip into when pushed to an extreme? How do we develop the skills to analyze this question? Can we master the ever-changing language of experimental documentaries so we can assimilate them into our total culture heritage? Since 1995, I have curated such films in my Documental series via Chris Marker's words: "in the fashion of a musical composition, with recurrent themes, counterpoints, and mirrorlike fugues. Out of the these juxtaposed memories is born a fictional memory." Or it's like Guy Maddin says: "manufactured memory." By hybridizing two genres, filmmakers have accumulated images that "can have conversation among themselves - or better yet, a musical conversation that sings to us about the differences between past and present, witness and participant." - Jonathan Rosenbaum.


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