Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An Illustrative Film

I don't think it's too much a stretch that documentary studies - and documentary as a general community ideal - has been preoccupied with two questions: the problem of power (i.e. ethics) and the problem of truth. ...No Lies has found such a central place in the academic film canon because it so succinctly and slyly dramatizes these concerns. My only surprise is that it has taken a while for its reputation to grow: it's been taught at Temple University perennially, but I get the feeling that a renewed vogue for reflexive pseudodocumentaries (non-comedic mockumentaries) has given the film a new exposure.

The ethics and reality-effect critiques are front and center, but what interests me is another film theory problem: spectatorship. Of course there are more than two models of spectatorship, but there is one major split in theoretical understanding of narration. One line of film theory tends to think that the positioning of the viewer with the camera's gaze is the main determinant of meaning and even a film's politics. ...No Lies seems to draw from this theory, by suggesting what Peter referred to as the "rape" of the camera in the film, namely that documentary involves not only an unequal relation between maker and social actor but viewer and social actor. Voyeurs, we are all complicit in the grilling the main character receives from the cameraman.

Another line of theory stresses that the emotions, meaning, and politics of a film relies more on intangibles or nonmechanistic ways of communication. Nick Browne's reading of Stagecoach, for instance, argues that the viewer's sympathy is with the person looked at rather than the agency of looking, as spectatorship theory would have it. In ...No Lies, too, the emotional impact comes from our discomfort in seeing the protagonist treated the way she is. The tight framing, the emotions she registers, and the uninterrupted take all contribute to and draw upon conventions of discomfort.

The reflexivity of the film in fact relies on the gap between these two. If viewer-positioning of the camera did not matter at all, the film would have no thematic impact; it would be merely a personal drama rather than a theoretical commentary. If there was no way to subvert the normal viewer-positioning through emotional means, the critique would not be clear. We would merely be implicated in the camera's "rape," not aware of it.

5 comments:

Peter Rinaldi said...

Chris,
this makes me think--what would be different about this experience if Mitchell Block was filming Alec filming Shelby? in other words, if Alec (the "cameraman") was in the frame the whole time with Shelby, and everything else was the same. the impact would obviously be different. examining this, i think, gets one into a better understanding of what we experience as "the camera" in the hands of victimizer, rather than another camera absorbing the victimization from a distance.

Chris Cagle said...

Peter, that's a great question and I tend to agree that the effect would be quite different. Different subject matter, but Bill Greaves' Symbiopsychotaxiplasm illustrates the setup you're talking about.

Chris Cagle said...

Peter, that's a great question and I tend to agree that the effect would be quite different. Different subject matter, but Bill Greaves' Symbiopsychotaxiplasm illustrates the setup you're talking about.

Peter Rinaldi said...

Yes, true! Love that film.

Michele said...

Can you give me the source citation for that article by Browne regarding Stagecoach?