Sunday, March 11, 2007
Nothing New

The arrival of spring has made me squirmy and restless. I feel like a walking mass of skin-covered passions, but I have nowhere to direct them, so I'm left feeling frustrated and thwarted. It's like this every year. I'm only really happy in the fall.

Anyway, I read this a few days ago and have been meaning to comment on it briefly:

Director Deborah Scranton made her feature film directorial debut with the award winning The War Tapes, which premiered at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival and won Best Documentary Feature. The War Tapes grew out of her locally acclaimed World War II television documentary, Stories From Silence, Witness To War - and her own commitment to using new technologies to give people power in creating their own media, and tell their own stories. Declining an offer in 2004 from the New Hampshire National Guard to embed herself as a filmmaker in Iraq, Scranton instead gave the soldiers cameras and trained them as cinematographers. Scranton directed The War Tapes using email and near-perpetual instant messaging with the Soldiers with Cameras to answer questions, share techniques, and explore stories with the soldiers as they filmed their very personal experiences.

The War Tapes

I've seen this film cited a few times as an example of a "new" method of filmmaking, and it's bugging the shit out of me. This approach hasn't been used much for a few very good reasons, but it's hardly new. Which isn't to say that this film won't be one of the few to use it effectively, or that it's not a worthwhile film; just that it's a problematic way to make a film, and for that reason there aren't that many extant examples of it. Which means it might appear to be new, but I had this one figured out the third week of my junior-year tutorial on anthropological and ethnographic film (ten years ago), so it can't possibly be as new as all that.

The only thing that's arguably different now is that the technology finally exists to make this kind of filmmaking reasonably practical -- almost anyone can be taught how to handle a MiniDV camera with reasonable competence, and they're cheap enough to be expendable, so it's possible to hand cameras out to non-filmmakers and see what they do with them. Whether it's an effective method is another question. The idea is to remove the filmmaker's biases from the process with an eye towards objectivity, or at least a more "true" version of truth. But in reality it only shifts the burden of bias from one person -- who at least might be able to discern reality -- to another, who will all but certainly have even more of an agenda. They'll be very protective of their own perception of themselves, and less open to unfavorable possibilities. Ultimately it comes down to a question of who's responsible for the point of view of the film -- the subject, or the filmmaker?

The one thing I've learned: there's nothing new in cinema. A few years ago, for example, Lars von Trier and the Dogme 95 kids were being lauded as the most original filmmakers in years because they proposed a direct, stripped-down approach to filmmaking which had been out of the ascendancy for a couple of decades, and film people, having a notoriously short memory, had forgotten that they'd seen it all before. The cinema verite people had done it in the 60s; Maya Deren did it in the 50s; and she likely took it from Dziga Vertov, who did it in the 20s.

I hope to fuck that I haven't seen the end of meaningful innovation in film; I will never ascribe to the philosophy that the basic structure of film is irrevocably in place and all we can aspire to now is variation on the theme. Sooner or later some brilliant fucker will come up with a blinding new insight, and the rest of us will weep at our stupidity for not having recognized before what was so obvious. But I've learned to be very skeptical of any movement that claims originality or novelty -- there's always a direct ancestor, even if the bulk of the film scholars and critics, the audiences, and even the filmmakers themselves are unaware of it.
6:20 PM ::
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