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When Nonfiction Film Meets Experimental Cinema

By Cynthia Close

Avant-Doc: Intersections of Documentary and Avant-Garde Cinema
by Scott MacDonald
Published by Oxford University Press 2015


Don't let the "Avant-Garde" reference in the title of Scott MacDonald's latest book keep you away from reading this most accessible, revealing and often intimate exploration of the evolution and convergence of these two forms of cinema. As the author acknowledges in the introduction, "'Avant-garde film' and 'documentary' not only designate different film histories, they are different kinds of terms." He then goes on to prove through the next 419 pages and 21 interviews that these designations are often quite porous, the boundaries becoming increasingly blurred.

It seemed as though the ink had barely dried on MacDonald's last book, American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn, when this one landed on my desk. He is one of the most prolific writers in any field, having published 15 books over the course of an academic career that also includes teaching responsibilities at Hamilton College.

In between all this professional activity, MacDonald manages to squeeze in panel discussions and speaking engagements, such as one in 2009 at the University of Iowa called "Avant-Doc: Intersections of Avant-garde and Documentary Film," which initiated his growing awareness that these two genres were converging. At the time, he was teaching two courses: "Facing Reality: A History of Documentary Cinema" and "Critical Cinema: A History of Avant-Garde Film." In preparing his syllabi, he found himself renting some of the same films to be shown in both classes, further demonstrating the often arbitrary nature of the way we categorize films and filmmakers.

MacDonald's engagement with and love of cinema infuses all of his work. His eagerness and excitement comes through in his probing interviews. He does not shy away from the personal and dares to tread on ground that most academics avoid. I know this from my own experience, having been interviewed by him for publication in the past.

He attempts to take a neutral position, beginning this book by interviewing scholar/writer/teacher/editor Annette Michelson, whose primary contributions were in the field of modern art. She is recognized for her championing of avant-garde cinema and experimental documentary, and the screening room at the New York University Film Department is named after her.

However, MacDonald reveals what I perceive as a greater admiration for those who come out of the documentary tradition. This statement in his introduction seems to illustrate my point: "Filmmakers, programmers and scholars who have identified themselves with the traditions of avant-garde cinema have often seemed less open to the accomplishments of documentary, sometimes ignoring cinematic achievements closely related to, even potentially useful for, their own filmmaking/curating/writing." And further: "In recent years, no area of cinema has expanded more energetically and more internationally than documentary."

The author confesses that he has structured the book "less conventionally academic" and more "implicitly provocational" to "maximize the value of the individual interviews…to exploit their many levels of contrast and interconnection." At times I felt the "provocation" teetered on the edge, pushing that envelope almost to the breaking point in order to draw information that had not been admitted in public before from the filmmaker being interviewed. In fact, midway through a rather rambling interview with Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation, 2004), the filmmaker says, "Sorry, I keep having to remind myself that interviews are not therapy sessions."

Each of the interviews has its own chapter and is very effectively contextualized. MacDonald gives us the backstory on how the interview came about, the circumstances under which it occurred, and why he chose it for inclusion in this volume. In the case of Todd Haynes, MacDonald tells us that once he had seen I'm Not There (2007), Haynes' "wildly fractured narrative that defies conventional senses of film time—while proposing to be a revelation of, and a comment on, a moment in the life of Bob Dylan," he decided to arrange an interview with Haynes. The actual interview became a public event in front of an audience at the Portland Museum of Art in Oregon, part of Portland's Cinema Project. In this, as in most of his interviews, MacDonald keeps his pointed comments to a minimum, allowing Haynes ample space to fully elaborate his ideas. Perhaps it is this ability to know when to listen that makes MacDonald an effective interviewer, leading to such reactions as Caouette's when he catches himself revealing more than audiences may want to hear.

Although arranged in an "imaginative chronology," the defining arc of the book's structure is MacDonald's conviction that Cambridge, Massachusetts continues to be fertile ground for the evolution of the documentary form. While the rare interview with scholar Annette Michelson opens the discussions, the second interview with Robert Gardner allows MacDonald to return to his old stomping grounds in the hallowed halls of Harvard and MIT and the environs of Cambridge, which was the focus of his last book.

The Harvard/MIT/Cambridge connections weave their way through the interviews with Ed Pincus (as well as wife Jane Pincus and filmmaking collaborator Lucia Small), Alfred Guzzetti, Ross McElwee and Nina Davenport, returning at the end to Jane Gillooly and the filmmakers associated with Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), bringing us full circle and pointing a light toward the future. I think we can thank MacDonald for almost singlehandedly taking ethnographic film out of its cultural and academic ghetto and placing it squarely in the forefront of the development of documentary cinema.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor is singled out as being among the most important proponents of "sensory ethnography." He established the SEL in 2006 as a collaboration between the Departments of Anthropology and Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard, which MacDonald tells us "revived Cambridge's significance in the history of ethnographic filmmaking, nurturing a cadre of accomplished and adventurous filmmakers—most notably, John Paul Sniadecki, Stephanie Spray, Véréna Paravel and Pacho Velez..."

The interviews in the final chapter under the SEL heading are divided into five parts that clearly trace the chronology of the SEL from its beginnings as an idea that developed out of the collaboration between Castaing-Taylor and his partner, fellow anthropologist Ilisa Barbash. Their first film, In and Out of Africa, was their thesis video when they were both in master's programs in Visual Anthropology at the University of Southern California. It took the couple 15 years after the African experience before their most recent work, Sweetgrass (2009), became something of a crossover film, receiving critical attention outside academia and distinguishing itself as the first film to be credited to the SEL. It was fascinating to see how MacDonald revealed the tension between these former collaborators as they discussed their widely differing assessments of the work of their historical forefathers, Robert Gardner and John Marshall.

The second part of the last chapter allows Castaing-Taylor to discuss his installation work that was an outgrowth of Sweetgrass, and in the third section he and MacDonald focus on the thinking that resulted in the SEL. The new works emerging from the Lab "are more concerned with issues of aesthetics and form than documentary usually is, and are for the most part opposed to conventional documentary on a slew of specific counts." Castaing-Taylor does not hesitate to enumerate, quite vociferously, just exactly what those "specific counts" are.

The last two interviews bring into focus the next generation of SEL filmmakers, including Véréna Paravel, who co-produced Leviathan (2012) with Casting-Taylor, and Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, who discuss their film Manakamana (2013).

Knowing how important actually viewing the films is to his own research, and often how difficult it is to acquire copies of those films, MacDonald has provided us with very detailed filmographies of all the filmmakers interviewed in the book. These details include, perhaps most importantly, the distributors along with their Web addresses. In some instances, where filmmakers have their own websites, he gives that information—a useful end to a most thorough and engaging book.


Cynthia Close is the former president of Documentary Educational Resources and currently resides in Burlington, Vermont, where she consults on the business of film and serves on the advisory board of the Vermont International Film Festival.