Indie Views: Documentary as Critical Cinema
By Ray Zone
A Critical Cinema 4: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers
By Scott MacDonald
University of California Press
409 pps, paperbound $29.95
Scott MacDonald is emerging as a major historian of independent and avant-garde film. The author of The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place (University of California, 2001) and Cinema 16: Documents toward a History of the Film Society (Temple University Press, 2002), as well as three previous editions of A Critical Cinema, MacDonald brings a personable, engaged and very well informed voice to the subject of independent film.
The present volume in the series, which features extensive interviews with independent filmmakers, historians and curators, includes an invaluable extended discussion with the late Stan Brakhage, a conversation with P. Adams Sitney about the early days of the New York independent film scene, and interviews with Peter Kubelka, Jill Godmilow, Jim McBride, Abigail Child, Chuck Workman, Chantal Akerman, Lawrence Brose, Peter Forgacs, Shirin Neshat and Ellen Spiro.
In his introduction MacDonald warns against the current trend in academic film studies in which film scholars "need to choose between keeping up with scholarly commentary about film and keeping up with film history itself." MacDonald also decries the potential imminent death of the 16mm film format in college audiovisual departments: "The de facto decision within academe to allow 16mm to be 'replaced' by VHS/DVD is, in effect, the acceptance of a substantial narrowing of film history."
MacDonald defines "critical cinema" as independent filmmaking, whether documentary or narrative, that constitutes a discourse about film and film history itself. MacDonald observes that "much of the history of documentary might be considered critical cinema, since documentary has always offered at least an implicit critique of the popular fictions produced by the [film] industry."
MacDonald's interview with Brakhage is an eye-opener. It conveys, through MacDonald's personal experience of such Brakhage films as Window Water Baby Moving (1959), "how the experience of alternative media can provide a powerful and memorable in-theater critique of conventional mass-media spectatorship." With this film, depicting the birth of a child, Brakhage attempted to use the camera as "a new pair of glasses that he could train on precisely those dimensions of real experience that his social training had argued were taboo, and he filmed them with a gestural freedom that itself evoked the freedom of the untrained baby's eye."
When MacDonald's own son was born in 1972, "I was present, despite resistance on the part of the hospital--in large measure because Brakhage's birth films had demonstrated that, whatever restrictive rules were standard in American hospitals at that time, the personal experience of seeing a child come into the world was worth fighting for." MacDonald continues to show the film to his students and he tells Brakhage in the interview that "My students are amazed, shocked," and that, "It's still one of the most powerful films I can show."
Brakhage responds that during screenings of the film, people "used to faint. We used to warn people. At almost every show of any size, someone would faint." He was in danger of going to jail for having made Window Water Baby Moving. "When I sent in the film to be processed," recalls Brakhage, "Kodak sent a page that said, more or less, 'Sign this at the bottom, and we will destroy this film; otherwise, we will turn it over to the police.'" Brakhage got a doctor to write a letter to Kodak and the film was subsequently completed.
There are many such war stories of independent filmmaking and exhibition in MacDonald's excellent book. Jill Godmilow discusses the making of her award-winning documentary Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman (1974), which became a key feminist film. Peter Kubelka recounts a couple of hair-raising anecdotes about the making of Unsere Afrikareise (Our Trip to Africa, 1966). "A new generation of scholars-teachers reconsidering the history of documentary, and of ethnographic documentary especially, have correctly understood Kubelka's short film as a significant contribution to our thinking about the cinematic representation of nonindustrialized peoples and of Africa in particular," writes MacDonald.
The conversational and intimate nature of the filmmakers' stories make MacDonald's book compelling reading. Readers will certainly want to seek out the films after finishing the book.