June 30, 2004

You Are What You Shoot: The Autodocumentary

The Autobiographical Documentary in America
By Jim Lane
University of Wisconsin Press
246 pps. paperbound, $29.95
ISBN 0-299-17654-1

 

Documentary theorists will find compelling reading in Jim Lane's specialized discussion of autobiography in nonfiction film. Published as a part of The Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography series under the editorship of William L. Andrews, Lane's interdisciplinary work combines an historical overview with film theory in analyzing a relatively new genre in the documentary field.

Lane traces the beginnings of autobiographical documentary to the 1960s, with its roots in avant-garde filmmaking. Adopting film critics John Katz and Judith Katz's definition of the form as films that are "about oneself or one's family" in which "the subject of the film and filmmaker often begins with a level of trust and intimacy never achieved or strived for in other films," Lane believes that autobiographical documentary embodies "a tension that hinges on the documentary impulse to objectively record an historical world 'out there' and on the autobiographical impulse to subjectively record a private world 'in here.'"

The author also explores points of intersection between literary and documentary autobiography and finds that the most salient cross-fertilization occurs within the function of narrative. "Written texts and sound/image texts diverge at the semiotic level," writes Lane. "Written texts are an arbitrary sign system... Sound/image texts are a motivated, existential sign system" referencing the "real" world. 

With the proliferation of inexpensive video technology, individuals with little formal training in film technology have become documentarists. "By presenting their own lives in film and video nonfiction," observes Lane, "documentarists have reversed the homogenizing effects of mass technology and mediation." In this respect, Lane perceives the autobiographical documentary form as "an alternative to the traditional postures assumed by more popular forms of documentary."

In chapter one, titled "The Convergence of Autobiography and Documentary," Lane finds the avant-garde films of Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas to be precursors of autobiographical themes that are now common. In particular Mekas' "home movie-like films" such as Diaries, Notes, and Sketches (1949-84) and Brakhage's intimate portraits of himself, his wife and children in Window Water Baby Moving (1959), Films by Stan Brakhage: An Avant-Garde Home Movie (1961) and Dog Star Man (1961-64) foreshadow autobiographical documentary. These avant-garde filmmakers rejected the documentary tradition of direct cinema in favor of a personal style, though that style may have been visually couched in an abstract expressionist mode. 

Lane also finds a seminal influence in the reflexive film strategies of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin with Chronicle of a Summer (1960) and Jean-Luc Godard with Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966). "Reflexivity occurred in documentary initially as a political response to cinematic colonizing of others, in which documentary relied exclusively on its referential capacity," notes Lane. A link from reflexive strategies was thus forged to the "autobiographical discursive frame," with reflexivity itself extending to subjectivity by directing the viewer's attention to the presence of the filmmaker. Yet Lane clarifies that reflexivity in the autobiographical documentary does not merely overthrow historical reference or "eradicate the real" as much as it complicates the referential claims of the filmmaker and reduces the intimidation of filmmaking itself for the viewer.

Examining a 1967 fiction film by Jim McBride and L.M. Kit Carson titled David Holzman's Diary, Lane states that this film anticipates a specific form of nonfiction autobiography that he characterizes as the "journal entry documentary," by which he means "a type of autobiographical documentary that involves the shooting of everyday events for a sustained period of time and the subsequent editing of these events into a chronological autobiographical narrative. Events appear along a diachronic chain as if they are occurring for the first time in present tense."

A mock autobiography, David Holzman's Diary is about a filmmaker, portrayed by Carson, who is making a documentary about his life. The film constitutes "a fake autobiographical pact" among the director, Carson and the fictitious Holzman in establishing "an intimate world that appears to be authentic." A filmic hybrid, David Holzman's Diary invokes the visual and auditory conventions of direct cinema, yet "puts into play a set of reflexive self-referential signifiers" that "suggest a more ideologically aware orientation of reality than that of direct cinema."

Lane relates an anecdote where Carson revealed his perspective on direct cinema. Walking out of a screening of David Holzman's Diary with Carson, DA Pennebaker told him, "You killed cinéma verite. No more truthmovies. No." Carson responded, "Truthmovies are just beginning." He was right. "The implicit assumption, that 'truthmovies' have not been made but are about to begin, suggests that their reflexive self-referential mode is more truthful," writes Lane. "The new mode of filmmaking purports that once the other side of the camera is exposed and the filmmaker implicated, the documentary can more truthfully depict reality."

In subsequent chapters Lane examines the journal-entry approach to filmmaking, autobiographical portraiture of family and self and the role of women in the autodocumentary form.

Distinct from "a culture of narcissism," as Christopher Lasch has characterized the late 20th Century, self-inscription in video and film can be seen, Lane argues, as a strategy to resist the limiting ideology of universal identity.

 

Ray Zone can be reached at r3dzone@earthlink.net.

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