PALPABLE REALITIES: DOCUMENTARY PRACTICES FROM BRODSKY TO MORRIS
December 9-11, 2011
It was a pleasure to be back in Stockholm after roughly a decade and to participate in a lovely, intimate conference Palpable Realities: Documentary Practices from Brodsky to Morris. It was co-organized by Jan Olsson of the Department of Cinema Studies and Tytti Soila, who chairs the Department of Journalism, Media, and Communication at Stockholm University. In fact the two departments are merging in a few weeks with Tytti continuing to chair the new unit. We gathered at the JMC facilities, which were as unfamiliar to members of the Cinema Studies Department as they were to me! Nonetheless, if this weekend was any indication, this new union should be a successful one. In any case, I will be teaching in a course in the new department this summer so there was a pragmatic element to my participation as it enabled us to discuss the course and for me to become familiar with the people and places.
Jan Olsson began the event with an elegant and assured introductory overview, but one that I will not try summarize here. I provided the Morris bookend to the conference with my documentary and a somewhat expanded presentation I had given in the past, entitled ”Virtual Binaries: The Documentaries of Errol Morris.” The expanded portion was relatively brief but focused on the ways that Tabloid functioned in binary relation to his earlier work. I find the new documentary a playful, ironic and angry––a minimally covert reply to his critics who had failed to understand and appreciate Standard Operating Procedure. They criticized the re-enactments: fine, they are jettisoned. And really, it is cheaper and much easier to make a film without them. If critics and viewers didn’t want to seriously grapple with one of the most troubling actions of the US in the post-9/11 era, so be it. Morris now gives them an entertaining story that is apparently frivolous. In the days when Joyce McKinney was headline news, her outrageous story distracted the readers of tabloids from thinking of more serious issues of the day. And that is what viewers seem to want today as well—don’t you. So this film is Morris’s witty “fuck you” to his critics, and they love it. What does this say about contemporary American culture? Draw your own conclusions.
John Fullerton (Stockholm University) presented a paper on ”Early Mexican Documentary.” John laid out the beginnings of tourism in Mexico as it was made possible by the railroad that went from the US to Mexico City and was completed in 1884. Later in the decade the Boston-based company Raymond & Whitcomb was running tours to Mexico City in the winter and early spring. Photographs were taken both by the tourists and by professional photographers who catered to these visitors—including Frieda Kahlo’s father, Guillermo Kahlo. Fullerton’s explication of this conjunction of a rapidly evolving media form (photography) and form of transportation (railroads) with tourism (and thus consumerism) to be fascinating. Of course it was these railroads that sponsored Edison cinematographers James White and Frederick Blechynden when they traveled into Mexico in the later part of 1897, taking films of the same locales that John was showing. I have often wondered if companies such as Raymond & Whitcomb sponsored travel lectures in the 1890s to lure the wealthy for such tours. One potential use of these Edison films could have been to enhance such already established illustrated lectures. The second part of John’s paper was concerned with the spatial articulations suggested by sequences of photos in albums and illustrated journals. He went on to touch on some of the early actuality films of Mexico. This is work towards a larger book project on representations of Mexico by North Americans and to a lesser extent Europeans in the 19th and early 20th century. A very exciting undertaking. I am going to check on John Stoddard and Burton Holmes books to see if they gave illustrated lectures on Mexico for John. (I think they did.)
Next up, Ramona Curry (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) offered a fascinating presentation “The Politics of Empire in Brodsky’s Trip Thru China (1916)” provided the other official bookend in the conference’s title. It synthesized material she had recently published as Benjamin Brodsky (1877-1960): The Trans-Pacific American Film Entrepreneur as a two-part monograph in Journal of American-East Asian Relations vol 18 (2011) pp 58-94 and 142–180. Benjamin Brodsky, an entrepreneur operating in China, reminded me in many ways of Edward Meyer Gross, a key figure in filmmaking in the Philippines who was active in the same period (someone I have written about in a much delayed essay). Both were European Jews with American citizenship. Brodsky had also been in the Philippines briefly ca. 1899. Curry focuses on Brodsky’s travel lecture/documentary, shown in the United States, and entitled Trip Thru China (1916). The film was shown in select first-run theaters with a lecture –in Los Angeles and New York in 1916-17. It then had a more routine release with the lecturer’s spiel replaced by intertitles. This move from illustrated film lecture to something that took the form of what we now call documentary was one that Burton Holmes was doing perhaps a year or so earlier. The use of intertitles rather than a lecture was just about to become standard and routine through the Creel Committee documentaries on the war (such as Pershing’s Crusaders first shown in May 1918). She showed an excerpt of Hsieh Chia-kuen’s documentary Searching for Brodsky (2009) which included surviving material from Brodsky’s China film. I am writing a chapter on the Documentary Tradition up to Nanook of the North for Brian Winston’s history: clearly Brodsky’s Trip Thru China (1916) was a significant instance in such a history and I am planning to make use of Curry’s work in this area!
Björn Sörenssen (NTNU, Trondheim) gave an absolutely outstanding presentation. A confession: I had heard a couple of Björn’s presentations before and thought of them as solid contributions that operated within an existing framework. I now realize that there is a side to Björn which has eluded me: his contribution, ”Digital Diffusion of Delusions: A World Wide Web of Conspiracy Documents,” shows him to be a rock star working at the cutting edge of our field. He investigated what are arguably the most widely seen documentaries being made today, conspiracy documentaries, particularly those that focus in whole or in part on 9/11 and the collapse of the World Trade Center. He listed five that were among the 10 most viewed works according to Google Video ca. 2008. The one he showed as excerpts was Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist: Moving Forward. One feature that characterizes these documentaries (and perhaps many areas of documentary practice in general) is that they are being remade and reworked and released in new and updated versions. Zeitgeist has had three different incarnations. The conspiracy theory is that 9/11 is an “inside job” and the collapse of the towers was the result of controlled demonstration by some nefarious part of the US government. It was thus similar to Pearl Harbor in that Roosevelt knew about the “sneak attack” in advance but allowed it to happen to get the US into the war. Going back to World War I, the sinking of the Lusitania was a planned provocation that was arranged by the British and the US. It is part of an international banking conspiracy because these wars are a way for the banks to become incredibly rich and powerful. I don’t want to summarize his article here but rather urged Björn to rush his piece into print. My course Digital Documentary and the Internet, taught last spring, somehow failed to get to the guts of the topic. And Björn has shown us where they are!
There are certain painful ironies to this. With the massive instance of conspiratorial murder, Norway has experienced its own version of 9/11—in this instance one of paranoid, right-wing terror. Perhaps Norwegian scholars have been handed a new relevance and authority to their discourse. Besides using Michael Barkun’s Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (2003) and quoting Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality, Björn cited a Norwegian scholar who is theorizing about conspiracy thinking: Asbjørn Dyrendal, in an article titled “Denne verdens herskere. Konspirasjonsteorier som virkelighetsforståelse” in Arnfinn Pettersen and Terje Emberland (eds.), Konspiranoia. Konspirasjjonsteorier fra 666 til WTC (2003). He, in turn, cites Dieter Groh on the intense and excessive rationalism of conspiracy theory, which appeared in a chapter called “The Temptation of Conspiracy Theory or: Why do bad things happen to good people” in Changing Conceptions of Conspiracy, eds. Carl F. Graumann and Serge Moscovici. And Merleau-Ponty’s difficult The Visible and the Invisible: This is to think the true by the false, the positive by the negative—and it is to ill-describe indeed the experience of dis-illusion, wherein precisely we learn to know the fragility of the “real.” (p 40) In these conspiracy documentaries all the unanswerables are answered together.
Björn suggested that The Eternal Jew is a founding instance of this kind of film. And he took a suggestion from the Morris scholar at the seminar and concluded with Errol Morris’s The Umbrella Man, which recently appeared on line in the New York Times. In this short video, Morris offers us a witty antidote to conspiracy theories.
So Saturday was an exhilarating day of presentations, and much can and should be said about this kind of format for intellectual exchange. However, that exhilaration in conjunction with jetlag and the memories of a gruesome execution scene in A Trip Thru Chinakept me awake most of the night. (In addition our hotel was party central—and the Swedes definitely seem to celebrate the weekend, which I was told officially begins at 2 pm on Friday). Earlier in the evening we too celebrated the weekend with an elegant dinner at a near-by restaurant, Eriks Bakficka, Fredrikshovsgatan 4, 115 23, Stockholm.
On Sunday my sometime collaborator Jane Gaines (Columbia University) presented “Do True Stories ‘Tell Themselves’?” A sophisticated theorist who is ready to take intellectual risks in provocative ways, Jane offers something that is far too rare in our field. Given that I tend to be more mired in history, we could be seen as something of an academic odd couple. Both interested in documentary, we have quite different approaches to the nature of historiography and so “nonfiction” storytelling. It was probably not coincidence that we ended up at this conference together and that her presentation was in some ways the counterpart to my own. Like me, she is interested in Joyce McKinney from Errol Morris’s Tabloid, but predictably from an entirely different perspective. As she remarked in response to my presentation, she is an anti-auteurist. (Nonetheless, she also has her cultural heroes and heroines such as Oscar Micheaux, Lois Weber and Alice Guy Blaché.) In fact, her main interest was not with Joyce but with Jaycee Dugard and her own narrative of captivity (the New York Times bestseller A Stolen Life: A Memoir) and the way Dugard’s story in some ways exceeded her ability to narrate and explain it. Frequently a story tells itself because we already know it. “Trueness” is thus an indication of foregone cultural conclusions. At the same time it also requires the caveat of the improbable. Without some element of the improbable the true becomes a cliché. In the case of Dugard it involves grasping a consciousness, which seems so improbable—a woman who could not escape from the backyard in which she was “imprisoned” and yet could write a memoir and sue the state of California. I am afraid I am not doing justice to Jane’s insights as she teased out the interplay between the probable and the improbable but certainly she, like Björn, was drawing on Merleau-Ponty!
Mats Jönsson (Lund University) had the important task of presenting a Swedish-center subject. His “Institutional Aesthetics: The style and function of SF-journalen 1930–1960” looked at the Swedish newsreel, suggesting some of the ways that Sweden, with its Social Democratic government, sought to maintain its neutrality in relation to an aggressive Nazi Germany. In particular Mats discussed the ways in which the SFS (Statens Informationsstyrelse or National Board of Information) shaped representations in its newsreels. Swedish film stars also worked for UFA in Germany and UFA films had a strong presence in Sweden. The SFS archives have been very difficult to access and materials lost in ways to suggest that a compromising paper trail could have been destroyed. Much of this material can bre found in a special issue of Scandia: “Neutral Nazism?: Swedish-German Film Relations, 1941-1945,” Scandia 76:2 (2010): 47-79.( It is a journal the Yale library stops getting in the late 1990s. And not apparently on line.) The conference thus ended on another fascinating note as the visitors to Sweden had a chance to learn something of the history of both Sweden and its media.
Here’s the schedule:
PALPABLE REALITIES: DOCUMENTARY PRACTICES FROM BRODSKY TO MORRIS
Department of Cinema Studies and JMC at Stockholm University
Friday Dec. 9
16.00 Opening of the symposium: Jan Olsson Stockholm University
16.10 Film show: Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch (2011)
17.30 Drinks and mingle
Saturday Dec. 10
10.00 Opening Words
10.15 Charles Musser, Yale University: ”Virtual Binaries: The Documentaries of Errol Morris”
11.30 John Fullerton, Stockholm university: ”Early Mexican Documentary”
14.00 Ramona Curry, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign:
“The Politics of Empire in Brodsky’s Trip Through China (1916)”
15.30 Björn Sörenssen NTNU, Trondheim: ”Digital Diffusion of Delusions: A World Wide Web of Conspiracy Documents”
17.00 Film Show
Sunday Dec 11
10.30 Jane Gaines, School of the Arts, Columbia University: “Do True Stories ‘Tell Themselves’?”
11.45 Mats Jönsson, Lund University: “Institutional Aesthetics: The style and function of SF-journalen 1930–1960
12.30 Concluding words