Having read Catherine Russels Experimental Ethnography, I assembled some reading notes which I had been planning to revise into a book review. There is much to admire in her book, both in its specific analyses and its overall method. The fact that Russell is engaging with experimental cinema in a cross-genre context, and doing so within a political framework derived from critical theory, makes this book significant, and a starting point for a number of long-deferred reconsiderations of key films. Also, the fact that her discussion encompasses both film and video allows for elaboration of conceptual relationships between artists in either medium. For example, Russell analyzes Bill Viola's work and its conceptual links to structural film. This has been long overdue a generation and a half of video artists took their cues largely from "structuralism," but this genealogy hasn't been fully taken into account by "film studies." But as the notes below will show, I also take issue with some of Russell's interpretations and assumptions.
Russell's project is to reconceive "ethnography" in the widest possible sense, in order to encompass any concrete, historical act of representing an existing other, so that the diary films of Jonas Mekas or the Factory films of Warhol become "ethnographic" by virtue of their engagement with human figures moving (or standing still) through the course of historical time. "Experimental" ethnography, then, thematizes its own conditions of production, in at least two ways. 1) Like structural film (a privileged example for Russell), experimental ethnography must examine its status as a filmic text, a meaning-generating artifact. 2) Like post-colonial theory, experimental ethnography must historicize its imaged "other," and, as much as possible, demonstrate that other's status as a fiction-in-progress, both critiqued and reified by the process of ethnographic inscription. So, for example, Mekas captures himself and his friends as historical figures in a concrete environment; at the same time, he is explicitly generating his own meaning that of a Romantic cine-poet through the act of the film diary.
The ultimate value of Russell's project is the breaking down of inherited genre distinctions, allowing for the consideration of "experimental" films, "ethnographic" films, "documentaries," "video art," et cetera, within the same critical framework. In so doing, she locates and/or creates commonalities which were not visible prior to her dialectical moves. Unfortunately, this genre-breaking gesture is sometimes in the service of erecting other, different boundaries and distinctions. Too often, for instance, Russell submits much-needed analyses of crucial avant-garde films, only to read them symptomatically as suspect objects, which are instructive by virtue of their "failure" to fully comply with the critical project she is building. This is most evident in chapter nine, "Archival Apocalypse," in which she seems to misapprehend the political projects of both Bruce Conner and Craig Baldwin. In Conner's A Movie, Russell finds a film in which images of non-Western "Others" are deployed as non-coeval signifiers of the failure of the West. "The ethnographic in A Movie," she writes, "constitutes an interruption of the perpetual catastrophe of failed progress. In the collapse of technology, the Other represents the memory of the body in the machine of modernity" (251). Russell concedes that Conner's use of these ethnographic snippets, as "images of images," points the way toward critique, but in her opinion does not achieve it. To Russell, Conner is deploying the Other nostalgically, as a reminder of what the West has irretrievably lost. This allows for a nifty summoning-up of Johannes Fabian, but what Russell misses about A Movie is that it is not a narrative film. That is to say, Conner presents images of non-Western peoples, within the blitz of found footage imagery, in a manner which could be read as pointing profoundly towards the coevalness of the Other which Fabian (rightly) demands. In Russell's reading, the "ethnographic," when juxtaposed with crashing airplanes, the atomic bomb, blimp crashes, and countdown leader, is a panacea, a "better life." However, the fact that Conner has selected images from the archive all, in a sense, contemporary, and, in film theory terms, "present" in time on the screen makes the ethnographic into simply another set of relations which are going on, outside, now. True, Conner does not depict devastating tsunamis obliterating the coasts of Africa. (And of course, this may say something about the archive Conner plumbs, about what in the life of the Other was deemed worthy of record.) And yet, if images of non-Western cultures can, for Russell, only be signifiers of Western guilt, this says as much about Russell as a reader as it does about Conner's text.
I think Russell is slightly off the mark, for similar reasons, in her discussion of Craig Baldwin's Tribulation 99. She criticizes the film for its "ambivalence," essentially saying that it self-reflexively invokes historical narrative only to point to its inadequacy (263). Then, for Russell, Baldwin's conclusion "resolves" the crisis of historical representation through both Christian eschatology and winking irony. In this way, she seems to think the film's engagement with politics is scuttled by its evacuation of historical time, in favor of a "perpetual present that might obliterate the traces of cultural memory" (264). Yet, Baldwin's film is, without a doubt, a political film, which both encapsulates and savages US foreign policy in Central America. (I learned enormous amounts from this film, about a topic I thought I knew well. Thank you, Craig.) But Baldwin's gesture is more radical, and seems to go in a direction which Russell cannot follow. That is, Baldwin critiques both the sadistic, indefensible policies of the Monroe Doctrine, *as well as* the paranoid drive which insists on creating a seamless, comprehensible fiction, by which US foreign policy "suddenly makes sense." This part of Baldwin's project results in moments in which the film's narrator seems to drift across the political spectrum, one minute identifying the United Fruit Company as the force behind a military overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz; the next minute claiming that Fidel Castro is an alien zombie. The lesson? The attempt to apprehend the world-system through the transparent media of film and narration is an ineluctable component of that very system, and if one hopes to truly, fundamentally "jam" that system at its core, one cannot simply "tell a better story" on the left.
(and some notes on other chapters)
SIX: "Zoology, Pornography, Ethnography"
Russell states that she is linking these three discourses because they "share a common disciplinary technology of vision that seeks to control, contain, and master the field of the Other, but in doing so, they produce a supplementary discourse of violence and wildness" (120). That is, there is an excess by which the Other comes to stand in for something unknowable and unattainable. Russell wants to mark this supplement as a site of resistance. She introduces this chapter by rehearsing the critique of apparatus theory (its presumed unified spectator as opposed to multiple viewers), but in so doing, she reveals an unwillingness to consider the work of Lacan beyond its appropriation by apparatus theory. Russell conflates "look" and "gaze" throughout the chapter, seemingly in an attempt to move away from the Lacanian gaze which, in her analysis, is limited to the "mirror stage" arguments adapted by Metz and Baudry. Russell invokes a new, more flexible "gaze." She writes, "In conjunction with a more plural notion of spectatorship and a more flexible notion of textuality, the gaze can be thought of as a site of power and[italics] resistance" (121). Russell is attempting to facilitate a move from "Lacan" to Foucault, but in so doing never really comes to terms with challenges posed (and options provided by) Lacan's work beyond "The Mirror Stage." Especially in The Four Fundamental Concepts, Lacan shows us that the Gaze is not a set of one-way power relations, but it is a self-arrogation toward a power which no one can actually possess. Its very real effects are based on social fictions, designed to disguise lack. So the distinction between "the look" (to which all have access, and which can not only be benign but in fact life-giving and benevolent) and "the gaze" (a look of power and subjugation which one assumes based on presumed cultural privilege) a distinction Russell effectively levels would have served her argument well. But it becomes clear (on page 125) that Russell is embarking on a cultural studies project, and has inherited the belief that psychoanalysis is incapable of addressing questions of culture and history. She writes, "The gaze can produce tensions between different discourses of looking, and it is this friction that I want to trace through the following films" (125). It would be more correct, I think, to pose the issue another way: that while a subject, within one register of discourse, may convincingly arrogate the gaze to him/herself, the collision with another discursive register may debunk that claim, and reveal "the gaze" as being only a look.
This can be seen especially well in Russell's outstanding analysis of Kubelka's Unsere Afrikareise. She locates the film at a juncture of several competing discourses, all of which are troubled by the film. Most notably, the crisis of the Western subject in the shift from coloniality to post-coloniality intersects with the breakdown of the modernist suppression of referentiality. Kubelka's best-known work prior to Afrikareise involved either frames of pure black and white, or photographically generated frames abstracted through high-contrast printing and rapid montage. Unsere Afrikareise depicts the safari as a conflation of visualizing and killing the frame becomes a trophy, and the frameline between an animal alive and an animal dead becomes an ethical crisis which Kubelka ensnares within his metrical procedure. No amount of rigor in editing will turn these horrific images into something "pure," and this very much seems to be the point. In fact, the "synch events," the metrical and graphic organization of the material, serve to heighten the cruelty contained within the frames. This, I would argue, is modernism at its best: demonstrating the political and ethical consequences of its own inability to contain the colonial threat. Russell, while very positive about the effects of Kubelka's film, still criticizes him for a presumed attempt to do just that. She writes, "Within his ontology of the cinema, these are the signs of visibility, images that are pre-aesthetic. . . .Metonymically linked to the spectacle of nature, they [images of African people] are allegories for the purity of form to which the modernist avant-garde aspired" (132). Much like her criticism of Conner, Russell's difficulty with Unsere Afrikareise has to do with an assumption that Kubelka is looking for an untainted, authentic culture which can bear the load of modernist signification of purity. If this were so, to choose one example, why would Kubelka include images of Africans killing animals (sometimes alongside the German tourists, sometimes independently of them), with no further explanation?
SEVEN: "Framing People: Structural Film Revisited"
What if structural film that much-maligned subgenre of experimental cinema, condemned for both its inward-looking self-reflexivity and its aesthetics of tedium and assault were recuperated for ethnography, as a radical ethnographic strategy? Of course, "structural film," as Russell acknowledges, is a contested category. (I almost wrote "hotly contested," but let's get serious...) After encapsulating some of the key texts on the subject (by Sitney, Gidal, Penley and Wollen), Russell turns to Jonathan Crary, from whom she borrows the concept of the "carnal density of the observer" (160). In short, Russell is challenging the popular conception of structural film as a representation of the disembodied cogito or of intentional consciousness alone. Rather, films such as Warhol's engage the body, either "positively" (turning her/him on) or "negatively" (boredom, fatigue, squirming). The value judgments above are not Russell's; in fact she places a high value on those "negative"traits because they "challenge the spectator's passivity. One cannot help but be aware of one's own body in the theatre as one watches a man sleeping for six hours (Sleep, 1963); to leave the theatre during the projection is perhaps the epitome of the embodied viewer" (160).
This issue is the most suggestive one Russell raises in this chapter. However, her argument is in a hurry to go someplace else. We soon find that Russell is prepared to privilege the fixed frame as the echt-structural category, which allows her to make arguments about the self-consciousness of both filmmaker and spectator in the act of looking. Whether and to what extent the fixed frame relates to the embodied spectator, Russell fails to fully articulate. However, she is most interested in how structural films which depict the body can provide a "hyperrealist" ethnography, one in which "three bodies are put into play: the body filmed, the embodied viewer / artist / filmmaker, and the body of the film itself" (162). Where's the spectator? Does this mean that she or he is conflated with the filmmaker's point of view? (Perhaps apparatus theory works pretty well for structuralist film after all.) Russell's claims for the ethnographic character of some structural films ostensibly lead her away from the accepted canon of films and filmmakers typically subsumed (much to their chagrin) under "structuralism." We receive analyses of both early and late Akerman, two mid-60s Warhol films (again, if we are expanding the category of structural film to include a narrative / theatrical piece such as Beauty #2, we must ask how useful the category really is), and one film apiece by David Rimmer, Joyce Wieland and James Benning, three filmmakers who would surely be included in anyone's "canon" (except perhaps Sitney, circa 1969, who includes only Wieland from this group). The difficulty I find with Russell's admirable attempt to expand these outdated and divisive categories is that, like Wollen and Penley before her, Russell tends to rely on a group of filmmakers as placeholders for an obsolete, asocial (and perhaps even antisocial) structuralist avant-garde. This means not only that earlier interpretations of older films are left unchallenged, unrevised. (Maybe "Wavelength" is more about the carnality of vision than Annette Michelson thought back in 1971. How could we take her analysis in a new direction?).
Much more damaging both for Russell's argument and the discourse on experimental film more generally, it also means that later work by reluctant members of "the structural canon" goes ignored, despite its extreme relevance for the intersection of experimentalism and ethnography. I am thinking here most specifically of the later work of Ernie Gehr, in which he examines human and spatial relationships in the streets and conduits of postwar Germany (Signal: Germany on the Air); the confused mercantile behavior of a European swap meet after the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the human underside to free-market triumphalism (This Side of Paradise); and the activities and physical interactions of New Yorkers, in groups both general (Still, a temporal cross-section from outside a single office window) and ethnically specific ("Untitled Part One," 1981, consisting of close-ups of the gestures of elderly residents in a low-income New York Jewish immigrant community). No work I am aware of better represents an experimental approach to ethnography, because Gehr's later work appears to be aiming for an ethnographic approach to experimental film. He ought not to be so quickly consigned to "the canon."
These are just some thoughts and (hopefully constructive) criticisms of the book, based on about six months spent with it. I'd love to hear other comments, disagreements, and responses, especially from Katie Russell herself.
San Leandro CA