What Is Non-Fiction Cinema? On the Very Idea of Motion Picture Communication

By Trevor Ponech | Go to book overview
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of this film are true or false when understood to be about a sequence of events in Flint during the middle to late 1980s. We also need to ascertain whether the director's purpose is to get viewers to believe that he is literally indicating a real course of events -- plant closings triggering the aforementioned "goofy" recovery schemes -- occurring in Flint during the middle to late 1980s.

Sometimes a work's status as a misrepresentation is easier to establish. The Eternal few ( 1940) is unambiguously identified by its makers, director Fritz Hippler and his colleagues at the Reich Propaganda Department, as a revealing examination of the inherent characteristics of all actual Jews and of their threat to European society over the ages, but with an emphasis on their presence in twentieth century Germany. Insofar as one of its functions is to indicate how things really stand with respect to the Jews throughout history and around the world, and insofar as it asserts literally and sincerely that this group is generally a rapacious, parasitical plague on humanity, we have enough reason to conclude that it misrepresents its intended referents. Of course, there are other ways in which The Eternal Jew is an entirely adequate representational system. As just implied, it fulfills the function of indicating which extra-cinematic state of affairs it is supposed to describe as well as the job of specifying the constative (as opposed, say, to make-believe or ironic) illocutionary force of this description.

Theorizing misrepresentation is important, but before we can begin that task in earnest, it is advisable to reflect a little on the nature and conditions of positive representational achievements. This task has logical and conceptual priority because understanding how and why cinematic works sometimes interrupt our epistemic access to reality presupposes that we know the norm from which the misrepresentation by definition deviates. The task also has empirical priority, since the symbolic practices from which genuine misrepresentations result necessarily have embedded within them modest representational success, whereby, owing to the filmmaker's communicative efforts, facts about illocutionary force and referential intentions are conveyed to the spectator. Critiques of cinematic representation that ignore these priorities undermine themselves by missing the very grounds for the emergence of the kinds of failures they seek to explain.

Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 111.
Andrè Bazin, "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," in What Is Cinema? 2 vols., trans. Hugh Grey ( Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967-1971), 1:9-16.


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What Is Non-Fiction Cinema? On the Very Idea of Motion Picture Communication


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