The Subject of Documentary

The Subject of Documentary

The Subject of Documentary

The Subject of Documentary

Synopsis

The documentary, a genre as old as cinema itself, has traditionally aspired to objectivity. Whether making ethnographic, propagandistic, or educational films, documentarians have pointed the camera outward, drawing as little attention to themselves as possible. In recent decades, however, a new kind of documentary has emerged in which the filmmaker has become the subject of the work. Whether chronicling family history, sexual identity, or a personal or social world, this new generation of nonfiction filmmakers has defiantly embraced autobiography. In The Subject of Documentary, Michael Renov focuses on how documentary filmmaking has become an important means for both examining and constructing selfhood. By looking at key figures in documentary filmmaking as well as noncanonical video art and avant-garde artists, Renov broadens the definition of what counts as documentary, and explores the intersection of the personal and political, considering how memory can create a way into asking troubling questions about identity, oppression, and resiliency. Offering historical context for the explosion of personal nonfiction filmmaking in the 1980s and 1990s, Renov analyzes films in which the subjectivity of the filmmaker is expressly defined in relation to political struggle or historical trauma, from Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool to Jonas Mekas's Lost, Lost, Lost. And, looking beyond the traditional documentary, Renov contemplates such nontraditional modes of autobiographical practice as the essay film, the video confession, and the personal Web page. Unique in its attention to diverse expressions of personal nonfiction filmmaking, The Subject of Documentary forges a new understanding of theheightened role and function of subjectivity in contemporary documentary practice. Michael Renov is professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema-Television. He is the editor of Theorizing Documentary and the

Excerpt

“Early Newsreel, ” first published in Afterimage in February 1987, was delivered as a paper at the conference “Hollywood in Progress: the Years of Transition, ” in Ancona, Italy, in November 1984. in contrast to the conference's focus on the deformations of Hollywood production in the 19605,1 examined a highly politicized documentary alternative to the sometimes quirky but decidedly commercial practices of that era of American film history. Newsreel, a New York–based radical documentary collective in sync with the New Left, spawning chapters around the country, was a late–19605 manifestation that I had been avidly researching in relation to other countercultural forms including the underground press, street theater, comix, underground radio, and guerrilla television. Drawing on film theory's psychoanalytic insights, I argued that Newsreel films offered their politically engaged audiences a site for projection and identification that was (at least structurally) analogous to that of their reviled Hollywood counterparts. Especially pertinent to the central argument of this book, “Early Newsreel” testified to the extent to which standard notions of authorial subjectivity were, for that moment in the late 19605 and early 19705, deemed politically retrograde. Twenty years later, the pendulum would begin to swing in the other direction as identity, rather than movement, politics came to the fore.

In his introduction to The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972,), Michel Foucault explores with customary elegance the epistemological foundations of what (in France in 1969) he termed a “new history”; that is, a field of discourse, a historical problematic, constituted not by the divination of continuity, the single horizon line of ideas and traditions, but by a semiosis of discontinuity and its principal parts—threshold, rupture, break, mutation, transformation. Indeed, Foucault's own work devotes . . .

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