American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn

American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn

American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn

American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn

Synopsis

American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary is a critical history of American filmmakers crucial to the development of ethnographic film and personal documentary. The Boston and Cambridge area is notable for nurturing these approaches to documentary film via institutions such as the MIT Film Section and the Film Study Center, the Carpenter Center and the Visual and Environmental Studies Department at Harvard. Scott MacDonald uses pragmatism's focus on empirical experience as a basis for measuring the groundbreaking achievements of such influential filmmakers as John Marshall, Robert Gardner, Timothy Asch, Ed Pincus, Miriam Weinstein, Alfred Guzzetti, Ross McElwee, Robb Moss, Nina Davenport, Steve Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, Michel Negroponte, John Gianvito, Alexander Olch, Amie Siegel, Ilisa Barbash, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. By exploring the cinematic, personal, and professional relationships between these accomplished filmmakers, MacDonald shows how a pioneering, engaged, and uniquely cosmopolitan approach to documentary developed over the past half century.

Excerpt

Over the years, particular forms of filmmaking have been identified with particular cities: Hollywood, with commercial melodrama, obviously; Mumbai, with a certain form of Indian musical; and New York and San Francisco with American avant-garde filmmaking. And in his remarkable book, The Most Typical AvantGarde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), David James argues convincingly for the Los Angeles area’s centrality not simply in the history of commercial filmmaking but in the histories of a wide range of alternative cinemas. One of James’s accomplishments is to recognize that the makeup of a particular urban area can facilitate the production of specific forms of cinematic art and particular kinds of cinematic critique.

During the past fifty years, the Boston area has been the fountainhead of American documentary filmmaking. Much of the most interesting and influential nonfiction filmmaking of recent decades has been made in and around Boston, or by men and women who have had significant connections with the Boston area. And filmmakers working in Cambridge at the MIT “Film Section” and at Harvard have made formative changes in how documentary is understood and in what kinds of documentaries get made. Surprisingly, however, relatively little attention has been accorded this phenomenon. Even in the Boston area itself, at least until very recently, very few have seemed to recognize the city’s significance for this crucial dimension of film history.

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