Academic journal article Post Script

Los Angeles Documents the Virtual: Xan Cassavetes and Thom Andersen between Docutainment and Machinima

Academic journal article Post Script

Los Angeles Documents the Virtual: Xan Cassavetes and Thom Andersen between Docutainment and Machinima

Article excerpt


In 1975, Raymond Bellour wrote that cinema constituted "an unattainable text," a text that unlike the written word was fleeting and ephemeral because it was unquotable. (1) Obviously, after developments in consumer level digital video of the last twenty years, this is no longer true in the same way for amateurs or professionals: citing films for visual essays is getting easier. Only a few steps are required to take video from a dvd and import that video into non-linear editing software, re-edit, add voiceover, and text. It is being done by children. And this is to say nothing of redistributing that video on the internet. Working on the same laptop the whole time. One interesting example that I will not discuss here is the use of green screen and simulacral mock-ups of film settings that place theorist Slovoj Zizek inside the film clips he analyzes in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema.

As Jay Leyda's study of compilation films shows, perhaps citation in the form of re-editing was never wholly foreign to the medium of film, and even documentary. But our present perspective on Bellour's article remains an index of the increasing vulnerability of filmic images with existing cultural value to reediting by nonprofessionals, or by artists without commercial ties to the original producers. The details of this techno-cultural shift have received less attention than the shift that Brian Winston describes as the increasing "undiscernibility" of digital image manipulation that undermines claims to documentary realism; I want to demonstrate how the former is also relevant to our idea of documentary. Xan Cassavetes's Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004) and Thorn Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself (2004) are two recent films set in Los Angeles that I would call documentaries, even though they make extensive use of appropriated fictional footage to tell their stories. In this paper, I hope to place these films within an attempt to reconcile the seeming contradictions between photographic recording and formative expression that have proved problematic for definitions of the documentary dating at least to John Grierson's formulation of documentary as "the creative treatment of actuality."

Before discussing these films, I will try to elaborate a way of thinking of documentary that can accomodate these two films by drawing on two pairs of concepts from the work of philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Both--the "virtual" and the "actual," that is, the temporal relationship from the image to its depicted object, and also, Deleuze and Felix Guattari's appropriation of Louis Hjelmslev's notion of semiotics as the spatial mapping of copresent "content" and "expression"--will be crucial to showing how these films are in fact documentaries and to describing their challenge to traditional notions of documentary realism.

I want to call Z Channel and Los Angeles, "documentaries of the virtual" because they document and interrogate the point where claims that the camera's principle mechanism is the indexical capture of reality have to come to grips with films themselves as also being the object of another indexical sign in the signifying system of memory (Rodowick, 39). This point of indiscernibility between fiction and reality is increasingly important. But I am concerned with it not because new visual technologies have the potential to perfectly represent reality or threaten to perfectly recreate and falsify "undiscernibly" the conditions of proof and truth proper to offscreen experience. Rather, I am interested in how these films demonstrate some strategies for intervening into the processes through which our reality is increasingly subject to being impacted by filmic fictions. By subjecting their appropriated images to new contexts, to a kind of remixing, they reevaluate on a visual and conceptual level the meaning of these images to an image saturated culture.

Z Channel and Los Angeles mark out some important terrain. …

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