Representing Postmodern Marginality in Three Documentary Films

By LeBlanc, Robert | CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Representing Postmodern Marginality in Three Documentary Films


LeBlanc, Robert, CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture


In her article "Toward a Phenomenology of Nonfictional Film Experience," Vivian Sobchack applies Jean-Pierre Meunier's film theory to the experience of documentary viewing in postmodernity. She writes, "In a critical move that does not assume that the cinematic object is irreal merely because it is absent, Meunier points out that this fundamental absence characteristic of all cinematic representation is always modified by our personal and cultural knowledge of an object's existential position as it relates to our own" (242). Sobchack proceeds to advance a very useful phenomenology that reconceives documentary film within postmodernity, but her phenomenology only brings us to a lacuna in our understandings of postmodern documentary film, a genre in which filmmakers are increasingly drawn to human subjects whose existential position is defined in relation to the spectator through the position's marginality. What new crises of hyperreality, irreality, and representation are instantiated, and even instigated, by the trend among contemporary documentarians to pursue subjects who inhabit the margins of mainstream society? How do these documentarians embrace, downplay, or otherwise interact with the audience's epistephilia regarding these marginal subjects?

I present in the article at hand close readings of three contemporary documentary films that take US-Americans in the margins as their subjects. The first, Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied, explores the black gay community in San Francisco, and reckons with that community's history of underrepresentation in its efforts toward a widely accessible cultural document. Riggs thereby instantiates a cinematic space of struggle, of difference, of ingroup expression that can work to disturb a viewer's notions of cultural insiders versus outsiders. The two other documentaries, Chad Freidrichs's Jandek on Corwood and Jessica Yu's In the Realms of the Unreal, present investigations into reclusive outsider artists and continually straddle the problematic boundary line that separates "images we regard as documentary representations of 'the real' from those we regard as real representations of a 'fiction'" (Sobchack 241). Close readings of these latter two film texts will yield insights into the shifting nature of documentary epistephilia in a postmodern moment when marginal figures both demand and resist onscreen representation.

While Riggs's film differs in important ways from Yu's and Freidrichs's films, the three works highlight a cinematic fascination with the marginal figures of society. These are, in all three films, figures whose marginality is always already mediated by a public all too ready to see them as outsiders. When viewed together, these three films point to new potentialities in documentary filmmaking that have only arisen in and from this crisis of representing the marginal. When the documentary gaze is cast to these outer limits of US-American society, it is forced to simulate the subject position of marginality through the available discourses of the postmodern mainstream, leading to hyperrealism and a kind of incongruity. Jean Baudrillard suggests that "the hyperrealism of simulation is translated by the hallucinatory resemblance of the real to itself" (468). This paper will be at pains to illustrate, through the lens of Baudrillard's theories of postmodernity, how these new potentialities in filmmaking can destabilize the binaries between real and irreal, between fictional narrative film and nonfiction documentary film. My goal will also be to offer a critique of Sobchack's phenomenology of nonfictional film experience while also building from it, to challenge her ideas about viewers' relations to the absent cinematic object through my examination of cases in which said object presents itself to the culture as an object with a history of marginality.

When Marlon Riggs says, "I listen for my own silent implosion" in a voiceover near the end of Tongues Untied, he is referring both to his anticipation of a tragically silent death from AIDS and to an overarching element of the black gay experience that is shot through the documentary from start to finish. …

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