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Title: Autoethnography: Journeys of the Self
Author: Catherine Russell, 1999
Excerpt from: Experimental Ethnography, Duke University Press
Autoethnography: Journeys of the Self
In those early years I got to know the "town" only as the theater
of purchases, on which occasions it first became apparent how my father's
money could cut a path for us between the shop counters and assistants and
mirrors, and the appraising eyes of our mother, whose muff lay on the counter.
Walter Benjamin, "A Berlin Chronicle"
In Benjamin's chronicle of his Berlin childhood, he places the problem of memory centrally: "For autobiography has to do with time, with sequence and what makes up the continuous flow of life."(1) The fragmentary recollections that he offers are rich in detail and, like the passage quoted in the epigraph, situate him as a child within a complex network of social relations. A class analysis is projected onto fleeting memories, along with a recognition of gender roles, and even an analysis of the gaze. The materialism of Benjamin's autobiographical account of Berlin is made even more explicit in his Moscow diary, which he described as a text in which "factuality is already theory."(2)
Throughout his various autobiographical writings, a sense of the self emerges that is thoroughly grounded in experience and observation. Walter Benjamin develops as a socially constructed identity, one who finds himself in a shifting series of others, in the topography of city streets, and in the detail of daily life. Theory, philosophy, and intellectual life were inseparable from his own experience of modernity, and his identity as a German Jew pervades his writing in the form of experience, rather than essence. Susan Buck-Morss suggests that "Benjamin perceived his own life emblematically, as an allegory for social reality, and sensed keenly that no individual could live a resolved or affirmative existence in a social world that was neither."(3)
As literary genres, autobiography and ethnography share "a commitment to the actual," and Michael Fisher has argued that "ethnic autobiography" should be recognized as a model of postmodern ethnography.(4) Autobiography is a technique of selfrepresentation that is not a fixed form but is in constant flux. He describes "contemporary autobiography" as an exploration of the fragmented and dispersed identities of late-twentieth-century pluralist society. In this context, ethnic autobiography is an "art of memory" that serves as protection against the homogenizing tendencies of modern industrial culture. Moreover, autobiography has become a powerful tool of cultural criticism, paralleling postmodern theories of textuality and knowledge. Fischer describes the "writing tactics" of autoethnography thus: "Contemporary ethnic autobiographies partake of the mood of metadiscourse, of drawing attention to their linguistic and fictive nature, of using the narrator as an inscribed figure within the text whose manipulation calls attention to authority structures".
This ethnographic mode of self-representation is pervasive in what has become widely recognized as a "new autobiography" in film and video.(5) Autobiography becomes ethnographic at the point where the film- or videomaker understands his or her personal history to be implicated in larger social formations and historical processes. Identity is no longer a transcendental or essential self that is revealed, but a "staging of subjectivity" – a representation of the self as a performance. In the politicization of the personal, identities are frequently played out among several cultural discourses, be they ethnic, national, sexual, racial, and/or class based. The subject "in history" is rendered destabilized and incoherent, a site of discursive pressures and articulations.
The fragmented and hybrid identities produced in the multitude of "personal" films and videos have been celebrated by critics and theorists as forms of "embodied knowledge" and "politics of location."(6) Their tactics are similar to those of the literary form described by Fisher, and yet they also destabilize the very notion of ethnicity. One's body and one's historical moment may be the joint site of experience and identity, and yet hey dolt necessarily add up to ethnicity as an anthropological category. Autoethnography is a vehicle and a strategy for challenging imposed forms of identity and exploring the discursive possibilities of inauthentic subjectivities.
Mary Louise Pratt introduced the term "autoethnography" as an oppositional term: "If ethnographic texts are a means by which Europeans represent to themselves their (usually subjugated) others, autoethnographic texts are those the others construct in response to or in dialogue with those metropolitan representations."(7) Although she denies that autoethnographic texts are "authentic" her attribution of this genre to marginalized subjects is characteristic of writing on autoethnography. My inclusion of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (1982) in this chapter is an attempt to expand and modify a concept that, in Pratt's usage, reaffirms the duality of center and margin. Autoethnography can also be a form of what James Clifford calls "self-fashioning," in which the ethnographer comes to represent himself as a fiction, inscribing a doubleness within the ethnographic text: "Though it (ethnography) portrays other selves as culturally constituted, it also fashions an identity authorized to represent, to interpret, even to believe – but always with some irony – the truths of discrepant worlds."(8) Once ethnography is reframed as a self-representation in which any and all subjects are able to enter dicourse in textual form, the distinctions between textual authority and profilmic reality begin to break down. The imperial eye looking back on itself is also a subject in history.
The oxymoronic label "autoethnography" announces a total breakdown of the colonialist precepts of ethnography, and indeed the critical enthusiasm for its various forms situates it as a kind of ideal form of antidocumentary. Diary filmmaking, autobiographical filmmaking, and personal videos can all be subsumed within what Michael Renov has described as the "essayistic" impulse in recent film and video. The essay is a useful category because it incorporates the "I" of the writer into a commentary on the world that makes no grand scientific or totalizing claims but is uncertain, tentative and speculative.(9)
A common feature of autoethnography is the first-person voice-over that is intently and unambiguously subjective. This is, however, only one of three levels on which a film- or videomaker can inscribe themselves, the other two being at the origin of the gaze, and as body image. The multiple possible permutations of these three "voices" – speaker, seer, and seen – are what generate the richness and diversity of autobiographical filmmaking. In addition to the discursive possibilities of these three voices is another form of identity, which is that of the avant-garde filmmaker as collagist and editor. This is perhaps the surrealist heritage of the form, the role of juxtaposition, irony, and rétrouvé, through which the film- or videomaker "writes" an identity in temporal structures. By inscribing themselves on the level of "metadiscourse," film and videomakers also identify with their technologies of representation, with a culture of independent filmmaking, alongside their other discursive identities.
Much of the new autobiography emanates from queer culture, from film- and videomakers whose personal histories unfold within a specifically public sphere.(10) It is also produced by many for whom ethnicity or race cash their own history as an allegory for a community or culture that cannot be essentialized. Themes of displacement, immigration, exile, and transnationality are prominent in this mode of filmmaking.(11) Some of the film- and videomakers associated with the "new autobiography" include Richard Fung, Marlon Riggs, Su Friedrich, Rea Tajiri, Deborah Hoffman, Vanylyn Green, Margaret Stratton, Lynn Hershmann, Mark Massi, Hara Kazuo, Tony Buba, Mona Hatoum and many others. Marilu Mallet's Journal Inachévé (1986), Hara Kazuo's Extremely Personal Eros (1974), Akerman's News from Home (1976), and Michel Daughter Rite (1978) are all important examples of the form as it developed in the 1970s. Family histories and political histories unfold as difficult processes of remembering and struggle. Specific, resonant images echo across distances of time and space. Documentary truth is freely mixed with storytelling and performances. The many film- and videomakers who have made and continue to make autoethnographies find "themselves" in diverse image cultures, images, and discourses. Many are concerned with transforming image culture through the production of new voices and new subjectivities.
A prominent theme in contemporary personal cinema is the staging of an encounter with the filmmaker's parent(s) or grandparent(s) who embody a particular cultural history of displacement or tradition – for example, Richard Fung's The Way to My Father's Village (1988) and My Mother's Place (1990), History and Memory (Rea Tajiri, 1991), Measures of Distance (Mona Hatoum, 1988), The Ties That Bind (Su Friedrich 1984). The difference between generations is written across the filmmaker's own inscription in technology, and thus it is precisely an ethnographic distance between the modern and the premodern that is dramatized in the encounter – through interview or archival memory or both. One often gets the sense that the filmmaker has no memory and is salvaging his or her own past through the recording of family memory.
The testimonial, confessional character of autoethnography often assumes a site of authenticity and veracity, originating in the filmmaker's experience. And yet fake diaries and autobiographies by Orson Welles (F is for Fake, 1975), Michele Citron (Daughter Rite, 1979), Jim McBride (David Holzman's Diary, 1968), and Joe Gibbons and Tony Oursler (Onourown, 1990) demonstrate the unreliability of the form. The confessional mode is a testimonial discourse with no necessary validity beyond the viewer's faith in the text's authority. Autobiographical film and video tends to be couched within a testimonial mode, as the authorial subjects offer themselves up for inspection, as anthropological specimens. But they do so ironically, mediating their own image and identifying obliquely with the technologies of representation, identifying themselves as film- and videomakers. Because autoethnography invokes an imbrication of history and memory, the authenticity of experience functions as a receding horizon of truth in which memory and testimony are articulated as modes of salvage.
The film- and videomakers who I will discuss in this chapter are Jonas Mekas, George Kuchar, Sadie Benning, Kidlat Tahimik, and Chris Marker, artists whose films and videos foreground many of the contradictions and tendencies of the diary film. As a genre of "personal cinema." the diary film can in many cases be cast as a form of experimental ethnography, and these examples are suggestive of the role of the diary film and video in the rethinking of ethnographic knowledge. The role of identity in these films and tapes demands an expanded notion of "ethnicity" as a cultural formation of the subject. Indeed, what unites these diverse texts is the articulation of identities that are split, insecure, and plural. Memory and travel are means of exploring fragmented selves and placing ethnicity at one remove, as something to remember, to see, but not quite to experience.
The journeys undertaken by these filmmakers are both temporal and geographic, sometimes tending toward epic proportions. The diary form involves a journey between the times of shooting and editing; traveling becomes a form of temporal experience through which the film- or videomaker confronts himself or herself as tourist, ethnographer, exile, or immigrant. These film- and videomakers may not be representative of the extraordinary diversity of personal, autoethnographic film forms, but they do cover a range of techniques and strategies that merge self-representation with cultural critique. They suggest that the subjective form of ethnography distinguishes itself above all from the passive scientism of conventional ethnographic forms by destabilizing "ethnicity" and its constraints on subjectivity
When P. Adams Sitney first discussed autobiography as an avantgarde film form, he concluded that "it is the autobiographical cinema per se that confronts fully the rupture between the time of cinema and the time of experience and invents forms to contain what it finds there."(12) Subjectivity cannot be denoted as simply in film as with the written "I" but finds itself split in time. The image of the filmmaker, when it appears in a diary film, refers to another cameraperson, or to a tripod that denotes an empty, technologized gaze. As Janine Marchessault points out, "The image of someone behind the camera encompasses its own impossibility as a representation unable to access its origin, to invert its own process."(13) Subjectivity is split again between the seeing and the filmed body. While Sitney argues that the MC of auto-biographical filmmaking is united in the notion of authorship, I want to suggest that an ethnographic subjectivity, a self that understands itself as culturally constituted, is fundamentally split in the autobiographical mode. Even when the subject in history is constructed as a point of origin for memories, geographic and spacial distance comes to evoke a distance in time that separates different moments of the self.
The autoethnographic subject blurs the distinction between ehnographer and Other by traveling, becoming a stranger in a strange land, even if that land is a fictional space existing only in representation. As a diary of a journey, the travelogue produces an otherness in the interstices of the fragmented "I" of the filmic, textual self. As the memory of the trip becomes enmeshed with historical processes and cultural differences, the filmic image becomes the site of a complex relationship between "I was there" and "this is how it is." Travel films are collections of images made for other spectators in distant cultures and therefore constitute a kind of traffic in images with the traveler-filmmaker as their unreliable referent and point of origin. Needless to say, the utopian impulse of autoethnography relies on a certain mobility of the filmmaker and remains in many ways couched in modernist, imperialist, and romantic discourses.
If filmic autobiography exploits the temporal lag between filming and editing, video diaries tend to have a slightly different temporal effect. One of the things I want to suggest [in this concluding chapter] is how the history of autoethnography intersects with the slow fade in independent filmmaking from film to video. If autobiography is about time and history, as Benjamin suggests, these two mediums produce very different effects of temporality that has some bearing on the historical subjectivities and identities produced within their technological spheres. Video offers an economics of "coverage" that is impossible to match with sixteen-millimeter film production costs, and so the diaristic mode is in many ways being renewed as filmmakers take advantage of the economies of the new medium. (This is not to say that avant-garde film is "dead," just that it is becoming increasingly difficult to finance.) Autoethnography in film and video is always mediated by technology, and so unlike its written forms, identity will be an effect not only of history and culture but also of the history and culture of technologies of representation.
Trinh T. Minh-ha has written about the Inappropriate Other as the subject whose intervention "is necessarily that of both a deceptive insider and a deceptive outsider.(14) She implies that such a figure actually lurks within every "I," and if one of the goals of a postcolonial ethnography is to become aware of how subjectivity is implicated in the production of meaning, the Inappropriate Other is the figure to be developed. By exploring autoethnography as an intercultural, cross-cultural method, I hope to suggest how the Inappropriate Other functions as a time traveler who journeys in memory and history.
Jonas Mekas and the Loss of Experience
Jonas Mekas's diary films are perhaps the prototypical autoethnographies, at the same time as they mark a kind of penultimate romanticism that has long been eclipsed in postmodernism. Although a great deal has been written about his project,(15) it needs to be situated within an ethnographic frame to appreciate fully the way that the film medium mediates between individual and social histories, and between memory and historical time. Mekas's role in the development of the American avant-garde involved the promotion of both personal filmmaking and a film culture that would form itself around the "truth" and "freedom" of a noncommercial, independent cinema. His diary project, which comprises about thirteen hours of edited footage, (16) is testimony to his commitment to these twin goals.
Memorialization and loss are the defining characteristics of Mekas's diary films, and he renders them as features of the medium itself, enhanced by his poetic, melancholy narration. The temporal gap between the collection of images and the editing of them into films many years later renders every image a memory, a trace or fragment of a time in a trajectory that reaches back to what David James has described as "the absent center of the entire project, the footage of his childhood in Lithuania." James points out that not only was this footage never shot, but "it is historically and logically inconceivable", because the lost past is a preindustrial, pastoral ideal.(17) James also suggests that Mekas "lived modernism's master narrative, the history of the displacement of the organic and the rural by the industrial and the urban".
Mekas was very explicitly attempting to "salvage an identity" from his practice of filming. At the same time, that identity is precisely that of a displaced person. If homelessness is Mekas's self-image, it is also his filmic technique, his refusal to stop on any image, to synchronize any sound and image, or to narrate any image. Mekas's diary films assume a structure similar to that of found-footage filmmaking: the image track is highly fragmented and belongs to the past, while the sound track provides a narrational continuity that belongs to the present. It is as if, editing his own material, Mekas "finds" the images and retrieves them, reenacting the structure of memory in found-footage filmmaking, the difference being the inherently subjective status of the found images. It is a highly redemptive project insofar as he brings together the fragments of his memory and integrates them in an avant-garde film, which immediately assumes all the trappings of a "work of art" in the cultural politics of Mekas's milieu.
Mekas's project has been described as an exemplary instance of "secondary revision," the process by which, in psychoanalysis, the patient recounts the dream, revising it and substituting a verbal narration for what was originally "experienced" as dream.(18) As Renov explains, "We are all of us lost in the chasm between our desire to recapture the past and the impossibility of a pristine return, no one more than Mekas himself."(19) In the revisionary process, Mekas casts himself as both anthropologist and native informant. When, near the beginning of Lost Lost Lost, Mekas says, "and I was there with my camera," he reveals his mission as the self-appointed documentarian of the Lithuanian community in New York.
Over shots of a man in a dark kitchen, Mekas says, "You never know what a DP (displaced person) feels like in the evening, in New York," indicating the epistemological limits of his silent film footage. And yet the wholesale melancholia of his narration ascribes feelings to many of the people in his films. His extensive use of classical music and folk songs provides the films with an emotional register that is lacking from the relatively neutral image track. Although the poetics of the soundtrack make the diary Mekas's own, the central, unresolved contradiction of his films is that they are of other people. The people he films – the Lithuanian community in exile in New York, his friends in the world of avant-garde film, his family in Lithuania, and the many people he films on the streets of New York become – the bystanders of his life.
Mekas's diary films provide a heuristic model for all subsequent auto-biographical filmmaking because they illustrate how the conceit of displacement masks a control over images. in the split between sound and image tucks, Mekas inscribes himself as a journey, as a survivor of his own past. Having spent time in a German labor camp, he has earned the right to such an identity, one that he then maps onto a specific set of social spheres and communities. Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, made in 1972 from footage shot in 1971 and the 1950s, is the film in which Mekas confronts himself as ethnographer. It is a role that he refuses to assume, and he takes refuge in the avant-garde community where the weight of history and identity can be transcended through art.
Mekas's voice-over begins the American section of the film by designating a moment "when I forgot about my home." He is walking in autumn woods with friends but edits in some snow scenes as he says this, so that the "moment" cannot be pinned down. If his voice-over constitutes a form of secondary revision, it is consistently inadequate. The forgetting is as pervasive as the remembering, and the voice-over seems to follow its own trajectory through the film, registering a present tense that is inspired by the re-viewing of images of the past but is extremely distanced from it. From the 1950s in the United States, the film moves to "l00 Glimpses of Lithuania" and a final section shot in Vienna, both sections filmed during a trip in 1971.
The Lithuanian footage in Reminiscences is far more brightly lit than any other imagery in the film, and it is virtually all shot outside, in fields, on roads, by rivers and forests, and in front of homes. Mekas takes full advantage of the Bolex camera's light weight and shutter control. The camera is in constant motion, cutting up and cutting into the field of vision. Faces last only marginally longer than other body parts, as Mekas breaks down everything he sees into partial views. Each of the one hundred glimpses seems to be edited in-camera, including pixilated sequences as well as some longer takes of landscape. Many of the people are seen only in long shot, and it is not easy to identify the members of Mekas's large family, despite occasional intertitles introducing them. Mekas himself appears often in family groups, and he seems to fit right in. In fact, many people besides Jonas wield cameras in this film, as the whole family appears intent on the celebratory memorialization of Mekas's project. The fragmentary nature of these glimpses seems destined to eradicate a present tense and to see everything as if it were already memory.
Lithuania in 1971 may not be the Edenic return to childhood for which he longs, but it is a preindustrial rural culture that his family represents. In a catalog entry, Mekas describes the film: "You don't see how Lithuania is today; you see it only through the memories of a displaced person back home for the first time in twenty-five years."(20) Maureen Turim has pointed out how Mekas's mother in the Lithuanian section of Reminiscences constitutes "the fantasy of a center"; the memories, like the mother, cannot be possessed.(21) She also comments on Mekas's failure to refer to contemporary Lithuanian politics, returning again and again to the history of his own anti-Nazi activities that led to his exile.(22) Time appears to stand still in Lithuania, and Mekas tries hard to make it represent his past: "Those were beautiful days." He wonders where all his childhood friends have gone to, listing the various horrors of wartime Europe: graveyards, torture rooms, prisons, and labor camps. "Your faces remain the same in my memory. They have not changed. It is me who is getting older." We see people entering a barn, doing farm chores, he says this, standing in for those lost friends.
Mekas introduces his friends Peter Kubelka and Annette Michelson as "saints." He worships their ability to be "at home" in culture, and this is in fact the way that Mekas finds his "home" in the New York avant-garde. As Jeffrey Ruoff has described, Mekas's films constitute the "home movie" of the avant-garde, at once assuming and creating a network of familiarity with the various members of his community.(23) But Mekas's place in the art world he documents is still behind the camera, still split between the two selves filming and speaking, still displaced, at home only when he is not at home.
The longing for the past that Mekas expresses constructs memory as a means of splitting oneself across a number of different axes: child and adult, old world and new, pastoral and metropolitan, natural and cultural. Filmmaking is inscribed in a film such as Reminiscences as the means of transcending this splitting. Represented as a process and a practice, filmmaking is a craft that is not necessarily antithetical to the preindustrial ideal of Mekas's Lithuanian childhood. The idea of a film diary, according to Mekas, "is to react (with your camera) immediately, now, this instant.(24) Like the vérité filmmakers, Mekas's film practice was motivated by a notion of phenomenological and emotional truth. The authenticity of the footage is completely bound up in the honesty and humility of the filmmaker. And yet the diary film, as a product, overlays this raw experience with a complex textuality of sound and image. (25)
Unlike home movies, Mekas's films betray a deeply poetic sensibility that is alienated not only from the past but from the very immediacy of experience that informs the diary imagery. The ethnographic discourse of Mekas's films is at once a lost innocence and a pursuit of "freedom" modeled on his escape from European tyranny. Many scenes shot in Lithuania, and in Austria with Kubelka, feature people "playing" like children, running about hands held high. In a sense, Mekas performs his childhood, constructing a complex world on a fantasy of loss. Childhood was a privileged theme in the avant-garde of the 1960s as the site of a spontaneity and uncorrupted vision that was sought as an ideal of visionary cinema.(26) For Mekas, the spontaneity of direct cinema, like childhood, is always located in an inaccessible past.
If autobiographical cinema constitutes a journey of the self, Jonas Mekas mapped that dislocation onto the historical and geographical dislocation with which so many contemporary filmmakers have become preoccupied. Mekas tells us that there is something inherent within cinematic representation that dislocates the self. The fantasy of identity is produced by the techniques of film practice, and if his diaries indulge this fantasy, they also reveal its limits as ethnography. Mekas's films are all ultimately about himself, and by subsuming history within his own memory, the Others become fictional products of his memory, their own histories evacuated by the melancholia of his loss. Superimposing himself, his desires, his memories, his ego, onto everyone and everything, Mekas's romanticism is a form of possession. For example, in Reminiscences, to some children playing, he says, "Run children, run. I hope you never have to run for your lives."
Mekas is perhaps the exemplary figure of modernist exile, adapting to film what Caren Kaplan has described as a literary genre that tends to generate "aesthetic categories and ahistorical values" by recoding issues of "political conflict, commerce, labor, nationalist realignments, imperialist expansion, structures of gender and sexuality." Mekas's nostalgia and melancholia are indicative of the way that displacement functions as a modernist value: "The formation of modernist exile seems to have best served those who would voluntarily experience estrangement and separation in order to produce the experimental cultures of modernism.(27) Mekas's alienation is ultimately registered as an unbridgeable gap between himself and others, those whose images he possesses as memories of moments that he imagines to be harmonious social encounters, forgetting that he was, even then, behind the camera.
George Kuchar's video diaries are extensive, voluminous, sometimes tedious, always cynical, and often amusing. He creates the impression that he carries a camera with him everywhere, and that it mediates his relation with the world at large. His use of the video medium creates a sense of infinite "coverage," potentially breaking down the difference between experience and representation. Like Mekas, Kuchar documents a community of artists and filmmakers, with whom he is "at home." For Kuchar, this world is centered at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he teaches filmmaking. In his diaries, he often includes glimpses of class projects which are always schlock horror films in the style of Kuchar's own films of the 1960s. Kuchar identifies himself sexually, rather than ethnically, but his sexuality is bound up with a host of insecurities that his video practice seems only to aggravate. More so than any other videomaker, Kuchar uses the camera as a tool of social interaction.(28)
From 1986 to 1990, Kuchar released forty-five tapes that fall into two main series: weather diaries and video diaries. The first document his annual trips to "Tornado Alley," in the central and southern United States, where he goes to view tornadoes. The second include trips to visit friends in different states as well as diaries made of his activities closer to home; these tapes feature his friends, colleagues, and students. A constant overlap between the diaries, and an internal referentiality, link them as an ongoing record of Kuchar's life. At the end of Weather Diary 3, for example, he says, "Weather Diary 4 will take place in Milwaukee, so see you then," borrowing the conventions and ephemerality of a television series.
Where this diary project differs most profoundly from Mekas's is in Kuchar's use of video without a process of secondary revision. He always shoots with synchronized sound and offers an ongoing commentary on what he is seeing, often talking to people in front of the camera. Most of his music, including snippets of "movie music" indicating suspense, is recorded from live sources, and the soundtrack is full of ambient noise, including dogs and cats, traffic, weather, TV, and radio. He also claims that the tapes are entirely edited in-camera, including sequences that are taped over previous ones, enabling him to construct nonchronological editing patterns. The effect is one of randomness and improvisation, enhanced by his off-the-cuff synch-sound narration(29) Whether this is true or not(30) is less important than the effect of immediacy it creates, the way in which experience is rendered textual, without historical depth or distance.
Kuchar often intercuts close-ups of himself, employing principles of continuity editing to inscribe his point of view into the tapes. This narrative technique endows the texts with a certain hermeticism, accentuating the sense of infinite coverage by creating a seamless diegesis despite the ad hoc, improvised style of narration and shooting. Kuchar invokes memory only through the proffering of still photos to the video gaze, and not as a structure of loss and salvage. Compared to Mekas's tragic sadness, Kuchar's video and weather diaries are ironically cynical , and his self-analysis is often selfdeprecating. Although Kuchar also "finds" himself through the practice of filming, his project is not a redemption.
Kuchar represents his life as a tedious banality emblematized in the annual tornado-viewing trip. The catastrophe of the storms themselves is dispersed into he monotony of waiting in motel rooms, where the tornadoes are finally viewed on television. In the weather diaries, he is most explicitly identified as a tourist, traveling to different parts of the country, staying in motels ostensibly to document weather phenomena, but inevitably finding people in the process. He never travels outside of the United States, and yet his mode of production has the effect of inscribing a threatening "otherness" in everything and everyone he shoos. A discourse of horror is extracted from the banality of rural America.
Weather Diary 1, Kuchar's pilgrimage to rural Oklahoma in the height of its tornado season, is most basically an extended analogy between severe corns and gastric distress. In Weather Diary 3, he returns to the Reno Motel, and this time he obsesses about his unfullfilled sex life. He tapes some boys at the motel pool through a crack in a fence and lustily boils hotdogs in his room. Kuchar's scatological humor is at times juvenile, but whereas many avantgarde filmmakers have masturbated for the camera, when George does it, he understands the pathetic irony of the act. He forces the viewer to watch him as we would a horror movie. In Weather Diary 3, Kuchar meets another storm chaser, who he takes out on dates to the local shopping mall. "Mike" goes along with the constant videotaping, performing "himself" with restrained good humor. The fact that he is probably straight and possibly oblivious to Kuchar's desire adds a dimension of sexual tension that the viewer shares with George at Mike's expense. After he leaves, Kuchar consoles himself with physique magazines, comparing his own shirtless pose to those of the models.
By privileging his own bodily processes, desires, and appearance, Kuchar crucially subverts the valorization of consciousness in avantgarde film. Compared to Mekas, Kuchar's suffering is biological, not existential. The camera is explicitly situated as an extension of his vision, but also of his body. in close-ups of food or of himself, the proximity of the profilmic to the lens is defined by the length of his reach. His practice of speaking while filming inscribes a highly personalized, and therefore possessive, voice-over commentary onto the imagery. As in all of Kuchar's videos, a profound sense of solitude is established, not only through his self-deprecating humor, but through the restricted field of vision and the mediated relation to the world. One effect of his physical identification with the camera is that every shot of another person becomes an encounter.
In almost all of his video diaries, Kuchar spies on people, whispering to the spectator as he points his camera at strangers outside his window. Within the tape's larger structure of comparative internal and external natural phenomena, the people in Oklahoma are aligned with the weather as "outside." In representing himself as a body rather than a subject, Kuchar's encounters with others, and with the larger cultural and physical environment, are consistently physical. His fellow Americans all become different than himself, but it is above all a difference of space and distance, relationships defined by motel architecture. Sometimes those differences are perceived as ideological, and when he decides his neighbors are Christians or hippies, Kuchar retreats further into the privatized space of the motel room.
Kuchar's journeys to rural American towns are modeled on etnographic fieldwork, but he casually violates all the conventions of humanist anthropology. The Other becomes exotic and often threatening, but Kuchar himself becomes equally strange in the eyes of the Other. Kuchar's documentary subjects are his own first audience, as he makes himself, both on-and off-frame, a spectacle of equal magnitude. A circuit of looks, in which the viewer takes on the role of voyeur, is thereby completed. Like the hyperreality of the televised tornado, Kuchar's encounters with others are always exaggerated. His friendships are also presentations of those people to future audiences. It is by way of his own body and subjectivity that Kuchar presents one culture (rural Oklahoman) to another (urban artists and intellectuals). A couple of mainstream documentaries, Sherman's March (McElwee, 1987) and Roger and Me (Michael Moore, 1989), involve similar conceits of self-representation, but Kuchar's tapes differ in their spontaneity and banality. The extremely low production values of these diaries exaggerate their experiential quality while thoroughly mediating it.
Comparing Kuchar's aesthetics to Mekas's, the video is ugly, with garish colors that emphasize the tackiness of everyday America. Kuchar's use of video does not aestheticize, which enables us to compare Mekas's project as a process of redemption. Mekas transcends the alienatin loss of experience by transforming the experienced world into images; Kuchar inhabits a world of images, with no indication of a referential reality outside that sphere. He represents himself as an alien in his own country, someone who is always alone in a crowd. However, this alienation is inseparable from the fact that he always has a camera be tween himself and others. There is nothing "prior" to the making of the tape. As a postmodern form of autoethnography, it renders society as an image, or a televisual discourse, and poses the problem of identity through a location of "self " within image culture.
Another filmmaker who has used video to inscribe herself within a world of images is Sadie Benning. In the late 1980s, Fisher Price put a children's video camera on the market that produced such a lowdefinition image that it came to be known as pixelvision. Except for extreme close-ups, the pixels of the digital image are readily visible, providing a highly mediated form of representation. The black and white image is framed by a thick black border when it is transferred onto half-inch videotape. Because pixelvision is restricted to a level of close-up detail, it is an inherently reflexive medium and is especially appropriate to experimental ethnography. The "big picture" is always out of reach, as the filmmaker is necessarily drawn to the specificity of everyday life. (A number of film- and videomakers have used pixelvision, most notably Peggy Ahwesh and Margie Strosser in their 1993 tape Strange Weather, a "documentary" about crack-addicted teenagers in Florida)(31).
Benning's tapes suggest once again that identity is inscribed not only in history but in technologies of representation. Benning shoots most of her tapes in her bedroom, incorporating found footage, newspaper and magazine fragments, and written notes that pass in front of the camera like secret messages to the viewer. Each tape is scored by a selection of pop music, contextualizing the very personal stories within a cultural sphere. As a young lesbian, Benning's persona is constructed against the trappings of youth culture, media culture, and feminism. She performs herself by dressing up, wearing different wigs and makeup, and offering lingering close-ups of different parts of her face and body. Her first-person voice-over narration is confessional and poetic, rhetorical and playful, occasionally synchronized with her moving lips.
Benning uses pixelvision as the language of youth, of a small voice. A Man Called Lovley (pp), the tape that is most explicitly about childhood, opens with some children's drawings, suggesting that pixelvision is the technological equivalent of a primitivist style of representation. The tape was made when she was eighteen, and Benning assumes the voice of childhood, identifying with American children in general. She tells us about a seven-year-old classmate who grabbed her hair and chased her into an alley. She fights back at him, taking shots at the camera, but a scrawled note says she was still scared, and she cuts to a clip from Psycho. This memory is brought into close proximity with the present, collapsing the distance of the past. She tells a story about a man who tried to abduct her, and she offers photos of schoolchildren over the sound of a music box. Then she talks about twenty-seven children who were found murdered in southwest Atlanta in 1979, showing pictures of black children, and concluding that "when these children died, every child died a little." we should be somewhat skeptical of a white girl playing with a children's video camera in her bedroom "identifying" with these victims, Benning's perspective is a hybrid construction of innocence and cultural critique.
Benning's own image is in constant flux, appearing at times with her hair long and at others with it short and cropped. In the tape's longest sequence, she stands in front of an American flag while "America"plays, and she mimics the emotional trajectory of the music with her face and hands, forcing a smile throughout the song. She follows this performance with a message saying, "that scared me too." If in other tapes she works with the contradictions of growing up gay, in this one she confronts the contradictions of being an American child. Benning is too media savvy, and her imagery is too highly developed aesthetically,(32) for her naiveté to be believable, and so she creates a kind of constructed primitivism. Her confessional first-person narration may or may not refer to "the truth," but she nevertheless uses autobiography as a domain of referentiality that works with and against the signs of American culture.
Benning's construction of her lesbian identity intersects with her youthfulness in an ongoing "coming out" diary that links the various videotapes.(33) It Wasn't Love is a tape dedicated to "bad girls everywhere." She poses with a girlfriend for the camera, dresses up like a boy, and tells a story about meeting a woman in Beverly Hills. Benning says, "We didn't need Hollywood. We were Hollywood," and indeed the tape is very much about playing adult games, "putting on" a sexuality that is insinuated in pop music and blues songs. As autoethnography, Benning's tapes produce a subjectivity that evades authenticity. In this she shares something with a videomaker such as Richard Fung, about whom José Munoz writes: "To perform queerness is to constantly disidentify; to constantly find oneself thriving on sites where meaning does riot properly "line up." This is equally true of hybridity, another modality where meaning or identifications do not properly line up. The postcolonial hybrid is a subject who occupies a space between the West and the rest.(34) Benning's position between childhood and adulthood shifts easily into a queer discourse that Laura Kipnis has described as a "license." "It's a tape that refuses victimhood, sees desire as having its own integrity, and uses sex to carve out a sphere of freedom.(35) Benning's "Party on the margins" uses collage in conjunction with the diary format to construct a hybrid identity that refuses to be pinned down. It is, moreover, flaunted as something she dreams up in her bedroom, drawn from the minimal resources of her body, her camera, and her collection of props, images, and music.
The notion of hybridity is key to the diary film and video because it suggests how the multiple subject effects of voice, vision, and body can produce new forms of subjectivity. Through hybridity, postcolonial subjects as well as other identities can potentially escape the limits of nation and gender. This implies a very different notion of "freedom" than the aesthetic of spontaneity advocated by Jonas Mekas and the vérité diarists. In 1968 Jim McBride made a vérité diary film that was also mainly shot in a bedroom, but David Holzman's Diary was a fake documentary, satirizing many of the tropes of cinéma vérité's discourses of honesty, confession, and truth. The film circulated around a character/filmmaker named David Holzman, whose self-indulgence was in fact a nonidentity. His voyeurism masked a void of referentiality and a receding discourse of desires to know, possess, and see – the underlying aesthetic of the vérité project that refers back to a seeing subject.
If diary filmmaking can no longer take the identity of the filmmaker for granted, identity becomes a site of contestation and negotiation. For a videomaker such as Sadie Benning, the diary mode becomes a space of cultural transgression and critiques a site where she can become anyone she wants and is thus able to transcend any assigned roles of gender or age. Both Benning and Kuchar embrace video as a medium of consumer culture, working within the codes of home video as well as those of the avant-garde. Through an appropriation of television as a discourse of the quotidian, their diaries are means of constructing identities from the techniques of image culture.(36)
The journeys undertaken by Sadie Benning in her bedroom-studio-laboratory are through the fragmentary discourses of popular culture. Her use of found footage refers back only to herself as an ethnographic referent, a body whose sexuality, youth, and appearance are not fixed, but in transit among a plethora of intertexts. By fragmenting her body into the image sphere of pixelvision, she becomes completely textual, a constellation of effects that are quite removed from the verbally narrated "I" and from the name of the videomaker. In this way, she cannot be figured, herself, as a representative lesbian or a representative child. Although few other people appear in Benning's tapes, images of people – in magazines, in her stories, in her dressing up, and in photographs – abound. As in Kuchar's tapes, people are perceived only through the mediating effects of the medium. For neither Kuchar nor Benning is the video camera an instrument or metaphor for consciousness; it denotes a public sphere in which they represent themselves as effects of discourse.Homi Bhabha has theorized postcolonial identity as a process of doubling, a "spatialization of the subject" in place of "the symbolic consciousness" of Barthes, and, I would add, "Visionary Cinema.Õ(37) In their video diaries, Kuchar and Benning represent themselves as bodies in space. The camera as an instrument of vision serves as a means of making them visible, a vehicle for the performance of their identities. Bhabha argues that it is through this splitting of the self that the Other is understood as a part of oneself: "That disturbance of your voyeuristic look enacts the complexity and contradictions of your desire to see, to fix cultural difference in a containable, visible object. The desire for the Other is doubled by the desire in language, which splits the difference between Self and Other so that both positions are partial; neither is sufficient unto itself."(38) He goes on to suggest that "by understanding the ambivalence and the antagonism of the other," by deconstructing the homogenization of the Other, "a celebratory, oppositional politics of the margins" will be possible.(39) I would argue that this is true not only of postcolonial identities but also of queer and hybrid subjectivities that seek to represent themselves through an articulation of the gaze. Video provides a degree of proximity and intimacy that enables this spatialization of the body. Instead of a transcendental subject of vision, these videos enact the details of a particularized, partialized subjectivity.
Kidlat Tahimik: Diary of a Third World Filmmaker
Kidlat Tahimik was the filmmaker who has developed the diary film most extensively within a discourse of postcolonial cultural critique. His distinctive filmmaking technique pries apart the various levels of self-representation so that the primitive, the native, and the premodern are ironically constructed within a discursive bricolage centered around his own subjectivity. Although all his filmmaking, including his best-known film Perfumed Nightmare (1977), is autobiographical, the three-hour diary project Why Is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? (1981-1993) is most explicitly so. The history in which the diary evolves is at once that of the Philippines, Tahimk's own family, and global processes of colonialism and neocolonialism. Incorporating found footage, newspaper headlines and TV broadcasts, home movies, travel footage, and documentation of public events and political demonstrations, the film is extraordinarily far-flung – to Germany and Monument Valley, to Magellan and Ferdinand Marcos – while consistently localized in Baguio, Tahimik's hometown in the Philippines.
The episodic structure of Why Is Yellow is much like that of Perfumed Nightmare, which Fredric Jameson has described as a co-optation of "travelogue language." Tahimik's films are made for the Western film festival market, but he is very conscious of his role as native informant, playing with it so as to foreground "the inauthenticity of the Western spectator.(40) Documentary footage is mixed with scripted performances, and he continually reverses expectations of First and Third World cultural scenes. His movement between cultures casts him as an exemplary inappropriate other.
As we have seen in the previous instances of diary filmmaking, the format tends to have three levels of self-representation, and Tahimik exploits each somewhat differently. His voice-over is written as a dialogue with his son Kidlat, who actually opens the work with a first-person account of accompanying his father to Germany and America at the age of about eight. Although Tahimik himself takes over most of the narration, this conceit allows Tahimik to frame his voice-over as words of wisdom to the next generation. The text delivers an unambiguous message about the spiritual superiority of native peoples, the dangers of industrialized modernity, and the economics of cultural imperialism.(41) Tahimik's verbal message is, however, qualified by his vocation as an independent filmmaker and intellectual, married to a German woman and father of three children, two of whom are blond. His speech, in other words, originates in a body that is fully part of industrialized modernity. His politicization of everyday life in what he refers to as the Third World is anything but a primitivist fantasy of identity, even while he champions the cause of native peoples.
Tahimik also inscribes himself on a second level, at the source of the documentary gaze, although his is always a fleeting look. He rarely looks very long at anyone, except his own children, at which point he assumes the role of the father in a domesticated mode of film production. The kaleidoscope of imagery also includes the work of other Filipino artists, his own installation works, performance pieces, and indigenous music. Because he cuts back and forth in time, incorporating so many fragments, and because he never shoot in sync the film, like so Many diary projects, is made in the editing room. Shots of him at the steenbeck are often used to link sections of the film so that the phenomenology of seeing is sublimated in an aesthetic of collecting.
Filmmaking, for Tahimik, is above all a craft, through which he can be aligned with preindustrial modes of production. In his video Takadera mon amour (1989), he constructs a bamboo camera, and in Why Is Yellow he and his son build a "Third World projector" out of rusted junk scavenged in Monument Valley. Its blurry, unstable image introduced at the opening of the diary film is the one that Tahimik embraces as his own vision, significantly aligned not with the subjective eye of the camera but with he public one of he projector.
Artistic process is represented very explicitly in Why Is Yellow as a Third World model of recycling, low-tech bricolage. Tahimik carries out, perhaps more than any other filmmaker, Benjamin's theorization of the artist as producer, adopting the very techniques of the medium to a politicized content.(42) This extends even to his role as a performer, the third level of self-inscription: "The only way I can explain things is through my personal experiences, I'm confessing my own contradictions, so I have to throw myself in. It's also because I'm the only person available and willing to be filmed this way! The actor who is always on call! And cheap too!"(43) Why Is Yellow includes a clip of Tahimik's first film experience, playing the "last savage Indian specimen" in Werner Herzog's Kaspar Hauser, as well as clips from Tahimik's ongoing workin-progress, about Magellan's slave. By playing the role of the slave, Tahimik is able to offset his own postmodern mobility with a discourse of forcible travel and historical displacement, even if it is one that he manages to romanticize as a fiction of revenge and return.(44)
Tahimik's performances throughout the diary place the authenticity of his experience in question, although his body remains a site of historical indexicality. Over the thirteen years that the diary covers, Tahimik's physical appearance gradually changes from the pixieish naif of Perfumed Nightmare to a longhaired bohemian. As his image becomes doubled as both father and slave, its aging is intimately bound to the deepening understanding of this doubleness and its epistemological possibilities.
In Jameson's analysis, Tahimik's critique of Western progress produces "something like cultural nationalism.Ò(45) and yet Tahimik's "Third World energy" is not limited to the Philippines. Moreover, the story of Philippine political history that is told over the course of the film is not a solution to the problem of cultural imperialism. The euphoria of Cory Aquino's victory in 1986 gives way to the subsequent struggle for democracy in the post-Marcos years and the ongoing role of American mass culture in Tahimik's children's lives. Far from a "nationalism," though, he situates himself within the circuits of global capitalism through which First and Third Worlds are inextricably linked.(46)
John Ford's Point in Monument Valley is a site to which Tahimik frequently returns in Why Is Yellow. The footage he shot on his first trip in 1983 with his son becomes a memory, over which his return trips constitute layers of gradual degradation. In 1988 he finds his Navajo friends posing for tourists and keeping a generator in their hogan to watch Westerns on TV. The desert is littered with junk, which Tahimik recycles as props. "John Ford's point," says Tahimik over a hollow TV set in the desert, "is that the only good Indian is a dead Indian." His role as the redeemer of native peoples is overtly romantic, and yet it is assumed as a search for something within postmodernity, not as a practice of salvage. Linking the Igorots in the Philippines with the Navajo is perhaps an essentialist ploy, and yet it is also a function of his assumed identity as Magellan's slave. His own name, Kidlat Tahimik, is an Igorot name that he originally gave to his character in Perfumed Nightmare but later assumed for himself instead of his given Spanish name.(47)
At one point in Why Is Yellow, Tahimik visits a native community in the interior of the Philippine Cordillera, providing the film's most "ethnographic" footage of men building a dam by hand. His segue into this scene from political demonstrations in Manila is an explanation to young Kidlat: "Native peoples join us in our call for justice for Ninoy (Aquino) but they are more concerned with the loss of their ancestral lands, just like the Native Americans. Kidlat, we have a lot to learn from our Igorot brothers." In the film's only talking-head interview, Lopes Na-uyac explains that because the government in Manila treats them only as tourist attractions, the lgorot have to build bridges without government engineering. Bridges made out of vines and scrap metal Coke signs are supplemented by dams to provide water deep enough for saving lives. This passage is indicative of Tahimik's admiration for native ingenuity and efficient management of resources. In his transformation of the salvage paradigm, ethnography remains linked to memory, but not to vanishing cultures. It is his own memory that structures his ethnography as his family grows up and he can edit his own experiences in the form of flashbacks. Memory in this diary is not a discourse of loss but of a layering of cultural forms.
The colonization of the Philippines, first by the Spanish, and then by the Americans, situates Igorot culture as a repressed identity that Tahimik attempts to recover, not as an authentic indigenous culture, but as a constituency in postmodernism. The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo becomes a metaphor for the cultural layering and smothering that the film documents, and an earthquake in Baguio finally isolates the filmmaker from his son, who is now away in university. Toward the end of the diary, young Kidlat is behind the video camera, so if the film spends an inordinate amount of time with Tahimik's children, it also finally allows the son to make the transition from ethnographic subject to ethnographer. The primitivism of children is thus a temporary condition, subject, like native peoples, to the transience of history.
Tahimik's collage is above all an aesthetics of ruins, recycling the surplus waste of commodity culture. The discourse of ethnography in his filmmaking is a form of memory that encompasses the "radical forgetting" of found footage but ado embodies it as a form of experience. The autoethnographic set is a performance of the primitive, through which Tahimik mobilizes the avant-garde as a mode of allegorical ethnographyc One technique that Tahimik shares with Sadie Benning and several other American avant-garde filmmakers such as Su Friedrich and Peggy Ahwesh is the use of toys and models. The little cars and trucks that Tahimik borrows from his kids serve as another form of "acting out and "playing primitive."
Children's toys are in some respects the emblematic waste of consumer culture, made of nonbiodegradable materials to temporary use. Recycling toys as props in films is a means of recalling childhood in a strictly allegorical form, a form in which the signifier itself has a material history. Tahimik's use of toys is like his use of found images and headlines. They are allegorical in their doubleness, to which he gives an economic rationale: don't let anything go to waste. The excess of the First World is the condition of life in the Third, and he aims for a Third World aesthetic that would recast the ethnographic to an allgory of the subject. He produces a subjectivity that is consistently double, inappropriate, and hybrid, signified by the body of the Other, a body that is inauthentic, textual, ironic, transnational. Appropriation is an economics, an aesthetic, and an identity.
Echoing Mekas's role in New York, Tahimik is very active in the art world of the Philippines, having established a film collective in Baguio, and his identity as a filmmaker is as important as his ethnicity. If this is a subtext of the diary film in general, Tahimik transforms it into a global, intercultural identity. On the way to Monument Valley in 1983, he meets Dennis Hopper and goes to a film conference run by Francis Ford Coppola where Perfumed Nightmare is playing. Cinema, for Tahimik, is not a means of freedom from cultural imperialism but provides a language in which he can inscribe himself as a dispersed and multiple subject. Instead of Mekas's nostalgia, Tahimik's cinema represents history as a text in which his own experience is one discourse among many. Neither history nor identity is a fixed entity; they are under continual revision. About his Magellan project, unfinished for lack of a galleon in which to shoot it, he says, "History is not the monopoly of cultures who have books and computers, who can store it in their archives. So I imagine a lot of the material from the slave's point of view."(48) Like Magellan's lgorot slave, the "first man to circumnavigate the globe," Tahimik is himself a construct of multiple languages, cultures, memories, and desires made possible by the techniques of cinematic bricolage.
In the 1993 Yamagita Film Festival catalog, Tahimik lists subsequent installments of the diary up to the year 2001. However, in 1994, he said the film would stop at the earthquake because "I got insecure about my wife's criticism of the film as my ego-trip."(49) a statement that says much about the family dynamics behind Tahimik's home-movie practice. The contradictions of a globe-trotting father are implicit in Katrin de Guia's relative absence from the film. Her performance at the end of Perfumed Nightmare of giving bid in he back of a jeepney (a Philippine taxi made out of recycled U.S. army vehicles) to the "first Kidlat born on the other she of he planet" (Germany) suggests the limits of Tahimik's global perspective. His historical passages from slave to master and from father to son remain inscribed within a gendered discourse that writes women out of the picture. Within Tahimik's postmodern, postcolonial voyage lurk many remnants of a modernist exilic discourse, and yet he does not yearn for a lost authenticity, or a vanishing reality. He constructs a subjectivity within a material history of colonial history. As a collage of identities "embodied" in the Filipino filmmaker, ethnicity is thoroughly deconstructed into a plethora of fantasies, memories, and histories.
Sans Soleil: The Infirmities of Time
I've chosen to end this book with Chris Marker's monumental film Sans Soleil (1982) because it is a film that recapitulates so many of the themes of experimental ethnography. As an autoethnographic text, it is distinctly silent about the identity of its maker, who hides himself within an intricate pattern of first-person pronouns. The voice-over narration, read by a woman, is written in the form of her retelling the contents of letters she has received from a man who travels around the world filming people, places, and animals, a man who is named in the end credits as Sandor Krasna. Footage shot in Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Iceland, the Cape Verde Islands, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Isle de France, and Okinawa is edited together as a global travelogue, linked only by the eye of a fictional filmmaker.
Despite his heroic effort of decentering himself, Marker's invisibility, omniscience, ubiquity, and mobility situate him as yet another belated traveler. His preoccupation with gender and the Other is not masked but foregrounded as a fascination with images. While the literary text of the narration mediates on the nature of images as memories, as traces of history, the image track constitutes a new form of voyeurism, one in which the naked stare is reframed as a desperate effort to find something to hold onto in a world where one no longer possesses images. The identity of the filmmaker is unambiguously a Western male (what else do Krasna and Marker share?), but in the attempt to disavow his own gaze, Marker finds himself cut off from history.
Most critics of Sans Soleil have praised its textuality, its rare use of écriture in an ethnographic context, and its decentered transience that seems to move fluidly between disparate times and places.(50) It is indeed a masterpiece of editing, of literature, and of cinéma vérité shooting, an exemplary instance of he meeting of the avant-garde with anthropology. It remains in many ways a modernist text, anchored in a melancholia of loss, and this loss is understood as a production of cinematic representation itself. Cultural otherness – "Africa" and "Japan" – come to represent a premodernity subsisting within postmodern technologies and politics. While Marker can be accused of essentializing these cultures, which become meaningful only in relation to the absent presence of Euro-American modernity, he also maps out the scale of the task of inverting the salvage paradigm and representing the coevalness of disparate cultures in the cinema. He addresses the impossibility of his own perspective.
Sans Soleil is a film that washes over the viewer, mesmerizing with its complex mode of address as he, the filmmaker, offers images to be seen while she, the receiver of letters, reads a text that is infinitely removed from the places and people filmed. The correspondences between voice and image appear casual, magical, and unmotivated. The rhetorical strategies of the narration place the images at a distance that takes on the aspect of memory: words and image often do coincide, but the description of the depicted scene is doubly or triply mediated. Sandor Krasna's letters are written in the form of memories, dispatched "from another world, a world of appearances." One of the effects of this strategy is that Marker can describe a method of filmmaking that the viewer might accept as he method of the film. In fact, the film has a very different method that remains unaddressed in the narration.
To undo some of the contradictions of Sans Soleil is to return to the critical potential of experimental ethnography, the imbrication of cultural critique with aesthetic formalism. Marker's melancholia is in many ways directed at the loss of a militant avant-garde, the disintegration of a guerrilla cinema of the 1960s when the camera could be considered a weapon in revolutionary independence movements.(51) The discursive structures of experimental ethnography, so evidently displayed in Sans Soleil, lend themselves to a different interventionist role that operates on the level of a politics of representation. In many ways, this film wears its "incorrectness" on its sleeve, referring to the Japanese at one point as "these yellow men" and to the Cape Verde Islanders as a "people of nothing, words that point back to a subject of enunciation that cannot be trusted. The duplicity and rhetorical strategies of Sans Soleil are ultimately means of questioning the "origins" of ethnographic images, in the field of the Other and at the source of the gaze.
Most of Marker's description of method comes in the first ten minutes of the film. Over images of people on a pier in Cape Verde, the narrator says, "Frankly, have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people, as they do in film schools, not to look at the camera?" Although the people in this particular sequence do return the gaze, few other people in the film look back. Actually, Marker's footage is for the most part extremely oblique, catching people sleeping, praying, reading, playing video games, and performing rituals. A more accurate version of the film's method is suggested by way of images of Takanoko dancers in a Tokyo park, whom the narrator describes as "baby martians" and goes on to say, "They want people to look at them, but they don't seem to notice when people do. They live in a parallel time sphere; a kind of invisible aquarium wall separates them from the crowd they attract." This description of filming trance designates the opposite pole from the returned gaze, and it comes much closer to describing the technique of Sans Soleil. For the spectator of this film, and most ethnography, the spectacle of the Other is safely contained within a "fishbowl realism," behind an invisible wall.(52)
Marker's key ethnographic model is said by the narrator to be Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book. This diary of a lady-in-waiting in the emperor's court in tenth-century Kyoto is composed of incidents of daily life, and lists of "things," such as "Presumptuous Things," "Squalid Things" (this category includes "a rather unattractive woman who looks after a large brood of children"), and the list that Marker likes best: "Things That Quicken the Heart."(53) Marker sets aside Shonagon's aristocratic notes on proper behavior and adopts her poetic sensibility as a model of random notation. He forgets, perhaps, that Shonagon's world was a static one, in which her movements were extremely restricted by social protocol, and historical time was circumscribed by the genealogy of the imperial family.(54)
The arbitrariness of Shonagon's diary form suggests a model of image collecting that Marker further links to the lack of modifiers in Japanese poetry. Just to name things, to list them, is sufficient. But the disparate images that he has collected and edited together in Sans Soleil do not work quite that way. His montage is quick, with dynamic juxtapositions, interruptions, and repetitions. The voice-over may be detached, but it is nevertheless richly descriptive. Few of the images are formalized, aestheticized, or contemplative; all are in transit, with movement or action, or they bear signs of temporal processes such as decay or sunsets. The extremely subjective narration, as the meandering thoughts of a fictional character, prevents the images from becoming, simply, a list of "things."
Marker cannot just let things be, allowing their meanings to appear self-evident, and the ongoing commentary has the further effect of silencing the image track. For all its reflexivity, Sans Soleil fails to understand its own practice of enhancing ethnographic imagery with a soundtrack of electronic music. Ambient sound is heard only occasionally for rituals and ceremonies, other voices are heard only in the form of advertising and public speeches. The long lenses that Marker no doubt used to capture some of the more intimate scenes preclude the use of microphones. In the fragmentation of the gaze, the other is distanced within a voyeuristic vertigo, silently reduced to images only one step removed from those Marker finds on Japanese TV. One more description of method that is given early in the film, prefaced by the usual "He used to write to me," is the claim that "my constant comings and goings are not a search for contrasts. They are a journey to the two extreme poles of survival." But what is Sans Soleil if not a comparative ethnography? How can Marker compare African time, Asian time, and European time, if not to compare cultures? "Africa" in this film is depicted solely through images of a rural culture, struggling for independence, fighting starvation, fighting itself. "Japan" is depicted solely through images of Tokyo crowds, surviving high technology through the maintenance and adaptation of ritual practices. The third point in the film's cultural triangle is Iceland. A single sequence of three blond children on a road is "grafted" onto the film to signify the other Other of European ethnicity, and it is this image that comes to bear the weight of memory as he scene is subsequently lost to the eruption of a volcano.
The Icelandic scene may be a scene from childhood, but it is not the filmmaker's childhood. Memory, in Sans Soleil, is unstable, unreliable, and impersonal. It is described elliptically as "the lining of forgetting"it is to the world of appearances what history is to reality. "Reality" may not be a term in the film's vocabulary, but it subsists in the images as their "pre-text," a profilmic space that existed prior to the shot, and to the film. After the volcanic eruption, the pre-textual space of the children in Iceland is destroyed, and the image becomes an emblematic memory. Described as an "image of happiness," the pastoral scene is underlit, as if it were twilight or the onset of a storm, and the children are wary of the camera; the footage is treasured for its sense of transience, the moment caught, stolen, and collected. Is it thus insignificant that the children are white and that the landscape setting is stripped of cultural references? Is memory for Marker a formal category that reestablishes Euro-American identity as a nonrace, a nonidentity at the mythical origins of representation? Is the elimination of history a loss of "his" history, his visual authority, the death of the (great white) author?
Sans Soleil demonstrates the impossibility of an absolutely postmodern, decentered ethnographic film. in the labyrinth of reflecting mirrors, the dislocated global perspective ultimately points back to the subject position of the Western avant-garde filmmaker and his complicit audience. (The narrator says that Japanese TV is watching " you", but who is it watching except the Western spectator, the viewer of the film?) Marker does inscribe himself in the film, via a detour through the growth lines of a sequoia tree in Vertigo, as the maker of La Jetée, another film with such a tree in it. The dialectic of the frozen moment and the irrevocable time of history is focused in La Jetée on the identity of a man who remembers his own death. In Sans Soleil the dialectic is projected onto the identity of the Other who, caught in the gaze, moves between history and memory, experience and image.
The images are collected and edited together as if they had been "found," but although a few sequences were filmed by other people (credited at the end of the film), most shots originate in the gaze of the absent filmmaker. Sans Soleil is a film that constantly turns back on itself, systematically detaching images from their "origins" while lamenting the loss inscribed in this process. One of the most explicit instances of this production of aporias is also, ironically, the one in which Marker announces the gender of his gaze.
After a sequence about the struggle for independence in Bissau and the continued difficulties of a postcolonial economy, the narrator says, "My personal problem is more specific: how to film the ladies of Bissau." Over a close-up of an African woman, the narrator continues, "I see her, she sees me. She knows that I see her. She drops me her glance, but just at an angle where it is still possible to act as though it were not addressed to me. At the end the real glance, straightforward, that lasted a twenty-fourth of a second, the length of a film frame." With the words "the real glance," Marker cuts away to other close-ups of women in the marketplace. This flirtatious dramatization of the returned gaze embraces he failure of film to actually represent the gaze. Who sees whom in this exchange? The filmmaker and the woman are lost in a web of looks that includes the viewer and the female narrator. Moreover, the sequence implies that the "real glance" is so quick that it cannot be captured on film.(55)
My point in stressing the gendered gaze of Sans Soleil is not to psychoanalyse Chris Marker but to suggest how "identity" in this film is coded as the gaze of modern(ist) man. When the narrator says that in Tokyo in January "all you see are the girls," girls are, in fact, all we can see. They are wearing kimono, so they are Other girls, and in superimposing a scopophilic frame onto the ethnographic gaze, Marker stresses the role of desire in the collecting of images. The African woman's look is threatening because it addresses someone behind the camera, but when the still image, the one twenty-fourth of a second, returns later in the film, it is distanced from that origin, cut off from the experience of being filmed. Only then can it be summoned up from memory, as a fetish.
After the fleeting shot of the African woman's returned look, the narrator says, "Women have a grain of indestructibility. It's men's task to make them realize it as late as possible. After a close look at African women, I wouldn't necessarily bet on the men." Women, for Krasna, are clearly objects of the gaze, who can nevertheless resist a penetrating stare and thereby become symbolic of ethnographic otherness, their bodies the terrain on which the battle for equality is fought. They are experience, history, materiality, voice; consciousness and vision belong to men. Although Krasna may not speak for Marker, the discourse on sexual difference is so pervasive the film, A is dear that the anxiety over the gaze that is played out in Sans Soleil is produced within the terms of Western patriarchy. The ethnographic principle of visible evidence is here made synonymous with a desire to possess. Despite his recessive articulation of identity, Marker does not relinquish his stakes in possessive vision but hides himself within a voyeuristic vertigo.
When the African woman returns, she is "in the Zone." Along with a series of other images from the film, she reappears in the form of a synthesized video image produced by Hayao Yamaneko, Sandor Krasna's Japanese friend. Marker's images thus become "found" images that not only are appropriated, reassembled, and decontextualized but become digitalized, abstracted, and ghostly in their video form. The futuristic medium of video, which promises total instant recall of all history, has an apocalyptic edge to it in Sans Soleil, as if the special properties of film to dialectically produce irrevocable loss and an eternal present tense are in jeopardy. The image summoned back in this form is not the same; it enacts a cut in time, a different, nonlinear memory, which is not "his" but Hayao Yarnaneko's.
At one point, Marker takes us to a display of stuffed animals copulating in a Japanese museum-chapel-sex shop complex. The dioramas are lit with a flashlight while the narrator wonders if these scenes represent "a cosmic innocence," an "earthly paradise" before the Fall before the U.S. occupation – or if they signify the great rift of Japanese society, between men and women, which is to say, between "violent laughter" and a "discrete melancholy." In this inscription of the gaze, zoology and pornography are brought together to substitute for that which ethnographic representation cannot show: culturally specific desires and sexualities. Japanese sexual practices are here alluded to within a temporal framework in which desire is always a desire for the past. If taxidermy freezes a moment in time, violently interrupting the continuum of history (and the life of an animal), a feminine principle of melancholy activates the gaze as a form of memory.
The project of Sans Soleil might be described as an attempt to recognize the autonomy of images separated, finally, from their origins in history. If all images are memories, cut off from experience, and if all memory is photographic, that which is not filmed is lost. Japan is the future in this film, a world of appearances, digital images disconnected from photographic pre-texts, cut off from history. Marker's melancholia is more complex than the "imperialist nostalgia" that Caren Kaplan describes as the lament of the modernist exile. He does not mourn for vanishing cultures. His loss is far more metaphysical and is compounded by his chosen medium of representation, the cinema. In Japan, Marker finds a culture in which an ancient aesthetic of transience, of "the impermanence of things," is fused with rapid modernization. japan becomes an intermediary zone between First and Third Worlds, retaining the traces of traditional culture within a high-tech environment, and producing something like postmodernism in the process. Marker is by no means alone in this Western view of japan as being somehow endemically postmodern,(56) although he is also concerned with documenting the traces of religious practices, animism, and rituals that are still pervasive in Japanese daily life.
Japan in Sans Soleil designates the uneven development of modernity. The implied comparison with "Africa" is between hyperdevelopment and underdevelopment, both of which refer back to a notion of the "regular development" of he First (Euro-American) World. Michael Walsh has suggested that Sans Soleil demonstrates how global capital has created spheres of relative development with their attendant connotations of "progress" and "backwardness."(57) Certainly the film demonstrates the "difficulty of thinking in images of relationships between the world's most developed and destitute regions," but the ensuing vertigo is read back onto aesthetic and ethnographic relationships, not onto economic ones.
If in Vertigo Jimmy Stewart/Scottie is finally cured of a fear of heights, the problem in Sans Soleil (which is not "cured" but is certainly subject to analysis) is a fear of the Other, or to put it less dramatically, a problem of looking at others: how to travel, to collect the images that might document one's experience of cultural diversity, without commodifying or objectifying, without assigning the Other a place that exists only in memory, without "othering." Geographical distance will always become temporal distance in the travelogue form that privileges the filmmaker's experience and renders the images as memories of the trip. The problem becomes one for the spectator, who has no point of origin with which to identify. The woman reading the letters has not necessarily seen the images that are described in her narration.
In problematizing the point of origin of his images, Marker attempts to establish an aesthetic distance that might restore a coevalness – an equality of time and space – to the imagery of japan and Africa. But in doing so, he creates another kind of distance, that of the voyeur who hides himself in order to obtain a certain transparency of the spectacle. He casts Sandor Krasna as a "bounty hunter" of images, which is perhaps the film's most accurate description of its own method, and then laments the effect this produces. As the pre-text is cut off in the image, the Other becomes a perpetual memory, the sign of another time that is never the present. Caught in a trap that produces loss at every turn, Marker turns to science fiction for a narrative device that might invert the historical trajectory of ethnographic time. Over shots of various landscapes, in-between and transitory spaces, the narrator introduces a man from the fortieth century, when the human brain is capable of total recall, a man who has lost forgetting."
In a world he comes from, to call forth a vision, to be moved by a portrait, to tremble at the sound of music, can only be signs of a long and painful prehistory. He wants to understand. He feels these infirmities of time as an injustice, and he reacts to that injustice like Che Guevara, like the youth of the 60s, with indignation. He is a Third Worlder of time. The idea that unhappiness had existed in this planet's past is as unbearable to him as to them is the existence of poverty in their present. Naturally he'll fail. The unhappiness he discovers is as inaccessible to him as the poverty of a poor country is unimaginable to the children of a rich one. He has chosen to give up his privileges, but he can do nothing about the privilege that has allowed him to choose. His only recourse is precisely that which threw him into this absurd quest, a song cycle by Mussorgsky. They are still sung in the 40th century. Their meaning has been lost, but it was then for the first time he perceived the presence of that thing he didn't understand. Which is something to do with unhappiness and memory, and towards which slowly, heavily, he began to walk.
Of course I'll never make that film. Nevertheless I'm collecting the sets, inventing the twists, putting in my favorite creatures. I've even given it a title, the title of those Mussorgsky songs, "Sunless."
This is, arguably, the central monologue of the film, the place where Marker abandons a discourse on method and imagines an ideal film. From the perspective of the future, the inequalities of the present will be difficult to represent because, like thirst or hunger, they are beyond representation. Perhaps what Marker longs for is an ability to transcend a politics of representation, but he understands that this is not even possible in the realm of fiction. The Third World is not, after all, an imaginary space, and his own subjectivity cannot be distanced by two thousand years. By finally stepping back from the vision of the "Third Worlder of time" and designating this film Sans Soleil as its inadequate precursor, he inscribes himself as an editor who "puts in" and "invents twists." A shot of an owl with the words "my favorite creatures" further suggests an identity, a "self" behind the film that is not reducible to the generalized identity of a white man.
Earlier in the film, two dogs on a beach are designated as "my dogs who are said to be restless because it is the Chinese new year and the beginning of the Year of the Dog." While these first-person references remain mired in the reflexive depths of the narrator's nonidentity, they enable Marker to refer to the possessive status of the image. Sans Soleil is perhaps a radical attempt to disown images, to dislodge them from a pre-text in which the filmmaker is deeply implicated. And yet he can't quite let go. It is authorship that is at stake in a fully postmodern ethnography, and Marker lingers on the brink of modernity. The gaze is still a contest one that is engendered and politicized, despite his attempt to separate images from history. He cannot be Sei Shonagon, documenting the things that "quicken the heart," because unlike her, he is part of history and works in a medium that embodies and reproduces historical time, transforming it in the process to a time of memory.
The violence of history, represented in Sans Soleil in the form of military aircraft, kamikaze pilots and African independence movements, is also a discourse of images. The horror at the center of Apocalypse Now is as crucial to the pre-text of images as is the seductive gaze of the African woman. If Marker's editing patterns reproduce the shock effect of modernity, the traumatic effect is "cushioned" (in Benjamin's words) by the continuity of the narration. The pre-text of the images is precisely the inequities of global capital, but when they are cut off from their historical "origins" and enter the world of appearances, the shock of discontinuity is obliterated by the nostalgic operations of the traveler's memory, unable to detach himself from his having-been-there.The disintegration of aura, in Sans Soleil, is linked to the dissolution of the trauma and violence of historical experience. Memory ultimately constitutes an anesthetizing cure to the " infirmities of time" – the coevalness of uneven development. The condition of unhappiness escapes the regime of memory, the regime of images, which is why the only good film is a film without sun, without images.
The vanishing of Cinema
The epic scope of Sans Soleil is inconsistent with the scale of most experimental ethnography. its nomadic homelessness is by no means representative of a film practice that more often spins out from the delimited sphere of a local, circumscribed epistemology. Its essayistic nature is, however, typical of he kind of films and videos that work across boundaries of documentary, experimental and fiction film practices. As in Akerman's News from Home, the epistolary form of narration implies an address, a structure of communication, foregrounding the role of enunciation that all film plays. The question of "who speaks" may be the fundamental one of a politics of representation, and yet the point of enunciation can never really be pinned down with certainty. Film originates" in a fractured, plural form of identity.
The narrators in each of these auto ethnographic texts achieve a rare degree of intimacy with the viewer, who is consistently addressed on an emotional level. Thus, even when the "I" of this discourse is a fiction, as in Sans Soleil, the I-you structure provides a discourse of veracity that is subjectively, rather than objectively, based. Marker renders the testimonial form of the letter slightly ironic by refusing to identify his narrator or elaborate on her fictional relationship to either Krasna or himself. The fundamental relationship (of identity) that is typically established in ethnography between filmmaker and spectator is destabilized and demystified.
These examples of personal filmmaking suggest some of the contradictions implicit in the notion of autoethnography. The subject "in history" will always be a destabilized self, one for whom memory and experience are always separate. Even a diaristic project such as George Kuchar's, in which there is no apparent break between experience and representation, inscribes subjectivity as a form of writing, a performance of the self. The journeys undertaken by these film- and videomakers are very different ones, and not necessarily representative of the great range of filmmaking that might be designated by the term "autoethnography." But they do suggest the possible ethnographic effects of placing oneself under scrutiny. Autoethnography produces a subjective space that combines anthropologist and informant, subject and object of the gaze, under the sign of one identity.
Sadie Benning's use of pixelvision and Kidlat Tahimik's epic home movies not only are means by which they perform themselves but constitute visual styles that signal their difference. Moreover, the ironic tone of all the narrators signals a distance from the authenticity of images, and from the authenticity of the self. Jonas Mekas plays out the fundamentally allegorical structure of auto ethnography, transforming all images into memories, traces of experience, signs of the past to be salvaged in cinematic form. Through irony, each of the other filmmakers is able to inscribe himself or herself in the future as another moment in time, and to understand the fiction of the past as a "cosmic innocence." These filmmakers come to understand how they themselves can exist in "a world of appearances," falling back on their identities as filmmakers to reach back to a material reality that precedes images, a domain of agency and history.
Autoethnography in film and video exemplifies Fischer's recognition of the autobiographical model of ethnography but also suggests an expanded sense of the term "ethnic". The fill scope of identities that are articulated in the new autobiographies includes sexual orientation, class, generation, and nation. As personal cinema becomes the foundation of cultural critique, "ethnicity" becomes something forged from experience and is reconfigured as a vital form of knowledge. And as Fischer argues in the context of literary auto ethnography, diary filmmaking serves as an important model of ethnographic representation appropriate to a pluralist social formation. These films and videos suggest how the audiovisual medium of the cinema functions as a means cl splitting and fragmenting identity, not only into the parallel tracks of sound and image, but within the status of the image itself. If "ethnicity" refers to an inherited identity, a fixed history of the self, autoethnography in film and video destabilizes and disperses that history across a range of discursive selves.
When autoethnography becomes an archival practice, as it does in these works, memory is fragmented into a nonlinear collage. The pieces that are assembled into the shape of a diary forsake the authenticity of documentary realism for a fiction of forgetting. The filmed memory situates the filmmaker-subject within a culture of mediation in which the past is endemically fictional. To recall that past by way of memory traces is to render it "another culture" in an ever receding palimpsest of overlapping cultures, of which past, present, and future are merely points of perspective. Subjectivity subsists within image culture as an "other reality" – a utopian space where hierarchies of vision, knowledge, and desire are diffused and collapsed. The journey to this parallel universe is linear neither in time nor in space, moving across histodes and geographies to produce a dialectics of cultural representation. Benjamin suggested the urgency of such a practice in the early 1930s: "The remembered world breaks up more quickly, the mythic in it surfaces more quickly and crudely, (so) a completely remembered world must be set up even faster to oppose it. That is how the accelerated pace of technology looks in the light of today's pre-history. *Waking*."(58)
The video-film dialogue that informs so much contemporary filmmaking inscribes the "accelerated pace of technology" into the text itself, setting up allegories of cultural conflict, tension, and transition within the sphere of memory and its representation. In the cinema, self- representation always involves a splitting of the self, a production of another self, another body, another camera, another time, another place. Video threatens to collapse the temporal difference of filmic memory, not only because it can eliminate the structure of secondary revision, but because of its "coverage," its capacity as an instrument of surveillance. The economics of videography transform the collecting process into one of recording. Video lacks the death drive of film, unable to exploit the dialectic of still and motion photography. But neither can video "forget" film and its auratic fantasy of transparency, its memory of the (celluloid) body in the machine. In its immediacy, without that intermediary "liminal" phase of the photographic negative, video threatens the structures of memory on which autobiographical conventions are founded. The video image shifts the terms of realism from lost aura to an eclipse of auratic memory, or at least it holds out the possibility of such a transformation. Self- representation likewise shims into something much more fluid and open, discursive and intertextual, even fictional and fantastic. Both Tahimik's diary film and Marker's travelogue inscribe video as a futuristic transformation of cinema, one that will alter our conception of memory and history. Everything will be retrievable; nothing will be lost, except the sense of loss. But cinema has been vanishing since its inception, deeply implicated in colonialist practices of salvage ethnography. Its techniques of mummification are, however, merely an effect of its realist mandate Dismantling the ideology of realism demands that the otherness of the referent be likewise dismantled. This is the achievement of video for film, a domestication of the technology and an inscription of impermanence and temporality, of allegory into the photographic image.
Medium-specific aesthetics will always break down on the variety of applications and forms that a medium produces its plenitude of "contents" – and this is especially true of video, which draws on so many cultural, aesthetic, institutional, and consumer forms. Experimental ethnography is a critical method that might enable us to think of video as an extension of film. The deployment of video in autoethnography, as in ethnography and the avant-garde more generally, is only the first step in thinking about the diversification of film into a host of digital media. The fear that these media will "replace" film is exemplary of the means by which video has reinvented cinema as a discourse of vanishing, of a particular modernist sensibility that finds itself always on a historical cusp.