Knowledge of sensible realities thus comes to life inside the tissue of experience. It is made; and made by relations that unroll themselves in time.
William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism1
A Tentative Overview of Boston-Area Documentary Filmmaking
Over the years, particular forms of filmmaking have been identified with particular cities: Hollywood, with commercial melodrama, obviously; Mumbai, with a certain form of Indian musical; and New York and San Francisco with American avant-garde filmmaking. And in his remarkable book, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), David James argues convincingly for the Los Angeles area's centrality not simply in the history of commercial filmmaking but in the histories of a wide range of alternative cinemas. One of James's accomplishments is to recognize that the makeup of a particular urban area can facilitate the production of specific forms of cinematic art and particular kinds of cinematic critique.
During the past fifty years, the Boston area has been the fountainhead of American documentary filmmaking.2 Much of the most interesting and influential nonfiction filmmaking of recent decades has been made in and around Boston, or by men and women who have had significant connections with the Boston area. And filmmakers working in Cambridge at the MIT "Film Section" and at Harvard have made formative changes in how documentary is understood and in what kinds of documentaries get made. Surprisingly, however, relatively little attention has been accorded this phenomenon. Even in the Boston area itself, at least until very recently, very few have seemed to recognize the city's significance for this crucial dimension of film history.3
To some extent, the Boston area's emergence as a producer of documentary film had to do with the expansion of technological options available to nonfiction filmmakers beginning in the early 1960s. The availability of lightweight, sync-sound film rigs (Ricky Leacock, who would team up with Ed Pincus in 1968 to establish the Film Section at MIT, was a central figure in the development of this equipment) made new forms of "cinema verite" filmmaking possible.4 The result was a new set of options for documentary. The increasing mobility, flexibility, and sensitivity of recording equipment facilitated a wide range of innovative approaches to representing reality. Filmmakers recording image and sound from within the flux of events could now act as "flies on the wall," observing what they saw and heard with little interference, or they could instigate new situations and record the results as they unfolded.5
Observational documentary has substantial roots in the Boston area. In 1960 Robert Drew, who studied new editorial approaches for candid film reporting while on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, assembled a group of filmmakers-Leacock, Albert Maysles, D. A. Pennebaker-to document the Wisconsin Democratic primary race between John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey. The result, Primary (1959), was a breakthrough, providing viewers with an insider's view of the American political process; this in-close depiction of American politics at work continued in Drew Associates' later films, including Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), a documentation of the desegregation of the University of Alabama by John Kennedy and his attorney general, Robert Kennedy, in the face of Governor George Wallace's resistance.6 Several of the Drew Associates were soon making their own contributions to the observational mode: after filming what became a television show about the strange scene that surrounded the birth of the Fischer quintuplets in Aberdeen, South Dakota, in 1963, Leacock made Happy Mother's Day (1963, co-directed by Joyce Chopra), his own satirical version of the experience. At MIT from 1968 on, Leacock would continue to explore the possibilities of observational filmmaking, to work toward the development of increasingly lightweight and inexpensive sync-sound equipment, and to nurture a younger generation of filmmakers. Albert Maysles and his brother David (both were born in Boston and raised in Brookline, and both were graduates of Boston University: Albert earned an M.A. in psychology and taught at B.U. for three years; David, a B.A. in psychology), made their breakthrough feature, Salesman, in 1968, documenting four Bible salesmen who were working out of Boston.
The most prolific and independent of Cambridge documentary filmmakers working in the observational mode is Frederick Wiseman. Since 1967 and Titicut Follies, his controversial film about inmates at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Bridgewater (shot by John Kennedy Marshall), Wiseman has been recognized as the quintessential observational filmmaker. Accomplished and often brilliant, Wiseman has focused on a wide range of American institutions-institutions in a broad sense of the term-in dozens of feature films, including such cine-landmarks as High School (1968), Law Order (1969), Hospital (1970), Welfare (1975), Near Death (1989), and Belfast, Maine (1999). Wiseman's work, a staple of American public television for a generation, has provided, and continues to provide, a remarkable panorama of contemporary institutional life. Wiseman's films are distributed by Zipporah Films, Wiseman's distribution company in Cambridge.
Another major Boston area contribution, or really a continuing series of contributions, to modern documentary has resulted from the long-term commitment of Boston's television station WGBH to well-crafted informational documentaries. Since The Negro and American Promise (1963), WGBH has been a pioneer in television programming about race. One of WGBH's signal series, of course, is Eyes on the Prize, produced by Henry Hampton, who moved to Boston in 1961, where he founded Blackside Productions. For the two Eyes on the Prize series-the first, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965), which premiered in 1987 on PBS; the second, Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads (1965-1985); it premiered in 1990-Hampton assembled a group of researchers and filmmakers, many of them African Americans, who compiled a wealth of documentation of the civil rights movement and interviewed many of the individuals who had participated in or witnessed crucial events in this history. The fourteen programs in the two series provide the most extensive and gripping cinematic record of one of the major social transformations in American history. Among the most powerful of the Eyes on the Prize episodes is the thirteenth program, The Keys to the Kingdom (1974-1980), which was produced, directed, and written by Harvard graduate Paul Stekler and the late Jacqueline Shearer, a lifelong Bostonian: this episode chronicles the clash in Boston over school busing. Boston University graduate Orlando Bagwell, who directed the third and fifth episodes of Eyes on the Prize, has gone on to make a series of documentaries about African American history, including the four-part, six-hour, WGBH-produced Africans in America (1998).
Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary
The Boston area continues to be a remarkably active center for nonfiction filmmaking, though the modern development of two particular genres of documentary seems more precisely a product of Cambridge, and in particular of the MIT Film Section and the Peabody Museum, the Film Study Center and the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard. One of these genres has come to be called "ethnographic film": originally, the term designated the use of film to document information about preindustrial cultures, particularly cultures on the verge of collapse or transformation. During recent years, "ethnographic film" has come to have a much broader cinematic application.
The other genre of documentary Cambridge has nurtured is what has come to be called "personal documentary": the cinematic chronicling of the filmmaker's personal and/or family life. This genre of documentary needs to be understood, at least for the purposes of this study, as distinct from the various forms of "personal filmmaking" that have been developed by "avant-garde" filmmakers since the 1940s. These include the "psychodrama"-dramatizations of disturbed states of mind: for example, Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Kenneth Anger's Fireworks (1947); the personally expressive cinema of Stan Brakhage, Bruce Baillie, and Nathaniel Dorsky; and the diaristic work of Jonas Mekas. In this study, "personal documentary" is used to refer to those explorations and depictions of the personal lives of the filmmakers during which family members, friends, and others are recorded in sync sound, or with the illusion of sync sound, interacting conversationally with the filmmakers.
On one level, ethnographic documentary and personal documentary might seem the antithesis of each other: one has traditionally involved the travels of anthropologists to far-flung locations to observe people very different from themselves; the other, the self-conscious investigations by filmmakers of their personal lives. But for all their apparent differences, the two approaches are fundamentally two sides of the same cinematic coin, the inverse of each other. Robert Gardner has said that "going to distant cultures leads to self-examination which in turn refines sensibilities for detecting meaning in the lives of others."7 By the early 1970s, the use of cinema to explore the exotic Other had not only revealed aspects of the Self to particular ethnographic filmmakers, it-along with a variety of other cultural developments-was instigating what soon became a major new avenue for documentary: the cinematic exploration of the patterns and nuances of the filmmakers' own culture, as exemplified by their personal lives.
Prime movers in the development of ethnographic cinema were Lorna Marshall, her son John Marshall, and Robert Gardner. Once she and her family had decided to travel to the Kalahari Desert in southwest Africa, longtime Cambridge resident Lorna Marshall studied anthropology at Harvard; she went on to write The !Kung of Nyae Nyae (Harvard University Press, 1975) and Nyae Nyae !Kung Belief and Rites (Peabody Museum Press, 1999). She also produced First Film (shot in 1951; final form 1995), a breakthrough depiction of the lives of gatherer-hunters in the Kalahari Desert. John Marshall began documenting the lives of these same groups on expeditions sponsored by the Peabody Museum and the Smithsonian Institution, and in later years, worked to help those he had filmed maintain some vestige of their culture. The Hunters: A !Kung Bushmen Film (1957) was the first of John Marshall's dozens of films about these people-a body of work that reveals a wide range of experimentation.
Robert Gardner, another major figure in the evolution of ethnographic documentary, graduated from Harvard, then, after some years on the West Coast, where he made several short films, returned for graduate study in anthropology. In 1957 the Peabody Museum established the Film Study Center to assist in the management of the Marshall family's African footage and named Gardner the center's first director. For several years Gardner worked with Marshall on the editing of The Hunters. In 1963 Gardner finished his own ethnographic classic, Dead Birds (1963), which premiered in Cambridge at Harvard's Loeb Drama Center. Like John Marshall, Gardner would continue to make important contributions to documentary filmmaking for decades. Dead Birds and The Hunters were the first modern ethnographic films to be included in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry, in 1998 and 2003, respectively.8
A third crucial figure in the history of ethnographic cinema was Timothy Asch, who got his M.A. in African Studies at Boston University (with a concentration in anthropology at Harvard). For a time, Asch worked at the Peabody Museum as a production assistant on several of John Marshall's films, and he reviewed and cataloged the material Gardner sent back from New Guinea during the shooting of Dead Birds. In the late 1960s Asch teamed up with anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon to begin what became a remarkable (and in the end controversial) series of films focusing on the Yanomami people living near the headwaters of the Orinoco River in southern Venezuela. Several of these films, including the landmark The Ax Fight (1975), were finished in Cambridge, while Asch was teaching at Harvard.
In 1968 John Marshall and Asch teamed up to found Documentary Educational Research, which in 1971 incorporated as Documentary Educational Resources (DER), a nonprofit distribution organization whose mission, as set forth in its certificate of incorporation, was to serve the "needs of educational institutions and of education, in general, in respect of the fields of anthropology, ethnology, ethnography, sociology and all related disciplines and science." Asch and Marshall hoped to "stimulate, discover, develop, foster, coordinate, plan, improve and encourage all aspects of educational instruction," specifically, by having the new organization distribute their own films-and in time, films by others committed to using film to explore the diversity of world culture. For some years, Marshall and Asch were DER, and Marshall remained in close touch with the organization until his death; but working within the parameters the two filmmakers had set up, Sue Cabezas, hired as administrative manager in 1974, and Cynthia Close, who became DER's executive director in 1993 when Cabezas left, developed DER into an effective distributor. Currently based in Watertown, Massachusetts, DER now distributes hundreds of films by nearly three hundred filmmakers, and its collections of John Marshall and Timothy Asch films and papers are the core of the Smithsonian Institution's Human Studies Film Archive.
Other accomplished ethnographic filmmakers have visited Harvard and have taught there over the decades: Jean Rouch, for several years during the early 1980s, for example, and more recently, David McDougall. And by the end of the first decade of the new millennium, the Cambridge tradition of ethnographic film production had been revived by Lucien Castaing-Taylor at Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab. Along with his partner, Ilisa Barbash (currently a curator of visual anthropology at the Peabody Museum), Castaing-Taylor studied visual anthropology at the University of Southern California with Asch, then earned his Ph.D. in anthropology at Berkeley. At Harvard, he and Barbash completed a feature film (Sweetgrass, 2009), documenting the final moments of a century-old practice of herding sheep into Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture, and in 2006 Castaing-Taylor established the Sensory Ethnography Lab, which has nurtured a cadre of accomplished and adventurous filmmakers interested in using cinema to provide sensory experiences of other cultures or cultural practices that are in the process of transformation-experiences that cannot be encoded within written anthropological texts.
A prime mover in the development of personal documentary was Ed Pincus, whose Diaries: 1971-1976 (1980) reveals the struggles of maintaining a marriage during an era of social experimentation. At MIT, Pincus had considerable influence on a younger generation of filmmakers. Miriam Weinstein, for example, explored her relationship with her father in My Father the Doctor (1972), her marriage with Peter Feinstein in Living with Peter (1973) and We Get Married Twice (1973); and during the 1970s and 1980s, Jeff Kreines, Ann Schaetzel, Robb Moss, Michel Negroponte, Mark Rance, John Gianvito, and other veterans of the MIT Film Section explored a variety of approaches to using their personal experiences as the subject of documentary. The best-known filmmaker to come out of the MIT program is Ross McElwee, whose chronicling of his own life and family-in Backyard (1984), Sherman's March (1986), Time Indefinite (1994), Six O'Clock News (1996), Bright Leaves (2003), In Paraguay (2009), and Photographic Memory (2012)-is well known and has become widely influential.
At Harvard, Alfred Guzzetti began making his own contributions to the development of personal documentary first with Family Portrait Sittings (1975), which explores the ways in which families construct mythic versions of their histories, and subsequently with films about his children. In 2012 he returned to the personal mode in Time Exposure, a video homage to his parents' support of his filmmaking. Joined at Harvard first by McElwee in 1986 and soon after by Robb Moss, Guzzetti and his colleagues have been inspirational to a generation of younger filmmakers, some of whom have explored the personal documentary (Nina Davenport, Alexander Olch), while others have incorporated dimensions of personal documentary into other forms: Andrew Bujalski's influential "Mumblecore" films, for example, while fictional, owe a good deal to the personal documentary approach.9
Pragmatism: Learning from Experience
What is it about the Boston area, and Cambridge in particular, that can account for a continuing preeminence in the production of documentary? Certainly, the area's remarkable cluster of educational institutions has created not only a context for the production of films that serve the purposes of education but also academic programs that have nurtured prospective filmmakers: Boston University, Emerson College, the Massachusetts College of Art, MIT, and Harvard, in particular, have long served filmmaking students. Further, the steady production of independent documentaries in the Boston area has also been fueled by the strong presence of nonprofit media organizations. In addition to WGBH, the Center for Independent Documentary, Filmmakers Collaborative, the former Boston Film and Video Foundation, and more recently the LEF Foundation have all played important roles by facilitating the production and exhibition of independent nonfiction film. This network of academic and nonprofit organizations remains a key part of Boston-Cambridge's documentary tradition. Also, the area has long been served by independent cinemas-the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, the Harvard Film Archive, the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline-as well as independent film series offered by colleges and universities: Fred Camper's MIT film series in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, and Saul Levine's ongoing series at Massachusetts College of Art, and the nomadic Balagan Film Series initiated and curated by Alla Kovgan and Jeff Silva.10 The estimable work done by these and many other individuals and institutions has kept a vital film culture alive in the Boston area.
And how might one account for the particular emergence of ethnographic filmmaking and personal documentary in Cambridge? Here, conjecture is a bit foolhardy: so many factors are at play in urban environments. However, one intellectual tradition that seems as fully identified with Cambridge as ethnographic filmmaking and personal documentary may at least offer a way of thinking about this phenomenon. For Charles Pierce and William James, the creators of Pragmatism, coming to know the truth, or what truth there is, involves looking carefully at lived experience in order to become aware of its process and its principles. In the minds of the Pragmatists, a priori reasoning may produce intellectual ideas of remarkable complexity and brilliance, but firsthand experience of real events produces knowledge and the ground for reasoning itself.
Early documentary film, including much of American documentary from Robert Flaherty through the 1950s, was focused on explaining ideology and providing information conditioned by ideology: that is, on applying ideas already arrived at to a variety of social realities, from the nature of the Inuit struggle for survival in northern Canada to the reasons why Americans needed to fight the Nazis. The advent of new filmmaking technologies during the 1950s and 1960s made it possible for filmmakers to make different kinds of documentaries. The emergence of cinema verite shooting transformed ethnographic filmmaking and made personal documentary possible-in both cases, allowing filmmakers to record lived experience as it unfolded and to provide cinematic experiences from which audiences must draw their own conclusions. The types of documentary most fully identified with Cambridge do not primarily report findings or offer polemics; rather, they attempt to cinematically observe and reconstitute real experience so that the filmmakers and their audiences can come to understand the process of human life more completely.
In Art as Experience, his landmark Pragmatist treatise on aesthetics (based on lectures he delivered as the first William James Lecturer at Harvard in 1932), John Dewey explores the relationship between works of art and lived experience in considerable detail. For Dewey, "an experience" is distinct from "experience" in general by virtue of the fact that an experience is understood by the experiencer as having a shape: a beginning, middle, and end. An aesthetic experience is a particular instance of this shaped experience. For Dewey, "That which distinguishes an experience as esthetic is conversion of resistance and tensions, of excitations that in themselves are temptations to diversion, into a movement toward an inclusive and fulfilling close"; an aesthetic experience occurs only "when the factors that determine anything which can be called an experience are lifted high above the threshold of perception and are made manifest for their own sake."11 Works of cinema, and in particular, the forms of cinema produced by the filmmakers explored in this book, are manifestations of the process of transforming the experiences witnessed and lived by the filmmakers, experiences full of tensions and resistance, into particular cinematic experiences that are, if not conclusive (no one film, or set of films, can be entirely conclusive about any particular or general experience), at least fulfilling, in Dewey's sense of the term.
Dewey distinguishes between the delivery of intellectual conclusions and the perception of lived reality in a manner that is relevant for this discussion:
An intellectual statement is valuable in the degree in which it conducts the mind to many things all of the same kind. It is effective in the extent to which, like an even pavement, it transports us easily to many places. The meaning of an expressive object, on the contrary, is individualized. The diagrammatic drawing that suggests grief does not convey the grief of an individual person; it exhibits the kind of facial "expression" persons in general manifest when suffering grief. The esthetic portrayal of grief manifests the grief of a particular individual in connection with a particular event. It is that state of sorrow which is depicted, not depression unattached. It has a local habitation.12
In general, the tradition of documentary up until the late 1950s and early 1960s was intellectual, in the sense Dewey describes, or at least "intellectual" (I'm thinking here of the jingoistic logic used in most war propaganda). Even if the conclusions early documentaries presented to viewers were based on lived experience, they were presented primarily as facts that viewers needed to understand and affirm, not in a form that can be called experiential in any sense beyond the basic fact that all films are experienced perceptually.
What distinguishes the forms of observational and interactive cinema made possible by cinema verite shooting, and ethnographic film and personal documentary in particular, from the earlier tradition of documentary is the filmmakers' commitment to lived experience, on several levels. Most obviously, these films reveal how things happened to certain people at a particular time. This experience occurs on two levels simultaneously: we understand that the subjects in the film are going through specific experiences that we are in some measure witness to, and we, as members of an audience, are experiencing these cinematic versions of the subjects' experiences. Whatever conclusions the subjects might draw from what has happened to them, we, as spectators, must decide not only what their experiences, as rendered through cinema, might have meant to them and to the filmmakers, but what they do mean to us.
In ethnographic film and personal documentary, we also become aware of the experience of the filmmaker as he or she develops the experience of the film we are seeing. Sometimes the filmmaker's experiences are implicit (as they are in many of Marshall's and Gardner's films); at other times they're explicit, as they usually are in personal documentaries and as they are in some of the films coming out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab. But always, in the films that are discussed in the following chapters, there are three levels of experience that must be taken into account: the experiences of the subjects as rendered in film, the experiences of the filmmakers who have created the cinematic links between their subjects and audiences, and the experiences of the individuals in the audiences that assemble for these films.13
As this introduction is written (summer-winter 2011-12), I am unaware of any specific evidence that directly connects Pragmatism with the emergence of Harvard's Film Study Center or MIT's Film Section. It does seem clear, however, that the formation of the Film Study Center grew out of the decision of J.O. Brew of the Peabody Museum to support the work of the Marshall family, and John Marshall in particular, in their attempt to record the lived experience of the nomadic peoples of the Kalahari Desert. According to John Marshall, when Laurence Marshall went to the Peabody Museum to see whether a planned expedition to the Kalahari might be useful to the museum, Brew suggested they look for "wild Bushmen," and made it clear that "if you could [find them] in the plains of Africa, you had a window on the Pleistocene that nobody ever dreamed of."14 Presumably, Brew's hope was that cinematic records of the lived experience of the !Kung might offer clues to the nature of human history and of the human experience in our own time. The MIT Film Section was established by then-MIT provost (later president) Jerome Wiesner as part of the School of Architecture and Planning, again presumably as a means of adding cinema's ability to record and present lived experience to the university's academic mission: Wiesner's original hires were Ed Pincus and Ricky Leacock, both, at the time, accomplished observational filmmakers.15
Each of the following chapters explores different dimensions of how particular filmmakers have learned from their experiences and of how we can learn from the experiences of their films, but I'm sure it will be obvious to readers who find their way into American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn that I am less interested in defending an argument that these filmmakers and films are "Pragmatic" than I am in demonstrating the richness of the experiences made available in the work I explore. Particular "themes" will be evident-most obviously, the ways in which the personal lives of filmmakers factor into the ethnographic films and personal documentaries they've created-but here too, I am less concerned with proving a point about the personal than in revealing what individual filmmakers and films can offer to thoughtful audiences. To paraphrase what Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell said, long ago-about books-in "Film in the University," I know that the films I discuss here are better than anything I say about them, but I also believe it is one, perhaps after all the fundamental, value of a scholar-teacher to put such films before possible viewers to show that this adult human being takes them with whatever seriousness is at his disposal.16
It should be mentioned, of course, that Cavell's fascination with movies and moviegoing as a subject for philosophy was deeply influential in the development of a filmmaking community in Cambridge and on the thinking and work of Robert Gardner and Alfred Guzzetti, in particular-as well as on William Rothman, who was Cavell's student at Harvard, then taught at Harvard, and has made important scholarly contributions to thinking about documentary films produced in Cambridge. Of those who have explored the accomplishments of Cambridge documentary filmmakers, Rothman has been the most alert both to particular contributions and to the nature of the filmmaking community that has nurtured them.17
The Mission of American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn
Scholarship on documentary cinema has proliferated during recent decades in the wake of Erik Barnouw's still estimable Documentary (Oxford University Press, 1974) and the prolific work of Bill Nichols, beginning with Ideology and the Image (Indiana University Press, 1981) and Representing Reality (Indiana University Press, 1991). The establishment of the annual Visible Evidence Conference by Jane Gaines and Michael Renov in 1993 was instrumental in establishing a community of scholars interested in exploring both the long history of documentary and the burgeoning production of new documentaries and new documentary forms around the world; these scholars have produced, under the guidance of Gaines and Renov, the Visible Evidence series of books on documentary, published by the University of Minnesota Press. If for many years, little substantive commentary could be found on documentary in general and/or on particular documentary films, it has become a considerable task to keep up with new work in the field. Of course, any number of scholarly explorations of documentary filmmaking have been important for the discussions in American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn . The inventive selection of films discussed in Catherine Russell's Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Duke University Press, 1999), and in Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski's Documenting the Documentary (Wayne State University Press, 1998), for example, confirmed my growing interest in moving beyond my interest in avant-garde film to explore more fully the variety of nonfiction film practices.
More specifically and more recently, Stella Bruzzi's New Documentary: A Critical Introduction (Routledge, 2000) has been useful in drawing my attention to the fact "that documentaries are inevitably the result of the intrusion of the filmmaker onto the situation being filmed, that they are performative because they acknowledge the construction and artificiality of even the non-fiction film and propose, as the underpinning truth, the truth that emerges through the encounter between filmmakers, subjects and spectators."18 And Dai Vaughan in For Documentary (University of California Press, 1999), a collection of essays based on Vaughan's experiences working as a documentary cinematographer, has helped me understand that, while fiction cannot lie ("How would you set about telling a lie in fiction?"), our experience of documentary film is defined by our assumption that documentary can lie, can betray our expectation that an image represents "what, within its given context, it may reasonably be taken as representing."19 Both Bruzzi and Vaughan recognize that whatever distortions of "reality" are inevitable in the process of representation, sometimes "it seems necessary to remind writers on documentary that reality does exist and that it can be represented without such a representation either invalidating or having to be synonymous with the reality that preceded it."20 Without a sense that the experience of documentary film can reveal something worth knowing about "reality," we cannot learn from it-and yet, clearly we do learn from these experiences, even if what we learn is that we cannot be sure of what we understand, that all truth is tentative and evolving.
Documentary has become theorized in recent decades, and as a result we have come to more clearly understand the many issues raised in attempts to represent reality, but a good many of the most interesting contributions to documentary history have remained underappreciated. The fundamental mission of this volume is not to engage in the ongoing debate about the potentials and limitations of documentary in general, but to bring long overdue attention to specific Cambridge-based filmmakers who have made major contributions to ethnographic filmmaking and personal documentary and to explore what seem to me their most interesting films. Both genres have received some critical and scholarly attention (this will be evident in subsequent chapters), but for the most part commentary on particular films has been constricted by their categorization as "documentary": to treat the films discussed in The Cambridge Turn solely as instances of traditional and ongoing debates about documentary filmmaking is to miss much of what the films have to offer as contributions to the history of film art.
In certain instances my approach will seem to fly in the face of filmmakers' own senses of themselves. Both John Marshall and Timothy Asch resisted thinking of their work as "artistic." Their conscious goal was education, not the production of works of film art. And yet, looking at their films now, it is clear that whatever the educational value of their work (and in some cases it is considerable), their films are in fact interesting aesthetically, and they themselves can be, and in my view should be, understood as visual artists whose work relates in a variety of ways to the work of filmmakers who are generallyregarded, and who have regarded themselves, as visual artists. My discussions of particular filmmakers and films offer what I hope are new and useful insights into the accomplishments of particular films and the shapes of individual careers; and in general American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn is an attempt to situate the considerable achievements of these filmmakers and their work within a larger sense of film history and in some instances the histories of literature and painting. Of course, given my decades-long fascination with what (for better or worse) continues to be called "avant-garde" cinema, it is probably inevitable that I see a good many intersections between the films I discuss here and films usually identified with that category.
The overall trajectory of my discussions is meant both to suggest how ethnographic filmmaking and personal documentary have evolved during the past half-century and to reveal some of the ways in which what originally may have seemed quite different approaches to filmmaking have influenced each other, sometimes becoming imbricated with each other. While John Marshall initially attempted to provide what he understood as a detached, objective depiction of the lives of the !Kung, his developing awareness of how the lives of these people were transforming-indeed, how his family's involvement with these people had hastened this transformation-caused Marshall to become personally involved in the !Kung struggle to retain something of their culture and their dignity as a people. Conversely, while Ross McElwee's films about the American South seem to focus on his own family and his filmmaking, the resulting films provide viewers with a considerable panorama of southern life during a particular era-not a formal ethnography, of course, but a fascinating and engaging set of cultural insights.
The extent of my commentary on individual filmmakers and films has depended both on my sense of the longevity of particular careers and contributions and on the complexity of specific films. Early chapters of The Cambridge Turn are focused on careers that have evolved over a period of sometimes more than half a century. Later chapters focus on selected contributions by often-younger makers. In some instances, important but limited accomplishments-limited meaning either that a filmmaker made one specific contribution to Cambridge filmmaking, or that a particular contribution is historically important but less than remarkable aesthetically-by individual filmmakers are included within overviews of longer careers. Of course, I have tended to write in more detail about films that I have found especially complex, enlightening, and useful.
A note on terminology: throughout this project I have used film to refer to moving-image art and document, whether the individual "films" were shot or are available on 35mm, 16mm, or 8mm celluloid, or on video in the ever-proliferating digital forms. When a "film" was produced or is available in a digital format, I make that clear-but since the filmmakers discussed generally call themselves "filmmakers" and their films and videos "films," I have not attempted to maintain a distinction between film and video except when the difference is germane to a particular discussion. Also, I use the terms personal documentary and autobiographical filmmaking interchangeably.
Subjects for Further Research
My focus on ethnographic film and personal documentary precludes my dealing in depth with a good many facets of Boston-area and even Cambridge filmmaking. In a few instances, I was unable to access films that I know are relevant to my discussions of personal documentary. I could not find a way to see either Jeff Kreines's The Plaint of Steve Kreines as Recorded by His Younger Brother Jeff (1974) or Mark Rance's Death and the Singing Telegram (1983), as well as other early work by Kreines, Rance, and Joel DeMott-all three of whom were students at the MIT Film Section.21 This counts as a considerable limitation to American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn , one that I am embarrassed by. Filmmaker-teacher John Terry should also have been part of these discussions, but by the time I was aware of his connection with the MIT Film Section and began to learn about his films, this volume was already too extensive and too far along in the publishing process: I must be satisfied to come to grips with Terry's work and influence at a later time.
The two most famous documentary filmmakers living in Cambridge as this is written-Fred Wiseman and Errol Morris-receive no attention here. Wiseman's films do provide a kind of ethnography of institutional life in modern America. Nevertheless, his films are not ethnographic in the usual sense of the term, and, beyond the implications of Wiseman's choices of subject, they are some of the least personally revealing films in the documentary canon. And while Wiseman's home base has been Cambridge since the beginning of his career, he does not seem to see himself as part of the community of filmmakers that has developed in Cambridge over the decades and has functioned in a wide range of ways as a mutual support system for independent work:
MACDONALD: Fred, was there something in the Boston area, or in Cambridge in particular, that helped you move in the direction of documentary filmmaking or that helped you become the kind of filmmaker that you've become?
WISEMAN: Nothing that I can think of.22
Errol Morris's expressionist approach to often bizarre, nearly surreal subject matter is distinct from the development of ethnographic documentary (though clearly there are ethnographic dimensions to a number of his early films: Gates of Heaven , for example, and Vernon, Florida ) and from the evolution of personal documentary (though Morris's voice in some films-The Fog of War , for example-reveals a good bit about his personal passions). My commitment in American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn is to bring attention to underrecognized and/or less understood filmmakers and films. Like Wiseman, Morris does not lack for attention from reviewers, critics, and even scholar-filmmakers: Charles Musser and Carina Tautu's Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch  is an engaging feature-length interview with the filmmaker.
The many accomplishments of documentary filmmakers who have worked under the auspices of WGBH must also be the subject of another scholar's investigation. The same is true of the contributions of a variety of individuals, including John Terry, who worked with Pincus and Leacock at MIT (Made in Milwaukee, 1979, and many other films); Richard Broadman (Mission Hill and the Miracle of Boston, 1978; The Collective Fifteen Years Later, 1985; Brownsville Black and White, 2002), Abraham Ravett (The North End, 1977; Haverhill High, 1979), Jane Gillooly (Leona's Sister Gerri, 1994; Today the Hawk Takes One Chick, 2008), Juan Mandelbaum (Our Disappeared/Nuestros desaparecidos, 2008), and Alla Kovgan (Nora, 2008).
This study also largely ignores many forms of filmmaking and electronic media arts that have been produced at MIT and Harvard. I know nothing about the MIT Media Laboratory, which came into being in 1980 after the demise of the Film Section. Nor do I discuss the many accomplished animators who have been connected with the Carpenter Center (Robert Gardner claims that "almost every animator of moment in American and European animation has taught at Harvard").23 And the Visual and Environmental Studies filmmaking program at Harvard has produced many accomplished filmmakers who are not discussed here-instances include Darren Aronofsky, Andrew Bujalski, Mira Nair, and Jehane Noujaim-despite my having considerable interest in some of them.
Finally, with one important exception, I say almost nothing about avant-garde cinema, a dimension of film history that much of my earlier writing has explored, even when filmmakers have had some connection with Cambridge, including, for example, Radcliffe graduate Abigail Child, who began her career as a documentary filmmaker and has become a prolific avant-garde filmmaker and video artist and a member of the senior faculty at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. There is also Cambridge resident Rebecca Meyers, who has worked at the Harvard Film Archive and more recently for Robert Gardner's Studio7Arts-Meyers's exquisite depictions of the subtleties of daily experience have obvious documentary elements. Of course, my not writing about these (and other) Cambridge- and Boston-area filmmakers (prolific diarist, Anne Charlotte Robertson; Robert Todd, Luther Price, teacher-filmmaker Saul Levine) means no disrespect for their work. I have written about some of their accomplishments elsewhere and hope to explore others in the future.24
The exception is Alfred Guzzetti. In addition to Family Portrait Sittings, his pioneering contribution to the personal documentary, Guzzetti has collaborated on ethnographic films, on films about the Nicaraguan revolution; and his Two or Three Things I Know about Her: Analysis of a Film by Godard was published in 1981 by Harvard University Press. During all this time, however, Guzzetti has been making contributions to avant-garde film and video, beginning with Air (1971) and continuing into the 1990s, when he began producing a remarkable series of video works that combine documentary elements with personal revelation in a manner more in tune with the avant-garde traditions of personal film than with personal documentary. I have included a full chapter on this dimension of Guzzetti's work because attention to it is long overdue and because the unusual breadth of his career has allowed him to have considerable impact on his filmmaker colleagues and on filmmaking students at Harvard for forty years.
Perhaps it goes without saying that the following chapters are a function of my personal admiration of the filmmakers and films I do discuss. While I try to be an honest and painstaking and reasonably thorough scholar, at least within the parameters set up by this book, I cannot pretend to be a detached scholar. I am not, and have no desire to be, merely an observer or an analyst of what has gone on in documentary during a particular time in a specific place. Cinemagoing and the process of developing some sense of the history of the wide world of cinema have invigorated my life, providing me with experiences that have been not merely pleasurable, but formative-and as the years have gone by, re-formative-in my thinking about cinema, myself, and the world. Many of the films I discuss here have had and continue to have-to use William James's provocative term-immense "cash value" for my work as a film history teacher. It will be obvious that my admiration of the filmmakers I discuss and of their particular films is not unalloyed; nevertheless, the writing in this volume-and this has been true of all of my writing-is essentially an ongoing act of gratitude.
Any long-term project in film history requires the assistance of many individuals and organizations. My designation as an Academy Scholar for 2012 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came at a most opportune time, providing both financial and moral support for the completion of this project. But American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn required an extensive period of germination.
In order to see the films I've written about, I depended on the consistent generosity of Documentary Educational Resources, and in particular of Cynthia Close, executive director at DER during most of the time when I was researching and writing. Thanks also to current Executive Director Alice Apley and Director of Design Media Frank Aveni. A good many films by filmmakers I wanted to explore are not in distribution, and the Harvard Film Archive was very helpful in making many of these films available for study. Thanks to Haden Guest, Clayton Mattos, Mark Johnson, and Elizabeth Coffey for their assistance.
The filmmakers themselves were remarkably generous in sharing their work with me. I am deeply grateful to Robert Gardner, Ed Pincus, Jane Pincus, Alfred Guzzetti, Miriam Weinstein, Robb Moss, Ann Schaetzel, Ross McElwee, Michel Negroponte, Steve Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, Valerie Lalonde, John Gianvito, Nina Davenport, Amie Siegel, Jeff Silva, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Ilisa Barbash, Stephanie Spray, J. P. Sniadecki, and Véréna Paravel for their kindness, generosity, and patience with me.
During early moments in the development of this project, the LEF Foundation, that stalwart supporter of New England filmmakers and filmmaking, involved me in public events that allowed me to test the thinking that has led to The Cambridge Turn. Lyda Kuth engaged me to assist LEF with their exhibition program, Facing Realities, arranging for me to interview Robert Gardner and Jane Gillooly at a public event at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. During the summer of 2010, LEF asked me to interview Fred Wiseman after a screening of Hospital at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge. These experiences helped me to develop the confidence to pursue this study.
My sense that the development of Pragmatism was relevant to the cinema history this volume explores was nurtured by Robert Huot, Ian MacDonald, Rutgers professor James Livingston, my Hamilton College colleague Katheryn Doran, and by the writing of Harvard professor Louis Menand.
In trying to understand how ethnographic film and personal documentary developed in Cambridge, I had the assistance of several organizations. Ilisa Barbash helped me make contact with the Peabody Museum, and with the help of Reference Archivist Patricia H. Kervick, I was able to explore the origins of the Marshall project and the founding of the Film Study Center at Harvard. In July 2010, I was able to spend several days researching the Marshalls and Timothy Asch at the Human Studies Archive at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where I was assisted by Karma Foley. Robert Gardner made the resources of his Studio7Arts studio available to me several times, and Rebecca Meyers assisted my work there.
The Visual and Environmental Studies Department at Harvard asked me to teach the history of documentary filmmaking during the fall of 2007 and again during the winter of 2009 and fall of 2012, when I focused on Cambridge's role in documentary history. This opportunity was very helpful, and I am grateful to David Rodowick, Dominique Bluher, J. P. Sniadecki, Stephanie Spray, Robb Moss, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Heidi Bliss, Haden Guest, Julie Knippa, Clayton Mattos, Rebecca Meyers, Jeff Silva, and Jason Steeves-and of course to the students, including Che Salazar, Lili Erlinger, and several Nieman Fellows (Kael Alford, Thorne Anderson, Rosita Boland, Sapiyat Dakhshukaeva, Jake Hooker, Andrea Simakis, and Chris Vognar), who were part of what was a wonderful learning experience for me.
My opportunities to teach at Hamilton College and at Colgate University during the years when this project was researched and written provided me with opportunities to test out my ideas, to travel when necessary for my research, and of course, to maintain economic stability. I am particularly grateful to my Hamilton colleagues Patricia O'Neill, Nancy Rabinowitz, Peter Rabinowitz, Marilyn Huntley, Timothy Hicks, Bret Olsen, Heather Johnsen, Deborah Pokinski, and Terri Viglietta; and to John Knecht and Lynn Schwarzer at Colgate University. Thanks too, to the Office of the Dean of the Faculty at Hamilton-and to Dean Patrick Reynolds and Associate Dean Margaret Gentry-for their willingness to support American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn with a generous subvention.
For many years I taught at Utica College of Syracuse University (now Utica College) and had the good fortune to team-teach courses in ethnographic cinema with anthropologist John Johnsen. These were formative learning experiences for me, and I am grateful to Johnsen for his knowledge and his ongoing collegiality.
Many other individuals, including a good many scholars and teachers, made important contributions to my thinking, supported my various attempts to garner financial support for this project, and offered other forms of assistance. Thanks in particular to Jay Ruby, David James, Linda Williams, Tom Gunning, John Terry, Jane Weiner, Perle Møhl, Clayton Mattos, Fred Camper, Haden Guest, Jim Lane, Kenneth Eisenstein, and Rebecca Meyers.
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