The New Evidentiary Cinema


Published on

Talk delivered at UC Santa Cruz, Department of Film & Digital Media, February 1, 2013

The New Evidentiary Cinema

  1. 1. The New Evidentiary CinemaRick PrelingerUC Santa Cruz, February 20131
  2. 2. 2In recent years weve seen a lot of work thats based on archival materials, and seen a fair amount ofresearch and writing about archival cinema. This is an excellent trend, in my view, but I thinksomethings missing. Theres very little talk about archives themselves -- we leave that to archivistsand the occasional philosopher. I think we might be making a tremendous mistake. While movingimage archives are conceptually at least as old as cinema itself, it sometimes seems as if theirrelationship with cinema -- especially with cinema studies -- is still emergent. As eaters, werestarting to demand more information about how our food is produced. Perhaps we should try to askmore about how archives produce history.And defining the specificity of the archives is tricky, too. Were in an age of historical simultaneity,where archival and contemporary images, text, sound and artifacts combine and interoperate withinthe culture. The "archive," whatever it is, is difficult to distinguish from contemporary mediadistribution channels.So today Im going to set the stage by reviewing some of the work Im engaged in on archives andtheir future. Ill speak about the unstable state of contemporary moving image archives, suggestwhat I think is their unfulfilled potential, and propose some possible trajectories of convergencebetween repositories and makers, opportunities that might radically change the nature of collectingand production. Ill also suggest that certain sectors of archival cinema might have the potential tobridge cultural and community divides. And Ill finish by describing my own film work over the pastfew years.
  3. 3. Exactitude vs. anecdote31898: Boleslas Matuszewski, a cameraman, proposes the Motion Pictures Historical Depository(Dépôt de cinématographie historique). While his employer Louis Lumière is said to have stated,"Film is an invention without a future," Matuszewski suggests a public archives that performs regularscreenings, mandatory deposit for the national patrimony (dépôt légal), and a periodical devoted tofilm preservation. In support of his initiative, he cites films "authenticity, exactitude, and precisionthat belongs to it alone." But Paula Amad, in her book Counter-Archive (from where thesetranslations are taken), points out that Matuszewski is not completely resolved: he also expressesconcern that the cameraman might "slip into" "anecdotal History." Exactitude vs. anecdote.Well come back to this later.
  4. 4. A few words regarding archives4Throughout this talk, youll see me switching hats, even though it makes me uncomfortable toacknowledge that archivists and makers fulfill separate and distinct roles. This is not inevitable. Andyet archives and makers desperately need one another, even if most of them dont yet know it. Thearchives offers a great deal to makers: the opportunity to play simultaneously in past and present, toperform historical interventions in a world much in need of context, to invoke spaces and activitiesthat are difficult or impossible to simulate, and to quote with authority and humor.And these are just points of departure -- Id contend weve hardly come to terms with what we asmakers can do with our collections. And when archives are criticized as dysfunctional, rarefied, orunavailable, makers could offer them the opportunity to redefine themselves as open workshops,mothers of production and exemplars of populism. This is a LIFELINE that might refresh the agingand poorly examined consensus that permits archives to remain open, as essential culturalinstitutions.
  5. 5. "For it is in the nature ofartistic creation toconfer importance."— Bertolt Brecht:"Telling the Truth: Five Difficulties" (1935)5But despite their antinomies, both archivists and archivally-focused mediamakers inhabit unstableterritory.Well, so what else is new? This is the 21st century. But permanence is inscribed in the archivalcharter, if anything is; instability is an almost unspeakable condition. And even though todayscomplex and crowded media landscape greets most moving image work with indifference, and theboundaries between amateur and commercial, vernacular and professional media chip away at itsauthority, many makers might take strong exception to any characterization of their work asunstable or ephemeral. In fact we often perceive ephemerality as an indicator of amateur andvernacular imagemaking, while custom and the market encourage those who self-define as artists toproduce discrete works, works that bear titles, works that can be distributed, collected andpreserved. "For it is in the nature of artistic creation to confer importance," said Brecht. But the redvelvet curtain frames fewer and fewer works today. The eternal, ahistorical present absorbs what itcan, and much of the rest is forgotten. And, sooner or later, unplayed and unshared media devolvesinto unplayability.
  6. 6. Internet ArchiveSan FranciscoBritish Film InstituteBerkhamsted6Whether it lives in a neoclassical building with columns or an prefab steel structure in an industrialpark, the moving image archives has few claims to stability and even fewer to permanence.
  7. 7. Moving image archives:short history,little theory7Moving image archives are youngsters with pretensions to eternity. Conceptually, theyre as old ascinema itself, but most are much younger, less than thirty years old in fact. And, aside from a fewconspicuous exceptions, most of the several thousand North American moving image repositoriesthat we can identify as such are accidental -- they sprang up to address problems for which noother solutions could be found. These young, accidental institutions aspire to collect some of themost unstable and ephemeral media forms and preserve them forever (and, not incidentally,preserve cinema culture as well). Can we imagine a more presumptuous, impossible mission?And while archives and archivists have formed a variety of official and unofficial networks, the fieldis far from coordinated, and whatever consensus seems to exist is typically assumed rather thanspelled out. Our founding principles, codes of ethics, and relations to our users are frequently adhoc, inconsistent, in flux. And unlike the textual archives field, where practice is often informed by abody of generally accepted theory, moving image archivists seldom look up from their rewinds. Thepolitics embedded in our workflows are hardly discussed. Theres a disturbing tendency to eternalizethe present when it comes to thinking about the way we do our work.
  8. 8. 8Compared to our European colleagues, North American moving image archivists have littletheory of our own, and whatever there is flows exceedingly slowly from theoreticians totrenches. In fact, Id contend that much archival work is a largely unexamined, hands-onexternalization of cinephilia. So in the absence of a theoretical basis for much of our work, Iwould argue that we must instead speak with resolve.In all fairness, our empiricism may be more of a feature than a bug. Compared to libraries,museums and textual archives, moving image collections are a relatively new sector ofmemorykeeping, and this renders us more open to new ideas. There have been someconspicuous examples of paradigmatic shifts in our field in the past generation: storageovertaking film-to-film copying; the idea of "access as preservation," ephemeral and orphandocuments moving from periphery to center, etc. Archives are, in fact, more open toexternalities than they are to developing their own ideas. They react more than they act: to thestrictures of enclosure laid down by the commercial media industry, to legacy ideas aboutarchives put forth by theoreticians of the textual, and to organizational and budget constraintsset by managers. And they often react anxiously.
  9. 9. 9If, to paraphrase Howard Besser and many others, the default condition of analogmaterial is to persist, while the default condition of digital material is to decay, I wouldsuggest that the default condition of the contemporary archives is now anxiety. Anxietypervades archival practice. Archives accustomed to artisanal collecting, selection,appraisal and preservation are now facing firehoses of data and media that no entity(even a Google) could ever completely collect. Systemic austerity has undermined theconsensus that archives perform essential functions, and we are seeing the shrinkageand even disappearance of key institutions. (National Archives of Canada, Georgia StateArchives, to name two). Universal online access to holdings, an exciting prospect to somearchivists, is still a threat to many. Will archivists follow typesetters, telegraphers andswitchboard operators into oblivion?
  10. 10. Trapped between thepromise of permanence andthe reality of ephemerality even the specific materiality of the physical materials we collect is called into question. Duringthe film era, archives embraced the certainty of celluloid, even though that might have beendeceptive. Film-to-film copying was a stable, physically based method.Todays "digital dilemma," as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences puts it, traps archivesbetween photochemical technologies that will likely soon be extinct and digital workflows thatproduce bits we dont yet know how to preserve. In the case of film, we can still collect, but we soonwont be able to copy; and in the case of new digital formats like DCPs (digital cinema packages) wehave as yet little assurance that we can either collect or copy the materials.
  11. 11. 11The digital dilemma makes news, because it resonates with widespread concern about the fate ofour personal and family records, and about the survival of fragile documents of mass self-expression. This shared territory of concern between archivists and the public they represent couldbe better exploited, but its usually associated with anxiety and a discourse of loss. In fact archivistsare not above triggering their own version of moral panics when they need help. We saw this withthe "Nitrate Wont Wait" campaigns of the 1970s, and were seeing it today with digital anxiety,which conflates format obsolescence, bit rot, fear of the cloud, distrust of large corporations, andmore.
  12. 12. 12Ive spoken on other occasions about how tradition, fear of loss of control, and excessive deferencetowards copyright holders (who may not even exist) cause archives to erect walls of enclosurearound the materials they hold. This is self-defense at its most destructive.For a long time Ive been interested in trying to bridge the divide between archives and makers. Thiswas one of the reasons I started working with Internet Archive in 1999 to put thousands of our filmsonline. This was generally a success -- there have been many tens of millions of films viewed anddownloaded -- but it hasnt influenced many other archives to do the same thing at scale. Theystream but refuse to allow download or reuse. And while access to archival moving images hasimproved steadily since that time, it is still something of a radical act to open up archives for usesnot explicitly vetted by their custodians.
  13. 13. 13Much of my work over the past several years has centered around home movies, and my newproject is made completely out of them.Archives were largely indifferent to home movies for many years. Since the 1980s interest hasgrown, and home movies have even acquired a cachet of trendiness in some quarters. There are afew archives principally devoted to collecting them, and the nonprofit Center for Home Moviesseeks to foreground them in the public mind and raise money for preservation and access.Id suggest its critically important to look seriously at home movies today. Why?
  14. 14. 14Home movies challenge conventional archival practice. Archives that have focused on records of thestate, institutions and businesses or on works of artistic and historical importance arent wellequipped to catalog extremely granular records of everyday life. When you collect home movies youare, in the words of Brecht, forced to choose between being human and having good taste. Homemovies require a new curatorial attitude that can stare infinity in the face and smile.And home movies may be exactly what archives need in order to reengineer themselves, to leveragea new social economy of access and help ensure their survival. Im going to offer a few propositions.
  15. 15. 15Home movies have become populist documents, in part because of their extreme granularity, inpart because of their quotidian character. Solitary computer viewers and crowded auditoriums alikeare intensely fascinated with records of the minutiae of daily life, especially when they’re highlylocalized. Doing urban history screenings for the past seven years has been for me a profoundawakening.
  16. 16. 50th Grand Conclave, Omega Psi Phi, December 27-30, 196516Home movies can surprise, and they can be counter-stereotypical. I used these images from the50th conclave of the historically African American Omega Psi Phi fraternity in a Detroit program,and within 8 hours after they went online they were posted to the fraternitys website. This is notthe usual "ruin porn" that visitors to Detroit often photograph and distribute.
  17. 17. 17Ive come to realize that cinema began with home movies (Lumiere -- Workers Leaving the Factory,which both a home movie and an industrial film) and hopefully ends with home movies as well.Home movies address a major problem besetting documentary film today, which isovernarrativization. Please hold for a polemic.To get a film into top-level distribution, you need a cast of characters. You need a narrative arc,quite often a classical three-act structure. You need jeopardy or an insoluble contradiction, andsome sense of closure or hope at the end. In short you need to observe the some subset of the rulesof fiction to make non-fiction. The process called "storytelling" is presented as inherent to humanconsciousness and above criticism. Naturally this is not always the case, but its characteristic ofmuch mainstream work.Critically, home movies resist overnarrativization, since they already imply a narrative. When youhave a shooter and a subject, you have a story. You dont need to impose one on top of theevidence.When you enlarge small film to a big screen, you envelop an audience in evidence. You present thefamiliar while estranging it. You bridge the gap between image and audience that all filmmakersmust bridge, but much more easily.And you link individuals with larger histories.
  18. 18. Robert C. Binkley, Manual on Methods of Reproducing Research Materials, 193618The near-infinite quantity of home movies requires public mobilization to locate, collect, view,analyze and describe them. Public participation helps unpack details that are part of localknowledge or specialized practices. User tagging has yielded dramatic results at Texas Archive ofthe Moving Image and Flickr Commons.
  19. 19. Personal records: a new frontier19Home movies special resonance can help to create new relationships between individuals andinstitutions. Specifically, home movies broach possibilities for archives to collect and provide accessto personal records, which I consider one of the great opportunities of our time.Archives need to integrate what we currently think of as "personal archival material" withinstitutional collections. We have focused on the fonds [the organizational scheme inherited frominstitutions whose records we hold] rather than the flavor. The two kinds of collections constitutetwo oppositional, yet codependent, ways of addressing the past.There is a growing asymmetry in the historical record, especially in a time when it is starting tobecome widely recognized that institutional histories fall far short of documenting lived and socialexperience. The "digital turn" may ultimately be less wrenching to archives than the challenge ofmerging personal and institutional. But I think we must take it on. Theres no way we can simplycollect and display mass media, institutional and government records and call that history. We haveto merge the collective and the personal.
  20. 20. Modest objectives:1. Move home movies into cultural mainstream2. Accelerate pace of traditional research, scholarly andeducational use of home movies3. Enable new areas & forms of scholarship, incl. digital4. Build corpus of reusable footage5. Move from boutique approach; open up massive amountsof material6. Enable automated & machine analysis7. Skew online moving image environment towardhome movies, away from more established genres8. Geocodes, tropes, archaeology9. Encourage evolution of archival workflow & practice byproblematizing legacy practices20And we need to find a way to build participatory physical archives (explain). Weve been doing thisfor a year in SF with a group I convened. And others, like Jacqueline Stewart at Northwestern and theSouth Side of Chicago, and Theaster Gates, of the Dorchester Projects Library and Archive inChicago, are doing similar work.Here are some of our humble objectives. (Key points: #5, #6, #7, #8, #9)I predict that home movies are going to be the raw material of research and scholarship in areas wehave yet to imagine. All of life is their territory. Imagine the Ethnographic Jukebox, where taggedsequences can be retrieved by keyword and compared. Imagine a geotagged database of the entireworld as shot by home moviemakers over time. Imagine lipreaders turned loose to interpret whatimmigrant families of the 1930s were actually saying. Imagine algorithmic analysis of home moviesby the millions, perhaps not to describe action in detail, but to separate home movies into “buckets”of similarity for further analysis. Just as digital scholars are teaching machines to read and analyzetexts, we need to teach machines to watch films.
  21. 21. Prelinger Library, downtown SF, Wednesdays 1-8 pm21In participatory physical archives, our users actually handle and process materials. What if wegeneralized hospitality and touch as attributes of modern cultural repositories? Could we actuallylet users touch unique materials? Could we enable participation not only in the research room andauditorium, but at the bench? We can say no, or we can try to engineer ways to make this possible.Lets let the public into the back of our archives, museums and libraries, and see what happens.Hospitality, from Derrida as interpreted by Verne Harris, South African archivist and archivaltheorist:here is a sense in which the notion of hospitality demands a welcoming of whomever, or whatever, may be in need of thathospitality. It follows from this that unconditional hospitality, or we might say ‘impossible’ hospitality, hence involves arelinquishing of judgement and control in regard to who will receive that hospitality. In other words, hospitality also requiresnon-mastery, and the abandoning of all claims to property, or ownership. If that is the case, however, the ongoing possibilityof hospitality thereby becomes circumvented, as there is no longer the possibility of hosting anyone, as again, there is noownership or control.Jack Reynolds, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last updated 2010-01-12
  22. 22. 22That speculation, which I believe to be true, has led me into a new project, which Im currentlyworking on, thanks to the kindness of Creative Capital. Its a feature-length, all-archival film whosetitle is NO MORE ROAD TRIPS? Its just been announced that it will premiere as a work-in-progress atSXSW this coming March. Im furiously editing.The motivation behind this film is my fascination with the North American roadscape, and mycuriosity about its future. Its a dream ride through 20th-century America, made entirely from homemovies, asking whether weve come to the end of the open road. Have we reached "peak travel"? Canwe still find fortune (and ourselves) on the highway? Are we nomads or stay-at-homes? Im buildinga journey from the Atlantic Coast to California out of my archives of 9,000 home movies. Thefootage is quite incredible; history bleeds out of it. And, like my urban films, the soundtrack will bemade fresh daily by the audience, who will be encouraged to recall their past and predict the future.There will be titles here and there, and Ill be using various techniques to trigger comment.
  23. 23. 23
  24. 24. a new evidentiary cinema:• seeks evidence in broad spectrum ofdocuments (home movies, etc.)• celebrates localism and place• linked to participatory archives projects• exploits the recognition of the familiar asa route to parsing the unfamiliar24Some thoughts on how a new evidentiary cinema might work.An undogmatic attitude towards inputsOften rooted in a place or regionCould be the result of participatory archives projectsEmbeds media parsing exercises by relating unfamiliar imagery to the more familiar
  25. 25. a new evidentiary cinema:• interactive and informal• Elizabethan model of spectatorship• pro-story, anti-"storytelling"• avoids overdetermining audio, narration,editing• lets sequences play; paced for rejoinders• relies, upon other things, on the attractionof the image itself25As minimal as can beDifferent kind of editing, since you need to allow for audience rejoinderin its own way like editing classic comedyLets images speak for themselves in all of their ambiguity
  26. 26. a new evidentiary cinema:• trigger comment, not emotionalreactions• trust audience to find their ownnarratives in the material• set up a contract between host andaudience, and between viewers• not live presentation of predeterminedpiece, but throwing film into arena26Barrett Watten, a so-called language poet who teaches at Wayne State, wrote a little poem called"Narrative," in which he likens narrative to malware, and describes the shenanigans he had to gothrough to eliminate malware from his machine. I take it as a warning of how complicated it willbe to rid our filmmaking of unnecessary narrative.Doing so about trusting the audience and relinquishing a certain kind of control (the Derridean"unconditional hospitality"). It is throwing the film to the wolves. But the wolves are friendly.
  27. 27. some antecedents:• sports spectators• Elizabethan theatre• comedy club• Question Time27If I could specify the ideal audience for this, it would be sports spectators, with keen eyes fordetail, interacting with the players and with one another, unafraid of making noise.
  28. 28. 28EVIDENTIARY CINEMA suggests a different ecosystem of archival usage and reception. It bringsarchival materials to the public in a form that they can easily recognize as coming straight fromarchives. It enlists audiences in finding, providing and sharing archival material in a live,community-oriented context, and recruits archives to push out materials to the public (CHS, SFPL,WNP, etc.). It engages audiences with material rather than with personalities (characters, actors, etc)Functionally, its a disintermediation between archives and their public.And, interestingly, since my works are completed by the public through their vocalizations,constitutes a live, realtime workshop situationFor me, its not so much giving people permission to speak as its asking them to actively reclaimthe record, and for newer Americans, offering them a record for them to reclaim on their own terms.
  29. 29. 29From my own experience, I have noticed evidentiary cinema triggers recognition in audiences inpart because it evokes and simultaneously alleviates their concerns regarding their own personalarchival records.-- "If these pictures survived, maybe mine will. And perhaps mine will be as interesting to futureaudiences as are these."And the process of parsing the everyday historical record suggests to people that, scale aside,decoding and interpreting the record of the present will be possible.Finally, evidentiary cinema underscores and promotes the potential of the archives. It is one of whatI hope will be many strategies to re-thematize the repository -- not as a place where films go todie, but as a place of origin, where old works are revived and new works are born.
  30. 30. Exactitude vs. anecdote30To return to the concern I recalled at the start.Boleslas Matuszewski worried in 1898 that films "authenticity, exactitude, and precision" might beweakened by a camera operators predilection for "anecdotal History."Evidentiary cinema collapses Matuszewskis warning. It presents the appearance of exactitude withthe intention of triggering anecdote. In so doing, it aims to bridge the divide between individualsand history.
  31. 31. you.