Retelling history from lost sources

Orla Ryan

Within film studies found footage is most commonly understood as related to contemporary documentary practices. [1] Its principle dynamic, of “retrieval and recycling" of moving images to re-interpret their original narrative context, offers documentary film makers both a cheap resolution to small budgets and a philosophically rich terrain in which to explore contemporary society and its relationship to media images. [2] From the humorous and politically acerbic Roger and me (dir. Michael Moore) to the most plodding and mundane television documentaries and their use of the media institution’s moving-image archive, found footage has become a standard documentary practice.

In the following discussion, however, I want to concentrate on found footage as a practice within art contexts, the way in which some of this work operates as a form of critical and experimental documentary practice. In looking at Matthew Buckingham’s Situation leading to a story (1999) we can explore this work’s engagement with found footage as historical artefact or document and a recurrent questioning of the archive itself as representation. The assumed authority of the archive and historical representation is targeted by the destabilization which occurs through much found-footage moving-image practice. [3] Here the use of found footage is related to an emphasis on history and memory, allowing the artist/filmmaker/viewer the opportunity to explore debates on documentary as representative of objectivity, authenticity, truth, fiction and the factual in relation to the moving image. Catherine Russell remarks, “found footage is a technique that produces ‘the ethnographic’ as a discourse of representation," [4] by which I understand her to mean that the ethnographic model loses its given assumption of mimetic transparency. Situation operates as a means of exposing the vulnerability of ethnographic discourses which are reliant on objectivity and authenticity, etc., denying the underlying documentary assumption of transparency in representation.

Found footage as a practice also offers a potentially more grounded historical precedent as a method of destabilization within narrative studies than more recently fashionable (though out of date) theoretical fantasies mapped onto digital technologies. Here utopian desires are projected onto digital narrative’s supposedly ‘intrinsic interactive’ and multi-narrative properties and are used as a means of distinguishing them from the supposedly ‘linear narratives’ of analogue media such as the book or film. While the irrelevance of this distinction may be obvious perhaps, it is still important to qualify the point. At its most basic, a narrative strategy or particular form may place certain coded structures in place to direct and even control meaning; however, the existence of linear narratives within any form is questionable. Film theorist Paul Willemen, for example, reminds us that “narrative has never been linear […] narrative constantly loops back and branches out, condenses and proliferates uncontrollably, which is precisely why the ‘meaning’ of a story can never be fixed once and for all." [5]

Once one accepts that meaning does not reside in the text/film alone, is not created solely by the writer or filmmaker but is a process that constantly involves the intellectual labour of the reader or viewer of the work, the linear narrative as bad theoretical object ceases to exist. The process in which the reader or viewer constructs the narrative is dependent on such a mix of multiple and interweaving discourses which, to simplify matters (unnecessarily perhaps), are usually categorised as class, gender, race, nationality age, etc. Given the complexity of subject formation and subjectivity, the idea of linear narratives should at this stage really be understood as more to do with the critical limitations of particular writers who employ the term rather than serving any useful intellectual function in the discussion of the moving image or indeed any narrative form.

This of course is not to say that the film maker is devoid of any critical responsibility in the closing down or opening up of a space of meaning production. In the work presented here the use of found footage is employed by Buckingham as an important structural device in the creation of an expanded intellectual space where we are openly invited to analyse meaning production in the field of visual representation.

In Situation leading to a story four found films are projected one after the other with minimal intervention by the filmmaker. [6] These found films are 1920’s home movies, presenting a wealthy family strolling on a lawn, a bullfight, a cable tramway construction in Peru and the building of a four-car garage. The four found films used in Situation are not part of any archive, recognized and named, but, rather, they are fragments, detritus found on the street. In his attempt to make a connection between the films, looking for the same people in each film, for example, Buckingham eventually concedes “that the four films had been thrown out – they were connected to each other in this way – someone did not want them." [7] In the final throes of deterioration, these discarded films, “delicate and brittle" and giving off a “pungent odour" (possibly vinegar syndrome), are disassociated from their original context as home movies. In this process of detachment these four found films have neither fixed meaning in and of themselves nor in their relationship to each other; their connection is immersed in contingency, brought together through an emptying out of use-value; any connection they may once have had to one another remains elusive.

Unlike standard found-footage documentary practice, where there is often an expectation of prior knowledge of the original narrative which is then disrupted through a process of re-editing, in Situation Buckingham does not re-edit the films but instead shows them without hierarchy one after the other. The gap produced by this process suspends the idea of finding and retrieving while the viewer makes connections where none ostensibly exist. While this minimal serial procedure invests Situation with a surface calm, the gap maintained between the projected images and the dialogue (narrated by Buckingham) actively constructs a site to analyse meaning as constantly in transition rather than fixed.

In her discussion of documentary practices, Trinh T. Minh-Ha writes,

if life’s paradoxes and complexities are not to be suppressed, the question of degrees and nuances is incessantly crucial. Meaning can therefore be political only when it does not let itself be easily stabilized, and, when it does not rely on any single source of authority, but rather empties it, or decentralizes it. [8]

In Situation the voice-over constantly digresses away from what appears directly relevant to the images on screen to more personal issues related to finding and researching the films. The dialogue accompanying the projected films explains how Buckingham found the films, along with his research in trying to resolve where the films originated from. Though the voice-over could, perhaps, be momentarily associated with the narrative voice of authority and knowledge of standard documentary and ethnographic film practice, (what Minh-Ha refers to as the “almighty voice giver") [9] the narrator displaces the authoritative voice by constantly acknowledging his lack of knowledge in relation to these found films. This process of destabilization by Buckingham places his film work within an allegorical practice. Here the films point towards negotiating a certain way of occupying history. In Situation not only do the images shown in the found films function allegorically but, also, the actual materiality of the films contains traces of historical occupancy, what Russell refers to as an “aesthetic of ruins." [10] In her study of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project , Susan Buck Morss explains that “in allegory, history appears as nature in decay or ruins and the temporal mode is one of retrospective contemplation." [11] Considering this in relation to Situation , the negotiation of the past, memory and history occurs not only through what is represented but also through the actual decaying film stock. [12]

The way in which Situation displaces what is represented on these films as undisputed access to the past is linked to contemporary debates on representation. It is the materiality of the found film stock which situates an indexical link with the past; yet a hidden indexical link with the present occurs when Buckingham re-films the material in order to prevent further decay and the material acquires a new date code. The ‘lost’ indexical relationship between what is represented on film with a particular moment in time and a presence in front of the camera is conventionally attributed to the transition to digitalization. Here the replacement of standard film and photography with digital processes is seen to challenge the perceived authenticity of the photographic/film image and re-open questions of the images’ veridical nature. However, throughout the history of photography/film, techniques such as double exposure, superimposition, collage, ghosting, subliminal effects, etc., have all been processes of destabilization in relation to fixing the real. Yet it is this indexical link, in all its instability, that has been exploited to excess by documentary practices relying on a rhetoric of undisputed access to the real. This position is usually dependent on a naíve prioritization of the visual in which truth is reduced to what is visible. As Minh-Ha writes, “truth lies in between all regimes of truth," and while Buckingham does not engage with an irrelevant retreat from the ‘fact’ of the document, neither does he use the found films to present a questionable authenticity of the image. [13] As Russell explains, “the found image doubles the historical real as both truth and fiction, at once document of history and unreliable evidence of history." [14] In Situation the dialogue travels from the known to the uncertain and then to a reinsertion of these ‘home movies’ through a social history of home movies in the United States and later to the impact of U.S. mining interests in Peru.

The situation leading to a story in the title becomes Buckingham’s account of U.S. capitalist interests in Peru. Tracking the history of the Cerro de Pasco Copper Corporation (CPC) from 1901 to its nationalization by the Peruvian government in 1974, Buckingham tells of the exploitation of the miners, the residents in the region of the mine, as well as the environmental pollution produced by U.S. industrialists. Due to the serial presentation of the films, this information is given while the viewer watches the foundations of the four-car garage being dug. While hearing the narrator’s historical description of U.S capitalism in South America, the growing prosperity and upward mobility signified by the four-car garage is linked to events in the Andes mountains, where we’re told, “With the encouragement of CPC, the Peruvian government passed a law in 1926 exempting all copper and zinc production, i.e., CPC, from paying taxes for the next ten years."

Buckingham’s emphasis on discursivity initiates a questioning of the formal narrative codes of documentary film, while also challenging narratives of history. Rather than being aligned to an naïve relativism, what Grant Kester refers to as “discursive determinism [as the] reductive belief that ‘discourse’ or dialogue in and of itself has the power to radically transform social relations," [15] Buckingham’s discursive strategies constantly target the problems of representation as a practice – for example, the ways in which certain representational processes actively attempt a closing down of intellectual enquiry. The discursive becomes a way of mobilizing historical ‘fragments’, such as the history of CPC’s involvement in Peru, to strategically relate to contemporary global economic power relations.

Buckingham’s “retrieval and recycling" of historical narratives is dependent on a reflexive account of his own narrative production and in doing this he concerns himself with histories of his own practice, experimental film. Tom Gunning’s work on early cinema helps elaborate some of the discourses in the work. Here Gunning links what he calls the “cinema of attractions" to certain practices of the avant garde. By a cinema of attractions he is referring to the way in which early cinema placed emphasis on showing or exhibiting rather than the prioritizing of a fictional world by narrative cinema. Gunning also refers to the ways in which actors acknowledged the camera, creating a different relationship with the spectator. While the sensational spectacle often associated with early film is hardly a characteristic of Situation , there are important intersections. Acknowledgement of the camera is also a dimension of the ‘home movies’ re- presented in Situation ; however, it is the way in which Buckingham presents these films that most noticeably highlights what Gunning refers to as “a cinema that displays its visibility." [16] The space of presentation is foregrounded beyond the amateur approach apparent in home movies’ ‘ look at the camera’ by Buckingham’s voice-over as narrator/lecturer.

Peter Gidal’s account of structuralist/materialist film and its anti-illusionist strategies suggests that “when one states that each film is a record of its own making, this refers to shooting, editing, printing stages, or separations of these," placing great emphasis on the process of the specifically cinematic. [17] However, this emphasis becomes an ontological blindspot because of the way in which the “specifically cinematic is taken to be primarily the picture track." [18] Situation can only exist as a ‘film’ of Matthew Buckingham by positioning itself in the destabilized space between audio and visual.

Buckingham’s persistence in developing and maintaining a gap between sound and image is arguably related to the importance placed on the viewer’s intellectual activity. In Roland Barthes’s essay The third meaning the author refers to the third meaning or obtuse meaning as the one that exceeds his interpretation, at once “persistent and elusive." [19] For Barthes it is what allows the “filmic" to emerge. While he suggests that the filmic resides in the still, he also remarks that within the “classical paradigm of the five senses, the third sense is hearing (first in importance in the middles ages)." [20] Later in the essay Barthes discusses Sergei Eisenstein’s comments on the possibilities of audio-visual montage, suggesting that “…the basic centre of gravity is no longer the element ‘between shots’ – the shock- but the element ‘inside the shot’ – the accentuation within the fragment…" Within Situation the basic centre of gravity not only foregrounds film as fragmentary but accentuates, through the dialogue’s relationship to the image track, a process of fragmentation. In negotiating the process of its own production, Situation displaces the centrality of the image-track. Rather than a formal record of the home movies’ own making, Situation oscillates between a historical record of these early home movies’ “own making" and an account of the making of Buckingham’s film. All of these accounts are arbitrary, possibly fictional, and fragmentary.

Buckingham uses contingency, the unfixing of meaning and the ephemeral as elements in his own labour process. Here what becomes central is an aesthetic responsibility toward the creation of and maintenance of an intellectual space for the viewer, allowing the time to ponder, reflect and think not only about the material presented but the ways in which we narrate it and construct it into cohesive tight units. By examining the ways in which representational processes close down intellectual enquiry, Buckingham uses the ephemeral and accidental to re-establish a commitment to a historical project, aware that a political or critical space cannot exist without one.

Orla Ryan is currently a Government of Ireland Research Scholar.

Parts of this essay were originally published in Afterimage in an article entitled Between lost and found: the films of Matthew Buckingham , Vol. 28, No. 5, 2001.

Article reproduced from CIRCA 106, Winter 2003, pp. 51-55.

1 The use of found footage within documentary practice goes back to the teens of the twentieth century, however, and the work of Esther Shub, for example her documentary classic The fall of the Romanov dynasty .

2 Catherine Russell, Archival Apocalypse: Found Footage as Ethnography , in Experimental Ethnography , Duke University Press, 1999, p. 238

3 While obviously the term ‘found footage’ is historically linked to analogue film, I prefer to use the term ‘moving image’ which allows a broader understanding of the ways in which this work is produced and the contexts in which audiences experience the work. Buckingham’s Situation leading to a story has been shown as both an installation and as a film screened. Within art/film contexts there is the historical need for a broader definitional context than the specifics of film reception, which is often automatically understood as film screening rather than a more expanded reception space such as installation or CD-ROMs, etc.

4 Catherine Russell, op. cit., p. 238

5 Paul Willemen, Of mice and men , 292 , no.1, (Edinburgh, Edinburgh College of Art), 2000, pp. 5-20

6 Re-filming them to arrest further disintegration, he also slowed the films down to 24 frames a second rather than their original speed of 16 frames (silent speed).

7 Matthew Buckingham, Situation leading to a story (dialogue from film), 1999.

8 Trinh T. Minh-Ha, The totalizing quest of meaning , in When the Moon Waxes Red, Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics , New York and London, Routledge, 1991, p. 41

9 Trinh T. Minh-Ha, op. cit., p. 36

10 Catherine Russell, op. cit., p. 238

11 Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project , Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press, 1997, p.168

12 Buckingham remarks that in 1916 Eastman Kodak “began putting date-codes on the motion picture film stock it manufactured,” which allows him to situate the age of three of the films by looking at the symbols on the black emulsion by the sprocket holes.

13 Trinh T. Minh-Ha, op. cit., p. 30

14 Catherine Russell, op. cit., p. 252

15 See Grant Kester, Dialogical aesthetics: a critical framework for littoral art , Variant (supplement), No. 9, Winter 2000.

16 Tom Gunning, The cinema of attractions: early film, its spectator and the avant-garde , in Thomas Elsaesser (ed.), Early Cinema, Space Frame, Narrative , London, BFI, 1990, p. 57

17 Peter Gidal, Theory and definition of structuralist/materialist film , in Michael O’Pray (ed.), British Avant-garde Film: An Anthology of Writings , Luton, University of Luton Press, 1996, pp.145-170

18 See Peter Wollen, The two avant-gardes , in Michael O’Pray (ed.), op. cit., p. 137.

19 Roland Barthes, The third meaning, research notes on some Eisenstein stills , (trans) Stephen Heath, Image Music Text , London, Fontana Press, 1977, pp. 52-68

20 Ibid., p.53, n.1.