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OLEG ARONSON: HOLLOW TIME (montage and “documentality” in cinema)

When we speak of the documentary cinema we are tempted to regard any problem proceeding from the specific character of this type of cinematograph. And if this problem is editing (we know that editing in the documentary cinema is an obvious problem), it is implied that the documentary cinema needs a special editing technique which is somewhat different from editing in the so-called fiction film. Therefore the way the problem of editing is put itself has a purely practical character: the way of arranging the matter, its presentation must, on the one hand, be within the framework of  the laws of visual perception and, on the other, not destroy “the feeling of authenticity”  of documents (real events and persons), i.e. to be not just a film but a documentary film. But there is a theoretical paradox which turns out to be more than just a paradox because it has some dramatic consequences: “the feeling of authenticity” of what is happening on the screen is not enough for a film which pretends to be a documentary one. It also inevitably needs to have a visual  (show) form considering the audience’s type of perception. In other words, the documentary cinema proceeding from the presumption of a document as an element of authenticity, an element of a direct connecting of picture and reality (not even corresponding but connecting), declaring itself to be documentary in this particular sense is based, nevertheless, on a show form which it strives to bring forward as an essential one. It is clear why it happens: the show presupposes that reality is substituted by a performance in which a document looses its documentary quality. As a result, what we call “a documentary film”  hardly has any boundaries, and the rules of working with a document (including the rules of editing) depend on the laws of the show. In fact, one can say that the use itself of  newsreels, archives, shooting real people is enough for a film to have the status of  documentary. Incidentally, editing, close-ups, the camera man’s work and many other things remain “only” a technique, something of secondary importance, less essential compared to the matter itself which is the substantial aspect of the film. But the inevitable presence itself of this technique represents a threat (sometimes almost intangible) to the document. This indispensable show technique in every its manifestation is the destruction of the document, imparting to it a cinematographic sense.

            This paradox results in two extreme strategies. The first one – to make a genre, fiction film on a documentary basis and ultimately – a work of art (which is a “sublime” variant of a show). The second one – leveling the technique up to such an extent that the documentary basis of a film turns out to be beyond any perception, i.e. the “feeling of reality” disappears since, as we see, it takes a certain technique. The attempts to reconcile these two strategies seem to me unconvincing because they belong, let’s say, to different logical systems or systems of thinking whose association under the sign of “documentary cinema” is conventional. Indeed, in the first case we deal with the cinema as an interpretative machine of culture where art (and the art of the cinema in general) has such a highly valuable status that no document can compete with it. In the second case one can speak of a kind of Rousseauism on the cinema scale, negating cultural technologies, believing that “reality” and “truth” can find each other within the space of a frame and in the name of this meeting one can sacrifice the audience.

            All of the above - strange as it seems - can also be addressed to the fiction cinema which suggests the idea that the border between the documentary and the fiction cinema is quite conventional, and if we speak of editing – the reasoning about the technical means in both documentary and fiction cinema will be the same.

            My task is in drawing a border of “documentality” in the cinema in a different way, so that one could speak not just of editing/montage, but of “a documentary montage” which would be impossible in the fiction cinema. The first thing I would like to say is that there exists no document which would be self-sufficient as a document, or, in other words, whose presence in the frame would testify that we see a documentary film. We can rather say that there are certain documentary effects recognized by the audience. News films, archives, interviews, shooting with a handicam and many other things that have a documentary effect have been used actively by the fiction cinema for a long time. This very documentary effect in the cinema influences stronger that the document itself, and the imitation of “documentality”  (an artificial, technical reproduction of this effect) is indistinguishable (on the level of visual perception) from a certain “authenticity” of the document. This is one of important effects of the cinema: the reality which is reproduced in the cinematograph has nothing to do with the visible, physical, historical reality, it is quite independent and therefore “documenatality” in the cinema is not something determined by the fact of shooting itself but it has its own technical means of realization. A document is not registered, it is produced with a cinematographic gesture, a “minor technology” of rehabilitating, restoring the world in its rights.

            My last point needs some further explanation. If habitually we consider a document to be a material thing present in the world, a material manifestation of the world itself, then this document, when it is placed into a film, starts living according to the laws of the cinematograph where the rights of reality to express itself are violated comparing to the virtualized reality where the document looses its most important quality – its topicality in our perception. Even if we think this document to be not a concrete thing but, for example, a way of perception of this thing in a particular time (then an old fiction film turns out to be more documentary, revealing more about the audience of that time than any newsreels), it is still rather a matter of a way of fixing time signs in the space of visual (audience’s) perception, though in this case we are closer to the idea of a cinematographic document. In both cases just like in the case with a totally staged (imitative) film we link the document with time signs (which could be concrete things, or ways of relating to them, or things symbolically interpreted). The problem is that in the cinema these signs are no more the signs of a reality of the world (no matter how hard they strive to coincide with this reality) but some of the effects composing the matter of the cinematograph. The documentary effect -  just like the effect of montage - is what a cinematographic  image is built of. Moreover, the documentary effect is present, more or less, in any cine-image. It is connected with the situation of “presence” which is greater than the psychological sensation of presence of some reality (typical for theater-goers or readers) but less significant than the presence-in-the-world. When we are thrilled by a film (and it is a necessary condition of any cinema talk in general), the world as something real is relegated to the background giving way to that aspect of “presence” which is not beyond our relation with the world consisting of signs-documents. Each sign looses its sense  in the cinematograph, but their cinematographic configuration starts making sense (isn’t this montage?) The principal question is who sets this configuration. If we say “the film-director” or “the audience”, we are drawn back to the scheme where there is no place for “documentality”. This “somebody” is not a being in the world of “a self” but it is the being which just like the world participates in our everyday “presence”. Let’s call it being-with-others.  Now I will put it this way: the cinema (no matter whether it is fiction or documentary) which is oriented towards the imagination, a system of images where there is no difference between an actor and a document, where it is only important to set (imagine, picture) a distance towards reality, the real world – such cinema (which represents, imitates) is always artificial also meaning that it is oriented towards art (concepts). Such cinema centers the world around a perceiving “self” being helped by technical means among which is montage that you can learn to do from manuals (good ones or bad ones). In such cinema the documentary effect is almost utterly concealed because it’s with the destruction of the imitative distance between the “self” and the world that it is connected. The documentary effect means “entering the presence” what we do every day but towards what we do not set a reflective distance. When we brush our teeth in the morning, drink coffee for breakfast, read a morning newspaper, watch TV, go to work, go shopping – in all these moments we are not present in the world, the world ceases to exist for us at such moments, it manifests itself in no way. In such moments we do not belong to ourselves (our “self” is turned off), since we are using the inherited schemes of behavior. Without being-with-others our presence is not absolute because those moments of our existence when our “self” is not active, when the world does not manifest itself are called “hollow time” where we are part of the general order.

            It is the invisible schemes of the general order that are the essence of the documentary effect. It doesn’t mean at all that the documentary cinema must portray the everyday life like washing hands, cooking breakfast, etc. up to the most insignificant things that we regularly do. On the contrary, fixing and portraying these trifles deprives them of a documentary effect (alienates them). The task is to make the picture be an element of the general order, i.e. to make it acquire a documentary effect as its own sense, a sense the possession of which is transmitted to an ever absent other.

            I’d like to give an example from my own experience. One of my acquaintances, who is already 80 years old, says that she finds such a great extent of serenity in the old age that time seems to cease to exist. For her not only the days of the week pass unnoticed but the amount of time that passed since this or that event. So this old woman started drawing. She paints in oils and does it a lot. Now every day for her is marked with an event – a painting. She can feel the time pass when she sees all those paintings piling up. The paintings became for her that universe where she started to feel time again, the time of her subjectivity, the time of her “self”. This time was created by the montage of her paintings-events. Isn’t it what happens to each one of us? We edit our lives selecting certain phenomena as events and then – secondly -entrust this task to the cinematograph where montage is a technical element. Such technical elements form up a cinematographic show which imparts a certain “spectacularity” to our life itself. We start living and  thinking within the framework of certain genre strategies, rules, using signs, or, in general, within the framework of discourse practices every one of which is an evidence of a certain way of time “objectivation”.  The documentary effect is a way of breaking the rules which, nevertheless, doesn’t contradict perception and doesn’t eliminate “the presence” completely but helps to discover its weak zone, “hollow time”, something that belongs to drab routine to such an extent that seems absolutely insignificant, something that is excluded by editing. Let’s return back to what I have called “a minor technology which rehabilitates the world”. It’s a cinematographic gesture which presumes that the world itself (just like its cinema variations) is inevitably based on montage, its continuity is an illusion and even a greater illusion is to search for “documentality” in this continuity. A document (as a statement of the world) is something that cannot be “objectivated”, something that is between the frames, i.e. it is inexpressible in the world.  It is an interval of “hollow time” which is hollow only from the point of view of the perception type that rules at the moment. However, this “hollow time” is somehow structured, although these structures, of course, are lost due to genre and meaning canons. The lady-painter about whom I told you calls “hollow time” a serene one which itself is interesting since in this clear interruption of time she finds something positive.

            One can say now that the border of “documentality” in the cinema  lies where  “the minor technology” rules, i.e. the capability of a film director to entrust his vision at a certain moment to the camera and not to cut these moments of “desobjectivation” out when it comes to editing. This can be described in the following way: “documentality” catches us at the moment when nothing is happening, but this “nothing” is somehow necessary for our perception. Via this “nothing” the space of the film can be entered by someone else whose law of perception we haven’t yet mastered but it is still a law, i.e. it can become my way of perception, too. The documentary effect  (“entering the presence”) is an instant when my perception ceases to belong to me, when it is taken out into the cinema space where it is already part of common perception.

            Of course, we will never find a pure documentary film in this sense. Of course, in this case “documentality” is a theoretical abstraction with the help of which one can demonstrate a change in understanding what montage is. For today’s cinema (especially for the documentary cinema) montage is not just an element of the cinema language. Montage is a perceptional scheme on which the whole cinema is based. Following the documentary effect which detects “hollow time” in another life where the significance of events is changed, the emphasis not on the picture but on images separating one picture from another (images of transition), i.e. on cinema images themselves – all this allows to re-comprehend the phenomenon of montage, to transfer it from the level of language to the level of perception.

            Nowadays the audience has become so literate in the language of montage that the cinema show’s now moved into the space of serene perception while mastering “hollow time” as a source of independent cinematographic imagery. A documentary film is forced to follow the same rules, but it becomes one not only when one starts editing the frames (close-ups, long shots, etc.) but when effects which are beyond the language of cinema and which we have called documentary ones, start interacting in “hollow time” where the unreadable and the invisible (i.e. cinematographically inimitable) become a document only due to the film.