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FILM: EVENT & DOCUMENT (by Oleg V. Aronson, Moscow)

My speech is an attempt to link together the problem of time and the idea of documentality, and hence to draw attention to the nature of a documentary film.

Right away I want to clarify that my arguments are guided by the tradition connected with the phenomenology and philosophizing of the XX century according to which the perception comes to the front.

My task is to define correctly what time perception in cinematography is. The questions for the discussion do not imply an answer as they are quite abstract. Everyone is free in his will to elicit consequence himself.

In my opinion a main problem is that time which is so much spoken about, and seems to be something very natural does not belong to us. This is a very old (ancient) intuition that can be found as far back as at Augustin Blessed. According to him time exists (is present) only when we think about it; when we are trying to turn it over in our mind, time escapes us.

Later Kant expressed the idea even more radically: time is not a thing, not an object, but only a condition under which we can perceive the objects of outer and inner world. So, time is not that can be imagined or seen, but an instrument by means of which we can imagine. While trying to discover time in the film, proceeding from its montage, duration or film shooting rate: changeableness of our sensations while running the film, in fact we transform time into a physical object (objectively existing beside us), or into a psychological element (subjective time). In my opinion they both represent the same model of time which is directly connected with the tradition of new-European rationality being very productive also with scientific-and-technical approach to the world. In some sense the model itself is a result of this concept of the world. However, from philosophical point of view such time does not exist. What is time as a philosophical category? What is the peculiarity of this approach?

Kant’s time and space being some conditions of our experiment send us to the bounds of human rationality in the world. Time and space abstractions set a definite border: on one hand they are connected with the rational relation to the world, on the other hand they cannot be explained by this relation. This attitude to time as an utmost abstraction involves other collisions in the phenomenology of the XX century, Heideggers’s philosophy, by which Kant’s time, that instead of illusion of objectivity suggests another illusion – continuity, is criticized. And this is the illusion we always have to do with. We constantly come across the fact that the connection between «yesterday» and «today» inevitably involves «tomorrow». However, philosophical  existentialism, speaks of interruptiveness of time. In other words  interruptiveness of that image of the world, which we used to deal with. Existention according to Heidegger, is so called fall out of the stream of «objective» time (history) and of psychological «lasting». This is a moment when the world, the reality show themselves rejecting time as a construct blocking this direct connection. «Being here at a given moment», «dasein» according to Heidegger, is a notion which V.V.Bibikhin dares to interpret as «presence». And this presence, the connection with the reality prevails over totality of time.

What can be done by cinematography? There is one unique peculiarity of a film distinguishing the latter from other ways of presentation/ producing of a picture. This is a technical reproductionability, a mechanical reproduction of the visible, thanks to which a reproduced image, on a physiological level, can be hardly distinguished from the visible reality, as if cinematography directly appeals to the reality. And this is a fundamental difference between cinematography and other arts existed before. Film produces an effect of direct presence, smoothes over the distance typical for painting and theatre, between the picture and reality. It does not matter whether it is a documentary or a feature film. We understand that what we see in the screen «has already  happened», but our sensitivity affirms that this is happening «here and now». However this «presence» is free of psychological character as it is achieved not through the image-bearing system (as it is in other arts) but regardless of the latter - merely by means of mechanics.

So we are coming to the question: if can there  be another film besides a documentary? And in this aspect we have to consider theoretical opinions of Vertov and Pazzolini who having many differences in particular, affirm documentalism as a way to perceive the reality, causedby the nature of filming. Cinematographic picture possesses something (so spontaneous) that describes the reality more than observation of outer world. It is possible to say that thanks to cinematography sensitive world, the direct perception of the world can be thought out as a document. At present the question may seem very paradoxical (but only at first sight): is the documentality  possible without cinematography? Can anything not filmed be considered documental?

I can be objected that there is documental literature. I can answer: there is no documental  literature, but there is documentality as  literature genre. A word makes a distance that immediately implies the possibility of meta-reading, poetic language, and wider – the possibility of art. That is why it seems natural to make a conclusion that documentality before cinematography appeared, was found in something not poetic, in the texts which due to various reasons had no readers and were taken as  archives by the contemporaries. Indeed the documents are treated by an archivist; documents settled in archives are claimed by nobody but scientists; and through the scientists, being mediated, come back to us as  «scientific« (historical) truth. And this very time which converts a document into an argument of the present scientific ideology, of the today way to picture the reality, is hidden by this mediation.

What is the specific feature of cinematography as a new way to picture the reality? In principal cinematography does not need to picture anything. Everything can be a document. In the time when cinematography did not exist a document was selected, and that was a privilege of the authorities to decide whether a document existed or not, to say what was significant for the history and what was unimportant. The history made by means of such documents, is a cultural equivalent of time objectivation. The documents say to us: time exists, and it is in no way connected with our sensitivity. But the situation started to change as photography appeared. Everything in the still, in some sense, is doomed to be a document. And this document is far less mediated, and of weakened interpretation by authorities. This makes it possible for another history to appear – «small» history of particular existence. Photographical document besides pure informative functions bears a special  remainder of sense perception (forgotten, «it was so»), dissolved in small details imprinted and preserved by an archivist in spite of himself.

Having distinguished in cinematography two of its constituents (components) – documentality and a tradition to picture, the attention is attracted to the fact that people, engaged in making a documentary  film are aimed to be called artists. In other words there exists some need in the poetical, and this is natural but may be contra-indicated for making documentary films. Moreover, cinematography by itself corrects our idea about poetical language, the concept created mainly by literature. The need in poetical is meant as the need in literature and those ways of presenting (picturing) the reality when a document is of small importance , and of less value than «artist’s intention» and «purpose of the work», etc.

In a documentary film poetical in its traditional aspect is extremely problematic, as it sets a distance in respect to the reality of presence, the reality which is revealed (uncovered) by the cinematographic perception itself. That is why we are to be more careful with the films which seem to be boring. Boredom is a signal (sign) that the film lacks poetical, and is probably approximating to the form of a document, apart from the author’s will. And if the splin is so natural and we have no any will to see the film, then it means that something in present which cannot be distanced, was filmed. We call it ordinary daily occurance. Doesn’t it  mean that one of the tasks of the documentalistics is to expose this very daily occurance that is invisible and has not become the history yet, and  has no its independent time of existence being merged with our own presence in the world? As soon as the poetic  or interpretation intrudes we have to speak about a feature film. But is the difference really so fundamental? Documentalism is also inherent in a feature film, penetrating into it through the effect of cinematographic presence «here and now» – effect of reality as it is called by many theorists. Feature film is a wide range of potentialities of penetrating of a word into cinematographic matter. A word is alien to this matter, and especially to a documentary film. Of course it is not that word which is pronounced in the film (this is just a particular), but « a word» in some almost Biblical aspect; a word as an idea of some established order (culture). And it is easier to think of a word as an interpretation. As soon as the author starts to speak, the document becomes silent. The point is how to make a document to be indicative.

In my opinion besides the situation when so called «unnecessary» objects are photographically produced and pictured in the film as a document, there can be distinguished another one when a film-maker has no idea why he shoots this or that object and why the pictures are used as necessary material. At this moment he is motivated not by an idea, but a definite perception rhythm considering perception in the point of «now». The shots meaningless from the point of view of intention, but creating and intensifying effect of presence, appear to be the documents of our sensitivity, the illustration of the present day. That is why there are no questions regarding the films produced by Peleshyan. They are really documentary films. And not because of the usage of newsreel (chronic), but the way the newsreel is used. For him it is not important what is pictured (shot). Film archives is used in the aspect of cine-sensivity. Every shot being in the film, is the element of the latter.

In this sense an observation made by Peleshyan in his «Distance Montage» is of interest. Expressing his point of view he explains the difference between him and Vertov and Eisenshtein. Their way of montage is to «join» the shots, but his is «to unjoin». In respect to Eisenshtein such an opposition can be considered a right one. The situation regarding Vertov is much more problematic. In Peleshyan’s opinion Vertov constructs the reality by means of  montage, that is he creates a poetical image based on observing the reality. Such interpretation eliminates theoretical radicalism of Vertov according to which Peleshyan’s «unjoin» and «distance montage» are not so evident.

When Vertov says that it is necessary to overcome everything inherent to a human being (psychological, social, bourgeois) and let a machine, «mechanical eye» to shoot, he means that a producer  (author, artist) as a poetical performer should disappear (be lost). He should be also lost at the montage level. And it is necessary to proceed from the documentality of the fact in the film, and not from psychology or even onlooker.

It is natural that mathematical montage patterns are so important for Vertov. And that was the reason that Eisenshtein, the follower of the concept of  psychological pressure by means of montage, criticized him. In fact Vertov called for shooting and montaging in the way the onlooker doesn’t see, regardless of the patterns of perception based on literature and art laws (Vertov considered them to be the bearers of bourgeois style in the contemporary world). This concept of Vertov is utopical but utmost (and philosophical) regarding  «new language», a language of the facts of a documentary film.

An onlooker assimilates the experience of cinematographic picture reading; little by little he accustomed himself to the idea that there are heads and legs, but the latter is not necessary to be shown; a loving couple before the dawn can have a night, etc.

I would like to give an example. In the film of Clarence Braun  «A Bad Lady» the doctor lifts the hand of a sick woman (acted by Greta Garbo) to feel her pulse. The next moment he being horror-struck embraces his head (through this gesture we should understand that the woman is dead); the hand of Greta Garbo for a moment before to fall down, unnaturally remains in the air. The action is dismembered to let us to accept film information  lineally as if it was a text. As far as  cinematographic perception is developing, we get experienced in film reading, and similar episodes are used as a deliberate device. But the present more cultivated and perfect method of reading in no way influences cinematographic effect of presence. Today we can notice those things which could not be seen by  onlookers in the twenties. I mean so called linguistic joint.

It was a big problem for Vertov to realize that a film is based on the laws of reading. In his montage investigations he made an attempt to destroy the laws of reading considering pictured reality itself to be of major importance. He was against linguistic montage. For Vertov «the interval» between the shots which was not read but perceived, belonged to another language, unknown, and for this reason considered sometimes as  chaos of pictures. A fall into this chaos is equivalent to what was mentioned in the beginning about dropping from time - time which is of linea nature and based on the connection of past, present and future, time which is a connection between ourselves and history, and which gives a birth to those documents with which cinematography argues. These documents being born in the situation of mechanical understanding of  time, always say to us: this happened in reality. Cinematographic document, and it doesn’t matter what time it belongs to – the twenties or the nineties – speaks of the different: this exists now. Any picture is first of all a document of today.    


Q         If  Worhall puts his camera aiming at a sleeping man he chooses an object for shooting. It is Worhall who chooses and not a camera. And it is a person who puts a camera into a chosen place. Referring to this, can we speak about some interpretation of reality?

A         This is interpretation of reality. This is another logical scheme. And while speaking about Worhall – and this is absolutely clear to me – this is another tradition of making experiment, particularly with a long film running, experimenting with boredom as an aesthetic phenomenon, to be more exact. As for Vertov it is something different. Vertov fights psychologism. According to him this is a fight with bourgeois art based on psychologism. And his logic is based on the concept of another «grammar» of picturing, not familiar to me. But I try to find it in accidental combinations of pictures. And the question is - is it interpretation if an accident comes to the front? It is clear that Worhall’s choice of a place for the camera is not casual. And Vertov being a poetic nature, is fighting his own poeticism, and this should be taken into consideration.

Remark: But this is absolutely senseless because leads to another poeticism. Having rejected a poeticism he is captured by another one.

Q         The point is that Worhall did not know that a sleeping man would turn after four hours of sleep. And this is a moment of the accidental that he probably wanted to catch.  Don’t you think that a picture is a phenomenological object? And the next, in respect to Heidegger, is the following. If we agree to your postulates can it turn out that a great number of films are shot just as the documents of the XIX century, that is following the same tendency – the camera is taken by another person but with the same psychological orientation.

A         I fully agree. In my opinion it is extremely difficult to find a real documentary film. And Vertov in this aspect is not an exception. While speaking about him I am based more on his theoretical concepts and his experimental film «A Man with a Camera», than upon his work on the whole, which without doubt is a poetical one. And I would like to extend Vertov’s idea which was not fully clarified by his cinematographic activity, and clarification of which is hardly possible, the same as of Vertov’s communism. Reverting to the picture as an ideal phenomenological object my consideration is that a picture is not an ideal phenomenological object as far as perception itself is a phenomenological object.

Q         You partially answered my question, having suggested an unexpected and paradoxical mode of perception of Vertov’s world which in some sense is a starting point for us. On what grounds are you modelling – being based on the concept declared by him, or proceeding from the practice? According to you, in the main it was «A Man with a Camera» and some of his articles. Then my question should be corrected. Don’t you think that his film in no case follows your scheme of imprinted accidents; most likely it is considered as a speech (text) of the author, and not a traditional narration?

A         And you, of course, are prepared to explain the meaning of this text.

Q         While lecturing I regularly do this, but I think this can be done by everybody.

A         I suppose that the film «A Man with Camera» is really full of many features provoking our slight interpretations. On the other hand there is much in opposition to these interpretations. And when we say that Vertov acts using a poetical form we see a paradox of philosophical reduplication of a form. We interprete the text  as Vertov’s concept of form. And at the same time we connive at what is opposed to form as some poetical unity in «A Man with Camera» and destroys the unity of this form. Unity  is easier for our  thinking than chaos. That is why we try not to see Vertov’s elements of chaos but  bring forward interpretations oriented on sense, unity, poetical form, etc. In no extend I depreciate your interpretaions which are possible and natural as many others. My starting point is Vertov’s chaos which is evidently seen – I mean chaos of pictures and not of their possible relations. I made an attempt to understand how pictures’ chaos is connected with Vertov’s logic, and why chaos is so evident especially for me as a subject of perception. Chaos for me is not in that bad sense, but that there is something that cannot be explained by interpretation.

Q         What is chaos? Chaos is an accumulation of accidents. And is it possible to consider  montage to be accidental if it has been performed by an artist being in his right mind. The montage being non-logical and non-rational, is performed by a person and therefore is not accidental.

A         Your idea is quite clear. The same concept in respect to Vetrov was expressed by Jan Mitri. The concept is clear and is based upon the fact that reality is formed by a psychological subject; but according to Vertov a psychological subject should be got over. And this is his grounds in spite that he did not get rid of psychologism. His tendency is to distance himself and his psychology; to treat psychologism as if he is free of it. Psychologism for him is a problem but not the essence.

Q         So, don’t you think that he shoots bourgeois psychologism  retaining also his new socialist psychologism?

A         No. Your interpretation is clear to me. Your logic and mine are not intersected, and we can argue for ever and ever as far as we are on different grounds.

Q         Then will you prove that that logic which was shot , is chaos?

A         Do you consider that everything is rational in the world?