Friday, 4 September 2009

The 'charge of the real' and the thrill of recognition in the home movie mode

A Canterbury Tale

I loved this student film way back when it was made in 2003 in the film department in which I worked. So I was delighted to see it's been posted online for all to view.

Here's the blurb from the filmmakers:
This was my [Craig Ennis] first film made in collaboration with Adam Farmer and Ken Colbourne at the University of Kent. This is not a spoof, This is a genuine documentary.. A Canterbury Tail by Hatch Productions.

One of the main pleasures of it for me, and, I'm sure, for many of those who saw it in the on-campus screening of student work (the same campus you see in the film) was that it provoked the thrill of cinematic recognition. Recorded in this film was a place I knew well, populated by people I knew or saw around a lot. And yes, like many of them, I believed that I had sighted the subject of the film also...

For me, and for the people in the film, and many at the screening, then, A Canterbury Tail is less a (highly 'performed' or performative) 'documentary' and more a kind of 'home movie' or film souvenir. Or, perhaps, such distinctions ought not be attached to the cinematic object but, instead, to the identificatory attitudes of those of us experiencing it.

Film souvenir is a term articulated in the work of Belgian film theorist Jean-Pierre Meunier. In his study Les structures de l'expérience filmique (Leuven: Librairie Universitaire, 1969), Meunier set out a phenomenology of cinematic identification which identified three different types of film consciousness attached respectively to the fiction film, the documentary film, and the film-souvenir. As Vivien Sobchack writes, following his work,
For Meunier, the structure of identification in the home-movie attitude is essentially one of evocation. That is, the function of the film-souvenir for its viewer is incantatory and procurative, and its images are taken up as an intermediary, mnemonic, and channeling device through which the viewer evokes and identifies not with the mimetic image, but with an absent person or past event . . . Thus, even as they retain the specificity from which their motivational power emerges, the images of the film-souvenir are not apprehended for themselves, but rather as the catalyst to a primarily constitutive and generalizing activity that transcends their specificity in an attempt to call up and reactivate the ‘real’ and ‘whole’ person or event that is (or was) elsewhere and at some other time.

(Sobchack, “Towards a Phenomenology of Nonfiction Film Experience,” in Jane M. Gaines and Michael Renov, eds., Collecting Visible Evidence (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 246-247)

Sobchack argues that, with documentary generally, we have a "subjective relation to an objective cinematic...text" (Sobchack 1999: 241), but that it is important to understand that there are a wide variety of such subjective relations, or structured filmic experiences (to use Meunier's phenomenological understanding of them), available. This variety turns in part, of course, on degrees of recognition.

For me, the above is a kind of documentary, a kind of fiction, but also a kind of home-movie; I experience each of these 'attitudes' when I watch it. Indeed, perhaps I experience the latter attitude even more now, as my viewing is informed by the nostalgia of one who has moved on from the place and the people it records.

Like Sobchack, then, I find that Meunier's phenomenological model is an especially useful one in accounting for different levels, in cinematic spectatorship, of what she calls "the charge of the real" -- for me, in this case, the highly pleasurable, if poignant, charges of home-movie recognition.

No comments: