THIS DESTROYS THAT

I am rereading the 1994 transcript from the Amsterdam Filmmuseum Workshop on “Non-fiction from the Teens,” kindly given to me by Nico de Klerk during my spring screening visit to the Eye Film Institute.

The opening remarks by Nicola Mazzanti (one of the curators at Il Cinema Ritrovado) resonate in surprising ways with the (many) discussions of digital media we had last weekend at Screen.  Of early non-fiction films, he writes:

“This material provokes a deep crisis in the way you’re used to looking at the material your’re familiar with – at fiction films.  You’ve probably come to the viewing table well organized in your thinking and decision-making.  This material tends to destroy that, tends to pose new questions and impose new kinds of decision-making,” (12).

Although Mazzanti pivots from this crisis to reassert the archive’s questions and historical control (Which film should be saved, should be preserved?), he begins with the disruptive quality of the non-fiction film image, its capacity to overturn the viewer, to elude the reasonable question, and to destroy our historical methodologies.

The initial, radical ambiguities of film seem to have softened.  Or perhaps we have created the appearance of stability in our historiographic approaches.  The digital now operates as simulacrum, while film offers good histories, secure documents, well-behaved copies.  Indeed, in his plenary talk, Jan-Christopher Horak of UCLA argued that “digitisation obliterates history.”

On a different (but perhaps related note): the workshop report is itself a fascinating historical document, carefully preserving a moment in disciplinary history.  It includes the complete workshop schedule, the screening schedule, the list of participants and affiliations, and a transcript of every post-screening discussion.  Tom Gunning (then at Northwestern) and Miriam Hansen (Chicago) spar over their senses of simultaneity. Stefaan Decostere seemingly stuns the empiricists among the crowd with a meditation on melancholy. There is an historiographic method implicit even in ancillary documents such as these.

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