Monday 30 July 2012

In Immemory of Chris Marker (1921-2012)

Un monde plus vide et plus triste: Chris Marker n'y est plus.
Jean-Michel Frodon, July 30, 2012

Five years to the day since the deaths of two other legendary filmmakers Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, and on the day after his 91st birthday, the death of Chris Marker has been announced.

Film Studies For Free is collecting links to Markerian scholarly and related work online in his immemory. So please come back for frequent updates in the hours and days ahead.

Meanwhile, David Hudson is assembling one of his magnificent tributes at the Keyframe Daily website. And the essential archive Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory -- devoted to Chris Marker's work on the web -- will undoubtedly respond to this sad event, too.

  • IMAGE [and] NARRATIVE special dossier on Marker (Vol. 11, No. 4, 2010): 'Introduction', Peter Kravanja Abstract PDF; 'The Imaginary in the Documentary Image: Chris Marker's Level Five', Christa Blümlinger Abstract PDF; 'Montage, Militancy, Metaphysics: Chris Marker and André Bazin', Sarah Cooper Abstract PDF; 'Statues Also Die - But Their Death is not the Final Word', Matthias De Groof Abstract PDF;  Autour de 1968, en France et ailleurs : Le Fond de l'air était rouge', Sylvain Dreyer Abstract PDF; '“If they don’t see happiness in the picture at least they’ll see the black”: Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and the Lyotardian Sublime', Sarah French Abstract PDF; 'Crossing Chris: Some Markerian Affinities', Adrian Martin Abstract PDF; 'Petit Cinéma of the World or the Mysteries of Chris Marker', Susana S. Martins Abstract PDF

Tuesday 24 July 2012

For Documentary: Remembering Dai Vaughan, film editor, critic, and theorist

In a film I was cutting about a mercurial character, much given to hesitation and digression, rarely finishing a sentence before starting another, I came into severe conflict with the director over the extent to which the speech patterns, in voice-over, should be tidied up for the sake of clarity. The director’s position, I think, was that this was not a vérité exercise, that we were composing a portrait with filmic materials, that no one portrait could be inherently more valid than another, and that to grant priority to the accidentals of the rushes was perverse. My own position — more difficult to define, for I was certainly not arguing for total nonintervention – was that we were progressively discarding those very elements which made the subject an engaging, quirky, and likeable personality. Toward the end of the schedule, however, the subject visited the cutting room. I became aware that what I had perceived as “mercurial” carried with it something darker, more unmanageable, almost entropic; and I began to see in the director’s compulsion to curb this personality a fear of disorganisation, of loss of control, of the dissolution of that filmic coherence which director and editor alike are inevitably seeking. Leaving aside the question whether, in this instance, the director had not confused a threat to his authorial control with a threat to the inner logic of the text, we are left with the fact that the personality to which I felt responsibility, and which I hoped to reconstruct in the film, was not that of the subject as directly encountered but that which I had inferred from a reading of rushes. And this, moreover, cannot be dismissed as error or misfortune: for it replicates precisely, and quite properly, the situation of a viewer faced with the completed work.
… My most revealing reaction, when meeting people who have appeared in films I have cut, is to be shocked that they should say and do things which did not occur in the rushes. The filmmaker says to the subjects as perceived by the viewer: “The limits of my language are the limits of your world".

… I have sometimes found myself forced to leave a cinema, not because anything particularly unpleasant was being shown, but because the very activity of animating images which I was not also free to stop, the feeling of meanings into a text which had the physical magnitude to overwhelm me with them, the shriek of feedback as I locked into a tight short circuit with activities which raced ahead of me, had become intolerable.
The horror of documentary can lie in our being required to conceptualise (or — if there is such a word, perceptualise) the world in a certain way and being, at least for the duration of the film, powerless to intervene in it.
[Excerpt 1 and Excerpt 2 above both from Dai Vaughan, “Notes on the Ascent of a Fictitious Mountain” in the collection For Documentary: Twelve Essays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999)]

Just before taking its annual break, Film Studies For Free heard of the death of Dai Vaughan (1933-2012), film editor, maker, critic, scholar, and poet extraordinaire -- surely one of the most original voices on and in cinema and television, as the above quotations abundantly reveal.

The sad news was delivered by Richard MacDonald and Martin Stollery, two film scholars who had interviewed Vaughan at length. They very kindly offered to assemble a collection of his writing, filmography, versions of their interview, together with remarkable tributes by his colleagues and friends, and other links for publication here at FSFF.

They hope the below collection will offer a valuable way into Vaughan's oeuvre for the uninitiated as well as honouring his memory. And it surely will.

FSFF warmly thanks Richard and Martin, and all the other esteemed contributors, for their truly wonderful work to honour a most memorable man.

'For Documentary: Remembering Dai Vaughan'

By Richard MacDonald and Martin Stollery

As a young film critic Dai Vaughan wrote in a letter to his friend and fellow film school alumnus, the playwright Arnold Wesker, ‘our cultural tastes are an expression – almost the most public expression – of our fundamental values’. (Arnold Wesker, ‘Let Battle Commence’ [1958], The Encore Reader, 1965, p. 99).

Over the course of a remarkable career that embraced filmmaking, poetry, fiction and writing on film, consciously translating the insights gained from one practice into another, Dai would restate and refine this guiding conviction. He held that the formal strategies an artist deploys and the critic’s response to them are occasions where we exercise individual judgement and in doing so seek to define the moral, ethical and political values we hold in common with others. One of the simplest yet most arresting statements of this belief was the quote attributed to the playwright Ernst Toller that Dai chose as the epigram for his outstanding work of criticism and film history, Portrait of an Invisible Man: ‘what we call form is love.’

For Documentary, the title of his 1999 collection of essays, is also a bold public expression of a personal commitment. As John Corner remarks in one of the tributes collected below, Dai’s ‘primary engagement was always with the imaginative reach of documentary endeavour’, and his sometimes ‘challenging invitations to philosophical reflection’ were of a different order to the polemical advocacy of predecessors such as John Grierson and Paul Rotha. Dai shared with them, however, an authority derived from being a talented film maker, a widely respected documentary editor deeply engaged in thinking about and beyond his own practice. Dai situated the essays that made up For Documentary in his specific milieu of television documentary at a time in which an ideal of television as a broadcast medium that addressed a socially diverse public was momentarily glimpsed in bold programme making that permitted viewers to approach the material on their own terms. Mike Dibb’s tribute reflects upon the experience of working with Dai in this context.

Dai first made his mark as a film critic in 1960 with strikingly original essays on Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov respectively: the former a comprehensive re-evaluation of a canonical documentary figure, the latter a study on a filmmaker without obvious precedent in British film criticism. Every significant film maker and writer possessed of a sense of film history invents their own traditions; Dai was no exception. One mark of the subtlety of his thinking is that he would have readily accepted that his understanding of these traditions was partly formed out of his own personal responses to films that he valued.

Dai’s insights into documentary ranged across large swathes of its history, from wartime films directed by Jennings to anthropological film making. In part this was because he was a transitional figure, keenly aware of past achievements yet establishing himself as an editor during the 1960s and 1970s, when observational film making constituted documentary’s cutting edge.

He wrote in 1998:
My loyalties lay with those traditions that had grown out of the use of 35mm: the work of Joris Ivens, George Franju, Alain Resnais, or – more specifically, here at home – Humphrey Jennings. These were traditions reliant upon raising the everyday image to quasi-symbolic status through the use of juxtaposition, both of image with image and of image with sound, to create a rich web of connotation and nuance.
But he went on to elucidate the common ground between this tradition of documentary and later observational practice: ‘an insistence on the priority of the given: an insistence that meaning should be generated directly from the organisation of the visual and auditory material rather than this material being subordinated to something prior or extrinsic…’ [For Documentary, pp. xiv-xv].

Dai’s writing on fictional films likewise manifests a breadth of interest and acuity of judgement. His 1995 BFI film classic, for example, was on Odd Man Out, and one of his last publications was an imaginative appraisal of the work of Jean-Pierre Melville. The bibliography included in this tribute, prepared by Dai himself, shows how he brought his discerning intelligence to bear on a wide range of films. For his sheer perceptiveness as a critic, his sensitivity to film form and the richness and texture of his prose, he deserves to be ranked alongside other outstanding figures of his generation, such as Robin Wood and V F Perkins, although his tastes and fundamental values were different to theirs.

Like these critics Dai contributed to the renewal of British film criticism in the early 60s when he launched the magazine Definition with friends from the London School of Film Technique. More recently Dai was a regular and distinguished contributor to Vertigo, a magazine at the cutting edge of film writing in the 90s and 2000s. Dai’s reviews and extended essays for Vertigo include searching and original meditations on filmic narration that explore the instabilities of identity, the difficulties of knowing and being in the world, in such films as Jeux Interdit (“On Being Paulette”) and Citizen Kane (“On BeingThompson").

Dai also left us a book that is held in high esteem by its admirers yet is still not as widely known as it should be: Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart McAllister, Film Editor (1983). This innovative approach to creative biography would feature more prominently within film studies’ eternal return to the issue of authorship if these debates fully acknowledged the centrality of collaboration within film production. It is celebrated below by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Ed Buscombe, and Patrick Russell.

We were delighted when Dai agreed to our request to carry out the first career survey interview with him in late 2010. At the end of the interview he gently berated us for not exploring links between his writing on film and his creative writing, citing Moritur (1995) as a novel concerned with film editing ethics. Dai wrote in this novel:
Does it cross our minds, when we’re watching someone interviewed on television, that this person’s recollections are as full of moth-holes as our own? Of course not. And the reason it doesn’t is that the interview has been cut together for coherence. But coherence implies meaning. And whose meaning is it to be? [pp. 150-1]

This is a good example of Dai’s ability to vividly encapsulate some of the practical and theoretical challenges of documentary, from both a film maker’s and a viewer’s perspective. We hope he would approve of us citing this as a pertinent frame for our interview with him, which is included here both in an edited, published version, and in a longer, virtually unedited version. Both exemplify the eloquence and precision with which Dai spoke as well as wrote.

The reflection on interviews is made by Moritur’s protagonist, documentary film editor Astrid Morrow, as she works on her text for the (sadly fictional) annual Stewart McAllister Memorial Lecture; she eventually rejects it as ‘both tendentious and uninteresting’ (p.151). Likewise, Dai’s writing reads as the work of a constantly questioning intelligence, pushing against the weight of dogma and easy formulations, traversing fiction, poetry, and long and short forms of critical reflection in a quest to respond with sufficient complexity and openness to questions that interested him. Partly because he operated outside the discipline of film studies, bypassing academic convention, he made a significant, distinctive contribution to some of its preoccupations. This deserves to be remembered and extended.

Richard MacDonald and Martin Stollery,
July 2012

Dai Vaughan Interview With Richard MacDonald and Martin Stollery for Journal of British Cinema and Television, 8.3, 2011

The above interview was first published in the Journal of British Cinema and Television, 8.3, 2011.
It is reproduced here with grateful acknowledgement to Julian Petley and Edinburgh University Press.

'A Tribute to Dai Vaughan' by John Corner

Dai Vaughan first became known to me through his highly original and fascinating short study Television Documentary Usage, published in 1976 by the British Film Institute as number 6 in their Television Monograph sequence of booklets. What struck me about this extended essay was the range and ambition of its speculation about documentary forms together with the relaxed, reflective tone of the writing (a combination which, in its way of engaging the reader in often dense deliberation as a kind of as co-discussant, might be compared with Barthes). I had just started to teach documentary at undergraduate level, and this kind of approach was decidedly different from the modes of confidently precise theoretical pronouncement being made about documentary from within the academy at the time. Rather than any polemical position-taking around ‘realism’ and ‘ideology’ there was, instead, a rich exploration of documentary’s distinctive and wonderful referential aesthetics and a positive interest in its future possibilities. That ‘Usage’ in the title was interesting too, with its echoes of Fowler’s classic work on grammar and its promise of a rigorous examination of the way in which meaning is generated on the basis of syntactical practice.

Dai’s abiding interest in complexity and ambiguity, his celebration of those uncertainties of documentary accounts which always escape verbal containment, was evident in this early piece of work. So was his fascination with the possibilities of observational approaches, and the problematic status of the knowledge that their particularistic, highly localised, ways of portraying the world conveyed. He contrasted these possibilities with the rhetoric of confident, generalised truth that television documentary often deployed, sometimes by resorting to forms of cliché and a denial of the image, or a ‘disciplining’ of it, in favour of the word. He described these dominant tendencies as modes of ‘mannerism’ which had become constricting. His preferences here, although primarily formal, were also social and political – like many others at the time and since, he saw observational work as giving the viewer more of a role in the making of sense and significance. This perspective possibly under-rated the contribution of documentary to the broader project of journalism, which almost of necessity required tighter discursive controls and propositional ‘closure’. But then his primary engagement was always with the imaginative reach of documentary endeavour.

I used Television Documentary Usage in my teaching, mostly to the benefit of my classes, although some of Dai’s more challenging invitations to philosophical reflection required a fair bit of glossing. When, a few years later, I started to put together a collection on documentary for Edward Arnold (Documentary and the Mass Media, 1986), Dai was one of the first people I asked to contribute a chapter. By then he had published Portrait of an Invisible Man, that masterly study of Stewart McAllister in which his perceptiveness as a textual critic was joined both by his professional sympathies as a documentary editor and a fine approach to constructing a history from archives, using regular quotations to give the past directness and immediacy. He wrote back promptly to my request saying that he was interested in doing something but wondered whether what he could offer would be specific enough for the volume, noting ‘it might appear not to be ‘about’ documentary at all, but would be always stalking it from the periphery’. He was, he said, aware of the limits of ‘documentary as a neatly defined curricular subject’ and believed that some ‘nudging against the thresholds’ was in order. Needless to say, I wasn’t at all put off by this comment and what he finally sent through, ‘Notes on the Ascent of a Fictitious Mountain’, was characteristic Dai, from the title onwards. Set out, in philosophical treatise style, as a series of numbered observations, separate but connected, it worked through a sequence of paradoxes surrounding documentary. Typically, he started the chapter abruptly with an anecdote drawn from his own film-making experience, going straight into the detail of a particular incident without any preliminaries.

His capacity to tack between the specific and the general and between his experience as an editor and his conceptual inquisitiveness as a thinker was without parallel. Sometimes, he ‘stalked from the periphery’ but he was always able to position himself right at the centre of issues concerning intention, practice, form and meaning. For those looking for neat guidelines on how to categorise documentary and how to analyse it, this kind of writing – with its whole-hearted embracing of contradiction and its regular reworking of enigma and conundrum from different angles– was likely to disappoint. But for those wanting their perspectives on documentary opened-up and their presumptions (indeed, all presumptions) vigorously challenged, his approach was a tonic.

Others are in a better position than I am to testify to his qualities as a conversationalist, although I met and talked with him over drinks on a number of occasions. When he came up from London to give a lecture to my students at Liverpool, the freshness and enthusiasm of his account, directly requesting their views at many points in his delivery, came across as a surprise to most of them. They were quite used to professionally neat accounts of current research by visiting academics and also to occasional visits by people in the media industry talking about issues as perceived from within, but the energy and sparkle with which Dai tackled his topic (involving shifting editing practices and the impact of the zoom lens) was something rather new.

The study of documentary, particularly in Britain, has benefited hugely from his passionate interest in ‘theory’ as well as ‘practice’ and it is to be hoped that his distinctively reflective writings, always keenly pursuing the many puzzles that the form throws up, will continue to be read and valued. The themes that he wrote about have now produced a much more extensive academic literature but the manner of his question-raising and the often penetrating character of some of his answers, drawing on his experience both as maker and as viewer, will be very hard to equal.

Professor John Corner
Institute of Communications Studies. University of Leeds
July 2012

'Working with Dai Vaughan' by Mike Dibb

Dai Vaughan was unlike any other film editor I've worked with. The films we made together were mostly about ideas; each one very different in subject-matter and approach. They ranged from a wonderfully idiosyncratic film with Ralph Steadman about Leonardo to several in collaboration with the writer John Berger. I never arrived in the cutting room with a pre-ordained structure or editing plan. The pleasure was always to set out with Dai on a journey of discovery and to arrive at that shared moment when form and content came together. Which in the end it always did. This doesn’t mean that the collaborative process was always an easy ride. Dai was not like that. In fact ‘flexible intransigence’ is a phrase I once used to describe his negotiating style! For one thing, when the rushes of a film arrived in Dai’s cutting room, they somehow ceased to be yours and became his. As a director you were entering Dai’s space, where he perched on his distinctive wooden stool, eschewing obvious comfort and leaning towards the screen with intense concentration. He was not interested in excuses and rationalisations about why something looked the way it did, or theoretical ideas about what a shot was supposed to signify. What mattered to Dai was what he saw on the screen and what it meant (or didn’t) to him...and, most importantly, what he could do with it. Indeed I remember once inviting Dai to come on location. He declined the offer. I think this was because he didn’t want the rigour with which he looked at a sequence in the cutting room to be confused with circumstantial memories of what happened during the filming. That way he might have run the risk of becoming sentimental about what he was viewing - instead of being ruthlessly objective, in the nicest - well not always! - possible way.

Dai didn’t want directors peering over his shoulder. We would spend a lot of time looking at everything that had been filmed. After which he wanted to be left on his own, to find his own way through the material presented to him, to work out his own synthesis of speech and movement, image and meaning, sound and sense. As a result, I approached each viewing of a newly cut sequence full of expectation, and sometimes anxiety. On those (thankfully rare) occasions when we disagreed about what he’d done, I had to be prepared for what could be a charged and tense silence, followed by a tricky few days as we searched for a creative compromise that would satisfy us both. Mostly, however, I came away surprised and delighted by unexpected juxtapositions and connections, which only Dai would have found.

I now look back to all the films we made together with enormous pleasure. Each still feels fresh, and when from time to time I watch one of them again I never want to change a single cut.

Mike Dibb,
Documentary Filmmaker
July 2012

'A Tribute to Dai Vaughan' by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

Portrait of an Invisible Man
is a multi-faceted book, at once a biography, a work of film theory, and a meditation on destiny, which in Stewart McAllister’s case was a destiny to remain invisible, an eccentric artistic genius (the word is not too strong) who had opted to work as an anonymous craftsman. The cover of the book is eloquently silent. When Dai’s manuscript came in, BFI Publishing was just introducing a new standard cover design – glossy black with white lettering and a small space for a portrait shaped picture near the top. Dai gave us a photo of Stewart McAllister holding up a strip of 35mm film, with that essential tool of the editor’s trade, a chinagraph pencil, poised between his lips. We wanted to use the whole photo but Dai said no. No face, no pencil, just the strip of film and a hand holding it. Likewise there were to be no pictures in the book illustrating McAllister’s work. Juxtaposed frame stills, he insisted, tell you nothing about film editing. He did, however, allow the portrait to be shown in full just next to the title page: the invisible man made briefly visible to the reader’s passing glance, unshaven and with, in Dai’s own words, “a sagging jacket, tight tie and the curled up collar which in those days of ironing housewives unmistakably indicated the bachelor”. So although much was revealed in the book about McAllister, his craft, the nature of film editing, the wrongness of much “auteur” criticism, and many other things besides, the book remained basically true to its title. There is, of course, no photo of the author on the back cover.

Professor Geoffrey Nowell-Smith,
Honorary Professorial Fellow, Queen Mary University of London
July 2012

'A Tribute to Dai Vaughan' by Ed Buscombe

I can’t say I ever knew Dai Vaughan well. He had many different existences: writer about films, poet, novelist, film-maker, and possibly others that I was not even aware of. I remember him as a man whose words were softly spoken but chosen with care, unfailingly courteous but with inner convictions. He had written an excellent volume in the BFI’s TV Monographs series, entitled Television Documentary Usage. When we talked about further projects in the area of documentary, he mentioned his interest in Stewart McAllister, editor of Humphrey Jennings’s most celebrated films but of whom, I had to confess, I had never heard. But as Dai outlined what he wanted to write, it became apparent that this would be a fascinating book, both in its insights into the British documentary movement, and also in its account of the subtleties of the relationship between an editor and a director. Dai’s work promised to throw new light on the so-called ‘auteur theory’, being a case-study which by no means undermined Jennings’s claims to authorship, while giving full credit to McAllister for his contribution.

Dai brought to his subject his own experience as a film editor, on which he had reflected deeply. Working with him was a pleasure. His writing was quite dense but so precise it did not need much editing, except that Geoffrey Nowell-Smith remembers juggling different typographical devices to accommodate all the varying kinds of quotations that Dai required. I thought the book was splendid, but it never got the recognition it deserved. I think Portrait of an Invisible Man remains one of the best books ever written about British cinema, as well as one of the most illuminating about the practice of film-making.

Ed Buscombe,
Formerly Head of Publishing, British Film Institute
July 2012

'A Tribute to Dai Vaughan' by Patrick Russell

I first read the elegant prose of Portrait... in just one or two rapt sittings ten or more years ago and have returned to it with continuing pleasure and growing admiration several times since. The book is a masterpiece in perhaps the precisest sense of the word: content that has found its perfection in form. Appropriately enough, one of its very objectives (and greatest achievements) is to penetrate and explicate the mysterious synthesis of form, content and circumstance in the production of the film viewer's experience. Vaughan's arguments for McAllister's contribution to 'Jennings', and the contribution of editing generally to the meaning of documentary have continuing merits, while his approach to constructing and expressing those arguments has implications for all serious writers on film. Far too many predicate their work on two false choices: that between empirical research and what academics unprettily term 'textual' interpretation; and that between rigorous analysis and warm appreciation. The best understanding is likely to be the result of doing all four exceptionally well and thus synthesising these supposed antitheses. The skill required, however, is destined to elude most of us and Portrait of an Invisible Man likely to remain an inspirational exception. 

Patrick Russell,
BFI Senior Curator (Non-Fiction)
July 2012

Additional links to Dai Vaughan’s writing, interviews with and writing on him

Dai Vaughan Bibliography 

Dai Vaughan Filmography
 Dai Vaughan Interview with Richard MacDonald and Martin Stollery Full Transcript MS

Tuesday 3 July 2012

FRAMES on "Film and Moving Image Studies: Re-Born Digital?"

Well, it's been mighty quiet round these parts for a while, and one of the reasons is that Film Studies For Free's supremo was very kindly invited to conceive of, and guest-edit, the inaugural, themed issue of a brand new open access journal run by Film Studies graduate students at the University of St. Andrews (who were led, on this occasion, by Frames founding editor Fredrik Gustafsson - also a film blogger of distinction).

The journal Frames— now added to FSFF's permanent listing of online film and moving studies periodicals—will go on to further great things.

But first issues don't generally get any more bumper, more multimedia—half the contributions focus on, or contain, audiovisual film and moving image studies—or more filled with the work of truly wonderful contributors than this! It's also a particularly timely issue, as its introduction sets out.
[A]s honoured guest editor of this inaugural issue of the online journal Frames [...], I invited 39 fellow film and moving image scholars (including established and emergent film scientists, archivists, publishers, and film and video makers), all of them digital-participant-observers of one kind or another, to contribute their responses in a variety of forms to a semi-rhetorical question: ‘have film and moving image studies been “re-born” digital?’  In other words, what can we do now that we couldn’t before—and what can we no longer do as well—as a result of our increasing take up of particular digital scholarly technologies? Is a language of ‘re-vitalization’ an appropriate one to describe digital developments in our subjects? [Catherine Grant, ‘Film and Moving Image Studies: Re-Born Digital? Some Participant Observations', Frames, 1.1, 2012]
The Table of Contents with links to all items is set out below. Thanks so much to everyone involved—and especially to Fredrik—for their hard work. It was a pleasure working with you all.

In future weeks, FSFF will profile and discuss particular aspects of the issue. But, from tomorrow, this blogger will be on her annual, offline, holiday for two weeks until July 20th, when she hopes to be re-born digital all over again!

Frames, Issue 1, July 2012: Film and Moving Image Studies Re-Born Digital? Guest-edited by Catherine Grant