Photographic Realism in Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff

In his essay, ‘What is Digital Cinema?’, Lev Manovich famously says, “Cinema is the art of the index; it is an attempt to make art out of a footprint.” Manovich’s engagement with indexicality in cinema in the digital age begins as a departure from the focus on “the possibilities of the interactive narrative”. Instead, he attempts to historicize the visual techniques that go into the making of cinema and their differing relationship to the representations of reality through time, thus reflecting what Altman calls the ‘historicizing of genre theory’.

Manovich notes that since its very birth, “cinema was understood …as the art of motion… that finally succeeded in creating a convincing illusion of dynamic reality”. He looks at the progress of this idea by tracing it back to the 19th century, when cinema relied on hand painted or hand-drawn images that required manual action to create movement. By the last decade of the 19th century with the mechanization of motion, this movement was accelerated, leading to the birth of a “particular regime of the visible”, where the machine spits out images, “all moving at the same speed, like a line of marching soldiers”. These techniques removed the traces of the human body from the making of cinema: “once the cinema was stabilized as a technology, it cut all references to its origins in artifice”.

He goes on to distinguish Animation from Cinema, by emphasizing on their respective privileging of the ‘graphic’ and the ‘photographic’. Thus, animation openly admits its constructedness by projecting its images as representations of rather than, unadulterated recordings of reality. Manovich notes that while cinema, since its very beginning bore traces of the human body, the “new visual regime of cinema” by erasing traces of its production process, pushed the relevance of graphic art such as paintings, in the discussion of cinema, to the fringes.

However, Digital Cinema challenges this distinction between recorded and constructed reality by making possible the juxtaposition of the two. Manovich lists the following principles of digital cinema—

  • Rather than filming/recording physical reality, it is now possible to generate film like scenes directly in a computer.
  • Once live-action footage is digitized, it loses its privileged indexical relationship to pro-filmic reality.
  • With the possibility of editing now, live-action footage functions as raw material for further composition. (Thus, retaining visual realism unique to the photographic process, yet obtaining the plasticity possible in animation)
  • The computer collapses the distinction between editing and special effects.

All these features, stress on the “mutability of digital cinema” that erases the distinction between a “photograph and a painting”. Manovich gives examples of hand-painting digitized film frames in digital cinema, that allow us to think through the differences between “re-arranging reality” to “re-arranging images”. Thus,  the computer allows the meeting of the cinematic with the graphic. A significant consequence of this, especially in relation to Meek’s Cutoff, is the possibility of recreating spatialized narratives by fusing images together, allowing for the possibility of the spatializing of time: “time becomes spatialized, distributed over the surface of the screen.”

It may be interesting to read Egbert’s and Gregory’s reviews of Meek’s Cutoff in relation to Manovich’s discussion of Digital Cinema. Both, Egbert and Gregory in their reviews of the movie, applaud Reichardt’s realism, in so much as it relies on her proximity to the landscapes where her stories are set. Thus Gregory, talks about the hostile setting of Meek’s Cutoff, complete with “rattle snakes and tornado winds…110 degrees during the day and 20 degrees at night” where “actors came down with heatstroke and hypothermia”. On the other hand, the representation of the actors and the authenticity of their costumes is set against the backdrop of a landscape that increasingly represents a painting. While, Reichardt’s films may be seen as instances of stark recorded reality, how may we read these painterly landscapes in relation to the characters?


The Woman of the Wild West Cinema: Drawing Comparisons Between Meek’s Cutoff and Deadwood


Before even starting the readings and viewing for this week, I was immediately intrigued by the utilization of a woman in the poster for Meek’s Cutoff. Forgive my ignorance, but my knowledge of the western genre is limited to playing the Oregon Trail, Deadwood, and now Meek’s Cutoff. Typically, when thinking of films or cinema that fall within the western genre, it is often believed to be a “John Wayne” type film where the cowboy comes riding in with his trusty steed to save the damsel(s) in distress. However, within the opening scenes from Meek’s Cutoff women are baring the burden of unloading the wagons, moving goods across the deep flowing waters of the creek, and then unloading and drying clothing items. This is a stark difference than how we see women portrayed in Deadwood.


Within Deadwood, woman have seemingly three roles. The prostitutes, the prim and proper ladies/maternal roles (a “classic woman’s role”), and the ‘undesirables.’ I struggled with the categorization of the latter because while they are woman, they do not portray the desirable qualities of a lady. Even in just looking at the comparison between posters, Meek’s Cutoff has a strong young woman wielding a shot gun whereas Deadwood has a pushed the women (totally blanking on her name right now) to the back of the shot while foregrounding a dead woman/prostitute.

During Gregory’s interview with Kelly Reichardt, she notes that “a lone man can be a hero — readily and right from the start — a lone woman is cause for concern.” This is especially true within certain genere’s. While a lone woman would be perfectly normal is say a rom com or a musical, it is a shocking occurrence within the realm of westerns or even horror films. Looking back, a quote from Gregory’s article sticks with me while investigating the woman’s role within the western genre and just cinema in general.

“The characters are just sort of an extension of the landscape they’re in,” Reichardt said,  “They’re a product of the places they’re from and their troubles — their everyday troubles.”

This quote makes me wonder, not just about westerns but across the silver screen, are woman a product of their environment or are they just falling prey to the stereotypical roles of female characters? Do aspect rations have anything to do with the feel of these films and how emotions are portrayed? Meek’s Cutoff was film with a 1.33:1 academy aspect ratio which makes the whole film seem tense, claustrophobic and oppressed compared to Deadwood that is filmed with a 1.78:1 “digital television” aspect ratio. Does this influence how the viewer interprets their cinematic experience? Can this change how we feel about certain characters?aspectratio

Psychological or Not?: “La chambre” as a Room Scene

Margulies, in her 2006 article “La Chambre Akerman: The Captive as Creator,” considers Akerman’s “room scenes” or “Akerman-chambers” as sites of conflict between the artist’s creative autonomy and the everyday.  Margulies identifies room scenes as those “shallow-boxed” spaces in which people, most often women, perform simple, mundane tasks.  As isolating, confining, purposefully theatrical spaces, these rooms draw on anxieties of domesticity and an uncertainty that Margulies connects with obsessive-compulsive tendencies.  Because Margulies looks at many of Akerman’s films in various ways, I would like to focus my post on a few specific issues that I hope will be relevant for our discussion.

Though Margulies suggests that Akerman’s films are not deeply psychological[1], she relies heavily on the psychology of family and obsession-compulsion in her analysis of Akerman’s room scenes.  While arguing we are not meant to project on or connect to her characters, and even that Akerman might regard anything less than an opaque character as a manipulation of the spectator’s feelings in a way that is against her artistic vision, Margulies nonetheless offers a reading of the women in these rooms as mother figures and their repetitive actions as part of an obsessive-compulsive disorder.  In displaying both the mother and the artist’s everyday, Margulies believes Akerman attempts to extricate the artist from the mother—but reiterates that this is not a psychologically fraught scenario, despite its obvious psychological implications.  Calling on Freud, she turns to the repetitive and occasionally “manic” actions of these women as part of the “doubting dynamics of obsessive-compulsive neurosis.”  Doubt then becomes a key element of her argument, and she concludes by saying these films are Akerman’s depiction of the “obsessive’s doomed attempts to conquer uncertainty.”  I’m curious about how successful we feel Margulies is in making a deeply psychology-based argument while retaining her claim that Akerman’s films are not psychological.  I believe I understand that here she means overtly psychological, and that by presenting us with opaque characters she believes Akerman can avoid psychology and deal with it only referentially.  Do we buy this?

I also question how clearly Margulies makes the connection between her arguments about the room scene’s focus on the obsessive-compulsive’s doubt driving “doomed attempts to conquer uncertainty,” the point with which she concludes her article, and her initial aim to explore the enactment of artistic agency through the everyday.  While I can see a potential connection between the artist’s attempts to render their experience in art forms and the obsessive-compulsive’s drive to conquer their simultaneously chaotic and restrictive surroundings, I am not confident in saying this is the connection Margulies intends to draw, and it is certainly not made explicit.

Margulies draws from many of Akerman’s films, not only the piece we watched for Thursday’s class, but she does identify La chambre as a room scene, mentioning it as one in which the room-set takes over the entire film and acts as a separate, demarcated space for the self in which Akerman explores the conflict between artistic and obsessive autonomy.  The 360-degree room pan encircles and entraps, showing the boundaries of the domestic space.  However, she bases her arguments about room scenes primarily on Akerman’s longer, speaking films.  Several of the elements she mentions that seem to typify a room scene, or at least that become central evidence in her argument for the room scene’s purpose in Akerman’s films are missing from or not overt in La chambre.  Among these, the movement of the camera is smooth and unstopping, almost peaceful in that it refuses to let us settle on anything in the scene for too long, but moves over the objects in a way that becomes familiar.  This is in contrast to the other films Margulies considers, in which the “gestures” of the characters take priority both in narrative content and framing, and Margulies views them as part of the films’ neuroses.  While the woman in La chambre almost ritualistically holds, rubs, and eats the apple, it did not initially come across to me as obsessive-compulsive in the ways Margulies describes scenes from Akerman’s other films, which involve cleaning, counting, moving around the edges of the room, etc.  Keeping Margulies’s argument in mind, upon rewatching there is an urgency with which she eats the apple around 8:51 that could verge on the manic behavior Margulies is looking for, but the shot panning past her prevents me from focusing too much on anything obsessive-compulsive about her behavior.  Do we see mania or repetition here in a way that rings true with Margulies’s argument about the obsessive-compulsive’s doubt as central to Akerman’s exploration of artistic autonomy?

[1] Though she does not state this outright in reference to Akerman’s work at large, at several points in her analyses of Akerman’s films she describes Akerman’s technique as not “fraught with psychology,” “blocking psychological projection,” “not psychologically inflected,” a “non-psychological take,” and not “conducive to psychodrama.”

Film Poems, Experimental Films, and the Avant-Garde: Sitney’s Visionary Film as told by a non-film person

First, let’s have a raise of hands. Who’s first comments were “what the hell did I just watch?” Only me? Alrighty, moving on.

What do “film poems” and “experimental” cinema have in common? Both terms fell out of use in the 50s and Sitney brought a new term into the cinematic scene: American avant-garde. The term avant-garde is one Sitney struggled with using as a ‘label’ for this thirty-year span of cinema.

Before I continue, I want to stop and ponder (diverge?) for a moment. This term avant-garde is often thrown around in reference to art, theater, cinema, etc. Sitney decided to use the term avant-garde because “it is the only name which is not associated with…the thirty-year span I [Sitney] attempt to cover” (preface, viii). A quick google search yields two definitions for the term avant-garde. The first definition: noun; new and unusual or experimental ideas, especially in the arts, or the people introducing them. The second definition: adjective; favoring or introducing experimental or unusual ideas. Both of these definitions include critical term. Experimental. So I want you to think, how do you define avant-garde? Is it some experimental conquest by an aspiring filmmaker? Is it a cry to be different? Towards the end of the preface, Sitney revisits the screening of avant-garde films in collegiate settings.  “Hundreds of colleges now regularly screen avant-garde films; they have become an essential part of the program…Naturally the vast majority of independent films produced in any year are very low quality, as is the year’s poetry, painting, or music by and large” (preface, x).

On top of “film poems”, experimental, and avant-garde, Sitney brings in two more film types. The formal film and the structural film. The formal film can be described as a “tight nexus of content, a shape designed to explore the facets of the material.” Structural film however, exhibit four characteristics; the fixed (in the viewer’s perspective) camera position, the flicker effect, loop printing, and rephotography off the screen.

Although he is famously known for his pop art paintings, Andy Warhol also delved deep into the realm of avant-garde filmmaking. His early filmmaking harkens three of the four defining characteristics of structural film. These films included Sleep, a six-hour film which a half dozen shots have been loop printed ending with a frozen image of the sleeper’s head. The next films consist of Eat, a forty-five minutes of mushroom eating; eight continuous hours of the Empire State Building as seen in Empire; Harlot, a seventy-minute tableau vivant with off-screen commentary, and various others. As Olivia pointed out, Sitney writes that Warhol’s work opened up “a cinema actively engaged in generating metaphors for the viewing, or rather the perceiving, experience” (373).

Spring boarding off of Warhol’s avant-garde, “anti-romantic” structural films brings us to Brakhage’s
1963 film, Mothlight. When Mothlight was first mentioned in class a few weeks ago, I didn’t think much of. I understood to some extent that it’d be an ‘out of the box artsy type’ (avant-garde?) film but on the same note I never expect a FILM to be shot without a camera. Mothlight, to me, fits into this area of structural film. Fixed view perspective camera – check, flicker effect – check, loop printing and rephotography – can be argued. Brakhage collected hundreds of insect wings, petals, blades of grass, pollen, and leaves and meticulously pressed them together with tape and then fed that tape into a projector. This wasn’t just a short experimental film, this was his personal approach to his craft, his art.


“Here is a film that I made out of a deep grief. The grief is my business in a way, but the grief was helpful in squeezing the little film out of me, that I said “these crazy moths are flying into the candlelight, and burning themselves to death, and that’s what’s happening to me. I don’t have enough money to make these films, and … I’m not feeding my children properly, because of these damn films, you know. And I’m burning up here… What can I do?” I’m feeling the full horror of some kind of immolation, in a way. Over the lightbulbs there’s all these dead moth wings, and I … hate that. Such a sadness; there must surely be something to do with that. I tenderly picked them out and start pasting them onto a strip of film, to try to… give them life again, to animate them again, to try to put them into some sort of life through the motion picture machine.”[1]

 by_brakhage_mothlight_300x598Mothlight, a four-minute silent film, explores and blends aspects of “film poem”, experimental film, avant-garde, and structural films. The silence is filled with the soft crackling and popping of the tape. This crackling noise can be interpreted many ways by the audience. Is it the soft crackling of moth wings fluttering past? The popping open of flower petals as they bloom in the early morning light? The crackling and popping of a smoldering fire? Jacqueline Valencia, from These Girls On Film, summed Mothlight up in these two sentences, “[t]hese aren’t ghosts of things once real, these are flora’s antiquities roaming a projector’s lights. These things are real.” [2]


“Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception.” – Stan Brakhage

“I make up the rules of a game and I play it. If I seem to be losing, I change the rules.” – Michael Snow

[1] Commentary by Stan Brakhage on By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume 1, taken from 2002 interview with Bruce Kawin retrieved from

[2] Jacqueline’s full critique of Mothlight can be found here. I would highly recommend reading it if you are interested in seeing another opinion of the avant-garde scene and more specifically, Mothlight.

Space, body/voice and the everyday in Akerman’s La chambre

As La chambre (Chantal Akerman, 1972) is under 11 minutes in duration, I would like to examine the film in its entirety, but the moment (~1:40) in which we first see that there is a human subject in the room will be my point of departure. Why this moment? Two reasons: first, it brings us back to last week’s conversation about the privileging of the human subject over nature/animal/environment in documentary (though I do not argue that La chambre is documentary), and second, it creates an interesting contrast with the scene in Y tu mamá también where the camera sweeps Luisa’s empty apartment. I will return to these ideas after a brief discussion of the film as a whole.

I begin with a question of nomenclature. After reading Sitney, what do we call this film? Experimental, a “film poem”, avant-garde, structural (the never-ending circles created by the constant panning are a relatively important shape), or even formal? Criterion Collection refers to La chambre as a “breakthrough formal experiment” and notes that it was inspired by the structural films (Snow, Warhol, etc) that Akerman saw on a trip to New York, the same which Sitney outlines in his chapter.[1] Akerman’s film is both formally and structurally radical – the 360-degree pan in a single take is the only camera movement and it violates all kinds of classical Hollywood’s editing and narrative norms. Despite this exploration of camera, there is no direct acknowledgment of the camera (i.e. lens flares or meta-awareness of filmic medium, like we see in Mothlight), except when the gaze of the human subject breaks the fourth wall. I tend to think that La chambre could be called a “film poem,” because its repeating structure reminds me of the rhythmic nature of poetry, but also due to the types of metaphors that it produces.

Sitney writes that Warhol’s work opened up “a cinema actively engaged in generating metaphors for the viewing, or rather the perceiving, experience” (373). In La chambre, Akerman draws from a “discourse of the everyday” in order to create a series of ultimately ambiguous contrasts and metaphors.[2] The camera literally spins in circles, gesturing to the patriarchal entrapment of a woman in the domestic space; it is repetitive, there is no escape. But this movement is simultaneously peaceful, quotidian and quiet, not frantic. Though the room seems like a prison for the human subject, the constant movement of the camera makes the space seem larger than it actually is, as if the space never ends. Here, La chambre plays with stasis and dynamism. The space is still and it is only the woman who changes and evolves. Is this about the banality or meaningfulness of everyday life? Is this more about the human or the space? Criterion Collection calls this film a “moving still life,” yet another entry point into a discussion on film and other artistic mediums.

This notion of a still life intrigues me because the contents of this still life are not completely still. I am referring, of course, to the human subject (Akerman, herself, actually[3]) that continues to change positions each time the camera passes her bed. There is a certain privilege and priority of the human subject, as the camera reverses its pan to allow us more time to view the subject. For me, the woman is the strongest place marker in the space because with each revolution, I kept waiting to see what she would do next. Maybe this is a feminist push – this female subject of the still life is not still, she is the feminine object of the gaze that gazes back. Regardless of ideological thrust, this slow pan across the room demonstrates “Akerman’s mastery of the mise en scène” – which, according to Margulies, is apparent across her films. The apples – first seen at the table – later become the object that fuses together the various spaces of the room as Akerman crunches (soundlessly) on an apple in bed.[4]

To conclude, I want to touch upon the comparison of La chambre to Luisa’s empty apartment in Y tu mamá también. Both moments privilege interior space, and by extension, the interiority of the woman we know to inhabit said space. While in La chambre we are given a female body with no voice, but in the other scene we are given Luisa’s voice with no body. This ghostly (ghastly?) presence in Luisa and Jano’s now-empty apartment implies a body, maybe even hinting towards Luisa’s dying body that will soon cease to exist. On the other hand, we see Akerman’s healthy body in La chambre, so does this necessarily imply a voice? A healthy voice that has been silenced? In juxtaposing domestic living space / body / voice, the two films seem to gesture towards the depth and weight of female interiority that is often dismissed in cinema. Paradoxically, perhaps re-reading Doane’s “The Voice in Cinema” could shed some new light on the silent La chambre



[2] Margulies, Ivone. “La Chambre Akerman – The Captive as Creator.”

[3] Akerman was only 22 when she made this film. She actually made her first film at age 18 after dropping out of film-school.

[4] Somewhat obvious, but the allusion to biblical Eve eating the apple could (should?) play into the interpretation of the film’s metaphor(s).

Representing Reality: Stories We Tell and the Desire for Truth

Hastie focuses in her piece on a sequence towards the end of Stories We Tell, shortly before the revelation that many of the “home videos” sprinkled throughout the film were in fact staged recreations. Polley interviews Harry and asks him, “So what do you think of the concept of me making this documentary where we’re sort of giving equal weight to everyone’s version of the story?” He responds, “I don’t like it.” He expresses his belief that there is only one version of the truth—a version that only he and Diane are qualified to tell. All other versions of the story are tainted by the experiences, loyalties, and/or assumptions of those who tell it. He finishes by stating, “the crucial function of art is to tell the truth.”

Immediately following this is an interview with Michael. As Michael begins speaking, he is interrupted by a makeshift cutboard with: “Shot 1, Take 4, etc.” hand-written on it that is held in front of the camera followed by hands clapping to signify the start of filming. He begins again, “You realize when you’ve finished all this, you’ve got about six hours of stuff and you’ll decide what you want out of it.” He tells her that the film would end up very differently depending on who edited it—her version will be very different from his or Harry’s. He tells her the closest to truth she could get would be to present the interviews completely unedited—and even then, the film still wouldn’t be able to present the “truth” completely objectively.

In “Documentary Film, Nichols explains that in documentary, photographic images often function as evidence, because of their indexical relationship to a referent that exists in reality (106). We’ve been discussing all semester how cinema and photography differ from other art forms because of their indexicality—because, as Bazin argues, “Only a photographic lens can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it some- thing more than a mere approximation, a kind of decal or transfer. The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it” (162). The supposed tie between objectivity and indexicality tends to be stronger for documentary; not only does the audience assume that what they are seeing “really happened,” but they also tend to presume that they are seeing these events without bias or authorial intervention.

Harry seems to take this point of view. He makes it clear that he believes there is one version of the truth and that art’s goal is to find and present that truth. His version of the documentary would likely fall into the expository mode with him as the sole voice of authority. Michael on the other hand seems to favor a more reflexive mode—as evidenced by the decision to keep the moment with the cutboard in the scene. He recognizes that although the film allows us to be as close to the referent as possible, the presence of the filmmaker makes the product not a reproduction of reality but a representation of reality. This may not be the Truth but this is Polley’s truth.

Hastie writes about this same sequence, pointing to the way that this revelation changes the way that the audience watches the film and allows us to “witness the complexity of memory, narrative, and belief layering and unraveling before us” (59). She argues that Polley “shows us that film is like memory in its vagaries, its inconsistencies, and its shifts” (61). Polley, fully aware of the audience’s expectations of film (and documentary in particular), forces us to reconsider our ideas about reality and truth. The two interviews are followed by Sarah’s brother asking her—as she sits behind the camera—what the documentary is about. “Memory and the way we tell the stories of our lives,” she responds. Then, as Sarah’s voice-over reads a an e-mail she sent to Harry in which she describes the purpose of the film, it is revealed to the viewer that many of the scenes the film seemed to present as “home movies” or documents of the truth have actually been recreations that were staged and directed by Polley herself.

This revelation drives Polley’s point home; the one seemingly “objective” evidence in the film—the grainy footage that we assume must be trustworthy—is also tinted by Polley’s perspective, memory, and purpose—this is not unfiltered footage of her mother; this is her memory and her interpretation of her mother. This film reveals itself to be (perhaps predominantly) about filmmaking and documentary; Polley asks the viewer to question their expectations of documentaries and how these films allege to present the “truth.” And although she presents both Harry’s viewpoint and Michael’s, I would argue that it’s clear that she favors Michael’s way of seeing things (as evidenced by using him as the “voice-of-God” narrator). The film encourages us to, as Nichols says we must, interpret indexical images rather than accept them as fact.

Bill Nichols’ Documentary Film and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah

Nichols opens his essay by stating that “(d)ocumentary films address the historical world itself rather than construct an imaginary or fictional world. They (…) invite engagement with their representation of the historical world (…) by emotional or persuasive means.” (99) Therefore they are “not necessary argumentative, didactic, or propagandistic.” (100) Documentary films “draw us into a particular perspective on the world and invite us to experience the world in a distinct way. Engaging the viewer in a distinct perspective emotionally or persuading the viewer of a particular perspective intellectually go hand in hand in documentary, even though different films vary the balance between these two goals.” (100)


Documentary films have an “indexical relationship” (i.e. the image strictly corresponds to what it represents), which “allows the image to represent a specific aspect of the historical world with great accuracy.” (106) However, the way how one interprets images “remains a matter of interpretation, of what signifieds get attached, even to indexical signifiers.” (108) Interpretation is a matter of the interpreter’s “skills, background, and motives” (108).


Documentary films can “uphold (…) contest, alter, or subvert” (109) a dominant ideology of a specific moment, therefore they must be persuasive. “To be effective a documentary sets out to do three things: 1) establish the credibility of the filmmaker; 2) provide a convincing argument; 3) achieve a compelling form of presentation.” So, a documentary can be successful “if it is believed.” (109) The documentary must thus adhere to the “Three C’s of rhetoric” (109), i.e. it must be “credible, convincing, compelling” (109).


Nichols then explains the six modes (involving each mode „a set of conventions for representing reality“ – p. 114) of documentary film as follows:


Expository: it’s „the most common way of representing reality“ (114), documentaries in this mode „receive much of their organizing structure from what the guiding voice says.” (115) This voice, speaking directly to the audience, can be the “unseen voice of God (…) external to the events depicted” (114) or the “visible voice of authority, someone both seen and heard” (1114-5); This “expository voice represents the viewpoint of the filmmaker.” (115)

“(…) images often serve t illustrate what is said (…) serving to advance the overall argument.” (115) Another important feature of this mode is “evidentiary editing, which represents the best possible visible evidence” (114).


Poetic: “a major link between the documentary and the avant-garde film. It stresses form or pattern over an explicit argument, even though it may well have an implicit perspective on some aspects of the historical world.” (116) It focuses on the aesthetics of what is shown. This mode, “breaks with continuity editing to build patterns that simulate the look and feel of real-world activities and processes.” (116-7) It mostly lacks verbal commentary.


Observational: also referred to as “direct cinema, (it) returns to the fiction-like stress on the continuity of time and space.” (117) It tries to “capture the unfolding duration of what (takes) place in front of the camera (…), events likely to occur in the form they do whether a camera is present or not” (117). This mode “give(s) a vivid sense of what it feels like to share the specific world of particular individuals at a giving moment in time.” (118) Its strength resides in its “immediacy and access to specific (…) moments” (118), its weakness in its “inability to give a broader, historical picture” (118).


Participatory: also called “interactive documentary or cinéma vérité”, it is a mode in which “the participatory filmmaker becomes an openly integral part of what happens in front of the camera. Interviews, which only occur because the camera is present, are a staple of participatory films.“ (118) “The film becomes a record of the interactions of subjects and filmmaker.” (119) It can also “combine interviews with footage that illustrates what the speaker refers to. (120) This mix of interviews and archival footage has “become the dominant mode for recounting historical events.” (121)


Reflexive: this mode “draws attention to the type of the film the documentary is. It makes the viewer aware of the conventions, the expectations and assumptions that usually go unspoken. It stimulates reflection on the viewing process and how it differs from viewing a fiction film.” (122)


Performative: it “stresses emotional involvement with what it is like to witness a particular kind of experience.” (124) This mode “rel(ies) less heavily on commentary to convey information than on form to convey emotion.” (124) Performative documentaries “seek (…) to draw us into an affective, experiential engagement with what it feels like to encounter the world from a specific perspective and in a particular time and place. (…) (They) do more than convey information or mount an argument. Like fiction films, documentaries can be a source of deeply felt and long remembered emotional experiences.” (125)


Nichols then talks about the style of the documentary film, which “ranges from plain to ornate. (…) The choice of what style to use is a question of what is fitting for the subject and purpose.” (126) Decorum is the term Nichols refers to the choice of style. Examples: Leni Riefenstahl’s pompous style in Triumph of the Will vs. Michael Moore’s “plain-talking, straight-acting Everyman”’s (127) style vs. hyperbolic style in Hanson’s 8 Mile.


As Nichols states before explaining the six modes of documentary films, although one mode is dominant in a film, the modes “can be mixed and matched in any film” (114), as, I believe, it is the case of Lanzmann’s Shoah. The dominant mode in Shoah is very evidently the Participatory Mode (see Nichols p. 119-120). However, in some scenes, other modes prevail. In the long shots of the Polish forest, the trees planted by the Nazis to hide the atrocities they were committing, as well as of the vast clearing among the trees where the Jews were burnt and buried, the beauty of such wilderness reminds me of the Poetic Mode. Also, the fact that Shoah deals with the Holocaust, and therefore with Jewish people, reminds me of the Performative Mode.

Simon Srebnik coming back to the Chelmno forest and singing Polish and German songs; Motke Zaïdl and Itzhak Dugin standing in an Israeli forest that resembles the Ponari forest in Lithuania, telling how they re-opened the mass graves in the Lithuanian forest; the train driver looking out while arriving at the Treblinka station; and finally also the scene described by Nichols of Abraham Bomba cutting hair during Lanzmann’s interview – all these reenactments remind me of the Observational Mode.

Informative vs. Evocative: Contrasting Functions of “Stories We Tell” and “Shoah”

Stories We Tell ends with Geoffrey Bowes confessing that he had, in fact, slept with Diane Polley “on one occasion” (Stories We Tell 01:43:38). The documentary is an expression of the love Sarah Polley has for her deceased mother and the resolution of dissonance she felt confronting her mother’s flaws. The credibility of Geoffrey Bowes’ claim, and the actuality of all the details in the movie, are irrelevant because it is an evocative document of a single person’s perspective, not an account of historic events that have any bearing on the lives of the general public. The function of Shoah is quite different. The director, Claude Lanzmann, does not get to decide what is important because the Holocaust is not his story to tell. The full length film was 9 hours and 26 minutes, and though I imagine it would be quite taxing to watch the entire movie, anything Lanzmann left on the cutting room floor would have been lost forever. The fundamental difference between a documentary that is informative, like Shoah, and one that is evocative, as is the case with Stories We Tell: one is an account for the public, and the other is a personal expression.

Bill Nichols chapter on documentary cinema from Engaging Cinema categorizes it into 6 modes based on form (expository, poetic, observational, participatory, reflexive, and performative), but he only addresses the function as persuasive (Nichols 114 – 126). The first step in conscious viewing should be differentiating between a documentary that functions as a portrait of an experience from a perspective, which can have multiple truths, and a document of historic significance, which needs to be judged as true, false, or incomplete.

Evidence of the problem with a lack of distinction between informative and evocative is clear in the last two examples Nichols gives; Nanook of the North and Triumph of the Will. Nanook of the North was an evocative portrait masquerading as an informative documentary, and Triumph of the Will was evocative propaganda presented as historic documentation. Triumph of the Will did not contain any lies, but it was not informative and no more evidential than Stories We Tell. Similarly, the events portrayed in Nanook of the North were inaccurate because the filmmaker, Robert J. Flaherty, was trying to paint a romantic portrait of the life in the north. He saw the details of the actual events as inconsequential to the public, so he gave himself license to misrepresent the reality of Inuit life. This is contrasted with Claude Lanzmann’s approach to the witness’ accounts in Shoah. Several of the witnesses did not want to relive their ordeal, but details of the atrocities are too important to let the survivors be silent (Nichols 119 – 120).

Nichols tries to separate the sciences from the humanities as issues of objectivity vs. subjectivity (Nichols 129 – 130); I think this is a mistake. Subjective framing is unavoidable in all areas of study, even science. An inability to observe all the factors that contribute to a system, does not preclude the ability to judge the output. People are complicated, and immeasurable ambiguous conditions contribute to our decisions, but our actions are objective. The value of a life cannot be quantified, but the recounts are evidence of an objective event. While many past events cannot be observed and motivation is a complicated internal process, the effect on an overwhelming number of people can be uncovered as a psychological scar that could not exist without a specific cause. Accordingly, some historic events can be seen, judged, and quantified through the evidence of testimony.

Stories We Tell is a personal journal and Shoah functions as a testimony in a trial. Personal stories belong to the participants, and the events can be freely portrayed from the owners’ angle, but the evidence of history belongs to the public. There are people who deny that the Holocaust happened and those who deny their responsibility (Shoah 00:44:30). Human nature is on trial, and letting ignorance or egregiously deliberate misrepresentation slip back into our culture needs to be condemned. Preserving the awful details of the Holocaust as objective truth is critical so we do not deny our role, contributing to the cruelty through ignorance. As viewers and analysts we need to be conscious of the function of documentary cinema, and not group evocative portraits with informative historic testimony.

Nichols, Bill. Engaging Cinema: An Introduction to Film Studies. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2010. Web.

Hastie, Amelie. “The Vulnerable Spectator.” Film Quarterly. 67.2 (2013): 59-61. Web.


In a characteristic scene in Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, Luisa asks Tenoch and Julio how they pleasure their girlfriends. The duo go on to enumerate in vivid detail, their bedroom escapades, in a classic scene of male sexual braggadocio.  However, when she gestures and inquires, “You ever wiggle your finger up the ass”, they are shocked and the car breaks down. I find, the sequence that follows (49:09-52:02), instrumental in weaving together some of the key concerns that the film articulates regarding national/Mexican cinema. The breakdown of the car is followed by a classic scene of provincial life (what Hind call ‘provincia’), where rural folk stand by a horse under a tree and watch the three urban dwellers. The car is then pulled by a tractor to a suitable location and an interesting array of frames are carefully juxtaposed with each other. A provincial woman chops a coconut and offers coconut water to Luisa, Julio talks to a provincial man, complimenting his hat and the latter offers it to him as a ‘present’. The camera slowly moves from Luisa contemplating Dona Martina’s toys to Tenoch and Julio pointing at a picture of a sculpture of David. The scene where they point at David’s genitals has a voice-over of Luisa leaving the farewell note for Jano. While she speaks, the camera shifts from the two boys, to a group of locals engaged in routine activities, to a shot of Luisa in booth 2, to Luisa’s house and finally ends while positioning the gaze outside the house through the window.

This sequence is interesting for a variety of reasons. It begins by interrupting the masculinist/patriarchal narrative of urban Mexico symbolized by the two boys, with Luisa’s suggestive shaming of their sense of male sexual entitlement, a classic case of the castration complex. The fact, that it is this that pushes them from the comfortable space of the car and leads to their direct contact with the people who inhabit the space of the ‘provincia’ is significant. Further, to borrow from Aldama’s piece, we have two shots that help us comprehend the global economic links between first, Mexico and Spain (the exchange of coconut water) and secondly, the urban/Mexico City and the provincial (the present of the hat). The latter scene is an uncomfortable reversal of class roles, as Hind points out in her essay. Luisa’s interaction with Dona Martina is an extension of the motif of death that the film toys with and may be read in terms of what Aldama calls turning “psychological categories into ontological ones, such as an ostensible Mexican fixation on death and an inferiority complex as a bastard race”(3). This inferiority complex is articulated in the film by pitching a sexually experienced Spanish woman against two misguidedly confident, young Mexican men.

However, what fascinates me about the sequence is its array of aesthetic objects and how the camera navigates through them. With reference to ‘Locations’, Aldama points out how Cuarón uses “carefully chosen objects tied to a location to evoke an interface with other times and spaces… the objects Cuarón chooses to fill his locations-… create a palimpsest of time and space”. The sequence of frames from Dona Martina’s toys to the ragged picture of David’s sculpture, to the slightly obscure collage of pictures on the wall to the pictures and paintings in Luisa’s home , is precisely such a carefully selected array of objects. I am interested in how the narrative about Dona Martina’s extraordinary memory is connected with the theme of death and Luisa’s ruminations on it for obvious reasons. Is it possible to read this narrative in terms of national memory and the role that the space of the provincial plays in restoring/constructing this national memory? Considering that the toy with Luisa’s name on it was intended for the now dead Luisa Obregon, who died of a heat stroke while crossing the Arizona border with her parents, is further indication that it is meant as a prop connecting private memory with a national consciousness. This narrative is told, while the camera focuses on the pictures on the wall of Luisa’s house. Y Tu Mamá También allows us very little insight into the minds of its characters. The camera shot of the house is perhaps the only time, we get a glimpse of Luisa’s interior life. What is the generic implication of the boys looking at David’s sculpture (in a poster), especially in context of the “Pop over poetry’ declaration in their Manifesto and how might it affect our reading of the film? (a digression of course)

Lastly, as a student of comics, I find the use of window frames in the film (and this particular sequence) very telling. In an earlier shot, the boys attempt to see Luisa dressing through the window, in this particular sequence, Luisa is framed within the window of booth 2, in a frame later in the film, resembling a comic panel- we see the boys playing and Luisa breaking up her marriage through two simultaneous window frames and then the last shot of this sequence looks out at Mexico through the window of the house that Luisa has left behind.  How may we think of ‘representation’ in the film through the trope of the window? How does it bring together themes of sexual voyeurism, the insider-outside binary and the private and public in the framing of national identity?


Y Tu Mamá También, “Third Cinema,” and Imagined [Cultural] Communities

Towards the beginning of Y tu mamá también, Tenoch and Julio indulge in one of the most privileged displays of grossness (or gross displays of privilege, you choose) I can imagine: a day at the pool at the country club Tenoch’s father is part-owner of, sans other visitors, rules, or oversight. (And, well, we’ll just leave it at that.) In this scene, as in other early parts of the movie, the class differences between the two characters are not yet evident. Julio can imagine (as do we) that he and Tenoch are equals. But as we shortly see, Tenoch—the wealthy boy whose parents appropriated an indigenous name for him to demonstrate their nationalism—and working-class Julio represent a contestation of inequality rather than an ideal of cultural unity.


Y tu mamá también thus illuminates and complicates the relationship of national imagined communities and “national” cinema. Benedict Anderson’s 1983 Imagined Communities notes that “nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time” (3), by which he means the 80s and 90s. While Anderson characterizes the nation as fundamentally political, he also notes that “nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts” (4, my emphasis), a nature that is not explored in the excerpt we read. But it is just as useful, when talking about film, to conceive of “imagined communities” as imagined cultural communities, and nationalism as cultural nationalism, again both limited and sovereign (in an abstract sense). To follow Anderson’s breakdown (nb., the following has absolutely nothing to do with whatever he may say about cultural nationalism in the rest of the book; it is solely my speculation):

  • The imagined cultural community is imagined because, as Anderson writes, its members were largely never know each other (6), and also because it constructs a culture that is supposedly for everyone in that community—for example, in which cabinet ministers’ sons should be given names from the language of an oppressed minority
  • The imagined cultural community is limited because of its finite-but-elastic boundaries, and also because there’s only so far the construct of shared cultural heritage can stretch. Eventually, it thins to the point that appropriation, inequality, and artifice become transparent.[1]
  • The imagined cultural community is sovereign because participation requires buy-in. The rhetoric of shared culture constitutes power. (Also, Foucault.)
  • And as Anderson says, it’s a community because of the ideal of “horizontal comradeship” (7), which is, of course, a window-dressing.


I’d argue that all of these things become evident in YTMT as Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa get further and further from Mexico City and the glass floor of imagined equality they’ve built their friendship on, but in the opposite way from how Hind suggests the provincia usually works. Acting as though they’re traveling into a rural landscape without constraints, the teens are eventually faced with glaring inequalities that contribute to the end of their friendship.[2] But this synthesis is not of YTMT or Hind’s article, so I digress.


So if we accept (if only for a moment) that the above describes somewhat the aims and limitations of cultural nationalism, and that YTMT illuminates its problematic nature, what then are we to make of the film as “national” cinema? Crofts’ second category, the “Third Cinema,” is helpful here. Third Cinema explicitly seeks a non-Hollywood aesthetic and takes an anti-imperialist stance (856), “offer[ing] a particular reconceptualization of national cinema” by revealing “ethnic, gender, class, and regional differences” within the imagined community of the nation (857). The “nation” of Third Cinema is not necessarily Anderson’s imagined community (political and cultural), and may—as YTMT does, at least to some extent—offer some deconstruction of nationalist ideals.


I am uncertain, however, whether YTMT and other films that have “crossed over” from the developing world completely fit the category of Third Cinema. Crofts writes that they do not compete with Hollywood, but do critique it (854). I’m not sure how viable that characterization is for a film that was nominated for an Oscar and made by a director who now regularly crosses into Hollywood blockbuster territory (e.g., The Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men, Gravity). Cuarón does not lack connections in the American film mainstream. It’s hard to consider his work radical or anti-imperialist in content or context, even when the material pushes the envelope of what’s socially acceptable. Where, then, do we classify films like this that wrestle with some of the issues of the Third Cinema, but are also clearly connected to the American film mainstream (and if not to that, then to the “highbrow” international festival system)? Are they nationalist? National? Critiques of the nation? Or what?



[1] I’m not going to try to defend this point very well here, but I’m sure we can think of many examples, and plenty of folklorists and others have critiqued the notion of world heritage, national heritage, and (my favorite) “intangible cultural heritage” for similar reasons.

[2] My interpretation of YTMT is colored by having previously seen it for a WGSS class and reading it as a contestation of political, social, and masculine power in which Tenoch increasingly treats Julio as his inferior, a dynamic that gets upended somewhat in their sexual encounter. More digression!