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American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary

American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn

Scott MacDonald
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 424
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  • Book Info
    American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary
    Book Description:

    American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentaryis a critical history of American filmmakers crucial to the development of ethnographic film and personal documentary. The Boston and Cambridge area is notable for nurturing these approaches to documentary film via institutions such as the MIT Film Section and the Film Study Center, the Carpenter Center and the Visual and Environmental Studies Department at Harvard. Scott MacDonald uses pragmatism's focus on empirical experience as a basis for measuring the groundbreaking achievements of such influential filmmakers as John Marshall, Robert Gardner, Timothy Asch, Ed Pincus, Miriam Weinstein, Alfred Guzzetti, Ross McElwee, Robb Moss, Nina Davenport, Steve Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, Michel Negroponte, John Gianvito, Alexander Olch, Amie Siegel, Ilisa Barbash, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. By exploring the cinematic, personal, and professional relationships between these accomplished filmmakers, MacDonald shows how a pioneering, engaged, and uniquely cosmopolitan approach to documentary developed over the past half century.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95493-9
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    Over the years, particular forms of filmmaking have been identified with particular cities: Hollywood, with commercial melodrama, obviously; Mumbai, with a certain form of Indian musical; and New York and San Francisco with American avant-garde filmmaking. And in his remarkable book,The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), David James argues convincingly for the Los Angeles area’s centrality not simply in the history of commercial filmmaking but in the histories of a wide range of alternative cinemas. One of James’s accomplishments is to recognize that the makeup of...

  4. 1 Lorna and John Marshall
    (pp. 19-60)

    At the outset, the Marshall family expeditions to the Kalahari Desert from 1950 to 1961 to find and learn something about the San peoples living there were conceived as a means to the end of a more intensive, engaged experience of family life—an upscale version of the family camping trips that would become ubiquitous across the country during the following decades. Laurence Marshall’s determination that his family’s experiences with the San be useful in producing valuable insights into an ancient way of life led (along with his willingness to finance the project) to the Peabody Museum’s sponsorship of the...

  5. 2 Robert Gardner
    (pp. 61-110)

    While John Marshall spent much of his filmmaking life rethinking and revisiting his earlier filmmaking experiences in the Kalahari Desert, learning what he could from the ongoing transformations of San life and from what he saw as his limited understanding and his filmmaking mistakes, Robert Gardner’s career has been focused on an expansive engagement with the ways in which the human need to make life meaningful and beautiful despite the inevitability of physical death has been expressed both in far-flung cultures and by artists working in cultural environments closer to home. Gardner’s important, if controversial, contributions to ethnographic cinema have...

  6. 3 Timothy Asch
    (pp. 111-126)

    In the films he completed in Cambridge during the 1970s, Timothy Asch rigorously avoided reference to his personal experiences in the interest of foregrounding the experiences of those he documented. Ed Pincus remembers a visit Asch made to his filmmaking class at MIT:

    Asch came to show some Yanomamo films to my class at MIT—this would have been some time before 1975. We had lunch before going to class (Tim was an old friend; I’d known him for years), and he was describing his experiences filming the Yanomamo. Maybe you remember how the Yanomamo tribesmen tie a string around...

  7. 4 Ed Pincus and the Emergence of Personal Documentary
    (pp. 127-166)

    The social turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s brought with it a wholesale reevaluation of many of the institutions that had seemed to define American culture for the previous generation. The federal government had involved the nation in a war during which the American military perpetrated shocking, inhumane brutalities against a humble underdog—to many young people coming of age, America seemed the new Third Reich. State governments that had condoned generations of American apartheid came under attack from their own disenfranchised citizens and from “outside agitators,” including a president and attorney general educated at Harvard. Under pressure...

  8. 5 Alfred Guzzetti and Personal Cinema
    (pp. 167-182)

    Looking back at the 1960s and 1970s from half a century later, few transformations that were occurring at the time now seem more significant than the emergence of new image-making technologies: attempts to devise inexpensive sync-sound filmmaking gauges led in the end to videotape and camcorders and then to the emergence of a series of digital technologies that have taken the difficulty out of the process of recording image and sound, have simplified editing, and have made darkened theaters unnecessary for the experience of motion pictures. While most of those who were developing independent filmmaking careers during that era remained...

  9. 6 Ross McElwee
    (pp. 183-237)

    As of the new millennium, no personal documentary filmmaker had become better known than Ross McElwee. Despite what we might imagine was the influence of Ricky Leacock and Ed Pincus at MIT and of Alfred Guzzetti, McElwee’s teaching colleague at Harvard since 1986—all of whom abjured or at least avoided voice-over narration in documentary film—McElwee has become the most inventive explorer of voice-over in the history of personal documentary. Indeed, if his approach to narration no longer seems as distinct as it once did, that is because so many working in personal documentary in recent years have been...

  10. 7 Robb Moss
    (pp. 238-259)

    Like Ross McElwee, Robb Moss earned his M.F.A. in filmmaking from MIT, studying with Ed Pincus and Ricky Leacock, and he became McElwee’s colleague in the Visual and Environmental Studies Department at Harvard in 1983 (Moss is now Senior Lecturer in the Visual and Environmental Studies Department, as well as a creative advisor for the Sundance Documentary Labs). Further, like McElwee, Moss established his reputation with films—The Tourist(1991) andThe Same River Twice(2003)—in which he appears as a character. In 2004 Moss described his relationship with McElwee:

    People who don’t know anything about us sometimes write...

  11. 8 Panorama: Other Approaches to Personal Documentary
    (pp. 260-313)

    While interest among American (and Cambridge) filmmakers in producing ethnographic film, at least in the modes pioneered by the Marshalls, Gardner, and Asch, diminished by the 1980s, or at least was redirected into a broad-ranging critique of the myth of detached, objective observation both among those who were interested in ethnographic cinema and within the discipline of anthropology in general, the successes of personal documentary, both aesthetic and commercial (Pincus’sDiarieshad a theatrical run, and McElwee’sSherman’s Marchwas something of a hit), emboldened a good many aspiring documentary filmmakers to try their hand at exploring the autobiographical mode....

  12. 9 Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Sensory Ethnography
    (pp. 314-338)

    If, at first, intelligent people could imagine that, when representing Other cultures, a picture is worth a thousand words, it was not long before those with a serious interest in anthropology and ethnographic filmmaking saw that, whereas written ethnography generally condensed months or years of study into a more or less accessible verbal form, whatever film imagery of preindustrial cultures was recorded and then edited into “complete” films—by men and women finding their way not merely into anthropology, but filmmaking—was little to be trusted. If even a written text compiled on the basis of long periods of research...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 339-344)

    Both of the documentary histories that have been nurtured in Cambridge continue to develop and to be productive. Indeed, in recent years they have become increasingly imbricated with each other in large measure because so many of the major contributors continue to be part of a small, regularly interactive, generally mutually supportive filmmaking community. The passing of Ricky Leacock in 2011 instigated a coming together of much of the Cambridge documentary community and those with connections to it, as well as a useful body of new information about Leacock (Leacock’sThe Feeling of Being There: A Filmmaker’s Memoire, edited by...

  14. APPENDIX: Sources for Films
    (pp. 345-346)
  15. NOTES
    (pp. 347-396)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 397-416)