Transcultural Cinema

David MacDougall,
Transcultural Cinema. Edited & introduced by Lucien Taylor. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
ISBN 0 691 01234 2

(Review copy supplied by Princeton University Press)

Uploaded 1 November 2000

A vast range of the best filmmaking we now have takes place outside of the recognizeable marketplaces of commercial cinema, with its over-inflated publicity machines, its merchandising and its star systems. But these other cinemas still operate within a parallel universe of distribution (and star systems) which shares some similarity with the large centralised global supermarkets offering bestselling brands. Some documentary filmmaking – and to a lesser extent now, experimental filmmaking – has been able to find a home for itself in universities, where the acceptance of the concept of “fieldwork” in some disciplines accommodates the working methods of filmmakers (although very little actual film is any longer made) working around anthropology in particular. To find a home in a university also means that the filmmaker enters a culture of the book and this produces a central conflict between the dominance of the linguistic and the power of the image which the filmmaker is forced to negotiate with the greatest difficulty. In this volume of David MacDougall’s essays, the tension between the two practices is, let’s say, much more visible than in individual essays, encountered in their original contexts.

There are some tendencies in the field of visual anthropology (most aggressively encountered in the writings of Jay Ruby) which would subordinate the filmmaker to the discipline of anthropology, so that the filmmaker can never be anything but a technician illustrating anthropological knowledge. In their poetic and philosophic sophistication, David and Judith MacDougall’s films on the other hand have always been far more powerful than any written account of the subject matter or the cultural locations in which they are made. But wherever anthropology is the master discipline, (which is very much the world in which MacDougall’s work is done) a fundamental proposition frames all deliberations about the status of the image. This proposition – that in anthropology, the image can never have the final say – is the very issue which David MacDougall is at pains to challenge throughout his essays.

If this proposition represents in part the militancy of the linguistic turn of the last generation, paralleling on the cultural plane the place of the economic for historical materialism, then a more recent turn to the phenomenological which partly displaces the linguistic can be seen as the backdrop of David MacDougall’s deliberations in these essays. While for some, “the image will always have the final word” (Derrida) and for others “the word is after all an image”(Peter Greenaway), MacDougall’s final words present a particular manifesto for the image.

Consciousness is a multi-dimensional field in which gaps and elisions constitute much of the perceived world. Indeed, like the tonal and temporal intervals in music, they are the world. The unsaid is the common ground of social relations, communication and ethnography. It is also the domain of the image. (274)

The volume is finely edited by Lucien Taylor, who also provides a brilliant introduction. Although this is a collection of previously published work, it is framed by a new essay at the beginning and a new one at the end. The essays are not presented chronologically but thematically and careful attention has been paid to their placement in order to draw out developments in both the writer’s thinking and in the field more generally. To this extent, the editing of this book is like the editing of a film and one senses that more time has been given over to the process than one normally finds with edited collections of academic writing – and that a very skilled editor is involved. Academic publishing has now become such a market-driven business that it is not unlike the production of current affairs television, with its tight deadlines and hastily compiled product, so it is refreshing to encounter a collection which does not appear to fall prey to this tendency. It also has some features which are not contained in films. Not only is there is an excellent bibliography but there is also an especially good filmography and the volume will prove invaluable for anthropology, film and philosophy, screen studies and visual culture students and teachers. Each chapter contains enough material around which entire courses might be productively built.

MacDougall’s “Beyond observational cinema” (1973) which is perhaps his best known essay was originally published in Paul Hockings’ Principles of Visual Anthropology (1975) and more widely distributed in Bill Nichols’ Movies and Methods (1976). The essay is one which I have included in my courses for years because it presents a concise and accessible introduction to developments in observational cinema and is extremely useful for students. The essay now has a new epilogue (written twenty years later for the second edition of Hockings). To give a sense of its place in the history of documentary, the MacDougall essay appears in the Hocking volume following one by Jean Rouch entitled the Camera and Man and a Colin Young article entitled Observational Cinema. Other earlier essays included in Transcultural cinema are Ethnographic Film: Failure and Promise (1978)Unprivileged Camera Style (1982) and Film Teaching and the State of Documentary (1986).

Taylor’s introduction refers to the stylistic rigor and aesthetic precision of the MacDougalls’ filmwork, suggesting that their films can be characterized as classical. I would certainly concur with this view. To Live with Herds (1972), for example, is so finely composed, it is hard to imagine how any other account of its subject could ever achieve as much. Link-Up Diary (1987), a very different work done fifteen years later on a different continent, prefigured the expressions of national trauma which have become much more commonplace in lesser documentaries in the aftermath of the  Bringing them Home report. Tempus de baristas (1992) – the most classical of all – presents faces and bodies which we recognize from hundreds of years of figurative painting, freshly cast in the very classicism of cinematic neo-realism this century. (The book’s cover features a portrait of the film’s central subject, Pietro Balisai Soddu, in a fitting modern pose of uncertainty undercut by the setting, lighting and the subject’s facial structure).

Taylor also suggests a parallel between the films and MacDougall’s writing, which, he argues, has a tendency to “draw you in gradually” disclosing its drift over time rather than declaring its essence at the beginning. I can agree with this but only in part. In the uneasy tension between writing and image-making which these essays explore, I think finally that too much is conceded to the world of the word rather than to the world of the image, if I can put it as crudely as this. What I mean is that the filmmaker’s thinking about his practice here appears to be addressed towards the critical anthropologist who mistrusts the image rather than to other critical image-makers, so that the writer seems to be forcing himself to come up to the critical standards of the academic rather than requiring the academic to rise to the critical standards of the consummate filmmaker. This is the price paid for the entry to academia, though clearly there is no other home for so rigorous a practice.

The paradox of this position is argued in the final essay in the claim that visual images can undermine writing. “They threaten verbal descriptions with redundancy, and often make scholarly conclusions look threadbare.” (264) – but the close reading of this essay takes considerably longer than the viewing of the longest of the MacDougall’s films. Perhaps it is the excessive subtlety of the writing – and I must confess, it is the final essay with which I have spent most time grappling, because I have found it the least satisfactory and yet I have wanted to give it particular attention since it is the place where the concept of “transcultural cinema” – which is the book’s central concern – is most elaborated. In the end, though, I feel that one might say of this essay what MacDougall says of ethnographic film in general: it does not “mean” anything, but neither does it mean “anything”.

At other times, however, the writing transports the reader into its own temporality. This certainly occurs in the volume’s first essay, The Fate of the Cinematic Subject which deals, among other things, with what can only be called the love the filmmaker has for his subjects. “If images lie, why are they so palpable of the life between us?” the author asks. Citing James Agee on documentary as “the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is”, MacDougall gets to the core of how the image (and especially his own) works. This is a fine essay which deftly ranges over the history of cinema and the history of the image and its theories at a pace which on one level dispenses with the long take of observational cinema, preferring a style of faster cutting closer to classical montage. The material is strong, which is to say that powerful images are used, both in the verbal quotations selected as well as the cinematic references.

From a wry comment by Dai Vaughan to observations by Bresson and Gertrude Stein, the essay concerns itself with the nature of those deep pleasures of the cinematic image and its capacity to transform and be transformed by its subjects. The power and force of MacDougall’s essay resides in its capacity to find this pleasure, not only in those practices of canonical narrative cinema which receive most attention but also and especially in documentary and to set aside the usual distinctions made between them. The importance of film, he concludes is that it provides a way of communicating with its subjects – “a way for each to show the other what otherwise cannot be shown, in a statement that is irrevocable.”(56)

How then might we assess the claims made for “transcultural cinema”? In fact we cannot separate the idea of “transcultural cinema” from another idea suggested in the final text – the idea of an anthropology of consciousness. As Lucien Taylor recognises in the introduction, the orientation towards universality which both ideas imply is not at all new to anthropology which from the beginning has had a universalist tendency, somewhat overshadowed in recent years by the insistence upon difference in studies of culture/s.

Because of this, I must admit an uneasiness in relation to the idea of the transcultural which is deployed here. I can understand and even welcome its deployment in response to the intensities and excesses of late seventies/early eighties battles around the ideology of the image, in which well-established observational filmmakers (and in fact everyone else who participated) were scarred for life. But there is too much looseness and generality in the notion of the transcultural here for it to be yet very convincing. Coupled with the suggestion for an “anthropology of consciousness”, what I more readily see here is a tendency towards a new disciplinary imperialism in which anthropology seeks to win ground in the territory of the study of culture, appropriating philosophy and displacing that bastard johnny-come-lately – cultural studies, which itself had earlier appropriated film and media studies, literary history and theory and sociology and attempted to absorb smatterings of anthropology when sociology and literary theory proved inadequate for the purposes of crosscultural study. These are the battles which must be fought when the academy is entered.

Perhaps the final word should go to MacDougall’s own final words and his invocation of the “unsaid” – that supposed “common ground” of social relations, communication, ethnography and the domain of the image. This book of essays contains a great deal of fine writing about the unsaid and there is a certain paradox here, which it shares with much recent theory. It’s as if it wishes to exhaust the (somewhat mythical) space of the unsaid by bringing it into speech – speaking about it and for it in ways which finally replace it with the eloquence of a particular mandarin discourse of superior knowingness. This mode of privileged speech seizes the power of the powerless, before finally refusing to speak for them, saying they must speak for themselves, now that they have been deprived of their voice by the theft of its power. But then I go to a film by the MacDougalls and witness this power being returned to its subjects.

Helen Grace

About the Author

Helen Grace

About the Author

Helen Grace

Helen Grace is Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney. She has edited Aesthesia & the Economy of the Senses (UWS,Nepean, 1996), and is co-author of Home/world: Space, Community & Marginality in Sydney's West (Pluto Press, 1997) and co-editor of Planet Diana: Cultural Studies & Global Mourning (Research Centre in Intercommunal Studies, UWS, Nepean 1997).View all posts by Helen Grace →