Several years ago when I was working on my MFA at MassArt I began collecting quotes related to my thesis work, and here are some of my favorites, in no particular order. Do you have any favorite quotes on documentary, cinema, or art that do not fit in a tweet? Please share them with me via comments to this page, I’d love to read them!
In a conversation about Jean-Luc Godard’s film, La Chonoise, David Sterritt asked the director why he photographed the clapboard several times during the film. Godard replied,
Why not? Because the real subject is not La Chinoise. It’s a movie doing itself which is called La Chinoise. It’s not together. The subject is not the actors but the artistic way of showing them. Both together. They are not separate. [In the film] the young painter says, ‘Art is not the reflection of reality, it is the reality of a reflection.’ To me it means something. Art is not only a mirror. There is not only the reality and then the mirror-camera. I mean, I thought it was like that when I made Breathless, but later I discovered you can’t separate them from reality. You can’t distinguish them so clearly. I think the movie is not a thing which is taken by the camera; the movie is the reality of the movie moving from reality to the camera. It’s between them. — Jean-Luc Godard, quoted in Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews by David Sterritt, 1998, p. 29.
Image: Frame enlargement from La Chonoise (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
Before Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media, he collaborated with Edmund Carpenter thinking through media change. Carpenter worded the essence of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” in this accessible, less enigmatic form:
Each medium, if its bias is properly exploited, communicates a unique aspect of reality, of truth. Each offers a different perspective, a way of seeing an otherwise hidden dimension of reality […] A medium is not simply an envelope that carries any letter; it is itself a major part of that message. — Edmund Carpenter, “The New Languages,” Explorations in Communication, 1960.
As a documentary maker, I’m constantly negotiating with representations of the past (the moment I shoot something, it’s part of history, yet cinematic stories play out in this eternal present on the screen), which brings me to Crouch’s observation that
“We are connected by intellectual threads not only to what is happening around us, but also with what happened in the past, and the way that it colors the present. History undergoes constant and continual revision by all cultures. — Christopher Crouch, Modernism in art, design and architecture, 1999.
Which reminds me of Nam June Paik’s observation,
It is advisable to have ideas circulate, as for lack of gasoline, it becomes impossible for people to circulate. One digs ruin after ruin to try to understand the past as if one understood the present. What matters today is what I would call the Archaeology of the present, and video is its privileged instrument. — Nam June Paik, quoted in “Video Documentation of Installations” by Gaby Wijers
Through the work of Roger Schank and Robert Abelson I came to appreciate the connection between storytelling and memory, they proposed that our memories are structured as stories, and it is through stories that we understand ourselves and others,
Knowledge […] is experiences and stories, and intelligence is the apt use of experience and of the creation and telling of stories. Memory is memory for stories, and the major processes of memory are the creation, storage, and retrieval of stories. […] A life becomes meaningful when one sees himself or herself as an actor within the context of a story — be it a cultural tale, a religious narrative, a family saga, the march of science, a political movement, and so forth. Early in life we are free to choose what life story we will inhabit — and later we find we are lived by that story. — Roger Schank and Robert Abelson in “Knowledge and Memory: the Real Story,” in Knowledge and Memory: the Real Story: Advances in Social Cognition, Volume VIII, 1995.
Why are we compelled to tell stories? Why do we tell them? What’s the point? Robert Coles suggests,
The whole point of stories is not ’solutions’ or ‘resolutions’ but a broadening and even heightening of our struggles … the way you or I can take it in, and use it for ourselves … [stories embody] the moral contradictions and inconsistencies in our personal lives … They remind us of what is important in life, admonish us, point us in new directions, engage us in self-reflection, and sometimes inspire us to lead lives of moral integrity. — Robert Coles, The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, 1990.
Documentarians constantly struggle with objectivity and subjectivity, Stella Bruzzi writes,
Documentary film is traditionally perceived to be the hybrid offspring of a perennial struggle between the forces of objectivity (represented by the ‘documents’ or facts that underpin it) and the forces of subjectivity (that is the translation of those facts into representational form). — Stella Bruzzi, New Documentary, 2006.
which relates nicely to and Jean-Luc Godard’s observation that
All great fiction films tend towards documentary, just as all great documentaries tend towards fiction. […] One must choose between ethic and aesthetic. That is understood, But it is no less understood that each word implies a part of the other. — Jean luc Godard, Godard on Godard: critical writings by Jean-Luc Godard, 1986, p. 132.
the Talking Heads expressed the struggle in these terms,
[…] Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
Facts are getting the best of them […]
in their song “Cross-eyed and Painless” on the Remain in Light album, and we can’t talk about documentary truth and fiction without a quote from Werner Herzog,
I’ve always postulated, not just in documentaries but in my feature films as well, that reality is a superficial layer and what we should be looking out for is a deep strata of truth. I’ve always been after what I call an ecstatic truth. It is very strange because this term has caught on and it has spread like wildfire, almost everyone talks about it. The background to all of this is that there is a very real necessity for redefining reality. — Werner Herzog, interview by Kaleem Aftab, Time Out London, 2006.
which leads me to this from Gyorgy Kepes,
The images and symbols which can truly domesticate the newly revealed aspects of nature will be developed only if we use all our faculties to the full – assimilating with the scientists brain, the poets heart and the painters eyes. It is an integrated vision that we need; but our awareness and understanding of the world and its realities are divided into the rational – the knowledge frozen in words and quantities – and the emotional – the knowledge vested in sensory image and feeling. — Gyorgy Kepes, 1956, source unknown
Personal works, whether they be fiction or documentary, connect us in a manner different than the print literature of the past, as Marshall McLuhan observed,
The movie, by sheer speeding up the mechanical, carried us from the world of sequence and connections into the world of creative configuration and structure. The message of the movie medium is that of transition from linear connections to configurations. — Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964.
Gene Yougblood relates complimentary ideas,
…the most descriptive term for the new cinema is ‘personal’ because it’s only an extension of the filmmaker’s central nervous system. The reader should not interpret ‘synaesthetic’ as an attempt to categorize or label a phenomenon that has no definition. There’s no single film that could be called typical of the new cinema because it is defined anew by each individual filmmaker. — Gene Yougblood, Expanded Cinema, 1970.
Expanded Cinema was clearly a book of its time, yet the ideas are still fresh and provocative, therefore, highly recommended as essential reading for every media maker. Long before YouTube, Francis Ford Coppola imagined the rise of a new, more persona cinema in this oft-quoted on-camera interview,
“To me the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders and stuff have come out, some… just people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them, and – you know – suddenly, one day, some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart – you know – and? make a beautiful film with her little father’s camcorder, and for once the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever, and it will really become an art form. That’s my opinion. — Francis Ford Coppola, Hearts of Darkness – A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, 1991.
And for the most part, we’re there. Mainstream media still dominates, but we now have access to global media. It’s problematic, it’s not the democratic ideal many of us strive for, there are problems, but profoundly different than the state of media when Coppola was making Apocalypse Now. Why does Coppola use the word art? What is a work of art? How do we recognize it? That’s a huge topic, Robert Riley put it this way,
My measure of art is seduction, when you’re absolutely convinced by the authority of a work that this is the way things are. There are fundamental changes in the way you see the world after looking at the artwork. It is the most ultimate exchange of humanity, wisdom and intellect that we have.” — Robert Riley, “Voices Lecture Series,” Program Notes, 2002.
an increasing number of art works are more ephemeral than their counterparts produced by the previous generation of artists and filmmakers, this is reflected inthe performance works of Tino Sehgal, who said,
For the last two or three hundred years in human society, we have been very focused on the earth. We have been transforming the materials of the earth, and the museum has developed also over the last two or three hundred years as a temple of objects made from the earth. I’m the guy who comes in and says: ‘I’m bored with that. I don’t think it’s that interesting, and it’s not sustainable.’ Inside this temple of objects, I refocus attention to human relations.” — Tino Sehgal, quoted in “Making Art Out of an Encounter,” by Arthur Lublow, New York Times, January 15, 2010.
Do we use technology? Or does it use us? Koyaanisqatsi provides one critique, director Godfrey Reggio observes,
It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, so we are no longer conscious of its presence. So what I decided to do in making these films is to rip out all the foreground of a traditional film—the foreground being the actors, the characterization, the plot, the story—I tried to take the background, all of that that’s just supported like wallpaper, move that up into the foreground, make that the subject, ennoble it with the virtues of portraiture, and make that the presence.” — Godfrey Reggio, director of Koyaanisqatsi, interview on DVD extras.
We document the world by observing lives, relationships, struggles, events, reflections, testimony, etc. and weave it into storytelling, through this process we explore the world we live in, observing with our camera, then restructuring our observations through editing, all in order to tell stories. Each of these quotes provides one brief glimpse into the the rich, complex web that is documentary storytelling, each a starting point for personal inquiry into the nature of the form.