Sneaking in Some Political Modernism

October 11, 2010

“At this point it is necessary to ask again why the discourse of political modernism, so clearly part of the recent history of film theory, is considered as reaching an impasse. In retrospect, the most obvious reason is the starkness of the opposition between realism and modernism, which seemed to foreclose any interest in popular cinema as irredeemably compromised by ‘dominant ideology’ in content and in form.” David Rodowick, “The Crisis of Political Modernism”

When I edited F is for Phony with Jesse Lerner, and produced both “The Watermelon Woman” and “The Owls” (Cheryl Dunye, 1996 and 2010), I rolled out fake documentary as one, powerful (and mutable) response to the very impasse of political modernism expressed by Rodowick above. The fake doc, often highly popular, plays classic realist styles against self-aware form in a fashion that can be intellectual, entertaining, and sometimes, even political. More recently, however, I seem to have made a more retro turn, or perhaps an “unfashionable” one, as I have tried to make sense of the ubiquitous, definitive use of fake documentary method on YouTube by claiming that I want more “real” docs again, or at least documentaries with stakes in (changing) the world.

I have gone as far as to suggest that “everything on YouTube is a fake documentary,” and this I still believe, and with real consequences, at least for me as a teacher, critic, and filmmaker with political (and other) goals. And therefore, my sneaky support, not so much of “political modernism,” as of media work with self-aware self-reflexive form, that is connected to political projects of world and self-changing, actual communities, and documentary claims to aims of knowing. I have understood such claims to be embarrassingly outdated—what with their calls for action in a real world, articulated goals, clear beliefs, sincerity or at least clarity, and communal practices–but have dared to wonder if our free-fall into irony occasionally needs a little nudge from the histories, theories, and practices of committed cinema and its partisan practitioners. While fiction films have all sorts of values that I adore (including many of those articulated above), I have made the recent claim that for a monumental real-life matter like Facebook, one that occurs in/about/through social network technologies, capital, and user-produced content, a more telling place to craft this particular story could be on the very social networks that the film “Social Network” uses simply as backdrop (to tell other tired macho-hubris tales). I then remind readers that Mark Zuckerberg is doing this himself, right now, and that this might be a “documentary,” albeit as far away from political modernism as one might imagine, given Facebook’s corporate imperatives and transparent forms, and yet in some chilling ways, circling back again via complex, self-aware, dialectical networked (modernist) forms and all of their competing voices, interests, and styles.

It was Chris Cagle who recently expressed in his blog that I am sneaky—only in respect to my use of political modernism, of course—and I must admit that upon the careful reflection above, I have learned that he is somewhat right. In all seriousness, it is fun to have a respected colleague respond thoughtfully to my blog, and here I return the favor.


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