Milk ‘n Che: The Avant Docs

February 23, 2009

This is more of a shout out then I usually perform. Simply to say: hey guys, there are some great docs about these revolutionaries to keep in mind. They came first. Not better. Not even so much different. Just another frame. Different languages. More to consider.

1) Last night I re-watched Rob Epstein’s Academy Award winning (1984) The Times of Harvey Milk after watching Sean Penn win another Academy Award for the same themes/man/murder. I first saw it (most likely) in 1985 in a packed auditorium in college. You could have cut the tension and excitement with a knife. It was the first public representation of gay culture at my preppy, uptight alma mater: a place where my friends and I were attempting to introduce queer activism and studies (not yet so-named) in quiet ways that would not endanger our two out friends. The ONLY out man and woman at my college… Hmm. The effects of visibility, while easily unmade through intellectual acts of criticality, can not be overemphasized. There was a time when gay life, gay politics, gay men were quieted and invisible. And then we/they organized and documented our critique, rage, lives, and demands. And then many died of AIDS. Another story. More video. Images, even documentaries, mean differently when and where you see them (again). The meanings of martyrs change over time and across media: nostalgia, commodity, lesson, enrager, quieter.

2) Last week, I also got to see Leandro Katz’s El Dia Que Me Quieras (“The Day You’ll Love Me”) where he also eloquently registers the changing meanings of radical images across time and context by interviewing Freddy Alborts, the photographer who took the iconographic images of Che that traveled the world, and were re-contextualized as signs of radical power, loss, and heroism. In 1999, Jeffrey Skoler discusses Katz’s film raising concerns about “the growing commodification of icons of the ‘age of revolution.'” Change and change again.

I’ve written about both of the recent narrative, Hollywood features about these image-men in these pages. And I think they’re both great: introducing them to new audiences in acceptable languages that can still win prizes. But let us not forget the powerful ways that documentarians and avant-garde artists lead the way, set the stage, get there faster, harder, smarter, bolder, angrier, and more poeticly, too. We learn about radical culture only through Hollywood to our own peril.

To the Editors, New York Times,

I am currently teaching a course, Media Praxis, on the histories and theories of revolutionary cinema. While I greatly appreciate Terrence Rafferty’s Sunday, December 7 review of one such film, Che (Stephen Soderbergh, 2008), I hope to add two items of correction to his otherwise adept effort at historically situating this particular film into one of cinema’s seminal genres. Most notably, Cuban cinema of the past 50 years is not understood in the field as producing a “dreary Stalinist aesthetic” (while such films are certainly produced there). Rather it is known for its frequently celebrated (in international festivals) body of aesthetically complex narrative and documenary cinema, film school, ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos), and festival (International Festival of the New Latin-American Cinema) which model possibilities for film style, production, education, and distribution outside the imperatives of capital. Even dominant Hollywood cinema has learned much from cinematic experimentation which can occus when profit is not the bottom line. Two of my favorite Cuban films, Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomas Alea, 1968) and the lesser known One Way or Another (Sara Gomez, 1977), engage revolutionary cinema tactics (including the evocative and elegant mixing of documentary and scripted materials) to accomplish precisely that hardest of projects, one that Rafferty claims falls outside this tradition: representing the mundane and contradictory work of living after the fighting, bloodshed, and romantic manifestoes have quieted. In fact, both directors mobliize “fiercely exciting cinema” style because it is precisely such sophisticated narrative, editing, and shooting techniques that help viewers comprehend the complicated differences between post-revolutionary rhetoric and lived reality, propaganda and human practices. Secondly, while battle scenes are certainly the stuff of good cinema, many of the great films of this tradition document and contribute to this century’s non-violent revolutions, including many of America’s civil rights movements (feminism, civil rights, gay rights). In this vein, I need point only to Gus Van Sant’s recently released Milk to demonstrate how politically committed directors strive to express the ambiguous daily realities of governing after the “wild hopes” of protest have waned, and how necessary mediamaking is to the ongoing project of educating, inspiring, and historicizing revolution (or activism) in its many stages.

“For better or worse, we can expect YouTube and online amateur video to become a common tool for the 25% of American women who have been sexually assaulted.” Dr. Strangelove, Rape Victim Seeks Justice Via YouTube

“Considering that a free cinema and television don’t exist in the current state;
Considering that a tiny minority of authors and technicians have access to the means of production and expression;

Considering that the cinema today has a capitol mission to fulfill and is gagged at all levels in the current system: The directors, technicians, actors, producers, film and television critics determined to put an end to the present state of affairs, have decided to convoke the Estates General of Cinema. We invite all of you to participate in these Estates general, whose date will be specified later. – The Revolutionary Committee of Cinema-Television, published in Cahiers du Cinéma, August 1968. Chained to the Cinemateque

“The last post was sooo teel dear. Well, for the uninitiated
teel dear (tl;dr) = Too long; didn’t read.
In this twitter age, I know I have sinned with my preposterously long posts earlier in the blog. But let me assure you, I am trying to be rid of the disease, and I am a advocate for brevity.” Digital Nativity

Slogan Five

September 10, 2007

“The cinema of revolution is at the same time one of destruction and construction: destruction of the image that neo-colonialization has created of itself and us, and construction of a throbbing, living reality which recaptures truth in its expression.”Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas

If presented with paltry, ludicrous, distracting uses of a medium as its norm, we must model its life-affirming, idea-stimulating, community-enabling applications. YouTube documentaries primarily replay, refer to, de-construct and re-construct mainstream media or other distractions or parentheses from daily life: kittens, comedians, clips-already-aired. YouTube registers a state of media post-colonialization where many of technology’s new makers won’t think past the society’s quieting confections. “Just as they are not masters of the land upon which they walk, the neo-colonized people are not masters of the ideas that envelop them,” Getino and Solanas theorize about Third Cinema in terms of haunting similarity to those which might describe the images of our place and time.

Slogan three

September 3, 2007

“I will give you my definition of art: art is ‘making.'”
Jean Renoir

YouTube creates a platform for non-professional, democratic media production. Open the floodgates, and it’s true, everyone is an artist, people make in numbers unprecedented in cinema’s history.

On Slogans

August 31, 2007

1. “It will be the art of the direct cinema of a slogan. Of communication that is just as unobstructed and immediate as the communication of an idea through a qualified word.”
(Sergei Eisenstein, “Our October, Beyond the Played and the Non-Played”)

This “slogan” written by eminent revolutionary filmmaker/theorist, Sergei Eisenstein in 1928, is the first of eleven I will offer over the next two weeks by way of incendiary introduction to my current thinking about Media Praxis.

Using said slogans—pithy quotes taken from longer works of media theory—I will mark eleven radical possibilities and responsibilities presented by the contemporary phenomena of documentary on YouTube, but as heralded by political media producers writing in the past about the radical possibilities for the various technologies of their distinct times and places. Over the next two weeks, we’ll enjoy on the pretty pages of this blog the rousing watchwords of eleven wonderful writers engaged in political movements before our time. Sadly, it seems that at many, but not all of the media duties our authors lay down, YouTube is failing even as it is built upon technical opportunities desired but unattainable for our sloganeers of the past.

2. “The epoch of the direct materialization of a slogan takes over from the epoch of a slogan about material.” Eisenstein

I am convinced that certain critical components of the hundred-year project of MEDIA PRAXIS are lost in YouTube’s stellar realization of “the art of the direct cinema of the slogan.” What couldn’t Eisenstein foresee? For it seems both prescient, and also naïve of this distinguished communist to harken the slogan for his developing medium, cinema. The slogan is a form that seems so much more apt for our 80-year later use of contemporary technological developments, particularly as displayed on YouTube: cinema-via-the-internet. The slogan, in its several denotations, conceptually links activism and commerce—the simplistic selling of ideas to move people to fight or buy, no matter—in a manner perfected by and definitive of our era, and its definitive medium, the internet. The slogan—a pithy, precise, rousing call to action or consumption, or action as consumption—seems a remarkably astute descriptor of at very least the form of YouTube media, especially in the slogan’s dependence upon brevity and clarity.

Over the next two weeks, I will briefly establish, through slogans, how Eisenstein’s hopes for the slogan are structurally impossible given the architecture, ownership, and advertisements on YouTube. On YouTube, our epoch of the slogan forecloses conversation, community, and complexity. I ask you to think of the following slogans, penned by committed artists from long past revolutions, times, and places, and then followed by my own slogan-responses, as a call to arms for how we might better muster today’s technology to contribute to an ongoing project of improving the possibilities for presentation, interpretation, and abstract social evaluation, human interaction, perception, and epistemology, through media praxis.

(After “WE: Variant of a Manifesto,” Dziga Vertov, 1922)

I call myself MP:me (Media Praxis : Alexandra Juhasz)—as opposed to “cinematographer,” one of a herd of machomen doing rather well peddling slick clean wares.
I see no connection between true femi-digi-praxis (the integration of media theory, digital practice, and feminist politics in an historical context) and the cunning and calculation of the profiteers.
I consider expensive corporate reality television—weighed down with music and narrative and childhood games—an absurdity.
To the American victim documentary with its shown dynamism and power disparities and to YouTube’s direct-to-camera dramatizations of so many individuals’ personal pain or pleasure this femi-digi-practioner says thanks for the return to real people, the hand-held look, and the close-ups. Good…but disorderly, not based on a precise study of Media Praxis (the hundred year history of theoretical writing and related political media production). A cut above the psychological drama, but still lacking in foundation. A Cliché. A copy of a copy.
I proclaim the stuff of YouTube, all based on the slogan (pithy, precise, rousing calls to action or consumption, or action as consumption), to be leprous.
–Keep your mouse from them!
–Keep your eyes off those bite-sized wonders!
–They’re morally dangerous!
–Contagious!
I affirm the future of digital art by denying its present and learning from its past.

I am MP:me. I build connections to history and theory and inter-relations between individuals and committed communities. With my small cheap camcorder, my laptop, and internet connection, I make messy, irregular feminist video committed to depth and complexity.
“Cinematography, ” the earliest male tradition of sizeable machines, stylish form, and solo cine-adventures must die so that the communal art of femi-digi-praxis may live. I call for its death to be hastened.
I protest against the smooth operator and call for a rough synthesis of history, politics, theory, real people and their chaotic, mundane desires and knowledge.
I invite you:
—to flee—
the sweet embrace of America’s Next Top Model,
the poison of the commercial send-up,
the clutches of technophilia, the allure of boy-toys,
to turn your back on music, effects, gizmos,
—to flee—
out into the open with camcorder in hand, into four dimensions (history, politics, theory + practice), in search of our own material, from our experiences, relationships and commitments to social justice.
Mp:me is made visible through a camcorder femi-digi-praxis: a small, hand-held, retro video aesthetic connected to a lengthy history of communal, low-budget, political and theoretical media production, Media Praxis, begun by truly great cinematographers, men with movie cameras, politics and big ideas. Mp:me simply (post)-modernizes and feminizes We’s foundational praxis.