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The Process of Alan Berliner and Nobody’s Business

Nobody’s Business is a great movie. Although, calling it a movie is a bit of a stretch; it’s more of a collage.

Through a series of interviews and a lot of familial research, Alan Berliner created a film that morphed from a biography about Oscar Berliner, his father, into a film about family and its history. That isn’t to say that the film is less about Oscar – that would be naive to say – but it is a family history from the perspective of Alan, which is rooted in Oscar’s life and personality. Oscar’s personality (mainly his unwavering convictions) provides a much deeper reading into his life than ever could it had Oscar been more forthcoming with his story.

In a lecture at New York University (NYU), Alan Berliner said this:

The thing that struck me most when watching the movie was how convinced Oscar was that his story was not worth telling. At one point he says his story is “no different from who knows how many millions of people.” To a certain extent I understand his argument. Personally, I found his story relatable. Although our backgrounds largely differ, my father emigrated from Germany shortly after WWII, and I’ve taken a similar interest in my family’s history as a result. But what makes Oscar’s opinion interesting to me is that his story’s intensity and what makes it fascinating to audiences is less to do with the actual family history, and more to do with the director’s editing process.

I think Alan Berliner is well aware of this because at the end of the film he plays the audio from one of the interviews with his father in which Oscar decries his son’s chosen career and suggests that Alan could have become an accountant, or an engineer. This part of the film is nicely summarized in this week’s readings when Michael Renov concludes, “We, the audience, are left to judge the son’s worth for ourselves as the film draws to a close.” Furthermore, Alan recognizes his talent for “putting things together.” This is evidenced again by the lecture at NYU:

This brings me to the point of my response. I found this movie encompassed what I take it is the point of this course: documentaries are all constructed from fragments of information, which Alan affectionately refers to as “stored potentials.” They are able to create meaning through the use of basic film making techniques (montage being one of the most vital). Alan Berliner is able to take images, videos, interviews, paper forms, and audio and combine them into a film that follows his constructed narrative – a collage of his own interpretation of events.
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The Catharsis of Tarnation

In this weeks class we watched what was one of the best films I have watched in a long time, Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2003):

After looking around the Internet for what other people thought of the movie, I found that a large segment of people felt the film was wholly narcissistic, distorted, and manipulative of Caouette’s family to a disturbing degree. I’ve included some of these reviews below:

But I take a very different stance on the issue. I don’t think its intention was to be passed off as a factual representation. This is showcased at the very beginning of the film, which reads, “Once upon a time…” Caouette was (in my opinion) clearly establishing that his perspective is hyperbolic. The above reviewers were probably too interested in their own narcissistic thoughts to pay attention to what was clearly in front of them.

I digress…

Although the concept of Tarnation may come across to some as a video scrapbook that simply chronicles Caouette’s story, I felt the film was something more like a poem or a song. That is to say the subject matter was open enough to allow audiences to experience it’s emotional exhibition, but also it was a therapeutic discharge for Caouette alone. I would argue the film’s purpose is to help soothe Caouette’s anxieties, as evidenced by Caouette’s self-diagnosed “depersonalization disorder.” It’s worth noting that Caouette was editing independently before John Cameron Mitchell began encouraging him to produce the film for an audience. Had Mitchell not encouraged Caouette to do so he still likely would have continued working on it purely for himself. I believe this speaks volumes about the films primary use being therapeutic.

Other critics have greatly praised the film’s emotional story. Tarnation undoubtedly revolves around an emotional story, but I think it would be unfair and inaccurate to reduce the film’s significance to this alone. The film is able to engage our emotions not just because of the inspiring story, but also because of the brilliant way in which it is directed and edited by Caouette. The filmmaker is able to create parallels between his own developing personality and the kaleidoscope images he presents to the audience. In combination with the impeccable song choices, these montages are nothing short of beautiful and engrossing.

Overall, I thought this was a fantastic movie. It complicates the notion of an autobiographical work by forgoing an entirely factual narrative, and instead better pins down the main character’s attributes through its editing techniques. This leaves the audience with the question of “Which is more truthful?” or “Which truth do I like best?” In the end, I regard Tarnation as an inspiring success at catharsis.
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Creating Decisive Moments

In this week’s reading, Lutz and Collins go into great depth examining the way in which National Geographic magazine constructs meaning in each article published. In class, we discussed how this is done utilizing image-captions and article layouts, but we did not focus very much on the construction of images themselves.

Lutz and Collins briefly reference “The Decisive Moment” of a photograph, and how it is “imbued with historical significance” because it is “a moment like no other” (59). “The Decisive Moment” refers to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s methodology of photography. Cartier-Bresson thinks the moment captured in many images are impossible to recreate; images are ‘one-of-a-kind.’

Here is a video in which Cartier-Bresson talks about “The Decisive Moment:”

In the video Cartier-Bresson suggests that you have only one chance to capture a moment, saying:
“You can’t correct [a photograph]. If you have to correct it, it’s a ‘next picture.’ […] Sometimes a picture has disappeared, and there’s nothing you can do. […] Life is ‘once’ forever.”

In an age of digital creation and editing, I find this intriguing. The topic of digitally editing images is a touchy one. It seems that many people feel the most accurate depiction of the subject matter is the most correct version. But in my opinion, if an image is not “correct” we can improve it.

But what makes an image “correct”?

National Geographic regularly edits its images in order to create what the editors believe is the correct meaning of an article. Lutz and Collins provide examples where editing the images perpetuate myths about other cultures, such as when a native women’s skin colour was darkened. This is obviously an abuse of digital editing technology.

Lutz and Collins additionally mention the famous National Geographic magazine cover in which the Egyptian pyramids were digitally moved closer together. The editor explained the changes could have been captured if the photographer was standing in a different place. In my opinion, this is a more understandable use of digital editing. The ultimate purpose of such changes was not to change the meaning of the image, but to improve its aesthetics and make the horizontal photograph usable on the magazine’s vertical cover.

Why, if people are unhappy with photo editing, are they not angry about improving camera technologies? Cameras are now able to capture images that would previously have required editing. Does that not mean that the ‘reality’ of a subject is more likely to be captured?

All this is disputable, but thinking about this has made me believe that it is impossible to capture ‘reality.’ These shadows of reality are never clear, and digital editing technologies are no different from the cameras themselves. Like Cartier-Bresson, we can view a photograph as a sketch. We are creating decisive moments.
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Jim's Dignity (or lack thereof) in "Titicut Follies"

During both the film screening and the class discussion this week I found the topic of dignity very interesting because it clashes with the notion that the audience has a right to the information being presented. Does the film infringe on the patients' dignity or does its political motives justify its use? That is to say, should we believe the camera is violating each inmate's dignity or is it merely exposing the injustice to the institution?

I think that the argument hinges on the awareness of each inmate and the overall implications of the camera's presence. If the inmates are not aware of themselves, then the camera is simply documenting their treatment at Bridgewater.

The film also shows us various patients who are very aware of their treatment, such as the former school-teacher, Jim. This is shown at the end of the scene in which the guards shave Jim's face and offer him a drink. Jim replies, "On the house, is it?" The joke is telling as it indicates Jim is aware of his environment; he has an understanding of the institution and the conventions associated with the place and its workers. Jim prods at the "generosity" of the guards and implies that he pays for the water with his dignity, for the phrase references a world in which Jim could go about his own business — a world he is clearly not a part of.

In this week's reading, Grant discusses the proceeding scene involving Jim. In this scene, Jim is aware of the camera's gaze – the viewpoint is also our own gaze and the guard's gaze. This scene is perhaps the most important example of how the film is able to implicate the audience with the conditions at Bridgewater and thereby demand a change in the institution's management. Its reflexive effect is disturbing as Grant asserts:
"The film's implication of us is wholly appropriate: because Bridgewater is our institution, created by us and our tax dollars, the film [...] exposes more about us than it does about Bridgewater" (243)
Some critics of Titicut Follies rightfully believe that the film goes too far, disrespecting individuals that are unable to defend themselves. But as Grant points out, the film is much more reflexive upon further consideration. I believe the dignity of each inmate was no further damaged than it already was prior to the films production. Furthermore, I think if the film were not produced Bridgwater would continue to function ineffectively without the public's knowledge, and as such the ban of the film is a disservice to the patients of the institution. Although the camera's presence is violating the dignity of many patients, Wiseman's political motives are clear. He hopes to change the system of Massachusetts asylums for the better, by any means necessary.