- Theorizing Amateur CinemaLimitations and Possibilities
[Begin Page 37]
Theoretical consideration of amateur cinema has to be one of the most neglected aspects of film studies. Despite the vitality of the worldwide amateur ciné movement from the early 1930s to the late 1970s, Anglo-American film scholars have made only intermittent attempts at engaging with films produced during this period, films as diverse as Hell Unltd (Norman McLaren and Helen Biggar, 1936), Let Glasgow Flourish (Dawn Cine Group, 1952/56), and It Happened Here (Kevin Brownlow, 1963). It has been over ten years since the last single-authored book was published on amateur filmmaking, yet there have been few significant further interventions in the field. While important studies have emerged in the last few years, there has tended to be a deep divide between empirical research and theoretical critique. For example, Melinda Stone’s otherwise exemplary study of an individual cine-club [End Page 37] uses primary research to recreate the highly active culture of monthly meetings, newsletters, and film contests; however, it does not attempt to situate its findings in relation to the established theoretical debates within the study of amateur cinema, a limitation that underplays the importance of the evidence.1 Conversely, as I will show, ambitious theoretical statements have been made that take little account of the huge growth of film archives around the world in the last few decades and hence widen their analysis to the amateur films that were actually made. This divide between empirical research and theory is impoverishing the understanding of amateur cinema, and I suggest that the current gulf between data and theory needs to be narrowed. In the study of professional cinema, David Bordwell has noted that “being empirical does not rule out being theoretical,” and has made a powerful case for what he calls middle-level research.2 The intention of this particular study is therefore to argue for middle-level theorizing as the preferred practice in the study of amateur cinema.
It is clear that due to the limitations of the current debates, misconceptions about the amateur ciné movement and its relevance to contemporary film studies abound.3
While the films made by both individuals and groups over a fifty-year period were varied and unpredictable, scholarly research has been surprisingly myopic in its focus.
The three main trends of thought that recur again and again in most analyses are the domestic, the oppositional, and the more recent development of the evidential. These mark the dominant positions that scholars have recourse to when trying to understand what amateur cinema is. They function as tools for understanding what this particular mode of cultural production can do, as well as for its legitimization.
It is important to grasp these basic positions, so that work can begin on the areas unconsidered by analyses that develop from these well-established vantage points. Attention to these overlooked aspects will form the second part of this article, when I argue that theoretical frameworks developed for the analysis of home movies are insufficient to cover amateur film production as a whole. For the past thirty years, scholarly attention has focused stubbornly on home movies at the expense of films that have a closer “fit” with the theory and analysis that scholars within film studies pursue. This bizarre situation, I suggest toward the end of the article, is the direct consequence of problems of critical categorization that require refinement. However, first it is necessary to outline the well-established perspectives and how they function within contemporary film theory. [End Page 38]
The Domestic and the Nonprofessional
One perspective identifies amateur cinema with the ethnography of domestic family life. The work of Richard Chalfen, a scholar who is mainly interested in the communicative function of home photography, brought these cultural documents to the attention of the academy during the 1980s. Chalfen also extends his empirical research and analysis into a chapter on the social use of home movies and suggests a methodological framework to understand the social functions of these films.4 Drawing on Sol Worth’s work on filmmaking practices that developed when people on Navajo reservations were given access to camera technology, Chalfen...