restricted access Conversations on the Avant-Doc: Scott MacDonald Interviews
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Conversations on the Avant-Doc:
Scott MacDonald Interviews

Harnessing perspectives drawn from the human sciences, the arts, and the humanities, the aim of SEL is to support innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography, with original nonfiction media practices that explore the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human existence. As such, it encourages attention to the many dimensions of social experience and subjectivity that may only with difficulty be rendered with words alone.

—From the website of the Sensory Ethnography Lab

By 2013, the end of its first decade, the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) at Harvard University had revived interest in ethnographic cinema by instigating the production of engaging, revealing, immersive sync-sound films, video installations, and sound works by young anthropologists/artists committed to using media as a means of communicating the broadest range of human experience (“film” here refers to works made either in 35mm, 16mm, or on one of the video or digital video formats). The filmmaking nurtured by the Sensory Ethnography Lab is made within a context and an awareness of traditional documentary, and particularly American ethnographic (and “ethnographic”) cinema, from Robert Flaherty through John and Lorna Marshall, Robert Gardner, and Timothy Asch. But it also defies this tradition in several ways—most obviously, perhaps, in its refusal of didacticism: in the films of Ilisa Barbash/Lucien Castaing-Taylor, J.P. Sniadecki, Stephanie Spray, and Véréna Paravel, no narrator presumes to provide explanations or present conclusions. Indeed, many of these films often seem less [End Page 261] like documentaries than like contributions to a particular development within what continues to be called American “avant-garde film.”

The past quarter-century has seen an increased commitment on the part of some filmmakers to the contemplative representation of place: cityscapes, landscapes, in all their complex variations and imbrications. Early premonitions of this development include Henwar Rodakiewicz’s Portrait of a Young Man (US, 1931) and Ralph Steiner’s H20 (US, 1929), and some decades later, Nathaniel Dorsky’s Summerwind (US, 1965) and Bruce Baillie’s All My Life (US, 1966)—though an intensification of what had been a very sporadic approach begins in the early 1970s with Larry Gottheim’s single-shot films—Fog Line (US, 1970), for example—Barn Rushes (US, 1971) and the feature-length Horizons (US, 1973), Robert Huot’s Snow (US, 1971) and Rolls: 1971 (US, 1972), J. J. Murphy’s In Progress (co-made with Ed Small, US, 1972), Peter Hutton’s New York Near Sleep for Saskia (US, 1972), Images of Asian Music (A Diary from Life) (US, 1974), New York Portrait, Part I (US, 1977), and James Benning’s 11 X 14 (US, 1976) and One Way Boogie Woogie (US, 1977). All of these films involve sustained contemplations of particular environments, often in shots of extended duration.

This particular development can be understood, on one level, as an implicit reaction to the increased homogenization of American place in the wake of the completion of the interstate highway system and the resulting development of national, then international, restaurant and retail chains. Increasingly threatened, the particularities of specific places have seemed increasingly worthy of cinematic attention—indeed, of a kind of salvage ethnography. On a formal level, these films were reactions to the acceleration of commercial media during the 1960s and 1970s and the increasing overload of images per minute in commercials and commercial movies—as well as to the implicit training in compulsive consumption provided by this acceleration. These new contemplations of place were and are about slowing down and considering where we are.

By the 2000s, this cinema of place had emerged as a major force in independent film and video. Peter Hutton—Time and Tide (US, 2000), Skagafjördur (US, 2004), At Sea (US, 2007)—and Nathaniel Dorsky—Alaya (US, 1987), Four Cinematic Songs (US, 1996-2001) and Two Devotional Songs (US, 2002-2004)—continued to build on the accomplishments of their early work; and, like Hutton, James Benning and Sharon Lockhart continued to mine the potential of the long-duration image. Benning’s 13 Lakes (US, 2004) and Ten Skies (US, 2004), and Lockhart’s Pine Flat (US, 2005) are made up of series...