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The Autobiographical Documentary in America

Jim Lane

Publication Year: 2002

Since the late 1960s, American film and video makers of all genres have been fascinated with themes of self and identity. Though the documentary form is most often used to capture the lives of others, Jim Lane turns his lens on those media makers who document their own lives and identities. He looks at the ways in which autobiographical documentaries—including Roger and Me, Sherman’s March, and Silverlake Life—raise weighty questions about American cultural life. What is the role of women in society? What does it mean to die from AIDS? How do race and class play out in our personal lives? What does it mean to be a member of a family? Examining the history, diversity, and theoretical underpinnings of this increasingly popular documentary form, Lane tracks a fundamental transformation of notions of both autobiography and documentary.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii


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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

This book would not have been possible without the cooperation of many documentarists, scholars, and media programmers. I wish to thank Pat Aufderheide, Ralph Arlyck, Paul Arthur, Janet Bergstrom, Camille Billops, Ruth Bradley, Maxi Cohen, Joel DeMott, Peter Friedman, Geoffrey Gilmore, Robert Hawk, Chuck Kleinhans, Jeff Kreines, Julia Lesage, Ross...

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pp. 3-10

Readers who happened to be channel surfing in June 1993 and who came upon the broadcast of PBS’s Point of View documentary series may have observed the following scene. As someone sang, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” from behind the camera, viewers saw Tom Joslin, who had moments before died of complications of AIDS. The camcorder trembled...

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1. The Convergence of Autobiography and Documentary: Historical Connections

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pp. 11-32

In the pages that follow, I will divide the historical context of the autobiographical documentary into two parts. First, I will consider events specific to film and documentary history that helped shape the movement in the late 1960s. I will then broaden the context in light of the changing role of the individual in American culture during this period. Finally, I will reflect on the...

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2. David Holzman’s Diary: An Unlikely Beginning

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pp. 33-47

Released in 1967, David Holzman’s Diary is a fictional film that paradoxically anticipates an entire group of autobiographical films and videos, especially those made by men, that I call the journal entry documentary. Jim McBride and L. M. Kit Carson foresaw the themes and form of the yet-tobe- produced journal entry documentaries that first appeared in the early...

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3. The Journal Entry Approach: Narrative, Chronology, and Autobiographical Claims

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pp. 48-93

The journal entry documentaries that followed the release of David Holzman’s Diary—Ed Pincus’s Diaries (1971–1976) (1980), Mark Rance’s Death and the Singing Telegram (1983), Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South during an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation (1986), Marco Williams’s In Search of Our Fathers (1992), and Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman’s Silverlake Life: The View...

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4. Autobiographical Portraiture: Family and Self

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pp. 94-144

The theorist Richard Brilliant observes that portraiture emerges from a “tendency to think about oneself, of oneself in relation to others, and of others in apparent relation to themselves and to others.”1 Since the beginning of the autobiographical documentary movement, film and video makers have produced portraits that evince such tendencies. These texts are...

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5. Women and the Autobiographical Documentary: Historical Intervention, Writing, Alterity, and the Dialogic Engagement

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pp. 145-190

Recalling her early days of working in the direct cinema period of the 1960s, Joyce Chopra, codirector of the autobiographical documentary Joyce at 34 (1974), says: The other people who were working there [D. A. Pennebaker’s cinema-verité film company] at the time in my capacity were all women. We were all apprentices. There may have been one or two guys. . . . But the women were all hired for their attrac-...

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pp. 191-194

In 1994, the producers of the American Documentary’s Public Broadcasting series P.O.V. initiated a series of regional workshops on what they called “video diaries.” The workshops, entitled Extreme Close-Up, were intended to help filmmakers produce autobiographical stories with user-friendly video technology. Interest in these workshops overwhelmingly exceeded capacity,...


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pp. 197-221


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pp. 222-223

Works Cited

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pp. 224-232


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pp. 233-246

E-ISBN-13: 9780299176532
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299176549

Publication Year: 2002