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American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary

The Cambridge Turn

Scott MacDonald

Publication Year: 2013

American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary is a critical history of American filmmakers crucial to the development of ethnographic film and personal documentary. The Boston and Cambridge area is notable for nurturing these approaches to documentary film via institutions such as the MIT Film Section and the Film Study Center, the Carpenter Center and the Visual and Environmental Studies Department at Harvard. Scott MacDonald uses pragmatism’s focus on empirical experience as a basis for measuring the groundbreaking achievements of such influential filmmakers as John Marshall, Robert Gardner, Timothy Asch, Ed Pincus, Miriam Weinstein, Alfred Guzzetti, Ross McElwee, Robb Moss, Nina Davenport, Steve Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, Michel Negroponte, John Gianvito, Alexander Olch, Amie Siegel, Ilisa Barbash, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. By exploring the cinematic, personal, and professional relationships between these accomplished filmmakers, MacDonald shows how a pioneering, engaged, and uniquely cosmopolitan approach to documentary developed over the past half century.

Published by: University of California Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-18

...Much of the most interesting and influential nonfiction filmmaking of recent decades has been made in and around Boston, or by men and women who have had significant connections with the Boston area. And filmmakers working in Cambridge at the MIT “Film Section” and at Harvard have made formative changes in how documentary is understood and in what kinds of documentaries get made. Surprisingly, however, relatively...

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1. Lorna and John Marshall

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pp. 19-60

...At the outset, the Marshall family expeditions to the Kalahari Desert from 1950 to 1961 to find and learn something about the San peoples living there were conceived as a means to the end of a more intensive, engaged experience of family life—an upscale version of the family camping trips that would become ubiquitous across the country during the following decades. Laurence Marshall’s determination that his family’s experiences with the San be useful...

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2. Robert Gardner

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pp. 61-110

...While John Marshall spent much of his filmmaking life rethinking and revisiting his earlier filmmaking experiences in the Kalahari Desert, learning what he could from the ongoing transformations of San life and from what he saw as his limited understanding and his filmmaking mistakes, Robert Gardner’s career has been focused on an expansive engagement with the ways in which...

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3. Timothy Asch

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pp. 111-126

...In the films he completed in Cambridge during the 1970s, Timothy Asch rigorously avoided reference to his personal experiences in the interest of foregrounding the experiences of those he documented. Ed Pincus remembers a visit Asch made to his fi lmmaking class at MIT...

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4. Ed Pincus and the Emergence of Personal Documentary

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pp. 127-166

...Th e social turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s brought with it a wholesale reevaluation of many of the institutions that had seemed to defi ne American culture for the previous generation. Th e federal government had involved the nation in a war during which the American military perpetrated shocking, inhumane brutalities against a humble underdog—to many young people coming of age, America seemed the new Third Reich. State governments...

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5. Alfred Guzzetti and Personal Cinema

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pp. 167-182

...Looking back at the 1960s and 1970s from half a century later, few transformations that were occurring at the time now seem more signifi cant than the emergence of new image-making technologies: attempts to devise inexpensive sync-sound filmmaking gauges led in the end to videotape and camcorders and then to the emergence of a series of digital technologies that have taken the difficulty out of the process of recording image and sound, have simplified editing, and have made darkened theaters unnecessary for the experience of motion pictures...

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6. Ross McElwee

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pp. 183-237

...As of the new millennium, no personal documentary fi lmmaker had become better known than Ross McElwee. Despite what we might imagine was the influence of Ricky Leacock and Ed Pincus at MIT and of Alfred Guzzetti, McElwee’s teaching colleague at Harvard since 1986—all of whom abjured or at least avoided voiceover narration in documentary film—McElwee has become the most inventive explorer of voice-over in the history of personal documentary...

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7. Robb Moss

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pp. 238-259

...Like Ross McElwee, Robb Moss earned his M.F.A. in filmmaking from MIT, studying with Ed Pincus and Ricky Leacock, and he became McElwee’s colleague in the Visual and Environmental Studies Department at Harvard in 1983 (Moss is now Senior Lecturer in the Visual and Environmental Studies Department, as well as a creative advisor for the Sundance Documentary Labs). Further, like McElwee...

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8. Panorama: Other Approaches to Personal Documentary

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pp. 260-313

...While interest among American (and Cambridge) filmmakers in producing ethnographic film, at least in the modes pioneered by the Marshalls, Gardner, and Asch, diminished by the 1980s, or at least was redirected into a broad-ranging critique of the myth of detached, objective observation both among those who were interested in ethnographic cinema and within the discipline of anthropology in general, the successes of personal documentary, both aesthetic...

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9. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Sensory Ethnography

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pp. 314-338

...If, at first, intelligent people could imagine that, when representing Other cultures, a picture is worth a thousand words, it was not long before those with a serious interest in anthropology and ethnographic filmmaking saw that, whereas written ethnography generally condensed months or years of study into a more or less accessible verbal form, whatever film imagery of preindustrial cultures was recorded and then edited into “complete” films—by men and...

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pp. 339-344

...Both of the documentary histories that have been nurtured in Cambridge continue to develop and to be productive. Indeed, in recent years they have become increasingly imbricated with each other in large measure because so many of the major contributors continue to be part of a small, regularly interactive, generally mutually supportive fi lmmaking community. Th e passing of Ricky Leacock in 2011 instigated a coming together of much of the Cambridge...

Appendix: Sources for Films

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pp. 345-346


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pp. 347-396


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pp. 397-416

E-ISBN-13: 9780520954939
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520275621

Page Count: 424
Publication Year: 2013