- Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film
In this fascinating book, filmmaker, teacher and theoretician Jeffrey Skoller does not aim at analyzing how historical facts, events, characters or situations are cinematographically represented, but rather at disclosing the many ways in which history is thought of—and therefore made—in contemporary avant-garde film. Each of these words—thinking, making, avant-garde and film—has here its importance, and helps the author to distinguish the corpus and the issues he is working on from the cinematic strategies of narrative Hollywood movies, in which history is reenacted in a transparent way for an audience that is no longer aware of the constructedness of what it is seeing, or of the very problematic nature of its actual looking at a past made present through fictional narratives. Contrary to what happens in dominant industry forms of cinema, avant-garde cinema takes into account the epistemological shifts in our thinking about history: our mistrust of narrative structures, our suspicion of the very idea of representation, our critique of the illusion of understanding, our classic belief in objectivity, our ancient notions of a clear-cut and unproblematic distinction of present and past, and our emphasis on empirical evidence. Skoller's basic ambition is to present and analyze a small number of films (half of them strictly avant-garde; half of them at the margins of progressive documentary cinema, such as works by Godard and Lanzmann) and to examine their exploration of thinking about history with purely cinematographic means. For Skoller, avant-garde film is defined both negatively and positively: On one hand, there is the rejection of mainstream storytelling (and of fiction as a form of indexical illusion, i.e. deceit); on the other hand, there is the foregrounding of the proper materiality of the medium (and this medium here, except in the coda of the book, is not video or digital movies, but the by now anachronistic celluloid strip projected collectively in theaters).
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The book's theoretical framework is double. Walter Benjamin's "allegory" offers the first key notion of all analyses: The allegorical view of history refuses the idea that the past exists independently from the present and enhances instead the possibility, i.e. the political necessity, of a constant reinterpretation of the past as it relates to the present. Gilles Deleuze's "time-image" is the second major concept used throughout the book: Contrary to the "movement-image," in which a given timeframe or sequence is inscribed within the moving image, a "time-image" produces a virtual time in the mind of the spectator. It is of course the combination of both concepts, allegory and time-image, that appears as revolutionary in the avant-garde's (re)making of history outside the existing paths of traditional storytelling. For the avant-garde film, this "virtualizing" encounter with the past is a challenge as well as an opportunity: the former because the ethical and political dimensions of each rethinking of the past are not always easily compatible with the avant-garde's nonrepresentative foregrounding of the film's materiality, the latter because of the opening it gives to the avant-garde as a genre after a long period of asphyxiating, puritan formalism. The idea of "virtuality" plays a key role in this respect, since "virtual" is also a term that has to be interpreted in a Deleuzian sense, not as the opposite of "real," but as the opposite of "actual" or "current": the virtual completes the real, it is able to modify what exists; it is the horizon of the real rather than its negation. The avant-garde's denaturalizing formalism de-realizes any reified view of the past, while projecting it into new but equally unstable relationships between present, future and past. Virtuality, hence, suggests that avant-garde filmmaking is deeply rooted in an [End Page 99] engagement with current thinking (more specifically with thinking on history) and...