- Documenting the Son/iconic Discord
In an effort to describe how cinema is seen to portray a documentary quality, Dai Vaughan's essay "What Do We Mean by 'What'?" turns to J. Wesley Horne's Big Business—a Laurel and Hardy silent short from 1929.1 Playing the part of two salesmen trying to sell Christmas trees, the duo's comedic routine in the film involves the gradual destruction of the house of a man with whom they have an antagonistic encounter after he refuses to buy a tree. Reportedly, as Vaughan describes, a production miscommunication during filming led to the accidental destruction of a family house other than the one for which the production team had permission. To those in the know, including Vaughan himself, this event meant that Horne's camera was suddenly and unexpectedly empowered with a documentative function, signifying the very act of having happened to record whatever just happened to have passed before it. Inspired by this incident, Vaughan proceeds to exclaim that "what makes a movie 'documentary' is the way we look at it; and the history of documentary has been the succession of strategies by which filmmakers have tried to make viewers look at films this way."2 Vaughan's comments here suggest that documentary cinema is a mode of viewing cinema in a particular way, one that triggers an experience of the medium's potential for simply recording life's occurrences without subjecting reality to the demands of an artistic fictionalization. Simultaneously, though, Vaughan points to a particular thread that has come to characterize the development of [End Page 356] documentary filmmaking as well as its theorization: documentary is a matter of a mode of looking.
From Robert J. Flaherty's film Nanook of the North (1922) all the way to Wim Wenders's digital 3D movie Pina (2011), it is the image of the people and the world of which they are a part that has become the anchor around which documentary cinema has typically gained its denotative empowerment. As I will be discussing in the following pages, cinema's visual iconicity has also been the focal point of much documentary scholarship, taking us back to John Grierson's early musings on the subject in the early 1930s. Visual presence in documentary cinema, it seems, takes precedence over sound and voice, with the body's appearance as image acquiring a documentative historical value, becoming the physical trace from within which the voice appears in order to tell us something about the world being seen.
Yet, while cinema's faculty for iconicity—for being a medium of the moving image—remains a prominent matter within film history and theory, sound and voice offer a fascinatingly complex nexus of corporeal presences, temporal refractions, spatial divisions, and perceptual interpretations. From fiction to nonfiction cinema, questions of how mediated sound relates to the world screened and how the voice relates to the body to which it gives a voice in the world appear to be theoretically challenging and yet vibrantly inspiring. Cinema tends commonly to represent a seamless synchronized relationship between image and sound that subordinates the latter to the former. Such a unifying synchronicity, though, highlights the particular mode through which reality is constructed for the cinematic experience. One finds here a cinematic logic that raises a series of theoretical issues pertaining to questions of belonging (how the voice is seen to belong to a singular body from within which it supposedly arises directly and that creates the impression of a sufficiently and exclusively performed individuality); to questions of political agency (how sound offers a voice to a people who can thus speak up in society and gain the power to be heard, albeit through the specificity of one or the other language); and questions of meaning (how speech expresses the meaningfulness of language—its logos—through which cinema narrates the determined purposefulness of reality for the viewer).
This voice-body synchronicity—cinema's audiovisual unity—points to the medium's act of narrating reality by way of anchoring the body within the world, creating a mediated body-image as a representational icon of reality, as a reality effect of which...