- Bad Film Histories: Ethnography and the Early Archive by Katherine Groo
Because Katherine Groo argues that film historiography has ultimately been conservative, this book presents a brave intervention, offering both a nuanced critique of disciplinary traditions and a model for radical approaches to archival film. From its demanding introduction through to its playful end, it is a series of workouts, each rewarding the reader, like a difficult climb which reveals at every turn a view of a vast open valley. What I mean is this: each step requires extraordinary attention to material and discursive detail, to surface and texture, but doing this work expands your horizons. Aside from these hard-earned vistas, this book also made my life better by throwing a line over the chasm between the pettiness of academic work and the enormity of planetary catastrophe. For all this I thank the author.
Bad Film Histories is a book about contingency, which is to say, about death. The topic is ‘early ethnographic cinema’, and across its five chapters Groo gathers examples from around the world, ranging from 1890s actualités to government-sponsored records to commercial travelogues. The title is no lie. The films are bad: politically, ethically, and even perhaps aesthetically. They enact colonial, extractive ways of looking. But we knew that; indeed, as Groo argues, such a secure denigration of these bad objects retrieves them for research, makes them usable, and allows us the satisfaction of knowing better. Groo rejects this recuperation. The ethical stance behind her approach is a way of ‘staying with the trouble’, to borrow Donna Haraway’s phrase. The ‘badness’ of ethnographic representation holds up a mirror to the messiness of historiographic method and writing. There is no salvaging these images, no restoration to a perfect original, and no neat filing system to hold ‘cinema’ and ‘ethnographic film’ as bounded categories.
Because of this excess of phenomena, Groo has little truck with the ‘empirical’ claims of cinema history, which has countered the structuralist tendencies of film theory with an enthusiasm for the archive that bypassed post-structuralist critiques. Groo returns instead to “the undertheorized encounter between film historian and artefact” (27). Her theorisation derives from Derrida’s work on archives, anthropology, and writing, but it is made out of specific encounters with images, objects, and institutions. It is remarkable that the book balances such vast ambition on the back of the smallest detail – an intertitle, some specks of dust, a gesture. This ‘particularist’ approach is presented as a challenge to “a dominant regime of film-historical thought” (7), and this gives purpose to her grapple with the empirical. If the film artefact, even the ‘bad’ one, can be a ‘metahistorical object’, a spanner in the works of conventional historiography, then there is a point to doing film history.
The introduction has more substance than most books have in their entirety, and it offers a literature review as generous and rigorous as any I have seen. Throughout the book, historical and theoretical arguments are crafted in open dialogue with a formidable cadre of cinema historians and philosophers such as Alison Griffiths, Fatimah Tobing Rony, Catherine Russell, Mary Ann Doane, Paula Amad, and Giovana Fossati. Groo embraces and models a feminist citation practice, not just by citing women but by valuing collaboration and accretion rather than competition. There are proper disagreements here, but none constructed in bad faith. This is [End Page 81] most evident when reconsidering archives and films about which other people have written, such as early Lumière views and the expedition films made for the American Museum of Natural History.
The first chapter considers the Lumière films alongside the films and photographs belonging to the extraordinary project of Alfred Kahn’s Archives de la Planète. Both collections represent an imperial impulse to catalogue, but are also destabilised by internal fractures. Groo offers a contrast between domestic and excursive modes, where the latter communicates “too much or nothing” (63). In this contrast between regimes of visuality, Groo draws on Deleuze’s concepts of major and...