To find my own vision, I had to reject yours. (1)
Desire is an odd thing. If it can be called upon, even if it can be harnessed to consumption, it can also be unruly and many-sided. Just as there is more than one way of making photographs, so there is more than one way of making use of them. If my pictures and my stories, however commonplace, are not everybody’s, my uses of the one and my methods of arriving at the other could very well be. (Kuhn, 20)
In this essay I wish to discuss two forms of ‘avant-garde’ cinema that I will call the home experimental film and the found home experimental film (2). Drawing on observations made by Patricia R. Zimmermann, J. Hoberman and comments in a special edition of The Journal of Film and Video entitled ‘Home Movies and Amateur Filmmaking’, I will investigate the often explicitly autobiographical, analytical and self-critical uses made of home photographic materials in a range of broadly feminist experimental films (3). This essay is primarily concerned with the recontextualisation and representation of home movies in these films. I use the term experimental loosely here to include films which resemble home movies themselves (for example some of Stan Brakhage works of the ’60s and ’70s) or others that might be more often categorised as documentaries. This second group of ‘documentary’ films is often situated within the terrain of found footage cinema (4). Australian Merilee Bennett’s short 1987 film, A Song of Air, will be the main focus of my analysis of this found footage practice (5).
Particular strands of the experimental practice that I am examining are intimately related to the changes in film stocks, technologies, industries and subcultures in the post-Second World War period (6). Nevertheless, the complex inter-relationships between documentary, domestic, amateur, experimental and fictional narrative cinemas that these changes occasion have an even longer history that may well date back to the birth of cinema. For example, several of the earliest films of Louis and Auguste Lumière, Repas de bébé (1895) for instance, document aspects of their family life and can be read as early instances of the home movie (7). This of course complicates how we might wish to categorise and consider these works. Experimental, amateur and home movie practices also share similar conditions, technologies and expressive spaces in, for example, the late 1920s and early 1930s (8). Yet it is in the period after the Second World War that this process of hybridisation and convergence comes most clearly to the fore. This seeming convergence of expressive modes is exemplified by a strand of American experimental filmmaking which emerges in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a mode that I call the home experimental film. Accounts of this movement invariably focus attention on a small number of filmmakers including Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Jonas Mekas, George and Mike Kuchar and Saul Levine (9). This concentration on a privileged collection of mostly male filmmakers masks what are actually more widespread and fundamental connections and convergences between experimental and home movie practice, aesthetics and technology.
Although aspects and examples of post-war American experimental cinema are central to the practice and historiography of both the home experimental film and its ‘found’ footage counterpart, my analysis focuses upon several works produced in Australia from the 1970s onwards that are deeply indebted to this movement. During this period, a series of fascinating Australian films were made which blurred the borders between experimental cinema, documentary cinema and home movie and/or video practice (10). Many of these films can also be situated within a specific realm of feminist film practice that attempts to reorientate, recontextualise and to essentially interrogate the film and photographic records ceded from parent to child. It is the recontextualisation of these representational materials that predominantly constitutes the ‘found’ or collage aspects of these experimental films. As suggested by Freda Freiberg in her essay on Corinne Cantrill’s explicitly autobiographical, photograph-driven film, In This Life’s Body (1985), this type of cinema can be closely related to a more general feminist film practice:
The feminist project in film has been concerned with the struggle of women to gain control of the word and the image, so that the voice of women may be heard (Freiberg in Blonski, Creed & Freiberg, 337).
One of the key strategies of the found home experimental film is the combination and juxtaposition of newly recorded and composed voice-over narration with home photographic images that have been recut, refilmed and/or recontextualised. It is this practice that has been particularly popular with women filmmakers such as Chick Strand, Michelle Citron (Daughter Rite ) and Merilee Bennett (A Song of Air). I will comment upon aspects of both films and the issues raised in Freiberg’s claim throughout this essay and will turn to a more explicit analysis of A Song of Air in its second half.
…the autobiographical reflex is not a peculiar moment but a regular pattern, sustained and grounded by the diurnal repetition of the same act (Sitney in Sitney, 204).
Most of the films I am examining in this essay are concerned with the recontextualisation of images produced in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, images produced by the families of the filmmaker or, as in the case of Stan Brakhage and the home experimental film in general, by the filmmaker themselves. In the found home experimental film, these works encompass the response of children to the images imposed on them by their parents and which emerge from the gaps between experience or memory and its representation. In some respects, the films these filmmakers cobble together are typical generational acts of rebellion, denial and rejection. Not surprisingly, this particular practice of found footage or compilation cinema has been intermittently popular in the last 25 or so years, as these often remarkably preserved works are ceded to children who attempt to deal with, amongst other things, experiences of abandonment, mourning and death (11). Each of these films attempt to simultaneously purge, reclaim and rewrite the lost images of childhood.
These ‘filmmakers’ also attempt to assert their own consciousness and difference by imposing their own manner of reading on these domestic images, even if this act ultimately leads to an acknowledgment of heritage, linearity and similarity, as it sometimes does in A Song of Air. This is connected to the cathartic processes and practices noted by Su Friedrich in relation to her film about her father, Sink or Swim (1990):
But the longer I worked on it, the less I wanted to punish him, and the more I felt I was not doing it so that he would finally acknowledge my experience, but so that I could acknowledge my experience (MacDonald, 1992, 313).
All of these films I am discussing encounter the conflict between conceptions of the individual and the collective (particularly the family) and the private and the public. In this respect, they often rely on notions of collective activity and socialised and inscribed ways of thinking and acting, which are highly evocative of the work of French cultural theorist Michel Foucault. Foucault explores the notion of a programmatic world in which systems of language, law, social organisation and representation inevitably ‘write or ‘construct’ us (the subject), rather than vice-versa (12). In the found home experimental film this ‘writing’ of the subject is invariably seen as the outcome of highly structured and systematised modes of domestic image-making. For example, the domestic images recontextualised in A Song of Air are approached as the inevitable outcome of specific structural, cultural and social influences. The restrictive representational activity of the director’s father is thus seen, in turn, as the product of his cultural, familial and social background: “his childhood was dominated by his mother” (from the voice-over narration of A Song of Air).
In almost every case, these found home experimental films speak of a trauma and/or ‘hidden’ knowledge which the film inexorably and ominously moves toward (13). The use made of home photographic materials in these films is often three-fold. Firstly, to highlight the ‘lies’ these images attest to and then to uncover hidden truths not acknowledged in an image’s initial context but which are revealed through slowing down, freezing, reframing and recontextualising elements such as facial expressions, gestures and bodily contact. Finally, these home experimental films aim to show a representational and domestic world to which one can never return. For example, Laurence Green’s Reconstruction (1995) moves towards the revelation, both surreptitiously and overtly, that the black child the narrator believes is his adopted sister is in fact his half-sister (14). The film subsequently becomes a work of mourning for the half-sister that the narrator has lost, the half-sister who fled the family ‘unable’ to deal with the ‘truth’ of her parentage. The film becomes a mechanism through which to tell the family story, to reinvigorate the image of the ‘lost’ sister and to analyse the remnants of material ‘memories’ (such as home movies) to see whether they reveal some hidden or previously unseen ‘truth’.
Simplicity and reliability bought at the cost of photographic knowledge do not constitute an evil plot. If the taking of the picture required no thought, the choice of subject matter should be equally self-evident (Slater in Holland and Spence, 57).
I will now consider some of the representational strategies of the found home experimental film in more detail. In order to best discuss the context from which a film like A Song of Air emerges, I will focus upon the feminist paradigm which dominates this practice (15). The films in this mode are less concerned with the temporality, threat or sanctity of the home photographic image (including photographs, movies and videos) and more concerned with its corruptibility (16). In the process, home photography often becomes the key raw material that these films utilise. It is both a starting and finishing point and the explicit critical focus of the work. Home photography also becomes the central object on display to the audience and the ostensible subject of the film, rather than being buried within broader narrative structures, structures it is often ‘made’ to reflect (17). In these films, home images become objects to be explored, tested and questioned.
This is, in many respects, a more radical and revisionist form of the activity that already defines many experiences of home photographic consumption and its representation in cinema. Thus, this ostensibly experimental practice often produces a ‘doubling’ effect in which the predominant activities of home image consumption and production are turned back upon themselves. This found home experimental film practice often focuses upon material which home photography conventionally but surreptitiously selects, orders, rejects or explicitly elides. The ‘event’ of, amongst other things, the home movie or family photo album experience is staged, but often within new contexts and from different perspectives. This shift in focus often constitutes a denial or significant reorientation of the family narrative conventionally produced by such discursive forms. For example, in her “Filmmaker’s Statement”, Merilee Bennett, reflects upon the purposes of such a practice:
A Song of Air is my first film. I have used footage selected from approximately 16 hours of home movies, made by my father between 1956 and 1975. Like all records, filmic, photographic, or written this footage displays the perspective of the mind and eye behind the camera. In this case, it displays a belief in and creation of Family Life in the ’50s and ’60s. The narration is an autobiographical account of growing up in this family, and specifically of the relationship between myself and my father (18).
In her analysis of this predominantly feminist revisionist film practice, Maureen Turim writes:
Images usually taken by fathers or found in someone else’s home movies are one way filmmakers have found to explore the manner in which film gathers and transforms fragments of lived experience (Turim, 86).
This filmic activity is often connected to a more general feminist and experimental practice which involves the reworking of existing and often dominant forms. It is a hegemony conceived of as a combination of classical narrative, patriarchy and the cultural, social and explicitly familial status quo. Typically, Turim examines this activity through a conflation of avant-garde, amateur and home movie practices positioned explicitly within a feminist context (19). She conceives of an historical connection between these forms that finds its originating point in the work of avant-garde pioneer Maya Deren (Turim, 86-88). Turim is particularly interested in the moments within Deren’s most famous film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), that blur the clear borders between fictional, avant-garde, amateur and domestic image-making:
The film is ‘located’ in the artist/protagonist’s home in the Hollywood hills, a home she shared with her husband, Alexander Hammid, who plays her husband in the film. With these biographical elements of the home movie, Deren meshes a wide range of ideas on memory and the psyche, repetition and variation, spatial and temporal cognition (Turim, 87).
Meshes of the Afternoon suggests a connected but quite different set of relationships or convergences between home image production and other forms of cinema than those at work in the found home experimental film. Rather than recontextualising already existing domestic images, Deren’s film blurs distinctions between the world of and in the film and between domestic and fictional spaces and practices.
The most interesting examples of the found home experimental film directly question the nature of home photography as a mode of representation. They are films that are reluctant to let home photographic materials ‘speak’, ‘attest’ and ‘represent’ for themselves. Distinguished examples of this type of work include the structurally fluid and hybridised films of New York feminist filmmaker, Su Friedrich. Friedrich’s The Ties that Bind (1984) and Sink or Swim examine the images and languages of her mother and father. Both films interrogate the psychological, cultural, social and representational legacies imparted by Friedrich’s parents. The structure of both films is also designed to rhyme with and simulate what is meant to be a therapeutic psychological process. Scott MacDonald suggests that “the making of The Ties that Bind was a process of psychic exploration for which the finished film serves as an index” (MacDonald, 1993, 103).
The film is therefore roughly designed to reflect and simulate a particular psychological experience or journey. But the film is also meant to be integral to and constitutive of this process. In both of these films, Friedrich reappropriates various avant-garde techniques, deploys a wide variety of audio-visual materials and vacillates between a range of filmic practices, including home movies. Sink or Swim uses home-based images, amongst many other types of materials, to analyse, confront and reinscribe the relationship between the filmmaker and her father. In his career as a linguist, Friedrich’s father quite literally controlled and interpreted language. As a response to, and a reversal of, this limiting grammatical heritage, Friedrich conceives a connected but much more open practice: “I like the idea of recycling things and of finding new meanings, in a new context, for images that have appeared in earlier films” (MacDonald, 1992, 291). Friedrich achieves this within an extremely fluid framework that is reliant upon a synthesis of approaches
not only reflected in her inclusion of elements of several cinematic traditions usually seen as distinct, [but] also evident in the way these diverse elements are arranged within the film (MacDonald, 1993, 107).
In a similar manner, A Song of Air investigates the ideology of home photography and the power relations, role models and societal structures inscribed into its representational relations, structures, models and systems that are inherent in collective and individual relationships.
Above all, I shall remain forever in debt to my late father, Henry Philip Kuhn, from whom I inherit an abiding fascination with and love of photography. It is thanks to his skills and enthusiasms as a photographer that I have been able to draw upon such a rich fund of source material for this book. And it is with considerable pleasure that I see this ‘invisible man’ making a small mark on history (Kuhn, viii).
In the opening chapter of her book, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination, entitled “She’ll Always Be Your Little Girl”, Annette Kuhn counters many of the conventional gendered responses to home and family-based photography by situating the form’s ideological encoding within the acts of compilation and organisation rather than in the act of recording itself (Kuhn, 10-20) (20). Her account of home photography is unconventional, perhaps even iconoclastic. She attempts to resurrect, remember and ‘find’ her father’s image and memory, in spite of its exclusion and excision from the family photo album by her mother. In this respect, Kuhn’s ‘memory’ and reading of her photographs runs counter to much of the information given by and around them. This includes her mother’s written descriptions of the content, time and place of the photographs on their reverse side.
Kuhn produces a counter reading or history by inserting her own images and memory into their interpretation. In the photographs of her that have been carefully curated by her mother, Kuhn now ‘sees’ her father as an absent, haunting presence. Her analysis identifies the need to reinscribe and write over the photographs, and recognising their power as ‘eternally’ active, material and exclusionary objects. Kuhn reads her mother’s own power struggle and insertion of ‘presence’ into the images. In the process, these photographs become a contested site and the meaning or reality they attest to is brought into question. This reconstructive use of family imagery is both rejected and repeated by the author/daughter: “In all of these struggles, my project was to make myself into my father’s daughter” (Kuhn, 18).
The most remarkable aspect of Kuhn’s chapter is that it approaches these home photographic materials from an unusual perspective, in many ways an opposing position. The goal of her thoughtful analysis is to reincorporate the father back into the family picture or narrative, a narrative from which he has been excluded both figuratively and literally by the mother. I would argue that there are no real cinematic equivalents to this specific reiterative gesture. Nevertheless, in some respects, A Song of Air shares many of the goals and intentions of Kuhn’s writing. The film is both implicitly and explicitly an act of love towards the father and a reiteration of the bond, read similarity, between father and daughter. At the same time, it is also a rejection of the period, ideology and patrilineal structures of the father and an attempt by the filmmaker to establish herself as separate from the representational frames that seem to constitute much of his power. In A Song of Air, this power is represented through the father’s command and control of the means of domestic representation. Merilee Bennett makes this connection explicit throughout the film. For example, the photographic image of her father holding a camera is accompanied by the following voice-over: “He was our provider. His word was law. His power absolute” (21). Nevertheless, her film still seems to want to establish an equivalence or equality between father and daughter that the father’s images are unable to accept. “To find my own vision I had to reject yours”.
Thus, Merilee Bennett’s refilming, recutting and recontextualisation of home movie footage shot by her father (Arnold Bennett) from 1956 to 1975 (which roughly coincides with the period of her life that she shared with her father) provides both a critique and acknowledgment of patriarchal structures. At the same time, it is a harsh but poetic examination of the “labyrinth of being father and daughter”. The film critically analyses, reconstructs and deconstructs the image of the family. In this sense it re-documents the representational history of a family. A Song of Air is, in many ways, a poetic attack upon home photography and the inherently conservative representational strategies this practice routinely reinscribes. In other respects A Song of Air is just another example in a long line of avant-garde gestures which regards its purpose as the critical questioning of established patterns, formal methodologies and discourses.
A Song of Air emphasises Merilee Bennett’s own subjectivity and gender, often in an extremely confronting manner. Her identity is seen in relation to a representational legacy that actively excludes the expression of heterogeneous personal experiences: “I’m not really here, my real life is elsewhere”. Fred Camper sees such a process as inscribed into the general practice of home movie-making:
there is a sense in which the children of home movies are seen by the camera/parent not as human beings, but as objects and images, as appearances to be preserved rather than as whole persons with their own independent psyches (Camper, 11).
Where A Song of Air rewrites the self and subjectivity, Kuhn’s chapter strives to emphasise the endless material constructions of her own subjectivity and its relation to the absent presence of her father:
The stories, the memories, shift. There is a struggle over who is to have the last word – me; my father, the father who figures in my desire; my mother, the monstrous mother of my fantasy. There is unlikely ever to be a last word, as the struggle over the past continues in the present (Kuhn, 16).
Bennett re-presents and recontextualises the films of her late father in order to provide another audio-visual/filmic perspective, while Kuhn looks outside, behind and between her images to produce a transformative memory in ink and paper.
In many respects, Bennett conceives of her father as a consummate auteur, situating even the most banal and generic of his images within an articulated and consistent authorial worldview. By contrast, Kuhn can be considered to configure her father as something of a metteur en scene, an extremely competent imagist who is written out of this representational history by the tyrannical, auteurist mother (22). Bennett redirects her father’s auteurism by seeing it as the outcome of ideological, representational and textual constraints, structures and roles that deny genuine individuality. She therefore sees her father’s authorial role in relation to home image production, as the product of predictable and stereotypical modes of behaviour. Her found home experimental film, A Song of Air, is both an attack on the generational and gendered nature of auteurism and an investigation of the deeper ‘rumblings’ she discovers in her father’s movies, such as the similarities between her filmmaking practice and that of her father.
In contrast, it is possible to read Kuhn’s account of her father’s photographic practice in terms of how she attempts to resurrect the reputation of a much-maligned auteur. One can take this analogy further and situate the practice of Bennett and Kuhn and the relationship with their respective fathers in relation to some of the key counterpoints of classical film theory. In this context, Arnold Bennett may be conceived of as a master and engineer of mise en scène, continuity and something resembling classical narrative. His daughter counters (or compliments?) these qualities by adding and mastering those elements—montage, dialectics, sound, bricolage, ambiguity and self-consciousness—that are marginalised in Arnold’s films. Merilee’s film thus negates the father’s former mastery and redirects the viewer’s attention towards other elements in and between the images. She redirects and fractures the notions of continuity, family unity and ideological conformity that her father’s films insist upon: “We acted our lives for the sake of his movies. The important thing was to be together and feel the same way about the world.” As Simon Cooper suggests, power and control are expressed and redirected through the acts of filmic direction and compilation: “Narrating about her relationship with her late father, she finally gets the chance to direct him in an in-the-family film” (Cooper, 47).
The home movie footage of A Song of Air is remarkably free of many of the conventional marks of the form that are so often quoted within narrative cinema’s representation of home photography. In fact, Arnold Bennett’s footage illustrates a mastery of mise en scène and editing that is regarded as uncommon in many accounts of home image production. What is even more striking, in contrast to the routine representation of various types of home photography in cinema, are the ways in which Arnold Bennett’s films reflect, and to some degree simulate, the codes of mainstream narrative cinema. It is common for home movies not to mock or copy feature film practice but to mark their difference from the structural elements of feature films by which they are circumscribed.
The home movies of Arnold Bennett have other unusual characteristics, including their intermittent construction of explicit narratives: narratives that beg specific questions. Why did the father construct them? Are they an attempt to stem or disguise loss and to emphasise continuity? Are they actually relics of the father’s home movie practice or something surreptitiously constructed for A Song of Air? Merilee places one of these fragmented and hybridised narratives at the opening of her own film (23). Her father’s ‘found’ practice is thus placed alongside her own. This placement indicates the complexity of Bennett’s approach to her father and his representational politics. Ironically, the recontextualisation of images by both father and daughter have similar functions, imposing an individual vision onto what is conventionally regarded as collective material. This is true even if this individual ‘vision’ is in fact the outcome of established patterns and regimes of representation, as it is in the case of the father. This kind of rhyming is never coincidental in A Song of Air. Bennett utilises a series of contrasts, negatives, mirrors, and complimentary and contradictory practices to emphasise her connection to and difference from her father and his images. A Song of Air is a family narrative which is simultaneously similar to and yet distinct from that of her father.
Several writers and filmmakers who use and refer to such photographic materials dedicate their work to their mothers. For example, books and films preoccupied with photographic materials by Roland Barthes, John Tagg and Nikita Mikhalkov include dedications to the writer’s or filmmaker’s mother (24). Atypically, the representation of Bennett’s mother in A Song of Air seldom exists outside of rather conventional frames. The manner in which the filmmaker questions her father’s representation of her mother locates this way of looking within broader ideological structures. At the same time, the film does not strive to find other images of the mother, but rather conceives of her as equally contained within particular representational and ideological conventions: “She was the personification of strong, calm virtue and the ideal against whom he judged every woman, especially his daughters”.
Bennett foregrounds the fact that the camera her father used to produce these images of mother, daughters and family unity was in fact a present that he had given to his wife. The lack of control, or perhaps interest, that the mother exerted over ‘her’ camera is now redirected through Bennett’s reclaiming and refilming of her father’s images. A Song of Air nevertheless provides a valediction for and critique of her father rather than an approximation of the images that the mother never produced. This dedication is overtly stated in the opening credits of the film. The film also opens with a ‘handwritten’ statement that situates the origins of the film materials that Merilee Bennett has used:
My Father, Arnold Lucas Bennett, bought a 16mm Bolex movie camera in 1956, as a gift for my mother, Nancy. He then used it himself, until his death in early 1983, to document family life, in and around Brisbane, Queensland, and to film the stories he wrote, directed and edited, and in which his family acted (25).
Philippa Hawker has suggested that A Song of Air “captures the relationship between a father and a daughter in his images, and her words” (Hawker, 3). Bennett thus places primacy upon the word as a means of providing counter-memories and redirecting the reading of the images she puts on display. Her suggestion is a little disingenuous as it fails to recognise how these images have been reprocessed, reclaimed and recontextualised by the acts of refilming, reframing, step-printing and montage, amongst other techniques that she uses. Although these images are shot by Bennett’s father, they are no longer explicitly his. This passing of the objects of material memory from generation to generation is one of the clear and arguably positive processes that the film documents.
These materials may well ‘become’ or stand in for memory but they also activate it. Kuhn suggests that these kinds of representational materials provide a branching-off point for critical reverie by setting “the scene for recollection” (Kuhn, 12). This process is evidenced in almost every film within the field of the found home experimental film. A process of activation is created while the disturbing and often contrary memories evoked are laid ‘over’ the images. In the case of A Song of Air, Bennett’s singular voice displaces and echoes other singular or multiple voices. Although we can only guess at what might have occurred in Bennett’s family, Merilee does provide a limited description of the screening of her father’s home movies. It is a description couched within the somewhat limited ideological framework that dominates the first part of the film and which centres on the ‘containment’ of the family through the conservative values and representational practices of the father.
But almost every Sunday after tea we’d watch movies. We saw ourselves growing-up, laughing at fashion changes and private jokes. And above all had Dad’s image of family-life reinforced.
The halting tenor of the narrator’s/Bennett’s voice is typical of the form, as if a more controlled, articulate and produced voice would counteract the deconstructive intentions of the film. The act of speaking in one’s ‘own’ voice is also central to the feminist project of the film. As contemporary viewers looking back at these materials, we often conceive of them as silent, indoctrinated as we are by the decorum of public screenings of other kinds of movies. But the experience of these films within the family is seldom marked by this lack of verbal discourse. It is this verbal narration that is often claimed as an essential component of this feminist project. It is also integral to women’s roles in home image-making and family narratives. Jeremy Seabrook argues for this as a significant and explicitly female practice: “In fact, each recital is a work of art. It is an art of women, an outcrop of lived and felt experience” (Seabrook in Holland and Spence, 173). It is, nevertheless, often the muteness of home photographic material that initially inspires filmmakers to these acts of cinematic interrogation.
There is something within the practice of home photography which enables the kind of activity performed by Bennett in A Song of Air. This has something to do with its lack, in many cases, of a finished form. Thus, the physical state of most of these home photographic materials—silent, insufficiently edited, often fragmented—arguably encourages subsequent interventionist practices by filmmakers like Bennett, Citron, Friedrich and Green. In many respects, the voice dominates the image, guiding the spectator through a relatively selective, evocative, but not necessarily accessible set of visuals. Bennett reframes, speeds up and slows down and recombines images to emphasise different ideas, a manner of working that is also evident in her father’s ‘movie’ that opens the film.
However, these found home experimental films are almost always only ever singular readings of the images, readings which could conceivably be reorganised in any number of other ways. The content of the visual source material is aesthetically impressive (the colours of Kodachrome stock keep drawing filmmakers back to these found materials) but it seldom ventures beyond conventional subject matter. For example, footage in A Song of Air covers such subjects as holidays, performances for camera, weddings, newborn babies, Christmas, and relies upon the quite explicit fulfilment of conventional gender roles. Not surprisingly, Bennett returns to the home movie image of herself wearing her father’s wig and aping his activities as a judge.
The image of the young Merilee with a judge’s wig invokes a complex series of associations: her aspirations for a role outside conventional gender restrictions; her connection with her father; images of a series of dress-ups which help ‘unify’ the film. Nevertheless, one must consider who shot these images and allowed such an open, playful, form of mimicry. It is in many respects, the kind of mimicry of the father that is central to A Song of Air itself. The irony of this encounter between home photography and the experimental film is that often it is this second gesture—let us call it the avant-garde one—which ultimately, tends to fix the meanings and the form of these materials. Bennett’s poetic audio-visual letter to her father is, in effect, both a revision of her father’s own activities and a kind of full-stop to a rather long, rambling and heart-breakingly non-communicative discourse or dialogue (26).
A tension between order and chaos informs these found home experimental films, reordering and recontextualising images and in some cases sounds, while at the same time refuting and rejecting any such order. A Song of Air relies upon both chronological ordering and a less schematic structure. It follows the narrative of a life—the father’s—but complicates this account through its off-hand observations, non-chronological imagery and occasional epiphany. The structure of A Song of Air can also be seen both to reiterate and to reject the structure of Bennett’s father’s films. Bennett overtly recognises the trace of her father in her own take on the world, “I wanted to be you, father”, and, less self-consciously, in her chosen artistic activity as a particular kind of filmmaker (27).
In many respects, A Song of Air is both a cathartic work and a work of mourning: “The loss I was feeling, of you, and my lost childhood”. It is a mourning-work which both accuses and forgives, erases and incorporates. The found home experimental films that I have discussed (for example, Reconstruction) take time to reach a kind of critical mass, a point where the perceived representational strategies of the home photographic materials they are re-presenting start to fall apart. This falling apart is expressed in multiple ways: as an absence of photographic materials at pertinent points; as information delivered on the soundtrack which counters what we are seeing; in the slowing down and step-printing of footage; and in the eventual or persistent return to a particular image or sequence of film.
The eventual fixation upon a single or connected set of images that stand out in their generalised ‘unknowability’ is emblematic of A Song of Air. As with Roland Barthes’ remarkable Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, the film gradually moves towards a central, ‘impossible’ and unreadable image of a parent. In the process, it provides a fascinating insight into the representational conventions that helped define a particular period (the 1950s and 1960s), place (Brisbane) and ideology (religious, puritanical and patriarchal). For Barthes, the central image is a photograph of his mother taken before his birth and which best represents for him her essence. For Merilee Bennett, the more quixotic image of her father swimming, captured in a home movie which predates her birth, is also such an image. The difficult, personal and cathartic work of filmmaking enables her to graft this footage of her father as a young man onto her film; for these images to find their ‘place’, as it were.
The images are introduced as being produced by another camera operator long before her father owned a movie camera and before Merilee’s birth. This footage reveals the image of the father as a subject without the accompaniment of Bennett’s recontextualising voice-over narration. These final, touching moments are both a gift to and of the father and return us to the ‘conditions’ of the home movie that preceded Bennett’s reworking (28). This home movie footage, unlike the photograph of Barthes’ mother in Camera Lucida, is ‘outside’ the discourse that frames the film and qualifies the dominant image of the father we are shown elsewhere. Its placement here, at the end of A Song of Air, as if the director did not know how, or indeed did not want to integrate it neatly, illustrates the power and disruption that such an image or set of images can produce.
The final sequence of A Song of Air is indicative of the complex motivations of the entire film. In some respects, the purpose of the film seems to be to exhaust the images produced by and of the father. In other respects, the final shots of the film are a kind of gift, a setting free of the image of the father and a recognition that any attempt to read these images must recognise gaps and excesses that are never accessible to a single film, spectator or ideological perspective. As Kuhn has argued of the photograph, in order “To show what it is evidence of, the film must always point you away from itself” (Kuhn, 12). As Jocelyn Robson and Beverley Zalcock suggest, “The film [A Song of Air] is a lament, to the image of one who is absent: it is a “song of air”’ (Robson and Zalcock, 40).
The found home experimental film is ultimately a lament, a song and a search for meaning amongst the indecipherable and troubling images of the past. It is this poetic undecidability that the ‘air’ and ‘song’ of Bennett’s title implicitly refers to: “I look at these pictures of my father in 1937, I don’t recognise him. There is only a young man I never knew”. In these final lines, Merilee recognises the abstruse nature of the processes she is analysing. She sees the image of a man (her father) that she does not recognise.
This essay was refereed.
Blonski, Annette, Creed, Barbara and Freiberg, Freda, eds, Don’t Shoot Darling! Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia, Australia: Greenhouse Publications, 1987: “Time’s Relentless Melt: Corinne Cantrill’s In This Life’s Body” by Freda Freiberg
Camper, Fred, “Some Notes on the Home Movie”, The Journal of Film and Video, 38.3-4, Summer-Fall 1986
Cooper, Simon, “Autoportrait”, Filmviews 33.136, Winter 1988
Holland, Patricia and Spence, Jo, eds, Family Snaps: The Meanings of Domestic Photography, London: Virago, 1991: “Consuming Kodak” by Don Slater; “My Life in that Box” by Jeremy Seabrook
Kuhn, Annette, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination, London: Verso, 1995
MacDonald, Scott, A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992
MacDonald, Scott, Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993
Robson, Jocelyn and Zalcock, Beverley, Girl’s Own Stories: Australian and New Zealand Women’s Films, London: Scarlet Press, 1997
Sitney, P. Adams, ed, The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1987: “Autobiography in Avant-Garde Film” by P. Adams Sitney
Turim, Maureen, “Childhood Memories and Household Events in the Feminist Avant-Garde”, The Journal of Film and Video, 38.3-4, Summer-Fall 1986
- From Merilee Bennett’s voice-over narration in A Song of Air.
- These are my own descriptive terms. I use the term ‘experimental’ rather than avant-garde for purely semantic reasons. In most respects I regard these terms as interchangeable.
- See Patricia R. Zimmermann, “The Amateur, the Avant-Garde, and the Ideologies of Art”, The Journal of Film and Video 38 (Summer-Fall 1986): 63-85; “Hollywood, Home Movies, and Common Sense: Amateur Film as Aesthetic Dissemination and Social Control, 1950-1962”, Cinema Journal 27.4 (Summer 1988): 23-44; Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995); J. Hoberman, “Homemade Movies: Towards a Natural History of Narrow Gauge, Avantgarde Filmmaking in America”, Homemade Movies: 20 Years of American 8mm and Super-8 Films (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1981) 1-8; and The Journal of Film and Video 38.3-4 (Summer-Fall 1986).
- Found footage cinema resembles the practice of collage in other art forms such as painting. Films within this grouping tend to recontextualise existing footage and images into new frameworks, ideologies and representational systems. These ‘found’ materials are commonly quite separate or distanced from the filmmaker. However, in the examples I will be looking at these images are often produced by the immediate family or close friends of the filmmaker. Thus, these found footage films often constitute a relooking at or recontextualisation of images produced of the filmmaker and/or their family.
- Parts of this essay were delivered as a paper for ‘Audiovision’, a lecture series co-presented by the Department of Visual Culture, Monash University, and the Centre for Contemporary Photography.
- Some of these changes or developments include the decreased cost of and increased ease of access to appropriate film equipment; the increased popularity of Standard-8 film practice; the introduction of Super-8 film and cameras in 1965; and the increased availability and standardisation of sound and colour film stocks. For an account of some of these developments see Alan D. Kattelle, “The Evolution of Amateur Motion Picture Equipment 1895-1965”,The Journal of Film and Video 38.3-4 (Summer-Fall 1986): 47-57; and Don Slater, “Consuming Kodak”, Family Snaps: The Meanings of Domestic Photography, ed. Patricia Holland and Jo Spence (London: Virago, 1991) 49-59.
- Repas de bébé features members of the Lumière family sitting down to eat.
- For an account of some aspects of these shared and converging conditions and practices see Patricia R. Zimmermann, “Startling Angles: Amateur Film and the Early Avant-Garde”, Lovers of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-Garde, 1919-1945, ed. Jan-Christopher Horak (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995) 137-155.
- I will focus on this mode of the home experimental film in a future essay. The key difference between this mode and the one I am discussing here lies in the ways in which these ‘home’ images are presented. The work of these filmmakers can be said to rhyme with or simulate a broader home movie or photographic practice rather than openly critique and recontextualise it.
- Significant Australian examples of this varied form include Penny Fowler-Smith’s At Sea (1997), Corinne Cantrill’s In This Life’s Body, Jeni Thornley’s Maidens (1977), A Song of Air, and Rosemary Hesse’s Relative Strangers (1998).
- The popularity of such found footage work is also linked to the increasingly antiquated nature of film stock itself: most consumers never use film anymore, ‘recording’ on the more ephemeral medium of home video. Thus, the home movie image is often made to signify a pre-video or pre-digital past, and its often luminous visual qualities contrasted to contemporary formats and media.
- See, for example, Foucault’s provocative critique of the Romanticist conception of authorship in “What is an Author?” trans. Duos V. Harari, Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Duos V. Harari (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979) 141-60. Foucault is often also used by writers who wish to emphasise the constricting and systematic nature of much photographic practice. For example, see John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Houndmills, England: MacMillan, 1988).
- In A Song of Air this trauma is in fact the daughter’s failure to adequately say goodbye to and understand her dead father, and is a partial outcome of her father’s home movies that have come into her possession.
- Reconstruction combines home movie and specially shot footage with recontextualising voice-over in order to analyze and revisit the events of the past, to see if domestic images can be made to let slip any suggestion of the events and actions that they do not directly represent.
- Probably the most influential work within the ‘found’ home experimental cinema is Michelle Citron’s 1978 film, Daughter Rite. It is a film which B. Ruby Rich and Linda Williams suggest “succeeds in opening up a major new direction for feminist filmmaking.” See B. Ruby Rich and Linda Williams, “The Right of Re-Vision: Michelle Citron’s Daughter Rite”, Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement by B. Ruby Rich (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998) 219
- Of the Australian examples listed above, it is only At Sea that proves to be an exception to this practice. In this film, home movie footage appears sparingly and is used to signify both a time that has passed and a loss of joy. It is also used to trigger an emotional response from the audience through the repeated image of a small child long dead. This film also differs from other examples referred to in this chapter in that it allows an opportunity for the mother to speak directly rather than the filmmaker and/or child.
- This representation of home photography is characteristic of its appearance in narrative cinema. For example, the home movie footage in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) provides a series of clues to the psychosis and murderous actions of the central protagonist throughout the film. In so doing, it becomes a mise en abyme (or mirror) of the broader film.
- A Song of Air Press Kit (Darlinghurst: Australian Film Institute, ) no pagination.
- Many commentators in this area tend to conflate the often separate categories of home movie, amateur and avant-garde/experimental film practice.
- It is generally the acts and practices of compilation and/or organisation that are used by those who wish to recontextualise and reread these images. Kuhn situates these acts within more conservative representational realms and attempts to return to the act of recording itself to perform her own ëredirectioní and rereading of these photographic images.
- From the voiceover narration of A Song of Air. All quotations without citations are from this voiceover, unless otherwise stated.
- For a succinct discussion of some of the perceived differences between an auteur and a metteur en scene see Edward Buscombe, ‘Ideas of Authorship’, Theories of Authorship: A Reader, ed. John Caughie (London: Routledge, 1981) 24-5
- This ‘film’, called Ghost Story, is fragmented and hybridised in the sense that it seems to draw together footage filmed on different occasions that mixes together colour and black-and-white stock. The film itself is a somewhat jokey response to the dangers posed to family unity by outside forces. As the film’s voiceover narration suggests: “We’d stage departures so he could film the farewells and the car pulling away. We acted out our own lives for the sake of his movies.”
- See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981); Tagg; and Nikita Mikhalkovís 1994 biographical film, Anna 6-18. Mikhalkov’s film consists of a series of film fragments shot over a 12-year period which documents the everyday life and opinions of the director’s daughter, often delivered direct to camera.
- All of the titles and dedications in A Song of Air look as if they are handwritten. This technique furthers the notion that Merilee’s film is a continuation of or an answer to the letter(s) written to her by her father, and which she had never previously ‘answered’.
- The film’s sublime ending can be seen equally, if one is to take the grammatical analogy further, as a kind of ellipse.
- Bennett has only intermittently continued to practice as a filmmaker, an on-going career that her work on A Song of Air may have in some way precluded.
- Although these images still seem manipulated and re-presented because of the way they have been slowed-down and step-printed.