Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Monday, January 22, 2018
I have been asked to tell my Flaherty story, to recover a few impressions from my first time at the seminar.
But my first-person voice, particularly when narrative and recollection are involved, tends to be weirdly “away” and about itself. I rarely remember much. At least, nothing in continuity.
Away and yet a way. Because I talk about forgetting. So, here we go.
Irina Leimbacher, who championed our work in the 1990s as a programmer for the San Francisco Cinematheque, invited my longtime collaborator Jeanne C. Finley and me to present at her 2009 Flaherty Seminar entitled Witnesses, Monuments, Ruins.
We screened our single-channel works: At the Museum: A Pilgrimage of Vanquished Objects , Based on a Story , and The Adventures of Blacky . We also installed a two-channel installation entitled Guarded , and presented an artist’s talk about other installation works.
I do remember Guarded, or rather I remember what it looked like, having consulted my photographs, but not the single channel works. Fortunately, the screening notes tell me what else we showed, otherwise I would have to guess.
That is to say, I cannot remember a single story, a specific conversation, or a telling word from that seminar. Instead, there are a few images.
I remember standing next to Jeanne at the podium at the front of the packed Golden Auditorium, waiting to present our artist’s talk.
I remember chatting at the bar with Roger Hallas, a documentary scholar, writer, and professor from Syracuse University, though these descriptors do not form part of my recollection. And was that chat before or after our talk? I forget.
In subsequent years, I’ve tended to greet Roger as “Bruce.” Sorry, Roger!
I remember that John Knecht, Professor of Art and Art History and Film and Media Studies at Colgate—I just looked up his title online—greeted us the first evening.
Wearing jeans, and sporting a grey ponytail and a mustache, Knecht was affable, warm, positive, encouraging. He must have oriented us to the space where Guarded was to be mounted and to the equipment available. We must have arrived early to set up.
One final image: after one of our post-screening panels, I know I talked to someone, maybe it was Lucien Castaing-Taylor, a documentary filmmaker from the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard. But maybe I’m just wishing it had been him. Irina doubts my recollection. I trust her.
My Lucien said he was irritated because we handled the Iraq War so flippantly in our installation Flat Land , a work we described during our artist’s talk but did not install.
He didn’t say “flippant.” That is the impression that persists though. I remember Jeanne and I saying to each other afterwards, “We will never present that piece in a talk again.” Of course, we did subsequently, because we learned to trust our own ironies and handle them more delicately.
Over the years, I’ve shared many of my Flaherty photographs with friends and seminarians via social media. Yes, I photograph everything. As mentioned before, I documented Guarded. These pictures include me, Jeanne, and Warren Wheeler, but there are a few that someone else must have taken. Who? Strangely, aside from these, I took only three pictures.
All three are of Jeanne and my wife, Vicky Funari, the documentary filmmaker featured at the 2000 Flaherty, at dinner in the Colgate cafeteria. Jeanne talks. Vicky listens and smiles. I know it is dinner. The metadata tells me it is 7:15pm.
(Kafka’s line in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida rings true and false. Yes, I photograph things to forget them, but I cannot forget the things I have not photographed. It is as though these latter things never existed and so cannot even be forgotten.)
As I look at these three photographs now, they seem strong documents because they’re filled with particulars and with people I love.
But they are also weak. They give me nothing to help me frame events that I know I lived through, but cannot recall.
Fortunately, I have other ways to remember.
In a June 24, 2009 Facebook reply to a friend who wanted to know more about the 2009 Seminar, I posted the following:
It was grueling. And amazing. Irina Leimbacher curated this year; and she’s wicked smart and has wide ranging and eclectic tastes. For the first time, there are installation works at Flaherty. I didn’t know how huge and intense this event was; now I do…
The schedule produces just enough exhaustion that folks finally say all the things they shouldn’t, which makes for lively conversations. I like the secrecy and the saturation. The inevitable tension: academics versus makers versus non-profit denizens versus representatives of NGO's versus cinephiles.
And let me combine two emails I sent to Irina soon after the Seminar:
Irina, thanks so much for the adventure. The week was a feast, both intellectual and sensual; and we’re grateful that you thought and think enough of us to put us in the same league with the filmmakers and artists on the program…
It was really exciting and strangely fulfilling: Guarded looked great, and I feel better about the work, even At the Museum (and I take back my own objection: the work doesn’t dictate the destruction of all museological habits, otherwise the interviews would make no sense.)— I and we feel better about the work for having shown it there and survived.
The “enchiladas” (Vicky’s word for academic intellectuals) were lukewarm but warm. Which, given the power of most of the work, is good enough for me.
For me, remembering is simply the process I’m undertaking right now as I write this piece.
I scour social media. I talk to friends. I fill in a few gaps and leave others to their enigmas. I talk about how I do this “remembering” while I do it.
The “I” that narrates its labors and the “I” found in memory and lost in forgetting coincide nowhere but here.
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