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October 1992


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 14 Oct 1992 11:49:00 CST
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Jeremy, you asked me if I had any thoughts about performance
in documentary.  I have  a couple, but I  am sure you and
those who are participating in the current discussion of
documentary will have more.  It is a rich and relatively
unexplored area.  In my own work I have just barely touched
on this area.  In Picture Personalities I was interested in
moving away from a purely formal, descriptive analysis of gesture and expression
 to a more institutionally based view of the actor and acting.   It
struk me
struck me that a formally similar image could appear in a
documentary, a piece of animation and a fiction film and only
in the latter case would we consider the image  to
contain actors and acting.  I know this is in many ways
obvious, but foro me it led to the kinds of questions about
the actor that Foucault asks about the author.
I know things aren't quite this simple.  Notions
of performance (and perhaps acting?) do enter strongly
into our experience of documentary.  For me this is clearest
in investigative documentaries such as one sees in 60 Minutes
where the performance  and subsequent unmasking of lies
is given such emphasis.  But performance may come to
the fore most commonly when we sense that subjects are
behaving and reacting in ways they would not were it not
for the presence of the camera.  In this sense performance is given a negative v
alue (in contrast to peprformance in fiction films) as something
that compromises the authenticity of the work.  This way of
assessisng performance has a great deal of force and I often
feel swayed by it.  But I think one of the things that fascinated me about The R
eal World was its studied inauthenticity.  I don't mean to
celebrate (too strong a word in any case) something just because
it's fake.  But I wonder how much an aesthetics of authenticity restrestricts th
e p ossibilities of performance in documentary.  I also wonder if pepeople have
favorite examples of documentaries (Chris Marker's work seems
famous for this) that challenge that aesthetic directly.  There is
a third way ini which performance enters into documentary that
perhaps corresponds to Bill  Nichol's notion of "social actors."
In this sense we are all constantly "on stage," performing roles, etetc.  My fav
orite installment of the Muncie Indiana series (I think Henry
mentioned it; I've forgotten the title) was one about a family-run
Shakey's Pizza Parlor.  The most moving thing about it was the
father's performance--his attempt to keep his chin up and
maintain the morale of the family in the face ofo the failure
of the business.  Performances in this sense are everywhere in
documentary and they must contribute much to the form.  I'm
struck  though by the fact that the example I have chosen assumes
a performance and a more real identity and set of feelings behind
it (the father's devastation, embarrassment, etc.)  Is this sort
of sense of disjunction necessary for an acknowledgement of
performance?  I think I've fallen into a trap.  Would anyone like
to pursue this problem a bit?
Finally, I would just note  that the performance of social actors
occurs at a very different level than the performance of fictional ffilm actors.
  In an article Jeremy published in his anthology Star Texts I have
an embarrassingly brief discussion of performance in film noir and
particularly Mary Astor's performance in The Maltese Falcon.  Her
character is constantly performing--lying to Sam Spade in a
very theatrical way.  I was interested in identifying a diegetic
scene of performance--one that takes place entirely in the fictional world.  Her
e we see the peprformance of the character, not the actor.  Or,
let's say we see the actor performing the character performing.
It seems to me that the character's performance corresponds much
more closely to the level of performance produced by the "social
actor." and that the fictional actor must be seen as existing
at some level "above" that.  The actor of fiction is performing
the character as social actor.